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NFL Free Agency 2016: Franchise Tag breakdown and 2016 projected numbers

We break down the franchise tag, 2016 projections and who may be in line to get tagged.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

NFL free agency will be here soon, but some of the top impending free agents won't get a chance to test the market.

That's because all 32 teams have the option of designating one player with the franchise tag beginning on February 16. Teams then have until March 1 to use the designation, and this is the easiest way for clubs to ensure they don't lose their best free agents.

However, the number of players getting tagged has declined in recent years. Only five players were tagged in 2015 after just four in 2014 and eight in 2013. Using the tag can lead to a lot of contention between teams and players who think they deserve to hit the market and earn a lucrative long-term contract. Players have even held out under the tag before, and it's typically a last resort for teams who simply can't afford to lose their best players.

There are two levels of the franchise tag that teams can use -- exclusive and non-exclusive.

According to Over the Cap, here are the differences between each kind of tag that can be applied.

Exclusive Franchise Tag- This tag completely blocks a player from signing with another NFL team. It will be equal to the average of the top 5 salaries at the players position for the year or 120% of the players' prior year salary. This number will be calculated at the end of the Restricted Free Agency period.

Non-Exclusive Franchise Tag- This is the most common tag that is applied in the NFL. The value is determined using five prior years of data to determine the percentage of the salary cap that a top 5 player at the position should occupy. This player can still negotiate with other teams but if they sign with another team the team that applied the tag has the option to match the contract or accept two first round draft picks as compensation.

Transition Tag- The Transition tag is calculated by using the top 10 salaries rather than top 5 salaries, which leads to a slightly lower cost than the Franchise tag. The player is again free to negotiate with other teams but his original team holds the right of first refusal on a contract. Because the difference in cost is minimal between this tag and the franchise tag this tag is rarely used.

A team may only use one tag in a given year, meaning they can not designate both a Franchise and Transition player. In each case the salary is fully guaranteed once the player opts to sign the contract.

If a player is hit with the franchise tag, the next important date is July 15 at 4:00 p.m. EST. That's the deadline for any club that designated a franchise player to sign such player to a multiyear contract or extension. After this date, the player may sign only a one-year contract with his prior club for the 2016 season, and such contract cannot be extended until after the club's last regular season game.

Here's a look at the projected tag numbers for each position, from former NFL agent and CBS Sports analyst Joel Corry.

POSITION CURRENT SALARY CAP PERCENTAGE PROJECTED CHANGE
Cornerback $13,075,000 8.985% $13,838,000 5.83%
Defensive End $14,813,000 10.061% $15,494,000 4.6%
Defensive Tackle $11,193,000 8.68% $13,368,000 19.43%
Linebacker $13,195,000 9.176% $14,131,000 7.09%
Offensive Line $12,943,000 8.882% $13,678,000 5.68%
Punter/Kicker $4,126,000 2.944% $4,534,000 9.89%
Quarterback $18,544,000 12.823% $19,748,000 6.49%
Running Back $10,951,000 7.708% $11,871,000 8.4%
Safety $9,618,000 6.959% $10,717,000 11.43%
Tight End $8,347,000 5.879% $9,053,000 8.46%
Wide Receiver $12,823,000 9.434% $14,527,000 13.29%
Note: Projections assume 2016 salary cap is $154 million.

So what does this mean for the Bengals?

Given that Cincinnati has a host of key free agents set to hit the market, using the tag is certainly in play, but really for just one or two guys.

As good as Adam Jones was this past season, the 32-year-old isn't getting the cornerback tag that will cost almost $14 million. Given his age, Jones will be lucky to sign a contract with that much total value.

Fellow cornerback Leon Hall was once one of the game's best corners as well, but two Achilles' tendon tears later, he's just not that guy anymore. He's also 31-years-old and it would be a stretch for him to secure a multi-year deal this offseason.

The same goes for Reggie Nelson, who was one of the best safeties in football this past season, but not someone worth the $10.7 million franchise tag for next season.

Right tackle Andre Smith was at one time in his career someone who might deserve the tag, but that time has passed and so too has Smith's time in the Queen City.

Marvin Jones has shown flashes of being a No. 1 receiver, but he hasn't done enough to earn the tag this year, especially with the wide receiver tag now almost $15 million.

That leaves safety George Iloka as the lone Bengal who may get the tag. Having just finished his fourth NFL season, Iloka had grown into one of the game's best safeties in 2014, but injuries led to a decline in production this past season. Personally, I think he's worth the $10.7 million safety tag this offseason with the Bengals having around $36 million in cap space. Then there's the hope Iloka and Cincinnati could work out a long-term deal before the July deadline to do so and lower his 2016 cap number.

However, I do not think the Bengals will use the tag this year. They'll likely let Iloka walk and sign a monster deal elsewhere, then make a strong push to re-sign Nelson, who should have a good year or two left in him, but will be much more affordable long term. This also helps the Bengals make a stronger push to re-sign Adam and Marvin Jones, both of whom should get good deals this offseason, but not close to what Iloka will get.