Breaking Down the Indianapolis Colts' Franchise Tag Decisions

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Breaking Down the Indianapolis Colts' Franchise Tag Decisions
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL's franchise tag period started Monday, Feb. 17 and will continue until Monday, March 3. Every team will have the option to use one of three tags in order to hold on to a key player, including the Indianapolis Colts

The Colts have used the franchise tag liberally in the past, using it on players like DE Dwight Freeney, TE Dallas Clark, QB Peyton Manning and, most recently, P Pat McAfee. The Colts have several options for the franchise tag, which I briefly introduced in January, but what decision should actually be made?

 

The Background

First, let's look at the tag itself. For a detailed explanation of the franchise tag, check out Ty Schalter's in-depth breakdown of the tag on Bleacher Report earlier this week

The Colts would likely be using the non-exclusive tag, for reasons that Schalter explains: 

The "non-exclusive" tag is just that; other teams can negotiate long-term contract offers with the player until July 15. If the player signs one of these offers, his original club can either match that offer, or allow the player to leave for his new club—and be compensated with two first-round draft picks from the new club.

Most teams will pursue the "non-exclusive" tag, as the calculated salary is lower than the exclusive tag, and the compensation of two first-round draft picks is tempting.

The Colts would be fine with giving up any free agent on their team for two first-round draft picks. Heck, they'd probably give away any player not named Andrew Luck for that kind of haul. No team is going to risk losing two draft picks for a player they have to immediately shell out big bucks for, making the non-exclusive tag pretty exclusive in reality. 

Steven Senne/Associated Press

Before we look at the decisions the Colts have to make, let's talk about the purpose of the franchise tag.

One very useful way to use the tag, a way that the Colts have used frequently in the past, is to franchise a player to delay signing the said player for another year. This can be because a player hasn't yet proved exactly what he is worth (Pat McAfee), it can be because a player is getting old and isn't worth a long-term deal (potentially Brent Grimes) or it can be because a player and franchise simply can't come to terms at the moment (Jairus Byrd). 

An incredibly common use of the franchise tag is simply to buy time throughout the summer to negotiate a long-term deal. This doesn't allow the player to test free agency, but does risk actually having to pay the player the  franchise tag value, which can occasionally be far more than the player would earn on the free-agent market. 

The Colts have used the tag for all of the above reasons, but in 2014, the team won't slap the tag on a player unless they are actually willing to pay that price for 2014. So for all intents and purposes, let's assume that the tag will actually be used for this exercise. 

 

The Players

So, who is in play for the franchise tag? Here is the short list I came up with back in January: 

  • Antoine Bethea
  • Donald Brown
  • Vontae Davis
  • Pat McAfee
  • Adam Vinatieri

Now, even with a list like this, we can knock off a few of the names. 

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Donald Brown, for instance, isn't going to get tagged. As well as he played in Indianapolis last season, Brown likely isn't even going to be back in Indianapolis next season. The running back tag number is going to be about $9.1 million next season, according to NFL.com's Albert Breer, and Brown isn't worth that much even if he was going to come back. 

Another player that won't be tagged is Antoine Bethea. Like Brown, Bethea likely won't even be back next season, and he wouldn't be worth the $8.1 million if the Colts did want him back. Bethea is a serviceable strong safety at this point, but the Colts already signed LaRon Landry to an exorbitant contract.

The Colts need to get younger and better in coverage at the position, and Bethea doesn't represent either. Some, like ESPN's Mike Wells, have thrown Bethea's name out there as a potential tag target, but it would be a colossal mistake by Ryan Grigson to tag the veteran safety.

Adam Vinatieri could get tagged if the two sides couldn't come to a deal, but I don't anticipate that happening. The most expensive year of Vinatieri's last contract was a cap hit of $3.4 million, and the 41-year old isn't getting any younger. If the two sides can't come up with a deal for less than that, the two will part ways. 

The real question is whether Pat McAfee or Vontae Davis should be the target.

 

The Decision

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

For some reason, people think that McAfee won't be tagged because he was last year. But this may not be the case. 

Per the franchise tag rules, McAfee would cost about $3.6 million to tag in 2014. That's high, but since McAfee likely wants north of $3.4 million a year anyway, it wouldn't be unheard of. McAfee was, for the second year in a row, ranked the third-best punter by Pro Football Focus (subscription required), a metric I value much more than any traditional punting statistics.

Some, like the Indianapolis Star's Stephen Holder have pointed to McAfee's "numbers" being down, referring to his punting average and net average each being about two yards less in 2013. But the lack of context in these numbers skews perceptions.

McAfee's touchback percentage went down (from 11 percent to eight percent) while his punts within the opposing 20 stayed about even at 36 percent. All this, mind you, was with 2012 special teams captain Joe Lefeged gone and current special teams ace Sergio Brown missing three games. 

McAfee is worth a long-term deal, but with other holes to fill, the Colts may once again opt to simply put it off. 

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Davis is the player where the money really starts to matter. The Colts want to keep Davis, and they should, but which is the best financial way to handle it?

The cap number for cornerbacks is projected to be $11.3 million, per Breer's numbers. Davis likely will command around $7-8 million per year. 

Davis has earned some kind of long-term deal with his play, but he has been inconsistent at times. The Colts could wait him out a year to see if he cleans up those inconsistencies. If he does, the Colts will have a bit more security when signing him. If he doesn't, he'll likely cost less next offseason. 

So the question comes down to this: Are the Colts willing to overpay Davis by around four million dollars this season in order to earn a bit more confidence in the signing? 

Considering the timing of certain contract expirations over the next few years, I'd advise against it. 

Andrew Luck, Coby Fleener, Trent Richardson, Robert Mathis, Dwayne Allen, T.Y. Hilton and several others will all be free agents in 2016 (although Luck does have a club option for one more season), and the Colts will be looking for every spare penny in cap room from there on out, as Luck could be the highest-paid player of all time. 

By putting off Davis' contract, the Colts would be overlapping his potential contract with that messy period of time even more. By signing Davis now, you can front-load the deal and get a large part of the deal paid prior to 2016, if it's a four or five-year deal. 

Add in the fact that you'd have to give Davis an extra $4 million or so by tagging him, and the decision seems obvious for Indianapolis. Sign Davis to a long-term deal if they want to keep him. The McAfee situation is a bit more flexible, but I'd still be in favor of getting it done earlier rather than later. 

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