Playing tag in the AFC East

Only one AFC East team utilized the franchise tag last year. The New England Patriots tagged Pro Bowl receiver Wes Welker, who caught 118 passes for 1,354 yards and six touchdowns in 2012.

Welker lived up to the expensive, $9.5 million salary the tag dictated in 2012. But will more AFC East teams use the franchise tag to retain valuable free agents in 2013?

There were 19 teams total that utilized the franchise tag last season. Here are the top candidates in the AFC East this offseason:

Jairus Byrd, S, Buffalo Bills

2012 stats: 76 tackles, five interceptions, four forced fumbles

Analysis: Byrd is Buffalo's top free agent. The former second-round pick also is the top safety on the market not named Ed Reed. Byrd will get a lot of interest if he hits the open market. However, it is doubtful the Bills will allow Byrd to fly away without a fight. Buffalo is making Byrd the team's biggest offseason priority. The preference would be a long-term extension. But the Bills also won't be afraid to use their franchise tag to keep Byrd in Buffalo for at least the 2013 season.

Chance for franchise tag: 50 percent

Andy Levitre, G, Bills

2012 stats: 16 starts

Analysis: It's rare for a guard to receive consideration for the franchise tag. The position has been tagged only once in the past 12 years. However, Levitre and the Bills are in a tricky situation. He is one of the top guards in the NFL, and the reason he hasn't been to a Pro Bowl is mostly because he plays in Buffalo. Levitre is athletic, smart and durable. He has a streak of 64 consecutive starts at a position where injuries are prevalent. However, Byrd is first in line for the tag in Buffalo. The Bills run the risk of losing their best guard if they can't reach a long-term extension. But that is a position that is easier to replace than safety.

Chance for franchise tag: 15 percent

Wes Welker, WR, Patriots

2012 stats: 118 receptions, 1,354 yards, six touchdowns

Analysis: The Patriots have used the franchise tag for two straight years to settle contract disputes. In 2011, Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins was tagged and later signed a long-term extension. Will the same thing happen to Welker? The Patriots have the cap room to work out a contract extension with Welker, 31, who had his fifth 100-catch season in New England. A second straight franchise tag will increase Welker's number to $11.4 million. I think that is too much to pay for one year. The Patriots will keep that option in their pocket in case of an emergency, but there's probably a 50-50 chance right now that Welker stays in New England via a multi-year contract. A two- or three-year extension for $7-8 million seems reasonable for both sides. If not, Welker may test the open market.

Chance for franchise tag: 30 percent

Sean Smith, CB, Miami Dolphins

2012 stats: 59 tackles, three interceptions

Analysis: The Dolphins have about $40 million in cap space and the potential to do just about anything they choose. Miami would prefer not to use the franchise tag this year, but there are a couple scenarios for the team to consider. Smith is one of those difficult cases. Is Smith a top-10 cornerback in the NFL? No. However, the Dolphins are so thin in the secondary that franchising Smith cannot be completely ruled out. Miami would have to completely start over at cornerback if it loses Smith. Another team most likely will overpay for Smith's services if he hits the open market, because Smith is a big, athletic guy who plays a coveted position. Although the numbers have not been finalized, a one-year franchise tag for Smith will cost Miami about $10.5 million. I don't expect the Dolphins to do it, but the thought has certainly crossed their minds.

Chance for franchise tag: 20 percent

Jake Long, LT, Miami Dolphins

2012 stats: 12 starts

Analysis: Long is another in-house free agent for Miami who is not expected to get a multi-year extension. He just completed his rookie contract and is looking to become one of the NFL's highest-paid offensive linemen. However, Long has been on the decline the past two seasons. Long was once considered the top left tackle in the NFL until injuries and inconsistent play stunted his career. A one-year franchise tag will eat up a good percentage of Miami's cap room. The Dolphins have some contingency options if Long doesn't return. They could use 2012 second-round pick Jonathan Martin at left tackle. Or Miami could look to the draft and free agency to find a more affordable option than Long.

Chance for franchise tag: 20 percent

The New York Jets do not have the cap room or strong enough candidates to pay the franchise tender in 2013. Pending free agents such as tailback Shonn Greene, tight end Dustin Keller and safety LaRon Landry are productive players. But neither will get elite money.