The first tough choice of every offseason is the franchise tag. While some teams will have to choose between two different players, the Cleveland Browns choice is much more simple. They need to either tag safety T.J. Ward or not use it at all.
Some will try and make an argument for center Alex Mack as a franchise tag nominee but the value just does not make sense.
As you will soon see, the money the Browns would need to pay Mack for the franchise tag would be astronomical for his position. If the Browns cannot reach a long-term deal with Mack, as Tony Grossi of ESPNCleveland.com reported they are now trying to do, then they should let him walk.
If you are not familiar with the franchise tag in the NFL then here is a quick rundown.
What is the franchise tag?
There are two types of franchise tags: the non-exclusive and the exclusive. Both of these tags allow teams to bring back their talent for one more season without a long-term contract agreement. Teams have a two-week window to designate which player, if any, will receive their franchise tag. That period begins February 17.
With the non-exclusive franchise tag, a player must be offered a one-year contract based on the average of the non-exclusive franchise numbers at his position over the last five years and their percentage of the current year's salary cap or 120 percent of his prior year's salary (usually salary cap number), whichever is greater. This tag allows the player to negotiate with other NFL teams but if he signs an offer sheet with another club, his team has five days to match the offer. If the offer is not matched, his team will receive two first-round picks as compensation from the signing team.
Under the exclusive franchise tag, a player will receive a one-year offer from his team that is the greater of the average of the top five salaries at his position once the restricted free-agent signing period has ended (May 2) or 120 percent of his prior year's salary. A player cannot negotiate with other teams with the exclusive franchise tag.
Teams usually opt for the non-exclusive tag. However, quarterbacks are more likely to get the exclusive franchise tag than any other position.
– Joel Corry, former sports agent and current writer for CBSSports.com.
Who should get the Browns' franchise tag?
With the franchise tag period officially underway, the Browns are now under the gun in negotiations. If they reach a stalemate then the franchise tag is always the spade they can play.
It may sound like a great deal for players to make the average of the top-five salaries at their position, but they hate it. In the NFL the goal is to sign a big-money, long-term deal with a high guaranteed dollar amount.
If a team hands you the franchise tag and you blow out your knee the next season, you may never see the money you could have seen if you had agreed on a contract.
So why does it make so little sense for the Browns to give Mack the franchise? He is a two-time Pro Bowl center who has never missed a game in five seasons. ProFootballFocus.com said Mack has never ranked outside the top-ten centers in the league and ranked fourth in 2013.
It seems like he would be a no-brainer to give the franchise tag, right? At every position in the NFL but the offensive line the answer would be yes.
Unfortunately, the new collective bargaining agreement has a fluky rule that lumps all offensive linemen salaries together. According to Spotrac.com, there are only four centers in the NFL who make more than $6.5 million per year. The highest paid is Ryan Kalil of the Carolina Panthers at $10.4 million.
The projected franchise tag number for Mack would be a whopping $11.1 million according to CBSSports.com. Left tackle Joe Thomas already has the Browns on the hook for $10.9 million and that would be a hefty sum to pay two parts of an offensive line that ranked 27th in rushing and allowed the third most sacks in the NFL.
On January 13, I made a chart of the best all-around offensive lines and exactly what they pay at the center position. If you take a look you will see that center is a position where you can find great value.
The strong safety position, on the other hand, is a place where production equals pay. While the Browns are and should be pursuing a long-term deal with Mack, they would be wise to opt for the franchise tag with Ward.
His numbers are similar to that of the top five safeties in the league. Paying him $8 million next year is not outrageous when you look at the chart I made on February 10 showing Ward’s stats compared to the top-five paid safeties in the NFL.
While Ward deserves that type of pay for one season, I’m not so sure he has earned it for an extended period of time.
The No. 1 concern with Ward is durability. He was active for all 16 games for the just the second time in his career last season. According to ProFootballFocus.com, he also missed 13 tackles in 2013. That was the 15th most by any safety.
I’m sure the Browns feel that Ward is a long-term answer at safety and I agree, but they should make him gouge them in free agency next season. The fear is that if he is hit with the franchise tag now then the price tag will be even higher in 2015.
I say fine. If he can duplicate or improve his numbers and health from last year then he is worth every dollar they will have to pay him.
In the AFC North you have to have an enforcer, and it looks like Ward can be that guy. He just needs to show it for one more season.