Commentary

Franchised TEs a bargain -- for now

Mailbag: Should Lions switch to a 3-4? Are elite QB salaries a hindrance?

Originally Published: February 25, 2013
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- One of the interesting storm clouds discussed among agents at the scouting combine involved tight ends.

The influx of great pass-catching tight ends has changed the NFL the past few years. From Tony Gonzalez to Rob Gronkowski to Jimmy Graham, more tight ends have become essential parts of top-flight offenses.

They are matchup nightmares. Teams flex out tight ends like receivers and force defenses to cover them with a safety or linebacker.

Tight ends have become franchise players for offenses, and don't be surprised if agents start challenging the different pay levels of franchise tight ends versus that of franchise wide receivers.

Franchise wide receivers get a one-year tender at $10.357 million; tight ends have $5.962 million tenders. With tight ends becoming big receivers, agents are going to fight for wide receiver numbers. Expect some kind of a grievance once the franchise tags come out.

A similar move happened a few years ago involving Terrell Suggs of the Baltimore Ravens. Linebackers make less than defensive ends, but because he put his hand on the ground in passing situations, Suggs wanted defensive end money.

A compromise was reached, and the debate went away. Now, the gap between a franchised defensive end and a franchised linebacker is roughly $1.5 million. That's not the case for tight ends.

Jermichael Finley of the Green Bay Packers contemplated such a challenge last year, but he ended up signing a two-year deal.

[+] EnlargeJared Cook
Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY Sports Given how things are structured, it makes a lot of sense for the Titans to franchise Jared Cook.

The test case this year could be Jared Cook of the Tennessee Titans, who is expected to be franchised at $5.962 million. Cook had 49 and 44 receptions the past two seasons, but his 6-foot-5 frame and good speed make him a matchup problem for defenses.

Cook placed his hand on the ground as a conventional tight end on only 21 percent of the Titans' offensive plays, according to one study. The rest of the time he was moved to the slot or flexed to the outside.

The New Orleans Saints' Graham might be next year's example, if he plays out his restricted tender this year and is franchised next season.

I'm not taking sides on this. I'm only the advance scout on a pending debate. Eighteen tight ends caught more than 50 passes last season, and more and more of them are working the slot or the outside.

The collective bargaining agreement defines the franchise tag to a position by the number of snaps played at that position. If an arbiter determines a flexed tight end in the slot is more a wide receiver, then the Cooks and Grahams of the game have a case.

The New England Patriots base their two-tight end offense on using them like receivers. And they are paying them accordingly. Last year, Gronkowski got a six-year, $53 million extension; Aaron Hernandez was signed to a five-year, $40 million extension.

Strategically, teams are looking for ways to fit in values in tight cap years. If pass-catching tight ends are making almost 50 percent less than elite wide receivers, they may prefer retaining a top tight end more than an $11 million receiver.

Stay tuned to see if the franchised tight ends flex their muscle.

From the inbox

Q: Regarding the Lions' defense; I'm wondering if they should switch to the 3-4. They could make a lot of moves to make this work.

Tom in Detroit

A: The 3-4 defense is more expensive and harder to fill than a 4-3, and you know the Lions' cap problems. In a 3-4, you have to pay two or three linebackers, two corners, a safety and two or three on the defensive line. In a 4-3, you can draft linebackers and play them earlier than in a 3-4. Plus, Jim Schwartz is a 4-3 defensive coach. He is a good enough coach to switch over to the 3-4, but his best plan is with a 4-3.

Q: A team like the Packers, and going back further, the Patriots, surround a great QB with a lot of young talent and are always looking to the future -- never having to properly "rebuild" because they're always thinking long term. Do you think that has hurt these teams because they haven't had the sense of urgency that comes with a window that's going to close on you?

