New Orleans appears to be ground zero for the biggest franchise tag fight for the season. Tight end Jimmy Graham is entering the offseason as an unrestricted free agent, but Saints general manager Mickey Loomis intends to use the franchise tag if a long-term deal isn't reached. The debate: Is Graham viewed as a tight end or wide receiver?
Graham's camp will argue that he played just one-third of this season's snaps at the position he was drafted at in 2010. He's used all over the field in Sean Payton's offense, with most of Graham's damage coming on the outside against smaller cornerbacks who don't have a prayer against the 6-foot-7, 265-pound gem.
The problem: Millions of dollars. The cost to place a franchise tag on a tight end was $6 million last year. The cost for a wide receiver was $10.5 million -- a difference of $4.5 million. Figure that when official numbers are released, the discrepancy will be as significant.
"This business about what position he is? I think he's a tight end," said Loomis. "That's where we drafted him, that's where we play him. ... That's what makes him valuable."
Thankfully, the Bengals won't have that problem this year.
Yet, that doesn't mean Cincinnati won't use the franchise tag.
Michael Johnson, who signed the one-year tender worth $11.175 million last year, isn't expected to be tagged for a second consecutive season. Per NFL rules, if Michael Johnson is franchised in 2014, he'll receive a 120 percent increase in salary that lands north of $13 million -- or approximately half of the team's projected cap space. Teams can franchise a player a third season, but have to pay 144 percent from the previous season's franchise tender. No thanks.
Plus you have to consider, should the Bengals really spend $13-plus million for a defensive end that generated only 3.5 quarterback sacks in 2013? Yes, he had many pressures but we'd favor characterizing Johnson as a fantastic run defender at this stage -- and run-stopping defensive ends do not demand significant contract numbers.
Anyway, it's like Cincinnati has a tradition of keeping previously franchised players.
The last four to sign a franchise tag prior to Michael Johnson were Justin Smith, Stacy Andrews, Shayne Graham and Mike Nugent. Smith, Andrews and Graham left the following season.
Smith signed the franchise tag in 2007, which was worth $8.644 million. He left for the 49ers the following season. The team used their franchise tag on Andrews worth $7.455 million in 2008 and left for the Eagles the following year. Graham signed his franchise tag worth $2.483 million in 2009 and left the following year, signing a deal with the Ravens.
Before Mike Nugent returned in 2013, the last player to stay in Cincinnati after signing the franchise tag was running back Rudi Johnson in 2005, but the Bengals and Johnson reached a long-term deal before the deadline and didn't leave Cincinnati until the 2008 season when he played one year in Detroit.
Let's scratch Michael Johnson off the list.
Cincinnati may look into using the franchise tag with offensive tackle Anthony Collins, who didn't allow a quarterback sack in 330 pass blocks against names like Julius Peppers, Robert Mathis and Jared Allen. When Collins replaced Andrew Whitworth, who slide to left guard after Clint Boling's season-ending injury, Andy Dalton was sacked three times in five games. Don't mistake the connection only with Collins -- Whitworth's move to left guard enhanced that position too.
If Collins were tendered a one-year franchise contract, which was worth $9.8 million in 2013 for offensive tackles, the Bengals would obviously keep Andrew Whitworth at left guard.
No matter how you view it, Collins will get a decent contract wherever he signs. Will a proposed deal from another team cost less than the franchise tag? Yes. Are you comfortable enough with the original configuration (Whitworth at left tackle, Boling at left guard) when Collins tests the free agent market? Maybe Collins will give him the home-team discount, already promoting some serious love for the queen city.
"I love Cincinnati," he said. "This is my family. If Cincinnati wants me back, damn right I’ll be back."