On Monday, the two-week window for using the franchise tag opens. Every team can use the franchise tag (or the rarely-used transition tag) on one player.
Last year, 21 teams took advantage of the franchise tag, which no longer is based on the five highest-paid players at the position but on a far more convoluted (and club friendly) formula.
It’s not a coincidence. The new formula makes it much cheaper to keep a player off the open market than it would to pay him a multi-year market contract.
Here’s a look at the team-by-team candidates for the 2013 tag, in alphabetical order.
Arizona Cardinals: The Cardinals need to keep hard-nosed cover corner Greg Toler, but not at anything close to the eight-figure franchise number. No other pending free agents have the talent or potential to justify franchise money. Last year, the Cardinals used the tag on defensive end Calais Campbell; they eventually signed him to a long-term deal.
Atlanta Falcons: Left tackle Sam Baker, drafted in round one the same year as the man whose blind side he protects, has had good years and bad years. After starting 16 games in 2012, Baker hits the market on a high note. Still, the glut of tackles in free agency and the draft will make it hard to justify tagging Baker; if he leaves, the Falcons can find a capable replacement after the market softens. In 2012, the Falcons used the tag on cornerback Brent Grimes, who tore an Achilles tendon in Week One. Tagging him would cost $12.48 million for 2013. It would cost nearly half that amount to tag safety William Moore.
Baltimore Ravens: It’s not a question of if the Ravens will tag quarterback Joe Flacco. The only remaining unknown is the level of the tag. And while a lazy look at the situation would lead to conclusively presuming that there’s no way Flacco leaves Baltimore, there’s a chance (slim, but a chance) that the player and the team could be destined for a game of chicken that would result in both cars flying off the cliff. The Ravens could opt to go non-exclusive, daring Flacco to sign an offer sheet with another team — and assuming that he never would. Another team with plenty of cap space could easily craft a front-loaded offer sheet that the Ravens wouldn’t be able to match. It’s not likely, but anyone who thinks there’s no way Flacco leaves the Ravens hasn’t been paying close enough attention to the far crazier things the NFL has seen in recent years.
Buffalo Bills: Jairus Byrd has become one on the best free safeties in the league. With George Wilson gone in a cap move, the Bills need to keep Byrd. Absent a long-term deal, the tag is the only way to make it happen. If a long-term deal can be negotiated, guard Andy Levitre becomes a candidate for the tag. The only impediment would be the fact that interior offensive linemen get the same franchise tender as tackles.
Carolina Panthers: Their list of potential free agents contains no names that cry out for use of the tag, especially since the Panthers are still dealing with the sins of salary caps past.
Chicago Bears: The Bears need to keep defensive tackle Henry Melton, but they’ve already got plenty of cap space tied up with defensive players like sackmaster Julius Peppers, cornerback Charles Tillman, and linebacker Lance Briggs. With Melton regarding himself as the best defensive tackle in the league, a long-term deal could be hard to come by. Despite his name recognition, linebacker Brian Urlacher isn’t a serious candidate for the tag.
Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals are extremely careful with money. On defense, lineman Michael Johnson is the most obvious candidate to be tagged. It’s just as likely that the Bengals will be content to go bargain shopping (again) for defensive players to replace their bevy of free agents on that side of the ball, and then hope that defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer can whip up another batch of chicken salad. On offense, the tag could be used to keep Andre Smith, who quietly has overcome his notorious Jello run to develop into an elite right tackle. Last year, the tag was used on kicker Mike Nugent; tagging him again would cost only $3.48 million. Which could make him the most likely candidate.
Cleveland Browns: Kicker Phil Dawson was tagged in 2011 and 2012. Using it a third time would entitle him to quarterback money. So if it’s used, it won’t be used on him. Punter Reggie Hodges is hitting the market after three years with the team. Though his performance doesn’t cry out “franchise tag,” it could be cheaper to squat on him for a year than to sign a replacement on the open market; that’s why so many punters and kickers have been tagged in recent years.
Dallas Cowboys: Tagged last year at $10.5 million, linebacker Anthony Spencer still hasn’t had the kind of impact that he should, given that he plays across from DeMarcus Ware. Spencer isn’t worth $12.4 million for one more year.
