It was a big week for a few players playing under the Franchise Tag this season and I figured it was a good time to just check-in and see they are doing so far this season.
Michael Johnson – Defensive End – Cincinnati Bengals – Tag $11,175,000
The Cincinnati Bengals defense is playing excellent football and at the heart of that success is Michael Johnson. Johnson tied for 9th in the league last year with 11.5 sacks and although he has only recorded 1.5 sacks this year, there may not be a defensive end playing better football in the league right now than Johnson. Johnson watched the Bengals pay out serious money in extensions to fellow defensive end Carlos Dunlap ($40 million) and All-Pro Defensive Tackle Geno Atkins ($55 million) this offseason and both haven’t played up to their billing through three games. The Bengals have plenty of cap space but also have to worry about the monster deal coming for All-Pro WR AJ Green and a new deal for Quarterback Andy Dalton (most likely). With so much money already tied up in the defensive line and only so many dollars to go around, they Bengals might not have a choice but to let Johnson walk, especially if he keeps this elite level of play up leading to his free agency.
Branden Albert – Left Tackle – Kansas City Chiefs – Tag $9,828,000
Branden Albert had a tumultuous offseason to say the least. It seems as if he was tagged for the sole purpose of being traded and was floated on the trade block leading up and through draft day while at the same time watching the Chiefs spend the 1st overall pick on what is believed to be his replacement, offensive tackle Eric Fisher. Interestingly enough, Fisher is struggling mightily three games into his NFL career and Albert has protected new quarterback Alex Smith extremely well. Through three games, Albert has only allowed 4 quarterback hurries and 1 sack despite sustaining a shoulder injury in week 2, which led to his worst performance of the season in week 3. It will be interesting to see if Albert continues his solid play from the first two weeks or if the shoulder injury will hamper him. Either way, I believe this will be the last season for Albert in Kansas City.
Pat McAfee – Punter/Kickoff Specialist – Indianapolis Colts – Tag $2,977,000
There isn’t much to talk about here seeing as I seriously lack any experience evaluating Punter’s performance. But it is worth noting that McAfee has performed near the top third of the league in Punting according to Pro Football Focus, hasn’t showed up on the wrong end of any highlights and is healthy. As we will see later, half the battle in making the good section of this article is staying out of the news and actually being able to suit up on game day.
Randy Starks – Defensive Tackle – Miami Dolphins – Tag $8,450,000
Despite a scheme and position change, Randy Starks has continued to be an extremely productive defensive lineman for the Miami Dolphins since joining the team via free agency prior to the 2008 season. Starks thrived as one of the league’s best 3-4 defensive ends from 2008-2011 and now is getting the hang of playing defensive tackle in Kevin Coyle’s 4-3 defense. Unfortunately, there have been some negative reports floating around about Starks during the offseason and now during the season. One of which was a report that Starks believes the Dolphins punished him for missing offseason voluntary workouts and stripped him of his starting role while he was lobbying for a long-term deal. While defensive tackles Paul Soliai and Jared Odrick are listed as starters ahead of Starks, the snap counts were all relatively similar prior to Soliai’s week 2 knee injury. Starks regained his starting role, at least temporarily, after Soliai went down with a knee injury although he didn’t play particularly well in the Dolphins’ win against Atlanta. To further complicate issues, Starks was caught on camera flipping the bird on the sidelines during the Dolphins’ week 1 victory against Cleveland. Reports were the gesture was directed at the coaching staff but Starks claims it was him just joking on the sidelines with his teammates. Who knows what the truth is, but Jeff Ireland and Joe Philbin have been quick to rid themselves of players that cause distractions and the soon to be 30 year-old Starks in the headlines surely isn’t helping his cause to secure a long-term deal with the Dolphins this offseason.
