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Freeze Tag: Living in Franchise Purgatory

Apart from roster cuts, injuries, and learning your team is signing Brett Favre for another comeback, there might not be a more dreaded concept to NFL players than the franchise tag.  It’s so despised, in fact, that NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith tried to have it abolished during the 2011 lockout.  Of course, Smith’s negotiating team was pummeled more thoroughly than George Foreman during the Rumble in the Jungle, so the franchise tag remains as a team-friendly contract maneuver.

While Joe Everyman might view it as a case of “millionaires being millionaires,” players slapped with the tag have reason to live in a state of uneasiness.  Sure, they’re making money equivalent to the top five highest-paid players at their respective positions, but they’re losing something more important:  job security.  When tagged, a player essentially becomes a one-year mercenary, with no guarantees beyond that point.  A subsequent major injury, or inferior performance, has the potential to cripple future stability.  In a league where career longevity can be derailed by one big hit or wrong step, a failure to maximize earnings directly lowers one’s glass ceiling.

In 2012, a total of nineteen players were hit with the franchise tag.  However, lost in the enormity of Drew Brees’ deal and the last minute Hail Mary contracts of Matt Forte and Ray Rice was the fact that a few players failed to land long-term extensions before the deadline to do so had passed.  As dynasty owners, it’s important to identify and evaluate these players so that we can attempt to assess their long-term prognosis and subsequent value.

This analysis will look at the offensive skill-position players who are playing out the year on the franchise tag, as well as the circumstances which might have led to the decision to tag them.  Finally, predictions will be made as to what the future may hold for each player, although as I’m not Joe Namath, no guarantees will be made in regards to accuracy!

Wes Welker, WR NE

Patriots Career Through 2011:

Despite suffering a torn ACL at the conclusion of the 2009 regular season, Welker has sported yearly averages exceeding 110 catches and 1,200 yards during his time in Foxboro.  He’s managed to accomplish this despite the paradigm shift from Josh McDaniels’ vertical-based scheme to Bill O’Brien’s horizontal, “tight end centric” passing attack.  Due in large part to his almost telepathic connection with quarterback Tom Brady, the “slot machine” has received more action than his coin-operated Las Vegas counterparts.

Why He Was Tagged:  31-year old slot receivers don’t generally break the bank, especially when they’re seeking top-end money.  Still viewed as championship contenders, the Patriots wisely tagged Welker for the relative bargain of $9.515 million.

2012 Returns Thus Far:  With McDaniels back in town, Welker has been mystifyingly demoted in favor of erstwhile return-man and nightclub terror Julian Edelman.  Conspiracy theorists have surmised this must be due to a behind-the-scenes contract dispute, but Welker has nonetheless been producing on the field.  After a quiet week one, Welker led the Pats in receiving yards during a strong week two performance, although it should be noted he only entered the game following an Aaron Hernandez injury.

What Might Be Next:  Recent reports have suggested Welker will be put on the trading block, but it’s hard to imagine the Patriots separating Brady from his trusted safety valve midseason.  He could be tagged again next year, but if he hits the open market there are a few teams who could make like Carly Rae Jepsen and “call him, maybe.”

Having recently discovered the potency of the forward pass, both Cleveland and Jacksonville could be interested.  However, the guess here is that he will be pursued by Denver, as they press for a championship in Peyton Manning’s swan song years.  The Broncos’ 2013 cap number currently stands at slightly over $78 million, and while they need to re-sign receiver Eric Decker and tackle Ryan Clady, they could likely afford Welker.  Fantasy owners rejoice!

Dwayne Bowe, WR KC

Chiefs Career Through 2011:

It’s a little known fact that somewhere between his final season at LSU and his rookie year with Kansas City, Bowe briefly interned with Rodney Dangerfield.  Despite team leading production while functioning as the Chiefs’ only receiving threat for the past few years, the guy can’t get any respect!  Nevertheless, following the departure of future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez, Bowe has operated as an elite possession receiver and go-to target in the passing game.

Why He Was Tagged:  With a returning Jamaal Charles anchoring a theoretically strong ground attack, the Chiefs likely had designs on winning a watered down AFC West this year.  With that said, it’s been postulated the drafting and presumed emergence of fellow receiver Jonathan Baldwin will usher in a new, cheaper era of Chiefs pass catchers.

2012 Returns Thus Far:  While Bowe predictably had to shake off the rust following a prolonged training camp holdout, he seems to be back in peak condition.  In a week two loss to the Bills, Bowe exploded for 102 yards and two touchdowns, once again highlighting his proclivity for finding the end zone.

What Might Be Next:  If you were to check Bowe’s laptop, you’d likely find a bookmark for Priceline.com (sans William Shatner references, if you’re lucky), as it seems like he’s already punched his ticket out of town.  Though, unlike Welker, Bowe is likely to see an increase in value.  As a 28-year old receiver (as of yesterday) on an aerially deficient team, there’s a good chance he’s not finished developing.

The Seahawks would appear to be the most logical destination.  They spent all offseason looking for a big-bodied receiver, and only have Braylon Edwards to show for it.  Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson can already lean on a robust run game, but still needs an elite receiving target to fulfill his potential.  With only $81 million committed in 2013, Seattle should be able to take aim for Bowe.

Fred Davis, TE WASH

Redskins Career Through 2011:

After a forgettable rookie season, Davis broke onto the scene in 2009 when starter Chris Cooley succumbed to a broken ankle.  He flashed seam-stretching ability during his sophomore campaign, but took a backseat to a healthy Cooley once again in 2010.  Davis officially broke out in 2011, smoking defenses to the tune of five catches and 66 yards per game. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only thing he was smoking, and his season was curtailed by a league-mandated four-game drug suspension.

Why He Was Tagged:  In contrast with Tom Petty, we don’t know if Davis has yet had his last dance with Mary Jane.  Only one failed drug test away from a year-long suspension and about as trustworthy as the sell-by date on a carton of milk, Davis was the perfect candidate for a one-year “prove it” deal.

2012 Returns Thus Far:  With quarterback Robert Griffin III’s rocket arm and running ability, the Redskins are seemingly phasing the tight end out of the offense.  Recording just four catches through two games, Davis is currently nowhere near the TE1 radar.

What Might Be Next:  The Shanaclan seems to be relying on the run game to set up passes to deep threats Pierre Garcon and Leonard Hankerson.  Of course, knowing the “consistency” of the Redskins’ offense, they could very well run the wishbone next week!  Regardless, Davis’ minimal impact so far this season could be indicative of a permanent philosophical change.

The Miami Dolphins are desperate for an infusion of talent on offense, and upgrading the tight end position should be a priority.  Anthony Fasano is a glorified blocker, and Hard Knocks “hero” Michael Egnew doesn’t appear to be the answer.  There are no cumbersome contracts inhibiting a free agent binge, so the Dolphins could be a possible destination for the talented 26-year old.

While the franchise tag is enough to make a player’s blood boil, dynasty owners are left frozen in uncertainty.  What do you do with a guy who has short-term ability, but no long-term stability?  When it comes to players like Welker, Bowe and Davis, owners will have to ask that very question.  Even though they have differing profiles and skill sets, they share the same clouded future.

Contenders will likely attempt to ride their franchised studs off into a championship sunset, regardless of a possible change to the player’s future market value.  Owners of rebuilding squads might be better served acquiring younger players or draft picks via trade, minimizing any potential risk.  In any case, keep in mind that while the players highlighted above are stuck in a franchise slumber, astute owners must remain conscious of their situations in order to manage their teams accordingly.

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Ryan Moen
9 years ago

nice call on Welker to Denver!

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