As of Monday, teams can begin placing the franchise tag on one of their free agents, and that window remains open through March 5.
This is an important two-week stretch of negotiations for the Patriots and wide receiver Wes Welker. The Patriots have exclusive negotiating rights with Welker until free agency begins March 13, but if there isn't enough progress, the organization could use the tag to extend that period of negotiations.
That's what happened with defensive lineman Vince Wilfork in 2010. When the two sides couldn't reach an agreement in time, the Patriots franchised Wilfork before eventually rolling over that guaranteed money into a long-term deal.
By franchising Welker, the Patriots would guarantee him a one-year contract worth about $9 million. But again, at the very least, the Patriots would ensure Welker wouldn't hit the open market. If they chose to work out a longer deal, Welker could take that $9 million in guaranteed money over the life of the new contract.
The Patriots don't have to franchise Welker if they don't want to go that route, but if Welker hits free agency, they'd risk losing him. The Patriots have several more key unrestricted free agents — including running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, center Dan Koppen, offensive lineman Dan Connolly, wide receiver Deion Branch, defensive end Andre Carter, defensive end Mark Anderson and defensive lineman Gerard Warren — but none would be candidates for the franchise tag due to the high cost.
In January, Welker insisted he wanted to return to the Patriots, and owner Robert Kraft shared the sentiment. There hasn't been any public information regarding the negotiations, but the next two weeks could potentially be pivotal in terms of Welker's future in New England.