As of Monday, the 19th of February, NFL teams are allowed to use their franchise and transition tags for the 2013 season. Although the tags can be applied to prospective free agents from now until early March, there is no rush for franchises to guarantee one of their players a top salary for next season. Players are unable to counter the franchise tag if it is used on them, while those same players are unable to talk to other franchises until free agency begins next month.
So while the Patriots are in no rush to use the tag, there is also no real reason to wait around watching if you are a fan. Wes Welker received the tag last year and he is arguably the most likely recipient of the one-year-guarantee this year. Even with Welker that is a very unlikely scenario.
Outside of the veteran wide receiver, other potential candidates for the tag are cornerback Aqib Talib, wide receiver Julian Edelman and right tackle Sebastien Vollmer.
Talib was acquired during the regular season last year from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Despite impressing on the field for the Patriots, he has too many concerns to be guaranteed a top salary next year. Talib can't stay healthy, in fact he was injured twice during his short stint with the franchise last year, and was suspended before being traded last year. His character concerns can be traced back to his time in college and his potential hasn't truly been reached at this level.
The Patriots should try to re-sign Talib, but will likely let the market set his price before they decide if he reflects value or not.
Sebastien Vollmer is a very difficult free agent for the Patriots to sign. He is very talented and has proven to be one of the better right tackles in the NFL. However, he also has chronic back issues that have dogged him in recent years. Vollmer is as likely to land on IR each season as he is to complete 16 games of a regular season. The Patriots should have interest in him, quite a lot actually, but his health concerns make it impossible to justify giving him such an expensive salary.
That leaves Edelman. Edelman is considered to be the next Wes Welker in New England. He is 26 years of age and has played very well in limited spurts for the Patriots. He started this season ahead of Welker in the team's pecking order, but missed the playoffs and much of the regular season because of injuries. The former college quarterback is very small at 5-10 and 200 lbs. Edelman is essentially in the same position as Welker, at least they both play the same position and fill the same role on offense. However, while Welker's question marks come with his salary demands and his age, Edelman's come with the uncertainty of his short career on the field and his durability.
Edelman has 69 career receptions in four seasons. To put that in context, Welker had 73 during the first 11 games of last season despite being a bit-part of the offense early on. For Welker's career, he has 768 receptions, 8,589 yards, 38 touchdowns and over 150 rushing yards. He had one of his very best seasons last year despite being 31 years of age. While the Patriots like Edelman, he hasn't proven himself to the degree that Welker has, nor has he built up a rapport with Tom Brady. Welker has spent six seasons catching passes from Brady. They have connected 670 times during that time. Furthermore, Welker's durability for a slot specialist is simply phenomenal. Despite tearing his ACL, he has only missed three games in a Patriots jersey since being acquired from the Miami Dolphins back in 2007. Edelman missed more games than that just last year alone.
So why not give Welker the franchise tag? Well, at 31 years of age, Welker's body is bound to start to wear down considering the beating he consistently takes. The tag would also cost more because it has to be significantly more than it was last year. Committing that much money to a wide receiver in a tight end based offense would also hurt the team's overall cap structure. The Patriots have plenty of cap room, but they also have plenty of holes that need to be filled during free agency. Defensively, the secondary needs to be upgraded while additional pass rushers must be found somewhere.
The Patriots may use the franchise tag on Welker, but it is very unlikely at this point. Edelman can be signed to a long-term deal to fill his role on the offense, or another receiver can be brought in to play a smaller role on an adapted offense.