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The 2014 franchise/transition tags

Mack Getty Images

[Editor’s note:  The window has closed on the 2014 use of the franchise tag.  This year, only four players were tagged.  Two received the little-used transition tag.  Here’s the entire list, with a quick take on each guy.]

Saints tight end Jimmy Graham

While some are blaming the looming fight over whether Graham is a receiver for tag purposes on Graham and/or his agent, this fight has been brewing for a couple of years.  The Packers and Jermichael Finley worked out a deal before pulling the pin on a tag-and-grievance situation.  Last year, the Titans didn’t even risk it by opting not to tag tight end Jared Cook, due in large part to the inability of the Management Council to guarantee that the Titans wouldn’t eventually have to pay more than $4.5 million more under the receiver version of the tag.

The question of tight end versus receiver becomes moot if another team signs Graham to an offer sheet.  While highly unlikely, it wouldn’t be completely shocking if a team picking at the bottom of round one this year (and presumably next year) decides to make a run at Graham, in exchange for a pair of first-round picks if the Saints don’t match.

Jets kicker Nick Folk

Those who insist kickers aren’t franchise players forget that five kickers were tagged in 2012.  At $3.55 million for one year, it’s a bargain as franchise tags go.

It’s also less than the going rate of $4 million per year for a high-end kicker.

Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy

With a slew of young, talented players who either are or will soon be eligible for long-term deals, the Panthers have to be careful about their long-term commitments.  For now, they’ll commit $13.116 million to Hardy pending a long-term deal at a lower cap number — or possibly a trade to another team, if the Panthers just can’t find an acceptable middle ground.

Looming over the situation is the six-year, $76 million contract given to defensive end Charles Johnson in 2011.  It’ll be hard to give Hardy a deal with an annual rate of less than Johnson’s $12.67 million.

Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo

They reportedly agonized over whether to tag Orakpo, who missed much of 2012 due to injury but rebounded with a Pro Bowl season in 2013. Orakpo could argue that he’s actually a defensive end and not a linebacker; the difference between the $11.455 million tag for linebackers and the $13.116 million tag for defensive ends is only $1.661 million.

Still, that’s $1.661 million.

Browns center Alex Mack

The transition tag became a little-used device after the 2006 labor deal made the transition tender fully guaranteed if accepted.  For Mack, a center, the prospect of making $10.03 million in 2014 should prompt him to sprint to his agent’s office to sign the tender.

With the franchise tag for offensive linemen only $1.654 million higher and the Browns having $57 million in cap space, they arguably should have just used the franchise tag.

While it’s possible that another team will sign Mack to a contract that more accurately reflects the center market, there’s no reason for Mack to do a long-term deal unless it pays him a lot more than $10.03 million guaranteed.  His best move could be to take the money for 2014 and hit the market next year.

Unless the Browns want to pay him $12 million under the franchise or transition tag in 2015.

Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds

Unlike Mack, Worilds should play this one out.  With the Steelers likely to be pressed up against the cap, another team could sign him to an offer sheet the Steelers can’t match.

They’ll possible be able to match it only if they cut LaMarr Woodley.

Using the transition tag on Worilds buys some time for the Steelers, and gives Worilds a chance to test the market.  If Worilds opts to sign the tender, the Steelers can live with $9.754 million in cap space for Worilds for one year, while negotiating a long-term deal.

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Rams keep Seahawks off scoreboard in first half

St Louis Rams v Seattle Seahawks Getty Images

The Seahawks Defense has continued to be inhospitable on Sunday afternoon in Seattle, but the team’s offense has had none of the sparkle that it had against the Cardinals last weekend.

The Seahawks have outgained the Rams 189-66 through the first 30 minutes, but a pair of turnovers and a failed fourth down conversions forced by a very good Rams Defense have conspired to keep them from turning any of those yards into points. Russell Wilson has been sacked twice and thrown an interception while completing 7-of-12 passes for 79 yards and narrowly avoided another giveaway when he fumbled while being sacked by Aaron Donald late in the half.

