The New England Patriots will need to sign Aqib Talib the old-fashioned way if they hope to bring back the All-Pro cornerback.
The Patriots chose not to slap Talib with the franchise tag Monday. Talib would have been locked up for one year and $11.834 million if he was tagged. He signed a one-year deal worth $5 million last offseason.
Cornerback Brent Grimes might have set the market Monday when he signed a four-year, $32 million contract with $16 million guaranteed to stay with the Miami Dolphins. Talib is set to earn a similar deal this offseason.
It would be wise to limit the years and guaranteed money on Talib’s deal, but the franchise tag would have spent too much of the Patriots’ limited salary-cap room. The Patriots have $15 million in cap room after cutting safety Steve Gregory on Friday. The cap is $133 million this year and could go up to $140 million in 2015 and skyrocket to $150 million in 2016.
The franchise tag would leave little wiggle room with the cap for 2014. Since the Patriots are projected to have plenty of cap room in the next two years, it would make more sense to sign Talib to a three- or four-year deal with as little money as possible counting toward 2014.
Doing that would leave the Patriots room to sign wide receiver Julian Edelman and boost their depth at defensive end and defensive tackle. The Patriots reportedly could try to trade for Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Darrelle Revis, but his $13 million base salary in 2014 would be difficult to fit under the cap without a lot of creativity.
The Patriots have ways to create cap room, of course. Veteran defensive tackles Vince Wilfork, Isaac Sopoaga and Tommy Kelly, guards Dan Connolly and Logan Mankins, and safety Adrian Wilson could be cut or have their contracts restructured or extended to create cap room. Getting rid of Aaron Hernandez’s $7.5 million cap figure would be helpful, but the Patriots can’t rely on that happening.
If Talib was the only key player the Patriots needed to sign this offseason, the franchise tag would have made sense — a long-term deal could wind up biting the team since Talib never has played a full season because of injuries and a suspension. But slapping Talib with the franchise tag would have handcuffed the Patriots, and he simply isn’t worth that $11.834 million figure.
The Buffalo Bills chose not to tag safety Jairus Byrd, and the Cleveland Browns used the transition tag on center Alex Mack over safety T.J. Ward. Safeties typically come cheaper than cornerbacks, so if the Patriots can’t come to terms with Talib, they could choose to upgrade the deep end of the field.