The NFL’s 32-man game of tag between teams and players has just begun.
The winners, though, are already decided.
It’s the clubs that keep their top pending free agents from testing the market through use of the franchise designation.
As a refresher, “non-exclusive” franchise players are technically allowed to test free agency. But the steep compensation demanded — two first-round draft picks and the right to match the contract offered — traditionally chills interest.
An “exclusive” franchise designation comes with a higher one-year salary than the already lucrative dollars being given to the “non-exclusive” class. But it prevents that player from negotiating with any suitors.
The franchise numbers are also less this year because of a new formulating mechanism worked into the collective bargaining agreement reached last summer between the NFL and NFL Players Association.
Wide receiver DeSean Jackson became the NFL’s first pending free agent Thursday when tagged by Philadelphia. If he were able to hit the open market March 13, it wouldn’t be considered unreasonable for Jackson to receive a guarantee of at least $15 million on a multiyear offer. Instead, Jackson is resigned to getting a one-year, $9.4 million salary in 2012 unless a long-term deal with the Eagles is reached.
Because the franchise tag doesn’t come cheap, some squads are unable to use it or have to make roster cuts to clear cap room. Other teams will be able to reach long-term deals before the NFL’s 4 p.m. ET Monday deadline to utilize the franchise designation. That scenario also gives clubs the freedom to tag another player.
Here is a look at how each team is handling its situation (one-year franchise salary number for the respective position is in parenthesis).
Philadelphia: Wide receiver DeSean Jackson ($9.4 million)
Jackson and agent Drew Rosenhaus both tried to place a positive spin on being franchised. Jackson, whose financial well-being was a hot topic of speculation in league circles last weekend at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, said he was “blessed” in a statement posted on his Twitter account. Rosenhaus addressed the possibility of a franchise designation Wednesday night with me and co-host Gil Brandt on Sirius XM NFL Radio.
“If a player is franchised, it certainly doesn’t mean you have to play for that franchise tag for that year,” Rosenhaus said. “You obviously have the opportunity to get a deal done afterwards before (training) camp starts . . . Believe me, we’re going to roll up our sleeves and hope that we can convert that into a multiyear deal.”
For that to happen, the Eagles must be convinced that Jackson’s erratic 2011 campaign was an aberration after his first three dynamic NFL seasons.
Dallas: Outside linebacker Anthony Spencer ($8.8 million)
From a pass-rush standpoint, Spencer has disappointed. He has never notched more than six sacks in five NFL seasons even with the luxury of being aligned opposite outside linebacker extraordinaire DeMarcus Ware. Spencer, though, is stout against the run and a better option than trying to spend more for a comparable free-agent replacement.
Washington: Tight end Fred Davis ($5.4 million)
Even though the position came to prominence in NFL passing games last season, the franchise-tag salary for tight ends is still modest compared to the one earned by wide receivers. Davis — who had a breakout 59-catch, 796-yard campaign in 2011 — is one of the Redskins’ few dangerous offensive threats.
New York Giants: None
The defending Super Bowl champions have 20 pending unrestricted free agents, most notably wide receiver Mario Manningham, cornerback Aaron Ross and punter Steve Weatherford. But it would be a surprise if New York considers any of them worthy of a franchise tag.
Arizona: Defensive end Calais Campbell ($10.6 million)
The hulking 6-foot-8, 300-pound Campbell has blossomed into one of the league’s top 3-4 ends. Even the notoriously frugal Cardinals didn’t let him get away, they gave him the non-exclusive tag on Friday.
Seattle: Running back Marshawn Lynch ($7.7 million)
The Seahawks are trying to finalize a long-term deal for Lynch, who was the NFL’s hottest rusher in the second half of last season. If the numbers can’t be worked out, Lynch is getting tagged.
San Francisco: Free safety Dashon Goldson ($6.2 million)
San Francisco appears confident enough it can re-sign quarterback Alex Smith so it used its non-exclusive franchise tag to keep the emerging Goldson in the fold.
