Last year, only eight teams used the franchise tag, down from a record high of 21 the year before. It was a surprise — until the free-agency market opened and the big money simply wasn’t there.
This year, conflicting opinions exist regarding the amount of money that will flow into the market. Ultimately, each team must ask itself whether there’s one potential free agent who merits the franchise tender, a one-year guaranteed salary that necessarily becomes the starting point for a multi-year deal that could significantly outpace the overall market for players at that position.
Here’s a look at the potential candidates for the tag in each NFL city, based on the unofficial (but likely close to accurate) list of AFC and NFC free agents we compiled over the weekend.
Arizona Cardinals: While the Larry Fitzgerald restructuring freed up more than $9 million in cap space, no Cardinals free agent becomes an obvious candidate for the tag — except perhaps for kicker Jay Feely, given the relatively low franchise tender for specialists.
Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons avoided a Flacco-style tag dilemma with Matt Ryan by signing him last year. (That possibly doesn’t qualify as good news, given the outcome to the 2013 season.) There’s no one else worthy of the tag.
Baltimore Ravens: A year after the Ravens were backed into a $20.1-million-a-year corner by Joe Flacco, who very well may have drawn an unmatchable offer sheet if given the non-exclusive tag, the Ravens have a less expensive decision to make regarding tight end Dennis Pitta. Apart from any lingering concerns about his hip injury (which his performance late in 2013 should have alleviated), the Ravens risk an argument that Pitta is actually a receiver, driving his tender up by more than $4.5 million. Another candidate for the tag would be left tackle Eugene Monroe; defensive end Arthur Jones is believed to be an unlikely subject of the franchise tag.
Buffalo Bills: The Bills used the franchise tag on safety Jairus Byrd in 2014. He’d be entitled to a 20-percent raise over his $6.916 million franchise-tag salary, which equates to $8.2992 million for 2014. Which equates to way too much on a one-year deal for a safety. This year’s tag ultimately could go to kicker Dan Carpenter, given that the tag for specialists is very affordable — and in light of the fact that Carpenter tied a franchise record for field goals made in a season (33), with four coming beyond 50 yards.
Carolina Panthers: Defensive end Greg Hardy (pictured) has emerged as the most likely candidate for the tag, but cap realities could make it hard to justify the expenditure, with Cam Newton now eligible for a new deal, Luke Kuechly a year away, and then Star Lotulelei a year behind Kuechly. If Newton won’t push for a big-money deal this offseason, the Panthers could get away with one more year with Hardy. Beyond 2014, it will be difficult to keep all of the Panthers’ great young players around.
Chicago Bears: Defensive tackle Henry Melton is recovering from a torn ACL, and he’d be entitled to a 20-percent raise over his $8.45 million franchise-tag salary in 2013. With quarterback Jay Cutler signed to a long-term deal, there’s really no one else who merits the big payday — especially with Cutler’s 2014 cap number exceeding $20 million.
Cincinnati Bengals: Defensive end Michael Johnson was tagged last year; there’s no way the Bengals will give him a 20-percent bump for a second franchise-tag season — especially not after paying Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins. Tackle Anthony Collins could be a candidate for the tag.
Cleveland Browns: The Browns have one candidate on each side of the ball: center Alex Mack and safety T.J. Ward. As to Mack, the challenge comes from the reality that all offensive linemen are lumped into one category for purposes of the tag, which means that the tender is driven by the salaries paid to elite left tackles. Safeties have their own slot, which would make it a smarter investment to negotiate a long-term deal with Mack based on the market for centers, and to tag Ward.
Dallas Cowboys: After two straight years with the tag, there’s no way the Cowboys will use it on defensive end Anthony Spencer for a third year. Under the CBA, the price would skyrocket. Even if Spencer weren’t recovering from a torn ACL, it wouldn’t make sense for the cap-strapped franchise to tag Spencer again. With kicker Dan Bailey signed, the Cowboys have said they don’t anticipate using the tag. (Which means that defensive lineman Jason Hatcher could be walking away.)