A teammate recovered, but it was a fitting end to the half for the slumbering Seahawks.

St. Louis hasn’t been doing much other than not turning the ball over on offense, but that’s been enough for them to stay ahead of Seattle thus far. If the Rams formula on defense continues to work into the second half, the Seahawks may need to come up with a score from their own defenders in order to guarantee themselves a division title.

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Aaron Rodgers limps off the field after throwing touchdown pass

rodgers AP

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers had to limp off the field today after throwing a touchdown pass against the Lions.

Rodgers felt pressure, escaped the pocked, threw on the run and found Randall Cobb open in the end zone for a touchdown. It was a trademark great play for Rodgers, and it gave the Packers a 14-0 lead late in the second quarter.

But Rodgers, who was already dealing with a calf injury before today’s game, appeared to aggravate that injury and went down untouched. Rodgers had to be helped off the field and then rode a cart into the locker room. Matt Flynn began warming up to replace Rodgers.

The official word from the Packers is that Rodgers is questionable to return with a calf injury.

If Rodgers is out for the game, the Packers may still be in good shape today, as the Lions’ offense hasn’t been able to do anything today. But if Rodgers is hobbled for the playoffs, that would be very bad news in Green Bay.

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Old man Roman Harper makes a play, Panthers rolling

Carolina Panthers v Atlanta Falcons Getty Images

Roman Harper was the only veteran the Panthers hung onto when they rebuilt their secondary midseason.

And for 16 weeks, you wondered if he had pictures of someone.

But he paid the Panthers back for their loyalty, picking off a Matt Ryan pass and returning it for a touchdown in the second quarter, giving the Panthers a 17-3 lead in the NFC South title game.

Harper’s been valuable to the Panthers for settling a secondary full of kids, and is noted as being good in the locker room. He hasn’t been very good on the field this year, but he just made a play that will make people in Charlotte forget a lot of blown coverages.

The Panthers just created another turnover, and are threatening to run away with this one, and claim a division title with a 7-8-1 record.

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Haslam says Browns won’t tolerate “irresponsible” players

Manziel Getty Images

With the Browns seeing a 7-4 start disintegrate to an 0-5 finish, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam won’t be hiring a new coach or a new G.M.  The same ultimately may not be said for some of the team’s high-profile players.

Via Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Haslam said after Sunday’s loss to the Ravens that the Browns are “not going to tolerate people who are irresponsible no matter what round they were drafted in.”

He’s referring to quarterback Johnny Manziel, cornerback Justin Gilbert, and receiver Josh Gordon, each of whom found trouble this weekend for failing to be where they were supposed to be when they were supposed to be there.

Haslam also said that the Browns will continue to work with the team’s irresponsible players, but he made it clear they’ll be gone if they don’t “fall in line.”

As to Manziel, it remains to be seen whether he has gotten the message.  During Sunday’s loss, he was on Twitter, clicking “favorite” on a tweet from TMZ regarding Chris Rock’s looming divorce from his wife.

Maybe someday Chris Rock will be favoriting a tweet from TMZ regarding Manziel’s looming divorce from the Browns.

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Two Seahawks turnovers help them into 6-0 hole

Russell Wilson, Mark Barron AP

The Seahawks need a win on Sunday to assure themselves of a division title and it would also give them home field throughout the NFC playoffs.

They’ll need to be much sharper as their game against the Rams unfolds if they want to get that victory. Rams linebacker Alec Ogletree forced a fumble after a Marshawn Lynch catch and safety T.J. McDonald recovered for the second Rams takeaway of the first half. The Rams didn’t do a lot offensively after getting the ball, but Greg Zuerlein hit a 52-yard field goal to extend their early lead.

