The Detroit Lions could have a lot of candidates for the franchise tag this year.
Instead, they have none. Lions GM Martin Mayhew has said repeatedly that he does not envision the Lions using the franchise tag on anybody, most recently alluding to it in the Detroit Free Press in early February.
Not Cliff Avril, who received the dubious honor last year. Not Chris Houston or Louis Delmas, the leaders of the beleaguered secondary. Not Corey Williams.
According to Mayhew (as quoted in the Free Press), the franchise tag "doesn't make sense for us right now."
What? For some guys, the franchise tag does makes sense, doesn't it? What about Louis Delmas, who could be an exceptional safety, but needs to prove he can keep his knees healthy? What about Chris Houston, who is likely due for a megabucks deal on the open market?
Let's counter that with another argument. What about that thing where the Lions have less than $2 million in salary cap space right now? It costs less to franchise a safety than almost any other position player. Only special teamers (kickers/punters) and tight ends make less.
According to tentative figures released by NFL.com, a safety can be franchise tagged for about $6.8 million. That's only about $5 million more than they have available right now.
Now, obviously the Lions aren't going to stand pat where they are now. They can't. They have about 30 players headed for free agency, and they have some positions lacking not only starters, but players.
Somehow, the Lions will clear cap space and get people under contract. That's going to mean sacrifices, one of which is that if the only way the Lions can keep someone is to franchise tag them, they'll have to go.
It happens; good teams lose good players every year. But there's another reason the Lions won't use the franchise tag, aside from their willingness to lose a good player or two: They would actually be overpaying for the players they would use them on.
Why would the Lions pay $6.8 million for a safety who has missed about half of his potential playing time, and has effectively no NFL film of him playing fully healthy? Sure he has potential, but is he a top 10 safety in the NFL right now?
Franchising him would ensure that he's paid like one. $6.8 million against the cap in 2013 would make Delmas the ninth-biggest cap hit for a safety in the NFL, up with guys like Roman Harper, Eric Weddle and Antrel Rolle.
Delmas isn't on that level on the field, regardless of whether he could be with a healthy season. Nobody will pay him that kind of money, and if someone does, the Lions need to recognize that it's okay.
The Lions have their free agents pegged as worth a certain amount of money. If another team pays more, that's not the Lions' loss, it's the other team's loss. The Lions can then feast on their salary cap casualties. That's the circle of NFL salary cap life.
What we can deduce here is that the Lions figure that none of their impending free agents are worth franchise tag money. That makes sense, considering the franchise tag is supposed to be an undesirable option for teams unless they're facing the departure of a superstar player.
The whole reason the Lions are in this situation is because of a rash of one- and two-year contracts given out by the front office in recent years. Those were, in turn, necessitated by massive rookie contracts with origins (read: awful records) stemming from the Matt Millen era (yes, we're still blaming him). Incidentally, both of those things are crushing the Lions this year.
Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh are currently two of the six biggest cap hits in the NFL for 2013, accounting for roughly a third of the Lions' salary cap by themselves. That makes it difficult for the Lions to re-sign their dozens of free agents.
A good solution to this problem is not to sign players to short-term contracts that are also untenably expensive.
The reason the Lions were able to make these short-term deals work in the first place is because players saw the Lions as a transitional place to improve their stock before cashing in on a long-term deal. That worked for Eric Wright and Stephen Tulloch in 2011-12, and it's about to work for Chris Houston, though it remains to be seen who will write his checks next year.
This exact situation is exactly why it's so rare for a player to stay in one place his entire career. Even if mutual interest is there, the money may not be.
Right now, the money isn't there for the Lions. Until the Lions are able to dig out of this salary cap situation (which might not happen until the cap itself increases), they are in a situation where keeping everyone under contract is not a possible, and trying to use the franchise tag to make it happen is only making things worse.
The Lions are currently an organization for which some players are taking pay cuts to stay on board out of loyalty, and others have put it on the table themselves (and keep that in mind the next time someone claims Jim Schwartz has lost control of his locker room).
The Lions will be counting on at least some of the same goodwill from their departing free agents (or an undervaluation by the rest of the league), but if they can't keep these guys on board with their own offer sheet, why would they spend franchise tag money to delay the inevitable?
The Lions just endured a 4-12 year that has everybody clamoring for changes. So the team is going to make some changes. Guys Like Louis Delmas and Corey Williams may be back under terms that the Lions find favorable. Chris Houston and Cliff Avril may or may not, depending on what terms they find on the market.
Franchising someone now means cutting someone else or more contract restructuring to make 2014 even more of a financial nightmare. Otherwise there's no way the Lions can afford a franchise player.
Losing some of these players may hurt in the short term, but in the long term, the Lions can't afford to run their team financially according to their players' terms, and this is the year they need to show it.
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