The NFL offseason is in full swing, as the NFL Scouting Combine is in the rearview mirror and teams have now assigned their franchise tags before the start of free agency (March 13). A total of 21 players received the tag, some of which are no strangers in the world of fantasy football. In fact, five of those player finished in the top five in fantasy points at their position last season.
Here's a look at the most prominent franchised fantasy players and their outlook for 2012:
Drew Brees, QB, Saints: The Saints assigned the exclusive-rights franchise tag to Brees, so he's not allowed to talk to other teams. While reports suggest the two sides are far apart in contract negotiations, the talented quarterback will no doubt be wearing black and gold next season and far into the future. Whether or not he has OG Carl Nicks and WR Marques Colston back with him in the offensive attack remains to be seen, however. The second-highest scoring player in fantasy football last season, Brees will be one of the first 10 players selected in drafts.
Ray Rice, RB, Ravens: Rice, the highest-scoring running back in fantasy football last season, was assigned the franchise tag by the Ravens as the two sides work towards a long-term deal. The Rutgers product posted a monster 2011 campaign with career bests in yardage and total touchdowns, and he'll retain a featured role in the offensive attack for OC Cam Cameron -- that makes him even more attractive in fantasy land. A surefire top-five selection in all 2012 drafts, it's tough to see the 25-year-old Rice not continuing to find statistical success moving forward.
Matt Forte, RB, Bears: One of the top running backs in fantasy land, Forte might be forced to play next season at the $7.7 million franchise tag if the Bears don't sign him to a long-term deal. As long as things don't get ugly between the two sides (fantasy owners don't want to see another holdout situation), Forte will be worth as much as a low first-round selection in leagues with 12-plus teams and a second rounder in 10-team formats. Before suffering a knee injury, the Tulane product was on pace to record 69 receptions and 1,983 scrimmage yards last season.
Dwayne Bowe, WR, Chiefs: The Chiefs waited until the eleventh hour to franchise Bowe, who could end up playing the 2012 season on a one-year tender. If that's the case and he's ultimately singing for his supper, Bowe will be more motivated to find statistical success. While he did produce a career best 81 receptions and a respectable 1,159 yards in 2011, Bowe also scored 10 fewer touchdowns than he did in the previous season. With a healthy Matt Cassel under center and Brian Daboll now running the offense, look for Bowe to put up high-end No. 2 fantasy wideout totals in 2012.
DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles: Jackson is coming off one of the worst statistical seasons of his career, but the Eagles still assigned him the franchise tag. That doesn't guarantee he'll remain with the team, though. NFL Network's Michael Lombardi reports that the Eagles are hoping a team will offer them "more than a third-rounder" in trade talks. Assuming he does remain in green and black, I don't see Jackson as more than a high-end No. 3 fantasy wideout. While he might be talented, the California product is also widly inconsistent in the stat sheets.
Wes Welker, WR, Patriots: Welker, the third highest-scoring fantasy player at his position in 2011, has established himself as one of the league's most productive wideouts. Coming off his best statistical campaign, the Texas Tech product recorded career highs in yardage and touchdowns while also averaging 12.9 yards per catch. There's no doubt that catching passes from the great Tom Brady has vaulted Welker's level of production -- and draft value -- so remaining with the Patriots is a best-case scenario even if it's on a franchise tag and not under a new deal.
Fred Davis, TE, Redskins: A potential breakout player in fantasy circles next season, Davis is coming off a 2011 campaign that saw him post career bests in receptions and yardage. What makes that accomplishment even more impressive is that he did it in just 12 games -- Davis was suspended for the final four games for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. While that league discipline does make Davis at least somewhat of a risk, he's the perfect tight end to target in the middle to late rounds if you're more inclined to wait on the position on draft day.
Tyvon Branch, DB, Raiders: One of the top defensive backs in IDP fantasy football leagues, Branch finished the 2011 campaign with 109 total tackles, one sack, four passes defensed and one interception. That was good enough to help the Connecticut product finish 11th in fantasy points at his position on NFL.com. The bigger fantasy impact here is that the Raiders decided to franchise Branch, not Michael Bush, leaving the veteran running back to become a free agent. Assuming he leaves, the value of Bush, Darren McFadden and Taiwan Jones would all rise.
Cliff Avril, DL, Lions: Avril has been assigned a non-exclusive franchise tag, meaning he can negotiate with other teams but the Lions can match any offer. The Purdue product is coming off his best NFL season with career bests in solo tackles, sacks and forced fumbles. Those totals, in addition to his four passes defensed, one interception and one touchdown, helped Avril finish fifth in fantasy points among defensive linemen based on NFL.com's standard IDP scoring system. His continued presence would obviously also help the Lions defense retain value in 2012.
Calais Campbell, DL, Cardinals:Fantasy owners in traditional leagues might not know Campbell's name, but he's coming off his best statistical season with career bests in tackles, sacks, passes defensed and forced fumbles. Based on the strength of those numbers, he finished an impressive third in fantasy points among defensive linemen -- Jason Pierre-Paul and Jared Allen were the lone players ranked ahead of him. At 25 and just now entering the prime of his career, Campbell will no doubt be one of the top options at his position in IDP leagues next season.