NFL Franchise Tags and the Miami Dolphins

Bob Levey

The 2012 NFL regular season is coming to an end this weekend, with 20 of the league's 32 teams going home for the winter and starting their planning for the 2013 season. The league, meanwhile, has begun their own work for 2013, including tentatively setting the salary cap and the franchise and transition player prices.

With December coming to an end, the NFL has two major focus areas before them. The first is the obvious one, the playoffs and, ultimately, the Super Bowl. But, as 12 teams work their way through the postseason tournament, 20 teams will be sitting at home and beginning preparations for 2013. With the majority of teams already beginning to work on 2013, the league has to get a head start on the new league year as well.

The first order of business is to establish the salary cap for next year. While nothing will be official until March, when the new league year officially begins, the NFL expects the salary cap to be set at, or just below, $121 million per team. That's not much of a change from this season, when the salary cap was $120 million.

The other information teams need to get read for the 2013 season is the cost of players under the franchise and transition player tags. NFL teams are authorized to designate one player per season as their "franchise" player. That player, who would have become a free agent at the start of the new league year, can be designated as one of two types of "franchise" tags.

The first tag is the exclusive rights franchise tag. Under the rules of that tag, a player receives a guaranteed one year salary equal to the average salary of the top five players at his position, or 120% of his previous salary, whichever is greater. Under the exclusive rights tag, a player may not negotiate with another team , but receives the average salaries at the position for the upcoming season.

The second type of franchise tag is the "non-exclusive" rights tag, in which a player will receive a one year guaranteed salary equal to the top five players at his position from the preceding year, or 120% of his salary from the previous season. A player under this tag can negotiate with other teams, but his original team has the right to match any offer. If the team declines to match that offer, they will receive two first round draft picks in return.

Of course, there's another type of tag a team can leverage, the "transition" tag. Under this tag, the team saves money, as a player is paid a one year guaranteed salary of the average of the top ten players at his position, or, once again, 120% of his previous season's saalry. Players under the transition tag may negotiate with other teams, with the original franchise having the right to match any offer given to the player. Unlike the "non-exclusive rights" franchise tag, however, if a team declines to match an offer, they do not receive any compensation in return.

NFL.com's Ian Rapoport broke down the franchise and transition player price tags for the upcoming year. The teams, according to Rapoport, were given these number earlier this month. Here are the tentative break downs by position, with the finalized numbers not taking effect until the start of the league year in March.

Franchise Transition
Quarterback $14.642 $12.845
Running Back $8.079 $6.851
Wide Receiver $10.357 $8.716
Tight End $5.962 $5.105
Offensive Lineman $9.660 $8.560
Defensive End $10.984 $8.994
Defensive Tackle $8.306 $6.919
Linebacker $9.455 $8.216
Cornerback $10.668 $8.939
Safety $6.798 $5.899
Kicker/Punter $2.926 $2.654

For the Miami Dolphins, these numbers could become vitally important. While the Dolphins are projected to have around $60 million in cap space next year, a lot of that comes from the 22 free agents they are also expected to have. The team could start signing players to long term deals over the next few weeks, removing the chance of needing to use the franchise or transition tags, however, with the sheer number of free agents, it is likely at least one will be under consideration for a tag.

Looking at all of the potential free agents for the Dolphins this year, and finding the best salary data I can, here are all 22 free agents, as well as their 2012 salary, and what 120% of that salary would be.

