Over the past five years, NFL teams have used the franchise or transition tag an average of nearly 10 times annually, including 13 markers in 2005, to keep talented players from becoming unrestricted free agents.
The number this year, however, figures to be more like a handful.
Given the uncertainty of labor negotiations, the fact that salary cap room is very tight leaguewide and the uneven recent history of the players tagged with the franchise or transition designations, teams are being particularly cautious in 2006 about employing the two restrictive markers. The consensus around the league is that when the deadline for tagging players arrives Thursday at 4 p.m. ET, only about four to six players will be retained via these mechanisms.
As of early Wednesday afternoon, the only players designated with the franchise tag were New York Jets defensive end John Abraham, for the second year in a row, and Buffalo cornerback Nate Clements. New York's motives might be different, though, than a year ago, when it desperately wanted to retain the standout pass rusher for at least one more season. This time around, it appears, the Jets retained the rights to Abraham so they can market him in trade talks, hoping to fetch a high-round draft choice for a proven sack man.
"I think a lot of things are conspiring this season to keep the [number] of franchise tags down," said one salary cap manager whose team dealt with the tag each of the last three years. "The economic climate is such that [using the marker] is a hard swallow. And just as big is the fact that teams haven't gotten very good returns on their investments."
The other Bay Area team, San Francisco, likewise employed the franchise designation on linebacker Julian Peterson each of the last two seasons. It cost the 49ers nearly $11 million and Peterson contributed only 5½ sacks.
In defense of Woodson and Peterson, both players suffered disabling injuries during the stretch in which they were performing as franchise players, which certainly blunted their productivity. But the NFL doesn't grant exemptions or dispensation for franchise players who are injured. And one element, obviously, in the current reluctance to use the markers is the likelihood that a player with the kind of lofty salary cap value that accompanies a franchise designation could be hurt and his productivity hampered.
And so, for the first time in three springs, Woodson and Peterson -- talented players when healthy -- will be permitted to leave their respective teams as free agents when the signing period commences March 3.
Among some of the other franchised players from a year ago, Indianapolis isn't likely to use the tag again on tailback Edgerrin James. The one-year contract Seattle tailback Shaun Alexander signed last summer specifically precludes the Seahawks from employing the franchise marker for a second year in a row. After two seasons of paying Darren Howard franchise money, the Saints will not keep the veteran defensive end, who appears to be in decline. San Diego might have used the franchise designation to retain quarterback Drew Brees, but the point became moot when he suffered a torn shoulder labrum in the season finale.
The Colts were expected to use their franchise tag on wide receiver Reggie Wayne, but the two sides reached an agreement on a contract extension Wednesday.
"If you put so much into one player, then that player becomes more important than the team," said San Francisco coach Mike Nolan. "When it comes to franchise tags, you have to be very careful. And when it comes to a first-time franchise player versus a second-time franchise player, the numbers just get out of whack You have to be very careful how you spend your money right now."
Indeed, care and caution seem to be the buzzwords when it comes to using franchise and transition tags. That is especially true for the franchise designation, since the qualifying offer that accompanies a marker, ranging from $2.468 million to $8.789 million depending on a player's position, is guaranteed. In recent seasons, franchise players have quickly signed the one-year qualifying offers, taking advantage of the guarantee and because teams can rescind the franchise tag at any time. Many of those players subsequently signed long-term extensions.
So who, in addition to Abraham and Clements, figures to be designated a franchise player before the Thursday deadline? Here is a look at some candidates:
• OT Jeff Backus (Detroit): The top player on a shoddy Detroit offensive line and the premier left tackle potentially available in free agency, Backus is a player the Lions must keep to help protect Joey Harrington in a Mike Martz-designed offense in which the quarterbacks take a lot of hits. The two sides have been negotiating for weeks and, if an extension isn't completed by Thursday, the team will almost certainly use the franchise marker to retain the former first-round pick. Backus could really flourish under new offensive line coach Larry Beightol.
• OG Steve Hutchinson (Seattle): One-half of the best left-side tandem in the NFL, Hutchinson could be one of the few guards in league history to earn a franchise designation. The qualifying offer of $6.983 million is a lot to pay for a guard, even as devastating an in-line blocker as the 2001 first-rounder is, but Seattle isn't about to break up the duo of Hutchinson and premier left tackle Walter Jones, on whom it used the franchise tag in the past.
• PK Adam Vinatieri (New England): Because he played last season under the one-year franchise qualifying offer, the Patriots would have to pay Vinatieri 20 percent more, or $3.01 million, to use the designation again this year. That's a lot of money, for sure, for a kicker. But it's hard to imagine New England without Vinatieri, one of the best clutch placement specialists of all time and a guy who made the winning field goals in two of the team's three Super Bowl victories.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.