Monday at 4 p.m. ET is the deadline for NFL teams to use their franchise tags on key free agents, and so far there is doubt that the Atlanta Falcons will use theirs. So far, only five players in the league have been slapped with the tag by their respective 2012 clubs.
Understanding what "Franchise Tag" means
NFL franchise tags are one-year deals that can be constructed under exclusive or non-exclusive parameters. That money within the deals is not negotiable, but rather set by a league-wide formula.
Exclusive tags apply a one-year salary that cannot be less than an average of the top-five salaries at that position for the current year, or a 20-percent increase over the target player's salary from the previous season. The greater number from the two calculations is the tag price. Exclusive franchise tags don't give players the right to negotiate with other clubs.
Non-exclusive tags take the lesser number of the two formulas as a tag price, except the average player salary also comes from the previous season. As well, non-exclusive tags allow for the tagged player to negotiate with other teams. If that player signs an offer, the tagging team can either match the deal or receive two first-round draft picks as compensation.
According to the Associated Press, via ESPN, the baseline salaries for franchise-tagged players under the more common non-exclusive deal are (in descending order):
- Quarterback: $14,896,000
- Defensive End: $11,175,000
- Cornerback: $10,854,000
- Receiver: $10,537,000
- Offensive Lineman: $9,828,000
- Linebacker: $9,619,000
- Defensive Tackle: $8,450,000
- Running Back: $8,219,000
- Safety: $6,916,000
- Tight End: $6,066,000
- Kicker/Punter: $2,977,000
Forecasting the Falcons' financial situation
Atlanta stepped into the offseason with just over $117 million committed towards 2013 salaries (numbers via Spotrac.com). The salary cap for the 2013 season has been set at $123 million, per team.
General manager Thomas Dimitroff made expected releases of key veterans to clear space, though it was surprising to see that John Abraham was included in the house cleaning. The release of Abraham, running back Michael Turner and cornerback Dunta Robinson has cleared $16 million in cap space for the year.
Now Atlanta has about $22 million to work with this offseason.
Who are free agents/players Atlanta might tag?
Center Todd McClure and linebacker Mike Peterson will walk and either sign with a new team or retire. Atlanta already had replacement pieces for both of those players on the 2012 roster.
Thomas Dimitroff will want to make decisions on key free agents from the 2012 club, including cornerback Brent Grimes, safety William Moore and left tackle Sam Baker.
Here's how Grimes, Moore and Baker would forecast under franchise tags.
- Grimes was tagged last year for a total of $10,281,000. The cornerback number this season is third-highest at $10,854,000. Grimes would make between last year's number and this year's baseline salary for cornerbacks as a non-exclusive franchise tag. If he were exclusively tagged, he would actually make less than $10 million and could not negotiate with other teams.
- Moore made only $565,000 last season in the final year of his rookie contract. If he was tagged non-exclusively, he would make just $678,000 under Atlanta's 2013 payroll. If he were tagged exclusively, he'd be scheduled to rack up an excess of $6,885,000 for the season.
- Baker also just played the final year of a rookie deal. He made $2,576,250 this past season. If he received a non-exclusive tag he would make $3,091,500, which is three times less than the baseline at nearly $10 million.
It really isn't very clear if Dimitroff franchises any of the key free agents on this board.
Grimes asked for big money last season after having a Pro Bowl campaign, but an Achilles injury sidelined him for 15 games this past year. He probably won't be able to leverage the same type of contract in the free market this time around, meaning Atlanta will feel less inclined to tag him. Hopefully Grimes lowers his asking price, which would seem like something Dimitroff is expecting if he went ahead and released Robinson at the position.
Tagging Grimes would make sense in theory because it would force him, under a year-contract, to prove if he has stayed at a Pro Bowl level or declined with the injury. But, $10 million of $23 million towards one player would be ridiculous.
Baker and Moore would be extremely cheap tags under non-exclusive grounds. That could prompt them to feel insecure and easily negotiate with other clubs for major money. Both players had outstanding 2012 campaigns, with Baker finally turning the corner as a left tackle and Moore making the Pro Bowl despite missing four games.
An exclusive deal for Moore would mean nearly $7 million of the $23 million Atlanta has in cap room. That's probably the most realistic tag that could happen to these three players.
Wild Card Tag
Fellow B/R Featured Columnist Scott Carasik, who covers the Falcons, sees one player, not mentioned above, who would make the most sense.
"If Tony Gonzalez is tagged and decides to come back, he's their's for a relatively cheap $5.92 million. If he retires, that's just free cap space," Carasik said in a conversation on Sunday.
Gonzalez would land at a lower-than-baseline price. Last season, he made $3.9 million in the final year of his deal with the Falcons.
If Gonzalez were tagged under non-exclusive terms, it's doubtful he would negotiate with other teams, as the only reason he'd return to play for one more year would be to win a title with the Falcons.
This could be highly unlikely as well, considering eliminating the ability to negotiate would not seem like a warm move from the management trying to woo him back.
It's very likely Atlanta will in fact decline to franchise tag anyone on Monday. Non-exclusive tags could end up running Moore and Baker out of town, while exclusive tags would end up drowning the free space the Falcons released three players to clear up.
What Falcons fans should look for is a new contract for quarterback Matt Ryan, who is entering the final year of his rookie contract, or he could be a franchise tag discussion next offseason.
Dimitroff will need to find a way this offseason to get Ryan paid like an elite quarterback, or close to it, as well as at least lock up two of the big three (Grimes, Moore, Baker).
One or two major free agent acquisitions are possible as well.
All quotes were obtained by columnist.
Mike Foster is an Atlanta Falcons Featured Columnist for B/R. He's also worked covering high school football, basketball and recruiting for multiple local newspapers and worked as sports editor for The Sentinel newspaper at Kennesaw State University for a year and a half.