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Among franchise tag options, defenders reign supreme

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We are now less than a week from the deadline (Feb. 25) by which teams must apply the franchise tag to prevent potential unrestricted free agents from hitting the market. A record 14 players were tagged last year, and many of them ended up having less-than-stellar seasons.

We won't see anything close to that kind of franchise action this season, and I can't imagine more than one or two teams utilizing the additional franchise or transition tag at their disposal via the uncapped rules. But in the cases of several impact veterans, the tag will be applied if the team and player cannot hash out an extension in the next week.

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General managers and personnel folks, when not studying draft prospects in Indianapolis next week at the combine, will be spending their evenings meeting with agents, and the activity around the players on this list will be intense. There will be efforts to work out a long-term arrangement (players generally bristle at being tagged in a sport where injury is such a risk), but that's never a given. And with franchise-tender amounts relatively low at positions like defensive tackle and safety, those are the areas where the designations make the most sense.

With that in mind, there are six players who stand the best chance of being franchised right now. Four of them are defensive tackles -- Vince Wilfork (New England), Casey Hampton (Pittsburgh), Aubrayo Franklin (San Francisco), and Ryan Pickett (Green Bay) -- as well as safety Darren Sharper (New Orleans) and defensive end Richard Seymour (Oakland). Notice not one of them on the offensive side of the ball --this is a particularly bereft free-agent class at the "skill" positions -- and the franchise designation and advanced age of the potential free agents on offense generally precludes putting a franchise tag on them at this point.

In the case of these six players, a franchise tag makes sense. For defensive tackles, the $7 million price tag for players of this quality is affordable (especially in an uncapped year). A long-term deal might make even more sense for a younger guy like Wilfork or Franklin, but the tag is a quality tool here from a team's perspective.

Paying Sharper a franchise tag of roughly $6.5 million -- given his age and injury history -- is a little high, but his impact with the Saints was profound. He is a key cog for defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to deploy in the backfield, and losing him would create a deep void. Working out a two-year contract might be ideal, but no way do you let him walk out the door regardless.

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Seymour's tag would carry a $12.4 million number, but after giving up a (potential top 10) first-round pick for the nine-year veteran, the Raiders can't let him leave for more coin after just one year (and another season near the basement at that).

There are a few other cases that could develop -- Houston corner Dunta Robinson, in particular, though he would cost $12 million (his number goes up because it would be the second straight year he is tagged). Ultimately, with other big contracts due soon, I don't see the Texans going the franchise route with him again.

And if there is one team that it may make sense to use the extra tag, it's the Steelers. Jeff Reed's eyes likely lit up at the $9-million guaranteed fellow kicker Sebastian Janikowski got from the Raiders this week. He'd be looking at that as comparable in negotiations (kicking as well as Reed does in Heinz Field is no joke, despite some of his off-field missteps), and the Steelers, who are as fiscally shrewd as any club, aren't generally inclined to pay that much at that position. They could transition Reed for $2.6 million, however, if a long-term deal isn't in the works. Wouldn't be the first time a kicker was franchised/transitioned, though with no one knowing what a new CBA would look like post-2010, perhaps it would be the last.

For more information on NFL labor, visit nfllabor.com.

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