Word is that, while the official paperwork hasn't yet been dispatched to the league office, the New York Jets have apprised defensive end John Abraham they will designate him as a franchise player, rather than allow the star pass rusher onto the unrestricted market.
The move is hardly surprising, since the two sides have been unable to reach agreement on a long-term contract, and since the Jets are trying to keep intact one of the league's top front four units for at least another season.
By declaring their intentions with Abraham, the Jets basically have signaled the start to the franchise period, and as many as 10-12 more league veterans could join him in that category before the Feb. 22 deadline for exercising the restrictive marker. But here's a twist: While the Jets will tag Abraham so he can't leave, there are some teams that might use the "franchise" marker to help them unload a player.
"I don't think we're seeing a trend yet but, with what's occurred over the last couple of years, I think more teams are thinking along those lines," said one prominent agent, who fears that one of his high-profile clients will be tagged a "franchise" player, and then be dangled in trade talks by his current team. "Certainly, it's the exact opposite of what the 'franchise' marker was intended to be. Teams were supposed to use it for a player that they couldn't afford to lose. But now we're seeing some franchises use it for players that they don't want to lose in free agency while getting nothing in return."
Two years ago, even though Buffalo knew it couldn't afford to sign Peerless Price to a pricey deal, given that the team already had a large investment in fellow wide receiver Eric Moulds, the Bills used the "franchise" tag to retain their rights to him. The Bills shopped Price around the league, found a buyer in the Atlanta Falcons, and the gambit landed Buffalo a first-round draft choice in return for the wide receiver.
Last spring, the Washington Redskins used the franchise designation to retain the rights to star cornerback Champ Bailey, rather than allow the perennial Pro Bowl performer to go into the unrestricted pool. The move was the centerpiece for the megadeal which sent Bailey to the Denver Broncos in return for standout tailback Clinton Portis.
The rationale of the Bills and Redskins, in using the "franchise" marker in a manner for which it wasn't necessarily intended, was simple: Players are essentially commodities and, if a club has invested time and money and energy nurturing that commodity, it is silly to merely surrender it for nothing.
And so, while there will be players assigned the "franchise" marker over the next few weeks by teams whose first priority is retaining their rights -- Indianapolis tailback Edgerrin James, New England kicker Adam Vinatieri, Philadelphia defensive tackle Corey Simon [tagged late Thursday] and St. Louis offensive tackle Orlando Pace likely among them -- a few more will receive the tag and then be used as barter.
Arguably the most notable of those is San Diego quarterback Drew Brees, who emerged as a big-time starter in 2004, and who finished with the third-highest passer rating in the league in his breakout season. With about $21 million-$22 million in available salary cap space, Chargers brass can afford the $8.078 million price tag it will cost to keep Brees around. The move provides the team myriad options: Attempt to negotiate a long-term deal, which is Brees' stated preference; Force him to play in '05 for the franchise qualifying offer; Or wait for trade suitors to come calling, gauge their interest, and maybe land a third first-round choice in the April draft by peddling Brees to the highest bidder.
"For now," acknowledged a source close to Brees, "they hold the cards. And their biggest trump (card) is that 'franchise' tag."
San Diego doesn't figure to be the lone team playing poker with the "franchise" chip at its disposal. While it would be out of character for the Pittsburgh Steelers to designate a franchise player to retain his trade rights, there is talk the team won't permit wideout Plaxico Burress to merely slip away. Even the once-penurious Cincinnati Bengals are considering investing $6.3 million on a "franchise" marker for tailback Rudi Johnson.
The Bengals would like to have Johnson back on a long-term deal but aren't about to overpay for a guy not considered a premier tailback despite two consecutive excellent seasons. Although he didn't play much as a rookie, the Cincinnati coaching staff still seems convinced that 2004 first-round tailback Chris Perry could step in as the starter, and that Johnson might be expendable for the right price.
The Jacksonville Jaguars, who insisted they would not use the franchise marker for a third straight offseason on Donovin Darius, are considering retaining him to see if there is a trade market out there for the veteran strong safety, who is coming off one of his best seasons. Even the Jets, who want to keep Abraham, might be willing to include him in a trade package if New York opts to pursue Randy Moss.
Several general managers, queried about the possibility of using the "franchise" marker to keep a player's rights and then trading him, suggested that such maneuvers likely will not amount to much. They conceded, however, that such "franchise-and-trade" deals, given the results of the last two years, could become more popular.
And that it is a potentially burgeoning trend worth watching this spring.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.