The NFL offseason gets in full swing this week, with big dates to look forward to in the coming months like the NFL Draft and the opening of free agency on March 11. But there is a significant date that comes before those. Feb. 16 is the first day that teams can designate their franchise or transition players.
There are several big-name players on expiring contracts this offseason, and the franchise tag deadline is the last line of defense for a team to retain an unrestricted free agent if it doesn't think it'll be able to sign him to a long-term contract. Each team is given one franchise tag to use per season, and it locks in a player for one year. For that year, he'll earn either an average of the top five salaries at his position, or 120 percent of his salary from the season before, depending on which one is larger.
In other words, it costs an awful lot to retain a player on the franchise tag. The transition tag is similar. It pays a player the greater amount between the average of the top 10 salaries at his position, or 120 percent of his previous year's salary. Players tagged with the transition tag can look to sign elsewhere, but the original team has the right to match any offers they receive. Unlike restricted free agents, there is no compensation if the original team does not match the offer.
There are also "non-exclusive" franchise tags, which work like transition tags in that the original team has the right to match, but it will receive two first-round draft picks if it doesn't match the offer. The deadline for teams to use the franchise or transition tag this year is March 2.
Last season, six players received tags, including Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham and Washington outside linebacker Brian Orakpo. Contract numbers for each position won't be finalized until the league sets the 2015 salary cap (that happened in the first week of March last year). Albert Breer of the NFL Network made an informed prediction for what this year's tag numbers could be worth.
Here's a look at what those amounts are expected to be:
Quarterbacks: $18.51 million (That's up significantly from $16.91 million last year).
Running backs: $10.93 million
Wide receivers: $12.80 million
Tight ends: $8.33 million
Offensive linemen: $12.93 million
Defensive tackle: $11.17 million
Defensive ends: $14.78 million
Linebackers: $13.17 million
Cornerbacks: $13.05 million
Safeties: $9.60 million
Kickers/Punters: $4.12 million
SB Nation presents: What happens when the Eagles trade their entire draft for Mariota
This year, there are plenty of potential candidates for the tag, and we'll take a look at a few of them below:
Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is the biggest name who could find himself on the receiving end of the franchise tag this offseason. Suh's 2014 cap number was the highest in the league this past season, so he'd be receiving 120 percent of his previous salary. That means his franchise tag would be a one-year contract for over $26 million.
It's also worth noting that the Lions already have almost $10 million in dead money on Suh's previous deal for 2015, whether he plays for them next season or not. He's going to cost some team an exorbitant amount of money, but the difference he makes on the field cannot be diminished. Still, with that kind of cost, he'd be taking up a significant portion of Detroit's total cap space for the season.
Destined for Detroit
The Dallas Cowboys have already said that the franchise tag is an option with wide receiver Dez Bryant. He's had multiple excellent seasons with the Cowboys, and is coming off his best yet. He caught 88 passes for 1,320 yards and 16 touchdowns this past year, and was a major part of the team's resurgence. Not much was expected out of the Cowboys, but they wound up winning the NFC East and fighting for the top seed in the conference.
Keeping the offense, and team in general, together will be one of their top priorities. Bryant is going to command a big deal when he does sign a multi-year contract. He should come in somewhere among the top five paid receivers, and the Cowboys will be willing to give him that kind of money. But if a deal can't be done in time, it sounds like Dallas wouldn't hesitate to use the tag on him.
The best defensive player that nobody talked about this season, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston was the most effective pass rusher in the NFL in 2014. He was overshadowed by J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans, who rushed the passer about as well on top of all the other stuff he does. But if Watt wasn't busy being himself, Houston would have been making far more headlines for his play.
Houston had 22 sacks in 2014, and has plenty of leverage that he's already used to decline some contract offers from the Chiefs. The interesting issue with Houston will likely be what position he's tagged under. He's listed as a linebacker, but is arguably a defensive end, a position that carries a higher franchise tag value. It's likely that Houston's camp will make a claim that he should be tagged as a defensive end, provided it gets that far. That seems likely unless a huge long-term deal is reached.