Denver Broncos: Receiver Eric Decker presents the biggest dilemma for the Broncos. How much of his performance comes from Decker’s abilities, and how much comes from the skills of his quarterback? And can the Broncos afford to devote more than $10 million to Decker, when quarterback Peyton Manning is making $20 million guaranteed? Running back Knowshon Moreno likely isn’t a candidate for the tag; dollar-for-dollar, Montee Ball would be a much more prudent investment.
Detroit Lions: Last month, Lions G.M. Martin Mayhew said he wasn’t sure whether tight end Brandon Pettigrew will be tagged. Before making a final decision, Mayhew may want to calculate the total snaps in which Pettigrew lined up tight to the tackle, along with the snaps in which he lined up in the slot or split wide. The final count could be a huge factor in the final determination. While the Lions have plenty of other free agents, none of them merit the franchise tag.
Green Bay Packers: Two years ago, the Packers planned to tag tight end Jermichael Finley, with a two-year deal emerging from the anticipated fight over whether he’s a receiver. Even if he weren’t recovering from neck surgery, there’s a good chance they wouldn’t do it again. There’s otherwise no one who merits the restriction.
Houston Texans: None of the names on the list of potential Texans’ free agents screams out for the franchise tag, in large part because the team was 2-14 in 2013. Running back Ben Tate could be a candidate, if the Texans opt to move on from Arian Foster. But with plenty of young running backs available in all rounds of the draft (and after the draft ends), the tag should only be used for a truly special talent at the position. Defensive end Antonio Smith won’t get serious consideration for the tag, primarily because the Texans eventually will be making a gigantic investment in the other guy who plays that specific position for the Texans.
Indianapolis Colts: Punter Pat McAfee was tagged in 2013. At a 20-percent increase, he’d be entitled to $3.57 million if the Colts tag him again. That’s probably too much, given the market and the annual influx of young punters. (That said, the Colts should still try to re-sign him.) Other candidates include cornerback Vontae Davis, running back Donald Brown, and kicker Adam Vinatieri, who had one of the best years of his career. It would be hard to justify plunking down millions for Brown; Davis could be the guy who gets tagged — especially as the Colts try to justify the second-round pick that was sacrificed in 2013 to get him from the Dolphins during training camp in 2012.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Running back Maurice Jones-Drew could be one of the highest-profile free agents in team history, but age and injuries make it unlikely the Jaguars would plunk down more than $8 million to keep Jones-Drew around for a ninth season.
Kansas City Chiefs: Last year, the Chiefs managed to work out a long-term deal with receiver Dwayne Bowe and tag tackle Branden Albert. The Chiefs then tried — unsuccessfully — to trade Albert. After the struggles of rookie Eric Fisher at right tackle, the Chiefs may not be ready to entrust the left tackle position to the first overall pick in 2013. Which could force them to give Albert a 20-percent raise for 2014, or sign him to a long-term deal.
Miami Dolphins: Defensive tackle Randy Starks got the tag last year, at $8.45 million. It would cost $10.14 million to tag him again, which means it won’t happen. It would make more sense to plunk down a little more than that to tag cornerback Brent Grimes, who arrived on a one-year, $5.5 million deal and had a very solid season with the Dolphins.
Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings surely would love to keep defensive end Jared Allen around, but not at a 20-percent raise over his $17 million cap number for 2013. Beyond Allen, none of the other free agents are tag-worthy.
New England Patriots: Cornerback Aqib Talib will have a strong market, if he gets there. He’ll get there unless the Pats step up with a compelling multi-year offer — or unless the franchise tag is used. It’s a lot to pay for any non-quarterback, but Talib has become nearly as indispensable to the defense, especially in light of how the team played after he was injured against the Broncos in the AFC title game.
New Orleans Saints: Jimmy Graham will be tagged, unless the Saints work out a new contract with him before the deadline for applying the tag. It’s possible that the two sides will use the uncertainty of the tight end/receiver distinction to carve a middle ground. Barring that, the Saints will tag Graham as a tight end, Graham will argue that he’s actually a receiver, and a third-party will decide the first-year value of the long-term deal that inevitably will be negotiated in the middle of July.
