The franchise tag is a fickle beast from year to year. Two years ago 19 players were tagged, and then in 2013 that number fell to eight.
This year the total fell even further to six tag uses. Prior to the tags just before today’s deadline (more forthcoming), Brian Orakpo was also tagged, and last week Nick Folk, Greg Hardy, and Jimmy Graham were too, with the latter penciled in for months.
But because the NFL isn’t a place where predictability exists, two “transition tags” were used. The value of a transition tag is slightly less than that of a franchise tag, but there’s a key difference: if a player signs elsewhere his now former team gets two first-round picks under the franchise tag, but under the transition tag they only get the right to match, but no compensation.
About that oddness then…
Alex Mack wins the tag battle over T.J. Ward
The Browns used the transition tag on Alex Mack, which…wait, what?
Though available, the transition tag hasn’t been used since seemingly a time when we all played Atari and thought it was the best. A little more valuable information about the transition tag: it guarantees Mack the average of the top 10 highest paid players at his position. For offensive linemen, the positional average is $10 million, a figure which is just absurd for a center. Going back to numbers we played with last week, Scott Wells is making $6 million annually, while Chris Myers is making $6.25 million. For a gauge of the current center market we can look to what the Eagles gave Jason Kelce, who’s now getting paid $5.73 million yearly.
So at minimum the Browns have now committed to paying a center — a fine and terrific center, but a center nonetheless — over $3 million more per year than the highest paid player at his position. Meanwhile, by franchising Mack they’re also committing to another even more unfortunate course of action: safety T.J. Ward could be former Browns safety T.J. Ward very soon.
Mack was important, but securing Ward should have been the greater priority. He’s solid in coverage, but he thrives against the run. His 20 run stops were the most of any safety last year, according to Pro Football Focus. He also had five quarterback pressures on just 20 rushes, and 112 tackles in total.
Of course, with $52.2 million available prior to the Mack tag the Browns have enough cap space to fill a small country, and they could still re-sign Ward either before the market opens just over a week from now, or after he explores free agency. There’s obvious danger in the latter option, though, and avoiding that red alert if long-term negotiations have stalled is one of the glorious purposes of the franchise tag. Ward now has an opportunity to seek employment elsewhere, and given the steaming toxic mess that this Browns franchise is and remains, he’ll surely do just that.
Browns gonna Brown, but there may be some rare actual thought happening with this Browns madness, and it’s tied to Jairus Byrd.
Fly Byrd, fly away far
Would you like to know how good Byrd is? Yes, of course you would…
In 5 seasons, Jairus Byrd has allowed 7 TD and a 53.0 QB rating in coverage. Ridiculous.
— Pete Damilatis (@PFF_Pete) March 3, 2014
Byrd has anchored the Buffalo Bills secondary, but although it won’t become official until next Tuesday, we can now speak in the past tense regarding that tidy little arrangement. Or at least we likely can, because despite available cap space (about $25 million), the Bills didn’t want to eat a chunk of it up by getting locked into a fully guaranteed $8.1 million with Byrd through the franchise tag.
So they’re not tagging him, and although in theory they still have until March 11 to negotiate a long-term deal before the market opens, the chances of that happening reside somewhere between slim and zero.
Whaley: #Bills negotiated with reps for Byrd for more than a year, but have yet to reach agreement. Remain open to getting a deal done
— Buffalo Bills (@buffalobills) March 3, 2014
A deal isn’t going to magically happen in the next week if a year’s worth of negotiations has resulted in nothing. Over that year Byrd reportedly turned down an offer which would have made him the league’s highest paid safety, so it’s easy to deduce his end game here: getting the hell out of Buffalo.
Oh, he wants more sweet cash too, and is likely pursuing somewhere around $9 million annually. But what lies on the other side for Byrd may not be much better, as the Browns could be the most aggressive bidder. With Ward leaving there’s a clear need, and Byrd would slide in seamlessly with former Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine now the head coach in Cleveland.
The Steelers are desperately trying to keep Worilds
And they’re also doing it through the transition tag, though they’re taking the lower rung of protection out of necessity. Since they’re the Steelers and cap room is something that’s entirely foreign, Pittsburgh is currently about $15 million over the cap right now, according to the aptly named overthecap.com. They have a front office which has been greatly helped by the rising cap, but a drastic emergency parachute measure will still be required, like cutting either Troy Polamalu (unlikely) or LaMarr Woodley (more likely).
Anywho, you’re seeing why the cheaper option was required here with Worilds, and every penny needed to be pinched. The transition tag is $1.7 million cheaper than the franchise tag, and since the option was available and good teams generally aren’t in the business of letting promising, 26-year-old linebackers walk, the Steelers slapped Worilds with a transition designation. If they can’t creep out from under their cap hell, a trade still remains a possibility.
If he signs it and a long-term deal isn’t negotiated, Worilds will play 2014 under a one-year contract worth $9.754 million. Is he worth that? Well, that’s the wrong question, though it’s the one everyone instinctively asks.
Of Worilds’ 18 career sacks, eight of them came this past season, even while he wasn’t a consistent starter until Week 7. The right question to ask then is whether or not he would have been paid the equivalent of that tag or more on the open market. The answer to that is…yes?
Eugene Monroe goes tag-less
When the Baltimore Ravens locked up Dennis Pitta to a long-term deal, their franchise tag was free to be used on left tackle Eugene Monroe, a crucial piece of their offensive line who was acquired as a rental from Jacksonville.
The problem is the bloated nature of the tackle tag, which is why 4 p.m. ET passed without the Ravens tagging Monroe. He would have been due $11.645 million, a significant chunk of the Ravens’ $28.1 million in available cap room. That was understandably far too much for general manager Ozzie Newsome to stomach when he still has to re-sign wide receiver and return specialist Jacoby Jones while also hopefully improving at wide receiver overall through free agency. Then there’s the impending departure of Arthur Jones too (all the Jones’ are gone forever).
Monroe is a key piece, especially since offensive line continuity is a real concern, and the Ravens are now flirting with two o-liners leaving in a matter of days (Michael Oher is a free agent too). But there are simply other needs elsewhere, and every team has a financial breaking point at every position. Although the long-term extension efforts will continue until next Tuesday, the cost of Monroe’s franchise tag exceeded Newsome’s comfort zone.
The Patriots simply couldn’t afford to tag Aqib Talib
There was a chance that Aqib Talib would get tagged, but never a very good one. The Patriots have only just over $12 million of cap space available, and tagging Talib would have occupied nearly all of it. They’ll still attempt to negotiate a more cap-friendly agreement, but given his play when healthy this year, Talib could price himself out of New England.
Or we could easily see a repeat of last year when Talib dipped his toe in the free agent pool for a few days, and then came back to the Pats quickly on an affordable, team-friendly deal.
Jared Veldheer and LaMarr Houston aren’t tagged because Raiders
The Raiders are a cocktail of confusion and senselessness. They have a league high $66.5 million in cap room, a number achieved because they have 16 impending free agents. Most of those names are the sort of excess garbage that can be jettisoned from a losing and annually rebuilding team, but the two here don’t fall under that category. Houston is a quickly blossoming pass rusher who had six sacks and 69 tackles in 2013, and while Veldheer may have struggled following a triceps injury, during his last full season (2012) PFF rated him as the league’s ninth best at his position.
Yet despite their talent and youth, both weren’t deemed worthy of being franchise players. What exactly does a Raiders franchise player look like then?