Breaking Down the Pittsburgh Steelers Franchise Tag Decisions

Nick DeWitt@@nickdewitt11Analyst IFebruary 18, 2013

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 23:  Mike Wallace #17 of the Pittsburgh Steelers catch make a first quarter catch next to Terence Newman #23 of the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field on December 23, 2012 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Franchise tags are a great way for an NFL team to retain a top player who's about to hit the free-agent market. While the Pittsburgh Steelers rarely employ the tag, they do have a plethora of free agents about to hit the market in 2013.

Could that mean that they will employ the franchise tag for the first time since using it for kicker Jeff Reed in 2010?

The answer is probably not. There's only one star-caliber player set to hit unrestricted free agency. That's wide receiver Mike Wallace, who has done nothing to inspire thoughts of being worth a mega tag and mega extension.

Here's a breakdown of the decisions Pittsburgh faces when it comes to using the tag.

The Players

The first question that has to be confronted is, except for Wallace, does any player merit using an expensive device to retain their services?

The short answer is no.

Wallace is the one player who could be worth the franchise tag, but his 2012 season was well below par. He dropped too many passes and his effort was questionable in almost every contest. He doesn't give maximum effort on difficult passes.

Beyond Wallace, Keenan Lewis is the only other unrestricted player that might be worth the money. He's coming off an excellent season in which he stepped up and, in many ways, was the team's best cornerback.

Unfortunately, one season doesn't make a career. It's very hard to fathom using the tag on a player who's just completed his first full campaign as a starter.

The Money

Right now, the Pittsburgh Steelers are well over the projected 2013 salary cap. To just get to the point where they meet the league's requirements, they will have to make some very difficult, painful and cutting decisions.

That may mean saying goodbye to some of their cornerstone players.

It may also mean that, for this season, they don't have the operating money to do much more than draft new players that they can begin grooming to be permanent replacements.

That may mean saying goodbye to every unrestricted free agent and several restricted players as well.

If the Steelers are willing to let a player go for nothing, then he is not worth the franchise tag—which will be an expensive chunk of the team's salary structure for the upcoming season.

For example, the tags for wide receivers and cornerbacks (the two positions discussed above) figure to be in excess of $10 million.

On the current roster, only five players have a cap hit that high for next season. All have been mentioned as candidates to restructure their deals or to be cut to save money. If that's the case, it makes little sense to add another player to the problem.

Sometimes, to balance the equation in the NFL, a team has to take a year or two on the chin. This could be one of those years for Pittsburgh.

The Long Term Potential

The last piece of the puzzle is what retaining that player would bring to the team's long-term plan.

In the case of Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens, the player in question is too valuable to let go of in free agency. Beyond that, however, is the belief in the Baltimore front office that they can get a long-term contract with Flacco.

There's not much hope for that with Wallace. Lewis is more believable, but he might be less expensive on the open market anyway and certainly isn't worth more than $10 million.

Some teams will retain a player for one more season to make a last run at a title. That doesn't apply in Pittsburgh either. While the Steelers begin each year with title aspirations, a realistic look at the big picture has them spending next year retooling for another extended period of dominance in the AFC.

Here again, there's just no justification for a tag to be applied.

Final Thoughts

After looking at the various angles, there's simply nothing that would support the Pittsburgh Steelers using their franchise tag on any player. Neither Mike Wallace nor Keenan Lewis present a player that must be retained at all costs.

For the Pittsburgh Steelers, turning down the tag should be a no-brainer.


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