Matt Cassel (Rick Stewart/Getty)
The Vikings were one of the teams that elected not to use the franchise tag on its players, but viewing the top-five salaried players at each position, which determines the franchise number, is an interesting read.
As unlikely as it was that 14 of the NFL’s 32 teams would assign to players the franchise designations – ranging from a backup QB like Matt Cassell at $14.65 million to a pair of kicking specialists, what is more intriguing is how those numbers are arrived at.
When a team tosses out a franchise tag, the player given that “can’t lose” status is automatically offered a one-year contract that is the average of the top five salaries from the previous year – unless that player is one of those top five players. In that event, the player gets a 10 percent bump in pay. Former left shoulder-mate of Steve Hutchinson (left tackle Walter Jones) used that loophole in the system to draw top dollar for three straight years.
What many fans may not realize is who makes up the roster of players that designate franchise players (top five salaries) and transition players (top 10). How does Cassell garner $14.65 million and Brandon Jacobs and Darren Sproles reach just $6.6 million? It is capologists at play. Here is your 2009 breakdown – in many years, it would mean nothing, but when almost 50 percent of NFL teams played their tag cards, it’s much more important.
Cassell potentially gets his payday thanks in large part to Peyton Manning, whose gaudy $18.7 million cap number bloats the average beyond what the No. 2 QB – Tom Brady, who will start ahead of Cassell if healthy – will earn ($14.62 million). Ironically, the Packers can be blamed for driving the cost up, since two players whose salaries were negotiated in Green Bay make up Nos. 4 and 5 on the franchise list. Aaron Rodgers clocks in at No. 4 with $13.95 million, while Brett Favre logged in at No. 5 with $12 million.
Why are running backs viewed as expendable? Look at who was paid the most. Sproles was franchised at $6.62 million. Why? Because teammate LaDainian Tomlinson tops the list at $7.8 million. Who makes up the rest of the Fab Five? Edgerrin James, Jamal Lewis, Ronnie Brown and Clinton Portis. Surprisingly, Adrian Peterson doesn’t even show up in the top 10, despite hitting incentive escalators as a rookie. The second five includes Fred Taylor and Deuce McAllister – both of whom were released by their sole employers rather than take another year of overpaying them for what they brought to the table.
Bernard Berrian factored into the wide receiver franchise tag, which the Buccaneers placed on reformed journeyman Antonio Bryant. Berrian was paid $9.4 million to place third on the wide receiver list. But, the two players ahead of him may have stolen money – Marvin Harrison ($12 million) and Lee Evans ($10.37 million). Behind Berrian was Torry Holt at $9.1 million – theft that should include FBI involvement.
Bo Scaife of Tennessee got hit with the tag at tight end, but has to deal with some tall cotton. Perhaps the only position where salary plays out in production, the top five TEs are Tony Gonzalez, L.J. Smith (overpaid), Kellen Winslow, Antonio Gates and Jason Witten. Somewhat of surprise is that, had a tight end been hit with the transition tag, Jim Kleinsasser would have come into play – he is eighth in TE salary in 2008 at $3.75 million.
Why didn’t the Vikings franchise Matt Birk? Because offensive linemen are clumped together and the tag value would have been $8.45 million. Why is that number so high? Blame Cleveland. The two top-paid linemen were both Browns – guard Eric Steinbach and front-loaded second-year tackle Joe Thomas.
On the defensive side, the heavy lifting of Jared Allen’s contract clearly wasn’t in 2008. He didn’t even figure into the top 10. The franchise rate for a DE was $8.99 million, thanks in large part to Julius Peppers. Of the other top five linemen, none were Vikings, despite hefty deal being paid to Allen. Peppers, who was franchised again by Carolina, was paid $13.9 million last year, The other guys that made up the Gang of Five included John Abraham, Aaron Schobel, Jason Taylor and Luis Castillo – a list that weakens with each player.
The tag at defensive tackle is dominated by Albert Haynesworth, who topped out at $7.25 million. Pat Williams clocked in at No. 6 at $5.16 million. Kevin Williams was nowhere in sight on the top 10 list.
Linebacker was dominated by the Ravens. Economics may have played as much a role in the assigning of Terrell Suggs as the Baltimore franchise player over Ray Lewis than anything else. Lewis made $9.43 million in base salary last year, as opposed to $8.475 million for Suggs. Karlos Dansby, who was franchised by the Cardinals, was third on the list at $8.1 million.
Perhaps no cap hit was as difficult to accept as that of the cornerbacks. Thanks to Champ Bailey ($12.2 million) and recently released Chris McAllister ($10.9 million), the franchise tag amount at corner was $9.96 million. Former Viking Brian Williams factored into the transitional tag designation thanks to being the ninth-highest paid CB at $6 million.
No position was more properly designated as safety. The top five players are all deserving of their money – Bob Sanders, Troy Polamalu, Roy Williams, Madieu Williams and Adrian Wilson. The second five are another story – Darren Sharper, Chris Hope, Michael Lewis, Corey Chavous and Rodney Harrison.
With the portion of big-time contracts coming into play at different times, being a franchise player can have its benefits – at least in the short term. But it makes giving a player a franchise tag a dicey proposition and makes the fact that 14 teams opted to go that route even more interesting.