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NFL Franchise Tag: Bengals’ options and what to know

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The Bengals should prepare to wave goodbye to at least one of their three big free agents if the franchise tag isn’t used.

Cincinnati Bengals v Houston Texans Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The Bengals have several big free agents this year, so using the franchise tag seems like a viable option to keep one of their stars in Cincinnati for at least one more season.

With Kevin Zeitler, Andrew Whitworth and Dre Kirkpatrick all set to hit the open market in March, the Bengals will look to begin negotiations in the coming weeks, but, the team can end the suspense for one of those players by using the tag.

All 32 NFL teams have the option of designating one player with the franchise tag beginning on Wednesday February 15. 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 agent.

However, the number of players getting tagged has declined in recent years. Only nine players were tagged in 2016 after just five in 2015, 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 receive 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.

A team may only use one tag in a given year, and the salary is fully guaranteed once the player opts to sign the contract. Though, negotiations can later ensue to change the tag into a long-term deal. There are two levels of the franchise tag that teams can use -- exclusive and non-exclusive as well as a transition tag that can be applied to an impending free agent.

Per 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.

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 2017 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.

  • Quarterbacks: $21.395 million
  • Running backs: $12.377 million
  • Wide receivers: $15.826 million
  • Tight ends: $9.894 million
  • Offensive linemen: $14.444 million
  • Defensive tackles: $13.468 million
  • Defensive ends: $16.955 million
  • Linebackers: $14.754 million
  • Cornerbacks: $14.297 million
  • Safeties: $10.961 million
  • Kickers/Punters: $4.863 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. It's unlikely that Andrew Whitworth will get the tag, though I do think the Bengals will re-sign him to a one or two-year deal, paying him around $9 million per year.

But the franchise tag for offensive lineman would pay him around $14 million, a high mark for a 35-year-old lineman. That's also what Zeitler stands to make if the Bengals tag him. Even though he plays guard, the franchise tag pays the same for all offensive lineman.

While Zeitler has certainly earned a big payday, it's hard to see the Bengals paying him $14+ million for one season. Then again, the tag could be used as more of an extension to get a deal done between now and the middle of July, which is when the deadline to sign tagged players to long-term deal takes place.

I could see a scenario where the Bengals tag Zeitler and later sign him to a long-term deal, though I think it's far more likely they bypass the tag for him before he ultimately signs a massive deal with another team.

That leaves Dre Kirkpatrick as the top candidate for the tag this offseason. He plays a far more premium position than Zeitler, even if it's not quite the level that Zeitler plays. Kirkpatrick has certainly earned a big payday, and the tag would ensure he not only gets that, but also gives the Bengals more time to re-sign him if they can't get a deal done between now and March 1st, the deadline to tag players.

I actually think Kirkpatrick getting tagged or re-signed by that deadline becomes a done deal if Adam Jones is cut this offseason following his arrest and his downgraded level of play.

And while Kirkpatrick would be upset over not getting a long-term deal sooner, he can't get too mad about the tag since he just made $7.5 million last year under the fifth-year option of his rookie contract. That means the tag would ensure he makes around $21 million over a two-year span.

That's not quite the long-term deal he wants, but it's still a great payday and more fair based on his overall career, not just how he performed in 2016. That’s why we as fans should not expect the tag to be used on anyone other than Kirkpatrick, and that's only if Jones is cut.

With that said, the Bengals will likely pass on using the tag this year and take their chances in free agency.