Denver Broncos: V.P. of football operations John Elway has said that the tag will be used on left tackle Ryan Clady, and for good reason. Last year, Clady turned down a five-year, $50 million deal.
Detroit Lions: It’ll take $12.4 million to use the tag for a second straight year on defensive end Cliff Avril, and it won’t be easy for the Lions to round up the kind of cap space necessary to keep him around. Safety Louis Delmas doesn’t like being labeled as injury prone, but he is. And the Lions will have to decide whether they want to make a long-term or short-term (via the tag) investment in the guy who could be this decade’s Bob Sanders. Tackle Gosder Cherilus also could be tagged, but in a buyer’s market for tackles it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to do it.
Green Bay Packers: Receiver Greg Jennings turns 30 in September. In other words, the Packers won’t be using the tag on Greg Jennings. The Packers learned while he was injured in 2012 that they can live without him, and they won’t be inclined to invest $10 million in cap space to a guy who plays a position that, with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, is virtually interchangeable. If the Packers wanted to keep Jennings, they’d be trying to sign him. They’re not, which likely means he won’t be tagged.
Houston Texans: Last year, the Texans passed on tagging linebacker Mario Williams because of the exorbitant tender that the final year of his first-overall rookie contract would have generated. With linebacker Connor Barwin, much less cap space would be consumed. After seeing former Texans receiver Jacoby Jones deliver an MVP-caliber performance in the Super Bowl, G.M. Rick Smith may be a little less willing to let quality players walk away in 2013. Another possible (and cheaper) candidate for the tag is punter Donnie Jones.
Indianapolis Colts: The man with the self-styled boomstick can be kept off the market for the low, low price of the punter/kicker franchise tag ($2.9 million). Absent a long-term deal, it’s hard to envision the Colts moving forward without punter Pat McAfee.
Jacksonville Jaguars: A roster thin on star power naturally doesn’t create many franchise-tag candidates, especially with a new G.M. and (another) new coaching staff. If linebacker Daryl Smith didn’t miss most of the season, he’d be a potential candidate. Fullback Greg Jones would be a candidate, if fullbacks weren’t lumped in with running backs for franchise tag purposes.
Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs are trying to work out a long-term deal with receiver Dwayne Bowe; if they don’t, it would cost $11.4 million to keep him around for a second season via the tag. But receivers are more plentiful than competent offensive linemen, and new Chiefs coach Andy Reid witnessed the hard way in 2012 the consequences of not having competent blockers. This reality makes tackle Branden Albert a more likely candidate to be tagged. Then there’s punter Dustin Colquitt, who like most punters and kickers could be cheaper to keep via the one-year franchise tag.
Miami Dolphins: Tackle Jake Long’s rookie deal makes the cap number for tagging him way too high to justify, especially in light of the gradual decline in his play. With cornerback Sean Smith looking for big money, the best move could be to tag him instead of Long.
Minnesota Vikings: G.M. Rick Spielman wants to keep road-grading right tackle Phil Loadholt. With left tackle Matt Kalil tied up via an affordable rookie deal, the Vikings can afford to pay Loadholt a large chunk of money for at least the next two seasons, before Kalil will be looking for his second contract. Whether that large chunk of money equates to the franchise tag for Loadholt is a decision the Vikings have to make in light of the realities of the tackle market — and within the context of the impact of the use of the tag on the expectations of receiver Percy Harvin. They’d also like to keep fullback Jerome Felton, but there’s no fullback franchise tag; they’d have to tender him at the running back level.
New England Patriots: The Patriots have a trio of players who are potential candidates for the tag. Whether it’s receiver Wes Welker, tackle Sebastian Vollmer, cornerback Aqib Talib, or no one, it won’t be an easy decision. Welker would command $11.4 million, given that he was tagged in 2012. It would be a shock if they tag him. Vollmer has Marcus Cannon behind him on the depth chart, plus plenty of other tackles available in free agency. The Pats could be inclined to let Vollmer leave if someone else is willing to overpay him. Talib presents the biggest conundrum, given his positive impact on the team’s so-so defense. They need him, but he present plenty of risk given his history of off-field incidents.
New Orleans Saints: Left tackle Jermon Bushrod is the most obvious candidate for the tag. But the Saints don’t have the cap space to spare. They easily replaced guard Carl Nicks with Ben Grubbs last year, and the tackle market is far more plentiful in 2013 than the market was for guards last season. Defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis doesn’t project to nose tackle in the team’s new 3-4 defense, but he could be a candidate to play defensive end in Rob Ryan’s defense, if the Saints want to fork over the money necessary to keep him around. Things would get interesting if the Saints tag Ellis as a tackle despite a desire to move him to end, since there’s a $2.6 million gap between the two tenders.
New York Giants: But for the likely existence of collusion in the restricted free agency market, the Giants should be thinking about tagging receiver Victor Cruz. Since teams have abandoned in recent years the pursuit of RFAs, there’s no reason for the Giants to double the compensation they’d get if someone else swipes Cruz. Left tackle Will Beatty becomes a candidate for the tag, along with safety Kenny Phillips. The cheapest of all would be tight end Martellus Bennett, who didn’t get the long-term deal he wanted a year ago in free agency, opting instead for a one-year stay in New York and another shot at the market.
New York Jets: Safety LaRon Landry is the only guy who merits the tag, but his one-year deal from last year expressly prevents the team from using it. No one else who is due to become a free agent deserves it.
Oakland Raiders: There’s a major problem with using the franchise tag on punter Shane Lechler, apart from the fact that the Raiders have landed in a salary cap black hole. While the franchise tag for punters and kickers will be an affordable $2.9 million in 2013, Lechler’s cap number last year was $4.9 million. Under the CBA, he’s entitled to a 120 percent raise over that number, which translates to a cap number of $5.88 million. It could be time for the much cheaper Marquette King, a converted receiver who has drawn comparisons to the monster-legged Reggie Roby. Either way, it’s hard to imagine that the cap-strapped Raiders would pay a punter twice the amount of the base franchise tag for punters.
Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles don’t have many looming free agents, which means that they don’t have many candidates for the franchise tag. Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie would be one, if he was, you know, better.
Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers have said they won’t use the franchise tag. Which means that receiver Mike Wallace will hit the open market. Which means that someone will overpay him on the first day of free agency.
San Diego Chargers: Look at their free agents. Though cornerback Quentin Jammer has been a mainstay in San Diego since 2002, he’s not worth what it would cost to keep him via the franchise tag. No one else with an expiring contract justifies the tag, which is one of the reasons why there’s a new G.M. and head coach.
San Francisco 49ers: Safety Dashon Goldson doesn’t want to be tagged again, but what he wants and what he gets could be two different things. Absent a long-term deal, the Niners have to keep Goldson around — even if using the tag for a second time virtually guarantees he’ll hit the market in 2014. If Goldson gets a new deal, it’ll be interesting to see whether the Niners would use the tag on their second-string but highly versatile tight end, Delanie Walker.
Seattle Seahawks: The ultra-low kicker tag of $2.9 million could be used to keep the strong-legged Steven Hauschka.
St. Louis Rams: Receiver Danny Amendola has become one of the best slot receivers in the NFL, but his injury history and the eight-figure franchise tender for wideouts likely will scare the Rams away. Still, if Amendola hits the market, he won’t be there long.
Tennessee Titans: The Titans reportedly are expected to use the tag on tight end Jared Cook, absent a multi-year deal. Kicker Rob Bironas also is a possibility, but he had a cap number of $3.675 million in 2012. Which means that the tag would cost the Titans $4.41 million in 2013, $1.5 million more than the base tag for kickers and punters.
Washington Redskins: With $18 million in missing cap space, the Redskins can’t afford to use the tag. Especially since tagging tight end Fred Davis again would bump his 2012 tender by 20 percent — a year after he suffered a torn Achilles tendon. Punter Sav Rocca is a slim possibility, but even the $2.9 million will be more than the Redskins can justify with their cap situation.