AFC North: 2014 NFL Franchise/Transition Tag

Franchise/transition tags: Ravens

February, 17, 2014
Feb 17
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The Baltimore Ravens have used the franchise tag seven times in their 18-year history. If the Ravens tag someone this offseason -- and the window to do so begins Monday -- it'll be tight end Dennis Pitta.

Pitta
The Ravens finished 29th in offense last season and can't afford to let Joe Flacco's security blanket go elsewhere. Pitta is too valuable in the red zone and on third downs to let him hit free agency. At 28, Pitta is reaching the prime of his career. Before the hip injury last season, he set career highs in catches (61), receiving yards (669) and touchdowns (seven) in 2012. During the Ravens' Super Bowl run, Pitta had touchdowns in three of the team's four postseason games.

Plus, tight end is the thinnest position on the Ravens' roster right now. Ed Dickson and Dallas Clark are also free agents. The only ones signed are Matt Furstenburg and Nathan Overbay, both of whom were on the practice squad last season.

The question with Pitta is how much would it cost the Ravens to tag him. Pitta could make the case that he deserves to be tagged as a wide receiver ($11.5 million) and not as a tight end ($6.7 million) because he primarily lined up in the slot last season. The best-case scenario is for the Ravens to reach a long-term deal before the March 3 deadline to use the tag. Pitta is expected to command a contract worth $4 million to $5 million per season if he reached free agency. If the Ravens franchise Pitta, they'd have until July 15 to negotiate an extension with him.

There has been speculation that the Ravens may use the tag on offensive tackle Eugene Monroe. This is considered unlikely because Monroe isn't worth the projected $11 million tag, and the Ravens don't feel pressure to use it on him. The Ravens believe they have a good chance to retaining Monroe in free agency. If they can't, the Ravens have other options such as signing Michael Oher to be their left tackle (which won't be a popular decision) or moving Kelechi Osemele from left guard to tackle.

It makes more sense for the Ravens to tag Pitta.

Franchise/transition tags: Bengals

February, 17, 2014
Feb 17
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CINCINNATI -- Franchise tags played key roles in structuring the Cincinnati Bengals' roster the past two offseasons, but it's doubtful they will factor at all during this one.

For the first time since 2012, expect the Bengals to be inactive in the franchise/transition tag process that begins across the NFL on Monday. Teams are now able to begin labeling upcoming unrestricted free agents with the tags in an effort to keep them around while working on signing them to longer term contracts. If they wish, each team is allowed one franchise-tagged player per season and a transition-tagged player.

Franchise-tag contracts are designed to keep a player out of free agency on a season-by-season basis. Since the rate of compensation increases 120 percent each year the player is tagged, it's rare for teams to stretch the franchise-tag status across multiple seasons. The Cowboys and Browns were the last teams to have players with a second-year franchise status, signing players to franchise-tag deals in 2011 and 2012.

If the Bengals wanted to, they could do the same this offseason with 2013 franchise player Michael Johnson. But since the defensive end stands to make more than $13 million as a second-year franchise-tagged player in 2014, it's unlikely they would choose that path. The $13.4 million he would be owed next season would dramatically shrink the money pool the Bengals would have to sign other free agents before hitting the cap limit. According to ESPN's Roster Management System, the Bengals are currently sitting about $15 million shy of the cap limit for 2014.

So it's unlikely Johnson gets re-tagged. If he comes back next season, it would most likely be through a longer-term contract that still could end up paying him an annual salary comparable to what it would be if he were franchise-tagged. With that in mind, as much as the Bengals would like to retain the star lineman they drafted in 2009, it's clear he may be on his way out of Cincinnati.

The Bengals could extend franchise-tag status for the first time to offensive tackle Anthony Collins, but that's another unlikely scenario. Instead of paying the longtime backup nearly $10 million next season, they would be better served negotiating a longer-term deal, or also letting him walk to free cap space. Without Johnson and Collins on the books, the Bengals would be able to better negotiate other deals this year and start getting cash cleared in advance of signing 2015's crop of pricey free agents.

