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Sunday NFL Notes: When it comes to franchise tag and Patriots, timing isn’t everything

02.16.14 at 12:32 am ET
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1. The two-week window to apply the franchise tag opens on Monday and runs for two weeks, and while the Patriots have a dozen free agents, it’€™s believed the two prime candidates are cornerback Aqib Talib and wide receiver Julian Edelman. When trying to figure out how New England utilizes the tag, we were hoping to try and find some clues in exactly when they tagged the player — trying to discern not just who was tagged and why, but if it mattered when they were tagged. Here’€™s a look at the last five players who were tagged by the Patriots, when they were tagged in relation to the window, and what ultimately happened.

2007 — Asante Samuel was tagged on Feb. 16, very early in the process. He held out for most of the offseason and into the summer, eventually signing his tender on Aug, 27. He left as a free agent the following offseason — he was in Philly at a press conference announcing his signing with the Eagles less than 18 hours following the start of free agency the next year.
2009 — Matt Cassel was franchised on Feb. 5, the first day of the window. He quickly acquiesced, signing the tender and opening the door for a trade with the Chiefs soon after that.
2010 — Vince Wilfork was hit with the tag on Monday, Feb. 22, three days before the end of the franchise tag window that year. The two sides then continued to talk about a new deal, one that was reached in March.
2011 — Logan Mankins was tagged on Feb. 14 — the Patriots were the first team to announce they had franchised a player, four days after the window opened. He signed his tender in July.
2012 — Wes Welker was tagged at the last possible moment, just hours before window closed on March 5 that year. He signed his tender that spring, played out his deal and left as a free agent the following spring.

Two things seem to emerge: one, in the case of Samuel and Cassel, they were out of there sooner rather than later, and so it wasn’€™t a surprise they were tagged so early in the process. And two, in 2010, the team and Wilfork were continuing to talk through the process, and they utilized the tag as a way to continue the dialogue between the two teams. When it comes to Talib and Edelman, it’€™s tough to try and draw comparisons between their respective situations and how the Patriots have operated in previous years in regards to the franchise tag. Bottom line? The Patriots have always been tough team to read, and their use of the tag is no exception.

2. As for the rest of the league, here’€™s our take on best candidates for the franchise tag:

Arizona: Kicker Jay Feely could get the call, given the level of his performance and the (expected) low numbers for kickers and punters.
Baltimore: We explored the topic a little regarding the Ravens and tight end Dennis Pitta here — he might be the only case with Baltimore.
Cleveland: The Browns could go with either center Alex Mack or safety T.J. Ward.
Denver: As was the case with Pitta, we looked briefly at the idea of the Broncos tagging wide receiver Eric Decker here. A very tough call for Denver.
Indianapolis: Cornerback Vontae Davis and kicker Adam Vinatieri are both candidates.
Miami: We believe cornerback Brent Grimes would look good in New England, but he could be a candidate to be tagged by the Dolphins.
New Orleans: Jimmy Graham is likely to get the tag; the only question is whether or not he’€™s labeled a tight end or receiver. That could set a precedent for hybrid pass catchers for years to come.
New York Jets: Like Feely, Nick Folk is a good kicker who could come relatively cheaply if he’€™s tagged.
San Diego: The Chargers would love to find a way to keep linebacker Donald Butler, and tagging him while continuing to talk about a new deal might make the most sense.
Seattle: A few candidates for a team looking to save some money before a ton of big contracts come due. Defensive lineman Michael Bennett is one of them.
St. Louis: Offensive tackle Roger Saffold could be in line for the designation.

3. We’€™ve written about the possibility of the Patriots making another run at wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders again this offseason, but in the wake of a recent chat involving Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the stars could be aligning for New England to take another shot at Sanders this offseason. Dulac said he doesn’€™t believe that the Steelers will re-sign Sanders, who was inked to an offer sheet by the Patriots when he was a restricted free agent last offseason. Sanders eventually returned to Pittsburgh, but the die was certainly cast at that point for the Patriots to make a move when Sanders became an unrestricted free agent. Some of New England’€™s interest will likely be dictated by what happens with Edelman, as there’€™s some offensive redundancy when comparing the two receivers. But don’€™t be shocked if the Patriots make some sort of play for the SMU product when free agency begins next month.

