The franchise tag could be a NFL player's best friend or their worst enemy. It's a luxury NFL teams have that no other sport has, in which they can essentially lock in a player for a season under certain conditions. There are also two kinds franchise tags, the exclusive rights franchise tag and the non-exclusive tag.
The exclusive franchise tag prevents an impending free agent from hitting the open market, but in return, his team must pay him no less than the average of the top five salaries of that player's position or 120 % of the player's previous salary, whichever is greater. Their salary is also fully guaranteed. In return, players who are exclusive franchise players may not negotiate with other teams.
A non-exclusive franchise player has the same deal in terms of salary, however they may negotiate with other teams. He may sign an offer sheet with another team, but his original team has the chance to match it. If the original team doesn't match the offer, they are given two compensational first-round picks.
The franchise tag guarantees a great salary for one year, but players would prefer to test the open market to see what their pay ceiling really is. The franchise tag is much more beneficial for teams than it is for players, but it doesn't mean a player won't receive a long-term deal. It gives teams the peace of mind that they won't lose one of their best players and they can take time to negotiate a new deal. Many players have been tagged and later given monster deals, including Drew Brees, Ryan Clady and Haloti Ngata. Free agency looms very soon in the NFL (March 11), so teams who are struggling to sign their top free agents have until March 3 to tag a player of their choice. Here are the top 10 players who seem destined to be tag in the coming weeks.
10 Henry Melton - DT - Chicago Bears
Henry Melton hurt his image after being arrested for public intoxication in December, but based on his play, the Bears would be wise to keep him around. Ironically, his early season-ending injury should prove his value to Chicago. Playing under the franchise tag last year, Melton tore his ACL in Week 3 against Pittsburgh.
Following his injury, the Bears' defence went off the rails, as they finished the season dead last in the league against the run, a drop from eighth the year before. Stopping the run is Melton's specialty and if the Bears' focus this offseason is to rebuild the defence, keeping Melton would do a lot for them. Players coming off of season-ending injuries typically don't get a long-term deal, so a second straight season as the franchise player could be Melton's fate. The franchise rate for defensive tackles is projected to be at $9.2 million for the upcoming season.
9 Jared Veldheer - TE - Oakland Raiders
For the first time in years, the Oakland Raiders finally have salary cap space to work with. They have over $60 million to work with, so retaining arguably their best player is a no-brainer. Perhaps even a non-exclusive tag would be the way to go, allowing the Raiders to match any offer sheet Veldheer would sign. Whether he's tagged or gets a long-term deal, Veldheer will receive a huge raise from his average rookie contract salary, which was around $875,000 a year. Being tagged would pay him $11.2 million in 2014, but this will likely be a case of Veldheer being tagged and signed to a long-term deal soon afterwards. Veldheer suffered a triceps injury in training camp, which may be what's making Oakland hesitant to commit long-term.
The Raiders shouldn't eat up so much cap room with one player right off the bat. They should sign Veldheer long-term to a cap-friendly deal and acquire more quality players in free agency. Veldheer's tagging would be a short-term solution. One thing's for certain though; with their cap space, the Raiders have no excuse for letting one of their best players hit the open market. It's especially important because Oakland will likely add a young quarterback in the draft. Whether it's Bridgewater, Manziel or Bortles, they'll need to ensure their offensive line is solid for a rookie QB.
8 Michael Bennett - DE - Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks will likely have to make some room to keep Michael Bennett, but they have enough depth that many players on their roster are expendable. Their priority this offseason will be signing Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman to long-term extensions, but keeping Bennett is the immediate goal. They'll likely cut Sidney Rice and Zach Miller, maybe even Chris Clemons. Bennett's shoulder stayed intact this season, after it was reported last March that he had a torn rotator cuff.
He was a part of Seattle's dominant run to the Super Bowl, but the exclusive tag probably isn't the best option, as $12.6 million is too much for Bennett. A non-exclusive tag might make Bennett see that his market won't be that of an elite pass rusher. Bennett's best chance at sustained success is in Seattle and any use of the tag should merely be a stop gap to giving Bennett a longer deal at a lower price. While Bennett could very well be tagged, with Seattle's depth on the defensive line, it wouldn't surprise me to see them let him walk and simply give someone else more playing time.
7 Sam Shields - S - Green Bay Packers
The Packers have the cap room to keep Sam Shields and still go out and sign more free agents. GM Ted Thompson has only used the franchise tag twice since being named general manager in 2005. However, Green Bay has never been an organization to build through free agency, preferring to draft and develop. Shields is one of their own and with the drop in B.J. Raji's play, Shields will likely be the top priority for the Packers in the next couple of weeks.
The tag price for safeties will be around $8 million this season. The Packers have the room for that price, so keeping Shields via the tag if a long-term deal can't be reached before March 3 seems like the easy thing to do. He'll likely be extended later this offseason if he's tagged. Yes, $8 million seems like a lot to pay for Shields, but for now it'd be an insurance policy. Extending him will bring down his price tag anyway. He had a solid 2013 season with 51 tackles and four interceptions.
