Can Patriots leverage franchise tag to keep Kyle Dugger long-term?

Can Patriots leverage franchise tag to keep Kyle Dugger long-term? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The New England Patriots' new-look coaching staff is in place. Now, it's time to overhaul the roster.

Part of that process can begin Tuesday, as the NFL's window for teams to use franchise tags is officially open and runs through March 5. As a refresher, the franchise tag allows clubs to retain a veteran pending free agent on a one-year contract with a set salary based on their position. The franchise tag value for quarterbacks, for example, is $36.3 million, but just $11.3 million for running backs.

The Patriots used the franchise tag sparingly in the Bill Belichick era -- 10 times between 2000 and 2023 -- and haven't tagged a player since offensive lineman Joe Thuney in 2020. Will new head coach Jerod Mayo and head of personnel Eliot Wolf end that drought?

Of the several Patriots set to hit unrestricted free agency this offseason, the three most likely franchise tag candidates are safety Kyle Dugger, offensive lineman Mike Onwenu and tight end Hunter Henry. Of those three, Dugger might be the most intriguing.

The 27-year-old safety has played an integral role on New England's defense for the past four seasons and would provide veteran leadership in the defensive backfield, especially after the release of Adrian Phillips. The franchise tag value for safeties is $16.2 million, however, which would be a significant raise from Dugger's four-year, $8.3 million rookie contract.

Our Patriots Insider Phil Perry views $16.2 million as a steep price to pay for Dugger.

"I would not want to spend $16 million for 2024 on Kyle Dugger," Perry said Monday on NBC Sports Boston's Arbella Early Edition. "However, I think he's a good player. I think he is in some ways a culture guy. He's not a big 'rah rah' guy, doesn't have the biggest voice in the locker room necessarily, but he plays hard, he plays through injury, he's very physical, Jerod Mayo loves him. I think the Patriots feel as though he's one of the best safeties in football. Still $16 million for one year? I wouldn't want to do that."

As Perry pointed out, though, there's another path New England can take with Dugger.

"The only reason that I would say it might be an OK idea to tag him is if you use the tag as a way to open up a larger window for the two sides to come to more of a long-term agreement, where you're not paying the full-freight $16 million for this season," Perry noted.

If the Patriots gave Dugger the franchise tag now, they'd have until mid-July to work out a contract extension with the veteran safety that could lower his 2024 cap hit and keep him in New England past the upcoming season. So, if Mayo and Co. view Dugger as an important part of their future, they could buy some time by tagging him and preventing him from hitting unrestricted free agency on March 13, then working with his agent on a long-term deal that's agreeable for both sides.

This is a critical offseason for the Patriots, who currently have the second-most cap space in the NFL and the No. 3 overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. They'll need to use their resources wisely to address several critical roster needs, and Dugger's situation is worth monitoring closely over the next two weeks.