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. 

Goodell statement calls Trump's comments 'divisive'

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Goodell statement calls Trump's comments 'divisive'

In separate statements Saturday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association chief DeMaurice Smith each criticized President Donald Trump's verbal attack on NFL players. 

Goodell's statement: 

The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture. There is no better example than the amazing response from our clubs and players to the terrible natural disasters we’ve experienced over the last month.  Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities.

 

And Smith's statement: 

Whether or not Roger or the owners will speak for themselves about their views on player rights and their commitment to player safety remains to be seen. This union, however, will never back down when it comes to protecting the constitutional rights of our players as citizens as well as their safety as men who compete in a game that exposes them to great risks. 

 

NFLPA president Eric Winston, a tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals, also tweeted a statement critical of the President:

At a rally in Alabama on Friday night, Trump said NFL owners should fire players who kneel during the national anthem. And he encouraged NFL fans to walk out of games in protest. 

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, you’d say, ’Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired,” Trump told the rally. 

He also lamented that football has become less violent.

“They’re ruining the game,” he complained.

President Trump responded again on Twitter Saturday afternoon, saying players who don't stand for the anthem should, "Find something else to do!"

McCourty tweets criticism of Trump's shot at NFL players

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McCourty tweets criticism of Trump's shot at NFL players

Patriots safety Devin McCourty tweeted criticism of President Donald Trump's harsh words toward NFL players who have been kneeling in protest during the national anthem.

McCourty shares a Twitter account with his twin brother Jason of the Cleveland Browns but put his DMac signature on this tweet. Devin McCourty was one of several Pats who didn't go to the White House this past spring to celebrate the team's Super Bowl championship with Trump. 

At a rally in Alabama on Friday night, Trump said NFL owners should fire players who kneel during the national anthem. And he encouraged NFL fans to walk out of games in protest. 

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, you’d say, ’Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired,” Trump told the rally to loud applause.

President Trump responded again on Twitter Saturday afternoon, saying players who don't stand for the anthem should, "Find something else to do!"

McCourty and then-teammate Martellus Bennett raised clenched fists in protest after the anthem at the Patriots opening game last season and McCourty said he received plenty of criticism for it. 

“I got a lot of [backlash],” McCourty told CSN Patriots Insider Tom E. Curran last year in the days following that protest. "You gotta remember, a lot of these people, they don’t know me. They like the way I play football and they like some of the things I do in the community but they don’t know me. I talked to my brother [then with the Tennessee Titans] because we have the same Twitter and the Titans got a bunch of calls from people saying they don’t respect [the Titans who made symbolic gestures] and they need to be gone. He said their community relations people said, ‘If you just knew them, your opinion would change.’ ”

Several NFL players and other athletes, most prominently former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, have refused to stand during “The Star-Spangled Banner” to protest the treatment of African-Americans by police.