One thing that we haven't examined this off-season is the use of franchise tags. A franchise tag can be applied to an unrestricted free agent by the team that that player played the previous season preventing them from signing with another team.
There are two forms of the Franchise tag. An Exclusive Franchise tag pays the Franchise player the average of the top-five salaries, for the new season, of that player’s position or a 120% increase of that player’s salary the season before – the one with the greater value is applied. Exclusive Franchise players can not negotiate with other teams.
Non-Exclusive Franchise takes the average of the top-five salaries from the previous season. This also allows players to negotiate with other teams. If the Non-Exclusive Franchise player signs an offer sheet within sevens days after a new team offers a contract, and the original team doesn’t match the offer, the team that designated the tag will receive two first-round compensation picks.
There are benefits to both forms.
For example, with an Exclusive Franchise tag, the Patriots can tag Randy Moss preventing another team from making Moss an offer. As a consequence, the value of the contract is higher than a Non-Exclusive deal because the average of the top-five contracts at that player’s position for this season.
If the Patriots tag Moss with a Non-Exclusive Franchise tag, the average top-five salaries at that player’s position, is figured from the previous season’s salaries. The risk is that other teams can offer Moss a deal. The benefit to this, not including the reduced salary, is that if Moss signs the offer sheet from another team, then the Patriots receive two first-round draft picks as compensation.
Tags are permitted to be used from February 7 to February 21.
Last season, the Bengals franchised Justin Smith to the Non-Exclusive variety. The difference last season between Exclusive and Non-Exclusive at defensive end was $300,000 (the difference for quarterbacks was just under $4 million). There was really no benefit tagging Smith with an Exclusive deal and the Bengals could have used the draft picks. In 2007, of the seven tags applied, only Dwight Freeney was Exclusive (the others were Smith, Lance Briggs, Cory Redding, Asante Samuel, Charles Grant and Josh Brown).
So far this season, Eagles Tight End L.J. Smith has been the only player tagged.
Will the Bengals tag anyone this season?
At the time the Bengals tagged Smith, there was relative confidence that the team would come to terms with Smith over a long-term deal – of which has yet to materialize. Another theory was that the team franchised Smith so they could conduct midnight negotiations with Eric Steinbach.
In my luxurious hindsight chair, tagging Smith could be argued to being one of the worst – of several – questionable monetary decisions the team made in 2007.
At the risk of sounding over-confident, there’s absolutely no reason to apply a Franchise tag to any unrestricted free agent for the Bengals this year.
The free agent candidates that could realistically be chosen as a Franchise player are Landon Johnson, Madieu Williams and Stacy Andrews. I’m going to eliminated Andrews immediately because I don’t see the team paying the average of the top-five salaries at that position for a guy that realistically will have to fight to be a starter with Levi Jones and Willie Anderson still scheduled to be the incumbent starting tackles. I also don’t see him playing a role in Andrew Whitworth’s demotion from left guard and Bobbie Williams would have to be cut to give Andrews room. Cutting Williams’ in itself would cost over $6 million in penalties.
In terms of Williams and Landon, I don’t see their production mirroring the league’s best at their respective position. They are strong defensive players, but certainly not franchise players. Then again, that was my argument last year against tagging Justin Smith.
There is the argument of tagging unrestricted free agents as Transition players. If you tag a player as a Transition player, then he’s paid the top-ten of that player’s respective position. The transition tag is rarely used, especially after the "Poison Pill" issue when Steve Hutchinson signed with the Minnesota Vikings. The offer, $49 million for seven seasons, came with a $16 million guarantee. Here’s the poison. A stipulation in Hutchinson’s deal is that if he’s not the highest paid offensive lineman on the team he played for, then the entire $49 million was guaranteed. Walter Jones already had a deal higher than Hutchinson. So if the Seahawks matched the Vikings offer, they’d have to give Hutchinson the entire $49 million. Since the Vikings didn’t have anyone close to Hutchinson’s deal, only the $16 million was guaranteed. After the Seahawks filed a grievance, an arbitrator ruled in favor of the Vikings and the Seahawks lost any chance at retaining Hutchinson or receiving compensation.
In the end, I just don’t see any unrestricted free agents being tagged this year. Then again, this front office does a lot to surprise us. The only realistic argument of the team using the tag, is whether or not they tag Smith again. I just don't understand why there's a thought that his production is worth nearly $9 million -- especially with the money lost if they trade Chad Johnson.