Get your nerd on: Franchise-tag talk

Published on February 18, 2011 by     

Seattle has a costly question to answer between now and Feb. 24, which is the deadline for applying the franchise tag to players.

Will Seattle opt not to use the franchise tag for the first time since 2006 when the Seahawks instead opted to apply the transition tag to Steve Hutchinson, resulting in an unmitigated disaster.

Seattle’s most likely candidates are defensive tackle Brandon Mebane or kicker Olindo Mare, who was tagged by the Seahawks last year.

In the case of Mebane, it’s a costly question. Very costly.

The NFL has not released the franchise-tag values for 2011, but Jason LaConfora of NFL.com cited a source detailing a spike in value for defensive tackles.

Those three defensive tackles who received the franchise tag in 2010 received a one-year offer worth more than $7 million. In 2011, LaCanfora reported the cost for a franchise-tagged defensive tackle will be north of $12 million.

Wow.

Again, those values have not been announced, but if the league’s official Web site is reporting it, pretty safe to assume that’s not out of left field.

There has been no indication the Seahawks are planning to apply the franchise tag to Mebane, and there has been no movement toward an extension. But it’s also equally evident Mebane’s importance to a defensive line whose shallow depth was illustrated clearly in 2010.

Mebane’s value goes beyond Seattle, though. He plays a position that is becoming increasingly expensive across the league to the point that the franchise tag is no longer as economical of a solution. Certainly not like it was last year. Six players were designated with the franchise tag in 2010. Three played defensive tackle.

Going back to 2007, 46 players have been designated with a franchise tag. Seven were defensive tackles, which matches the most at any one position.

Now, that doesn’t mean that defensive tackle is the most valuable position in the league. That’s not what the use of the franchise tag shows. Rather, it shows a team saw the franchise tag as a price it was willing to pay at that position.

Now, stick with me for a second. But look at quarterback, which is universally considered the most important position in football yet only three quarterbacks have received the franchise tag going back to 2007. More kickers and punters have received the designation. Now, does that mean kickers and/or punters are as valuable? Hardly. It means that teams see the franchise-tag cost for a kicker/punter — which is the lowest of any position — was deemed a reasonable, cost-efficient use of money by a team as opposed to agreeing to a long-term contract with a specific player.

Similarly, there’s no one who will argue that a left tackle is less valuable in today’s NFL than defensive tackle. Quite the opposite.

Yet only two offensive tackles have received the franchise-tag designation going back to 2007 compared to seven defensive tackles.

There’s two potential reasons for that difference:

1) The span of time a defensive tackle plays at an elite level is much shorter than a left tackle.

Why pay a long-term contract to a top-shelf defensive tackle if he’s only going to play at a top-shelf level for a year or two. But there’s a long line of defensive tackles who have long, extended periods of success whether it’s the Patriots’ Vince Wilfork, Pat and Kevin Williams of Minnesota or even going old school with Ted Washington.

2) The franchise-tag price for a defensive tackle is below the actual value of that player’s role.

Teams don’t apply franchise tags as a favor. They do it because that player’s value to the team is such that it’s worth paying that player the average of the top-five salaries at that position as opposed to risking losing him for nothing.

Now, why would that happen as frequently at defensive tackle as any other position? If the franchise-tag value was lower than the open-market value of that player, applying the franchise tag would be relatively economical.

The fact the price for franchise-tagging a defensive tackle is expected to spike this year shows the marketplace is correcting that disparity between the position’s value to the team and the price of tagging a defensive tackle.

And that brings us back to Mebane, a four-year starter. He is an important player to Seattle at an increasingly valuable position in the league and stands on the brink of free agency.

It’s a costly question for Seattle. More costly than initially expected.

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