In a few weeks the current CBA expires. We don't know what the future scope of labor rules will entail, but that won't stop teams from widely applying the franchise tag this month, beginning Thursday.
The league has advised its clubs that starting Feb. 10, they can begin tagging players for the 2011 season. The NFLPA objects, saying that, since there is no CBA binding for the 2011 season, players cannot be franchised and, as we are still basically within the 2010 league year, the current CBA precludes using a tag twice in one league year. It's nothing new to see labor and management at odds over some collective bargaining minutia, and in this case, they might be essentially arguing over nothing.
These franchise tags, if we don't have a deal come March 4, and if we reach a lockout, won't really mean anything. And these franchise tags, if the new CBA no longer includes the designations, would obviously be worthless. However, while there are certainly no guarantees that franchise tags will be a part of the next labor deal, I'd be quite surprised if they are not included. The terminology could change, but the idea that clubs get to retain a top free-agent-to-be (or two) for another year by making him among the five or 10 highest paid at his position, is very likely to remain.
So as we watch this exercise play out over the coming weeks, it begs the question -- what does this really mean?
Well, first of all, it amounts to some CYA (Cover Your...) housekeeping for teams. There is no reason not to use them. It requires no financial commitment right now, and while we would assume that a new CBA, which includes franchise tags, would also include a new window for 2011 by which to apply them, why take that risk if you don't have to? And if all of this ultimately amounts to a meaningless paper transaction, and franchise tags dissolve, well, it's not like it took clubs any great amount of time or resources to send out franchise letters and notifications in the first place.
Regardless of what ends up happening with these tags, it will be telling to see who gets them. By tagging a player, teams are sending a message to the rest of the NFL about their intent. It's a signal to the marketplace that this franchised player, in pretty much every case, won't be going anywhere. It's also letting that player and his agent know that, whenever we do have a new CBA, he is THE offseason priority (except in obvious cases where a team is just protecting their rights to a player so they can trade him).
Players, by and large, hate the tag. It provides no long-term security and does not protect against the possibility of injury. But given all of the labor uncertainty of 2010, and the impact of the uncapped year on the ability of some teams and players to reach a long-term extension, it's a tool teams are going to covet, regardless of future ramifications.
Last year, six players played the season under franchise tags -- four defensive linemen and two kickers -- while many more were initially tagged and then signed. Expect more this season. Teams won't risk looking like fools for failing to apply the tag now, only to find out later that these few weeks in February were in fact the only time to attempt to secure talent in this manner. The mere prospect of "use it or lose it" will prompt general managers to go ahead and do so.
None of these situations will generate more attention than the two quarterbacks involved in these discussions -- Peyton Manning and Michael Vick. The Colts and owner Jim Irsay, in particular, continue to hint that something big is in the works, and they've been exchanging numbers with Manning's agent, Tom Condon. No one in the NFL would be surprised if Indianapolis announced a new deal, shattering the $20-million per season threshold this month, particularly while the city is hosting the NFL Scouting Combine and within a year of hosting a Super Bowl. But in the meantime, the Colts lose nothing while applying the franchise tag and working toward a pre-March 4 deal.
The Eagles and Vick have not discussed a long-term deal, and the franchise tag has been an eventuality in this case for quite some time. At some point, Vick will likely land a three-year deal that could end up averaging $15 million per season, along the lines of what Julius Peppers received from the Bears last year. But a lot of work would have to be done between now and then. Until that point, the franchise tag will suffice. Some Eagles officials are out of town this week, and look for them to apply the tag on Vick next week. Securing Vick is a prerequisite to dealing Kevin Kolb, and the Eagles aren't going to take any chances here.
Two names at the forefront of the battle between teams and franchised players from 2010 are likely to find themselves right back in the middle of this argument. Vincent Jackson threatened to sit out all of 2010 rather than play for a one-year tender. He finally came back, but after spending time on the roster-exempt list, it was essentially a lost season for him. San Diego's run atop the AFC West ended, and the team could always use playmakers. While there are some lingering bruised feelings between the sides -- the kind that could make inking a long-term deal difficult (to say nothing of the Chargers' off-field concerns about Jackson) -- a one-year, franchise-tag, band aid is a very real possibility.
Things got nasty between the Patriots and guard Logan Mankins as well. And despite him sitting out roughly half the season, he still earned Pro Bowl honors and helped the team's push to a 14-2 record. Like with Jackson, a long-term marriage might not make sense, but New England is a legit Super Bowl threat every season, and it doesn't get there by letting talent walk out of the building while still in its prime. They franchised Vince Wilfork last season, and they've applied it to Matt Cassel and Asante Samuel and others before. They'll do it again.
