NFL free agency is right around the corner, but first we must get through the franchise tag period. Starting on February 20, teams were allowed to apply the franchise tag. The deadline to do so comes on Monday, March 5 at 4:00 p.m. ET.
The franchise tag came into existence with the 1993 CBA (which also brought to us free agency), and it was meant to be pretty much what it sounds like -- a tag on your franchise player, the one guy you can't afford to lose, to keep him in your city.
We could be hitting a record amount of tags this year with the cost associated with the tag changing. The previous franchise tag numbers were calculated by taking the average of the top five highest paid players at the position. The formula has been tweaked a little bit -- you can read the details of that here -- and the numbers have come down a little bit, which means it's a little cheaper to use the tag.
As usual, there are a number of major decisions teams will have to make surrounding the tag. From Drew Brees to Matt Flynn, the franchise tag gives us a variety of scenarios that will play out.
The restricted free agent problem. There's an interesting situation happening with restricted free agents this year. The previous CBA allowed teams to tender restricted free agents at the first and third round level, which is a lot to give up for a single player, so players were usually safe with that tender level. In the new CBA, the tender level is just a first round pick. So this has some people wondering if a guy like Mike Wallace, who is a restricted free agent, could be plucked away by another team. In this scenario, the Steelers would have a chance to match any contract offer Wallace receives, and if they don't, they would receive a first round pick in return, but lose Wallace. The problem in Pittsburgh is that they have salary cap issues, so it could be problematic for them to match a contract offer that includes a lot of guaranteed money in 2012. The Texans were facing a similar dilemma with Arian Foster before inking him to a multi-year contract. This is a situation to keep an eye on when free agency hits on March 13.
Matt Flynn unlikely to receive the franchise tag. A few years ago, the Patriots took a backup quarterback, hit him with the franchise tag and then flipped him for a second round pick. The Matt Cassel story will not be the same as the Matt Flynn story. According to reports, Flynn is unlikely to be tagged. Packers GM Ted Thompson thinks the risk of tagging him and guaranteeing him $14.4 million is higher than the potential reward he could receive in return for a Flynn trade. Thompson is a by-the-rules type of executive, and by rule, the franchise tag isn't supposed to be used as a vehicle to trade players. It's meant to be applied to the player with an idea of signing a longterm deal. That's not going to happen with Flynn. He's going to hit the open market, and someone out there will pay him gobs and gobs of money with just two career starts under his belt. That should tell you all you need to know about the league's desperation for quarterbacks.
Saints hit their franchise tag dilemma. Over the weekend, the Saints applied the franchise tag to Drew Brees, which was a no-brainer move. They were hoping they could sign him to a longterm deal and open up the franchise tag for another player, but that wasn't the case. So the Saints dilemma is now that they've used the franchise tag, yet have a couple of other key free agents -- Carl Nicks and Marques Colston. As it stands now, both players are likely to become free agents on March 13. If Brees could've agreed to a longterm contract, keeping the tag available, then the Saints could've franchised either player.
Will Vincent Jackson finally hit free agency? The deadline still hasn't hit, so Chargers' GM A.J. Smith could change his mind, which is possible, but reports now are saying Chargers receiver Vincent Jackson should avoid the franchise tag. I remember a few years ago, Darren Sproles was widely expected to hit the market, and then the Chargers decided to tender him at the first and third round level, unexpectedly keeping him in San Diego. So if Smith has surprised us in the past, he could do it again. That said, the franchise number for Jackson is over $13 million. It's a major investment on just one season. If Jackson hits the market, I don't think he's necessarily gone from the Chargers. They want him back, and he could sign a longterm deal after seeing what's on the market for him. This has been a long time coming for Jackson. He was supposed to be a free agent in 2010, but the uncapped year tweaked the rules on free agency putting him back into the possession of the Chargers. And then in 2011, he was scheduled for free agency before the Chargers tagged him. So the third year is a charm. Or at least Jackson hopes it is.
Several teams avoid the franchise tag. Few things happen in the NFL without deadlines, and that's the case with the franchise tag deadline this year. With the deadline to use the tag looming, a few players have agreed to new contracts. The Seahawks wrapped up Marshawn Lynch, leaving their tag available. And the Bills reached a five-year agreement with Stevie Johnson, which means they may not need the tag. Part of the benefit of doing longterm deals instead of the franchise tag is that you can often lower the salary cap number so it's actually cheaper, in some cases, to do a longterm deal rather than the one-year franchise tender.
Why do players dislike the franchise tag? The lack of longterm security. This is hard for the average Joe to understand because I certainly wouldn't complain if SB Nation wanted to pay me $9 million per year, but players don't like the franchise tag because it's just a one-year contract with no longterm security. If they get hurt, or have a bad season, they have no security outside of that one-year deal, and they could end up losing millions of dollars in the future.