I was about to write this column on winners and losers from the franchise tag period, then I had a revelation: When it comes to the franchise tag, the owners pretty much always win.
The mere presence of this mechanism is a tremendous boon to the teams. It enables them to have significant leverage over their best young players, creates an artificial negotiating deadline that ends well before free agency begins, and in essence runs counter to the idea of free agency. Rather than a player knowing that whenever his rookie deal expires he is free to negotiate anywhere, it instead forces him to weigh the risk of getting hurt in the future and negotiate instead with only one team -- his own. And puts a chilling affect on the market, with some players inevitably signing deals now at less than what the free market would bear, because the threat of the franchise tag makes it obvious there is no guarantee they ever even hit that market.
So chalk this one up to the owners, across the board. Of course, these players will get strong, guaranteed one-year deals. But take a flash back to a year ago, when guys like Henry Melton and Anthony Spencer got tagged, then promptly got hurt, and now must fight to make even decent money on the open market a year older, and year more damaged by the game. The opportunity to land big guaranteed money likely was there a year ago after strong seasons for each. Even Brent Grimes, who has battled injuries and the tag, had to wait till Monday for the payday he deserves with Miami, coming off a career year. Even that was done with the tag possibility looming over negotiations.
In general, this was the least drama I can recall at the franchise deadline. It had long been established only a handful of players would get the franchise tag. Only four did: Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo and Jets kicker Nick Folk (Browns center Alex Mack and Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds got the transition tag, which was far more intriguing than anything else that transpired Monday). There were two cases screaming out for the tag: Hardy and Graham.
Hardy's a win/win: Hardy would have been the best defensive player on this market. A dominant pass rusher hitting his prime, he's the kind of player who so rarely hits the market this young because of the franchise tag. So, yeah, he got tagged and to me this could become a win/win, because it would behoove both parties to get a long-term deal completed this spring, and I wouldn't be shocked at all if they did.
Is Graham a lose/lose? The biggest slam dunk was the Saints tagging Graham. He would have been far and away the top offensive player on the market had he actually made it. Even with some less-than-stellar playoff outings and people lining up all of a sudden to take shots at his toughness, or the lack of blocking prowess, there was no way the Saints were going to let him walk.
In the end, however, this could end up being a lose/lose. The Saints have been reluctant to give him a big-money deal, and this was a contract that ideally would have been rectified a year ago. Now, the NFL and NFLPA will fight about whether Graham is a tight end or a wide receiver. Frankly, I very much like his chances of getting the receiver designation, which would be about $5M higher than the tight end tag. And that could only make things more murky.
In listening to some close to the Saints speak in less-than-glowing terms about Graham privately and the club placing the non-exclusive tag on him, one gets the sense New Orleans would love another team to take Graham off its hands for two first-round picks. But that would be the shocker of 2014 if it actually took place, and I would be pretty surprised if any team even seriously mulled it at that steep price. I don't see it. So, should the Saints lose this arbitration hearing, and Graham be granted the higher tag, would they rescind the offer? Trading Graham at that price point would only be more difficult, and would also make it even less likely New Orleans would tag him again in 2015. Again, this is another case where a long-term deal makes the most sense. Especially now, with Graham wanting to command a top wide receiver-type deal (well north of $10M a year) and the status of his tag still in limbo, you have to wonder if that is in the cards. Getting that cap number lowered will be important, one way or the other.
Skins struggled with Orakpo call: The Redskins, after internally struggling with tagging Orakpo, and leaning against it at one point, ended up tagging him Monday afternoon (Hardy and Graham learned their fate Friday afternoon). You have to wonder if owner Daniel Snyder, who has taken plenty of heat over the years for paying talent from other teams but letting his own young players get away, stepped in to bite the bullet. Orakpo's injury history, lack of production within the NFC East and tendency to get sacks in bunches against inferior tackles gave the organization some pause here. But I suspect in this case the sides end up working something out beyond a one-year deal.
Washington's cap situation is suddenly a little tight. They have several holes to fill, and even shopping for value free agents becomes a little more complicated. They'd love help at receiver and in the secondary, and they may need to replenish at linebacker, too. Orakpo would have done quite well on the open market given the lack of young pass rushers out there, and in the end I suspect he does well in Washington on a new deal.
