Oakland Raiders: Who Will Earn Franchise Tag, Michael Bush or Tyvon Branch?

Nathaniel JueSenior Writer IIFebruary 22, 2012

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 18:  Michael Bush #29 of the Oakland Raiders runs with the ball against the Detroit Lions at O.co Coliseum on December 18, 2011 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The period for NFL teams to designate players with franchise tags began yesterday. Each team is allowed to apply the tag to one player, who, as a result, will receive a one-year contract, avoiding free-agent status.

This year, however, is different than in years past. Under the new collective bargaining agreement, the franchised player will no longer earn the average of the top five highest-paid players at his position. Instead, the league uses a formula that takes into account franchise-tag contracts from the previous five seasons.

The Oakland Raiders find themselves in a bit of quandary with regards to the franchise tag. Do they use it all? If so, which player do they use it on?

This offseason has seen an entire organizational upheaval, a direct result of the passing of longtime owner Al Davis last season. There is a fresh administration, headlined by new general manager Reggie McKenzie. As well as an innovative young coaching staff, featuring new head coach Dennis Allen.

This brand-new regime has many problems to address in its quest to restore glory to this proud organization.

Who should be tagged?

CSNBayArea notes that Oakland is $11 million over the salary cap, a rather hefty chunk of change. Even with the newly calculated franchise-tag salary under the CBA (refer to table), it’s still a rather pricey move.

The two free agents who the Raiders could tag are running back Michael Bush and safety Tyvon Branch. According to the new salary structure, tagging Bush would cost roughly $8 million, while tagging Branch would cost a little over $6 million for one season.

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 18:  Tyvon Branch #33 of the Oakland Raiders celebrates after breaking up a pass intended for Nate Burleson #13 of the Detroit Lions at O.co Coliseum on December 18, 2011 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Bush is a hidden tricky situation. He has proven to be one of the more invaluable backup running backs, providing relief in the absence of starter Darren McFadden, who has suffered injuries in each of his four seasons in the NFL.

Thus, if Oakland gave Bush the franchise tag, he’d be an $8 million backup—rather steep. Especially since McFadden is scheduled to make $5.65 million next season. That would give Oakland a nearly $14 million backfield, with Bush the more expensive of the twoand he’s not even the starter.

This quagmire makes Branch the more viable option to be tagged. The Raiders need to solidify their defensive secondary, especially with the release of cornerback Stanford Routt earlier this month.

Branch had a solid campaign at strong safety, leading the team in tackles in 2011—his third straight season with over 100. Moreover, Branch has started every game since the beginning of the 2009 season, so his durability is an aspect the Raiders can depend on.

Will the Raiders use the franchise tag?

Though Branch would be the cheaper option between him and Bush, the Raiders will have to give some serious thought about who is more important to the team in the long run. Both players are heading into their fifth seasons in the NFL. Both have played exceptionally well at their respective positions.

But Bush might in fact be more important, because he is on the offensive side of the ball. As a playmaker and ball-handler, Bush’s presence on the roster is a necessity—especially given McFadden’s fragility.

In essence, should the Raiders designate Bush with the franchise tag, McFadden would ultimately become expendable. According to ESPN’s John Clayton, keeping both of them is almost impossible.

And if the Raiders were to go the safe route, they’d have to choose Bush as the more reliable tailback, almost entirely based on his health. Yes, McFadden would be placed on the trading block.

This would be a devastating thought for Raiders fans. Why would Oakland consider shipping out one of the most dynamic running backs in the AFC?

The reality is McFadden cannot be expected to play a complete season, as he has never done so in his four years in the NFL. As such, the Raiders have to seriously consider which running back is the best option for them moving forward.

Can they rely on McFadden to play a full 16 games? If not, McKenzie and company will determine whether it makes sense financially to possess both Bush and McFadden. Doing so would make for a tremendously expensive backfield; Bush would ultimately be allowed to walk away as a free agent.

But can the Raiders afford that risk? What if McFadden goes down again next season and Bush is not on the roster anymore? Which running back do the Raiders keep if they can have both? It’s like the Golden State Warriors trying to decide who among Monta Ellis or Stephen Curry is more tradable.

Heads or tails, call it in the air.

What will likely happen?

With all of the concern surrounding the backfield (McFadden did not return to the practice field at all after his injury), the Raiders have a lot of soul searching to do in determining who will be their running back of the future.

Many media reports suggest that McFadden should indeed be traded, as his health is too unreliable for a team that is attempting to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2002 season.

After all, had McFadden remained healthy all of last season, the Raiders may in fact have won one more game that would have snuck them into the postseason.

That said, it’s unlikely that Oakland can part ways with one of the most electrifying young talents at running back. McFadden is a home run hitter on the ground, with the pass-catching ability to boot.

His skill set is more superior than Bush’s. Though Bush is a healthy rock, the Raiders will have a better chance of success as a team with McFadden.

As such, Bush will not be given the franchise tag. It’s too expensive to have both of them on the roster and in the same backfield. This means that the Raiders should tag Branch as their franchise player.

Oakland’s defense is the primary focal point this offseason. And Branch is more important to the Raiders’ defensive unit than Bush will be on the loaded offensive side of the ball.

However, if the Raiders are unable to sign Branch to a long-term deal, Bush might earn the franchise tag by default. Who knows?