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Starting in just a few short weeks on March 11 there will be a rush to spend many dollars on many free agents, a pursuit which often ends in tears. It was just over a year ago that the Miami Dolphins went about the business of signing pretty much every player available, highlighted by chucking a $60 million contract at Mike Wallace ($30 million of which is guaranteed). They were then average by definition while finishing at .500 and winning only eight games.

The tale of the overzealous free agency spender is a familiar one which gets re-told every February and early March. In truth, winning an offseason — if such a thing is possible — often starts by retaining the critical pieces already on your roster. Enter the franchise tag, which is available now for general managers who wish to either buy a player, or buy time.

Often it’s both, with the tag serving as a temporary hold on a player to keep him from hitting the open market while a long-term extension is still pursued. However, a tagged player gains leverage, as the tag serves as the starting point for any future contract. Straight cash homey is one helluva game.

The franchise tag period started yesterday, and it ends on March 3. To refresh, here’s what amounts to NFL free agency legal jibber-jabber (via ESPN):

Non-exclusive franchise tender

Team must agree to pay player for one year at the percentage against the current salary cap of the five highest salaries over the previous five seasons. Players can negotiate with any club, but if the player signs with another club, the tag tendering team will receive two first-round draft choices as compensation.

Exclusive franchise tender

Team must agree to pay player for one year at the average of the five largest current-year salaries at his position through the end of the restricted free-agent signing period. It cannot be lower than the non-exclusive franchise tender. The player is not permitted to negotiate with any other team.

Transition player designation

Team must agree to pay player the cap percentage average of the 10 largest prior-year salaries at his position. The player is permitted to negotiate with any other team and such team is not bound by any compensation in signing a transition player.

The number of tags handed out annually has varied over the past half decade, with a spike in 2012 when five kickers and a punter were retained, a common practice since their tag is so cheap.

  • 2013: 8 players tagged
  • 2012: 21
  • 2011: 13
  • 2010: 6
  • 2009: 15

About that cost: it hasn’t been finalized for each position yet, but NFL Network’s Albert Breer dropped this quite educated guess:

Quarterback - $16.2 million
Defensive end - $12.6 million
Wide receiver - $11.6 million
Cornerback - $11.3 million
Offensive lineman - $11.2 million
Linebacker - $11 million
Defensive tackle - $9.2 million
Running back - $9.1 million
Safety - $8.1 million
Tight end - $6.8 million
Kicker/punter - $3.4 million

There’s one more important housekeeping note before we take a bounding cannonball into the stickiest tag situations. Since NFL players break easily and they need to make money while their body is still in its original one-piece state, the CBA essentially punishes teams for tagging a player multiple times. If a player is tagged twice by the same team, the cost rises by 120 percent. That’s pretty hurtful, and it’s a premium that will almost certainly keep Branden Albert and Michael Johnson from being tagged if they can’t come to terms on long-term deals before March 11.

If you placed a killing device of some kind near me and yelled “SAY A NUMBER!”, I’d put the number of franchise tags used this year at about nine with a cap that should rest at $126 million. But if I’m right in that projection, at least three of those tags will be applied after complicated decisions and will lead to more, well, complicated decisions.

The Jimmy Graham conundrum

On the Internet’s various lists of likely tag candidates, Jimmy Graham is always and forever a no-doubter this year. In fact, he’s the leader of their union. But the conversation around his tag isn’t if, it’s how, as there’s a much larger discussion at play which will likely see the Graham contract talks look something like this…

Graham was easily the league’s highest producing tight end, and it wasn’t at all close as he finished this past season with 1,215 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns, with that latter number especially astounding while he finished behind only Jamaal Charles in total scores. The problem now for the New Orleans Saints is that in truth he’s a tight end in name only, and therefore he’ll want to be paid like a wide receiver, please and thank you.

As has become the norm now in a league dominated by passing, the modern-day tight end usually lines up all throughout offensive formations. Specially with Graham, he spent 45 percent of his snaps lined up in the slot, 22 percent split out wide, and only 33 percent as a traditional in-line tight end. He’ll have a case that’s more than merely legitimate then.

As you can see with the projected tag values above, the distinction is significant. There’s a $4.8 million gap between the going rate for a tight end and that of a wide receiver under the franchise tag. For a team that’s slightly over the cap right now (and estimated $1.9 million) and is set to have its quarterback count for $18.4 million next year, a difference of nearly $5 million is a daunting climb.

With the two sides reportedly still far apart on extension talks, Graham is reportedly prepared to file a grievance once he’s tagged and fight to treated as a wide receiver. By the current rules it’s an argument Graham should win, as the CBA states the tag will apply to the position at which a player participated in the most plays. But the Saints will likely counter by saying that the role of a tight end has changed in today’s NFL, and so should how the position is defined during tagging. If they win that fight, it’ll be precedent-setting victory.

Last year the Titans let Jared Cook walk knowing they would lose a similar battle, and then St. Louis gave him a five-year contract with $35.11 million.

The Ravens could have a Jimmy Graham problem with Dennis Pitta

See above, though Dennis Pitta’s situation is complicated further by a drastically shortened season following his hip surgery (he appeared in just four games). While he’s not on Graham’s level in terms of talent and production because no one is on this earth, he’s equal to or perhaps even above the Saints tight end with his usage at a place that isn’t in-line.

Pitta lined up in the slot for 111 snaps in the 2013 season, and 79.7 percent of his routes were run from the slot according to Pro Football Focus. With $13.6 million reportedly available to work with, the Ravens can afford to pay Pitta regardless of what he calls himself. But the prospect of committing that significantly extra sum to a player not far removed from major hip surgery surely has general manager Ozzie Newsome motivated to re-sign Pitta at a more affordable fee for his services, one which manages long-term risk accordingly, and will allow the Ravens to also retain Jacoby Jones, Eugene Monroe, and Daryl Smith.

Like Graham, Pitta is set to file a grievance immediately if he’s tagged, one he’ll surely win.

Greg Hardy wants to suck back every dollar the Panthers have

This could become painful fast.

As a 25-year-old defensive end in his prime who has 26 sacks over just the past two seasons (15 this year, which tied a franchise single-season record), Greg Hardy is in position to demand a whole lot of green. And he’s ballparked a number by looking down his own defensive line.

Three years ago the Panthers gave Charles Johnson a six-year deal worth $78 million ($32 million of which is guaranteed), and Hardy is reportedly seeking something above that. After there were only two pass rushers in the league with more sacks than Hardy this past season and he was a cornerstone of a defense that led the league with 60 quarterback crumbles, he should be worth at least that much.

But the core problem with Hardy is the long-term reality every NFL general manager is currently grappling with to varying degrees: that of massive paycheck distribution. Sure, Hardy could be retained for at least one more season under a $12.6 million tag, but that would consume all of the Panthers’ remaining cap space, and they’d still like to re-sign cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. Looking forward the crunch continues, with some guy named Cam Newton due for an extension before his contract expires next spring, and then in 2016 the same dance has to happen with Luke Kuechly and Greg Olsen.

Ultimately, with money tied up elsewhere and those other commitments looming, the Panthers may have to let Hardy walk and be content with a still menacing (though less so) defensive line with Johnson, Star Lotulelei, and an emerging Kawann Short.

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