They weren’t able to turn the first one — an interception of Russell Wilson by Marcus Roberson inside St. Louis territory — into points, but the turnovers have helped them remain ahead of the Seahawks 6-0 with time winding down in the second quarter.

The Rams have also stopped the Seahawks on fourth down and their defense has a lot of fans in Dallas, which stands to get a first-round bye if the Seahawks and Cardinals both lose, right now.

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Mike Wallace benched, has Brandon Gibson speak to media for him

Mike Wallace AP

The Jets are 4-12 and might be clearing house in the organization, but it was the Dolphins supplying the locker room drama after the two teams ended their 2014 season.

Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace was benched for what head coach Joe Philbin described as a “coaching decision” and what Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald reports was an argument with a coach.

“I always play the guys I think give us the best chance to win,” Philbin said.

Jackson also reports that Wallace did not speak directly to the media after the game. Instead, wideout Brandon Gibson stood next to his teammate and answered questions as Wallace’s spokesman. “Wallace” confirmed that the coaches sat him down for the second half and said that he expects to be a member of the team through the rest of his contract.

Wallace is signed through the 2017 season and is set to make $9.85 million in base salary next season. The Dolphins would take on a lot of dead money if they were to cut Wallace, although the fact that the offseason has only just started makes it hard to guess at how things will play out after another 8-8 season in Miami.

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Titans clinch second pick in draft, lose to Colts

Coby Fleener, Daimion Stafford AP

The Titans ended their season Sunday with their 14th loss in 15 games.

And they didn’t even get the No. 1 overall pick for their troubles.

The Colts rolled to a 27-10 victory Sunday afternoon in Nashville, dropping the Titans to 2-14. However, the Buccaneers, not Tennessee, will pick first on account of a weaker strength of schedule.

Quarterback Andrew Luck threw for 160 yards and two TDs for 11-5 Indianapolis, which will host a wild-card game as the No. 4 seed in the AFC. The Colts were locked into their playoff position; as a result, Luck rested in the second half, with Matt Hasselbeck closing out the game.

Tight ends scored all three TDs for Indianapolis, with Coby Fleener catching one from Luck and Hasselbeck and Jack Doyle hauling in one from Luck.

In victory, however, the Colts saw Adam Vinatieri’s streak of 29 made field goals in a row come to a close after he missed a 46-yard attempt.

The Titans mustered just 192 yards of offense, with tailback Shonn Greene’s 52-yard run one of the few highlights. Quarterback Charlie Whitehurst was limited to 72 yards passing on 12-of-28 attempts, though he did toss a six-yard score to Kendall Wright.

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Micah Hyde punt return gives Packers 7-0 lead

rodgers AP

The Lions’ special teams have been an unmitigated disaster all season, and with the NFC North on the line, today is no different.

Green Bay got on the board first at Lambeau Field when Micah Hyde took a Lions punt 55 yards to the end zone for a touchdown. The Lions’ coverage unit wasn’t even close.

That punt came after the Lions’ defense had a great goal-line stand, stopping the Packers on seven straight goal-to-go plays. The Packers picked up an extra first down thanks to a pass interference penalty in the end zone, but even that wasn’t enough, as the Lions ultimately stuffed Green Bay on fourth-and-goal.

But while the Lions’ defense made a big play, their offense and special teams have done anything but. And the Packers have a 7-0 lead.

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Panthers with early, but tenuous lead over Falcons

Carolina Panthers v Atlanta Falcons AP

The Panthers put together another solid opening drive.

But as has happened too often this year, it stalled in the red zone.

The Panthers were forced for settle for a field goal and a 3-0 lead over the Falcons at the end of a 12-play, 77-yard drive.

They were able to get a stop on the Falcons opening series, but Ron Rivera has been up front about the team’s problems inside the 20 being dangerous.

We’ll see if they’re able to solve it today, and sneak into the playoffs as the NFC South champion.

