Commentary

Franchise tag shifts risk to players

Mailbag: Big salary is nice, but window to cash in with long-term deal might close

Originally Published: April 1, 2013
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

One team's franchise player can become another team's bargain.

Over the weekend, cornerback Brent Grimes, a franchise designee of the Atlanta Falcons last year, signed a one-year deal with the Miami Dolphins. As a franchise player, Grimes made $10.281 million. Early reports are that Grimes signed a one-year deal with Miami at $5.5 million, close to a 50 percent reduction.

Grimes is coming off an Achilles tear, which clearly affected his market value. The Falcons supposedly weren't in the mix, so Grimes tried to get the best deal he could elsewhere.

"I've never been a free agent so I was dealing with my agent," Grimes said Saturday at his news conference with the Dolphins. "He was working and getting the stuff together. I was just going on visits. I picked Miami because I think they are building something great here and I would love to be a part of it. They really showed a lot of interest in having me here. That played a major role in me deciding to come to Miami."

The twist to the Grimes story is why free agents are apprehensive about receiving the franchise tag. While the salary that comes with the tag -- the average of the top five salaries at a position over a five-year period -- may seem great, fame and financial security can be fleeting. An injury can knock down the value of a franchise player for the next year. Plus, the high one-year salary often makes it tough for the player to feel happy with the salaries in subsequent long-term offers from the franchising team.

Look at the examples. Washington Redskins tight end Fred Davis made $5.441 million last year as a franchise player. Then he tore his Achilles. On Friday, he agreed to a one-year deal worth reportedly around $2.5 million that could grow to $3.5 million based on incentives.

[+] EnlargeClady
AP Photo/Rob CarrRyan Clady, who got the franchise tag this year, might end up regretting that he turned down the Broncos' $10 million-a-year offer last year.

Kicker Phil Dawson was franchised by the Cleveland Browns for two consecutive years. That took his base salary to $3.81 million in 2012. This year, Dawson took a $1.45 million pay cut to sign with the San Francisco 49ers on a one-year deal.

Defensive end Cliff Avril turned down a three-year, $30 million offer from the Detroit Lions last year. He was franchised at $10.605 million. Despite being one of the best pass-rushers available in free agency, Avril settled for a two-year, $13 million deal from the Seattle Seahawks this year. He's hoping the short-term deal can set him up for a longer $10 million-a-year deal.

The lesson learned here is for franchise players to be flexible when they are offered long-term deals by their teams.

Give receiver Dwayne Bowe credit for accepting $11.2 million a year to stay with the Kansas City Chiefs instead of holding out for $12 million a year. By doing so, Bowe got $26 million guaranteed, much better than going year to year hoping to hit a home run in negotiations.

The player to watch over the next year is Denver Broncos left tackle Ryan Clady. Clady turned down a five-year deal worth more than $50 million last summer, hoping to hit the highest pay level for a left tackle, and was franchised this year. Four left tackles are currently making $10 million a year or more.

But the tight cap has brought down the cost of the top deals. The four top left tackles who signed this year ended up getting between $6.8 million and $8.5 million a year. Jake Long was hoping for an $11 million average but ended up taking $8.5 million per year from the St. Louis Rams.

When it comes to the franchise tag, the advantage goes to the franchise, not the player.

From the inbox

Q: Have any of the QB-needy teams consider or kicked the tires on Kirk Cousins from Washington? I'd imagine if Washington would part with him, it would at a cheaper price than Matt Flynn or Ryan Mallett. Or even cheaper than a first-round draft pick. I think Arizona would be a good fit, and it would still allow Bruce Arians to keep Drew Stanton as his QB if Cousins didn't win the job.

Ray C. in Omaha, Neb.

A: I go the opposite direction. The Redskins can't afford to let other teams kick the tires on Cousins. First, Robert Griffin III is coming off a knee reconstruction. Second, Cousins is under contract at the NFL minimum for the next couple of years. The Redskins can't afford to let him go and pay more for a quarterback when they are so tight against the cap. Plus, the Redskins like Cousins. No need to change something that doesn't need fixing.

Q: I have a Tampa Bay question. I've been a fan ever since the late John McKay era. What is your gut feeling about Darrelle Revis to the Bucs? Do you think if Tampa doesn't get Revis it would drop down to get DE Margus Hunt from SMU in the lower part of Round 1? The Bucs spent a long time interviewing him, and if they pick up another second-rounder do you think they would pick two CBs in Round 2 and another DL in Round 3?

George in Alba, Texas

A: I think they will end up getting Revis before the draft. They are the most logical team. They could trade a No. 1 pick and a mid-round pick to get him. They have the cap room to handle a new contract for Revis. It's a great fit. The Bucs also need help along the defensive line. By keeping the first-round pick this year, the Bucs can get some help at either tackle or defensive end. I'm not sold a trade-down is the answer. Draft the best player possible.

Q: With the hard cap, teams are expected to make tougher decisions about keeping veterans. My question is, could the NFL implement a system with limits on free-agent contracts (similar to the rookie wage scale) and also add incentives for teams keeping players? Clearly there would be adverse effects with the players' ability to command higher salaries, but could this system work in NFL free agency?

Patrick in Columbia, S.C.

A: The NFL can't "implement" a system. It has to be collectively bargained. In a sport in which injuries affect availability, I can't see the NFLPA going for any kind of incentive-based concept. No system is going to be perfect for both sides. The way the current CBA is working, teams are able to do a better job of controlling salary. It's a system that was agreed on for 10 years. All the players can hope for is the salary-cap number to increase enough to allow more growth in salaries. The top players are going to get great deals, It's the middle class that is getting squeezed.

Q: I was just wondering how significant it is that a team (Seattle, for example) still has a fairly high number of unrestricted free agents whho are not signed to contracts. This late in the free-agent window, shouldn't teams be getting these guys signed quickly?

Alan in Grandview, Mo.

A: It's not a big deal. The Seahawks, for example, signed defensive tackle Tony McDaniel for a lower number than Alan Branch, so Branch is expected to go elsewhere. They are going to go low cost at kicker, so Steven Hauschka isn't expected back. If they bring back Leroy Hill, it will be for the minimum salary. There is an average of seven unsigned players per team. The Seahawks have eight. That's normal.

Q: It seems like Brian Urlacher is not as sought after as he thought he would be (at his price). Will he be signed by anyone?

Rob in Chicago

A: The market might be slow for Urlacher, but don't count him out. If he doesn't land a team before the draft, he might be called upon by a team that didn't get the type of inside or middle linebacker it was seeking in the draft. You hope the situation isn't like Keith Brooking in Denver last year. Brooking had to wait until the start of training camp. He came to Denver and ended up starting. The problem for Urlacher is accepting he's not going to get much money to play this year.

Q: I am a very passionate but realistic Dolphins fan. I understand that winning free agency doesn't necessarily produce positive results the following season, i.e. the 2011-12 Eagles. However, I feel all the offseason signings the Dolphins made were well thought out and deliberate for players in areas of need: speed receiver (Mike Wallace), athletic TE (Dustin Keller) and attacking LBs (Philip Wheeler/Dannell Ellerbe). Do you expect a different result than the aforementioned Eagles got?

Raus in Brooklyn, N.Y.

A: I do believe the situation is completely different than it was in Philadelphia. One of the problems for the Eagles during their "dream team" offseason was they had a number of young players who weren't getting rewarded. If you bring in all these high-priced players, the best players who are making close to the minimum are going to feel slighted. They wonder, "When am I going to get paid?" Plus, the Eagles had been used to winning. The Dolphins haven't. This isn't a dream team situation in Miami.

Q: Between the losses of Glover Quin and Connor Barwin, will the Texans be able to have an elite defense like they did two years ago? Also, how does the addition of Ed Reed help the team in its chances of winning a Super Bowl?

Jacob in Katy, Texas

A: They still have the chance. The key is the pass rush. If J.J. Watt, Brooks Reed and others provide the pass rush, the defense should be good. Reed can grab interceptions in the middle of the field. Johnathan Joseph has to stay healthy at cornerback to make everything work. He struggled with injuries last year. The Texans still have Wade Phillips as the defensive coordinator. That gives them the chance to be great. They have enough talent.

Q: Much has been written about the Falcons' defense, and most of the reviews haven't been glowing. Obviously, last season saw us failing to stop the run and get after the quarterback. However, we were not terrible in, arguably, the most important defensive statistical category: points allowed. Like for the Patriots, "bend but don't break" is a useful and accurate description of the Falcons' defense. My question is this: Under Mike Nolan's scheme, which relies heavily on reading offensive formations and unpredictable play calling, how much of a liability do our remaining holes at LB, DE, and CB create? It seems to me that our main strength will be creating turnovers and creative defensive scheming. Obviously, a lack of pass rush and weak coverage will hurt. But how much?

DirtyBirdFever22 in Atlanta

A: A second year under the system will help. I have to think the team will be better stopping the run. My concern is at cornerback -- the Falcons cut Dunta Robinson and let Grimes go to Miami in free agency. I liked the Osi Umenyiora signing a lot. The team is better at linebacker than it was a couple of years ago. Plus, having two Pro Bowlers at safety isn't bad. The Falcons' key to winning will be the offense. That's the strength of the team.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer