The dust has settled on the franchise-tag designation period. Unlike last year, when 21 tags flew, only three were applied in 2013.
So what gives?
The easy explanation is that this year’s crop of players eligible for the tag wasn’t as good as last year’s. But it’s likely more complicated than that.
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco would have been this year’s Drew Brees, if the Ravens had been willing or able to carry his exclusive franchise tender, like the Saints did last year with Brees. These deals get done on a deadline basis, and for the Ravens the real deadline was having to choose between two equally bad evils: more than $19 million under the exclusive tag or nearly $15 million under the non-exclusive tag, along with an opportunity for the Browns to try to steal the Super Bowl MVP.
The Titans got cold feet regarding the possibility of using the franchise tag on tight end Jared Cook. or he would have been No. 9. If he’d signed the offer and if he’d then won the inevitable grievance arguing that he’s a receiver, the Titans would have been paying Cook more in 2013 than they’ll be paying Chris Johnson.
The Titans could have instead used the tag on kicker Rob Bironas. Last year, the tag was applied to six punter/kickers. But with the market for kickers and punters expected to be soft this year, teams other than the Colts apparently opted not to invest nearly $3 million in a veteran, given that low-cost options like Blair Walsh and Greg Zeuerlein were floating in last year’s draft pool.
The biggest factor for the lack of tags could have been the salary cap. Even though the franchise tenders are now based on the five-year average cap percentage consumed by the five highest-paid players at each position, it becomes more difficult to give one large chunk of cap space to one player at a time when the total cap grew by only 0.5 percent in 2012 and 1.9 percent in 2013. For too many teams, the upward pressure of salary increases coupled with a relatively static total spending limit has made eight-figure salaries for non-superstar players a luxury that no longer can be afforded.
It should be no surprise, for example, that the Patriots didn’t use it. At a time when quarterback Tom Brady’s cap number will be $13.8 million, how could they justify tying up $10.8 million in cornerback Aqib Talib or $9.8 million in tackle Sebastian Vollmer or $11.4 million in receiver Wes Welker?
The next question is whether the one-year franchise tenders will become long-term deals. Teams have until July 15 to make that transformation.
If not, the players who have received the franchise tenders but who won’t be signing them any time soon need to worry about something that hasn’t happened in eight years: A team rescinding the tag.
Chiefs left tackle Branden Albert should be specifically concerned about that. After all, his new head coach, Andy Reid, did it twice in Philly, to defensive tackle Corey Simon in 2005 and to linebacker Jeremiah Trotter three years earlier. If/when the Chiefs take left tackle Luke Joeckel with the first pick in the 2013 draft, Albert may want to quickly put pen to paper for his $9.828 million salary, or the chance to do so may permanently evaporate.
Then, he would end up on the open market in May, long after the big money has flowed for the year.
Given the new realities of a cap-strapped NFL, that’s a real concern that every franchise player should now have.