Patriots officials soon will have to make their first major decision of the new season: That is, should they apply the franchise tag to any of their free agents?
Perhaps never in the six years since the NFL began the practice of allowing each team the opportunity to ``tag’’ one of its players has New England had as many options as it has right now. While the Pats have nearly two dozen free agents, the team looks to have at least four viable choices on what to do with the tag this season.

Wes Welker, Aqib Talib and Sebastian Vollmer all appear to be candidates to be tagged. Or, the Pats could simply not use the tag at all, as they did in both 2008 and 2010.
Last year, a record 21 teams used the designation to keep players. According to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBS) with the Players Association, teams this season can designate their franchise player any time from Feb. 18 to March 4 in anticipation of the start of the new league year on March 12th.
While the Patriots are in decent shape with the salary cap, with an estimated $16 million available, they do not have nearly enough money available to keep all their free agents. Players like Danny Woodhead, Kyle Arrington, Julian Edelman and Patrick Chung could be headed elsewhere because New England will be limited in what it will be able to offer.
It will be difficult to keep Welker, Talib and Vollmer, especially if New England decides to make any major signings among free agents from other teams.
Welker’s situation might be the most difficult. The wide receiver has led the league in receptions in his time with New England and has done everything asked on and off the field. The Pats can do the same thing they did last year and apply the franchise tag to Wes Welker. Welker could not reach a long-term contract last season, so the team franchised him, giving him a salary of $9.5 million this past season. Rules allow a team to tag the same player twice. However if the player is tagged a second time, he must receive 120 percent of the first salary, thus Welker would earn about $11.4 million for 2013.