The Super Bowl is barely over and the business of the NFL just keeps marching on. Teams have to decide if they are going to use a "tag" on the best available player on their roster who has an expiring contract.
Within days, some of the teams will elect to restrict one of their 2008 free agents from leaving the club with one of two tags that give the original team power over the player's ability to leave in the free agency process.
Fans will hear about players being upset with being tagged. Clubs will make sure fans understand the tag provides the player a contract that is the average of the top five players at his position (franchise tag) or the average of the top 10 players (transition tag).
Why are players going to be furious about a big salary that becomes guaranteed when the player signs the franchise tender? Because the players feel the one-year deal for a very high salary puts them in harm's way -- a long-term deal protects them with a lot more guaranteed money.
One player sure to be tagged complained vigorously to me that rookie first-round picks with zero experience get more guaranteed money than he would get with a franchise tag and there's something wrong with the system. The first "franchised" player to get announced to the public was Philadelphia tight end L.J. Smith, who was named Thursday, the first day teams were able to place the franchise tag on players. He is a unique case but also a great example to help the fan base understand the dynamics involved in the next few days.
Smith has been a good tight end over the past few seasons for the Eagles. He made $920,000 in 2007. In five years, he's averaged 11 starts (out of 16 games), 39 receptions, 445 yards and three touchdowns. He struggled to stay healthy in 2007 and has only started all 16 games in a season once in his career.
The Eagles saw enough in Smith to "tag" him and increase his salary to the franchise number of $4,522,000 for the 2008 season. That is almost five times his 2007 salary, which sounds like a great deal to me for a guy with his production. The new one-year salary is very close to Tony Gonzalez's 2007 cap charge, which made him the third-highest paid tight end behind Todd Heap and Alge Crumpler. The public really can't sympathize with players who complain when their salary is raised five-fold no matter what the risk is on the playing field. I'm not claiming that Smith is complaining, but you can expect a number of 'tagged' players to feel offended by the use of a mechanism that was collectively bargained between the players union and the league.
The players most likely to get tagged include Chiefs DE Jared Allen, Titans DT Albert Haynesworth, and Ravens DE/OLB Terrell Suggs. Suggs is an interesting situation because the list of potential free agents lists him as a defensive end, but he plays a lot of outside linebacker in the Ravens' 3-4 scheme. What's the big deal? The franchise tag for defensive ends is $8,879,000. The OLB tag is $8,065,000. Suggs probably hates the idea of a tag, but he will not like an OLB tag that is $814,000 less.
The next issue is Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel, who is finishing up a one-year contract under the franchise tag he received last year. Samuel fought that tag until the Patriots agreed not to "tag" him again. The Patriots are going to lose him unless they can get a long-term deal done. Samuel may have hated getting the franchise tag again, but his 2008 salary could have been $9,465,000 -- or a $1,675,000 raise -- were he tagged. That's a $555,882 per-game check -- no way Samuel was going to hold out once the regulasr season begins. But now the Patriots don't have that leverage. The Bears are in the same situation with LB Lance Briggs.
Here are the franchise and transition salaries for every position for the 2008 season and the potential players who may be "tagged," along with their 2007 salary.
Keep in mind: The Seattle Seahawks put the transition tag on guard Steve Hutchinson two years ago and lost him to a deal by Minnesota Vikings that they simply couldn't match. Since then, don't expect any teams to use the transition tag on a guy they really want to keep, unless they think the market should set the player value.
For example, transition tagging Randy Moss puts the onus on him to get a deal which the Patriots could match if they cared to match. The Steelers have a decision to make on Alan Faneca, the best guard in free agency. The Steelers look like they are going to stick to their original plan of letting him go; the tag is $4 million more than he made this year. But the Steelers offensive line can't afford to go backwards after a season in which Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 47 times. I might consider tagging Faneca and not negotiating a long-term deal at his age (35), but it looks like the Steelers will just let him go.
The shame of the offensive line franchise tag is that it was never split into tackles and guards like the defensive line splits the tackles and ends. A guard franchise tag might be a lot closer to $4 million and Faneca would have been affordable. Notice how Haynesworth was already making close to the franchise salary. He will be entitled to the franchise tag price or 120 percent of his '07 salary, whichever is greater. Haynesworth's tag will be about $300,000 more than the tag price. There are no safeties listed as potential franchise players, but at the bargain price of $4.3 million, the Bengals could easily put a guy like Madieu Williams under a tag.
Keep an eye on Anderson
The few great players available this season will be tagged and off the market. Jared Allen has told me on a number of occasions that he expects to be tagged. The rest of the free agent list doesn't look very interesting right now, but some significant roster cuts after free agency starts will enhance the list. Also, I expect some healthy trading going on as the business season gets under way.
The most interesting business transaction may involve Cleveland quarterback Derek Anderson. The clock is ticking for the Browns to get a long-term deal done and the length of the deal is still a sticking point. I don't believe the Browns will use a franchise tag worth $10.7 million to keep Anderson, so if he gets to restricted free agency he will be the best story of the offseason.