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Patriots' franchise tag options slim, unattractive

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff  February 26, 2014 07:06 AM

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If there is one takeaway from the NFL Scouting Combine that had nothing to do with the action on the field, it was the reports of continued negotiations between the Patriots and cornerback Aqib Talib.

The negotiations are a welcome development given Talibís importance to the teamís secondary. His stock has increased league-wide. His respect is universal. No one forgets how he shut down the Saints' Jimmy Graham and how he saved the Patriots against the Atlanta Falcons.

The six-year veteran, whose brash and quixotic play helped improve the Patriotsí secondary ten-fold (a jump from the 29th-ranked pass defense in 2012 to the 18th-ranked pass defense in 2013), can very well determine the teamís draft strategy and approach in free agency.

Itís also no secret that Talibís bumps and bruises, including those in the AFC Championship two years running, have hurt the Patriots when theyíve needed him most. The Denver Broncos made mince meat of the Patriotsí cornerbacks, Alfonzo Dennard and Logan Ryan in particular, making use of a height advantage that was more than conspicuous with Talib out. He has missed 4 of 27 games since being traded from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers while being hobbled in countless others. Finding a big-bodied, durable substitute is likely still in the Patriotsí plans regardless of his return. So while Talib is readily acknowledged as a valuable commodity, his value in terms of other players on the team is arguable, especially given the money that he could cost.

Thatís why these negotiations are so important.

The Patriots still have to address whether 11 other free agents will return, most notably wide receiver Julian Edelman, running back LeGarrette Blount, and center Ryan Wendell, all of whom are candidates for the teamís franchise tag. The deadline to use the franchise tag is 4 p.m. on March 3.

The 2014 projected salary cap will help determine franchise tag numbers. As of Tuesday, ProFootballTalk.com has reported the salary cap could be as high as $132 million. With estimates that the cornerback position could yield 8.9 percent of the cap if tagged, 9.12 percent for a receiver, 8.8 percent for offensive linemen, and 7.17 percent for running backs, the Patriots would have to commit $11.74 million to Talib if he were franchised with those estimations.

Thatís a hefty sum, even if itís a one-year deal.

But it doesnít look much better when considering the other possibilities. Edelman, if the Patriots are so inclined, could garner $12.03 million. Wendell would get $11.61 million and Blount would get $9.46 million if tagged.

You canít tell me that Bill Belichick would pay $12 million a year to a wide receiver. I just donít see that happening. Not with Danny Amendola on the roster making $4.575 million next year.

The circumstances are much different for Wendell and Blount. Wendell played every single snap for the Patriots in 2013 and 99.5 percent of the teamís snaps in 2012. That kind of durability and dogged play has strong value to the team. But itís not representative of the teamís entire financial picture, especially on the offensive line, where $10.5 million of the teamís cap will be attributed to Logan Mankins in 2014, $4.08 million to Dan Connolly, $3.75 million to Sebastian Vollmer, and another $2.71 million to Nate Solder. Franchising Wendell would put him at the top of the pack, and thatís certainly not the best use of that kind of money.

Blount on the other hand can thank Stevan Ridley for likely not getting the franchise tag. Ridley, who will count as $939,750 against the cap in 2014, is talented enough and worthy enough of a long-term investment to avoid committing a large sum to Blount. In a yearís time, the Patriots wonít want both of them coming up for a contract again.

If any one of the Patriotsí top free agents is willing to return, negotiated contracts appear to be the best route for the team. But if there is one player who could spur the Patriots to consider using the tag this year, after avoiding doing so last offseason, itís Talib. Heís considered a game-changer, and with that kind of respect, particularly in the locker room and among his coaches, he could very well break the bank.

But I highly doubt the team will allow itself to be forced into a situation in which the tag is necessary. Thatís why these negotiations are so important. The Patriots would love nothing more than to reel in Talib, at least for a few years. Avoiding the tag, if at all possible, is the name of the game. Otherwise, the options donít look good.

Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry and on Google+.

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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