On Thursday, the NFL opened the doors for teams to begin using the franchise tag for the 2011 season. And while it may not mean anything if a new Collective Bargaining Agreement doesn't get done, it does beg the question: Will the Atlanta Falcons use the tag to keep one of their many unrestricted free agents?
The Falcons have several key players without contracts and it will take some creative financial manuevering to bring them all back. The offensive line and running back position could see the most upheaval with Tyson Clabo, Harvey Dahl, Justin Blalock, Jason Snelling and Jerious Norwood all free agents in 2011.
Assigning the franchise tag doesn't necessarily end negotiations. A team can use the franchise tag to protect the player from free agency and still work out a deal before the season starts. This is the tact the Colts are taking with Peyton Manning. As Jason La Canfora points out, many players were franchise tagged last season but only six players played the year as true franchise players.
Before we get to the heart of the issue let's understand the details of the franchise tag. First of all, there are two types: exclusive and non-exclusive. The exclusive tag means the designated player is paid the average of the five highest salaries at his position in April of the current year (or 120 percent of his previous season's salary, whichever is greater). Players hit with the exclusive tag are not allowed to negotiate with other teams.
The non-exclusive tag is similar in salary structure (though it's based on the previous year's averages) except it allows the player to negotiate with other teams while allowing the original team - the Falcons in this case - the right to match any offer. If a non-exclusive franchise tag player signs with another team, the Falcons would receive two first-round draft picks as compensation. Basically any franchise tag designation - exclusive or non-exclusive - means the player isn't going anywhere until the team removes the tag.
Let's try a real-world example. We'll use unrestricted free agent Tyson Clabo since he's the guy at the top of my "re-sign list". Clabo made $2.5 million in 2010. If the Falcons use the franchise tag on him they would need to pay him 120 percent of his 2010 salary ($3 million) or the average of the top five salaries for offensive lineman as of April 2011, whichever is more. This is where it gets tricky. Until a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is finalized, we won't know what that number will be officially so we'll use the data from 2010. Last season, the cost to franchise an offensive lineman was $10.7 million. Wow! Outside of quarterback ($16 million) and defensive end ($12 million), offensive lineman were the most expensive position to franchise last year.
Or let's try Jason Snelling. He made $1.6 million last season. An increase of 120 percent bumps him up to $2 million but the cost to franchise a running back in 2010 was $8.1 million so the Falcons would have to pay the higher cost to franchise the four-year pro. That'd be a nice little raise but it's not likely to happen for a backup running back.
The high cost to franchise a player is the reason I agree with Pat Yaskinsas of ESPN who doesn't think the Falcons "really have a need to use the tag." He does point out that kicker Matt Bryant and punter Michael Koenen are longshot exceptions especially considering the Falcons used the franchise tag on Koenen in 2009. It would cost the Falcons upwards of $3.2 million to franchise Koenen though.
Dave Choate of The Falcoholic thinks "the Falcons will strongly consider franchising Dahl or Blalock if they can't reach a deal," but he's quick to point out he's unsure which one they would prefer. Dahl earned the same $2.5 million that Clabo pulled down but Blalock only made $550k in 2010 so his chances of getting such a pay raise are very slim. The Falcons have to figure they can work out a free agent deal that makes much more financial sense than franchising either guy at such a steep price.
There's also not a lot of urgency for the Falcons to use the franchise tag since any designation could be wiped away by a new CBA. And since free agents can't sign with other teams until a new deal between the owners and the players is reached, the only reason to use the tag now is to buy time until a new contract can be worked out with that player.
It's reported that in addition to Manning other players who might be tagged include Michael Vick, Vincent Jackson, Haloti Ngata, Tamba Hali, Richard Seymour, Logan Mankins and LaMarr Woodley. You see a pattern with those names? They are all one of the best at their position and while I'm fond of Clabo, Dahl, Blalock, Snelling, Norwood and the rest of the Falcons' free agents, none of them are in the same class.
In my opinion, Clabo is the most important unrestricted free agent the Falcons have but he's not worth almost $11 million a year and that's what using the franchise tag on him would cost Atlanta. I expect the Falcons to play the 2011 season without designating a franchise player.