A few thoughts on the New England Patriots not placing the franchise tag on safety Devin McCourty, instead assigning it to kicker Stephen Gostkowski, which was foreshadowed earlier in the day:
Bottom-line view. The franchise tag for McCourty was $9.6 million and this tells us, more than anything, that the Patriots aren’t comfortable with that one-year cap hit for McCourty. Thus, McCourty is now free to test the open market and the Patriots, more than ever, are at risk of losing him to another club.
Not an end game. This doesn’t mean McCourty’s time with the Patriots is over. The Patriots know what they’d be comfortable paying McCourty, and now McCourty will have a chance to see how much more (if at all) another team is willing to exceed that number. Then McCourty can make the decision that suits him best. It would be a surprise, from this viewpoint, if the Patriots and McCourty strike an extension before the start of free agency on March 10.
Understanding the safety market. Deals for top safeties average between $8-10 million per season as the market has spiked the past two years. McCourty is viewed as the top free-agent safety this offseason and it's also notable that the draft class is considered weak at the position, so he could be set to receive a big-time offer from another team. My viewpoint is the Patriots would be close to the bottom of that $8-10 million range with any offer for McCourty. Would that be enough to close the deal once he hits the open market?
Patriots' track record. The decision to forgo the tag on McCourty will generate some debate, as he's a core player who has served multiple years as a captain. But the team's track record in these situations warrants a mention: It is strong. The Patriots tagged receiver Wes Welker in 2012 at $9.5 million and later regretted it because of the expectation it set with Welker the following offseason. One could draw a parallel between that situation and this one.
Why the kicker? Gostkowski's franchise-tag figure is $4.5 million. That is computed based on a 120 percent increase of his 2014 salary-cap charge and easily makes him the NFL's highest paid kicker on an average-per-year basis. That's rich, but still manageable on a team's salary cap. Meanwhile, the sides can work on an extension that potentially could be a win-win by giving Gostkowski more long-term security and bonus/guaranteed money while also lowering his cap charge. But until that happens (if it does), the tag buys more time for an experienced player who is important to the Patriots because of his strong leg on kickoffs and accuracy on field goals.