Deep breaths, New England Patriots fans. Deep breaths.

The Patriots won a Super Bowl a month ago, and suddenly a vocal contingent of fans on Twitter have lost their collective mind because head coach Bill Belichick applied the franchise tag to kicker Stephen Gostkowski, not safety Devin McCourty.

This basically means two things:
1. Gostkowski will be in a Patriots uniform next season.
2. McCourty has earned himself a hefty payday.

It seems the freakout was caused by fans who now assume McCourty won’t be back with the Patriots. The plan never was to keep McCourty around for one season, so the fact that he wasn’t franchised doesn’t change much other than the fact he still could hit free agency at 4 p.m. ET on March 10. He also could be locked up to a long-term contract before then.

The Patriots have exclusive negotiating rights with McCourty until 4 p.m. on March 7, when the open tampering period begins. The Patriots are the only team that can come to terms on a contract with McCourty until March 10, however.

Franchising Gostkowski, not McCourty, might have as much to do with the salary cap and cash spending than it does with their desire to keep either player.

Gostkowski’s franchise figure as a kicker is half of that of a safety, and the Patriots already were $11.28 million over the cap before applying the tag. They must get below the cap in the next eight days, and doing so would have been more difficult if McCourty was on the books for over $9 million.

The Patriots also are one of 10 teams that need to increase their cash spending in 2015. Only 82.7 percent of their cap was spent in cash, and each team must maintain a floor of 89 percent. The league as a whole has to dedicate 95 percent of the cap to cash spending.

Because the Patriots are so far below the cash threshold, they must hand out some big signing bonuses this offseason. A signing bonus for Gostkowski would only make a dent in increasing the Patriots’ spending. Handing out a long-term contract to McCourty with a hefty signing bonus spread out down the road would go a long way toward preventing a penalty.

If the Patriots fail to hit the 89 percent floor, then they would have to pay out the difference to the union. Handing out free money isn’t something that would make team owner Robert Kraft very happy.

The Patriots restructured Tom Brady’s contract in December to help their cash-flow issues, and now they’ll be forced to commit to at least one long-term contract this offseason. McCourty and the Patriots haven’t discussed a long-term deal, according to multiple reports, but things can change quickly in the NFL. It would be logical for multiple reasons if McCourty is back on a contract with a big signing bonus that can be spread out over the next few years. The sides better start talking soon, though.

Thumbnail photo via Darron Cummings/Associated Press