Dallas Cowboys Free Agents: Who Is in Play for the Franchise Tag?

Jonathan BalesAnalyst IJanuary 13, 2014

ARLINGTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 22:  Jason Hatcher #97 of the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium on September 22, 2013 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Although the NFL franchise tag can be of great value to teams, the Dallas Cowboys actually don't have a lot of elite free agents set to hit the market, and thus not a lot of candidates to be tagged. The main hindrance for Dallas is that they don't have much salary-cap space with which to work.

Although franchise tags are effectively just one-year deals, they're expensive. The 'Boys might have a couple free agents they'd like to retain, but the cost could be prohibitive. Before diving into the subject of who the 'Boys might tag, if anyone, let's examine the franchise tag in greater detail. 


What is the franchise tag?

The franchise tag is a designation that a team can give a player to bind him to the club for one year. They can be applied solely to unrestricted free agents, so the Cowboys have no option to tag restricted free-agent kicker Dan Bailey, for example. Teams can hand out just one tag per year, but they're not required to do so.

Although the formula for calculating the value of the franchise tag has changed, franchise players still rake in quite a bit of dough.

They can be given either an exclusive or non-exclusive tag. The latter pays the average of the top-five non-exclusive franchise tags at the position over the past five years, or 120 percent of that player's salary in the prior year, whichever is higher. Non-exclusive franchise players can negotiate with other teams.

The exclusive franchise tag pays out the average of the top-five current salaries at that player's position, or 120 percent of his salary in the previous year, whichever is higher. Exclusive franchise players cannot sign a new deal with another team.

Franchise tags are a good way for teams to retain players they want on the roster but don't want to sign long-term. Even though Cowboys defensive end Anthony Spencer eventually got injured and missed most of the year, the Cowboys made a good decision in tagging him before he got hurt.


Will the Cowboys use the tag?

In all likelihood, the Cowboys won't use the franchise tag. One reason is that they don't have many important free agents, but another is that NFL teams haven't been eager to use the tag much in general.

Last year, only eight players were tagged. If the 'Boys do use the tag, it must be on a player they need for 2014 but don't want to sign to a long-term deal. 

Again, the problem is the money. Below are the projected 2014 franchise-tag figures for each position, per CBS Sports.

PositionProjected 2014 Franchise Salary
QB$16.09 million
RB$9.07 million
WR$11.54 million
TE$6.71 million
OL$11.13 million
DT$9.18 million
DE$12.48 million
LB$10.90 million
CB$11.26 million
S$8.02 million
K/P$3.38 million


The lone candidate for the franchise tag

According to Spotrac, the following players will be unrestricted free agents in 2014: defensive end Anthony Spencer, defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, guard Brian Waters, safety Danny McCray, guard Brandon Carter, linebacker Ernie Sims, defensive end Edgar Jones, defensive end Jarius Wynn and quarterback Jon Kitna.

Right off the bat, we can eliminate all but the first two players simply because they aren't valuable enough to be considered for the tag. When the cost to retain even a safety with the franchise tag will be in the range of $8 million, it's difficult to justify its use even on most starters.

In theory, the Cowboys might want to retain Spencer because of their weakness at defensive end, but that's going to be impossible. Since the 'Boys tagged Spencer in each of the past two seasons, they'd need to pay him the equivalent of a quarterback's franchise tender to franchise him for a third straight year, according to Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio. Since the quarterback franchise tag will be in the neighborhood of $16 million, there's zero chance that Spencer will be tagged.

That leaves Hatcher. He's truly the Cowboys' only candidate to receive the franchise tag. Coming off of a career year, Hatcher will be 32 years old when the 2014 season begins. In theory, he's an excellent franchise-tag candidate because the 'Boys certainly don't want to sign him to a long-term deal given his age, but he probably will play well enough in 2014 to justify the the $9 million or so cost of the defensive tackle tag.

The problem is the Cowboys' cap. Projected to start at around $30 million over the cap, the Cowboys just don't have much room with which to work. Even though Hatcher's departure will leave a gaping hole in the interior of Dallas' line, they simply don't have many options.

Could the 'Boys rework some contracts to allow room for Hatcher to stay? Certainly. The team would love to have him back in 2014 and Hatcher would again have motivation to play well. 

Nonetheless, the Cowboys' financial situation means the most likely outcome, and probably the best for the organization, is to not use the franchise tag at all.