Free Agency 2014: The NFL’s Game of Tag

By Adam Hocking

Special to Pro Football Guru

The franchise and transition tags are a nice option for many teams that may be unable or unwilling to sign a player to a long-term contract.

The one-year deal allows teams to retain a top level talent while continuing to evaluate the merits of signing him long-term. With another season of analysis, teams will see if the player continues to produce at a high level, stay healthy, and mesh with the locker room culture.

With that, let’s take a look at this year’s franchise and transition tag recipients and what it means for their respective teams. (Note: Salary cap figures come via OverTheCap.com)

DE Greg Hardy, Carolina Panthers (Franchise)

Few players impact the game more than a fierce pass rusher, and few pass rushers are as fierce as Greg Hardy. Nicknamed, “The Kraken,” Hardy earned that fear-instilling title by sacking opposing quarterbacks 15 times this past year. Over the last two seasons Hardy has tallied a total of 26 sacks and 3 forced fumbles.

Hardy is not just an elite pass rusher. At 6’4” and 290 pounds, he is also capable of occupying and shedding blockers to be a disruptive force against the run. Just 25 years old, there are few better candidates for a big payday than Hardy.

Though Hardy has said he’s okay with the use of the franchise tag, undoubtedly he wants and deserves a long-term contract. I would imagine Hardy will be in the team’s future plans so long as he stays healthy and productive this coming season.

By locking him down, Carolina maintains the strength of their 12-win team, a suffocating front seven led by Hardy and teammate Luke Kuechly.

With their biggest priority of the offseason now settled, Carolina can turn their attention to re-signing cornerback Captain Munnerlyn or perhaps looking for offensive help on the free agent market. Carolina will have somewhere in the neighborhood of $8.5 million in cap space, not enough to do anything lavish, but perhaps they can add that one piece to elevate them from the Divisional Round this past season to the Super Bowl next year.

Hardy is one of the best defensive players in football at one of the game’s most important positions. The Panthers did the right thing as losing him would have been a devastating blow.

TE Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints (Franchise)

Jimmy Graham was never going any other place, and the noise that he could hit the open market was just that, noise. As much as Drew Brees is New Orleans, Graham is Brees’ most trusted target, and they simply had to retain him.

The interesting component to the Graham tag will be whether he is categorized as a tight end, which the Saints prefer, or a wide receiver--Graham’s assertion. The difference is substantial. As a tight end Graham would make around $7 million next season, and as a receiver he would stand to earn just over $12 million.

On the field Graham is worth whatever his salary turns out to be. He’s not a great blocker, but he’s serviceable in that role, and he demands as much attention as any receiver in the league. At 6’7”, Graham is the ideal red zone target with wonderful hands and body control. With excellent speed for his position, Graham is also a matchup nightmare, too fast and fluid for safeties and linebackers and far too big and strong for cornerbacks. Graham may be the most difficult one-on-one cover in the league.

Over the past three seasons Graham has tallied 99, 85, and 86 receptions, respectively. He’s also compiled well over 3,000 yards and 36 touchdowns during that same stretch. The 27-year-old Graham has his prime years directly in front of him, and I’d be surprised if the franchise tag wasn’t a prelude to a long-term deal.

The Saints won’t have much wiggle room this off-season as they are just $1.5 million under the cap (assuming Graham is paid as a tight end). Still, with Brees and Graham the offense should continue to hum. Transcendent players are hard to come by. That’s precisely what Graham is and why the Saints had to keep him.

PK Nick Folk, New York Jets (Franchise)

Normally I would be against using the franchise tag on a kicker, but the Jets don’t have any other marquee free agents to keep. Nick Folk was the only Jets player set to hit the open market worthy of high level compensation, and he will earn right around $3.5 million next season.

The Jets’ offense features the talented but inconsistent Geno Smith at quarterback and has a complete dearth of skill position talent. Getting reliable contributions in the kicking game was one of the few things the Jets could count on last season. Folk was deadly accurate last year, hitting on 33-of-36 field goal attempts including all three of his kicks from 50 yards or longer. His 91.7 field-goal percentage was good for 10th in the NFL, and his 33 made field goals was tied for fifth in the league.

