CINCINNATI -- Franchise tags played key roles in structuring the Cincinnati Bengals' roster the past two offseasons, but it's doubtful they will factor at all during this one.
For the first time since 2012, expect the Bengals to be inactive in the franchise/transition tag process that begins across the NFL on Monday. Teams are now able to begin labeling upcoming unrestricted free agents with the tags in an effort to keep them around while working on signing them to longer term contracts. If they wish, each team is allowed one franchise-tagged player per season and a transition-tagged player.
Franchise-tag contracts are designed to keep a player out of free agency on a season-by-season basis. Since the rate of compensation increases 120 percent each year the player is tagged, it's rare for teams to stretch the franchise-tag status across multiple seasons. The Cowboys and Browns were the last teams to have players with a second-year franchise status, signing players to franchise-tag deals in 2011 and 2012.
If the Bengals wanted to, they could do the same this offseason with 2013 franchise player Michael Johnson. But since the defensive end stands to make more than $13 million as a second-year franchise-tagged player in 2014, it's unlikely they would choose that path. The $13.4 million he would be owed next season would dramatically shrink the money pool the Bengals would have to sign other free agents before hitting the cap limit. According to ESPN's Roster Management System, the Bengals are currently sitting about $15 million shy of the cap limit for 2014.
So it's unlikely Johnson gets re-tagged. If he comes back next season, it would most likely be through a longer-term contract that still could end up paying him an annual salary comparable to what it would be if he were franchise-tagged. With that in mind, as much as the Bengals would like to retain the star lineman they drafted in 2009, it's clear he may be on his way out of Cincinnati.
The Bengals could extend franchise-tag status for the first time to offensive tackle Anthony Collins, but that's another unlikely scenario. Instead of paying the longtime backup nearly $10 million next season, they would be better served negotiating a longer-term deal, or also letting him walk to free cap space. Without Johnson and Collins on the books, the Bengals would be able to better negotiate other deals this year and start getting cash cleared in advance of signing 2015's crop of pricey free agents.
Next year's possible franchise-tag candidates include quarterback Andy Dalton, running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, defensive tackle Domata Peko, linebackers James Harrison and Rey Maualuga and kicker Mike Nugent -- Cincinnati's 2012 franchise-tagged player -- among others.