<
>

Playing tag in the AFC North

The NFL announced this week that, despite labor uncertainty, teams will be allowed to used its franchise tags next month to keep big-name free agents off the open market.

This is important for AFC North teams, which have several key players with expiring contracts. Here are some candidates who could be tagged in February:

Baltimore Ravens

Possible target: DL Haloti Ngata

Analysis: Tagging Ngata appears to be a near certainty. The Ravens have tagged players in the past, such as Terrell Suggs, in an effort to buy time and work out a long-term deal. Ngata is a franchise building block for the Ravens and is due to become perhaps the NFL's highest-paid defensive lineman. Therefore, hammering out this contract won't be easy, especially if a new collective bargaining agreement isn't reached soon.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Possible target: LaMarr Woodley

Analysis: Being allowed to use the tag is good news for Pittsburgh and bad news for Woodley. The former second-round draft pick has been one of the NFL's best bargains the past two seasons and is ready to cash in after finishing the final year of his rookie contract. Woodley wanted an extension this summer but didn't get it. The tag offers the Steelers some flexibility, but they could also use it to eventually work out a long-term deal.

Cincinnati Bengals

Possible targets: CB Johnathan Joseph and RB Cedric Benson

Analysis: The Bengals have two players to consider tagging in Joseph and Benson. But between the two, giving the franchise tag to Joseph makes the most sense. Joseph is Cincinnati's best cover cornerback, and he's already said he is fine with the franchise tag in 2011. In contrast, Benson is unhappy in Cincinnati and doesn't want to play for offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. Plus, running backs are easier to find than quality cornerbacks.

Cleveland Browns

Possible targets: FB Lawrence Vickers and K Phil Dawson

Analysis: It's rare to tag a fullback, but Vickers is one of the NFL's best at that position and will surly garner interest from other teams. Last year, Vickers wanted a long-term deal but didn't get one. So he may be a candidate. Dawson has been "Mr. Brown," but has been unhappy with his contract the past few seasons. It doesn't appear Dawson wants to return to Cleveland, but the franchise tag could force his hand. Keep in mind, a kicker has been tagged two years in a row in the AFC North. Cincinnati used the franchise tag on kicker Shayne Graham in 2009 and Pittsburgh did the same this season with Jeff Reed. Neither worked out particularly well.