With Welker deal close, Patriots pass on franchise tag

New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker (83) celebrates his touchdown catch during the first quarter of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins in Foxborough, Mass., Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012.
  • With the money they saved on QB Tom Brady%27s restructured deal%2C Patriots could re-sign Aqib Talib%2C Wes Welker and Sebastian Vollmer.
  • St. Louis Rams wide receiver Danny Amendola could be headed toward free agency.
  • So happy that he wasn%27t tagged%2C 49ers safety Dashon Goldson tweeted%2C %22Thank you Jesus%22.
  • Only eight teams — one quarter of the NFL — used the franchise tag this year, meaning there are some surprises remaining on the list of impending free agents.

    New England Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib, San Francisco 49ers safety Dashon Goldson, Detroit Lions defensive end Cliff Avril, Tennessee Titans tight end Jared Cook, New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker and offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer, Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Jake Long and St. Louis Rams wide receiver Danny Amendola are among those who dodged the tag Monday.

    Dodged, because players are looking for long-term deals and the ability to negotiate with the entire league rather than getting locked down like Kansas City Chiefs offensive tackle Branden Albert, Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Randy Starks and Dallas Cowboys linebacker Anthony Spencer were on Monday.

    “Thank you Jesus,” Goldson tweeted. “Now fly like a bird #hawk.”.

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    The Patriots saved a bunch of cap space by redoing Tom Brady’s contract, so they’d seem likely to keep at least two of their three top free agents in Welker, Vollmer and Talib. A person informed of the talks between Welker and the club said there’s reason to be optimistic a deal will get done. The person spoke to USA TODAY Sports on condition of anonymity because the progress of talks wasn’t to be discussed publicly.

    This was the first year since 2008 the Patriots did not use the tag, which might indicate they’re confident they’ll be able to bring Talib and Vollmer back, too.

    Though these players weren’t tagged, they’re still under contract with their current teams for another week, which means they might not be headed anywhere. But from a negotiating standpoint, they gained a bit of leverage, because they’ll soon be free to speak to other teams. The three-day window for the players’ agents to talk to other clubs before the start of free agency begins on Friday.

    The teams that passed on using the tag (a record 21 employed it in 2012) are likely banking on the flatter-than-expected salary cap limiting the number of big deals free agents will receive.

    Teams have been scrambling just to get under the salary cap, and the expected run of extensions for quarterbacks in the coming years means future cap space must be reserved.

    Welker, Avril and Goldson were all tagged last year, so this is their first flirtation with free agency.

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    “I’m very thankful I didn’t get the franchise tag again,” Goldson tweeted, “but still hopeful this means something long term with the San Francisco 49ers!”.

    As does coach Jim Harbaugh, who said of Goldson after the Super Bowl, “He’s somebody that I think you reward.”.

    Long is hoping he’ll be rewarded like a No. 1 overall pick and not like the injured, inconsistent player he’s been in recent years. Cook wanted to be paid like a wide receiver, not a tight end, which might be part of the reason he wasn’t tagged. And Amendola never seemed to be in any real danger of getting tagged, despite some late rumors.

    Now, all of these players are staring at another deadline: 4 p.M. ET next Tuesday, when they will be free from the tag and perhaps their current team.

    Follow Mike Garafolo on Twitter @mikegarafolo.