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Solution? Tag could be it

By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / August 25, 2009

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FOXBOROUGH - Players keep an eye on the scoreboard in more than just games. Contracts matter, too.

A reminder of this came Sunday, where in the middle of the Patriots locker room, offensive tackle Nick Kaczur happily talked about reaching a contract extension. In another area of the room, defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said he was frustrated that his contract situation hasn’t been resolved.

News of Kaczur’s extension seemed to be the catalyst for Wilfork’s remarks. Wilfork surely knows the situations are exclusive, but that didn’t make it any easier for him to take.

Without specifically mentioning Kaczur’s extension, of which he was aware, Wilfork was essentially asking: When did the rules change?

Patriots owner Robert Kraft previously had said that the NFL’s uncertain labor forecast was a consideration in the team’s approach in awarding contract extensions. With the collective bargaining agreement expiring in 2010, Kraft said the team doesn’t want to be penalized for decisions it makes now without knowing what the rules will be in the future.

While Kraft said the team did not have a “hard and fast rule’’ about striking extensions before there is a new CBA - he said all decisions are made with the purpose of giving the team the best to chance to win - it sure sounded like he was saying the labor issue was the key holdup with Wilfork.

So why did Kaczur get an extension?

The answer is in the details of the pact, which is moderate in NFL dollars, and in a much different neighborhood than what Wilfork is seeking. Kaczur’s contract now extends through 2012, and he received a $3.5 million option bonus. The total value of the contract, including 2009, is $16 million. That’s an average of $4 million per season.

So in what direction, if any, do the Patriots go with Wilfork’s situation?

Kraft, whose deal-making skills have earned him the reputation as a bridge-builder in NFL circles, could smooth things over by better explaining his prior comments and being more direct when it comes to Wilfork’s contract. What he seems to be saying is that the Patriots are willing to do deals, just not at the level Wilfork is seeking because of the labor uncertainty.

And with that, it should lead the sides to the perfect compromise: Giving Wilfork the assurance that if he plays this season under his current contract ($2.2 million base salary), the team will not restrict him with the franchise tag in 2010.

In the end, that should pacify Wilfork because it will give him a chance to be paid what he feels he’s worth in the prime of his career, which could be in the $8 million to $10 million per year range. Wilfork, a standout on and off the field in his five-plus seasons, deserves that franchise-tag consideration.

Although different dynamics were involved, the Patriots offered it to Asante Samuel when he was holding out, and that ultimately led him back to training camp. They even signed free agent Leigh Bodden to a one-year contract this offseason that included a clause that the team won’t assign him the franchise tag in 2010.

The Patriots might view it as needlessly giving up leverage or point out that if Wilfork didn’t pan out they wouldn’t receive anything in return, but they could also see it this way: They’d eliminate a distraction that could affect the performance of one of their key players. They also could retrace their steps and realize that as a rookie, Wilfork had little leverage but to accept a six-year deal, while also considering that Wilfork has been a solid performer who unlike past players who held out, chose the conciliatory route.

Why not reward that approach?

Furthermore, with Philip Rivers’s big contract extension yesterday in San Diego, there are only two first-round picks from 2004 still playing under their original contract - Wilfork and tight end Benjamin Watson, both Patriots.

With the sides unable to strike an extension, the Patriots would be doing the right thing by agreeing not to tag him in 2010. Then both the team and Wilfork could move on to more important business - the 2009 season - with no lingering hard feelings.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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