Player

Position

Age

Experience

2012 Salary

120% of Salary

Amaya, Jonathon

S

24

3

$540,000.00

$648,000.00

Brown, Patrick

T

26

3

$540,000.00

$648,000.00

Bush, Reggie

RB

27

7

$4,500,000.00

$5,400,000.00

Clemons, Chris

S

27

4

$1,308,000.00

$1,569,600.00

Culver, Tyrone

S

29

7

$700,000.00

$840,000.00

Devlin, Pat

QB

24

2

$390,000.00

$468,000.00

Fasano, Anthony

TE

28

7

$3,600,000.00

$4,320,000.00

Freeny, Jonathan

LB

23

1

$390,000.00

$468,000.00

Garner, Nate

T

27

5

$1,400,000.00

$1,680,000.00

Hartline, Brian

WR

26

4

$1,308,000.00

$1,569,600.00

Long, Jake

T

27

5

$12,800,000.00

$15,360,000.00

Mastrud, Jeron

LB

25

3

$540,000.00

$648,000.00

McCann, Bryan

CB

25

3

$540,000.00

$648,000.00

McDaniel, Tony

DT

27

7

$3,000,000.00

$3,600,000.00

Moore, Marlon

WR

25

3

$490,000.00

$588,000.00

Moore, Matt

QB

28

6

$2,750,000.00

$3,300,000.00

Smith, Sean

CB

25

4

$565,000.00

$678,000.00

Spitler, Austin

LB

26

3

$540,000.00

$648,000.00

Stanford, R.J.

CB

24

2

$540,000.00

$648,000.00

Starks, Randy

DT

29

9

$3,725,000.00

$4,470,000.00

Thigpen, Marcus

RB

26

1

$390,000.00

$468,000.00

Trusnik, Jason

LB

28

6

$1,000,000.00

$1,200,000.00

Taking into account that a franchise tag only makes sense for players who would be considered "key" for the team, we can narrow down the list of players who could be franchise/transition tagged. Being very liberal in the "key" definition gives us 10 players who could receive the tag:

Player

Position

Age

Experience

2012 Salary

120% of Salary

Franchise

Transition

Bush, Reggie

RB

27

7

$4,500,000.00

$5,400,000.00

$8,079,000.00

$6,851,000.00

Clemons, Chris

S

27

4

$1,308,000.00

$1,569,600.00

$6,798,000.00

$5,899,000.00

Fasano, Anthony

TE

28

7

$3,600,000.00

$4,320,000.00

$5,962,000.00

$5,105,000.00

Garner, Nate

T

27

5

$1,400,000.00

$1,680,000.00

$9,660,000.00

$8,560,000.00

Hartline, Brian

WR

26

4

$1,308,000.00

$1,569,600.00

$10,357,000.00

$8,716,000.00

Long, Jake

T

27

5

$12,800,000.00

$15,360,000.00

$9,660,000.00

$8,560,000.00

McDaniel, Tony

DT

27

7

$3,000,000.00

$3,600,000.00

$8,306,000.00

$6,919,000.00

Moore, Marlon

WR

25

3

$490,000.00

$588,000.00

$10,357,000.00

$8,716,000.00

Smith, Sean

CB

25

4

$565,000.00

$678,000.00

$10,668,000.00

$8,939,000.00

Starks, Randy

DT

29

9

$3,725,000.00

$4,470,000.00

$8,306,000.00

$6,919,000.00

Looking at the 10 players, compared to what their franchise tag number would be, we can further rule out some players, who it simply does not make sense to pay that amount of money. Safety Chris Clemons is not going to jump by over 500% based on the level of play Miami gets from him. Offensive lineman Nate Garner is even a bigger jump, with a nearly 700% increase. Tony McDaniel is a reserve defensive tackle, seeing spot duty most of the time. While he is a needed piece on the line, he's not needed at $8.3 million for one season.Finally, we can rule Marlon Moore out, given he is making just over half a million dollars now, and jumping to over $10 million is unimaginable.

