Monday brought us our first, and perhaps only, 2011 franchise tag in the NFC North. The Minnesota Vikings have franchised linebacker Chad Greenway with the non-exclusive tag, meaning the Vikings would receive two first-round draft picks from any team that signs him.
Franchise numbers haven't been set yet, in part because the NFL Players Association is disputing their legality in anticipation of a lockout. But presuming the league's owners and players reach a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA), it's expected that the franchise tag for linebackers will be worth about $10 million.
Greenway has never been named to a Pro Bowl and plays in a scheme that emphasizes defensive ends over outside linebackers. But if nothing else, the franchise tag will allow the Vikings to negotiate a long-term deal without the threat or deadline of free agency. (It's highly unlikely Greenway will attract interest at that compensation value.)
The significance of this decision extends beyond Greenway. We don't know the exact parameters of a post-CBA free agency, but for the moment it leaves receiver Sidney Rice and defensive end Ray Edwards as pending free agents.
I'm not certain of the Vikings' plans for Edwards, but I can't imagine a scenario in which they wouldn't want Rice back. It's true that Rice has managed to play in 16 games only once in a four-year career, but I wouldn't consider the Vikings' decision to franchise Greenway a slight toward Rice. Instead, it could be based on the uncertain future of free agency.
It's possible that Rice, with four years of service time, could be classified as a restricted free agent in the new system. There is no reason to tag a restricted free agent, who requires compensation to move to another team. Greenway, with five years service time, will be unrestricted regardless of the shape of a new system.