4. Lots of movement out there this week as teams began slicing payroll in hopes of finding some financial integrity before the start of free agency, set to kick off next month. In Detroit, that meant cutting veterans Louis Delmas and Nate Burleson, while in New Orleans, the Saints released a ton of veterans, including Jonathan Vilma, Roman Harper, Jabari Greer and Will Smith. Some of those players are likely to return to their old teams with reduced salaries, as teams work to create more financial flexibility before the start of free agency. The Patriots have done this in the past with veterans who have re-done their deals, with most of the most notable coming in 2005 when the team cut wide receiver Troy Brown on March 1, less than a month after Super Bowl XXXIX. He was re-signed on May 23.

5. The NFL released the stats regarding the 2014 strength of schedule this past week, and according to the numbers from the 2013 schedule, the Patriots will face the 10th toughest slate in the league — New England’€™s 2014 opponents had a .516 winning percentage last year. By way of comparison, the Raiders will have the toughest schedule with an opponents winning percentage of .578, while the Colts will face the easiest slate, as their 2014 opponents had a winning percentage of .430 in 2013. However, prior to the start of the team-building process for the 2014 season, it’€™s premature to read too much into the strength of schedule, as just about every team will go through changes between now and the start of the new year. (In truth, it’€™s important to note there will also be plenty of changes over the course of the regular season.) It makes for a fun stat at this time of the year, but because there are so many changes still to be made, it’€™s not a great way to gauge how difficult a schedule will be the following season.

6. While there has been a lot of talk about the turnover on the New England coaching staff this offseason — tight ends coach George Godsey, offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia and linebackers coach Pepper Johnson have all departed since the end of the 2013 campaign — the upper levels of the Patriots coaching staff has actually become one of the most senior groups in the league in terms of overall continuity. At the top, Bill Belichick is set to enter his 15th season as head coach of the Patriots. On the other end of the spectrum, seven new coaches have entered the league since the start of the offseason (that number could eventually grow to eight if Miami decides to fire Joe Philbin in the wake of the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin scandal), and most of them have brought their own offensive and defensive coaching staffs along with them. With the Patriots, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has been on Belichick’€™s staff officially as offensive coordinator since the start of the 2012 season (two full continuous seasons, not to mention the time he spent in New England before leaving for Denver and St. Louis), while Matt Patricia has been the defensive coordinator for the same stretch of time. (You could make a case that Patricia was the defensive coordinator without the title, as he had a major role in defensive game planning since Dean Pees left for Baltimore following the 2009 season.) While that’€™s only two seasons, that’€™s a relative lifetime in the NFL. Consider that just one coaching staff (San Francisco) has had the same head coach, offensive and defensive coordinators in place since the start of the 2011 season. Meanwhile, the Patriots are one of four teams that have had the same trio at the top since the start of the 2012 season. Check out the full list here:

Since 2011
San Francisco – head coach Jim Harbaugh, offensive coordinator Greg Roman, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.

Since 2012:
Pittsburgh – head coach Mike Tomlin, offensive coordinator Todd Haley, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.
Green Bay – head coach Mike McCarthy, offensive coordinator Tom Clements, defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
Atlanta – head coach Mike Smith, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.
(In St. Louis, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was hired prior to the start of the 2012 season, but suspended for his role in the Bountygate scandal. He was re-hired as the Rams defensive coordinator on Jan. 29.)

