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Draft King Analysis
March 6, 2012
Lou Pickney, DraftKing.com

Reader feedback is always welcomed here on Draft King. Sound off with your thoughts on Twitter (@LouPickney) or via email at LouPickney@gmail.com.


This past weekend I caught some classic NFL games on the NFL Network, including the 1992 NFC Championship Game (Cowboys at 49ers) and the 1998 NFC Championship Game (Falcons at Vikings). The brutal hits were jarring to see with today's game. At one point, Steve Young's helmet ended up being ripped off his head on a scramble, but there was no flag or even any indication from Pat Summerall and John Madden (then with CBS) that it warranted a penalty. Atlanta QB Chris Chandler played the game of his life in Minneapolis in the 1998 CBS Championship Game, throwing three TDs while taking hit after hit, many of which would be flagged (and/or draw fines) under today's rules. Even the giant Marlboro cigarette ad at Candlestick Park wouldn't be allowed today.

As Cutty memorably said after being released from prison in the all-time great show The Wire, "The game done changed." If the emphasis toward player safety means today's stars won't be suffering long-term brain damage that will lead to shorter lifespans, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and many other problems, that's fine by me. But there is a reason that the passing game has become so important in the modern era of the NFL, with quarterbacks given more protection from hits than ever before and wide receivers not having to worry about a Jack Tatum style jaw-jacking hit.

I mention all of this not because I feel like reminiscing but because the rule changes have had a direct impact on the NFL product. And, as the franchise tag deadline hit yesterday, it became obvious how important certain positions are to teams in the NFL. With non-exclusive franchise tag rates lower in 2012 than 2011 (and in some cases, lower than 2010) for all positions, the volume of tag usage before yesterday's deadline was staggering: 21 of the 32 teams in the NFL used the franchise tag, and there could have been more had some pending UFAs-to-be not reached a new deal with their current teams just before the deadline.

Here's a position-by-position look at the 2012 franchise tag use. With the exception of Drew Brees, all of the tags used were of the non-exclusive variety. All one-year tender amounts are estimates by position.

QB - $14.4M: Drew Brees (Saints) (Brees will actually receive between $15-16M since the rate is higher for exclusive rights players)
RB - $7.7M: Matt Forte (Bears), Ray Rice (Ravens)
WR - $9.4M: Dwayne Bowe (Chiefs), DeSean Jackson (Eagles), Wes Welker (Patriots)
TE - $5.4M: Fred Davis (Redskins)
OL - $9.4M: None
Jason Jones
Titans DL Jason Jones will soon hit the open market. (Icon SMI)

DE - $10.6M: Cliff Avril (Lions), Calais Campbell (Cardinals), Robert Mathis (Colts)
DT - $7.9M: None
LB - $8.8M: Anthony Spencer (Cowboys)
CB - $10.6M: Brent Grimes (Falcons)
S - $6.2M: Tyvon Branch (Raiders), Dashon Goldson (49ers), Michael Griffin (Titans)
K - $3.8M: Phil Dawson (Browns) [120% of his 2011 cap hit], $2.65M: Connor Barth (Buccaneers), Mike Nugent (Bengals), Matt Prater (Broncos), Josh Scobee (Jaguars)
P - $2.65M: Steve Weatherford (Giants)

Some notes: the Texans weren't in a spot to use their franchise tag due to salary cap restraints, but they signed pending restricted free agent RB Arian Foster to a reported five-year, $43.5 million contract, which included $20.75 million guaranteed. Indianapolis signed Mathis to a new deal shortly after using the tag on him, but the tag was used so he makes the list. The Bills (Stevie Johnson) and Seahawks (Marshawn Lynch) were prepared to tag their respective stars who instead signed deals ahead of the franchise tag deadline.

Some notable players evaded the franchise tag and, should they not sign with their 2011 team, be able to make big money on the open market. Here are the biggest names slated for free agency as of tonight (which will change tomorrow when the Colts officially release Peyton Manning):

OLB/DE Mario Williams (Texans): He would have received a one-year tender for $22.9 million guaranteed had Houston franchised him. But Houston didn't have the cap room to do that, even if they were inclined to do so, and Williams should have several teams clamoring to sign him to a large, long-term deal.
OG Carl Nicks (Saints): How often does a 26-year-old player coming off back-to-back All-Pro seasons hit unrestricted free agency? Seldom, if ever. But with New Orleans using the franchise tag on Drew Brees and the Saints already having invested in OG Jahri Evans (seven-year, $56.7M with $12M guaranteed), the Saints have no choice but to watch Nicks leave for a huge payday on the open market.
DL Jason Jones (Titans): In a move that infuriated Titans fans (and I hear from plenty of them in the greater Nashville area, where I live), the new regime for the Titans in 2011 moved Jones from DT to DE. Jones showed rare ability to pressure the quarterback from the DT position, but at defensive end he struggled to produce similar results. My expectation is that whichever team signs him (perhaps former head coach Jeff Fisher's St. Louis Rams?) will put him back inside as a 4-3 DT and allow him to maximize his value.
WR Mike Wallace (Steelers): Unlike the others on this list, Wallace is a restricted free agent. That means that Wallace is free to sign an offer sheet with any other team, then Pittsburgh has a week to decide to match or instead pass and receive a first-round pick as compensation, presuming that the Steelers use the highest available tender level on Wallace ($2.74 million). With Pittsburgh up against the cap, a heavily front-loaded offer from a team with a late first round pick might be something the Steelers end up being unable to match.
QB Matt Flynn (Packers): There has been plenty of speculation that Flynn will sign with Miami, reuniting with his former offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, who recently took over as head coach of the Dolphins.

There are plenty of other great players who are pending free agents, but don't get too excited -- with no salary floor in 2012, stingy NFL owners who aren't inclined to spend as much money as they potentially could won't necessarily break the bank to outbid other teams for their services. In 2013, the floor goes into place requiring teams to spend 89% of their available cap space, and that's where we could see some big-time spending across the board happen.


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