Sunday, February 12, 2006

Will Vinatieri get a tag or ticket out of town?

The Patriots have 11 days to decide whether to make kicker Adam Vinatieri their franchise player or let him join the team's free agents.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Journal Sports Writer

Even though they were the team that built a better mousetrap for the new-era NFL, the Patriots find their reward is simply to keep doing it.

The most immediate issue they face is with placekicker Adam Vinatieri -- the sport's ultimate closer. Vinatieri will be a free agent March 3 unless the team opts to apply the franchise tag to him again this year, as they did in 2005.

Vinatieri doesn't know what New England has planned.

"I haven't heard a word about anything," Vinatieri said from his offseason Florida home. "I figure it will be one of those things where, when they know, I'll know. I honestly try not to think about it. I've just left it as hopefully we get something done."

The Patriots have until Feb. 23 -- 11 days from now -- to put the franchise tag on Vinatieri. But for a player such as Vinatieri, the franchise tag is onerous.

Normally, a franchised player receives a one-year salary equal to the average of the top-five salaries at his position. But if the player already is the highest-paid at his position -- as Vinatieri is -- he gets a 20 percent raise over the previous season. Last year, Vinatieri's 20 percent raise gave him a salary of $2,509,000. If the Pats franchise him again, they'll pay him $3,010,800 in 2006.

Asked whether he had an inkling on which way the Patriots would go, Vinatieri said: "I don't. That number gets pretty high, and I know that in the past they don't want to be at the top of the scale (for a position)."

Perhaps more than any other position, the franchise tag favors a kicker as much as the team. Since the franchise tag is, in essence, a one-year contract with no signing bonus or guaranteed money, position players who get tagged are up the creek if they suffer a career-threatening injury. A franchised running back who blows out his knee or injures his neck would have gotten a nice one-year salary but lost his future earning potential.

Kickers generally don't get in harm's way enough to be in that kind of peril. Still, a level of security is valued by any employee and -- after having been franchised twice since 2002 (the Pats tagged Vinatieri, then worked out a two-year deal soon after in early 2002) -- Vinatieri would prefer a long-term deal to getting tagged.

Vinatieri is just one of several Patriots hitting free agency this offseason.

Wide receiver David Givens, tackle Tom Ashworth, right guard Stephen Neal, wide receiver/punt returner Troy Brown and tight end Christian Fauria all hit the market, as well.

A measure of hand-wringing accompanies every offseason, especially for a team as successful as New England. Players poised to leave have made contributions to championship seasons. Some repeatedly. The onus is on the Patriots' personnel department, headed by vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli, to look objectively at situations and make decisions bereft of emotion.

Troy Brown, for instance, may be the best pure football player ever to play for the Patriots. He may epitomize everything this team's been about since early 2001. But who he is takes a backseat at this time of year to questions of value, upside and whether or not a better option exists.

With Vinatieri, the Patriots are going to face a question of value. Do they want to franchise him at better than $3 million this season? Or do they have the temerity to let him hit the open market without an effort to sign him? If Vinatieri gets to free agency without New England making a run at getting him signed long-term, the chances of having to watch one of the NFL's greatest kickers using his right foot at another address will go sky-high.

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