7. It will be interesting to see what sort of offseason Russell Wilson has, particularly as it relates to the Seahawks cap situation. While we wrote here about the Patriots possibly taking a cue from the Seahawks team-building approach and super-sizing their secondary, one lesson Wilson could learn from the Patriots and Tom Brady is a willingness to re-work his contract relatively early in his career in hopes of maintaining a solid core. Brady, who also won a Super Bowl in his second season in the league, re-did his own deal that offseason, parlaying his rookie deal into a new $30 million contract just before the start of the 2002 season and allowing New England to keep some of its important players in Foxboro. The Seahawks face a number of financial questions in the next few years, and if Wilson can re-work his deal like Brady did early on in his career, it could be a win-win for both sides, and allow the Seahawks to keep some of their top level talent around him at relatively reasonable prices. (As one alert commenter points out, Wilson the latest CBA prevents Wilson from renegotiating his contract until after the 2014 season.) But Seattle faces some tough choices — Bennett has already scoffed at the idea of taking a discount on a new deal, while safety Earl Thomas is also poised to hit the free-agent market. Meanwhile, cornerback Richard Sherman will see his rookie deal run out following the 2014 season. (According to reports, the Seahawks and Sherman haven’€™t discussed a new contract as of yet.)

8. Good story in the Bristol Press about former Patriots linebacker/special teamer Niko Koutouvides — one of the nicest guys in the New England locker room the last few years, it appears that Koutouvides has officially decided to call it a career, opening a real estate business with his brother Ari called Skala Partners. The two are working together on an apartment building in West Hartford, Connecticut, which should have ground broken in late spring or early summer, and want to develop more properties in the New England area. Koutouvides was cut by the Patriots out of camp, but according to the story, he nearly had a chance to return in 2013 when he got the call from the team to be ready if needed. “When you start to have a new passion for a field in your life, it’€™s pretty amazing how something you’ve done your entire life can, not go away, but you’€™re in a position here you’€™re comfortable having given everything you had to it,”€ Koutouvides said. “I talked to [Patriots coach] Bill Belichick in Week 9 or 10 and we discussed some options. The opportunity to go back was there if they needed me, but it didn’€™t work out. I said if I didn’€™t get called this year, I wasn’€™t going to attempt to reengage and get back into the league. I’€™m always on the move. I’€™m an impatient person. Have I missed some things in the NFL? absolutely. Have I not missed some things? Absolutely?”€ It’€™s an interesting read on a couple of levels: one, a professional athlete who is looking to make a transition to the next phase of his off-field career, and two, Koutouvides is a genuinely nice guy.

9. We’€™ve written on several occasions about the Patriots’€™ preference for players who star in the 3-cone drill — several of the wide receivers and defensive backs New England has targeted over the years (Edelman, Welker, Josh Boyce, Deion Branch and Chad Jackson) have shown exceptional ability in the 3-cone drill at the combine or in their Pro Days. It’€™s an exercise that showcases quickness and agility ahead of straight-line speed, and a good time is anything under seven seconds. With that in mind, it’€™ll be interesting to see if small-school standout Tyler Starr ends up on the Patriots’€™ radar — the South Dakota linebacker has already made it known that he plans on shattering the 3-cone record this week in Indy. (He said he’€™s finished in 6.29 at a recent training session.) By way of comparison, the fastest time in Indy last year was 6.52 by Utah cornerback Will Davis from Utah, while Oregon wide receiver Jeff Maehl clocked a 6.42 in 2011. According to this story on Starr, the fastest time by a linebacker last year was 6.71 by Zavier Gooden of Missouri. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound Starr, who is garnering more notice as a player on the rise, told CBS Sports, “€œI think I can blow that drill out of the water.”€ If he can set a record, it’€™ll certainly get him noticed on Indy’€™s big stage later this month. (For what it’€™s worth, the Patriots have a pretty good record with linebackers out of South Dakota.)

10. Finally, with the combine looming later this month, it’€™s important to remember that while it’€™s a big part of the team-building process, several current and former key players on the Patriots roster didn’t get an invite to the combine, a group that includes Welker, Edelman, Brown, Sebastian Vollmer, Danny Woodhead and Kyle Arrington. And even if you get there, your performance isn’€™t always indicative of how you might do as a professional. This video is still mind-blowing:

Read More: Aqib Talib, Julian Edelman,
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