The NFL has the franchise tag for a specific purpose. It essentially allows a team one more year to assess the long-term value of a player before committing to a big contract.
For a player entering their free-agent year, they often want to get out and see what the market demands. It is a calculated risk in almost every case.
This hurts the home team in many cases if another franchise with lots of cap space feels it can overpay for said free agent. Understand, however, that if a team signs someone with a franchise tag on them, it must relinquish two first-round draft picks in exchange.
Historically, the Steelers have used the franchise tag sparingly and on a very restricted basis. In fact, going back, the Steelers haven't utilized their franchise tag in the previous three seasons.
This has been due in no small part to the Steelers' problems with the salary cap. As you'll see below, the one-year payout to the player tagged is exorbitant. The process to calculate the number is convoluted and at times rendered meaningless. Here's a look at what the numbers were for 2013.
|Running Back||$8.219 million|
|Wide Receiver||$10.537 million|
|Tight End||$6.066 million|
|Offensive Lineman||$9.828 million|
|Defensive Tackle||$8.45 million|
|Defensive End||$11.175 million|
Looking at the crop of Steelers free agents this year paired with their cap woes, it doesn't seem likely the streak will be broken. If the Steelers weren't going to use the franchise tag to hang on to wide receiver Mike Wallace or cornerback Keenan Lewis in 2013, it's hard to see anyone on the current roster worth the tag.
However, in the hypothetical, if the Steelers had the cap space to tinker with, there are two free agents who might be candidates.
Linebacker Jason Worilds had something of a breakout season for the Steelers in 2013. Worilds was finally able to see significant reps as a starter, and it paid off to the tune of eight sacks.
With the conceivable loss of linebacker LaMarr Woodley, it does make that sense that the Steelers will want to keep Worilds on the roster.
However, as the chart below indicates, putting the franchise tag on Worilds for 2014 would mean paying him something close to $11 million for the season.
There might have been some trepidation about letting Wallace walk in 2013. This could tempt the Steelers to pull the trigger on slapping the franchise tag on wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and let fellow free-agent wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery walk.
Again, we are talking about a mammoth one-year contract. Sanders would be due something in the area of $11.6 million for the season.
Here are the rest of the 2014 salary-cap projections, per NFL.com's Albert Breer.
|Defensive End||$12.6 million|
|Wide Receiver||$11.6 million|
|Offensive Lineman||$11.2 million|
|Defensive Tackle||$9.2 million|
|Running Back||$9.1 million|
|Tight End||$6.8 million|
In this salary-cap scenario, the Steelers were able to free up around $14.86 million while bringing Worilds back and letting Sanders walk.
Worst-case scenario, if the Steelers felt pressured to keep Sanders, the cap space would be there to franchise him. It's just very hard to think Sanders' value on the market would be such as to require it.
Who should the Steelers use their franchise tag on?
Prediction and Projections
In the final analysis, this is going to be another season in which the Steelers play it close to the vest in terms of cap space and continue to leave the franchise tag on the shelf.
Looking ahead to 2015, things could get more noteworthy as players like cornerback Cortez Allen and defensive end Cameron Heyward could both potentially be free agents. And before you say it can't happen, you probably didn't expect Wallace and Lewis to make it all the way to free agency, either.