More Draft: NFL Mock
INDIANAPOLIS - Patience is the word in the NFL this time of year. No one is in a rush.
The franchise tag period has begun, but there is no need to slap anyone with the tag just yet. There are a host of 2011 draft picks who will end up getting their fifth-year options picked up, but, again, don't expect to see that happen for a while. This is a league where, contractually, things are generally pretty slow until a deadline spurs action. We are far from any of that right now.
And, with a report emerging that the salary cap might somehow inflate by five percent -- a notion that caught teams as well as many execs at the NFLPA by surprise at the NFL combine here on Thursday -- all the more reason to slow-play any pending contract maneuvering. Now, don't get me wrong, agents and teams are laying the foundation for free agent deals and some contract extensions and plenty of cap cuts, but in a year with some uncertainty now about the cap, and at a time when teams have nothing to really gain by rushing to tag someone or execute a rookie-contract option, I would not expect much activity on that front anytime soon.
Let's get some housecleaning out of the way as well, before we go further down the road of franchise tags and options. Even if the cap rises to $130 million, up from the projections of $126.3 million teams have been using this offseason, it's no panacea for clubs, especially those who have to franchise players. Because under this new CBA, the franchise figures are tied more tightly to the cap, so all of those franchise tag projections we have been using (roughly $7M for tight ends and $12M for wide receivers, for instance) are out the window, too. Those contract tenders will rise as well, thus obviously cutting into the additional space a higher cap creates on paper.
Now, if you aren't franchising anyone, the extra space is a bonus to helping sign current players or wading into free agency. But for the half dozen teams I anticipate to actually apply the tag, it would be a misnomer to look at a cap increase as a way to aid their cause.
Excluding kickers and punters -- yeah, yeah, punters are people, too -- these are the six situations where I anticipate the franchise tag being utilized. I'll rank them in order of likelihood, from total no-brainer to those decisions that, due to the money at stake, might require more deliberation:
The decisions for whether or not to pick up the fifth year options on players drafted in the first round in 2011, well, that's pretty much a slam dunk across the board. Teams don't have much to gain out of extending those players now, and that's why, after conversations with a host of agents and NFL execs here, I get the strong sense very few of those players actually get massive new contracts replete with big signing bonuses anytime soon. Maybe a guy like J.J. Watt or Mo Wilkerson ends up being the exception to the rule and gets that big money sooner rather than later, but, even in those cases, don't look for it to happen soon.
The sense I get from teams is they will take their time picking up the fifth-year option on these kids -- they have until May to do so -- and even then, there is still plenty of time to work out a long-term deal before the season begins. There isn't much risk in picking up the option and I'd be shocked if most teams don't treat it as a mere technicality. These players -- some of the best young talent in the league just entering its prime -- are still great values by and large even in those fifth-years, and the players have "no leverage, whatsoever" when it comes to these situations, as one agent, put it.
The teams can be as patient as they like, and therefore, by and large, they will be. And the players will have to wait.