Status Update on the Eight Franchised Players


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.

The Good:

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.

The “Bad”:

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.

The Ugly:

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.

The Franchise Tag and the July 15 Deadline


The NFL calendar is filled with little dates here and there that are very important for salary cap purposes that sometimes get lost in the shuffle. We are now coming up on one of those dates- July 15, just 9 days away from the time I am writing this. July 15 is the final day that a team can sign their Franchise player to a long term contract. If they fail to come to a contract agreement by 4:00 PM on the 15th the player can only play the season on a one year contract with his current team with no extension allowed until after the conclusion of the season.

I am not a big fan of allowing players to play out the season on the Franchise tag. It compromises your salary cap and puts you right back at square one after the season. Normally when you tag a player the players is an exceptional player and when his contract is up for extension again the following season he is still an exceptional player. His value doesn’t go down it is only going to go up.

Obviously drafting skilled players and hiring the right coaching staff are two major factors in team success, but much of a team’s success, specifically long term, is predicated  on efficient and effective contract management. The prime years for most NFL talent is between the ages of 26 and 29. The longer past the age of 30 a contract runs and the more dead money linked to those post 30 years the more compromised a team becomes in the future.

The problem with tagging a 26 or 27 year old player rather than signing a 5 year extension that runs until he is 30 or 31 comes at both the front end and back end of the contract. For example Anthony Spencer of the Cowboys had proven himself to be a pretty solid player thru 2011. Dallas had him play the year out on the tag in 2012, when he had just turned 28. Spencer did nothing to decrease his value as he is playing in the prime of his career, and if anything increased his value in free agency.

Rather than locking him up at 28 years of age the cap-strapped Cowboys put $8.85 million on their cap instead of using the benefits of proration and contract management to limit the cap obligations on the front end. Now 29 the Cowboys have tagged him again, this time at $10.63 million, contributing in part to the execution of a string of bad contract restructures to be cap compliant in 2013.

The Cowboys, who have called off negotiations with Spencer this season, supposedly still want to do a long term deal after this season. Assuming they do so they will have paid Spencer around $19.5 million in cash and cap for 2012 and 2013 and will now be stuck in a contract with him until 34 or 35 years old, with him likely earning the same deal and guarantees he would have earned back in 2012 with the Cowboys having an option to release at 31 years of age.

The only times the franchise tag is acceptable, in my opinion, is if you have a question mark “one season wonder” or it is an player on a win now team that has no intentions of ever re-signing the player to a long term deal. When the Carolina Panthers tagged Matt Moore it made sense because he was totally unproven and as things turned out he was pretty bad in a starting role and ended up as a backup in Miami. The tag saved Caroline a ton of money.  The New York Jets tagging of John Abraham in 2005 fit the second criteria, and helped the team control his rights to collect a first round pick for a player they had many reservations about keeping.

Our look at the positional Franchise players who could get deals done this week:

Branden Albert– Albert will turn 29 during the course of the 2013 season and the Chiefs really shot themselves in the foot by franchising him for the sole purpose of trading him. When they failed to accept what the market would offer they got stuck with a $9.8 million dollar cap charge on a player they don’t really want. Albert is versatile and you can get a few extra years out of that position than some others, but considering where both sides are it probably serves no purpose for the Chiefs to sign him long term, though the cost of the tag has hurt their cap flexibility with the season approaching.

Jairus Byrd– Byrd is 27 years old and one of the best two or three Safeties in the NFL. Bills could be thinking that two years of tagging at a low cost position rather than paying $8 million a year for top end of the market is worthwhile, especially on a team that should experience some defensive turnover in the next year or two. That would cost the Bills an extra $4 million in cap but save them about $4 million in cash over a two year period if benchmarking against Eric Weddle in San Diego. The Bills should extend him but my guess is they will not.

Ryan Clady– Clady is another 27 year old and a 3 time Pro Bowler. The cost of franchising an offensive lineman is high- $9.8 million, but finding a fair value contract for any lineman is difficult. The Broncos are built to win now and may perceive investment at the position not worth the long term cost. I think the decision should be made in part based on how many years the team expects Peyton Manning to start. Considering his salary in 2014 is fully guaranteed it puts Denver in a position to play the tag game again next year as its doubtful they will throw a rookie in at LT with Manning. As a point of reference Jake Long will only cost the Rams $13.5 million in cap over the next two years and an additional $10.5 million if they keep him in the third season. I have not heard anything about discussions between the two sides and they may be financially too far apart, but he is a player that should be signed long term.

Michael Johnson– A head scratcher. The Bengals have no cap issues and Johnson has produced 17.5 sacks over the last two seasons and is a vital part of the defense. He is only 26 years old and would give the Bengals a head start on extending a core of young players that can get very expensive n a few years. They should extend Johnson but may balk at Johnson looking for premier pass rusher money while the market for pass rushers has somewhat shrunk, though none as young as him. The Bengals should work hard on locking him up as the cost to franchise next season if prohibitive.

Henry Melton– Melton has produced 13 sacks the last two seasons and won’t turn 27 until October. Right now the Bears have limited long term visions with a number of high priced contracts set to expire. In many ways you can say the Bears have a cap filled with franchise tags based on the cost, lack of dead money, and remaining seasons on the contract.  Paying a DT on the tag is almost worthless due to the high cost compared to positional value. Bears should have never even tagged him in the first place. Based on everything the Bears are doing they are likely just giving one last shot with this group and will let Melton walk after this season.

Anthony Spencer– We discussed Spencer above and the Cowboys have really just botched this from day one. Their best option at this point would be to see if a team was willing to trade for Spencer. Dallas always has an inflated view of themselves and I am sure see themselves as a win it all this year type of club which will be the justification for keeping him this year on the franchise tag.

Randy Starks– Starks will be 30 towards the conclusion of the season and already has nine years of wear and tear on his body. The Dolphins clearly went all in on the season making the retention of Starks very important to the team. He is a solid player for a somewhat underrated defense and should be a key contributor in 2013. At his age a long term extension is really not a wise decision. Older players at this position often end up on lower cost one and two year deals and the Dolphins could look to that model for the future if the market dries up for him next year. He is one of those rare players where it makes more sense to play on the tag then extend, and I fully expect Miami to hold firm on Starks this year.