Last year, 21 NFL teams gently applied the franchise tag to players they wanted to keep off the free-agent market.

On Monday, the final tally for franchised players was eight.

Why the drop? Are teams feeling the squeeze from the slowly-growing cap, which rose just $2.5 million from 2012 to 2013? Are we about to see a grinding halt to rising salaries as a result?

Honestly? It’s too early to say based simply on how many guys got franchised.

In 2011, 14 players were tagged. In 2010, just 6 were franchised.

So the dearth of franchisees in 2013 could just be a by-product of whose contracts were expiring. It may be cyclical. The pool of players with expiring contracts were seen by the 24 teams that didn’t tag as either being replaceable if they flee in free agency or re-signable even after free agency starts.

Take the Patriots, for instance. Each of their three would-be franchisees had mitigating factors that make them unlikely to find a pot of gold in free agency.

Wes Welker is 32 and while his production is beyond reproach, it’s debatable whether he would play as well as a slot receiver in an offense that wasn’t triggered by Tom Brady and focused on throwing the ball 5 to 15 yards downfield on most throws.

Aqib Talib is a Pro Bowl-caliber corner, but his backstory is enough to make other teams leery of committing long-term to him. He joined the Patriots via trade while still on a four-game PED suspension. Another PED violation and he’s gone for a year. Meanwhile, he has had enough incidents with the law to make any team wary of sinking big money into him without spending the time the Patriots did over the final months of the season.

As for right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, he’s battled chronic back injuries the past few seasons. And while his level of play for much of 2012 was very good, it tapered at the end of the season as he wound up needing knee surgery. He’s going to be a health risk.