Devin McCourty entered Monday as the leading candidate to receive the New England Patriots’ franchise tag.
He left it as the leading candidate set to hit the free-agent safety market.
The Patriots tagged kicker Stephen Gostkowski before the 4 p.m. ET deadline instead. And in turn, McCourty’s tenure in the organization’s defensive backfield has become far less certain than the $9.6 million one-year deal he would have received if franchised.
The 2010 first-round pick spent the first of his five NFL seasons in Foxborough, growing into a Pro Bowler, a team captain and All-Pro at two different positions. Yet now, at age 27, there’s a chance McCourty could spent his sixth NFL season elsewhere once unrestricted free agency opens on March 10.
There’s also a chance he’ll spend it in the same place he started, even if the Patriots elected to retain the 31-year-old Gostkowski on a one-year deal worth $4.59 million.
McCourty spoke with ESPN’s Josina Anderson Monday evening about the tag situation, as well as the unsolidified free-agent situation he’s embarking on.
“I really didn’t know. There was no real information from them on if it was going to be me or [Gostkowski],” McCourty told Anderson. “So I was kind of going off of what everybody else was going off, with what people were reporting as far as sources and all that. So, I guess it’s more realistic now that [there’s] a chance that I might not be back there. Or there’s still a chance that I will, but I guess [there’s] more of a chance now with the franchise tag going to Steve that I could be playing in a different place. Still, keeping an open mind and trying to enjoy the process.”
The soon-to-be free agent’s representatives can begin negotiating with teams March 7, but McCourty cannot sign a contract until the start of the 2015 league year three days after.
Even so, negotiations with New England are still something to factor into the equation. The Patriots, standing $11.2 million over the NFL salary cap prior to tagging Gostkowski, have exclusivity until Saturday. And if that time is spent developing a long-term, back-end deal built to stabilize both the cap and the future of McCourty, an agreement could be the byproduct.
There are eight other Patriots set to become unrestricted free agents, however, excluding six-time Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis, who could become the ninth if the team declines his $20 million option to get on the right side of the financial threshold.
Where McCourty fits into those priorities remains to be seen.
“No matter what they do with players somehow they always end up winning so. I really don’t know what their thought process is with me exactly, but I think both sides want to be back. So we will see how it works out,” said McCourty.
McCourty is expected to have an abundance of suitors outside of the confines of Gillette Stadium, should he test the waters. The 5-foot-10, 195-pound rangy centerfielder netted a base salary of $3.9 million and a total cap number of $5.1 million while playing out the final year of his contract in 2014.
He’s slated to see those numbers multiply in 2015.
“I want to play there, but I also understand it’s a business,” McCourty added. “I don’t want to play there no matter what, but I want to be back. We’ll have to see how it works out.”
But departing from the team that drafted him, just over a month after winning Super Bowl XLIX, is something McCourty acknowledges as a distinct possibility.
“It would definitely be bittersweet. You stay somewhere for five years and really make a name for yourself in that place. I’ve gotten a lot of help. I know a lot of people in the area, built great relationships, so it will definitely be bittersweet,” McCourty added. “But my mom always reminds me that comes with the territory. That’s part of being in the NFL, that change is always coming.”