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New wrinkles to franchise tag, salary cap happened for reason

INDIANAPOLIS -- After covering the lockout for more than five months, and just a few hours after it officially ended in front of NFLPA headquarters in Washington, I was on a train to Philadelphia to cover Michael Vick's arrival and pending contract situation.

I'm sure many people in the football business had a similar experience. The point is, after the NFL's first work stoppage in 24 years came to an end, professional football started moving at 100 miles per hour and the foot didn't come off the gas until the final gun of Super Bowl XLVI sounded. So there have been some details in the new collective bargaining agreement that slipped through the cracks and are just coming to light now, because of how they affect the 700 or so free agents who will hit the market March 13.

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How to get caught up? I can help. You've got questions, I have answers. Allow me to explain how some of the final pieces came together in the new CBA and, just as important, why they fell into place the way they did.

Why are the franchise-tag numbers lower?

The owners fought hard for this one, arguing that the tag numbers in 2011 had been artificially inflated because clubs had stashed money in the uncapped year. The Redskins, for example, did that with DeAngelo Hall and Albert Haynesworth, which caused seismic jumps in the franchise figures at corner and defensive tackle, respectively, and affected an across-the-board leap of 15-20 percent in price tags.

The five-year average part of the new equation was put in as a compromise, and the union views it as temporarily deflating the numbers, while 2007 and '08 are still part of the calculation. Another reason why the union budged here: It affects a small number of players. The highest ever number of tagged players in a single year was 14, and some of those are the elite, whom the PA knew would wind up being rewarded regardless.

What did the NFLPA get in return?

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Primarily, the benefit of yielding on the franchise-tag issue for the NFLPA was the elimination of the so-called "super tender" on restricted free agents, which set compensation for a competing team trying to sign away an RFA at first- and third-round picks. Annually, a much larger group falls under the RFA designation than under the franchise tag. This year, the number sits at 79. And since the high tender is simply a first-round pick, new possibilities are opened for third-year studs.

This is where potential problems have arisen for clubs like Houston (Arian Foster) and Pittsburgh (Mike Wallace). The chance of those players being tagged (and making much more than the simple first-round tender) exists, as does the motivation for their teams to sign them long-term before they hit the market, and the potential for other teams to drive up the price when they do get there.

How else did the franchise-tag rules change?

Teams can continuously franchise players, but it'll cost them to do that. As had been the case previously, a player tagged a second straight year would have his number set at 120 percent of the previous figure. A third straight year? That's where things change, and the percentage goes up to 144.

Here's an example: Drew Brees' franchise tag number is estimated to be a relatively affordable $14.4 million this year. If he's tagged a second straight time, it'd cost the Saints, based on the estimates, $17.28 million. In Year 3, because of the change, the number goes all the way to $24.88 million. That means Brees gains some leverage in negotiating a long-term deal, in that the tag numbers add up to about $56.6 million over three years, or nearly $19 million per.

Are transition tags relevant again?

Since the Steve Hutchinson poison-pill deal in 2006, which sent the All-Pro guard from Seattle to Minnesota, just one player has been slapped with the transition designation -- Pittsburgh's Max Starks in 2008 -- and that's largely because the Hutchinson situation made it obsolete. Though the poison pill has been eliminated in the new CBA, don't expect transition tags to make a comeback.

Without any compensation going back to a player's original team, there's no cost for signing teams outside of the contract, and clubs can still structure deals that can make them very difficult for another club to match. Additionally, as part of this CBA, a team can franchise or transition a player, but can't do both, meaning the idea of using the transition tag as a fallback after a more desirable player is franchised doesn't exist.

How will cap space affect the next few years?

Some teams are going into this offseasons with tens of millions in room to spend, with last year's space rolling over to this year. And there's no minimum spending limit in 2012 either, so that could create even more money rolled over into 2013.

But from a cashflow standpoint, some of these clubs could be getting themselves into murky water if they don't open the wallet soon. In 2013, the 89-percent minimum kicks in, with the rolled-over money included. And in 2014, the new TV deals will threaten to send the cap to the moon. So for clubs like Jacksonville, Kansas City and Tampa, holding back now means needing to absolutely splurge later, something they may not be able to afford.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

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