Several notable names make up the Philadelphia Eagles’ 11 impending free agents this offseason, including wide receivers Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper, safety Nate Allen and quarterback Michael Vick.
Only one is likely worthy of consideration for the franchise tag. His name is Donnie Jones.
That’s right—the punter.
Signed last March after a decade of inconsistent or downright substandard punting from the likes of Dirk Johnson, Sav Rocca, Chas Henry and Mat McBriar, Jones solidified his end of the kicking game in 2013 and then some. The journeyman posted a Pro Bowl-caliber season, finishing fourth in the NFL with 33 punts downed inside the opponents’ 20-yard line to just five touchbacks.
Only 28 of his 82 total attempts, or 34 percent, even resulted in a return—the fifth-lowest rate in the league according to Pro Football Focus (subscription only).
|Net Avg||IN 20||% Ret.||Lng|
|40.5 (t-7th)||33 (t-4th)||34.1 (5th)||70 (t-6th)|
NFL.com, Pro Football Focus
The franchise tag provides front offices a huge advantage in contract negotiations with their own personnel. It forces would-be suitors to essentially trade a first- and third-round draft pick for the right to sign a tagged player, while also allowing his original club to match any offer. An “exclusive rights” designation can even restrict that player from talking to other teams altogether.
The catch is that the tag can be used just once per offseason, and it guarantees a one-year contract at the average salary of the five highest-paid players at the respective position. There are other players the Eagles might like to retain—Cooper, Allen, Vick—but nowhere near that cost.
Jones is a two-time All-Pro, so his season was no fluke. It would not be a stretch at all to say he was instrumental in some Birds’ in ‘13, either. Yes, the punter!
In back-to-back games last year, Jones earned NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors. 11 of his 14 punts against Washington and Arizona were downed inside the 20, including kicks of 70 and 69 yards in the fourth quarter that would’ve forced those teams to march the length of the field to tie or win—neither one did.
That alone is worth top-five money.
Jones’ 33 punts inside the 20 also set an Eagles single-season franchise record, eclipsing Jeff Feagles’ old mark of 31 set back in 1993.
Even if you attempt to minimize the punter’s contributions, the fact of the matter is that there is no one else the tag would even make sense for. The closest would probably be Maclin, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL and, on Thursday, told CSNPhilly.com that he would be open to playing on a one-year deal.
|Kicker or Punter||$2.9M|
Last year, the cost of bringing a wide receiver back on the franchise tag was a little more than $10.5 million though, a figure that should only increase in ‘14. The 19th-overall pick of the ’09 draft, Maclin clearly has a ton of talent and is only 26, but that’s some serious dough for a guy who’s never cracked the 1,000-yard mark in a season.
Maclin might be looking at a deal somewhere in the $6-7 million range annually on the open market, so if the Eagles really feel like they can’t live without him, it’s not completely absurd. Still, it would make far more sense to come to terms without the tag.
The only other starter or key free agent in Philadelphia is Cedric Thornton, but the defensive end is already exclusive rights and therefore forbidden from negotiating with other teams.
Believe it or not, tagging the punter is not without precedent. In fact, it’s happened in each of the past two offseasons—in 2012 with Steve Weatherford and the New York Giants, followed by Pat McAfee and the Indianapolis Colts. Jones just had a better season than both, not to mention a more-decorated career.
Last year, the tag paid specialists just south of $3 million, which seems like a relative bargain for Jones. The Eagles should pay it, if they don't just strike a long-term pact anyway.