Before free agency opens on March 13, teams can begin to work on keeping one of their top players via the use of the franchise tag, which is essentially a one-year contract to keep the player in town. On Feb. 20, teams can start applying the franchise tag, which was previously the average of the top five highest paid players at that position but is now calculated as a percentage of the salary cap. You can see the complete list of franchise tag numbers here.
Not every team will use the franchise tag but some will. Here's a team-by-team look at the candidates for the franchise tag.
New England Patriots: WR Wes Welker
Welker had the second most yards (1,569) of any receiver during the 2011 regular season, behind only Lions receiver Calvin Johnson. Considering the Patriots don't have a receiver of the caliber of Welker, they can't let him walk away. If the two sides can't agree on a longterm contract, Welker will undoubtedly be tagged.
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Buffalo Bills: Steve Johnson
Johnson is coming off consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and he's the best receiver on the Bills roster. Without him, the Bills would be left with three receivers who combined for just over 1,000 yards in 2011. Johnson and the Bills are reported to be working on a longterm contract but if they can't get it done the franchise tag isn't out of the question.
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New York Jets: NT Sione Pouha
I'm guessing the Jets won't use the franchise tag in 2012. They will want to re-sign Sione Pouha to a new deal and they should be able to. The franchise tag is significantly cheaper for defensive tackles in 2012 than it was in 2011 but that still may not enough for the Jets to be inclined to use it.
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Miami Dolphins: NT Paul Soliai
The Dolphins used the franchise tag on Soliai last season but I think they're unlikely to do that again, especially if the Dolphins are moving to more 4-3 defensive fronts. Soliai likely hits the open market unless Miami has a change of heart.
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Houston Texans: DE Mario Williams
Williams is the No. 1 free agent on the market, which makes him a prime candidate for the franchise tag. Unfortunately for Houston, the franchise tag number for Williams will be nearly $22 million, and that's too much for them. The Texans will try to re-sign Williams but they're unlikely to franchise him.
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Tennessee Titans: S Michael Griffin
The Titans need to hang on to Griffin. Cortland Finnegan, another free agent, may not be worth the money that a guy like Darrelle Revis is but they can't let two of the starters in the secondary walk away. If they feel like they can't re-sign Griffin, franchising him is an option (which won't make Titans fans happy).
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Jacksonville Jaguars: PK Josh Scobee
The Jaguars need some help and they'll need money to do it. Instead of using the franchise tag on a player that will cost them some money -- money that they could use to bring players in to help them be more competitive in 2012 -- they could use it to keep the kicker, Scobee, around for another season.
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Indianapolis Colts: DE Robert Mathis
The combination of Mathis and Dwight Freeney is one of the best in the league and with all the question marks heading into the offseason the last thing the Colts probably want to do is break up these defensive ends. Franchising Mathis may be the only way to keep him around but Colts fans should know it's possible he leaves via free agency.
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Denver Broncos: PK Matt Prater
Like the Jaguars, the Broncos could place the franchise tag on their kicker. The move would keep Prater on the roster and save the team some money that they could use in free agency. Prater is one of the league's more reliable kickers, as we saw last season, and losing him in free agency wouldn't make as much sense as using the tag on him.
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San Diego Chargers: WR Vincent Jackson
Jackson is the team's best receiver and Philip Rivers' favorite target. He'll join a very deep and talented pool of free agent wide receivers if he hits the market. From what I can tell, he is unlikely to return to the Chargers if he hits the market. If they want to keep him in Southern California, they have to use the tag on him. Not likely to happen, though.
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Oakland Raiders: S Tyvon Branch
The Raiders could lose both cornerback Stanford Routt and safety Branch if they let them hit free agency and, now that Routt has already been cut, the best decision might be to use the franchise tag on Branch. They probably couldn't stand to lose two of the starters from their secondary in one offseason (and Nnamdi Asomugha last year). Either way, Branch likely sticks around long term.
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Kansas City Chiefs: WR Dwayne Bowe
The Chiefs have a lot of money to spend but they may have trouble re-signing both cornerback Brandon Carr and Bowe to long term deals. If they find that they can't, they could use the franchise tag on Bowe. He's the team's best receiver and one of the better wideouts in the league. If he hits the market and the Chiefs get into some sort of bidding war for him, he could get too expensive. Carr is another candidate to be tagged.
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Baltimore Ravens: G Ben Grubbs
Aside from Carl Nicks, Grubbs is the best guard entering free agency, and there are a lot of teams that need guard help. The Bengals would love to get their hands on Grubbs and they have the money to do it. If the Ravens spend a lot of money bringing running back Ray Rice back to the team, they may have to use the tag on Grubbs to keep him around.
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Pittsburgh Steelers: WR Mike Wallace
Wallace is by far the team's biggest free agent. If they can't iron out a long-term deal, which is what they want to do, they will probably apply the tag to keep Wallace around to give them more time. If they do that, it will give Wallace a $10 million salary for the 2012 season. He's actually a restricted free agent but Pittsburgh could only place a first round tender on him and he's too big of a talent to risk that.
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Cincinnati Bengals: K Mike Nugent
The Bengals want to re-sign Nugent and the rest of their free agents aren't worth the money that they would get with a franchise tag. In reality, they probably won't use the tag, but if they do, using it on Nugent will mean more money for the other free agents.
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Cleveland Browns: LB D'Qwell Jackson
The Browns have two possible players worthy of getting the franchise tag -- kicker Phil Dawson and Jackson. They used the tag on Dawson last year and they probably won't do it again. That means they may keep Jackson in 2012 by using the tag on him.
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