The Biggest Questions Remaining Around NFL Franchise Tags
Get ready for a different kind of tag sale.
While so much focus of the NFL will be on the NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Feb. 17 marks the day that teams can designate possible free agents as franchise or transition players.
It’s the franchise designation that draws the real attention (the transition tag is rarely used anymore). However, this game of tag requires no slap of the hand but rather the eventual wave of a pen. In essence, the franchise tag gives teams an insurance policy that they will have some additional time to work out a long-term deal with one of their better players.
Each club has two weeks to decide whether it wants to use the tag or not (deadline is 4 p.m. ET on Monday, March 3) and can use it only once.
Over the last two seasons, we have seen a dramatic difference in usage by the 32 teams. A year ago, eight players were given the franchise tag, a stark contrast to the record 21 performers who were franchised in 2012.
Obviously, we do as well.
The Franchise Tag (2013)
As mentioned in the first slide, there were eight players who received the franchise tag in 2013, quite the drop-off from the previous year (21).
As far as the nitty-gritty on the tag itself, here is a primer from a year ago that explains the financial rules and other implications of utilizing the franchise moniker.
There are also projected tender numbers for 2014 from Joel Corry of CBS Sports.
In alphabetical order by team, tagged in 2013 were Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd, Chicago Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton, Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson, Dallas Cowboys linebacker/now defensive end Anthony Spencer, Denver Broncos tackle Ryan Clady, Indianapolis Colts punter Pat McAfee, Kansas City Chiefs tackle Branden Albert and Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Randy Starks.
It’s worth noting that all but Clady is a potential unrestricted free agent once again in 2014. The Broncos were able to re-sign the three-time Pro Bowl left tackle to a long-term deal.
Would any of the seven other clubs be willing to give its franchise player in 2013 the tag for a second straight year? As mentioned in the primer, it comes with a hefty price.
Likely Candidates: Offense
Dennis Pitta, TE, Baltimore Ravens
Stop us if you've heard this one before.
The Baltimore Ravens have a lot of good players to re-sign before free agency starts.
On defense, there’s the team’s leading tackler in linebacker Daryl Smith, as well as cornerback Corey Graham and defensive end Arthur Jones. On the other side of the ball, there’s wide receiver/kick returner Jacoby Jones and tackles Michael Oher and Eugene Monroe.
There are also tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta. The latter has been one of quarterback Joe Flacco’s favorite targets in recent seasons, but a hip injury during the summer limited him to four games and just 20 catches in 2013. The previous year, Pitta was tied for second on the team in catches.
After losing wide receiver Anquan Boldin in 2013, Flacco struggled without him and Pitta this past season. The Ravens can least afford to lose another sure-handed target to another team. With the recent news that the team is re-signing linebacker Terrell Suggs to a new cap-friendly deal, as reported by Jamison Hensley of ESPN.com, it appears that Baltimore’s financial wheels are in motion.
Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans Saints
There’s seemingly no question that tight end Jimmy Graham is not going anywhere in 2014 except on the road for the Saints' eight away games.
Exactly how much is the productive tight end worth? After all, he led the National Football League in 2013 with 16 touchdown receptions.
Wait a moment. Did we say tight end? That could be one of the sticking points when it comes to franchising Graham, who would command a bigger price tag as a wideout.
“That's not for me to decide," said Graham recently to Larry Holder of The Times-Picayune. “I'm going to do, and I'm going to play, whatever I'm asked to do. It's that simple.”
In any case Graham, with at least 85 receptions and a minimum of nine touchdowns in each of his last three seasons, is very important to the success of quarterback Drew Brees. And the veteran signal-caller can tell Graham all about the franchise tag should the young tight e...uh, pass catcher ask.
Unlikely Candidates: Offense
Alex Mack, C, Cleveland Browns
There’s no denying that the Browns don’t want to lose center Alex Mack, a two-time Pro Bowler and part of one of the better offensive lines in the league.
Since entering the NFL in 2009 as the 21st overall pick in the draft, the former University of California standout has started all 80 games with the team. This past season, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Mack graded out as the league’s fourth-highest-ranked player at his position.
So why wouldn’t the Browns want to ensure his return via the franchise tag? The team also has another Pro Bowler they need to re-up with in the form of strong safety T.J. Ward. There will be more on him to come.
More importantly, we're anticipating that the Browns and new general manager Ray Farmer get Mack signed to a long-term deal before March 11 rolls around.
Eric Decker, WR, Denver Broncos
Despite a very mediocre showing in this last postseason, wide receiver Eric Decker has been one of the quarterback Peyton Manning’s most productive targets since the duo became teammates in 2012.
Over the last two seasons, the former third-round pick has amassed 172 catches for 2,352 yards and 24 scores. Not bad for a guy who caught just 50 passes (nine touchdowns) in his first two NFL seasons combined.
In 2013, Decker finished second to Demaryius Thomas on the club in both receptions (87) and receiving yards (1,288) and was third on the team behind Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas with 11 touchdown catches, eight of those in the last five weeks of the regular season.
