NFL Teams That Must Make Major Franchise Tag Decisions
It's decision-making time for many NFL teams because on Feb. 18, clubs can start applying the franchise and transition tags to players.
Those decisions run the gamut from no-brainers to hand-wringers, and at least one could include the MVP of Super Bowl XLVII.
Here's a look at the teams that face the toughest choices this offseason, ones that could impact their performances for years to come.
There's no question that if the Baltimore Ravens can't reach an agreement with quarterback Joe Flacco, they will apply the franchise tag to the five-year veteran.
The question is where the team will come up with that money and which type of tag it might be.
If the Ravens use the exclusive-rights franchise tag, which would prevent other teams from negotiating with Flacco, then the cap-strapped Ravens will need to free up more than $20 million in salary cap space.
However, if the team uses the non-exclusive tag in a money-saving move, then the possibility exists that another NFL team could swoop in and make a "Godfather" offer that Baltimore couldn't match.
Sure, that team would surrender two first-round picks in compensation, but if it needs a quarterback, it would be willing to take that leap.
Peter King of Sports Illustrated intimated as much in his "Monday Morning Quarterback" column this week, mentioning the Cleveland Browns as a team that just might roll those dice.
New England Patriots
The team that the Baltimore Ravens defeated in the AFC Championship Game has plenty of decision-making to do where the franchise tag is concerned.
Starting wide receiver Wes Welker, top cornerback Aqib Talib and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer are all set to hit free agency this season.
The Patriots are actually fairly well-off where cap space is concerned, with more than $18 million saved up, according to John Clayton of ESPN.
However, all three franchise tag numbers for those players would either approach or exceed $10 million, and the Patriots' brain trust will have to decide if any of them are worth a commitment of more than half their "wiggle room."
According to Clayton, the Cincinnati Bengals have nearly $60 million in cap space in 2013, so the decision they face is as much a logistical one as a financial one.
With only one franchise tag to apply, the leading candidates appear to be right tackle Andre Smith, who graded out as the top player at his position in 2012, and defensive end Michael Johnson, who finished second on the team with 11.5 sacks last year.
The Bengals would no doubt like to bring both players back.
However, if it comes down to one player or the other getting tagged and receiving a $10 million windfall in 2013, it's Johnson, whom Geoff Hobson of the Bengals website recently called "the leader-in-the-clubhouse to get franchised if there's no deal before March."
The Buffalo Bills have already shown this offseason that they are just as willing to cut talent as they were to add it in 2012.
On Monday, the team released its top two tacklers from a season ago, linebacker Nick Barnett and safety George Wilson.
However, one player the Bills aren't expected to part with is free safety Jairus Byrd, whom Pro Football Focus ranked (subscription required) as the No. 2 player at his position in 2012.
The franchise tag for the safety position this year is a reasonable $6.8 million, and while guard Andy Levitre is also set to hit free agency, Byrd has to be considered the odds-on favorite to get tagged if it comes to that.
San Francisco 49ers
As the San Francisco 49ers recover from their loss in Super Bowl XLVII, one of the problems they face is a tenuous salary cap situation.
Among the players they have to try to bring back—with not much money to do so—is free safety Dashon Goldson, who made the Pro Bowl while playing under the franchise tag in 2012.
However, should the 49ers decide to franchise Goldson again, they run the risk of alienating the six-year veteran, who has voiced his feelings on the subject, according to Janie McCauley of the Associated Press.
S Dashon Goldson on another franchise tag from #49ers: "I'm not for that, I'm really not. I'd be surprised if they'd do that again."
— Janie McCauley (@JanieMcCAP) February 5, 2013
More #49ers Goldson: "I've been in this league 6 yrs now, going on 7. I think I've done what I had to do to deserve a 2nd contract, period."
— Janie McCauley (@JanieMcCAP) February 5, 2013
Of course, if the alternative is losing your Pro Bowl safety, sometimes hurt feelings just aren't important.
The Denver Broncos have a number of free agents this offseason, but there's one name that stands out on the list in glowing neon letters: left tackle Ryan Clady.
This one isn't even really a decision. Clady hasn't missed a game in five seasons, protects Peyton Manning's blind side and graded out as a top-five offensive tackle in 2012, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
The only decision is how best to avoid even having to use the franchise tag.
Lock him up.
The Chicago Bears may be looking at a head-versus-heart decision this year when it comes to the franchise tag.
One option is icon Brian Urlacher.
While fans would surely like to see the linebacker finish his career in Chicago, it's not known just how much interest the new regime has in the aging star, nor how big of a "hometown discount" Urlacher would take to stay in the Windy City.
Giving Urlacher the franchise tag would be a stunner, as it's just under $10 million for linebackers in 2013, a huge number for a deteriorating inside linebacker.
The other, and far more likely, option is defensive tackle Henry Melton, who has quietly become a significant part of the Bears defense and is only 26 years old.
While $8 million and change isn't cheap for a defensive tackle, it wouldn't be a big surprise for Melton to see that sort of a contract on the open market.
The Bears have some wiggle room, but the best move for the team is to sign both players to more cap-friendly deals while tying up Melton long-term and avoiding the tag altogether.
When you're the Miami Dolphins, who are a projected $44 million under the salary cap, according to NFL.com, one wouldn't think that the franchise tag would be a huge issue.
Tag your best free agent and move on.
However, it's not that easy for the Dolphins, who have a ton of free agents.
Offensive tackle Jake Long, cornerback Sean Smith, running back Reggie Bush, safety Chris Clemons, wide receiver Brian Hartline and defensive tackle Randy Starks are all set to hit the open market.
At first glance, Long would seem the obvious choice, but his play has declined each of the past two years.
Smith had a fine season, but the franchise tag number for cornerbacks is more than $10 million.
The team's best bet as far as bang for its franchise tag buck is likely Clemons, an up-and-coming safety who could use one more "show me" season before the Dolphins lock him up long-term.
Kansas City Chiefs
What the Kansas City Chiefs do over the next several weeks could have a huge impact on the beginning of the 2013 NFL draft.
As things stand today, the team has two prominent players set to hit free agency.
Each player has a question mark swirling around him, and it's unlikely Kansas City can keep both players.
Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe is by far the best weapon the Chiefs have in the passing game, but the enigmatic wideout was franchised last year, and it would be prohibitively expensive to do so again.
Then, there's left tackle Branden Albert, a talented player who struggled with injuries a season ago.
Should the Chiefs tag Albert, that could change the early flow of the draft, as Kansas City probably wouldn't be as likely to draft Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel first overall in that scenario.