The Baltimore Ravens could be the first team to go ahead and actually apply the tag. There is absolutely no doubt they place it on defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. He will get a massive new deal once there is a new CBA, but until then, the Ravens will take no chances. They don't want to insult Ngata with a low offer, according to sources, and will just go ahead and tag him before working to secure him for years to come once we have labor certainty. It's worth noting, however, that the tag for defensive tackles could nearly double -- from $7 million in 2010 to $12.5 million in 2011 -- given Redskins tackle Albert Haynesworth's $21 million bonus from 2010, as well as new long-term deals for Casey Hampton, Wilfork and Ryan Pickett. The 49ers are still contemplating re-applying the franchise tag to defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin, according to sources.
Few teams, if any, have done a better job of securing their core players to extensions in recent years than the Packers. But the franchise number for defensive tackles is rising, and they have developed a deep and talented group at this position. Cullen Jenkins was a force in the playoffs once healthy, and has been underrated for a long time, but he is also 30, and the Packers are deep at his position. This has led some execs to project he will not get the franchise tag (which does not preclude him still eventually re-signing there).
"I'm a Packer," Jenkins told me a few days before the Super Bowl. "I've always been a Packer. Hopefully, I'll always be a Packer."
While much has been made of which free-agent receiver the Jets will sign first -- Braylon Edwards or Santonio Holmes -- the reality is neither was given a whole lot of consideration for the franchise tag. Linebacker David Harris is at the backbone of that defense, and while there is no doubt he will eventually get a long-term deal like Darrelle Revis and Nick Mangold did a year ago, he will be franchised in the interim, according to sources.
The Vikings face some tough decisions as well. Defensive end Ray Edwards has made an impact the past two seasons, and with an aging defensive line, he would be a key part of their future. But Edwards is also in line for a massive payday and given the Vikings' quarterback issues, they need playmakers on that side of the ball. Receiver Sidney Rice might make more sense to franchise. He has three accrued seasons and four or more will likely be required for unrestricted free agency in a new CBA.
Steelers outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley and Kansas City's Tamba Hali are both seeking the deal DeMarcus Ware received from the Cowboys. The 30-percent rule and some other factors have made that difficult, but neither will be going anywhere. Both will be tagged, if nothing else. The Chiefs held some exploratory talks with Hali at the Senior Bowl, and perhaps could get something done before March 4. The Steelers have been taking more of the tact the Ravens are with Ngata, and are awaiting the rules in the new CBA before diving into negotiations.
Jacksonville's Marcedes Lewis has emerged as one of the best tight ends in the game, and franchise designations are quite manageable at that position. I expect the Jags to tag him, and a league source says they will do just that as they try to work out a long-term deal. The Raiders might also tag their tight end, Zach Miller (however, Oakland has had no talks about an extension for Miller to this point, according to a league source).
At a time in which all of us -- fans, media, agents, executives -- are essentially in limbo, I'm eagerly awaiting to see who gets tagged and who does not. I'll take my news any way I can get it in the NFL calendar, even if, well, you know, the tag itself ends up meaning nothing in a week or a month.
Super Bowl redux
Yes, last week did not go precisely how the league or the Cowboys or the good people of the Dallas/Fort Worth area would have hoped or expected. But in the end we still got a heck of a football game. Remember how all we ever heard for years was how bad the Super Bowl was? What a sour note to end the season on? Blowout after blowout? Games over at the half?
Well, now it seems we're getting a little spoiled, to the point that maybe we don't appreciate what we're seeing. Big Ben with the ball in his hands and two minutes to go and the season on the line? That's what it's all about. Sure, the drive ended a little sooner than many figured, but the mere fact that we had a chance to perhaps see another Drive is pretty cool in its own right.
The game had several twists and turns with injuries, momentum swings, etc., even though the lead never changed hands. For me, though, the Rashard Mendenhall fumble changed everything. The Steelers had seized control, and were exerting their will on both sides of the line. Injuries were mounting for the Packers, and Pittsburgh was dominating field position. That's when Clay Matthews made a play (doesn't he always?), and Green Bay went down and scored. The Steelers never got close enough again.
Matthews deserves full marks for his work shadowing Roethlisberger and clogging up the middle of the pocket and not letting him make plays with his feet. And though Green Bay's defense might have sagged at times, it did something Pittsburgh's vaunted defense did not -- make game-changing plays. Three of them in fact. Troy Polamalu never looked close to being right in the postseason, and that was again the case in the Super Bowl. Woodley and Lawrence Timmons were held in check, and Green Bay's injury-struck secondary far outperformed Pittsburgh's unit.
That pretty much was the difference. The Packers do have the best group of receivers in the NFL, especially in those pristine conditions like Sunday. But given their small-market limitations and the fact that Donald Driver is nearing the end, I expect them to continue finding gems in the draft and reloading. James Jones, with three accrued seasons, is headed for restricted free agency this offseason, and Jordy Nelson is one year behind him.
I would not be surprised to see teams take a run at them, even as restricted free agents, when the CBA dust settles. Those guys are young, starting quality talent, and just one more testament to why the Green Bay front office is so superb.