NFL free agency is less than a month away, but many free agents will not see the open market. That is because of the franchise tag, a tool players loathe and that teams utilize to keep them without having to bother with long-term, expensive deals.
The tag is used less often than perceived, and many teams will not use it this offseason due to various circumstances. But which players would be the best tag targets for their respective teams?
Click through to find out each team's top tag candidate.
The Cardinals took the NFL by storm last season, seizing the NFC West en route to a fantastic playoff run.
Now that you've gotten a nice chuckle, imagine a player not named Larry Fitzgerald or Calais Campbell, both of whom are under contract, who the Cardinals should slap with the franchise tags.
That is, unless they want to use it on D'Anthony Batiste, Sackmaster Extraordinaire. The problem with that title is that he plays left tackle.
Greg Toler is, perhaps, the best player coming loose in free agency from Arizona, but he is hardly worth the franchise tag. The fact that the Cardinals are strapped for cap space is also a big factor.
Top Tag Candidate: Nobody
The Falcons finally won a playoff game last season—barely—but were felled in the NFC Championship game by a 49ers team on a mission.
They got there thanks in large part to an underrated defense, and William Moore was a key contributor on that defense. The franchise tag for a safety will only cost $6.8 million, not too shabby if the Falcons can't get Moore to sign a long-term deal.
Top Tag Candidate: William Moore
The Ravens are no Mickey Mouse organization. Ozzie Newsome knows what it takes to run an organization well, and paying Joe Flacco $20 million-plus per season is not likely the best course of action.
Flacco is riding a huge wave right now on the wings of an incredible playoff run. The five-year veteran threw 11 touchdowns without an interception en route to a Super Bowl MVP performance, cresting his contract negotiation leverage as a result.
Some are calling Flacco the best quarterback in the game. Much of that is merely the typical hyperbole that comes with winning a championship.
The truth of the matter is Flacco is too inconsistent and streaky to be given Drew Brees-like money, which is why it would be wise to slap him with the franchise tag. The odds are on Newsome's side.
After all, what are the chances Flacco goes on another historic playoff run that leads to another title?
Top Tag Candidate: Joe Flacco
Despite another mediocre season, the Bills have some free agents worth serious consideration for the franchise tag.
Jairus Byrd and Andy Levitre are both excellent candidates, but which one should they tag?
As with many things in the NFL, the economics of the situation will dicate the outcome. In this case, Byrd's tag will cost far less than Levitre, who would get nearly $10 million as a guard if he was tendered with the exclusive tag.
The Bills want to sign Byrd to a deal, but they may not have a choice if negotiations stall.
Top Tag Candidate: Jairus Byrd
The Panthers improved in 2012, but they still fell short of .500. Their best free agent is Captain Munnerlyn, a nickelback and kick returner they would be wise to re-sign.
As good as he may be in special teams, the franchise tag is out of the question for Munnerlyn. It doesn't help that the Panthers are well above the salary cap right now.
Top Tag Candidate: Nobody
One of the best defensive linemen in the league operated out of the Windy City, and his name isn't Julius Peppers.
Henry Melton has had 13 sacks over the past two seasons as a defensive tackle. He is widely regarded as one of the best free-agents-to-be if the Bears let him get to the market.
Melton isn't short on self-confidence either (via Brad Biggs, Chicago Tribune):
He told the Tribune he believes he is the top interior 4-3 lineman in the league.
"We're still playing the 4-3 … there is not another better D-tackle in the league than myself," Melton said. "I feel like that."
The two sides have been working toward a deal, but if talks don't progress between now and March 4, it seems likely Chicago will use the franchise tag on the big defenseman.
Top Tag Candidate: Henry Melton
One of the best offensive tackles played the Queen City last season, and his name wasn't Andrew Whitworth.
Granted, Whitworth is still pretty darn good, but his counterpart was great as well. Andre Smith locked down the right tackle position for the Bengals, giving the offense one of the best bookend duos on the line in the league.
A recent arrest could put a small damper on his free agency, but he should still command a nice contract if he hits the market. The Bengals would pay a hefty price to stick the franchise tag on him, but it could buy them time to groom a replacement or even sign him to a long-term deal.
Top Tag Candidate: Andre Smith
The Browns have made a ton of changes, starting with new owner Jimmy Haslam all the way down to the new waterboy.
Well, Cleveland may or may not have a new hydration compliance engineer, but the team certainly has a new look.
That means the franchise tag is unlikely. That and the fact their best available free agent is Sheldon Brown, a 33-year-old cornerback. Brown played well last season, but that hardly warrants a $8 or $10 million tag.
Top Tag Candidate: Sheldon Brown
The Cowboys knew what they were doing—a departure from perception—when they tagged Anthony Spencer last year.
Unfortunately that means it is unlikely they will be able to retain him.
Using the franchise tag would cost the Cowboys 120 percent of what they paid Spencer last season, just about $11 million.
Dallas won't have much wiggle room thanks to a sticky cap situation, so tagging Spencer seems out of the question.
Top Tag Candidate: Anthony Spencer
There is no Mile High Drama in Denver regarding the franchise tag.
