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. 

Patriots release OL Chase Farris with non-football injury designation

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Patriots release OL Chase Farris with non-football injury designation

The Patriots made a move on Thursday that opened up a roster spot exactly one week before the start of training camp practices. 

The team announced that it waived offensive lineman Chase Farris. It did so with a "non-football injury" designation. Farris spent most of last season on the Patriots practice squad after catching on with New England's 10-man unit in October. The former Ohio State product was a reserve option on the interior for Bill Belichick and Dante Scarnecchia. 

With Farris now out of the mix, the Patriots have 89 players on their roster and can add one more before camp begins.

Interior offensive linemen on the Patriots roster now include David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Joe Thuney, Ted Karras, Jamil Douglas and James Ferentz. A handful of rookies -- including undrafted rookies Cole Croston and Jason King -- could also see work inside.

Rookies will report to camp on July 24, and veterans will do the same by July 26. On July 27, training camp practice will be held for the first time on the fields behind Gillette Stadium. The Patriots will practice for four consecutive days at 9 a.m. to kick off camp. All practices will be free and open to the public. 

NFL scout on Garoppolo: 'Bill thinks he's got the next great one'

NFL scout on Garoppolo: 'Bill thinks he's got the next great one'

Covering the NFL for almost 20 years allows you to make relationships with a bunch of people. So I thought I'd tap into some of those people as we gear up for New England Patriots training camp for a series of pieces about topics we've been kicking around.

COMPARING THE 2007 AND 2017 PATRIOTS

The panel consists of one former Pats player still in the game, two scouts of AFC teams, one front-office member in the AFC, and one NFC scout. They all requested anonymity for obvious reasons (as the player said, "hey, I might want to end up back there!") I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I had talking to these guys.

Today's topic: Why is Jimmy Garoppolo still here?

Scout 1 (AFC) -- "He's Bill Belichick. He doesn't give a [damn] about what you, or me or anyone else thinks. I know teams called about Garoppolo. I don't believe they were ever given a realistic price. Why? To me, the answer is simple: Bill thinks he's got the next great one. I watched his snaps. I think he can be that. [Garoppolo] has a great base, and his mechanics are close enough to [Brady] that you appreciate his willingness to learn and the coaching he's gotten there."

Scout 2 (AFC) -- "I absolutely loved the kid coming out of college. When we interviewed him, [it was obvious] he's got those qualities you want in a QB, as a leader. I begged our guys to take him at the end of the first round. That's how good I thought he was then. He's a hell of a lot better now. The job Bill and [offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels] have done with him, the work he clearly has put in, wrap all that up and it makes all the sense in the world to keep him. They can win with him. That's all you need to know -- in my opinion -- as to why they kept him. The moment that Brady guy starts to show cracks, the next guy is in already there, already knows the locker room, the system, the environment. I think it's genius."

Former Pats player -- "I played against him every day in practice. He's all that." Why? "He can make all the throws. He can process all the information. He is a gamer. He can slow it down. He can spin it. I'm going tell you this, if he had gotten traded to Cleveland, they're a borderline playoff team. I really believe that."

Scout 3 (NFC) -- "I know teams called and got nowhere. Easy conclusion is they see Garoppolo as the next QB. But I think it could be as simple as the value there. He's the player one snap away. Weigh that against the third guy (Jacoby Brissett) or some vet and maybe it was just too wide a gap to risk it. Keep him. See how the year plays out and then decide, do we want to franchise him? Ink him to some kind of bridge deal? Or let him go off into free agency?"

Front Office (AFC) -- "Bill knows something we don't. That's the way I read it. Whether it's Brady's future, or what they didn't see in Brissett, or something about the makeup of Garoppolo, he just couldn't part company with him. I can't say as I blame him. Finding one good QB in this league is hard enough. Two? Maybe only a handful of teams in the league can say they have that. Plus, with Bill, he's not worried about coaching for his job. He can think big picture -- two, three, four years down the line. That's not something too many other coaches/front offices in this environment get. He can afford to pass on a handful of draft picks to keep a player he really likes."