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Flea flicker turns into Ryan Lindley’s first NFL touchdown pass

Ryan Lindley

Cardinals quarterback Ryan Lindley came into Sunday’s game without a touchdown pass during his NFL career.

Perhaps the problem was not letting the running back touch the ball before he threw it. The Cardinals grabbed a 7-0 lead over the 49ers in the first quarter on Sunday when Lindley threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Michael Floyd on a flea flicker.

The score came on Lindley’s 229th pass attempt in the NFL, but it might not be his last scoring play if the early results hold up. Lindley hit on all four passes that he tried on the opening drive of the game, including a 24-yard strike to tight end Darren Fells. Stepfan Taylor also ran three times for 14 yards to help set the 49ers defense up to get suckered in by the flea flicker.

The Cardinals will win the NFC West if they win and the Seahawks lose on Sunday afternoon.

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Fourth-quarter comeback nets Baltimore AFC’s final wild-card spot

Cleveland Browns v Baltimore Ravens Getty Images

As long as the Ravens have Joe Flacco at quarterback, they will have a deep passing game.

And the long ball has helped put Baltimore back into the playoffs.

Flacco’s 53-yard rainbow to wideout Torrey Smith helped set up the go-ahead score as Baltimore came back to defeat visiting Cleveland 20-10 on Sunday afternoon.

With their win and the Chargers’ loss at Kansas City, the Ravens clinched the second and final wild-card spot in the AFC. They are one of three AFC North clubs in the postseason.

The Ravens trailed 10-6 with a little more than eight minutes left in regulation when Flacco play-faked, dropped back and lofted nearly a 60-yard rainbow to Smith, who beat Browns Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden.

On the next play, Flacco and Smith connected again, this time for a 16-yard TD, giving the Ravens a 13-10 lead with 7:33 left.

The Ravens wouldn’t look back, adding to their cushion later in the period when Flacco hit receiver Kamar Aiken for a two-yard TD.

Flacco was 22-of-36 for 312 yards and the two scoring passes for Baltimore (10-6), which started sluggishly and looked in danger of its season ending in disappointment. But the Ravens got into gear just in time.

Browns rookie quarterback Connor Shaw was up-and-down in his NFL debut, connecting on 14-of-28 passes for 177 yards with two turnovers. Overall, though, this was a game effort by Cleveland (7-9), which was without wide receiver Josh Gordon and cornerback Justin Gilbert because of suspensions for team rules violations.

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No playoff spot, but Eagles get 10th victory

Philadelphia Eagles v New York Giants Getty Images

Winning 10 games is usually a source of pride for an NFL team, but it will be a bittersweet pill for the Eagles to swallow.

They beat the Giants 34-26 at MetLife Stadium on Sunday to improve their record to 10-6, the same record that was enough for them to win the NFC East last year, but the three losses that preceded the Week 17 win were enough to keep them from making it back to the playoffs. One of the leading reasons why they fell short was on display against the Giants.

Eli Manning was erratic all day, completing 28-of-53 passes, but he hit big when he did hit. Manning threw for 429 yards, making big plays to both Odell Beckham and Rueben Randle over the course of the afternoon against an Eagles secondary that never figured out how to stop opponents from making big plays down the field. Beckham completed his rookie season with an 185-yard effort and tied Michael Irvin with an NFL-record ninth straight game with more than 90 receiving yards.

It was all for naught, however, and one of Philly’s bright spots all year had a lot to do with the Giants loss. Steve Weatherford had a punt blocked by James Casey and Trey Burton returned it for a touchdown that put the Eagles up 24-16 early in the third quarter. It’s the fourth blocked punt of the year by the Eagles, who also excelled in the return game as the team won nine of their first 12 games this year.

The teams went back and forth from there until Nate Allen picked off Manning late in the fourth quarter to bring things to their conclusion. Mark Sanchez heads for free agency off a 23-of-36, 292-yard effort and LeSean McCoy had 99 rushing yards to put a disappointing season to bed for him as well as his team.