That brings our possible tagged players to:

Player

Position

Age

Experience

2012 Salary

120% of Salary

Franchise

Transition

Bush, Reggie

RB

27

7

$4,500,000.00

$5,400,000.00

$8,079,000.00

$6,851,000.00

Fasano, Anthony

TE

28

7

$3,600,000.00

$4,320,000.00

$5,962,000.00

$5,105,000.00

Hartline, Brian

WR

26

4

$1,308,000.00

$1,569,600.00

$10,357,000.00

$8,716,000.00

Long, Jake

T

27

5

$12,800,000.00

$15,360,000.00

$9,660,000.00

$8,560,000.00

Smith, Sean

CB

25

4

$565,000.00

$678,000.00

$10,668,000.00

$8,939,000.00

Starks, Randy

DT

29

9

$3,725,000.00

$4,470,000.00

$8,306,000.00

$6,919,000.00

Now, looking at the individual players in our six possible tagged players, we have:

  • Reggie Bush - Bush is a player the Dolphins have said they would like to bring back, and he has repeatedly said he wants to return. However, Miami has said that they would re-sign Bush only at their price, and would consider moving on to rookie Lamar Miller next season if Bush is not brought back. A transition tag could make sense, but even that is probably more than the Dolphins want to spend on Bush.
  • Anthony Fasano - Fasano is the Dolphins top tight end, and they currently don't have anyone developing who looks like he will be ready to unseat Fasano next year. The Dolphins do have a couple of potentially dynamic players who, if they develop, give Miami weapons at the tight end position (Charles Clay, Michael Egnew), but Fasano is a player the Dolphins will likely look to re-sign. If they cannot work out a deal, making Fasano a non-exclusive rights franchise tag could make sense, given it would mean the Dolphins would have the veteran for one more season, with no commitment beyond $5.9 million.
  • Brian Hartline - Hartline is a player the Dolphins will definitely bring back next year, especially as they look to add a true number one receiver to pair with him. The 1,000 yard season will give Hartline some negotiating power with Miami, but it shoudl not be enough that the talks will break down to paying Hartline, a player who will likely be a number two receiver next season, $10 million for the year. Could the Dolphins look to transition tag Hartline at $8.6 million? I guess so, and it's not a horrible deal, but that's still more than I would pay for Hartline at this point.
  • Jake Long - Long is the player who will cause the most debate this offseason. The 2008 number one overall pick has been selected to four Pro Bowls in five seasons in the league, and was at one point considered the top offensive lineman in the league. Unfortunately for Long, the year where he did not play at a Pro Bowl level was this season, and he is no longer playing at an elite level. Long is likely going to be looking for a salary above his rookie contract, which paid him $12 million this year. He is the one Dolphins player who would fall into the 120% of his current salary rule for a franchise tag, meaning he would take up $15 million dollars if he was franchise tagged, or one quarter of the Dolphins' cap space. He could be a player worth bringing back, but if he is looking for astronomical numbers this offseason, he's going to have to get them from another franchise.
  • Sean Smith - Smith will be back in Miami. The team needs him, even if fans get frustrated by the moments of blown coverage and dropped interceptions from the team's 2009 second round pick. He has the talent to be a shutdown corner, but for some reason lapses into times where you are not sure exactly what he is doing. Smith is currently making less than $1 million a season, so a jump to over $10 million is hard to stomach, but the team will look to do whatever they have to to re-sign Smith.
  • Randy Starks - Starks is once again a Pro Bowl alternate, and has played to a level worthy of that distinction. He's currently making $3.725 million, with a transition tag nearly doubling that salary, but if the Dolphins get into a sticky position negotiating with Starks over the next few weeks, a tag could make sense to bring him back for one season, especially given his age of 29 years old. The Dolphins could also let Starks walk, moving Jared Odrick inside next to Paul Soliai, and giving the starting defensive end position opposite Cameron Wake to either a drafted rookie or the quickly developing Olivier Vernon.

Across these six players, the two most likely to get tagged are Smith and Starks. Long has an outside chance to be tagged, or re-signed, but rookie Jonathan Martin performing well at left tackle the last few weeks hurts Long's leverage with the Dolphins. Miami will likely look to not use the tag at all this season, instead trying to re-sign all the potential free agents they want to keep, using longer term contracts to keep salary cap numbers low while they use the money on rookies or free agents.

If the Dolphins had to franchise or transition tag one player this offseason, who do you think they would target? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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