Three important questions to ponder

Is it time for a franchise tag for returners?

Every position in the NFL has a franchise and transition tag available for a club to use if they have a star player up for a contract and the team wants protection.

How do they measure up?

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Devin Hester, Josh Cribbs, Yamon Figurs and Steve Breaston are four of the best returners in the game, but they lack defined positions:

Player-by-Player comparison

  As you can tell by looking at   NFL.com's head-to-head   breakdown, none of the four   aforementioned players have a   significant role aside from being   returners. For complete details,   click here.

A franchise tag is the average of the top five players at the position and the transition tag is the average of the top 10 at the position. The only position not addressed with a tag is the returner (kick and/or punt).

Returners are always listed as other positions, some are receivers, others defensive backs and some are running backs, but most of the great returners don't play much at their listed position and would never be considered for a "tag" when it comes time for a new contract. But the rise of Devin Hester of the Bears as one of the great returners ever to play brings up the question of tagging a returner.

Hester plays a limited role as a receiver for the Bears, but his value is as a returner. He had 1,585 return yards and six touchdowns last season. The Bears have no way to protect themselves or establish his value as compared to other returners.

It seems to make sense that a tag is appropriate for players that are primarily returners. Hester, Josh Cribbs (Browns), Steve Breaston (Cardinals), Leon Washington (Jets), Allen Rossum (Steelers), Yamon Figurs (Ravens) and Eddie Drummond (Chiefs) are all examples of players who had more than 1,000 return yards, and in some cases closer to 2,000 return yards, and who could never be tagged as position players.

The next CBA may have to look at a tag package for returners.

Does Graham signing set market for backs still on the street?

On Monday, the Buccaneers signed running back Earnest Graham to a modest three-year, $10.5 million contract extension. Coming off a career year in which he stepped in as the starter in Tampa and rushed for nearly 900 yards and 10 touchdowns, his place in the starting lineup for 2008 would seem secure.

However, this is not the contract of a feature back, and the signing of old friend Warrick Dunn, and rumors of a Kevin Jones signing, more likely point to Graham leading a running back-by-committee approach for the Buccaneers this season as the club awaits the return of Cadillac Williams. My guess is that the Buccaneers back-loaded the deal and will force Graham to prove again that he is capable of being the franchise back.

The question is, what does the Graham signing mean for other veteran backs still on the street? If a player such as Graham, who most people in league circles expect to start, isn't going to get paid, then players such as Ryan Grant and Brandon Jacobs could end up being disappointed with their new contracts.

In a way, the Buccaneers worked off the contract Justin Fargas signed in Oakland a few months ago. Proven veterans such as Shaun Alexander, Ron Dayne, Najeh Davenport, and the aforementioned Jones may have to swallow their pride and come to grips with the fact that they are platoon backs at best at this point in their careers. Last year, only four backs in the NFL averaged 20 or more carries per game and the case could be made that there is little reason to pay a "bell cow" back when every team seems to want to split the workload.

Fargas, the Raiders' leading rusher last season, is coming off his first 1,000-yard campaign, but faces the prospect of losing carries to first-round pick Darren McFadden, and possibly losing his job altogether.

Grant may have done as much as anyone to ignite the Packers' offense in 2007. But he has yet to sign his tender offer and former starter Vernand Morency, 2007 second-round pick Brandon Jackson and veteran Noah Herron are all in camp and can provide production on a limited basis. The Packers were also one of the four teams to attend the Kevin Jones workout.

Jacobs had a solid 2007 campaign in his first season as a starter, but in the postseason it was Ahmad Bradshaw who made the big plays in the ground game and could continue to cut into Jacobs' carries.

None of these backs did anything to lose their starting jobs, but none of them were convincing enough to encourage their respective teams to pay them starter's money and hand them the job. Likewise, players such as Alexander, Dayne, Jones, and Davenport may be situational rushers at this point, and all have an injury history that will prevent a team from signing them to a contract without some sort of clause to protect the team. The quality veterans on the street can't even command the deal Graham just signed and the young runners expecting a big pay day will be lucky to get the Graham deal.

All of these players most likely see themselves as full-time starters. But given the current climate, the market set for running backs by signings such as Graham's, and more and more teams moving toward a running back-by-committee approach, they may have to re-think their value.

Who made who?

Plenty of teams have helped themselves this offseason by adding veteran players who can boost a certain segment of their game, fill a need, or address a weakness on their roster. But in reviewing some of the pickups around the league, there are several that stand out in how they will improve the game of other players on the field. Here are a few examples.

Could there be career years waiting for veterans who had a new teammate added to the roster?

Minnesota Vikings

Acquired in trade: DE Jared Allen
Beneficiary: DT Kevin Williams
Comment: Allen is considered one of the top pass-rushing ends in the NFL and as a result, the Vikings will expect to see protection slide to him on passing downs. This is potentially lethal to opposing quarterbacks as Minnesota also possesses one of the most dominant interior linemen tandems in the league in Pat and Kevin Williams. The trade gives the Vikings the edge rusher they need to get Kevin Williams in one-on-one matchups inside, where he can use his quickness and aggressiveness to collapse the pocket and get to the quarterback himself, or flush the quarterback outside where Allen can make the play. Though Minnesota will use various looks and employ multiple switches and stunts to free up Kevin Williams, both players will benefit the most when they are lined up next to each other, loading one side of the line, much like the Titans do with Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch.

Buffalo Bills

Signee: DT Marcus Stroud
Beneficiary: DE Aaron Schobel
Comment: This is the inside-out version of the Vikings' situation. Stroud is big, strong, quick, and can be a menace on the interior, using his quick first step to penetrate the line of scrimmage and create plays in the backfield. But he is also strong enough to hold up at the line against the run, allowing Schobel to focus his efforts on getting to the quarterback. Schobel will see more runs and more passing plays bounced to the outside when Stroud is effectively dominating inside, resulting in more plays for the former Pro Bowler. The big question mark will be Stroud's ability to stay healthy and on the straight and narrow for the duration of the season.

New York Jets

Signee: OG Alan Faneca
Beneficiary: RB Thomas Jones
Comment: I expect Jones to have a career year in 2008, and it will come as a result of following the big footsteps of Faneca. Jones will cross the line of scrimmage behind Faneca 70 percent of the time. Look for G-power runs to the right with Faneca pulling and leading Jones off the right guard. Faneca has the agility and athletic ability to get out in front of the back, and with a full head of steam can blow a hole through the right side. Zone runs to the left will allow Faneca to use his athletic ability to block in space and create openings at the second level of the defense where Jones will end up in one-on-one matchups with a linebacker or safety and win those battles with his combination of vision and power.

Have a football-related question for Pat that you would like answered in a future column? Email him at footballmentor@aol.com. "Movin' the Chains," Pat's SIRIUS NFL Radio show with co-host Tim Ryan, can be heard weekdays from 3-7 p.m. ET.

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