Next year's possible franchise-tag candidates include quarterback Andy Dalton, running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, defensive tackle Domata Peko, linebackers James Harrison and Rey Maualuga and kicker Mike Nugent -- Cincinnati's 2012 franchise-tagged player -- among others.

Franchise/transition tags: Browns

February, 17, 2014
Feb 17
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Franchise-tag possibilities: center Alex Mack, safety T.J. Ward

Transition-tag possibilities: none

Player most likely to be franchised: Ward

Likelihood: 75 percent

Ward
Mack
Mack and Ward have both been productive starters for the Browns since they joined the team, Mack as a first-round pick in 2009, Ward as a second-rounder in 2010.

Neither, though, would be a possibility for the exclusive franchise tag. That would simply be too expensive. (For an explanation of the franchise and transition tags, click here.)

Ward would be a likely candidate for the non-exclusive tag.

That’s because, according to the new collective bargaining agreement, Mack would receive the average salary of the top 10 offensive linemen if he was tagged, not just the top centers. That includes left tackles, which makes tagging Mack a $10 million proposition. A year ago, the franchise-tag cost for an offensive lineman was $9.828 million. That figure will go up this year.

Safety, though, was a relative $6.916 million, a number that will go up this year.

Eight safeties average more than that figure per year, led by Troy Polamalu at $9.867 million and Eric Berry at $8.33 million. The same number (eight) have a higher salary-cap cost than $6.9 million.

Ward is probably among or close to the top 10 safeties in the league. His franchise cost would be in line with what others make. No team would give up two first-round draft picks for Ward, so if the Browns decide the salary cost is palatable, they could apply the tag and keep Ward with the Browns.

As for centers, only five offensive linemen average $10 million or more per season -- including the Browns' Joe Thomas. Only eight have a salary-cap cost of more than $10 million per season.

Mack is a very good player, but he’s not among the league’s top 10 linemen.

Finances would seem to dictate that if any Browns player receives the franchise tag, it will be Ward, and the chances are probably fairly good it happens.

Franchise/transition tags: Steelers

February, 17, 2014
Feb 17
8:00
AM ET
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers, usually judicious with the designations that prevent a player from becoming an unrestricted free agent, are unlikely to use a franchise or transition tag for the third year in a row.

Jason Worilds, who had a breakout season in 2013, is the only candidate for a tag, but it looks as though the Steelers will try to re-sign the outside linebacker without the benefit of a safety net.

Worilds
Monday is the first day teams can apply franchise and transition tags on players. For an explanation of tags and their ramifications, click here.

"They're always available to us," general manager Kevin Colbert said last week when asked if the Steelers will tag one of their players, "but I'd say doubtful."

The Steelers' precarious salary-cap situation -- Colbert acknowledged that the team has some "work to do" to get in compliance by March 11 -- is probably the biggest reason tags won't be in play for a third year in a row.

Using a franchise tag on Worilds would require the Steelers to offer the fourth-year veteran a one-year contract that should be at least $10 million (franchise tags for linebackers were $9.62 million last year).

The Steelers have used tags in the past with the goal of later re-signing that player to a long-term deal. They were successful in doing that three years ago with outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who received a franchise tag but later signed a six-year, $61.5 million contract.

The problem for a team that has to to get in compliance with the cap by the start of the NFL's new year and have the flexibility to sign their own free agents or others is that once a tagged player signs the one-year contract, the money is guaranteed.

More significant, it counts against the cap, and the Steelers do not have enough flexibility to absorb a $10 million hit -- or one that is not appreciably lower even if a transition tag is used -- without scrambling their finances and compromising their roster.

Worilds, who recorded 8.5 sacks in 2013 and supplanted Woodley at left outside linebacker late in the season, tops the list of Steelers unrestricted free agents the organization will try to re-sign.

The best-case scenario for the Steelers is to lock up Worilds before the free-agent signing period starts March 11. But it also looks as if they are prepared to gamble that they can still get a deal done even if Worilds hits the open market with no provisions for the Steelers to match any offer he receives.

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