With the clock ticking down to the start of free agency, the two words so many players hate to hear will come into play – franchise tag.
The franchise tag is the primary leverage teams have to keep premium free agents from hitting the open market. While players historically hate the franchise tag, it comes with a pretty stiff price – the average of the top five salaries from the previous year at a given position. But, what might be surprising is who makes up those top five salaries.
At quarterback, the 2010 franchise tag is $16.4 million, thanks in large part to the $21.2 million Peyton Manning pulls in. While it doesn’t come as any surprise that Donovan McNabb and Tom Brady are in the top five for salary, it might surprise some to see that Matt Cassel was third in the formula for determining franchise-tag status with a $15.2 million salary in 2009.
At running back, the franchise value is $8.16 million, but it’s who sets that bar that is the most intriguing, since four of the five likely won’t be in that rarified air this year. Reggie Bush led the way with a $10.59 million salary in 2009, followed by Brian Westbrook ($8.63 million), LaDainian Tomlinson ($7.54 million), Steven Jackson ($7.4 million) and Darren Sproles ($6.62 million).
Want to franchise a wide receiver? That will cost you $9.52 million, thanks to huge contracts being paid to Larry Fitzgerald ($10.89 million), Antonio Bryant, Randy Moss, Steve Smith and Calvin Johnson.
The tight end franchise tag will run $5.91 million. Dallas Clark leads the way with a salary of $6.77 million, followed by Denver’s Daniel Graham, Todd Heap, Kellen Winslow and Vernon Davis.
If a team wants to franchise an offensive lineman, it will cost $10 million, thanks to mega-buck contracts for Joe Staley of the 49ers, Jason Peters of the Eagles, Walter Jones of the Seahawks, Jake Long of the Dolphins and Chad Clifton of the Packers.
On the defensive side, the first (and only) Viking comes into play in determining the franchise tag number. Jared Allen was the second-highest paid defensive end at $14.53 million, behind only Julius Peppers ($16.68 million). Throw in Dwight Freeney, Justin Smith and Will Smith and you get a franchise tag value of $12.4 million for DEs.
Defensive tackle is a comparative bargain at just $7 million. Tommie Harris of the Bears led the way in 2009 with a salary of $8.6 million, followed by Albert Haynesworth, Jonathan Babineaux, Shaun Rogers and Casey Hampton.
The franchise tag for a linebacker is at $9.68 million. DeMarcus Ware of the Cowboys leads the way at $11.44 million, followed by Karlos Dansby, Brian Urlacher, Keith Bulluck and Bart Scott.
The Saints may use the franchise tag on former Viking Darren Sharper and may get off pretty easy at $6.46 million. Adrian Wilson of the Cardinals leads the way with $7.04 million, followed by Troy Polamalu, Ed Reed, Oshiomogho Atogwe and Chris Hope.
Franchising a cornerback will cost $9.57 million, thanks in large part to Champ Bailey of the Broncos, who earned $13.19 million last year. He’s followed by Dunta Robinson, Asante Samuel, Darrelle Revis and Corey Webster.
Thanks to the Raiders, it’s spendy to franchise a kicker or punter, which will only get worse with the recent signing of Sebastian Janikowski to a $4 million-a-year contract. The current tag level is $2.81 million, thanks to Raiders punter Shane Lecher ($3.1 million) and kickers Robbie Gould, Joe Nedney, Adam Vinatieri and Janikowski.
Teams have a week to designate their franchise players if they opt to use the tag. Thus far, nobody has and you can see why – at those prices it might be smarter to work out a long-term contract than to pay off those crippling salaries, even without a salary cap in play.