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Justin Houston makes strong case in last game of contract

Rivers AP

Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston has completed the last game of the final year of his rookie contract.  Entering the game with 18 sacks, Houston notched four more against the Chargers, giving him 22 for the year.

Entering free agency, he now has plenty of leverage.  With the negotiating gap between the team and player now likely to get even bigger and with the injury risk gone until next September, look for the Chiefs to use the franchise tag on Houston.

And then look for Houston to instantly sign it.

With the Chiefs reluctant to make a market-value offer to Houston, Houston will go year to year, with the eight-figure guaranteed salary (it was $11.455 million for linebackers in 2014) going up by 20 percent for 2015.  Come 2016, the Chiefs would have to give Houston a 44-percent raise over his 2016 pay, pushing the guaranteed salary toward $20 million.

Look for Houston to also consider a grievance challenging his designation as a linebacker, with the argument being that he’s actually a defensive end, which carried a 2014 franchise tag of $13.1 million.

Either way, Houston will be very inclined to take the franchise tag and the cash that goes along with it.  After all, he made $2.786 million in four full NFL seasons.

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Cowboys stay perfect on the road with 44-17 win

DeMarco Murray AP

The Cowboys didn’t have a lot to play for, but they played it out with style.

They thrashed Washington 44-17, getting big performances from their new triplets to go into the postseason with a bit of momentum.

Tony Romo threw for 299 yards, Dez Bryant caught his 15th and 16th touchdowns of the year and DeMarco Murray ran for 100 yards and a touchdown as the Cowboys cruised.

The win moved them to 12-4, as they had already secured the NFC East title. More impressively, they finished 8-0 on the road this year, showing mettle they hadn’t previously.

For Washington, it was a chance for Robert Griffin III to make one more statement about his ability to be the quarterback of the future, but he didn’t really make it.

He was 27-of-41 for 336 yards, but he threw two interceptions and fumbled.

Washington finished 4-12, and has plenty of issues to address this offseason, none bigger than finding a way to get a quarterback and a coach on the same page.

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Geno Smith throws for 358 yards as Jets top Dolphins

New York Jets v Miami Dolphins Getty Images

A report from Chris Mortensen of ESPN indicated that the Jets could delay a decision on coach Rex Ryan’s future until after they hire a new general manager and Ryan’s players did their best to make the case for that new G.M. to think about if that’s how the Jets do wind up plotting their course.

Geno Smith threw for a career-high 358 yards and three touchdowns and Eric Decker caught 10 passes for 221 yards and a touchdown as both players had their best days in Jets uniforms during a 37-24 win. The two players hooked up for a 74-yard score in the third quarter just after Lamar Miller ran 97 yards for a Miami score and the game was all Jets from that point.

The Dolphins were stopped on a fourth down, missed a field goal and punted twice after Miller’s touchdown as the Jets Defense put its best effort forward for the defensive-minded Ryan. They sacked Ryan Tannehill seven times and hit him often while holding the Dolphins quarterback to a 8-of-19 outing in the final 30 minutes. Wide receiver Mike Wallace didn’t play much in the second half of the game, although there was no report of an injury from the team.

The loss comes a week after Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said coach Joe Philbin would be back for the 2015 season, a decision that some in South Florida will likely be grumbling about after seeing Smith and Decker look like one of the league’s best passing tandems on Sunday afternoon.

It’s hard to imagine Ross switching gears because of the loss, though, and it’s just as hard to say that the Jets’ performance in Week 17 should change the team’s decision about Ryan’s fate. If there was a belief that a coaching change was needed before Sunday, it should have been with enough conviction that the result of the game was immaterial. If that decision is going to be someone else’s to make,  though, it’s hard to know what criteria will be used to make the call.

Whatever happens, Ryan gets to go out with a winning Gatorade bath in 2014 and Smith will have a day full of Pro Bowl flashes to motivate him during the offseason.

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