6 T.J. Ward - S - Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns may look like a mess, but they actually have a lot of talent on their roster. Keeping impending free agents Alex Mack and T.J. Ward will be the first order of business for new general manager Ray Farmer. Ward is the more likely candidate since the tag price is lower for safeties than linemen. Mack will likely be given a long-term deal.
Cleveland has an important draft ahead of them, but equally as important to their 2014 success is retaining the talent they already have. With an abundance of cap space they can do so. Tagging Ward makes sense. He recorded 112 combined tackles in 2013 and had two interceptions, one for a score.
5 Jairus Byrd - S - Buffalo Bills
I have no earthly idea why the Buffalo Bills haven't signed Jairus Byrd to a long-term deal yet. One of the best in the league at his position, Byrd was already franchise tagged last year and reports began circulating that he wanted out of Buffalo.
Byrd was injured early last season and the Bills' defence got off to a slow start but righted the ship once he returned. In 11 games, he had four interceptions, 48 tackles, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble.
Byrd is a big reason the Bills defence was stout this season (10th overall in the league) and he kept the team competitive in games. Another tag on Byrd would likely just create more tension between him and the Bills after he proved himself yet again this season. If you're the Bills, losing Byrd is a step back after much progress.
4 Dennis Pitta - TE - Baltimore Ravens
If this season proved anything in Baltimore, it's that Joe Flacco needs weapons around him to play at a high level. Losing Anquan Boldin via trade and Dennis Pitta to injury for most of the season hampered the Ravens offensively and was a big reason the team finished 8-8 after a Super Bowl win.
Pitta missed 12 games with an Achilles injury and the Ravens offence never quite got going. In four games, Pitta had 20 catches for 169 yards and a touchdown. He'll be much more explosive in 2014 with more time to return to full strength. In 2012, he caught 93 passes for 669 yards and seven touchdowns. Having him back will help Flacco get back into form.
Baltimore also has a new offensive coordinator in Gary Kubiak who loves to use tight ends in his offence. Pitta will benefit. Tagging Pitta would cost the Ravens $6.8 million, but once he's locked up, it should lead to a contract extension at some point this year.
3 Brent Grimes - CB - Miami Dolphins
In all of Miami's free agent spending spree last offseason, Brent Grimes was the Dolphins' best signing and at the best value. Playing on a one-year, $5.5 million deal Grimes had a resurgent season, coming off a torn Achilles in 2012.
He rated as Pro Football Focus's second best corner with 60 tackles, four interceptions and 16 passes defended. At 30 years old, Grimes is probably looking for one last big contract, but the Dolphins likely won't let him hit the market. They have roughly $30 million in cap space to work with, so expect them to pay the $11.3 million price tag for one of the best corners in the game.
The Dolphins likely won't want to give a 30-year-old a long-term deal. They'll be more likely to offer those to free agent linemen, as they desperately need to re-tool their offensive line given the events this season.
2 Greg Hardy - DE - Carolina Panthers
Having great young pass rushers is almost as important as having a great quarterback in today's pass-happy NFL. So when you have a 25-year-old defensive end who has registered 26 sacks in the past two seasons, DON'T LET THEM GET AWAY!
Hardy and Charles Johnson helped make the Panthers a formidable defence, which was a big reason the club made the jump to 12-4 in 2013. Carolina has a lot of salary cap trouble which will likely prevent them from giving Hardy the long-term deal he would get in the open market.
Defensive ends have the second-highest franchise tag value at $12.6 million, but the Panthers have to do what it takes to keep Hardy around. They probably would like to improve their secondary and depth at wide receiver, but that will likely happen in the draft. For now, their focus should be retaining Hardy and keeping perhaps the best front-seven in the league together.
1 Jimmy Graham - TE - New Orleans Saints
Any non-Saints football fan will be upset that Jimmy Graham won't hit the open market. He's the best, most dangerous receiving tight end in the league. He's posted gaudy numbers the past few seasons, and despite battling injuries for most of 2013, he still had 86 receptions for 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Graham is Drew Brees's go-to target and there's no way the New Orleans Saints are letting him reach the open market. The issue will be the amount Graham will receive. The Saints will tag him as a tight end but Graham's camp will argue he should be given wide receiver money, which would be $5 million more than a tight end salary this season. Graham lined up in the slot or out wide on many occasions this season and will surely file a grievance with the NFL that he should be paid wide receiver money.
Ultimately though, he's listed as a tight end and will be offered tight end money to start. The Saints did what they could to pay Graham, as they released Roman Harper, Jabari Greer and Will Smith. They are also letting Jonathan Vilma walk in free agency. This was all done to make room for Graham, so he'll likely be given a long-term deal at some point this year, much like they did for Bress a couple of seasons ago.
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