St. Louis: None
The only candidate on a roster as talent-bare as this one would be wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, but that seems unlikely.
Detroit: Defensive end Cliff Avril ($8.8 million)
The defensive line is where Detroit is most heavily invested. This might be a sage move considering the Giants’ front four played such a key role in New York winning two of the past five Lombardi Trophies. Keeping a disruptive pass rusher like Avril is a must. But before the team can comfortably sign him to a contract extension, the Lions must extend wide receiver Calvin Johnson’s contract and lower his massive salary-cap number.
The Vikings avoided having to tag their top prospective free agent well in advance by signing running back Adrian Peterson to a seven-year, $96 million contract during the 2011 preseason. With Peterson having suffered a major knee injury in December, it will be interesting to see whether Minnesota ultimately suffers buyer’s remorse.
Chicago: Running back Matt Forte ($7.7 million)
General manager Jerry Angelo was unable to strike a deal with Forte before being fired at season’s end. New GM Phil Emery seems ready to follow the course that Angelo was set to take by franchising Forte, who might now wish he had accepted an in-season extension offer that included $13.5 million guaranteed over the next three seasons.
Green Bay: Nobody or quarterback Matt Flynn ($14.4 million)
The Packers won’t use the tag on Aaron Rodgers’ understudy unless first coming to a sign-and-trade agreement with another interested suitor. Flynn would likely command a second-round pick. But at least that trade partner (Miami? Cleveland?) wouldn’t have to worry about losing Flynn to another team in free agency.
Atlanta: Cornerback Brent Grimes ($10.6 million)
Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton is Atlanta’s leading tackler and would have come at a cheaper franchise price of $8.8 million. Grimes, though, plays too valuable a role in a shaky Falcons secondary to risk losing. They franchised him on Friday.
The top member of Carolina’s 11-player free-agent class is inside linebacker Dan Connor, but he doesn’t play a vital enough defensive role to warrant franchise status. Connor will carry more value to a team that deploys a 3-4 scheme.
Tampa Bay: Kicker Connor Barth ($2.7 million)
Barth finished second in field-goal percentage (92.9) to Atlanta’s Matt Bryant (93.1) among NFL kickers last season. It’s far more cost efficient short term for the Bucs to tag Barth, who would command at least double his franchise salary in signing bonus on the open market. But with Tampa Bay expected to have as much as $60 million in cap room, this is the time to sign Barth to a multiyear extension.
New Orleans: Quarterback Drew Brees ($14.4 million)
The Saints decided to franchise their star QB, FOXSports.com’s Jay Glazer reported Saturday. The inability to strike a deal with Brees is catastrophic for the Saints. New Orleans is now unable to utilize the franchise tag on standout left guard Carl Nicks, who was a more likely recipient than wide receiver and fellow free-agent-to-be Marques Colston. Brees also can construe the tag as a slap in the face for all he has done for the franchise since his arrival in 2006.
New England: Wide receiver Wes Welker ($9.4 million)
History shows that undersized slot receivers like Welker can begin to quickly decline in their 30s, which might be making the Patriots reticent to offer the kind of lucrative long-term contract he’s seeking. But Welker, who turns 31 in May, has shown no signs of slowing down any time soon. He posted career highs last season in receiving yards (1,569) and touchdowns (nine) on an NFL-high 122 catches.
The Dolphins will not use the tag on Paul Soliai for a second straight year, which will allow the jumbo nose tackle to hit the free-agent market. They need to keep cap space available to acquire a veteran quarterback like Peyton Manning or Matt Flynn, which makes using the franchise tag cost-prohibitive.
New York Jets: None
The Jets have too many positions that need addressing to tie up their limited cap space with a franchise player.
Buffalo: None or wide receiver Stevie Johnson ($8.8 million)
Bills fans will rightfully be outraged if Johnson — the only standout receiver on Buffalo’s roster — leaves elsewhere via free agency when he could have been tagged. Luring a free-agent replacement to an NFL outpost like Buffalo would be difficult, which is why the franchise designation is a possibility for Johnson if contract talks remain fruitless.
