Two days before free agency, NFL teams finally got the official ceiling they'll be able to spend on their personnel. The league has set the salary cap at $120.6 million per team, a slight increase over 2011's figure of $120.375 million. That's not an absolute number, though -- per the new collective bargaining agreement, teams are able to roll unused cap money from 2011 into their new figure, and borrow $1.5 million from the 2013 figure to form an adjusted cap. Teams need to be in compliance with the cap at the start of the league year, which is 4 p.m. ET on March 13.
What the fixed cap number immediately affects, as Brian McIntyre of Football Outsiders and Mac's Football Blog points out, is the franchise tag cost for each team. The only team that doesn't yet know their franchise tag figure is the New Orleans Saints, who placed the exclusive tender on quarterback Drew Brees. The rules state that while the non-exclusive franchise numbers are decided by a formula that takes in the last five years of tags, exclusive tenders are decided by accruing the numbers for the five highest-paid players at a position at the end of the restricted-free-agent signing period.
The end of that period is April 20, which places an even larger burden on the Saints to sign Brees to a long-term contract and get that cap number down so they can turn their attention to other key free agents. The 2012 franchise tag number for quarterbacks is $14.436 million, but Brees will get more because of his specific designation. You can read the formula for the non-exclusive franchise tender amount here, but I'd advise a couple of Advil before you dive into that one.
Here are the franchise tag numbers for each position, and the key players who have been franchised:
Quarterback ($14.436 million): Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints (again, exclusive-rights tag will put the final number higher).
Running Back ($7.742 million): Matt Forte, Chicago Bears; Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens.
Wide Receiver ($9.51 million): Dwayne Bowe, Kansas City Chiefs; Wes Welker, New England Patriots; DeSean Jackson, Philadelphia Eagles.
Tight End ($5.446 million): Fred Davis, Washington Redskins.
Offensive Linemen ($9.383 million): No franchised players.
Defensive End ($10.605 million): Calais Campbell, Arizona Cardinals; Cliff Avril, Detroit Lions; Robert Mathis, Indianapolis Colts (later agreed to a four-year contract extension).
Defensive Tackle ($7.960 million): No franchised players.
Linebacker ($8.856 million): Anthony Spencer, Dallas Cowboys.
Cornerback ($10.281 million): Brent Grimes, Atlanta Falcons.
Safety ($6.212 million): Tyvon Branch, Oakland Raiders; Dashon Goldson, San Francisco 49ers; Michael Griffin, Tennessee Titans.
Kicker/Punter ($2.654 million): Mike Nugent, Cincinnati Bengals; Matt Prater, Denver Broncos; Josh Scobee, Jacksonville Jaguars; Steve Weatherford, New York Giants; Connor Barth, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (Note: Cleveland Browns kicker Phil Dawson was tagged at a higher number -- $3.81 million -- because players who are tagged for the second straight season get 120 percent of their position's tender number).