Would the Broncos actually consider franchising Decker? Not likely, but it is worth noting that the team has its share of prominent free agents to re-sign, such as running back Knowshon Moreno, left guard Zane Beadles, defensive end Shaun Phillips and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, all starters along with Decker in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Likely Candidates: Defense/Special Teams
Greg Hardy, DE, Carolina Panthers
It’s still a pretty amazing stat.
In his first two seasons in the league, Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy totaled seven sacks in 31 games.
In his final two games in the regular season in 2013, he totaled seven sacks.
That latter fact was part of a Pro Bowl campaign this past season for Hardy, who finished third in the NFL with 15 sacks. The Panthers were NFC South champions for the first time since 2008, ranked second in the league in fewest yards allowed and fewest points allowed and led the NFL with 60 sacks.
With a depth chart that includes Hardy, the 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year in middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, defensive end Charles Johnson and outside linebacker Thomas Davis, it’s hard to believe the Panthers’ hierarchy would actually let their Pro Bowl defensive end get away at any price.
And the price figures to be high in 2014.
T.J. Ward, SS, Cleveland Browns
Will the Cleveland Browns see a “Return of the Mack,” or will they be able to hook T.J. Ward?
Ray Farmer has some work ahead of him as this franchise looks to get back on track following another offseason of change. May Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com got the thoughts of the team’s newest general manager in a recent series of interviews.
Earlier in this piece, we speculated that the Browns may be able to come to terms with Pro Bowl center Alex Mack. That means the team would likely use the franchise tag on Pro Bowl strong safety T.J. Ward, one of the Browns’ top playmakers on the league’s ninth-ranked defense in 2013.
For those who feel this entire situation feels familiar, let’s flashback to 2013 when the Buffalo Bills hoped to retain guard Andy Levitre and free safety Jairus Byrd. The Bills put the tag on Byrd but lost Levitre to the Tennessee Titans.
Will history repeat, this time in Cleveland, in the next month or so?
Donald Butler, LB, San Diego Chargers
Forget about the butler doing it.
Will the San Diego Chargers do it? As in slap the franchise designation on inside linebacker Donald Butler?
After missing his first season in the league in 2010 due to injury, the emerging defenders has become a force for the Bolts ever since and played his best football late in this past season.
In the playoff split with the Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos, Butler made his presence felt in each game. A crucial forced fumble versus the Bengals turned out to be a huge play in the win at Cincinnati. A week later, Butler’s impressive interception off a deflected Peyton Manning pass kept his team in the game in the first half. The young linebacker combined for 17 tackles in the postseason, 12 of those stops in the victory over the Bengals.
Now let’s see if the Chargers stop Butler from going anywhere anytime soon.
Unlikely Candidates: Defense/Special Teams
Aqib Talib, CB, New England Patriots
How important is cornerback Aqib Talib to the New England Patriots defense? I will allow Bleacher Report colleague James Christensen to fill you in on the matter.
But is Talib important enough to give the franchise tag to, which could cost the Pats somewhere in the neighborhood of $12 million this upcoming season?
That’s a hefty amount for any team, much less a New England organization that has not overpaid for players in the past. That is also a big reason the team remains a contender year in and year out despite losing some top performers on occasion.
What we also know is that Talib’s injury-related departures in the last two AFC title games have not helped the team’s chances of getting to the Super Bowl.
Phil Dawson, PK, San Francisco 49ers
As we have seen over the years, teams are not hesitant about using the franchise tag on a placekicker or a punter. Remember, this is about finance not prestige.
In the case of the San Francisco 49ers this offseason, they have their share of prominent players to re-sign. As Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com reminds us, wide receiver Anquan Boldin and strong safety Donte Whitner are potential unrestricted free agents.
The Niners also need to get a deal done with kicker Phil Dawson, a free-agent addition in 2013 who connected on 32 of 36 field goal attempts and led the team in scoring with 140 points this past season.
But franchising Dawson is not an option. While with the Cleveland Browns, the 15-year veteran received the franchise tag twice in both 2011 and 2012. Here’s a reminder from Maiocco that a third designation would have the Niners paying exorbitant money to Dawson.
Alterraun Verner, CB, Tennessee Titans
Cornerback Alterraun Verner is a young, up-and-coming defensive player coming off a career season with the Tennessee Titans.
Will he be an up-and-coming player with the team going forward?
Verner is scheduled to hit the free-agent market this March, and while the club would obviously love to have the Pro Bowl defender back, Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean believes the Titans will let the team’s 2013 interception leader test the open market next month.
Last season, the former fourth-round pick from UCLA had roughly one-fourth (seven) of Tennessee’s 25 takeaways. Verner picked off five passes and recovered a pair of fumbles in 2013. Add in 57 tackles and an impressive 23 passes defensed, and you can see why the Titans don’t want to part ways with the four-year veteran.