Bills had no choice on Byrd: And as for the Bills not tagging safety Byrd -- for what would have been a second straight season -- I don't have a problem with it. He is a very good player, though at a position that rarely is the difference between winning and losing. They are rebuilding again, and paying Byrd $9 million for one year, knowing that they are almost certain to lose him to free agency in 2015, would have been bizarre. They weren't winning a Super Bowl with Byrd this season, he turned down some very strong offers from them and didn't seem to want to commit there long-term.
Buffalo could only bid against itself so many times prior to the market opening, and if he's on the way out, might as well get that compensatory pick from him as soon as possible rather than wait another year. They managed to lose a lot of games even with Byrd and already had explored his trade market in the past, unable to get strong enough compensation (and that would have likely been the case again had they gone the franchise-tag route). Things got bad between these sides last season when there was a difference of opinion on the degree of Byrd's injury, he ended up more or less yanked from a Thursday night game and this hasn't looked like a good marriage for a while, but more like two sides dating with some commitment phobia on the part of the player.
And that's entirely his right. For Byrd's agent, Eugene Parker, to turn down what the Bills have on the table speaks to what should be a very robust market for the safety in a week. Parker is very shrewd, and I imagine a pot of gold awaiting his client on the other end of this rainbow. As for the Bills, if the offer was a hefty as I have heard, I'm not sure what more they could have done. Sometimes change is inevitable.
Colts avoid tagging Davis: The Colts did not put the tag on cornerback Vontae Davis, though they really, really want to keep him and will continue working hard to do that. But the tag is very high for corners. Miami was able to sign Grimes and Baltimore signed tight end Dennis Pitta before the tag deadline, further deflating the drama of tag day.
Browns shrewd on Mack: And the Browns love Alex Mack, one of the best players from his draft class, but tagging a center at an offensive line figure that is set by huge contracts for tackles, is neither economical nor practical. Tagging him at the lower transition figure, and retaining the right to match any offer, however, is shrewd. Given his importance to that offense and likelihood of many teams chasing him on the open market, I like that move a lot. Call that a win for Cleveland, a franchise that badly needed one. Yes, $10 million for one year for a center is still very high -- $8 million a year is a current recent for centers on a long-term deal -- but given all the hits the Browns have taken lately and all the money and cap space they have to spend they cannot afford to let good players leave. This sends the proper message (and by using the transition on Mack, it takes away the Browns' ability to use the franchise tag on safety T.J. Ward).
Steelers play it smart with Worilds: The Steelers realized there was a lot of interest out there in Worilds, and they are already spending big at the linebacker spot. Unlike the Browns, they don't have the cap room to easily carry Worilds at a $9.75 million transition tender (once he signs it). But he is a promising player, coming into his own last season, and they develop linebackers better than almost anyone. At least now if they lose him -- a heavily front-loaded, cap-heavy offer sheet might be enough to pry him away -- they do so being able to match the offer if they so choose. They can at least go down swinging (and a year ago, in a similar cap-crunch, they were able to match a deal on receiver Emmanuel Sanders, a restricted free agent at the time).
Circumstances dull tag deadline: So aside from the transition tag coming back en vogue for several reasons, tag time was dull. As expected.
First of all, the 2009 rookie class, which makes up the bulk of what should be the top talent about to hit the market now (on five-year deals), wasn't all that. In fact it is littered with busts, with guys like second-overall pick Jason Smith, Aaron Curry (fourth overall), Aaron Maybin (11th overall) already pretty much out of football, and plenty of other big-time busts like Mark Sanchez (fifth overall) Josh Freeman (17th overall), Darius Heyward-Bey (seventh overall), and guys like Tyson Jackson (third overall) not coming close to living up to advance billing. Inopportune injuries hurt guys like Jeremy Maclin (19th overall), Larry English (16th overall). Players who started out so promising, like Hakeem Nicks (29th overall) and Kenny Britt (30th overall), have fizzled. So the pool of players worthy of the franchise tag was always going to be shallow.
And the the best players from that draft already have been extended (Matt Stafford, Clay Matthews, Percy Harvin, after a trade). Plus, teams now know they must spend up to 90 percent of the cap in cash between 2013-2016, so they are more likely to reinvest in their own best players sooner rather than later -- thus taking those players off the market before they ever hit it. So this never had the look of a particularly sexy or impactful free-agent class. Add in the very high tag values for defensive ends and corners and the offensive line, and this was going to be a year with very few players getting franchised.
But the mere possibility of the tag does matter, it does affect the marketplace, and it's a valuable weapons for teams and a designation almost any quality player would much rather avoid.