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The Scientific Method

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Playing Tag

It's time to break down the six groups of franchise players in the NFL and determine who fits where

The franchise tag is the NFL’s version of a promise ring. It’s a team’s way of showing a player that they care — and might be amenable to a long-term commitment in the future — without actually making that commitment whatsoever. “Franchise Player” is a misnomer, as it’s probably something more like, “Player to Whom This Franchise Is Willing to Pay a Large-Yet-Still-Contextually-Unfair Sum for One Year.”

Unfair, you say? Sure, the franchise tag guarantees a player a salary akin to the five top players in football at his position, but it also prevents him from seeing the mouthwatering bonuses that really escalate wages around the league. As an example, take the case of Antonio Bryant. After coming off of the waiver wire to catch 83 passes for the Buccaneers in 2008, Bryant was slapped with the franchise tag by the Buccaneers and guaranteed nearly $9.9 million for the 2009 season. After a limited season that year saw him catch just 39 passes for 600 yards, Bryant hit the free-agent market and received a four-year, $28 million contract from the Bengals that guaranteed him $8 million. The Bengals were so taken by Bryant’s work that they cut him before he ever played a regular-season game in a Cincinnati uniform. Bryant pocketed the $8 million and hasn’t played in an NFL game since. The free market is a truly powerful thing.

This year’s crop of tagged players has until July 16 to agree to long-term extensions with their respective teams, and there are some notable candidates still in search of new deals. By looking back at history, we can find about six groups into which franchise-tagged players tend to fit. Those six groups define the different uses of the franchise tag and should provide some insight into the motivations of both organizations and players with regard to a long-term deal. They should also give us an idea of whether any or all of the 14 franchise players left standing without multi-year contract extensions will sign a new deal by next Monday.

The “True” Franchise Player

Type: The truly elite player at an essential position who isn’t locked up to a long-term deal, but would receive one from virtually any team in the free market if he got there.

Past Example: Walter Jones

This Year: Drew Brees. The seeming lack of motivation from the Saints to give Brees a blank check with his name on it is surreal. Even if you want to ignore the emotional issues of Brees coming to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and leading the organization to a Super Bowl victory, he’s a bona fide franchise quarterback at the apex of his powers. The rules of having a franchise quarterback are really simple:

• Acquire him at virtually any cost.
• Retain him for as long as humanly possible.

It’s so strange, in fact, that it’s inspired conspiracy theories. Is there something physically wrong with Brees that the Saints are worried about for the long-term? Does owner Tom Benson not have the funds to give Brees a mammoth extension right now after buying the Hornets in April? Is there a secret punishment from the Bountygate case that forbids the Saints from signing Brees to a long-term contract?1 If the stories about Brees’s demands are true, it’s inconceivable that the Saints wouldn’t cave and give Brees his desired $20.5 million annual salary.

One other factor comes into play if the Saints don’t franchise Brees. If the organization doesn’t come to terms on a long-term deal with Brees and franchises him again in 2013, he’ll receive 144 percent of his previous salary as opposed to the traditional 120 percent. That’s an extra $4 million or so that Brees would make in 2013. So if the Saints want to go year-by-year with Brees, as the Seahawks did with elite left tackle Walter Jones for three seasons last decade, they can basically have him on a two-year deal for about $40 million. The Saints would save a lot of money by not paying Brees any bonuses, but they would be paying him a similar salary to what he would make under a long-term deal and would be forced to keep Brees’s entire $23.5 million salary in 2013 on their cap, limiting their ability to go out and acquire more talent. They also run the risk of pissing Brees off so much that he holds out and spends the first 10 weeks of the regular season playing with his adorable son.

It seems incredibly unlikely that the Saints wouldn’t just cave in and give Brees the deal he wants by July 16, but if that were the case, why wouldn’t they have locked Brees up by now? At 33, Brees should still have several years left at a very high level; because the aging curve for elite quarterbacks is so flat, he’s extremely likely to return value commensurate with the contract he’s requesting. You save money on the Matt Praters of the world so that you can pay this sort of player whatever he wants.

