— Fourteen players received the franchise tag in 2011. That set an NFL record, and my guess is that another record will be set this year.
Let’s take a look at what players are likely to get the tag this year, and what players are on the bubble. You will not find a more complete franchise tag primer on the internet, possibly because no one is more bored than me without football in my life.
It would be stunning if these players don’t receive the franchise tag, barring a long-term contract beforehand. Tags can be applied on Monday, Feb. 20. The deadline for applying the tag is March 5, more than a week before free agency starts.
Each team can use one franchise tag. It allows teams to retain a potential unrestricted free agent with a one-year contract offer. The contract is for the average of the five largest prior year’s salaries at their position. For example, the running back tag this year is expected to be around $8 million — the average of the top five running backs last year.
1. Ray Rice, Ravens running back
Guard Ben Grubbs is a nice player, but Rice fuels the entire Ravens offense. This is an easy call. Rice could remain unsigned for much of the offseason before reaching a long-term agreement.
2. Calais Campbell, Cardinals defensive end
Campbell picked up Ray Horton’s 3-4 defense faster than his celebrated (and effective) teammate Darnell Dockett. Campbell is only 25-years-old and will be difficult to sign long term. His representation knows his value.
3. Matt Forte, Bears running back
The saga continues. Forte won’t like it, but paying elite running backs on a year-by-year basis makes financial sense for NFL teams. It minimizes the risk.
4. Jermichael Finley, Packers tight end
Multiple reports in Green Bay indicate that quarterback Matt Flynn is not an option for the tag. Let’s trust them. Finley is a perfect tag candidate because he’s young, wildly talented, and the Packers probably aren’t quite sold yet that Finley deserves elite long-term money.
5. Drew Brees, Saints quarterback
Yeah, you might want to hold on to this guy. Brees has all sorts of leverage because the Saints would love to wrap up his deal before March 5 so they can use the tag on receiver Marques Colston or guard Carl Nicks.
Ultimately, it’s hard to rush a deal this big. If the Saints do sign Brees long-term, Nicks seems more likely to get a tag. Colston might be easier to sign long-term.
6. DeSean Jackson, Eagles wide receiver
The Eagles reportedly will try to tag and trade Jackson. Big playmakers are hard to find, so there should be plenty of interest. Then again, Andy Reid may not be eager to deal his best deep threat before a “win-or-else” season.”
7. Fred Davis, Redskins tight end
Davis is the most explosive player on Washington’s offense. He’s also one joint away from a year-long suspension. This is an easy choice; the Redskins need weapons.
8. Brent Grimes, Falcons cornerback
Grimes is an above-average starting cornerback in his prime. It makes no sense to just let a guy like that walk away. (Unless you are the Bengals, circa 2011.)
Initially, I thought the team might seriously consider tagging linebacker Curtis Lofton. But Grimes is the far better choice and will be tough to get signed to a long extension.
THE TOUGH CALLS
The next 11 players aren’t slam dunk picks to be franchised, but I’m predicting they will all get tagged for a league-wide total of 19 players. That number will get reduced if players on this list receive long-term deals before March 5. The list is in no particular order.
9. Anthony Spencer, Cowboys linebacker
The Cowboys love to overpay their own players. Jerry Jones doesn’t want to lose a starter.
10. Matt Prater, Broncos kicker
John Elway prays to you, Matt Prater. Defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley isn’t that crazy an option here, especially if the Broncos can sign Prater long-term.
11. Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks running back
This probably isn’t that tough of a choice for the Seahawks. It should be. Running backs are replaceable and Lynch has experienced more downs than ups in his career. He was mediocre for two and a half seasons before a strong stretch run. $8 million is a lot of a money. Still, a one-year deal is much more palatable for Seattle than a long-term contract.
12. Brandon Carr, Chiefs cornerback
If Vegas set odds on franchise tags, Dwayne Bowe would be the heavy favorite in Kansas City. I’m going with the underdog.
Bowe is not a Scott Pioli type of guy in terms of attitude or consistency. He’s a better fantasy football player than in reality. In a perfect world, the Chiefs would sign Carr long-term and franchise Bowe. That’s a realistic scenario.
