The NFL calendar never ends; it just changes seasons. Business season has arrived.
Monday marks the first day that teams can place the franchise tag on prospective free agents. Teams have until March 3 in which they can use the designation.
Only eight players were tagged last season after a record 21 players were tagged in 2012. This year, we project 10 players to get the franchise tag. With a lot of help from some tasty insider-y nuggets from NFL Media's Ian Rapoport, our annual franchise tag predictions are below.
(First, some housekeeping: The tag is a one-year, guaranteed contract offer that prevents a player from hitting free agency. The salary is based on the five-year average cap percentage for the tag at each position. Rough estimates for this season's tags are in the table to the right.)
1. Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints, tight end: The best free agent this season will never hit the open market. The only question is whether the Saints can sign Graham to a long-term deal before the season.
When Graham is tagged, expect it to be as a tight end despite all his snaps in the slot and out wide as a receiver. And when that happens, fully expect Graham to file a grievance in an effort to get wide receiver money.
3. Brent Grimes, Miami Dolphins, cornerback: The franchise number for cornerbacks is huge, but Grimes is a top-10 player at his position, and the Dolphins have plenty of cap room. A one-year deal at his age makes some sense, so don't necessarily expect a long-term contract.
These choices aren't quite as obvious, but we predict the players below get a tag.
4. T.J. Ward, Cleveland Browns, safety: Ward almost made the "no brainer" category, but it's worth remembering that this is a new Browns regime running the show. They could have different ideas on how to build a defense. One possibility is that coach Mike Pettine could have some interest in his old Bills safety Jairus Byrd. Then again ...
5. Jairus Byrd, Buffalo Bills, safety: The Bills would have to pay Byrd $8.299 million if they tagged him for a second consecutive season. There is very little chance of a long-term deal here and there will be a lot more drama between Byrd and the Bills if he's tagged again. (Byrd and his camp won't take it well.) Still, it makes little sense for Buffalo to just let Byrd leave.
7. Vontae Davis, Indianapolis Colts, cornerback: I anticipate a long-term deal, but let's give Davis the tag for now. (This might be an upset to some.) His 2013 play was a lot more uneven than Pro Football Focus' rankings indicate, but Davis has rare man-coverage skills. Throw in Indianapolis' copious amount of cap room, and he's not going anywhere.
8. Jared Veldheer, Oakland Raiders, offensive tackle: Defensive end Lamarr Houston is another possibility for the Raiders, but the defensive end tag number is much higher. (And Houston isn't a natural fit for Dennis Allen's system.) It's possible the Raiders could try to save some money and give the transition tag to Veldheer. That would allow them to match any offer sheet Veldheer signs elsewhere.
9. Michael Bennett, Seattle Seahawks, defensive end: If the Seahawks have to cut Chris Clemons to keep Bennett, they should do it. Bennett's shoulder, which held up in 2013, could be one reason Seattle would be comfortable with a one-year deal. Some teams believed Bennett needed to undergo surgery last offseason.
Close, but not quite
The following players should be considered for a tag, but we don't think they'll get one.
1. B.J. Raji, Green Bay Packers, defensive tackle: At one point last season, the Packers were willing to pay Raji $8 million per season. But Rapoport swears Green Bay is looking for more athletic linemen and are ready to move on from Raji. (In short, this one is on you Rapsheet!)
2. Michael Johnson, Cincinnati Bengals, defensive end: It's tough to tag a player two consecutive seasons because he gets 120 percent of last year's already high salary. Johnson would be due $13 million, and Rapoport says that's just too much for the Bengals to stomach. Johnson is one of the most underrated defensive ends in the league. He's going to make a killing on the open market, possibly by joining his old defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer in Minnesota.
8. Branden Albert, Kansas City Chiefs, offensive tackle: He would cost too much after getting tagged last year, and he hasn't been that reliable on or off the field. The Chiefs need last year's No. 1 pick Eric Fisher to step up.
9 & 10. Everson Griffen and Jared Allen, Minnesota Vikings, defensive ends: They are at different stages of their careers, but both pass rushers are intriguing names to watch over the next month. Griffen could re-sign with Minnesota.
11 & 12. Aqib Talib (cornerback) and Julian Edelman (wide receiver), New England Patriots: Talib was the single toughest name to leave off the list of tags above because he's so integral to what the Patriots do. Still, it's a lot more likely he signs a long-term deal to stay rather than getting tagged. Edelman has virtually no chance to be tagged despite his career year. The Patriots just don't value receivers that much, especially ones that spend half their time in the slot.
14. Alterraun Verner, Tennessee Titans, cornerback: The Titans already gave Jason McCourty big long-term money. Jim Wyatt of the Tennessean has reported Verner, a Pro Bowler this season, won't be tagged.
16. Donald Butler, San Diego Chargers, linebacker: The two sides are reportedly working on a contract. If that doesn't work out, it's hard to imagine San Diego allocating $11 million for an inside linebacker.