The Expiration Date

Type: The unquestionably talented player who has played at an elite level for multiple seasons, but might be approaching his sell-by date too soon to justify another long-term contract.

Past Example: Aubrayo Franklin

This Year: Brent Grimes, Wes Welker. Grimes and Welker actually have a lot in common. Both of them are undersize players who had to grind their way to success in the NFL after going undrafted, with both likely making an NFL roster at first because of the possibility that they could contribute on special teams. Eventually, they found situational roles in the slot before becoming full-time starters and Pro Bowlers. They’ve succeeded against the odds so far, but the odds could be too much in the near future.

For Welker, the biggest problem is age. Although he’s been incredibly productive when healthy as a member of the Patriots, Welker will be 31 this year and already has an ACL surgery on his résumé. Historically, players who run short routes and lack the speed to threaten teams downfield tend to lose their value more quickly than their bigger, faster counterparts. Let’s compare Welker’s stats to a similar player from recent memory:

Player A is T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who signed a big deal with the Seahawks after his age-31 season and only lasted one disappointing season with the team before being released. Once Houshmandzadeh lost a step, all the veteran guile and route-running ability in the world couldn’t make him valuable.

Welker’s also subject to significant questions about his value in a context outside of the Patriots system. As a nontraditional sort of player, he really only fits into a handful of offensive schemes, and the vast majority of his success has come with an elite quarterback at the helm. It’s hard to imagine Welker, say, going to Cleveland and lining up as a split end for Brandon Weeden. Players of Welker’s ilk are also relatively plentiful and cheap. Welker was undrafted, as was Danny Amendola, Welker’s replacement at Texas Tech.2 Amendola doesn’t have Welker’s ability, but he had 85 catches with Sam Bradford at the helm in 2010 while playing a Welker-esque role. When the Patriots are debating whether to give Welker a long-term deal, they have to consider the possibility that they could get 90 percent of Welker’s performance from a player like Amendola at about 10 percent of the cost. It just doesn’t make sense to give Welker a long-term deal under those circumstances.

At 28 (Grimes turns 29 on July 19), Grimes is younger than Welker, but he’s playing a position with a shorter shelf life and is being squeezed out by the players around him. Grimes is almost unquestionably the best cornerback on his team, but the players ahead of him — Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel — each make large sums of money. Samuel renegotiated his deal after being traded to the Falcons, but he’s still due $4.4 million in 2012, while Robinson’s $57 million disaster of a contract guarantees him $5 million this season and $3 million in 2013. Grimes will make $10 million this year, but it’s hard to see the Falcons committing to a long-term deal for yet another cornerback until the group has exhibited an ability to play together successfully. (See: Eagles, Philadelphia, 2011.) The team is planning to move Grimes from left cornerback to the right side this year, while positioning the bigger, stronger Robinson in the slot, which alone might cause trouble.

After the season ends, Grimes could then hit the free agent market as an undersize cornerback about to turn 30. If he misses time with an injury this year, he’ll head to that market with just one healthy season as a starter underneath his belt. For all the talent and work ethic he possesses, acquiring him for the long-term would be a dangerous move. On the other hand, the Falcons might also choose to let Robinson and/or Samuel go and lock Grimes into a long-term deal.

The Trade Candidate

Type: The player tagged exclusively so that his team can acquire something for him in a trade.

Past Example: Matt Cassel

This Year: None

The Packers could have chosen to do this with Matt Flynn, but none of the other remaining franchise players are obvious trade candidates.

The Leverage Removal

Type: The proven young player coming to the end of his rookie contract who is forced to sign a deal with his current employer after they take free agency off the table.

