NFL free agency is set to begin on March 13th with roughly 600 players becoming free to sign with new teams. Between now and March 13th, teams can only negotiate new deals with their own free agents.
Once free agency begins, everyone without a contract is fair game.
However, even if teams cannot re-sign their most valued free agents before the market opens, they do have another option. Each NFL franchise has one franchise tag available to them which they can use to lock up any free agent to a one-year deal.
The franchise tag guarantees that the player stays with the team, but it also guarantees the player a huge sum of money. As Jason LaConfora of NFL Network explains:
In the past, a franchise tag was derived from averaging the top five salaries at a particular position from the previous season. The new formula is much more complicated and is formed by determining the franchise tags at that position over the last five years as a percentage of the overall cap figure in each of those five years.
Therefore, if a team like the New Orleans Saints decide to tag Drew Brees, they must guarantee him $14.4 million next year. The one exception to this rule is if a player is receiving his second transfer tag.
For example, Paul Soliai of the Miami Dolphins, who played under the tag last year, will receive 120 percent of his 2011 salary should he be retained under the tag this year. So instead of receiving $7.9 million under this year's defensive tackle tag, Soliai would be scheduled to make $15 million—120 percent of his 2011 salary.
While free agency doesn't begin until March 13th, the deadline to place tags on players is March 5th. As there are so many players hitting free agency this year, and with every position tag price lower than last year when 13 tags were used, NFL franchises have more reasons than ever to tag their own. Each team's management will be frantically focusing on which free agents they have to tag as the deadline approaches next week.
No tags have been used yet, but there are candidates who are all but guaranteed to have their futures decided for them by their franchises. Ray Rice, the back from Rutgers running for the Ravens, is expected to receive the Baltimore-based team's tag this week, according to the Caroll County Times.
The 25-year-old is crucial for the success of the Ravens' current roster as well as the team's future.
Even though the running back position in the NFL isn't difficult to find talent for, Rice is one of the few backs who separates himself and is almost irreplaceable. He finished second in rushing yards last year only to Maurice Jones-Drew but averaged the same number of yards per carry, 4.7, while also having another outstanding year as a receiver with 76 receptions—leading his team—for 704 yards which led all running backs.
Without Rice, the Ravens' chances at winning one more Super Bowl during the Ray Lewis and Ed Reed era would be zero.
Even though Joe Flacco progressed a lot last year, Rice, running behind the best fullback in the league, Vonta Leach, remains their best offensive weapon.
Rice is the likeliest candidate for a franchise tag, but the best free agent hitting the market, Drew Brees, appears to also be heading that way, according to ESPN. If the Saints and Brees cannot agree on a new deal, then Brees will get the franchise tag.
The Saints have more to lose than anyone else entering this year's free agency as key players like guard Carl Nicks, receiver Marques Colston and cornerback Tracey Porter are scheduled to hit the market. In an ideal world, the Saints would lock up Brees with a long-term deal before tagging Nicks. If they cannot do that, Nicks becomes the most sought after player in the NFL and he has already said he wants a big deal (via NBC Sports). Trying to re-sign Nicks during free agency prevents the team from concentrating on Colston or Porter and heightens the chances of them losing all three players.
One player who ESPN says won't get the franchise tag is Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace.
Wallace is a restricted free agent this year, which in short just means that the Steelers have to receive compensation of a first-round draft pick if another team signs him. Because of their lack of cap space, the Steelers cannot afford to franchise tag Mike Wallace despite releasing Hines Ward (via Forbes).
Prior to last year's lockout, restricted free agents were closer to being restricted than free because teams could place a tender on each player which required compensation of a first and third-round draft choice. This year, the highest tender a team can place on players only allows for compensation of a first-round draft choice.
For teams like the San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots, who need a receiver like Wallace, giving up a late choice in the first round is nothing.
Wallace is a proven player burgeoning on the elite level of NFL receivers with his best years ahead of him. Giving up a first-round draft choice is nothing to the teams who will want him. His situation could have a huge bearing on next season's playoff picture as playoff caliber teams are the most likely to go for him, especially the Steelers' biggest rivals for the AFC crown.
