Who Will Get the Franchise Tag?
As the games on the field end, the NFL now enters into its second season where general managers gameplan with scouts and capologists to prepare for tough matchups against aggressive agents and prideful players. The franchise tag is each team’s ace in the hole, a powerful move that trumps all others, but must be used wisely. Prior to last season, the tag was utilized sparingly and was never applied by more than 14 teams in one year. However, thanks to rules of the new CBA that brought down the franchise tag numbers, we saw 21 teams use it in 2012. With an emphasis on the Premium Stats that you’ll only find at Pro Football Focus, let’s take a look into the teams who should, and will, use the franchise tag in 2013.
The Slam Dunks
These players are locks for the franchise tag and have no chance of hitting free agency.
Baltimore Ravens: Joe Flacco, QB
Flacco’s camp is reportedly demanding $20 million per year for a clutch quarterback who averages a +1.0 PFF grade in 12 career playoff games, and who just carried his team to a Super Bowl championship. However, the Ravens may like the $14.6 projected franchise tag number for an inconsistent player who averages a +0.2 grade in the regular season and ranked 21st among starters this year with an 81.99 PFF Passer Rating. Ozzie Newsome has used the tag before to move cautiously with stars like Haloti Ngata and Ray Rice, so he’ll take his time with Flacco as well.
Buffalo Bills: Jairus Byrd, S
Speaking of All-Pros, Byrd earned the starting free safety spot on our team after grabbing five interceptions and allowing just 16 receptions into his coverage all season. He was no slouch against the run either, where he recorded stops on 9.8% of the snaps on which he lined up within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage. In a division where stopping Tom Brady is still priority No. 1, the Bills won’t lose one of the best defensive backs in the game.
Chicago Bears: Henry Melton, DT
Melton has been vocal about wanting to stay in Chicago, and the Bears certainly would like to keep the 26-year-old Pro Bowler around on an aging defense. His +15.8 grade was tied for seventh among defensive tackles, while his 7.7 Pass Rushing Productivity on over 300 pass rush snaps was fifth. And no one at his position had a higher mark than his 11.6 Run Stop Percentage this season.
Cincinnati Bengals: Andre Smith Jr., OT
Smith has certainly come a long way since running shirtless at the combine and earning a -14.7 PFF grade over his first two seasons. He was the best right tackle in the NFL this year, excelling in the run game and earning a starting spot on our All-Pro team. Getting arrested for trying to bring a gun on an airplane is not the ideal way to head into free agency, but Smith’s talent (and the Bengals’ cap space) makes it unlikely that Cincinnati will let him get away.
Denver Broncos: Ryan Clady, OT
Clady rebounded from a down year in 2011 to finish tied for fourth in our offensive tackle rankings. His 97.2 Pass Blocking Efficiency was also tied for fourth, and he allowed only one quarterback sack and six hits while protecting Peyton Manning’s blind side. The Broncos are in win-now mode, and won’t let a young franchise left tackle slip away from them.
This group is also destined for the tag, even though their teams may have a reason to think twice about it.
Indianapolis Colts: Pat McAfee, P
Five kickers and one punter received the franchise tag last year, and some general managers may again consider $2.9 million a fair price to pay for peace of mind on special teams. We’ve graded McAfee as a Top-10 punter in three of his four seasons, and he had the third-best grade at his position this year. He also adds value as a kickoff specialist, where his 45 touchbacks this season were tied for the sixth-most in the league.
Minnesota Vikings: Phil Loadholt, RT
Loadholt hasn’t been a great all-around tackle for the Vikings, but he’s excelled in the area that matters most to Minnesota. Since 2011, Joe Staley is the only tackle with a higher run block grade than Loadholt (+27.1). Considering the Vikings’ emphasis on the running game (and the fact they’re paying less than $10 million per season combined for Matt Kalil and PFF All-Pro center John Sullivan), committing $9.7 million to their right tackle makes sense.