Conrad in Los Angeles

A: You're hitting on an important theme for the next couple of years. Teams with elite, top-paid quarterbacks are starting to have trouble keeping rosters together in tight cap years. It's understandable. If the cap is at about $121 million, and the quarterback is making $20 million a year, that doesn't leave a lot for the rest of the team. That doesn't mean quarterbacks need to take a reduction. They've earned their $20 million salary. They are the difference between teams who win championships and those that are just average. The trick is having the right general manager and/or salary-cap manager to make it all work.

Q: In regard to whatever new player safety rules end up in place for the 2013 season: Do us a favor and ask those same players who will complain that the NFL is becoming "powder puff" football if they would be in favor of the 18-game regular season. I mean, if it's becoming "powder puff," then two more games that count shouldn't be any big deal, and the salary increase that would have to be a part of the expanded regular season ought to be worth it. Sorry, but I just can't stand players who want it both ways -- it's too tough for 18 games, but it's too soft because of the new rules.

Douglas in Columbus, Ohio

A: You are right that the complaints against 18 games and the complaints about the game being too soft conflict. I still can understand the players' position on 18 games. Their bodies go through a lot during a season. I'm sure if the financial incentives were rich enough, it would be a consideration, but those proposals aren't there yet. Those might come when the television numbers start to double in the next few years. You know something has to give. Roger Goodell doesn't like the preseason. At some point soon, it will be shortened to two or three games.

Q: The NFL combine is obviously a big, big deal to both players and teams in terms of determining baseline athletic skill sets and draft position. I'm also aware that college pro days are an important part of this process, especially for the athletes who weren't invited to the combine. Are the players who routinely forgo working out/throwing/running in Indy hurting their draft stock?

Paul in Mooresville, N.C.

A: It benefits the players to work out in Indianapolis. The combine is a job audition. All -- and I mean all -- of the decision-makers are in Indy. For the player who skips workouts at the combine, he has no guarantee a particular coach or general manager will be at his pro day. What coaches and GMs love about having the players work out in Indy is the balanced conditions. They don't have to make adjustments for a fast track at one school or a slow track at another. Plus, the player who skips the combine gambles that he might have bad weather conditions at his pro day.

Q: Wouldn't Kevin Boss be a terrific solution for the Bears? A Super Bowl champion with great hands and size.

Mike in DeKalb, Ill.

A: A healthy Boss would be a nice solution to the Bears' tight end situation. Unfortunately, he's not healthy. Concussion problems forced his release by the Kansas City Chiefs. The concussion problem is serious enough that he may not be able to play. If he does pass concussion tests, he'll probably get a low salary. Sad story.

Q: What criteria does the NFL use in inviting players to the combine? I have been tracking my top 10 DBs all season, and three of the 10 did not get invited, even though they finished near the top of the statistical categories for DBs.

Denis in Mexico, Maine

A: The combine picks the players. It tries to get a consensus of the players teams want to see at the event. Then things get tricky. Let's say a handful of teams have scouted three of your defensive backs and didn't volunteer their names to prevent other teams from seeing them. That's one of the reasons 14 to 18 players a year who weren't invited to the combine end up being drafted. Teams pay millions for scouting.

Q: Can you please explain to me why so many teams give players outrageous bonuses in free agency? Wouldn't NFL teams be better served by not giving such large signing and roster bonuses, and having a larger salary for the player instead? Do teams plan ahead knowing they have $10 million to $20 million in dead money on their cap and just keep rotating that money every year?

Yosh in Anaheim, Calif.

A: That's the beauty and the pains of free agency. For the player who is good enough to start, he puts himself in a position when he's a free agent to get a large signing bonus and a decent contract average. If the team that drafted him doesn't want to pay that, he leaves. Would you leave your job if you can get guaranteed money and a big raise? Of course you would. But injuries happen, and players sometimes don't work out. Teams mentally think three years when they sign a free agent and hope the player can last the four years or five years he is under contract. I'm sure each team has cap planning if the player doesn't work out and has a plan for dead money.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer