As the Baltimore Ravens formulate their offseason plan, one thing that is sure to be discussed is the potential use of the franchise tag. The tag is one way to hold on to your unrestricted free agents, and there are only two candidates that the Ravens would franchise: left tackle Eugene Monroe and tight end Dennis Pitta.
Before we get to the players themselves, let’s first take a look at how the tag works.
How Does the Franchise Tag Work?
The franchise tag is a tool in the general manager's arsenal to keep the best free agents in town. Each team can only use one franchise tag per year, and teams will have a two-week window from Feb. 17 to March 3 in 2014 to "tag" a player for the upcoming season.
Normally, the term "franchise tag" is thrown around quite a bit, but there are actually three different types of franchise designation.
First is the transition tag, which is extremely uncommon (it hasn't been used since 2008) and has become relatively meaningless in today's NFL. The transition tag is the cheapest form of tag, but the trade-off is that it has the least security for NFL teams.
On the contrary, there is the exclusive franchise tag, whereby the tagged player cannot negotiate with other teams. It is the most secure form of the tag, but it is also the most expensive. Under the exclusive tag, the player's one-year salary is the average of the top five league salaries at his position for the previous season.
Right in the middle is the non-exclusive franchise tag, which provides a good balance of cheaper salary and adequate compensation, so it is the most frequently used form of the franchise tag.
Other teams can negotiate with a player under the non-exclusive tag, but his original team has the right to match any contract offer. If it chooses not to match the offer, the original team will be compensated with two first-round draft picks—quite the bounty.
The salary for the non-exclusive tag is the five-year average cap percentage for the tag at each position. This takes into account inflation and an increasing salary cap, which results in a lower salary than with the exclusive tag.
For Baltimore's purposes, the non-exclusive tag will be the weapon of choice since money is tight as it is and GM Ozzie Newsome would be happy to let a player walk and cash in on the first-round draft picks.
What's more, the franchise tag isn't the end of negotiations.
Oftentimes, a team uses the tag to give itself more time to reach a long-term contract with a player, extending the deadline to Jul. 15.
The franchise tag salaries change every year, evolving with the total salary cap. To give you an idea of the numbers we're looking at, here are tag projections from NFL.com's Albert Breer:
|2014 Franchise Tag Projections|
|Position||Non-Exclusive Franchise Tag|
It’s clear after reading the terms of the franchise tag that a player has to be very valuable to be worth tagging. Arthur Jones is certainly somebody that the Ravens would like to keep, but the tag number for defensive linemen is extremely high and would be too expensive relative to Jones’ production.
Baltimore has only two free agents that fall into franchise territory: Pitta and Monroe. Here's a breakdown of the two tag candidates.
Monroe hasn’t consistently been an elite left tackle, but he’s only 26 years old and has shown the potential to be one of the league’s best blindside protectors.
|Eugene Monroe's Career|
|Year||Overall PFF Grade||Positional Rank|
As a result, he would be under consideration for the franchise tag if a long-term deal doesn’t materialize. For Baltimore’s sake, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
The projected franchise tag number for an offensive lineman is $11.2 million for 2014 (though that number is subject to change based on the salary cap).
Every dollar is important to the Ravens if they want to truly upgrade their roster and rejoin the ranks of the “contenders,” so shelling out that kind of money would hold the front office back from making the full range of other moves it has in mind.
Baltimore has made it clear it wants to keep Dennis Pitta on the team, but there may be some problems in reaching a long-term deal.
If that’s the case, the Ravens would have to consider tagging Pitta so that they protect themselves from other bidders and give themselves more time to negotiate a deal that appeases both parties.
Pitta certainly isn’t a complete tight end, but he’s definitely a terrific receiving tight end, so the positional tag wouldn’t be exorbitantly overpriced.
At least, not if he’s tagged as a tight end.
There is, however, a case to be made that Pitta should be classified as a receiver, and he would most probably win that case to receive a tag that’s higher than the $6.8 million tight end figure.
According the language of the CBA, the tagged player should be categorized by the position where he plays the majority of his snaps in the previous year. Pitta only played four games in 2013, but the vast majority of his time was spent in the slot.
|Dennis Pitta's Snap Counts|
|Where He Lined Up||No. of Snaps||Percentage of Snaps|
|In-line (traditional TE)||40||24.5%|
With such a large disparity, it seems unlikely that the Ravens could get away with tagging him as a tight end—unless Pitta’s agent decided not to file a grievance for some reason.
Baltimore faced a similar situation when tagging Terrell Suggs in 2008. He was initially classified as an outside linebacker, but Suggs filed paperwork disputing the label since most of his snaps came on the defensive line (the D-line tag salary is higher than for OLBs)
Both sides reached a compromise that gave Suggs a hybrid value, which was the average of the tag numbers for defensive linemen and outside linebackers.
While Pitta may not be able to claim that he should receive a receiver tag outright, he definitely has the grounds to earn a similar hybrid tag, which may make him too expensive to franchise.
Who's Going to Get Tagged?
General manager Ozzie Newsome has to be hoping that the answer is nobody.
In an ideal world, Newsome will be able to secure long-term contracts with both Pitta and Monroe before he even has to think about using the franchise designation.
Realistically, neither Monroe nor Pitta is worth the inflated salary they would receive under the tag and we’ve already seen Newsome’s unwillingness to overpay for any free agent unless there isn’t another choice.
That’s exactly what the franchise tag would be this offseason: a last resort.
Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.