The beginning of March means the beginning of Franchise Season in the NFL. So get ready to read about a flurry of taggings over the weekend and into Monday.
The franchise tag allows teams to protect their investment -- which is a significant value. Even if a team does not particularly want to keep a player, or feels a long-term deal is hopeless, it can tag the player and put him on the trading block, knowing the value of the player is greater than the compensatory third-round pick the team could receive for losing a high-caliber player to free agency.
For example, let's examine the Eagles' situation. Philadelphia has enough salary-cap room to tag Jackson, but that doesn't necessarily mean he'll be donning midnight green in 2012. At the NFL Scouting Combine, Eagles brass broadcasted a clear message around the league that they would listen to trade offers for Jackson. This wasn't something that slipped out from a rogue source; Philadelphia basically took out a full-page ad in the paper announcing Jackson's availability. Teams don't make intentions this public if they are not truly interested in moving a player.
Now that Jackson's franchised, the Eagles are hoping a team will offer them more than a third-rounder -- the probable compensation if Jackson were to leave in free agency and Philly didn't go on another free-agency binge. (Compensatory picks are awarded to teams that lost more free agents than they gained.) Philadelphia initially will claim it wants a first-rounder, but privately will take a little less. Long story short: By franchising Jackson, the Eagles put themselves in position to possibly gain a better draft pick if the speedy receiver departs.
However, the Eagles will play hard ball with any potential Jackson trade. With cap room available, they can bring Jackson back for the franchise number if no enticing trade options materialize. This would force the mercurial receiver to prove his worth in a potential walk year. And if he does, Jackson could earn the long-term contract he desires. By tagging Jackson, the Eagles are in full control and don't have to make a deal they don't want to make.
But what if teams don't have the cap room, like the Steelers with regard to receiver Mike Wallace? The Steelers have decided to place a first-round tender on the restricted free agent. What does this mean? If another team makes Wallace an offer and Pittsburgh doesn't match it, the Steelers receive that team's first-round pick. This is a calculated risk on the part of the Steelers. Teams picking in the top 15 of the draft would be highly unlikely to give up their pick for Wallace -- not because he is not worth it, but because they would be trading a modestly-priced draft pick for a high-priced signing. And teams picking in the bottom half of the first round don't have the cap room to offer a deal that the Steelers could not match.
In order to snag Wallace away from the Steelers, a team needs to have a high cap number this year. The Steelers must match any deal as it is written -- they cannot re-jigger things to lower the cap number. Also, the deal cannot have any poison pills. Therefore, all it would take is a significantly high cap number and the Steelers would be in checkmate. If a team offered Wallace a deal with a cap number of around $12 million this year, Pittsburgh would lose its electric deep threat.
When considering teams that could potentially poach Wallace from the Steelers, one division rival comes to mind: Cincinnati. If the Bengals wanted to swing the balance of power in the AFC North in their favor -- and simultaneously deliver a huge blow to Pittsburgh -- they could easily make a high-cap-number deal with Wallace, gaining another Pro Bowl receiver to go along with A.J. Green. The cost for Wallace is a team's original first-rounder. Since the Bengals have the Raiders' No. 17 pick, they can trade their lower first rounder (21st overall), still have a valuable first-round pick and end up with an incredible talent like Wallace. The Bengals would have a hard time acquiring a receiver in this year's draft who is ready to dominate next season like Wallace. With Wallace and Green, Cincy could be a dangerously explosive offense. All it takes is the franchise letting go of some cash and eating up some cap room. But before Bengals fans get too excited, this is typically not how the Cincinnati organization runs.
Now, in some situations, the franchise tag is just a stall tactic as team and player work out a long-term deal. (Clearly, these players aren't available in the trade market.) However, forming a deal off the franchise number can create obstacles. Typically, the player and his agent want a three-year deal based on an annual 120 percent increase from the franchise number. Makes sense, right? Building a deal off the franchise number should be easy. But it isn't, and this is where negotiations break down.
The team's position is: Why pay the top rate on a long-term deal? Remember, time equals money in any negotiation. Therefore, executing a deal today should bring lesser value to the club than three years of the franchise number. Franchising a player is like renting a player -- a long-term deal should be less expensive over time, as it's always cheaper to buy than to rent.
The offseason has truly begun. I can't wait to see all the moves teams have in store for us in free agency. Don't forget: More games are won or lost during this time of the year than in the fall.
Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi