This is a bit of an unusual year for the Detroit Lions. Most years, there are several free agents the team strongly desires to keep in the den, and the franchise tag is one of the critical tools at its disposal to ensure that valued free agents don't get away.
This year, however, only four normal starters are unrestricted free agents eligible for either the franchise or transition tag:
- Defensive end Willie Young
- Tight end Brandon Pettigrew
- Cornerback Rashean Mathis
- Kicker David Akers
Nobody expects Akers to return to Detroit after an underwhelming season by the aging kicker.
While Mathis, Young and Pettigrew do have value to the Lions, none should command the chunk of change required by the tags.
The franchise and transition tag values for their positions are significantly higher than what the Lions, or really any team, would be willing to pay for their services.
NFL.com, values in millions
There's just no way that the Lions management values any of those players that highly, certainly not in the current cap-strapped financial situation facing the team.
Mathis played reasonably well after signing with the team in the preseason. He was the most reliable cover corner on the team, and his Pro Football Focus (subscription required) grade reflected his steady play.
Yet Mathis will be 34 in August, and second-year player Darius Slay is expected to take over Mathis' starting role. With fellow youngsters Bill Bentley and Chris Greenwood also widely anticipated to garner expanded roles, there isn't room to pay Mathis more than the veteran minimum for being the fourth or fifth corner.
Recently, I broke down Pettigrew's value to the Lions and why the team should let him go. Detroit has no business paying more than $5 million for his relatively meager, inconsistent production.
Young is really the only one that even merits consideration. The starting left defensive end played well in 2013, earning a grade of 7.0 from PFF while generating 48 quarterback hurries per their game charting.
Yet he parlayed all those pressures into just three official sacks, per NFL.com. He also racked up at least one penalty in each of the first six halves Detroit played last season, two of which wiped out potential turnovers.
Given his atrocious production in 2012, where he did not record a sack and generated just seven solo tackles in limited duty, the Lions should have no interest in forking over almost $9 million for one more year under the transition tag.
Rookie Devin Taylor showed enough promise to merit a long look as a starter, and veteran Jason Jones will also return from injury...provided he's not the next salary-cap casualty. Young would be a luxury for the Lions, not a necessity.
The only real decision regarding impending free agents is what to do with restricted free-agent running back Joique Bell.
The rules for restricted free agency are different than unrestricted. Teams have the option of assigning a tender value to the player, as described by NFL.com:
If he has received a 'qualifying offer' (a salary tender predetermined by the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the league and its players) from his old club. He can negotiate with any club through April 19. If the Restricted Free Agent signs an offer sheet with a new club, his old club can match the offer and retain him because the qualifying offer entitles it to a 'right of first refusal' on any offer sheet the player signs. If the old club does not match the offer, it may receive draft choice compensation depending on the amount of its qualifying offer.
That is from last year, so the date will change for 2014, but the principle remains the same.
Detroit will have to determine what value to tender to Bell. He is coming off a season where he rushed for 650 yards and eight touchdowns while also catching 53 passes for 547 yards.
The Lions can assign him with a first-round tender, which means the team would receive a first-round pick in return from any team that signs Bell to a contract. It seems unlikely the running back market would bear that sort of value from any other team, though, the Indianapolis Colts did trade a first-round pick for the less productive Trent Richardson.
It's more likely the Lions use a second-round tender. That lowers the value of the one-year deal Bell would get from Detroit. Those figures have yet to be determined for 2014, but last year the difference between a first-round and second-round tender was a little over $800,000, as laid out in a very detailed piece on Cincy Jungle.
This would give the Lions the option of choosing to match any offer another team makes for Bell. If they opt to match it, Bell remains in Detroit.
Should the Lions decide not to match the offer, they would receive that team's second-round pick in the draft.
Of course, both Bell and the Lions have a vested interest in agreeing to a long-term deal before it comes to any sort of tendering. As Tim Twentyman of the Lions' official website notes, "The Lions and Bell could decide to forgo the entire restricted free agency process, too, and sign a long-term deal, which seems like the most beneficial of scenarios for both parties."
Detroit has until March 11 to make the decision here. Per ESPN, that is the date by which teams must assign the tender value to restricted free agents.