The best offensive tackle in free agency won't sniff the open market as the Broncos will slap Ryan Clady with the franchise tag. Considering he has blossomed into one of the top tackles in the league, this was a no-brainer.
Top Tag Candidate: Ryan Clady
Cliff Avril is the sexy name out of Detroit in upcoming free agency, but did you know he was secretly terrible?
That may be hyperbole, but how else would you explain the horrific rating Pro Football Focus (PFF) gave him this year? He ranked in the bottom 10 of all defensive ends, mostly due to the poor job he does against the run.
Tagging him would be foolish for Detroit, especially considering the depth at the position in the NFL draft. Instead, they could and should look at Louis Delmas if they can't work out a long-term deal.
Delmas didn't exactly light up the Lions secondary, but he did a fine job. Safety is the third-cheapest franchise tag among all the positions, and the Lions would do well to keep whatever quality they have in that defensive unit.
Top Tag Candidate: Louis Delmas
The Packers don't play franchise tag with their players—maybe a little Olly Olly oxen free with Jermichael Finley's hands—too often, and that pattern should hold this year.
If you held a prop gun to Ted Thompson's head, though, Greg Jennings would likely be the choice. The 29-year-old receiver has had some injury issues over the past couple of seasons, and the Packers have a nice receiving corps with or without him, but Jennings is still a quality receiver.
Top Tag Candidate: Greg Jennings
The Texans have a couple of free agents worth consideration for a new deal, but are any of them worthy of the franchise tag?
Perhaps Connor Barwin is their best bet. Barwin had an off season despite defenses being forced to contend with defensive monster J.J. Watt after posting 11.5 sacks in 2011, so it would be a "show-me" moment for the Texans outside linebacker.
It would be far more cost effective to apply the tag to their punter, Donnie Jones, however.
Top Tag Candidate: Donnie Jones
With Dwight Freeney being told he will not be given a new contract, the Colts are down to a scant few players from their Super Bowl XLI championship. They are also down to a scant few players worth keeping.
Perhaps their best available free agent is Donnie Avery, who had a nice season while avoiding injury for the first time in his career. That doesn't mean he is worth the franchise tag, however, especially considering the Colts have T.Y. Hilton and LaVon Brazill coming on strong at the position.
The Pat McAfee Show can't go on in Indianapolis if he's gone, and punter tags are cheap. The likelihood is the Colts will sign him to a long-term deal, but a $2.9 million tender is pretty cheap.
Top Tag Candidate: Pat McAfee
The Jaguars have plenty of cap space and few free agents worth retaining.
Derek Cox is one such free agent, however. He is Jacksonville's best cornerback despite having just one fully healthy season in his four-year career. Cox had four interceptions in just 12 games last season; if they can get past injury concerns, the Jaguars would do well to keep him.
Top Tag Candidate: Derek Cox
The Chiefs have let Dwayne Bowe languish in quarterback purgatory throughout his entire professional career, and they might be losing him the year they finally nab a quarterback.
Bowe was tagged last year, meaning Kansas City would need to pay him 120 percent of last season's salary should they choose to employ the tag. That would come out to over $11 million for a guy who reportedly wanted out of Kansas City.
A more likely alternative comes in the form of hulking offensive tackle Brandon Albert, who has become a fixture on that offensive line.
Top Tag Candidate: Brandon Albert
Sean Smith is seeking a big contract.
While that may be exorbitant price tag for an inconsistent cornerback, the Dolphins would be down to Larry, Moe and Curly at cornerback if they let him go in free agency.
Richard Marshall was inconsistent himself before going down last year, Dimitri Patterson is a journeyman the Eagles and Browns let go before Jeff Ireland picked him up, and Jimmy Wilson is an undersized, overmatched player despite his motor.
That leaves Smith as a priority, even if the Dolphins are targeting another cornerback in the draft or via free agency. The only way to avoid overpaying for him in the long-term is to tag him.
If they hit Smith with the transition tag, the Dolphins would only be on the hook for $8.9 million this year rather than $10.7. That might be more than the annual average he is seeking, but it wouldn't tether them to a potential albatross.
Top Tag Candidate: Sean Smith
Matt Kalil might have been a great rookie left tackle for the Vikings last season, but there is a reason why they ran Adrian Peterson to the right far more than to the left.
Part of that was Kalil's deficiencies as a run blocker, but another big reason comes in the form of big offensive lineman Phil Loadholt.
The right tackle particularly excels in the run game. Adrian Peterson owes part of his incredible success to a good offensive line; perhaps they will keep Loadholt via franchise tag.
Top Tag Candidate: Phil Loadholt
Drew Brees took it to the wire after getting hit with the franchise tag last year, but his long-term deal means the Saints can look to use the tag elsewhere. But will they?
Jermon Bushrod is a bit overrated, but quality left tackles aren't a dime a dozen. Protecting Drew Brees' blind side is paramount, but the Saints might not have a choice in letting him hit free agency—New Orleans' cap number is only smaller than the Jets'.
Top Tag Candidate: Jermon Bushrod
If Andre Smith isn't the best free-agent right tackle, Sebastian Vollmer can lay claim to that title.
