According to Joe Reedy, rules regarding the Franchise Tag are "expected to operate as normal this offseason". While this has always been in the back of our minds when discussing players heading into free agency, this has been relatively unknown due to the uncertainty of the league's Collective Bargaining Agreement. That being said, it certainly helps with the long-term negotiations for Johnathan Joseph, giving the team another year to get Joseph signed long-term (obviously when the CBA is finally resolved). Reedy writes:
Last year the tag at cornerback was $9.566 million and $8.156 million for running back. The franchise tag is an average of the top five salaries at a position at the end of the 2010 season (Or, in the case of “exclusive” franchise tags, the average of the top five salaries as of a date to be determined this coming April). Both of those could increase this year, especially at cornerback after the Jets signed Darrelle Revis to a large deal. The amount of the tags at each position and the deadline to apply it should be out soon
The Bengals haven't been shy about using the Franchise Tag. In the past five seasons, they've franchised Justin Smith, Stacy Andrews and Shayne Graham.
As for the debate on which player the team should franchise, it makes far more sense to put the tag on Johnathan Joseph, even though the cost could reach $10 million, all of which is guaranteed. When healthy, Joseph is one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL and the demand for a quality cornerback is always high. His asking price could knock the Bengals out of the running in free agency, so franchising him could be their only option to retain him as least one more year, to continue contract negotiations. Additionally, Joseph has already said he'd sign a contract if he were franchised.
"I'd sign it the first day," Joseph said with a laugh. "Hopefully we can get a deal done before then."
That being said, the team would be insane to franchise Cedric Benson, who could have as much as $8.5 million due to him through the franchise tag. Not only did Benson record a below-average 3.5 yards/rush, his five lost fumbles often happened during critical moments in games. The fact is, the Bengals don't need to pay a man nearly $8.5 million who just recorded 1,111 yards rushing.
Of course the third option is to not franchise anyone, which is realistic. Does it make sense that the Bengals could be going through a transition (and hopefully rebuilding year) only to watch Joseph leave after the 2011 season with Leon Hall, if no discussions resolve to a contract? Just something to keep in mind.