Cincinnati: Kicker Mike Nugent ($2.7 million)
I initially wrote that quickly improving defensive tackle Pat Sims was the lone franchise candidate. But the Bengals saw how many kickers were being franchised and decided to act on Nugent, who has finally fulfilled the promise that made him a 2005 second-round pick.
Cleveland: Kicker Phil Dawson ($2.7 million)
By becoming an off-field head case, running back Peyton Hillis won’t be getting tagged. Dawson, the only member of Cleveland’s 1999 expansion team still on the roster, remains a consistent kicker who knows how to deal with the nasty winds that can come off Lake Erie. But at 37 years old, it would be understandable if the Browns handled Dawson on a season-by-season basis.
ESPN first reported that Pittsburgh will use a restricted free-agent tender on wide receiver Mike Wallace rather than the franchise tag. That means Wallace will count only $2.7 million against Pittsburgh’s tight salary cap. But the Steelers also run a far greater risk of losing one of the NFL’s top young deep threats. Under the new CBA rules, teams only must surrender a first-round draft pick if the offer sheet signed by an RFA isn’t matched — rather than first- and third-rounders as in the previous labor accord. Wallace could be attractive to a team with a wide receiver need picking late in the first round, like New England or San Francisco.
Baltimore: Ray Rice ($7.7 million)
The Ravens officially franchised Rice on Friday but won’t be able to work on signing him for the long haul until they finalize a new contract with Joe Flacco. Flacco’s contract will impact the team’s salary cap.
Jacksonville: Kicker Josh Scobee ($2.7 million)
Scobee has become one of the NFL’s top long-distance kickers, making five of six attempts from 50-plus yards and seven of eight from 40-plus last season. The Jaguars want cornerback Rashean Mathis back but not at the $10.6 million it would take to franchise him.
Media reports indicate the Colts are close to a contract extension with defensive end Robert Mathis. Wide receiver Pierre Garcon would be the next top pending free agent on Indianapolis’ radar, but the Colts probably won’t have the cap space to tag him.
Cornerback Cortland Finnegan and defensive lineman Jason Jones are Tennessee’s top free agents, but the Titans don’t seem inclined to tag either.
Houston: Running back Arian Foster ($7.7 million)
Rather than run a much higher risk of losing the 2010 NFL rushing champion through use of a first-round RFA tender, the Texans will bite the bullet and franchise Foster a year before he is set to become an unrestricted free agent. Such a decision will cost Houston any shot at retaining Mario Williams, who would then leave for what is projected as the most lucrative contract ever given a free-agent defensive end.
Denver: Kicker Matt Prater ($2.7 million)
A 76 percent field-goal kicker in 2011, Prater compensates for what he lacks in accuracy with a booming leg and a penchant for shining in late-game situations. Lousy drafts in 2008 and 2009 have left the Broncos without top-tier talent to lose as RFAs or UFAs.
Shortly after Philadelphia’s decision to franchise DeSean Jackson was announced, media reports surfaced that Oakland was doing the same with Branch. This makes the Raiders even more likely to trim high-priced defensive players like Kamerion Wimbley, Aaron Curry, Tommy Kelly and John Henderson barring restructured contracts to get under the salary cap.
The Chiefs weren’t close to signing Bowe or cornerback Brandon Carr to new contracts last weekend at the NFL Scouting Combine. Kansas City has already prepared for Carr’s loss by signing former Oakland cornerback Stanford Routt.
San Diego: None
Speaking at the combine, Chargers general manager A.J. Smith wouldn’t dismiss the possibility of franchising wide receiver Vincent Jackson. But by doing so for a second consecutive season, Jackson’s tender would skyrocket to $13.7 million under CBA rules. Jackson is expected to hit the market and will command the largest salary among available wideouts.