With franchise tag window open, Patriots have until March 1 to make a call

With franchise tag window open, Patriots have until March 1 to make a call

The NFL hit one of the notable dates on its offseason calendar on Wednesday as the window to apply the franchise and transition tags to pending free agents officially opened. Teams have until Mar. 1 at 4 p.m. to use their tag designations.

Though the Patriots opted not to tag anyone last offseason, they have several key contributors set to hit free agency this year, and applying the tag may make more sense. Chief among the candidates to be tagged? Linebacker and defensive captain Dont'a Hightower.

If the Patriots and Hightower can't reach a long-term extension, the franchise tag might make sense even if the price tag -- about $14.6 million guaranteed -- is steep for an off-the-ball linebacker. Not only is Hightower a leader in the locker room and on the field as the signal-caller for Bill Belichick's defense, he's a proven big-game performer who has made critical fourth-quarter plays in each of his team's last two Super Bowl wins.

Hightower also may have placed himself in the category of too valuable to lose. Should he hit the open market and sign elsewhere, the Patriots would be left relatively thin in terms of experience at the linebacker position with Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin and Elandon Roberts as their holdovers at that spot from 2016. While that group saw valuable time calling plays with Hightower off the field, all three have just one year (or less than that in Van Noy's case) in the Patriots system under their belts.

The drop-off from Hightower to the next man up would be significant, making the franchise tag a valuable tool in that it would keep Hightower off the market, while simultaneously buying the Patriots some time to try to work out a long-term extension.

Asked about the franchise tag last week, Hightower said, "That's a lot of money."

Other impending free agents who played big roles for the Patriots in 2016 will be worth consideration for new contracts, but the cost of the franchise tag at those positions may be prohibitive.

If Belichick wants to keep tight end Martellus Bennett in the fold on the tag, the cost is projected to be about $9.8 million. Others like corner Logan Ryan ($14.3 million if tagged), defensive tackle Alan Branch ($13.4 million if tagged) and safety Duron Harmon ($11 million if tagged) would very likely be deemed to pricey to tag. 

The Patriots last used their franchise tag in 2015 when they applied it to kicker Stephen Gostkowski. Later in the offseason, Gostkowski and the team worked out a long-term deal that made him the highest-paid kicker in the league and will keep him in New England through 2018.

Receiver Wes Welker (2012), guard Logan Mankins (2011), defensive lineman Vince Wilfork (2010), quarterback Matt Cassel (2009), corner Asante Samuel (2007), kicker Adam Vinatieri (2005, 2002) and safety Tebucky Jones (2003) are the others who have been given the franchise tag since Belichick took over as head coach of the Patriots in 2000. 

Report: Patriots asked Seahawks about a trade for Richard Sherman

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Report: Patriots asked Seahawks about a trade for Richard Sherman

PHOENIX -- The Patriots pulled off what many considered a surprise free-agent signing when they acquired corner Stephon Gilmore. As it turns out, before they picked up the former Bills cover man, they inquried about a separate move that would have been even more eye-opening. 

According to NFL Media's Ian Rapoport, ahead of coming to a deal with Gilmore, the Patriots were among the teams that spoke to the Seahawks about a potential trade for Richard Sherman.

During the NFC coaches breakfast on Wednesday morning at the Arizona Biltmore, Seattle coach Pete Carroll acknowledged that multiple teams have contacted the Seahawks about Sherman. But, Carroll said, "I don't see anything happening at all."

Sherman, who turns 29 next season, will make $11.431 million for 2017. He's due $11 million in the final year of his contract in 2018.

Rivera: Ealy 'a gifted young man,' can reascend 'if he listens'

Rivera: Ealy 'a gifted young man,' can reascend 'if he listens'

PHOENIX -- The Patriots picked up Kony Ealy, who a year ago put together one of the best defensive performances in Super Bowl history, by exchanging a second-round pick for a third-rounder earlier this offseason.

How exactly was a 25-year-old defensive end with loads of talent available at that price? Apparently he had some trouble listening to the coaching staff in Carolina.

During the NFC coaches breakfast at the Arizona Biltmore on Wednesday morning Panthers head coach Ron Rivera praised Ealy for his ability, but he acknowledged that Ealy's production waned in part because the Carolina coaching staff had a hard time getting through to the player involved. 

"I think sometimes when you have success, you kind of fall back into a little bit of something," Rivera answered when asked if Ealy had difficulty taking coaching. "But at the same time, for us, we looked at [the trade] as an opportunity -- as [general manager] Dave [Gettleman] said -- to find some gold. We moved up in the second round. We have two picks in the second round . . . We feel we'll be able to fill a need so we're pretty excited about that opportunity."

Ealy, who has one year remaining on his rookie contract, figures to factor heavily into the rotation at defensive end for the Patriots since Bill Belichick and his coaching staff watched both Jabaal Sheard (Colts) and Chris Long (Eagles) depart via free-agency, leaving Trey Flowers and Rob Ninkovich as the primary holdovers on the edge from last year's Super Bowl-winning roster. 

In Super Bowl 50, Ealy tied the Super Bowl record with three sacks. He also recorded an interception and forced fumble in the game -- becoming the only player in Super Bowl history to record multiple sacks and a pick -- and he did it all in 23 snaps.

Last season Ealy started the first six games of the regular season for the Panthers, eventually coming off the bench for the final 10. He saw 58 percent of Carolina's defensive snaps and recorded five sacks as well as an interception. He had nine regular-season sacks combined in his first two seasons as a pro.

So what kind of player will the Patriots be getting in Ealy, I asked Rivera? A good one, he replied, if he's willing to learn everything Belichick throws at him.

"I think they got a guy that has the skill set, that's flashed in opportunities to show people what he's capable of doing," Rivera said. "And at the end of the day, if he listens and does things that coach asks of him, I think he's got an opportunity to reascend and be that type of player. I mean, he is a gifted young man."

Rivera added: "There's nothing physically that kept him from being [more consistent]. You saw the flashes. If you watch the tape, you see these flashes throughout. Sometimes when you see those, you wonder, 'Eh, did we make the right decision?' But at the end of the day, the proof will be in the pudding. We'll know -- once we get through this draft, as to what we were able to accomplish -- whether we did or didn't."

Will Ealy be able to turn those flashes into more consistent production? Will the Patriots coaching staff be able to reach him in a way that those in Carolina apparently could not? 

All that remains to be seen, but Belichick may have had an opportunity to hear a little more about his new defensive end Wednesday when he spoke to Ealy's college defensive line coach for about a half-hour while scouting prospects at the University of Miami pro day, according to the Palm Beach Post's Matt Porter.