Past Examples: David Harris, Brandon Jacobs

This Year: Matt Forte, Ray Rice. This situation actually ends up being a win-win for players and teams alike, especially when it involves running backs. We all know about the relatively short life span of the professional running back, so it’s essential for young players with starting gigs to make the most of it while they can. That knowledge leads virtually every young back to re-up with his team at a relatively cheap rate before they hit the market. Consider that the last notable running back to hit free agency was DeAngelo Williams, who ended up getting $21 million guaranteed to return to Carolina. That’s a similar figure to what Arian Foster got to stay in Houston without having hit the market, and Foster is a superior player to Williams. It’s double what Jamaal Charles got in guaranteed money from the Chiefs.

Even if Rice and Forte won’t get contracts in the Chris Johnson or Adrian Peterson stratosphere, it still behooves them to take something similar to the Foster deal. They’ll each get $7.7 million for this upcoming season. It’ll take them each two more seasons to approach the sort of guaranteed money they would get in the first year of a contract extension, and they run the considerable risk of suffering a severe injury or losing their job before then. Every player admittedly runs that risk, but nobody does so quite like running backs. This class of player almost always ends up signing a long-term deal with his team, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Forte and Rice do so.

The Leap Year

Type: The young player with flashes of brilliance who still needs to prove that he’s worth a big extension.

Past Examples: Albert Haynesworth, Stacy Andrews

This Year: Cliff Avril, Dwayne Bowe, Tyvon Branch, Dashon Goldson, Anthony Spencer. In many ways, this is the toughest group of players for teams to properly evaluate and value. Every single one of these players has a hallmark that would earn him a big contract on the free market. Avril’s coming off of an 11-sack season. Bowe was a touchdown machine in 2010 as his team’s only weapon. Branch is a dominant safety in run support. Goldson’s a ball hawk and a Pro Bowler. And Spencer … OK, I’m not totally sure what the Cowboys were thinking when they franchised Spencer.

Of course, they also have their respective warts. Avril plays alongside an elite defensive line that makes his job easy. Bowe is erratic, and his one notable stretch of performance came against incredibly easy competition, just as it did for Braylon Edwards years before him. Branch isn’t the sort of center fielder for whom teams spend money at safety in free agency. Goldson only had one interception in 2010 and derives a lot of his value from those six picks in 2011. And Spencer has only mustered a paltry 17 sacks in 48 games across from DeMarcus Ware at outside linebacker.

With these players, getting an extra year of knowledge about their true levels of ability is more valuable and/or meaningful than the salary cap costs saved by locking them into a longer-term contract. A year from now, we’ll know a lot more about whether Goldson’s takeaway rates are sustainable or whether Spencer’s ever going to break out as a pass rusher. Speculating on those facts with a lengthy investment is a dangerous game to play.

Not Worth the Hassle

Type: The player at a relatively cheap position, for whom the cost of a one-year deal isn’t prohibitive.

Past Examples: Any kicker, Bo Scaife, L.J. Smith

This Year: Fred Davis, Phil Dawson, Mike Nugent, Josh Scobee. This group essentially consists of kickers, punters, and tight ends every year. It’s also the group most likely to produce a player who goes from franchise player to out of football in the shortest stretch of time; tight end L.J. Smith is retired after being tagged at 28 a mere four years ago, while Bo Scaife and kickers Jeff Reed and Shayne Graham (all tagged in 2009) are on the fringes of football as camp bodies.

The kicker conundrum has been beaten to death in this space over the past few months, but it’s no surprise that these players are getting franchised. No general manager’s ever been fired because his franchise-tagged kicker couldn’t handle the pressure and missed a big field goal. Certainly, it’s better than giving your kicker a long-term deal.

The Fred Davis tag seems like it’s masking an opportunity for the Redskins, though. Davis has shown potential when healthy in the past, and he’s certainly at the nadir of his market value, having spent last season catching passes from Rex Grossman before missing the final four games of the year on a marijuana suspension. If the Redskins really think he’s a big part of their offense with RGIII going forward, they could probably sign him to a contract extension right now and save millions of dollars before he has a big 2012. Then again, being proactive and forward-thinking isn’t exactly the Redskins’ way.

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell