The first franchise tag of the 2007 offseason has been assigned, with the Bengals tagging defensive end Justin Smith today.
The deadline for teams to tag players is Feb. 22, and we've put some thought to how the Patriots might approach the tags this offseason.
Initially, the line of thinking was that a $7.79 million franchise tag for cornerback Asante Samuel was too rich to absorb. Taking that salary cap hit along with quarterback Tom Brady's approximate $11 million hit would account for about $19 million of the team's $109 million cap. That seemed to run counter to the team's organizational philosophy of spreading more money around to more players.
But after analyzing the free agent market at cornerback, and assessing how the Patriots could potentially fill the void if Samuel left the team, the franchise tag becomes a much more viable option. In fact, $7.79 million on a one-year deal might be a bargain compared to what Samuel could earn on the open market, and what the Patriots would have to pay to replace him.
Furthermore, the Patriots are projected to have approximately $25-30 million in cap space, so they can absorb the hit.
Also factoring into the decision is who the Patriots have on their roster should either Samuel or tight end Daniel Graham depart. The Patriots aren't in as good of a position to replace Samuel as they are with Graham, as Benjamin Watson, David Thomas and Garrett Mills are next on the tight end depth chart.
So while we initially thought that the underrated Graham -- perhaps the NFL's best blocking tight end -- might be a more likely option for the franchise tag at $4.3 million, we're calling an audible. After further review, the feeling here is that it would be an upset if Samuel wasn't tagged should he not sign an extension before Feb. 22.