San Francisco 49ers: Dashon Goldson, S
We didn’t think Goldson was deserving of his All-Pro selection this year, as his hard hits and splash plays didn’t always overshadow his six penalties and occasional coverage lapses. And since the 49ers used the tag on him last year, he’ll be a bit more expensive at $7.5 million for the season. However, Goldson is an important enough cog in the 49ers’ defense to justify them locking him down for another season.
These teams are likely to use their tag, but have a dilemma about which player to use it on.
Atlanta Falcons: Brent Grimes, CB vs. William Moore, S
On the surface, the Falcons already have two high-priced cornerbacks and a $6.8 million price tag is alluring for a safety like Moore, who has ranked in the Top 20 at his position the past two seasons. However, Dunta Robinson has been one of the worst cover corners in the league over the past two years, as he continues to focus on big hits over sound tackling. The 835 yards he surrendered in coverage this season were the fifth-most by any cornerback, and the 300 yards after catch were tied for seventh-most. Compare that to Grimes’ 2011 season, when he surrendered 258 yards and 77 YAC and was our second-highest graded corner, after Darrelle Revis. Grimes is rehabbing from a Week 1 ACL tear and will command a higher cost after being tagged last season, but Robinson’s originally small signing bonus limits the cap hit of cutting him. Don’t be shocked to see the Falcons ditch Robinson and bring back Grimes.
Kansas City Chiefs: Dwayne Bowe, WR vs. Branden Albert, OT
Albert has provided good return as a first-round draft pick. He’s been an above-average left tackle and his 96.6 Pass Blocking Efficiency this season was tied for seventh-best at his position. However, Bowe is an elite receiving talent whose 2.23 Yards Per Route Run over the past three seasons is one of the best marks in the league. Throw in a new coach who thrives on the passing game and has a history of dealing with difficult receivers, and a draft class deep with offensive tackles, and the Chiefs should hold onto Bowe and let Albert walk. I debated this decision with PFF colleague Gordon McGuinness in more depth here.
New England Patriots: Sebastian Vollmer, OT vs. Wes Welker, WR
There’s no denying Welker’s production — his 4,702 yards from the slot in the past five seasons are nearly 2,000 more than the next highest receiver. But he’s not the physical X-receiver prototype that a team usually pays $11.4 million per year, and he led the league this season with 15 drops before adding another four in the playoffs. Vollmer, our All-Pro Second Team right tackle, had only two games with a negative grade all season. The Patriots would rather spend $2 million less to shore up their pass protection than tag Welker for a second year straight. Again, I debated this one with Gordon earlier.
New York Giants: Will Beatty, OT vs. Martellus Bennnett, TE vs. Kenny Phillips, S
This season, Beatty finally became the franchise left tackle the Giants had been waiting for. His +10.9 run block grade was the third-best of any left tackle, and he allowed only three sacks and no hits of Eli Manning. Bennett’s breakout season earned him our fifth-best tight end grade, but his run blocking took a step-down and he’s already spoken of offering the Giants a hometown discount. Phillips was reliable on the field, with just 16 yards allowed in coverage, but injuries have too often kept him off the field. While the rest of New York’s offensive line ages, locking up its best and youngest starter makes the most sense for the Giants.
Tennessee Titans: Jared Cook, TE vs. Rob Bironas, K
The Titans could use the small tag on one of the most reliable big-leg kickers of the past few years — but Bironas just turned 35 and fell out of the Top 10 of our kicker rankings for the first time ever this season. Cook has never earned a season grade higher than +0.7, but it’s clear the Titans still view him as an important part of their passing game. Cook stayed in to block on only 4.6% of his passing plays, while his 165 yards on deep passes and 418 yards from the slot both ranked in the Top 5 at his position. The Titans could choose potential over production and decide that $6.0 million is a fair price to stick with Cook for another year.
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The Borderline Calls
These players are clearly wanted back, but there’s a chance their teams let them test the free agent market first.
Houston Texans: Donnie Jones, P
File this under the small-tag category. Jones has been an above-average punter for a few years now and had the highest PFF grade at the position this season. The Texans are a bit short on cap space, but the price on punters isn’t high.
