NFL Franchise Tag Decisions Set the Table for Wild 2015 Free-Agency Period

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystMarch 3, 2015

Tony Gutierrez/AP Images

The deadline for NFL teams to assign players the franchise or transition tags has come and gone.

Per the teams' official websites, for Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant, New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston, Denver Broncos wideout Demaryius Thomas and New England Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski, it was a bittersweet day.

Those players didn't get the long-term deals they sought. But in being tagged by their respective teams, those pros will receive a fully guaranteed 2015 paycheck equal to the average of the top-five salaries at their position.

Nice work—if you can get it.

However, for the players who weren't tagged Monday, the fun has only just begun. March 10 will bring another deadline: the beginning of free agency and the madness that comes with it.

Top 2015 Free Agents
RankPlayerPosition2014 TeamAge
1.Ndamukong SuhDTDET28
2.Devin McCourtyFSNE27
3.Julius ThomasTEDEN26
4.Randall CobbWRGB24
5.DeMarco MurrayRBDAL27
6.Jerry HughesDEBUF26
7.Mike IupatiOGSF26
8.Greg HardyDECAR26
9.Byron MaxwellCBSEA27
10.Torrey SmithWRBAL26
Source: Gregg Rosenthal and Chris Wesseling of NFL.com

Mind you, there's bound to be more drama even for the players who were tagged. Bryant made it no secret that he didn't want the franchise tag. ProFootballTalk reported that Houston is already mulling a holdout:

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However, that may just be posturing. Teams still have until July to reach an agreement on a long-term deal with tagged players. At that point, players have very little leverage, as holding out until Week 10 would be a wildly expensive proposition.

Odds are good that when Week 1 kicks off, Houston will be on the field. So will Bryant.

Speaking of wildly expensive propositions…

The Latest on Ndamukong Suh

Even with a franchise tag number at a staggering $26.8 million, many pundits still believed there was a chance the Lions would tag defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh rather than let the 28-year-old hit the open market.

Monday came and went without the tag being assigned in Motown, however, leaving the Lions one week to work out a deal with the six-year veteran before free agency opens and the bidding goes nuts.

The Lions have maintained they'd like Suh, who is angling to become the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history, to return. Lions general manager Martin Mayhew told Michael Rothstein of ESPN the team has used the recent megadeals signed by Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt and Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy as a benchmark in that regard:

Those guys are both great defensive linemen in the NFL, so I think the more information, the better. I know Ndamukong is obviously a very competitive guy. Gerald McCoy is a guy who was taken directly behind him in the same year.

So I think that's something, that when that deal gets done, that's a valuable piece of information for us in terms of the structure of that deal, the length of that deal, obviously how much money. Obviously all those things are helpful pieces of information.

Those deals average out at seven years and $104 million. That's a lot of cheddar. But from all indications, there's no shortage of teams willing to pay it.

In addition to cap-flush teams like the Cleveland Browns, Oakland Raiders and Jacksonville Jaguars, Dianna Marie Russini of NBC4 in Washington D.C. listed the Bucs as a potential suitor for Suh:

McCoy and Suh inside? That retching sound you hear is guards across the NFL throwing up.

Russini also tweeted that the Washington Redskins are considering a run at Suh:

This time the retching is Washington fans who just had Albert Haynesworth flashbacks.

Whether in Detroit or elsewhere, it appears a certainty that Suh is about to break the bank. And given how much more some teams have in their war chests than the Lions, the odds of Suh remaining in Honolulu Blue took a hit Monday.

No Tag for McCourty

The New England Patriots used the franchise tag on Monday. It just wasn't on the player some expected.

In tagging Gostkowski, the Patriots left open the possibility that free safety Devin McCourty will hit free agency next week. In fact, given that the Patriots are more than $12 million over the salary cap, according to Over the Cap, hitting that market could well mean the end of McCourty's time in Beantown.

In the opinion of Vinnie Iyer of Sporting News, that was a mistake:

We get why Gostkowski got the tag at $4.6 million: It's a relative value for one of the game's more reliable kickers. But McCourty was ready to take the tag at around $9.6 million after enjoying a premier season as an elite, playmaking safety. Given it also needs to sign Darrelle Revis, New England doesn't want what's still a pretty good market value for McCourty. He'll be in demand and get something better for the long term elsewhere, so the Patriots seem prepared to let him walk.

However, Doug Kyed of NESN cautions that McCourty's departure is far from set in stone:

McCourty and the Patriots haven’t discussed a long-term deal, according to multiple reports, but things can change quickly in the NFL. It would be logical for multiple reasons if McCourty is back on a contract with a big signing bonus that can be spread out of the next few years. The sides better start talking soon, though.

Kyed has a point, and the Patriots can offer McCourty both familiarity (he's played his entire career with the Patriots) and the potential for another deep playoff run.

What isn't known, however, is how McCourty would weigh those factors against a financial offer the Patriots can't match. The market for free-agent safeties has spiked in recent years, and this year's rookie class isn't considered especially strong.

There will be a robust market for McCourty, and the more robust that market, the lower the odds that the 27-year-old is back in New England in 2015.

Thomas Tag Troubles

The Denver Broncos awoke on Monday with Thomas troubles. Two to tag and only one tag to use.

It's hardly an upset that the Broncos chose to use the franchise tag on wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. NFL teams don't generally allow wide receivers in their prime who just set a franchise record for receiving yards in a season to walk out the door.

Still, that doesn't help solve the problem of tight end Julius Thomas, who now looks headed for the open market and potentially out of Denver.

According to ESPN.com's Jeff Legwold, Thomas is seeking a contract that would approach the record for guaranteed money given a tight end. After catching 12 touchdown passes in each of the past two years, Thomas has already balked at a five-year, $40 million offer from the Broncos last summer.