New York Giants: The Giants would likely tag receiver Hakeem Nicks only if they believed it would be the precursor to a long-term deal. Based on his performance in 2013, the money already invested in Victor Cruz, and the potential of Reuben Randle, it makes no sense to make a long-term investment in Nicks. It’s far more realistic for the Giants to consider tagging linebacker Jon Beason or defensive tackle Linval Joseph.
New York Jets: Kicker Nick Folk could make the most sense, given the low tag for specialists and the importance of having a reliable kicker. If the Jets are inclined to spend a lot more than that, underrated right tackle Austin Howard could be a candidate. Still, few offensive linemen who don’t play left tackle earn that kind of money.
Oakland Raiders: With nearly $70 million in cap space for 2014, the Raiders could use the tag to keep any of their free agents around. Left tackle Jared Veldheer is the most likely candidate. Other options would be defensive end Lamarr Houston (he had a career-high six sacks in 2013) and possibly defensive tackle Pat Sims.
Philadelphia Eagles: For the second straight year, the Eagles have limited free agents. The biggest names are at receiver, but with DeSean Jackson already making $10 million in 2014, it’s hard to justify giving more than that to Riley Cooper. And with Jeremy Maclin recovering from a torn ACL suffered in training camp, it would be foolish to guarantee that much cash and cap space. Punter Donnie Jones could be an option for the tag, given the low magnitude of the franchise tag for specialists.
Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers opted not to use the tag last year on receiver Mike Wallace. They most likely won’t use it on receiver Emmanuel Sanders, especially in light of the money previously paid to 2011 and 2013 team MVP Antonio Brown. On defense, linebacker Jason Worillds could be a candidate, but the Steelers routinely let linebackers walk away via free agency, confident they’ll find a replacement from within.
San Diego Chargers: It likely will be linebacker Donald Butler or no one for Chargers. Talks on a new deal began last August; if a deal can’t be worked out, it could be time to tag Butler.
San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers have several free agents they need to keep. From receiver Anquan Boldin to cornerback Tarell Brown to safety Donte Whitner, none merit the big dollars payable on a one-year deal. As to kicker Phil Dawson, for whom coach Jim Harbaugh publicly has lobbied, the franchise tag isn’t an option — unless the 49ers want to pay him quarterback money. The grievance filed two years ago by Saints quarterback Drew Brees resulted in a determination that franchise tags applied in past years by other teams count toward the total franchise-tag determination. Because Dawson was tagged twice by the Browns, another tag by any team would result in application of the highest franchise tender for any position.
Seattle Seahawks: The tag could be applied to defensive end Michael Bennett, but that would more than double the $5 million he received on a one-year deal in 2013. With cornerback Richard Sherman surely wanting more money now and others surely wanting more soon, the Seahawks may be inclined to let Bennett walk — and to replace him with a veteran who is willing to take less than top market value in order to win a ring. If not Bennett, the Seahawks could be inclined to tag kicker Steven Hauscka. Last year, they managed to keep him despite not tagging him; this year, another team will be more likely to pounce.
St. Louis Rams: Left tackle Jake Long tore an ACL late in the 2013 season, making it important that the Rams keep tackle Rodger Saffold around. Given the ability of franchise-tagged players to stay away until the eve of the regular season without penalty, it would make the most sense to sign Saffold to a long-term deal, so that he’ll be around for offseason workouts as Long continues to rehab. If talks on a long-term deal fail, the Rams may have no real alternative to tagging Saffold.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs wouldn’t have a new coach and a new G.M. if the roster were stocked with great players. As a result, none of the impending free agents merit the tag.
Tennessee Titans: Of all of the team’s potential free agents, only cornerback Alterraun Verner stands out. Safety Bernard Pollard had a solid first year with the team, but not so good that it justifies the franchise tag.
Washington Redskins: If anyone gets tagged, it’ll be linebacker Brian Orakpo, who rebounded from a lost 2012 season with 10 sacks and a third career Pro Bowl berth. If the team can’t sign him to a long-term deal, the tag should be a no-brainer.