NFC North: 2013 NFL franchise players

The NFL's 4 p.m. ET deadline passed without another NFC North team using its franchise tag, meaning that Chicago Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton will be the only player with that designation this offseason. A few random thoughts on how the franchise tag deadline impacted the division:
  • Most importantly, some prominent players now have an unblocked road to the free agent market. The list includes Green Bay Packers receiver Greg Jennings, Detroit Lions defensive end Cliff Avril and cornerback Chris Houston, and Minnesota Vikings right tackle Phil Loadholt.
  • Just so everyone is clear, NFL teams still have exclusivity with their free agents. That will end Saturday at 12:01 a.m. ET, when a new three-day window opens for free agents to enter negotiations with other teams. No deals can be made (officially) until Tuesday afternoon after 4 p.m. ET.
  • To this point, there have been no reports of substantive negotiations between the Packers and Jennings. You would think Jennings will test his value on the market unless the Packers surprise everyone with a big offer.
  • The Lions' activity, with Avril and Houston as well as outside free agents, would seem to depend in part on their success in contract negotiations with quarterback Matthew Stafford. The Lions want to lower his $20.8 million salary cap figure.
  • We've has some discussions about the Vikings pursuing free agent receivers, and that seems especially likely given the decision to release veteran Michael Jenkins, per ESPN's Adam Schefter. But I never considered the Kansas City Chiefs' Dwayne Bowe a credible candidate. He figured to get the Chiefs' franchise tag if he did not sign a long-term deal, and on Monday he got the latter. The Vikings' top two veteran options, if they choose to go that route, are Jennings and Mike Wallace of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
  • Decisions to franchise two free agent left tackles, Ryan Clady of the Denver Broncos and the Chiefs' Branden Albert, reduced the size of that market should the Bears decide to get involved.
Two significant news stories broke Friday night with NFC North implications. We'll take them one at a time. (As if there were another way to do it.)

The Chicago Bears made it official, making defensive tackle Henry Melton their franchise player. The move means that no team can sign Melton in free agency unless it is willing to give the Bears two first-round draft choices, in essence guaranteeing that Melton will play for the Bears in 2013.

General manager Phil Emery said in a statement that the team will continue to work toward a long-term agreement, something it achieved last June with tailback Matt Forte after placing the franchise tag on him. For now, Melton is set to earn $8.45 million in 2013 and counts the same total against the salary cap.

One way or the other, the Bears will have to create additional cap space if they want to be active in the early days of free agency. As best I can figure, Melton's franchise tag leaves the Bears with around $3 million of anticipated cap space.

Meanwhile, the Baltimore Ravens agreed on new contract terms with quarterback Joe Flacco, a deal that will provide a reference point for two NFC North deals that figure to come in the next few months.

Flacco received a six-year deal worth $120.6 million, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, establishing a new benchmark among NFL quarterbacks for average annual salary ($20.1 million). Flacco had maximum leverage as he approached free agency, but you would still think that Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers -- who has two years remaining on his contract -- will surpass Flacco's numbers.

Some of you are asking whether Flacco's deal will affect the Detroit Lions' discussions with quarterback Matthew Stafford. That situation is a bit different from the Ravens, considering the Lions need to extend Stafford in order to reduce his $20.8 million salary-cap figure.

Stafford is set to earn $12 million this season, more than Rodgers in fact, and doesn't have much incentive to rush into a deal knowing that if he plays out the final two years of his contract, he could seek a Flacco-like deal plus inflation. That's the best way to explain how Friday night's news could affect him -- it reinforces a strategy of patience.

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