The four-year veteran has been great for the Patriots, and he should be their top priority this offseason. Aqib Talib and even Wes Welker are good candidates for the tag as well, but Vollmer is the likeliest choice if New England cannot strike a long-term deal.
Top Tag Candidate: Sebastian Vollmer
Perhaps the second-best left tackle in free agency, Will Beatty has been one of the more underrated players for the Giants in recent years.
Beatty is a great pass- and run-blocker, and the Giants know it. They are trying to lock him down with a long-term deal, and they might well use the tag to buy themselves some time if they can't get a deal done by March.
Top Tag Candidate: Will Beatty
A byproduct of being in salary cap hell is the likelihood the franchise tag will accumulate dust during the offseason.
The Jets are in no position to spend money right now as they must take a hatchet to their roster before even signing their draft picks.
Had they been able to use the tag, Dustin Keller would be their best bet. The talented tight end has had injury issues, but he has been Mark Sanchez's favorite and best target when healthy.
Top Tag Candidate: Dustin Keller
Speaking of salary cap hell, the Raiders have climbed out from the seventh level and they have nearly surfaced. But they are still over the cap.
That is why they won't be using the franchise tag this season.
Their best option would be Desmond Bryant, who has turned into the best defensive lineman on the team. The big defensive tackle was rated sixth-best in the league according to PFF, better than fellow linemen Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly.
Top Tag Candidate: Desmond Bryant
The Dream Team has the fourth pick in the draft this season, and it's not because they own another team's pick.
Philadelphia's best free agent might be Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, which is like saying Jar Jar Binks is your favorite character in Star Wars: Episode I.
Top Tag Candidate: Nobody
The Steelers used the franchise tag last year to spite Mike Wallace, or so it might seem considering how miffed the speedy receiver was while attempting to negotiate a long-term deal.
Pittsburgh does not have much to work with in terms of their own free agents outside Wallace, which would make him the primary candidate to get slapped with the tag again. The problem with that is twofold: money and production.
Wallace would get paid 120 percent of his 2012 salary should the Steelers tag him again, and he graded out far worse than teammates Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders last season.
Top Tag Candidate: Mike Wallace
Behind Andy Levitre at guard lies Louis Vasquez out of San Diego, who has been a terrific right guard for the Chargers.
Vasquez was the only solid contributor on that offensive line, so losing him could be disastrous for San Diego. The problem is the team only has $6.5 million in cap space.
Top Tag Candidate: Louis Vasquez
The post-Super Bowl hangover over the city of San Francisco lingers, but the offseason must go on.
Dashon Goldson may not want to hear this, but even having to pay him 120 percent of his 2012 salary is worth it to hit him with the franchise tag again.
Goldson wasn't too happy when he had to sign his franchise tender last season, so it might be doubly infuriating to hear he's been tendered once again. Indeed, Goldson has expressed his displeasure at the notion.
But the 49ers can't afford to lose their best defensive back. Their big-hitting safety might cost a pretty penny in free agency, and the inflated tag will be about $8 million.
Top Tag Candidate: Dashon Goldson
There aren't many good options for the Seahawks to use the franchise tag. Jason Jones and Alan Branch are the most decent choices, but Steve Hauschka is due to hit free agency.
Why not keep a good kicker on the cheap, especially considering he is coming off an injury?
Top Tag Candidate: Steve Hauschka
Danny Amendola has the potential to be great for the St. Louis Rams. He is not a prototypical No. 1 like Calvin Johnson or A.J. Green, but he has been quite good when healthy.
And there is the rub.
Amendola has never been able to stay healthy. Whether it is physiology or simply bad luck, Amendola has missed far too much time to be considered a worthwhile investment, at least at the multiyear, big-money level.
That is where the franchise tag comes in.
The Rams could retain his services and give him one more shot to get through a season without pulling a hamstring or breaking his tailbone without committing to him with a long-term deal.
Unfortunately, the tag will cost the Rams $10 million, unless they choose the cheaper transition tag.
Top Tag Candidate: Danny Amendola
The Buccaneers have one of the more valuable and underrated free agents set to hit the market if they cannot get him wrapped up. His name is Michael Bennett—not the late Broadway director or washed up running back—older brother of the Black Unicorn, Martellus Bennett.
Bennett was an all-around force for the Buccaneers last season, amassing 9.5 sacks while being equally good against the run. He is the best free-agent defensive end on the market, and the Buccaneers know it.
Top Tag Candidate: Michael Bennett
Why would a team use the franchise tag on an underutilized tight end they haven't been able to figure out how to use properly?
That is exactly what the Titans plan on doing with Jared Cook.
Top Tag Candidate: Jared Cook
The Redskins are still dealing with a big cap penalty for some shenanigans they allegedly pulled during the uncapped season, so utilizing their franchise tag this offseason might not be an option.
If they do opt to do it, however, they might use it on Fred Davis for a second consecutive season. Despite the 120-percent increase in salary and Davis' Achilles injury, tight end is the cheapest non-kicker tag available.
Top Tag Candidate: Fred Davis