Another AFC North offensive piece who isn't expected to be franchise tagged is Peyton Hillis.
The Cleveland Browns running back, who continued the infamous Madden Curse last season, isn't the best running back available, or even realistically close to the top of those coming free, but the fact that the Browns aren't desperate to bring him back could have major implications on the rest of the NFL.
One of the most difficult prospects to project in this year's NFL draft is Alabama running back Trent Richardson.
Richardson is considered by many to be the best NFL running back to come out of college since Adrian Peterson, but because of the success achieved by late-round running backs, teams are reluctant to draft the best players at the position at the top of the draft. With Hillis leaving, the chances of the Browns picking Richardson in the top five increase and makes their plans in regards to a trade for Robert Griffin III more ambiguous.
It also makes the draft boards of every NFL team less clear.
Sometimes, using the franchise tag (or not using it in the Browns' case) isn't just a means of re-signing a player. On occasion, albeit rare, teams can use the franchise tag and affect the rest of the league's plans in a more aggressive way than simply taking a free agent off the market.
The Green Bay Packers have the opportunity to make such a move this year with quarterback Matt Flynn. After exasperating the importance of the quarterback position in reference to Robert Griffin III, Matt Flynn is another quarterback who will be in high demand this off-season (via the Guardian).
Flynn may not be a rookie, but at 26 years of age and only two NFL starts to his name, he is as big a risk as any rookie. However, because of one impressive and one absolutely outrageous record-breaking performance, Flynn is one of the hottest properties, not only in free agency, but in the whole of the NFL this offseason.
The Packers have the opportunity to franchise tag Flynn and trade him so as not to lose him for nothing as an unrestricted free agent.
The Packers would need to have a deal already in place prior to tagging Flynn because they cannot afford to pay a backup—which is what he would always be behind Aaron Rodgers—the tag price of $14.4 million.
It's unclear whether the Packers will actually carry out this computer game/New England Patriots-like move, but it would have a huge bearing on multiple franchises such as the Miami Dolphins, Seattle Seahawks, Cleveland Browns and Washington Redskins who have all been linked with Flynn at some point.
While any of the players listed above probably wouldn't have many gripes with receiving the franchise tag, other players detest the short-term guarantee opposed to the long-term security.
San Diego Chargers wide receiver Vincent Jackson is once again scheduled to hit free agency, but it is unclear as to whether he actually will be able to test the market. Jackson received the franchise tag last year for $11 million, which means he would be in a similar situation to Paul Soliai receiving 120 percent of that figure this year.
Jackson doesn't want to be re-signed for one season, however, and has previously declared that he would "love" to have a long-term deal with the team, according to Yahoo.
It's difficult to see the Chargers tagging Jackson again. He has previously held out of playing football during the regular season when unhappy with his contract, despite playing all of last year under the franchise tag.
Holding out is the only counter move a player has to the franchise tag.
It is something which defensive end Cliff Avril has already stated he will consider should the Detroit Lions re-sign him. The Lions need to re-sign their young pass rushing defensive end, but are hoping to lock down Stephen Tulloch to a long-term deal before using the tag on Avril. Both Tulloch and Avril figure to be big attractions in free agency and the team must franchise tag one of them in order to re-sign both.
There are a lot of players who are unhappy to not have received long-term deals who will resent playing under the franchise tag, DeSean Jackson and Matt Forte are also part of that group, but both will likely be tagged by their respective franchises simply because of the lowered price of the tags.
The impact of that slight change in contract has been major for most teams. Forte and Jackson are only two names on a very long list of players who represent great value. Wes Welker will only cost the Patriots $9.4 million; Dwayne Bowe will cost the Chiefs the same.
Washington Redskins tight end Fred Davis will be a measly $5.4 million (down from over $7 million for the tag last year), while his teammate LaRon Landry can be tied down for $6.2 million.
With 13 tags used last year, expect the next few days to see a flurry of franchise tags falling over the heads of potential free agents before the March 5th deadline.