Lower numbers could lead to record franchise tag designations

With the date for teams to tag their best players if they so choose starting tomorrow, one point of interest is that in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the formula to decide what those tag numbers per position will be has changed -- and the new numbers will be advantageous to teams looking to retain their more important free-agent assets.

As Jason La Canfora of NFL.com first wrote last November, the new franchise tag numbers will no longer be the aggregate of the annual salaries of the five-highest players at a particular position. Instead, it's a more complicated formula that takes into account the franchise tag numbers over the last five seasons. For example, the $16.1 million Michael Vick would have made when he Philadelphia Eagles franchised him in February of 2011 (before he signed his current six-year, $100 million contract) would drop to $14.4 million for free agent quarterbacks in 2012.

So, if the New Orleans Saints are looking to franchise quarterback Drew Brees (or, in slightly less realistic scenarios, if the San Francisco 49ers franchise Alex Smith or the Green Bay Packers franchise Matt Flynn in a sign-and-trade scheme), the drop in tag cost could leave openings to fill other spots.

In particular, the Saints have several key decisions to make. Not only must they retain Brees' services if they hope to continue their recent success, but they also have to come to terms or cut bait with guard Carl Nicks, receivers Marques Colston and Robert Meachem, defensive tackles Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers, and cornerback Tracy Porter. The $1.7 million saved under the new tag designations might comprise a good portion of the signing bonus or yearly cap number for one of the less-famed players. Or, the Saints could come to terms with Brees on a new long-term contract and tag Nicks, who may be the best pure guard in football right now. If they took that path, it would cost them $9.4 million, instead of the $10.1 million figure it was for offensive linemen in 2011.

Every team will have these types of decisions to make, and some players are already balking at the notion. Detroit Lions defensive end Cliff Avril has said that he won't take a "hometown discount" to stay with the team, and might hold out if he's franchised. We might suggest that Avril take another kind of discount, given that his defensive tackles are double-teamed on nearly every play and he wouldn't be likely to have the same open blocking space with most other teams. But that's just us.

One proviso from the old agreement will carry over -- players franchised for the second straight year will receive 120 percent of their previous year's salary. So, if the San Diego Chargers were to re-franchise receiver Vincent Jackson, they'd have to pay him the higher percentage of Jackson's 2011 number, which was $11.4 million. The Houston Texans would have a similar issue with defensive end Mario Williams ($13 million in 2011), as would the Miami Dolphins with defensive tackle Paul Soliai (12.5 million in 2011).

Per La Canfora's 2012 estimates, here are the old and new franchise tag figures:

Quarterback: $14.4 million in 2012; down from $16.1 million in 2011
Running back: $7.7 million in 2012; down from $9.6 million in 2011
Wide receiver: $9.4 million in 2012; down from 11.4 million in 2011
Tight end: $5.4 million in 2012; down from $7.3 million in 2011
Offensive line: $9.4 million in 2012; down from $10.1 million in 2011
Defensive end: $10.6 million in 2012; down from $13 million in 2011
Defensive tackle: $7.9 million in 2012; down from $12.5 million in 2011
Linebacker: $8.8 million in 2012; down from $10.1 million in 2011
Cornerback: $10.6 million in 2012; down from $13.5 million in 2011
Safety: $6.2 million in 2012; down from $8.8 million in 2011

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