St. Louis Rams: Danny Amendola, WR
Despite playing in just over 10 games this season, Amendola was still our 14th-highest graded receiver. He was tied for fourth with 51 catches as a slot receiver, and 50 of his 63 total receptions came within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. He was also incredibly reliable, dropping just two of the 64 catchable balls thrown his way. Amendola has struggled with injuries, but the Rams may still hold onto him for the sake of Sam Bradford’s development.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Michael Bennett, 4-3 DE
Bennett may not be a household name, but he’s well-respected in the PFF world. He was already one of our highest-graded run defenders in 2011, and this season he brought the pass rush to match. His 9.8 Pass Rushing Productivity and 71 total quarterback pressures in 2012 both ranked in the Top 10 at his position. No other Tampa defensive end had more than 26 pressures this year. The Bucs’ large amount of cap space makes it unlikely that they’ll risk losing one of their best defenders.
Washington Redskins: Fred Davis, TE
Davis is not much different from Cook — a big receiving threat that has yet to fully realize his potential. His 1.93 YPRR was the fifth-best among tight ends in 2011, and his 1.96 mark on over 20 targets this season was second only to Rob Gronkowski. The Redskins are handicapped a bit by their salary cap penalties from last offseason, but they should still be able to find the $6.6 million to tag Davis for a second year straight.
Despite their big reputations, the following players are not likely to be tagged by their team.
Dallas Cowboys: Anthony Spencer, 3-4 OLB
The Cowboys tagged Spencer last offseason, and he responded with our highest grade for all 3-4 outside linebackers in 2012. His 41 run stops were also tops at his position. However, the Cowboys are moving to a 4-3 defense under new coordinator Monte Kiffin and, despite Spencer’s willingness to switch to defensive end, he lined up as a lineman on only 12.8% of his snaps this season. Compare that to Cameron Wake, who played with his hand on the ground 68.9% of his snaps last season before switching to a 4-3 end this year. The Cowboys don’t have a ton of cap room, and can’t afford $10.6 million for someone who may not fit into their new scheme.
Detroit Lions: Cliff Avril, DE and Gosder Cherilus, OT
The Lions have a couple of candidates for the tag, but are low on cap space and will likely abstain from using it this season. Avril received the tag last year, but he was one of our worst-graded 4-3 defensive ends in 2012 thanks to a sad 4.1 Run Stop Percentage. Cherilus finally made good on his first round pedigree when he ranked as the second-best right tackle in the league this season, but Detroit has Riley Reiff waiting in the wings and will instead see how a deep offensive tackle pool develops in free agency.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Daryl Smith, 4-3 OLB
Smith was our second-ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2011 and made our All-Pro team, but a groin injury limited him to just two appearances this season. A $9.5 million price tag is too rich for an aging linebacker coming off a big injury, so the Jaguars will likely try to bring Smith back without using the tag.
Miami Dolphins: Jake Long, OT
Jake Long has had quite the fall from grace, from No. 1 draft pick to our second-highest graded offensive tackle in 2009 and 2010, to a disappointing -0.4 grade this season. His large rookie contract sets his franchise tag at a whopping $15.4 million, making it an easy decision for the Dolphins to let him test the market.
Oakland Raiders: Shane Lechler, P
If Al Davis were still around, he may have already decided to tag Lechler while regaling his employees with stories of George Blanda and Ray Guy kicking into their twilight years. However, the new Raider regime doesn’t have the same emphasis on special teams that Davis did, and the 37-year-old Lechler fell to 14th in our punter grades after being a Top 3 mainstay for years. It’s also worth mentioning that the team stashed big-legged rookie Marquette King last season (practice squad, then I.R.) with an eye toward the future.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Mike Wallace, WR
When Wallace rejected the Steelers’ extension last offseason, they turned and offered it to Antonio Brown instead. That left them with little cap space this year and no chance that they can match the high price Wallace is demanding. He gained 571 and 478 yards on deep passes in 2010 and 2011, but only 263 this season.
The franchise tag will set the tone for free agency, as some teams make huge commitments to key players while others see their top targets taken off the market. Look for the players above to shape and shift strategies as teams dive into the NFL’s second season.
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