Patriots Could Sign Top Safety If Aqib Talib’s Price In Free Agency Is Too High

Aqib TalibThe New England Patriots have to be wise with the limited salary cap room they have for the 2014 offseason.

That means the Patriots can’t go slapping players with the franchise tag all willy nilly, especially when it’s not required. Speculation has begun to pick up that the Patriots could use the franchise tag on cornerback Aqib Talib or wide receiver Julian Edelman. That seems like a slightly absurd proposition, however.

In 2013, the franchise tag figure was $10.854 million for a cornerback and $10.537 million for a wide receiver. The Patriots currently have around $3.8 million in cap room.

That’s not to say the Patriots can’t free up more space, but there’s no leniency on a franchise tag. If a player is tagged for $10.5 million, they’re on the cap for $10.5 million.

This offseason, with Aaron Hernandez still on the books for $7.5 million, it makes more sense to try to push any cap figures forward to 2015 rather than putting them on the 2014 books. This is not the year to be signing players to mega one-year deals.

Talib is probably worthy of the franchise tag from a pure talent standpoint, but he signed a one-year, $5 million deal in 2013. During the season, Talib was among the best players in the NFL for the first six games. Then he got injured, and his play dropped off. He got reinjured in the AFC Championship Game and missed the second half of the Patriots’ loss to the Broncos.

Did Talib prove he earned an extra $5.5 million in 2013? Probably not.

It would be ideal for the Patriots to sign Talib to a three-year, incentive-laden deal. Talib has never played a full 16-game season, and though he’s stayed out of trouble since joining the Patriots, his legal troubles aren’t that far behind him.

If the Patriots and Talib can’t reach a long-term deal that works for both sides, the Patriots could use that money to sign another top-tier safety to play next to Devin McCourty. Losing Talib would likely mean more Cover 2 looks for the Patriots’ secondary. Sticking McCourty and either T.J. Ward or Jairus Byrd over the back half of the field and putting Logan Ryan and Alfonzo Dennard at cornerback to play the shallow half could be just as effective as having Talib shadow the opposing team’s best receiver.

Ryan and Dennard’s playmaking skills would be dangerous in zone coverage, and elite safeties are generally less expensive than top-tier cornerbacks. One of the keys to an effective zone defense is having linebackers who can cover. Jamie Collins is a former safety who proved he could cover in his 2013 rookie season, and Jerod Mayo is expected to be back in 2014.

Talib is the Patriots’ best free agent, but Edelman might be their most important. That doesn’t mean the Patriots should be breaking the bank for their versatile receiver, however.

Any discussion of franchising Edelman is crazy talk. The highest paid slot receivers in the NFL are Percy Harvin at $10.7 million per year and Victor Cruz at $8.6 million per season. Edelman can line up outside — as he did for 51 percent of the 2013 season — but he’s not as explosive as Harvin or Cruz. Edelman’s deal should be more in line with Wes Welker or Danny Amendola’s. Welker makes $6 million per season, and Amendola makes $5.7 million a year.

Slot receivers typically don’t have the longest shelf life in the NFL, but Edelman should be safe to sign a long-term deal. It makes much more sense to sign Edelman to a five-year deal with roster bonuses loaded onto the second and third years than to lock him up for one season at more than $10 million.

The Patriots have to be smart in maneuvering under the salary cap in 2014. Using the franchise tag — or the slightly cheaper transition tag — would make signing additional free agents extremely difficult. The Patriots have needs beyond just Talib and Edelman going into 2014.

Have a question for Doug Kyed? Send it to him via Twitter at @DougKyedNESN or send it here.

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