Jairus Byrd – Free Safety – Buffalo Bills – Tag $6,916,000
Muddled in an ugly contract dispute, Jairus Byrd’s 2013 season hasn’t started smoothly to say the least. As one of the leagues’ top safeties he was hoping to cash in big during the offseason but never could get close enough with the Bills to hammer out a deal. Unhappy with his current situation, Byrd didn’t sign his franchise tender until August 20th and reportedly was asking to be traded. To make matters worse, Byrd reported to the team complaining of sore feet, which was determined to be plantar fasciitis. I can tell you first hand that dealing with plantar fasciitis is extremely painful and frustrating. Citing his foot pain, Byrd has yet to suit up for the Bills this year despite the rest of their secondary also being decimated by injuries. Cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore, Ron Brooks, and Leodis McKelvin are dealing with an assortment of injuries of their own. What complicates Byrd’s injury and contract situation further is the discovery that he played through the injury last season. Whether it’s fair or not, it looks as if Byrd was willing to play through the pain last year in search of a big payday and now doesn’t see it as worthwhile to risk playing through it this year. You would have to figure we are going to see Byrd suit up for the Bills soon, but it may very well be the last season he plays for Buffalo unless of course the Bills decide to tag him again, since it would only cost around $8.3 million, and this whole drama plays out again next year.
Henry Melton – Defensive Tackle – Chicago Bears – Tag $8,450,000
After back-to-back stellar years at the Defensive Tackle position Henry Melton’s shaky 2013 start went from bad to flat out devastating. As we mentioned in previous articles, the Chicago Bears have a number of key players in contract years and franchised Henry Melton was one of them. With the Bears thriving under new head coach Marc Trestman, it’s looking increasingly likely that a higher number of the players would be retained. Unfortunately for Melton, he is going to be a perfect case study of why players value long-term contract security so much and fight so hard to avoid the franchise tag. Melton suffered a torn ACL vs the Steelers this Sunday and not only is he going to miss the rest of the season, his value in free agency this upcoming offseason just took a crippling blow. While it seems to be the trend that players can recover from ACL injuries faster and more efficiently than ever, Melton may have to take a shorter “prove it” deal instead of a more substantial free agency haul that he was looking forward to.
Anthony Spencer – Defensive End – Dallas Cowboys – Tag $10,627,200
In 2012, Spencer and the Cowboys were unable to reach a long-term deal and he ended up playing through the season on the $8,856,000 franchise tag. Not only did he avoid serious injury, Spencer probably played the best football of his career. With Monte Kiffin bringing in his Tampa 2 4-3 defense, Spencer was asked to switch from 3-4 Outside Linebacker to 4-3 Defensive End and the position change ending up being one of the contentious points that prevented the Cowboys and Spencer from seeing eye to eye on his value and reaching a long-term deal yet again this year. The Cowboys and Spencer both seemed content to play the year out on the franchise tag again, but as mentioned above with Henry Melton, it comes with serious risk. Spencer had offseason surgery on his left knee and after missing week 1 was able to play against Kansas City in week 2. It’s unclear what happened during the game, but after missing week 3, news broke that Spencer would have micro-fracture surgery on his left knee and will miss the rest of the season. Spencer is now in the same bucket as Melton and will have to prove to teams he is past his injury if he hopes to cash in next offseason in free agency.
Ryan Clady – Left Tackle – Denver Broncos – Tag $9,828,000****
Of the eight players who were franchise tagged this offseason, Ryan Clady was the sole player who reached a long-term extension with their team. Trusted with protecting the blind-side of early-season MVP Peyton Manning, the Broncos agreed to a 5-year $52.5 million extension. Clady becomes another example of why players fight so hard to avoid the franchise tag and hold out of team activities while they pursue long-term security from the teams. Just two games into his new mega-deal, Clady’s foot suffered a season-ending Lisfranc sprain in a seemingly docile collision. Of the three players now on season-ending IR, Clady is the only one with any multi-year security and doesn’t have to worry about proving his worth and health next offseason in search of a new deal.