CINCINNATI -- Defensive end Justin Smith, who has led Cincinnati's line in tackles in each of the last five seasons, was designated as the Bengals' franchise player Thursday.
Smith would have become an unrestricted free agent March 2 if he doesn't reach a contract agreement with the Bengals before then. The franchise tag means the Bengals could keep Smith by matching any offer sheet he signed with another team.
If they choose not to match another offer, the Bengals would get the other team's first-round draft picks in 2007 and 2008 as compensation.
He would be guaranteed $8,644,000, the average salary of the top five defensive ends next season.
"This move helps us keep our core players together, and it gives us an opportunity to continue negotiating for a longer-term contract with Justin," coach Marvin Lewis said.
Smith had 110 tackles in the 2006 season and ranked second on the team in sacks with 7.5. He has played all six of his NFL seasons with Cincinnati.