The New England Patriots decided against using the franchise tag for the first time in five years on Monday, according to NESN.com.

That leaves Wes Welker, Aqib Talib and Sebastian Vollmer all staring down the possibility of free agency.

Welker, 31, was close to this scenario last offseason, but the Patriots slapped the franchise tag on him before he had the chance to hit the open market. This time around, it seems the Patriots might be willing to take their chances with their All-Pro wideout and two of the other keys to their AFC championship run last season.

The Patriots do have close to $25 million in salary-cap space to work with this offseason after Tom Brady agreed to a three-year extension. All indications are that the team does intend to use that money to retain its free agents or sign some other big-name free agents.

 

FRANCHISE TAGS: Only eight players were tagged by their teams as franchise players before Monday’s deadline.

Dallas linebacker/defensive end Anthony Spencer, Kansas City offensive tackle Branden Albert and Miami defensive tackle Randy Starks were the latest to be tagged.

The other tagged players are Buffalo safety Jairus Byrd, Chicago defensive tackle Henry Melton, Cincinnati defensive end Michael Johnson, Denver offensive tackle Ryan Clady and Indianapolis punter Pat McAfee.

All eight are non-exclusive franchise players, meaning their teams have the right to match any offer sheet or get two first-round draft picks in return for allowing him to leave.

 

RAVENS: Joe Flacco signed his new contract worth $120.6 million over six years, making him the NFL’s highest paid player.

He will receive a $29 million signing bonus, $52 million in guaranteed money and $51 million over the first two years of the deal.

 

CHIEFS: Kansas City signed wide receiver Dwayne Bowe and punter Dustin Colquitt to long-term contracts.

 

STEELERS: Veteran cornerback William Gay agreed to a three-year deal with Pittsburgh, a move that should give the Steelers some insurance if unrestricted free agent Keenan Lewis decides to play elsewhere.

Gay, 28, spent the first five seasons of his career in Pittsburgh before signing with the Arizona Cardinals last spring.

 

COWBOYS: Dallas released safety Gerald Sensabaugh, a four-year starter, to clear more room under the salary cap.

The team reported on its website that the move saves $1.4 million under the cap.