Any number of pundits, from Mike Klis of The Denver Post to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com, have linked the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have the most cap space in the NFL, to Thomas.

Ryan O'Halloran of The Florida Times-Union agrees that Thomas would be a good fit in Jacksonville:

He’d be a perfect fit for the Jaguars and spare me the non-sense that Peyton Manning made him. The worst case for the Jaguars is if the Broncos re-sign DeMaryius Thomas and tag Julius Thomas.

If there's fire behind the Thomas-to-Jacksonville smoke, then odds are pretty good the 26-year-old will be on the move.

And get used to hearing about the Jaguars as free-agent players. That's what happens when a team has upward of $68 million in wiggle room.

Update on Randall Cobb

Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant receiving the franchise tag robbed the free-agent wide receiver class of much of its depth this year. However, there are still a few big fish left in the pond.

And apparently the biggest of the bunch is fixing to eat.

In fact, according to Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com, the asking price for wide receiver Randall Cobb has only gone up of late:

It's easy to see why demand for Cobb would be high. The four-year veteran topped 90 catches and 1,200 receiving yards with a dozen touchdowns in 2014. Cobb's only 24. And with Bryant and Thomas now off the market, Cobb is easily the best available player at his position.

As Demovsky wrote, recent history indicates the Packers likely haven't given up on Cobb just yet:

Last season, the Packers let their priority free agent, cornerback Sam Shields, get to the negotiating period before they signed him to a four-year, $39 million contract. They got the deal done about six hours after Shields and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, were allowed to start talking to other teams. …

It's possible a team with major cap space, say the Jacksonville Jaguars (with nearly $70 million in cap space) or the Oakland Raiders (more than $56 million in cap space), could come in with an offer far above what the Packers think Cobb is worth.

That's right. Another variation of the theme. In many respects, the early days of free agency will be driven by three AFC doormats, as the Raiders, Jaguars and Cleveland Browns head into free agency with a combined $176 million and change in cap space.

If those three franchises decide to spend big, things will get pretty wild pretty quickly.

Offensive Player of the Year on the Move?

Just like the Broncos and Patriots, the Dallas Cowboys were a playoff team in 2014. And just like the Broncos and Patriots, the Cowboys faced a tough decision Monday.

Two stars. One tag.

The Cowboys settled on tagging Bryant, which means reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year DeMarco Murray is a week from the open market after leading the NFL with 1,845 rushing yards in 2014.

As Mike Garafalo of Fox Sports reports, the Cowboys are embarking on an interesting gambit:

The Cowboys are willing to let (things) play out because they surely believe they're protected by the three-day tampering period that opens on Saturday. During that window, Murray's agent can have discussions with other teams, but Murray can only agree to, or sign, a contract with the Cowboys.

So if Dallas believes Murray is getting the kind of offers he thinks he's going to get (estimates being kicked around during the scouting combine in Indianapolis were north of $6 million per season, with the ever-aggressive Colts lingering as a potential suitor), it might think it can quickly adjust course before he truly hits the market.

According to Around The NFL, the Indianapolis Colts aren't the only team with an interest in Murray:

Garafalo also opines that part of the Cowboys' reluctance to sign Murray to a big extension may be the potential release of Adrian Peterson by the Minnesota Vikings.

It's just one more question surrounding the Dallas backfield. Will it bring Murray back? If so, can he buck recent history and the "Curse of 370" after carrying the ball 392 times a year ago?

And what will the Cowboys do if Murray bolts in free agency and "Plan Peterson" doesn't come to pass?

Monday's Biggest Winner

The biggest winner of "Tag Day" wasn't Suh, who gets to continue his quest for the fattest check in all the land. And it wasn't any of the players who found out that what their 2015 contracts lack in length, they make up for in girth.

No, Monday's biggest winner was Buffalo Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes. And it's thanks to the rule of supply and demand.

With both Houston and Pierre-Paul getting the franchise tag, Hughes vaults to the top of this year's crop of free-agent pass-rushers.

He's in the prime of his career at age 26. Hughes has tallied double-digit sacks in each of the past two seasons. Even better, one of those years came in a 3-4 defense, the other in a 4-3.

He's everything a team in need of pass-rushing help could want.

And that means the market for Hughes will be crowded.

As Joe Buscaglia of WGR Radio reports, that will make it difficult for the Bills to bring Hughes back:

Mind you, with over $30 million in cap space, the Bills have the resources to re-up Hughes, at least in theory.

The problem is that the Atlanta Falcons, who are positively desperate to bolster their front seven, have more cap space. Hughes would also be a fine "Leo" end for head coach Gus Bradley in Jacksonville. After releasing LaMarr Woodley, the Raiders need an end to pair with Justin Tuck.

Hughes is now set up to potentially be the beneficiary of the most heated bidding war of free agency in 2015. And when the dust settles, the Bills may well wish they'd just ponied up $14 million to tag Hughes.

Best of the Rest

And the players already mentioned are just the tip of the iceberg.

There's something for everyone in free agency this year. Quarterbacks with starting experience in Brian Hoyer and Mark Sanchez. A fistful of 1,000-yard running backs, including Chris Johnson, Frank Gore and Reggie Bush.

Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin racked up 1,318 receiving yards and 10 scores for the Eagles last year. Jordan Cameron is the type of athletic, field-stretching tight end that's all the rage in today's NFL.

There's a Pro Bowl guard in Mike Iupati. There are also young pass-rushers like Brandon Graham and Derrick Morgan, former first-round picks who could benefit from a change of scenery.

There's something for everyone, and a lot of players are about to make a lot of money. Some will be overjoyed with just how much. Many more will wind up disappointed.

And in that respect, while there were some huge developments across the NFL on Monday, the fun's just getting started.

Gary Davenport is an NFL Analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPManor.

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