What does it mean to be a franchise player and will the 49ers wind up using the designation for Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis?
Davis is probably too good to become a franchise player based upon what the designation has come to mean in recent seasons.
The franchise tag remains, in theory, a tool for teams to prevent their best players from hitting the market should a long-term agreement prove elusive. The franchise tag has become a mechanism for teams to buy time so they can evaluate whether good players are really all that great. But the teams usually already know the player isn't all that great.
The Rams' Oshiomogho Atogwe, the Cardinals' Karlos Dansby and the Seahawks' Leroy Hill were franchise players in the NFC West last offseason. They have combined for zero Pro Bowls. Dansby left in free agency this offseason. Atogwe could leave the Rams in another couple of weeks. Hill's future in Seattle also remains unclear, with the team asking him to stay away from organized team activities amid off-field concerns.
The 49ers' Aubrayo Franklin was the division's only franchise player this offseason. He also has never been to a Pro Bowl.
Massive increases in salary-cap space (followed this offseason by the removal of any cap at all) made it easier for teams to pay franchise-player premiums for one season at a time. That beat the alternatives, which consisted of losing the player or overspending for him on a long-term deal. The abolition of a salary cap also brought rules making it tougher to do long-term deals, but the 49ers still managed to reach a long-term agreement with Patrick Willis, a three-time Pro Bowl player, because they knew he was an elite player.
Which brings us back to Davis.
Once a disappointment, Davis has become everything the 49ers want in their tight end. He was always a hard worker and ferocious blocker. He proved last season that he can become a dangerous receiver if featured in an offense. Davis isn't perfect as a route runner and he'll still drop a pass occasionally, but he appears to be the type of home-grown young player the 49ers have sought to reward (Willis and Joe Staley come to mind). That makes him too valuable for the franchise tag.