Beginning on Monday, February 17, teams can begin using the franchise tag. The final day to use the franchise tag is two weeks later on March 4, before 4:00 PM EST.
The Cleveland Browns are in a pretty fortunate situation when it comes to free agency this year, because so few of their players are set to hit the market. In total, the Browns have seven free agents (including one exclusive rights free agent).
There is zero chance that the Browns use the tag on five of those players: RB Willis McGahee, OG Shawn Lauvao, OG Oniel Cousins, ILB Craig Robertson, and K Billy Cundiff. The question involves whether they will use it on one of their other two free agents, both of whom were Pro Bowlers in 2014: C Alex Mack and SS T.J. Ward. Here is a projection of how much money it could cost the Browns to franchise Mack or Ward this offseason, per research by Joel Corry of CBS Sports:
- C Alex Mack - $11.126 million
- SS T.J. Ward - $8.012 million
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Both of the figures above represent a non-exclusive franchise tag (which I will refer to as the franchise tag from here on out), which is the most commonly used tag. If the Browns slap the franchise tag on a player, the player can still negotiate with other teams. If another team signs the player to an offer sheet, Cleveland would have five days to match the offer. If they do not match the offer, the Browns are compensated nicely with two first-round draft picks. That's why teams rarely sign a player who is franchised -- nobody wants to part with two first-round picks.
During his introductory press conference, new Browns general manager Ray Farmer was asked about using the franchise tag, and had this to say:
On potentially using the franchise tag on OL Alex Mack or DB T.J. Ward and their futures with the Browns: "We’ve taken the opportunity to really look at all of the models and opportunities that we have to retain players. I don’t think right now is the right time for me to talk about what negotiations may be going on or where we’re at with anyone in specific, but I will tell you we’ll do everything in our power to make sure we have the right players for this football team moving forward."
Let's take a closer look at whether the Browns should or will try to use the franchise tag on both of either Mack or Ward (keep in mind that the franchise tag can only be used on one player):
Using the Tag on Alex Mack
The figure of $11.126 million would be quite expensive for a center, and it would be more than double the $5.032 million that Mack made in 2013. It would also make Mack the highest-paid center in 2014, when you compare the top five cap hits for centers in the NFL:
Ryan Kalil (Panthers) - $10.40 million
David Baas (Giants) - $8.23 million
Nick Mangold (Jets) - $7.23 million
Chris Myers (Texans) - $7.00 million
- Scott Wells (Rams) - $6.50 million
Why is the franchise tag so expensive for a center? Because the franchise tag is lumped as the same value for all offensive lineman. Offensive tackles and guards get paid at a much higher rate than centers, so teams don't get much of an advantage for tagging a center.
The Browns will have to decide if they want to make a commitment to Mack long-term, which might depend on whether they feel he can adapt to the zone blocking scheme deployed by new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Corry, a former agent, gave his opinion on what he would ask for if he were representing Mack for a new contract:
@NateUlrichABJ Alex Mack gets a windfall with an $11M franchise tag. Centers usually aren't tagged & their salaries aren't close to that #.— Joel Corry (@corryjoel) February 11, 2014
Because of Cleveland's excessive cap space, it would be really nice to sign Mack for that type of money, but front-load his contract this year with guaranteed money -- that way, you could make him the highest paid center in the league while we have excess cap space in 2014, but he would have a much lower cap hit in future years, allowing us more freedom to sign other players down the road.
Using the Tag on T.J. Ward
The figure of $8.012 million isn't so bad. It would be a hell of a score for Ward, who only had a cap hit of $1.19 million in 2013. It would make Ward the sixth-highest paid safety in the NFL in 2014, following these five players:
Eric Berry (Chiefs) - $11.62 million
Troy Polamalu (Steelers) - $10.89 million
Eric Weddle (Chargers) - $10.10 million
Antrel Rolle (Giants) - $9.25 million
- Dashon Goldson (Buccaneers) - $9.00 million
Ward is coming off of his best season as a pro. Many players fail to come through during a contract year, but that wasn't the case for him. Mike Pettine is a defensive guy and he might look at the safety position and think, "there's no way we can lose our starting strong safety, when we're not completely sold on our free safety yet." Cleveland has very little depth at the safety position too, so players aren't exactly waiting in the wings.
One of the things fans might think is, "we have so much cap space, why don't we just lock both of these guys up to long-term deals already?" In a best-case scenario, I would love for the Browns to re-sign both players, making them a core part of the franchise for four-five more years.
What if that's not what the players want, though? Mack and/or Ward might want to test free agency to see if they can get a bidding war going between teams. One or both of them might simply want out of Cleveland to go to a franchise that is more ready to win now. That's where the franchise tag comes into good use, because you basically hold a player "hostage" in essence. It also buys more time to still agree upon a long-term deal.
If I were the Browns, I would try to agree to terms with both players on a long-term deal. If one of the players signed a long-term deal but the other didn't, I would franchise the other, even if it's expensive for Mack. If neither player had an interest in what the Browns were offering, I would actually opt to franchise Mack and risk Ward hitting the market. Cleveland's offensive line was a disappointment last season because of both guard positions and right tackle. I just don't see how you can potentially create a fourth hole on the offensive line. Yes, we'd be faced with a similar predicament at safety, but I think it's more reasonable to think you can find a quality low-budget safety than a quality low-budget center.
I think the more likely scenario is that Mack tests free agency, and we tag Ward.
Let us know in the comments section below -- do you think the Browns should use the franchise tag on Mack or Ward, if neither one is willing to sign a new deal before they hit free agency?
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