First in a daily series on NFC North players who are candidates to receive their team's franchise tag. The window for tagging players opens Monday and closes March 5.
The Green Bay Packers have several candidates for their franchise tag, but most public discussion has centered around tight end Jermichael Finley. He is part of a Packers free agent class that also includes quarterback Matt Flynn and center Scott Wells, but the price tag for quarterbacks (projected to be $14 million) makes Flynn a less likely franchise target. Conventional wisdom, meanwhile, suggests the Packers should be able to reach an amicable long-term agreement with Wells.
Finley's case is interesting on several levels. As we noted during the regular season, the NFL's new collective bargaining agreement changed the calculations for franchise tags in a way that makes it a more attractive tool for the Packers to retain Finley's rights. The franchise tag is no longer the average of the five highest-paid players at a given position. Instead, it is the average of the highest salaries at the position over the past five seasons.
Franchise numbers for 2012 haven't been announced, but it's expected to be around $5.5 million for tight ends. From a team standpoint, that figure is quite reasonable for a 24-year-old tight end who caught a career-high eight touchdown passes in the first 16-game season of his career in 2011. From a financial standpoint, most NFL teams would be happy to lock up an ascending free agent tight end for $5.5 million in cash and salary-cap commitment.
Is there anything Finley can do to fight that eventuality, short of holding out? Although neither Finley nor his agent have spoken publicly about it, several media outlets have suggested the possibility that he could declare himself a wide receiver, based on how often the Packers use him in the slot or split wide. That designation would qualify Finley for a significantly higher franchise number, perhaps double the one for tight ends, and give him more leverage in a long-term negotiation.
There is some precedent for appealing the position classification for franchise players. In 2008, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs spurred the NFL and NFL Players Association to create a new defensive end-linebacker position for the 3-4 scheme. The change elevated his franchise value by about $500,000.
According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Finley lined up as a receiver on a little less than half of his total snaps in 2011 (roughly 409 of 883). I'm not sure if he could argue he is a wide receiver, but you wonder if the recent trend toward receiving tight ends -- led by the New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski and the New Orleans Saints' Jimmy Graham -- might eventually lead to a new hybrid franchise tag.
In the end, Finley's value lies in his production relative to his position. He had one of the better seasons for a tight end in the NFL last season, catching 55 passes for 767 yards to go along with the eight touchdowns. But if you applied those numbers to a receiver, they would hardly be considered elite.
It's usually a better situation for all parties to find common ground on a long-term contract. But unless the franchise tag for tight ends turns out to be much higher than projected, the Packers are in a fine spot with one of their best players.