I’m writing in an imperfect world before any big deals are made. If the choice is Carr or Bowe, the rising young cornerback is the pick.
13. Wes Welker, Patriots receiver
The Patriots could let Welker gauge his market value, but why risk it? They should be confident they can reach a long-term deal. Using the tag buys them some time.
14. Sione Pouha, Jets nose tackle
The most underrated player on the Jets is 33. That makes him a perfect candidate for a one-year contract. The Jets could gamble they will get Pouha back for less money in free agency, but Rex Ryan will freak out if they lose him.
15. Dashon Goldson, 49ers safety
The cornerback tag costs too much for a 31-year-old like Carlos Rogers. Linebacker Ahmad Brooks is a solid player, but not worth it. Tagging Goldson is the best move.
16. Stevie Johnson, Bills receiver
Johnson can be a knucklehead. He’s also the best receiver on a team with a ridiculous amount of cap space. It will be tough for the Bills to explain to their fans why they let him just walk away.
17. Josh Scobee, Jaguars kicker
The franchise tender for kickers is so low, it’s silly not to use it. If you are looking for a big surprise tag, Jaguars defensive end Jeremy Mincey is an option.
18. Cortland Finnegan, Titans cornerback
The Titans don’t appear that interested in signing Finnegan long-term. That’s a curious decision, but letting a top-tier cornerback go without getting anything in return makes less sense.
19. Cliff Avril, Lions defensive end
Pure pass rushers just hitting their prime don’t usually get to the open market. Detroit should do everything possible to keep Avril.
Remember that I’m choosing what I think will happen, not what should happen. The following players will at least be considered for a tag.
1. Arian Foster, Texans running back
Let’s also rule out a tag for Mario Williams because it would cost roughly $21 million. That would be crippling for a team so close to the cap. The offensive lineman tag is also too high even for a great center like Chris Myers.
I debated Foster for a while. He’s a restricted free agent, but it makes a lot of sense to tag him. A team like the Bengals or Patriots might be willing to give up a first-round pick and try to sign Foster to a big offer sheet. John McClain of the Houston Chronicle says the Texans plan to match any offer sheet, but they won’t tag Foster. That’s good enough for me.
2. Mike Wallace, Steelers receiver
The Steelers should find a way to tag Wallace. They have serious cap problems, so it will be difficult. Another team could try to take advantage of Pittsburgh’s situation and sign Wallace to a front-loaded offer sheet. A late first-round pick is not a huge price to give up for one of the game’s best deep threats.
3. Browns linebacker D’Qwell Jackson
Jackson is a great player, but he’s an inside linebacker. The projected linebacker franchise tag (over $9 million) is pass rusher money. Kicker Phil Dawson could also be a consideration.
4. Michael Bush, Raiders running back
The old Raiders would tag Bush. New G.M. Reggie McKenzie knows he doesn’t need to pay that much for a back, especially with Darren McFadden on the roster. Safety Tyvon Branch is a better candidate in Oakland. A long-term deal with Branch seems more likely.
5. Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs receiver
See Brandon Carr, above. If Carr gets a long-term deal, Bowe should be tagged.
6. Robert Mathis, Colts defensive end
The Colts talked about how badly they want to keep Mathis. It just isn’t logical. He’s a great pure pass rusher, but doesn’t fit with new coach Chuck Pagano’s physical, 3-4 defensive background. $11 million is a lot to pay for a rebuilding team.
7. Paul Soliai, Dolphins defensive tackle
The Dolphins tagged Soliai last year. It’s too expensive to do it again, and the defensive scheme is changing.
8. Vincent Jackson, Chargers receiver
All reports indicate the Chargers are likely to let Jackson go instead of tagging him for roughly $13 million. A last minute change of heart by the Chargers wouldn’t be stunning because San Diego knows Jackson is as good as gone if he hits the open market.
TEAMS WITH NO TAG CANDIDATES
Just so you didn’t think I forgot about you guys. Here are the teams without any realistic tag candidates: Carolina, Cincinnati, Minnesota, New York Giants, St. Louis, and Tampa Bay.
And that’s more information about franchise tags than you probably wanted.