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Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Playing tag in AFC North

By James Walker
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Franchise Tags
The collective bargaining agreement affords NFL teams three primary ways to restrict players from leaving as unrestricted free agents.

• The exclusive franchise tag prevents a player from negotiating with other teams. Teams must offer exclusive franchise players one-year contracts worth the most from various scenarios: the average of the five highest current-year salaries at the player's position, or the average of the top five salaries at the end of the previous season, or a 20-percent increase over his previous season's salary.

• The non-exclusive franchise tag allows a team to match any offers a non-exclusive franchise player might receive in free agency or receive two first-round draft choices in return. Non-exclusive franchise players receive a one-year offer worth the average of the five highest past-year salaries at the player's position.

• The transition tag allows a team to match any offers a transition player might receive in free agency. Teams declining to match receive no compensation. Transition players receive a one-year offer worth the average of the 10 highest past-year salaries at the player's position.

-- Mike Sando

Reader Cam Gallagher writes: James, Here's the problem with tagging the kicker: The Bengals can't attract or pay FAs. They have to build through the draft. Why not pay [Shayne] Graham (instead of being cheap) and tag TJ [Houshmandzadeh] with the goal of trading him? Even a 2nd and 5th would be a good deal vs. letting him walk for free. This isn't a franchise interesting in winning. At least the Lions are making some changes and will have extra picks for trading Roy Williams. Your thoughts?

Thanks, Cam, for your insight.

The first domino fell in Cincinnati earlier this week as kicker Shayne Graham was designated the franchise player by the Bengals, causing a stir in the Queen City. (As I noted earlier this week, this is a safe move for the Bengals.) Graham will be paid $2.483 million, which is the average of the top five kickers in the NFL from a year ago.

Could the other three AFC North teams be next?

League-wide conversations about the franchise and transition tags are heating up with just 24 hours remaining before teams have to decide on which players to designate for the 2009 season.

The AFC North has several intriguing free agents who also could see their contract situations cleared up significantly by Thursday afternoon. The Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers still have their tags at their disposal.

With that in mind, here are several top players from the division's other three teams who could be tagged by the end of the week:

 Suggs

Terrell Suggs, OLB/DE, Baltimore Ravens

Analysis: Suggs and the Ravens were close to reaching a deal before the start of the 2008 season. Yet, for some reason, both sides have been unable to agree on a contract with about a week remaining before free agency.

The Ravens would hate for Suggs to hit the open market. He is one of the top free agents available this year, in the prime of his career and would have no shortage of suitors. Therefore, if both sides fail to reach a deal in the next day or so, the Ravens will use the franchise tag on Suggs for the second year in a row.

Suggs wouldn't be happy about it. But for Baltimore it would be smart business to use the tag to extend the deadline for a long-term extension.

Chances of being tagged: 90 percent

  Lewis

Ray Lewis, MLB, Baltimore Ravens

Analysis: If the Ravens cannot reach a long-term extension with Lewis by the end of the month, he could be one of the biggest names to hit the open market.

Unlike Suggs, the Ravens appear to have little interest in franchising Lewis, who is 33. He would be part of the "120 percent rule" due his prior salary, which would command somewhere in the neighborhood of $11 million under the franchise tag for 2009. That's a lot of money and cap space taken up by one player.

It would be interesting to see how the Ravens bid for Lewis against other teams if it ever gets to that point. Teams like the Dallas Cowboys and New York Jets will surely be interested.

Chances of being tagged: 10 percent

  Starks

Max Starks, OT, Pittsburgh Steelers

Analysis: Starks is listed because he was given the transition tag last season. So it's not completely out of the questio
n that he is tagged for the second year in a row.

Starks started the year on the bench and then filled in admirably for Marvel Smith (back) during Pittsburgh's Super Bowl run. Smith, also a free agent, likely won't return. Therefore the Steelers could make a pitch for Starks.

But that pitch may not be in the form of a long-term contract extension, which is why Starks could see the transition tag once again. If a team goes after him in free agency, Pittsburgh would have the right to match any offer.

Chances of being tagged: 30 percent

  Jones

Sean Jones, S, Cleveland Browns

Analysis: The Browns do not have any significant candidates to be tagged. But if there is one possibility, it would be Jones.

The pending free agent had two solid years in 2006 and 2007 when he combined for 207 tackles and 10 interceptions. But Jones suffered a knee injury last season and struggled.

The new regime of coach Eric Mangini and general manager George Kokinis might prefer to go in another direction. But Cleveland's problem is that it has no depth at the safety position behind Jones, making at least the transition tag a possibility.

Chances of being tagged: 40 percent