It’s not the most convenient option, but the franchise tag is sometimes the only way to keep a player under contract.
NFL teams face a lot of tough decisions in the offseason. Between restructuring contracts, working out new deals, signing free agents and letting others walk (all while staying under the salary cap), there isn’t much room for error. Every move must be planned in accordance with long-term financial blueprints.
What teams and players want are often two different things, though. That’s where the franchise tag comes in.
Beginning on Feb. 18, teams will be allowed to apply the franchise tag to one player. Every team has just one tag to use, though many choose to forgo the option. In 2012, only 21 of the 32 teams used a franchise tag.
The basic idea of a franchise tag is to sign a player to a one-year contract with the compensation being the average of the top-five salaries at that particular position. The option allows teams another year to negotiate a long-term deal, or simply have that player for another year of service until he is scheduled to hit the open market again.
Organizations can use their franchise tag from February 18 to March 4, but by March 12, every team in the league must be below the salary cap (about $121 million for next season).
Let's take a look at seven players their teams would be wise to retain this offseason—likely in the form of a franchise tender—and break down the odds of those players remaining with their current team in 2013.
The Ravens have a lot of tough decisions to make this offseason. Joe Flacco, Dannell Ellerbe, Paul Kruger and Ed Reed will all be unrestricted free agents, and there is only so much money to go around. The 2013 salary cap is expected to be around $121 million, as reported by Ian Rapoport of NFL.com. Baltimore has a little more than $12 million to work with, but it won’t be enough to retain everyone.
While Reed, Kruger and Ellerbe were all key contributors on defense last season, none are as valuable as Flacco. He proved his worth with an incredible stretch in the playoffs, culminating in a Super Bowl victory.
Each team has only one available franchise tag, and it’s almost certainly going to Flacco if the two sides can’t work out a long-term deal before the March 4 deadline to use the tag. Should Flacco not be under contract by then, the franchise tag is the obvious option.
While non-exclusive franchise tags are much more common in free agent dealings, Baltimore would be wise to opt for the exclusive franchise tag option. While there’s little chance of a team being willing to sign Flacco to an offer sheet and give up two first-round picks should they manage to acquire him, the Ravens could avoid any chance of that happening, and also buy more time to get their salary cap situation in order.
The exclusive tag amounts aren’t set until April 19, so Flacco would be on the books for the non-exclusive average ($14.6 million) until the final amount for the position is determined. This would give Baltimore more than a month to open up more salary cap space (h/t RussellStreetReport.com).
The Denver Broncos simply cannot afford to lose Ryan Clady to free agency. He’s one of the best left tackles in the league, and Peyton Manning desperately needs a high-end tackle protecting his blindside.
Jeff Legworld of The Denver Post believes the Broncos will be more inclined to hit Clady with the franchise tag this offseason because of his previous injury issues (knee, shoulder), and because he turned down a deal last season that would have been worth $10 million a year.
The Broncos would only have to pay Clady $9.66 million this year if they apply the franchise tag to Clady, and it would also allow Denver another year to negotiate with the star left tackle. If the two sides don’t reach a long-term agreement in the next few weeks, expect Clady to be Denver’s franchise tag option.
Evaluating offensive linemen isn’t an exact science, and one of the reasons public opinion of a former elite left tackle like Jake Long is still so high is because there really isn’t much concrete analysis of offensive line play short of watching games.
Long isn’t a top-tier left tackle anymore, or at least he didn’t play like it in 2012. Still, quality left tackles are hard to find, and he’s a better option for Miami than a lot of free agent options available on the market. They may not want to keep him around long-term, but the Dolphins would be wise to at least keep him around for another year.
The other benefit to applying Long with the franchise tag is this: Miami could apply a non-exclusive tag, thereby ensuring it will at least get big compensation in return for losing him should another team sign him to an offer sheet that it doesn’t want to match.
The Dolphins have some rebuilding to do, and with plenty of cap room with which to work, they should be able to make a big splash in the free agent market. Long probably isn’t their biggest priority, but the Dolphins will want to at least want to gauge his willingness to accept less than the $10 million per year he would want to stay in Miami in the long-term (h/t The Miami Herald).
With Wes Welker, Sebastian Vollmer and Aqib Talib all set to hit the open market this offseason, the Patriots have some tough decisions to make, especially with so much money tied up in Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
Vollmer may be the most important of New England’s free agent targets, but the Patriots will likely look to work out a long-term deal with him as opposed to opting for the franchise tag (h/t ESPN). Talib will also garner plenty of attention, should he hit the open market, but the Patriots would be wise to avoid paying him top-five money based on one quality season in New England.
Welker is the most likely candidate for the franchise tag, and while he may be getting to the backend of his career, Welker is still highly productive. Brady can’t afford to lose his favorite target, and the Patriots need to find a way to keep him in town for at least one more season.
A long-term deal isn’t likely an option, and as long as Vollmer doesn’t force the Patriots into a position to use the franchise tag on him, Welker should be looking at one more year in New England making about $10.3 million.
Despite being one of the better safeties in the NFC, Delmas has been plagued with injury issues in the last two seasons. He’ll still command plenty of attention on the free agent market, though, and Detroit needs to be proactive in locking him up with a new deal.
According to Chris McCosky of The Detroit News, general manager Martin Mayhew will probably look to re-sign Delmas as part of his efforts to keep the safety on the roster and lower the Lions’ cap number. That’s the best choice, but there’s no guarantee the two sides will be able to come to an agreement.
Delmas can be a game-changer at the backend of Detroit’s defense, and the Lions need to do everything they can to keep him under contract. If that means applying the franchise tag and giving Delmas close to $6.8 million for another year, that’s what Mayhew should do. There really aren’t any other impending free agents worth using it on.
According to Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com, Byrd will likely want to test the waters in free agency this offseason. He’s one of the best safeties in the league, and Buffalo can’t afford to lose him with the franchise number for safeties projected to be around $6.8 million.
The non-exclusive franchise tag seems like a good option to use on Byrd. Other teams will no doubt be interested in the safety, but the Bills would have the opportunity to match any offers or receive two first-round draft picks.
If Byrd is leaning toward testing the market as Brown suggests, tagging him for another year seems like the best course of action.
Kip Lewis of CSNChicago.com believes re-signing Melton is at the top of Chicago’s to-do list this offseason. He’s been a phenomenal defensive tackle in the last two seasons, and the Bears need to find a way to keep him under contract.
Like several other teams in the league, Chicago has a lot of free agent decisions to make. They have 18 unrestricted free agents set to hit the open market next month and only one franchise tag to use.
The franchise number for defensive tackles this season is expected to be $8.3 million, which isn’t all that bad for a Pro-Bowl defensive tackle who has been so disruptive in the last two seasons.
If Chicago can’t work out a long-term deal for the 26-year-old, expect the franchise tag to be its most likely option.