NFL teams can start negotiating with their impending free agents on February 17 and will have until March 3 to slap one of their players with the franchise tag.
If the March 3 deadline comes and goes without an official franchise tag designation, players will hit the open market on March 11.
Let's take a look at the latest buzz surrounding this year's franchise tag candidates.
The Baltimore Ravens want Dennis Pitta on their 2014 roster. Proof of that comes from this tweet from Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun:
Gary Kubiak says he has a high opinion of Dennis Pitta, expects him to be a big part of offense this year.
However, after a season in which a fractured and dislocated hip limited Pitta to only four games, there's a chance the two parties will view the tight end's value differently.
Ozzie Newsome is one of the best general managers in the NFL, so the Ravens and Pitta very well may work out a long-term deal before the former fourth-round pick hits free agency on March 11.
The snag with the franchise tag could be centered around the designation of Pitta's position—is he a tight end or wide receiver?
Wilson explained the possible conundrum in a January column:
In the case of Pitta, in four games after returning from hip surgery, he ran 79.7 percent of his routes out of the slot. That was the highest rate among all NFL tight ends.
Under the NFL collective bargaining agreement, rules governing franchise tags states they "will apply to the position in which the player participated in the most plays.
We aren't sure how the Ravens will handle Pitta's contract situation, but the franchise tag route could prove to be confusing.
Update: February 11
NFL Network's Ian Rapoport tweeted this regarding how the Browns will approach T.J. Ward's expiring contract:
He later tweeted that he believes Alex Mack has a better chance to be retained after the front office shuffling. Rotoworld.com added that Rapoport said "Mack isn't a candidate to be tagged."
Tony Grossi of ESPNCleveland.com wrote the following when asked about T.J. Ward in a question and answer column posted on February 1: "I’m getting a sense that the Browns might be contemplating using the franchise tag on Ward."
The other big free agent in Cleveland is center Alex Mack, another 2013 second-team All Pro.
According to Spotrac, the Browns are expected to have upward of $46 million in cap space heading into the new league year, so, in theory, they'd have enough room to lock up both Ward and Mack long-term.
It'll be interesting to monitor what Cleveland's brass and new head coach Mike Pettine decide to do with two of their more important players on each side of the football.
Many believe Aqib Talib is a prime franchise tag candidate, but Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald doesn't think the veteran cornerback will get hit with the designation.
After describing what he believes the Patriots will want and what Talib will want, Howe wrote this under a sub-section titled "Skinny":
There’s no chance the Patriots hit Talib with a franchise tag that will approach $12 million, though he’d be happy to play out the season under that exorbitant price. There’s no denying they want him back, and look at Bill Belichick’s public defense of Talib after the AFC Championship Game loss as an example. Talib will likely take a hometown discount if it’s close, but not if he perceives the Pats as low-balling him. If the Pats want him at three years and $21 million and Talib wants four years and $32 million, look for a compromise of three years, games-played incentives worth an extra $2 million and All-Pro incentives that help the deal approach about $25 million, so long as the cornerback market doesn’t unexpectedly tank like last year.
Just because Howe is speculating this, it obviously doesn't mean the franchise tag won't be in Talib's future. However, Howe's bold first sentence is certainly worth noting.
The multi-year deal he settled on is very logical.
Jimmy Graham is the most prized offensive free agent on the 2014 market.
That is, if he's not re-signed or hit with the franchise tag by the New Orleans Saints.
But is he a tight end or wide receiver?
Larry Holder of NOLA.com quoted Graham who said the following about his "true" position:
Graham on TE or WR: "That's not for me to decide. I'm going to do and I'm going to play what ever I'm asked to do. It's that simple."
The distinction's important because the franchise tag value for receivers is around $11.5 million while tight ends only need to be paid $6.8 million, per Albert Breer of NFL.com.
The Buffalo Bills smacked Jairus Byrd with the franchise tag last year, and after a lengthy holdout that extended nearly to the start of the regular season, the safety labored through a plantar fasciitis injury.
Byrd missed the first five games the 2013 campaign but still managed four interceptions in 10 games, including two against the New York Jets in November.
Here's what Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com wrote on Byrd in a recent question and answer column: "I do believe they will make every effort to re-sign Jairus Byrd to a long term contract extension."
Brown could be on to something, as team president Russ Brandon was quoted by the Associated Press (via ESPN) in late January:
It's a process and there's no carryover. You start over again and you try to get something done. We just weren't able to come up with a solution that worked for both parties, so you reset it and start again.
Byrd is one of the rangiest free safeties in the game, and one has to think new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz wants to begin his tenure in Buffalo with Byrd roaming in center field.
The franchise tag is an option for the Bills, but all signs are pointing to them wanting to get a long-term deal done.
Brent Grimes was a tremendous signing by former GM Jeff Ireland last season. He was inked to a one-year "prove it" deal after coming off an Achilles tendon tear.
Now, as the team's finest corner, the Dolphins have a critical decision to make.
Although Grimes will be 31 in 2014, Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald tweeted that he believes the defensive back will either be re-signed or hit with the franchise tag.
However, Salguero also tweeted the following on Grimes' thoughts on the franchise tag:
Pending UFA Brent Grimes on possibility of franchise tag: "that's not what anybody wants."
It will be the first major contract situation for Miami's new GM Dennis Hickey.
After consecutive years with edge-rusher Anthony Spencer as the franchise player, the Dallas Cowboys aren't expected to use the special designation this year, according Rowan Kavner of the team's official website.
Here's Kavner's tweet explaining the Cowboys' rather succinct stance on the franchise tag in 2014:
Stephen Jones said he doesn't anticipate the franchise tag being used this year
That may or may not be good news for Hatcher, a veteran defensive tackle who exploded this past season with 11 sacks and two forced fumbles.
Although he'll be 32 in July, interior pass-rushers are at a premium in today's NFL. Then again, a one-year, $9.2 million deal—the expected franchise tag value for defensive tackles—would probably be more lucrative than any other offer he'd receive.
If Dallas can't reach a long-term deal with Hatcher—which seems unlikely—he'll hit free agency on March 11.
According to Alex Marvez of Fox Sports, Alterraun Verner isn't afraid to hit the free-agent market:
.@TennesseeTitans CB Alterraun Verner says he'd love to stay with team but "not afraid" to test free-agent market. Wants to weigh options
The 25-year-old cornerback is one of the league's bright young stars, but he's relatively underrated because he plays in Tennessee's small market on a team that hasn't been to the playoffs since the 2008-2009 campaign.
He snagged five interceptions in 2013.
Rotoworld.com believes Verner will "likely be slapped with the franchise tag."
It's worth noting that the Titans signed cornerback Jason McCourty to a six-year, $44.26 million with $17 million guaranteed in 2012.
Greg Hardy is a soon-to-be 26-year-old defensive end who plays with an exceptionally high motor and recorded 15 sacks during a breakout 2013 season.
He's set to be a free agent, but he isn't necessarily opposed to being hit with the franchise tag. If signed, it'll pay the former Ole Miss standout close to $12 million next year.
Here's Hardy's quote on the matter, via Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer:
They are still working on their cap situation as I understand. We're playing the waiting game right now.... If they can afford me, man, I'd love to be there. That's my team. My family. We got a good thing going right now.