A reliable and prolific scorer, the Jets just locked up their best offensive weapon. Now they need to add some help in the draft and free agency so they aren’t so reliant on Folk’s leg. With an estimated $23 million in cap space, the Jets should have the assets to do just that.

Even the best kickers tend to be year to year commodities, and Folk has had inconsistent seasons in the past. By keeping him on a one year contract the Jets will make Folk prove he is worthy of sticking around for the long term.

OLB Brian Orakpo, Washington Redskins (Franchise)

This is the one franchise designation with which I disagree. Though Brian Orakpo is a good player and a talented pass rusher, I’m not convinced he is a Top 5 player at his position. Not a dominant force against the run and sometimes a liability in pass coverage, Orakpo is simply a pass-rushing specialist, and his best season was back in 2009 when he totaled 11 sacks.

Orakpo is not on the level of Hardy or Graham as an impact player, nor does he come as inexpensively as Folk.

Washington has many other holes to fill, namely receiver, offensive line, and elsewhere on defense. Orakpo’s cap number of nearly $11.5 million will be a prohibitive strain on Washington’s abilities to address multiple positions via free agency.

I don’t hate the move for Washington, but I would not have done it myself. Washington is talent-deprived and are once again without a first round pick because of the Robert Griffin III trade. I will say that keeping Orakpo is a way for them to maintain one of the few talented assets they have.

In the final analysis, however, I think tagging Orakpo represents overpaying for a one-trick pony. Washington could have assigned his salary to two or three free agents and better addressed their depth and talent issues.

This was a mistake for the Redskins, who needed to spend their money on help for Griffin and find multiple players to improve their roster. They paid elite money for a less than elite player.

C Alex Mack, Cleveland Browns (Transition)

Different from the franchise tag though similar, the transition tag gives the Browns the right of first refusal to any offer another team may make to Mack. Unlike the franchise tag, the Browns in this scenario would not receive any draft pick compensation should they fail to match an offer for Mack.

That scenario seems very unlikely as the whole point of Cleveland using the tag was to hold onto Mack, though the transition designation saves the Browns around $1.5 million more than using the franchise tag. It’s mostly a matter of semantics. The key takeaway is that Mack will be a Brown and that is a good thing for Cleveland.

Mack is one of the very best centers in the league adept at pass protection, run blocking, and reaching the second level to take on linebackers. Along with star left tackle Joe Thomas, Mack makes the offensive line a relative strength for the Browns. With a rookie quarterback likely coming aboard via the 4th pick in this year’s draft keeping the offensive line in tact was imperative.

The Browns have some true positive momentum working on the offensive side of the ball with the emergence of star receiver Josh Gordon, excellent young tight end Jordan Cameron, and now retaining Mack. If Cleveland can hit on its quarterback selection they could finally go from perennial loser to playoff contender. The Browns will also have over $40 million to play with in free agency.

OLB Jason Worilds, Pittsburgh Steelers (Transition)

Moves like these rarely happen in a vacuum, but looking solely at the finances I don’t like this transaction. Worilds is a good young player for the Steelers but in no way warrants the nearly $10 million salary he will now receive. An improving player, Worilds has boosted his sack total every season in the league finishing 2013 with a career-high eight sacks.

At 26 years old, he is one of the few shining young players on an aging Pittsburgh team, but that doesn’t mean he’s worth what they’re going to have to pay him. I seriously doubt another team will come up with a more lucrative offer so Pittsburgh will in all likelihood be saddled with this salary next season.

Retaining Worilds will likely mean cutting Lamar Woodley later on in the offseason, which will save the Steelers major money.

Pittsburgh was over the salary limit before deciding to pay Worilds and now could have a bloody offseason roster purge to find themselves back on the other side of the cap. For a team that needed an influx of talent this was a substantial overpayment.

Ten million per year is the type of money you pay a franchise-altering player. Worilds is not that. He’s above average but not elite, and Pittsburgh would have been best served letting the open market determine his value.

Adam Hocking is from Saint Paul, Minnesota where he covers the sporting world on his site: The Day in Sports.  You can also check out his podcast by searching "The Day in Sports" on iTunes. Follow him on Twitter @tdis_humblebrag.