Franchise tag needs an overhaul

Can we at least change the name?

That's my thought as we enter the franchise tag period, the first real date on the NFL's offseason calendar. From Feb. 20 to March 5, an NFL team has the right to place a franchise tag on one of its current players whose contract has expired and retain his rights under a one-year deal.

I don't like the tag. Never have and never will. When a player's contract expires, I believe that he should be able to shop his services on the open market and decide where he would like to work and his family would like to live. You know, kind of like almost every other person in American society, including the athletes in professional basketball, baseball and hockey. Now, I know there are non-compete clauses and things of that ilk for non-athletes, but for the most part we live in an at-will work environment.

NFL players don't really have much of a leg to stand on if they don't like the franchise tag. They agreed to the system. Getting rid of the franchise tag in the latest labor negotiations would have come at a large cost to the vast majority of players, players to whom it never would apply.

That doesn't mean the franchise tag system shouldn't be revamped, however. It was originally intended as the NFL's answer to the NBA's "Larry Bird Exception" and meant to allow a team to keep its best or most marquee player.

That's not exactly what has happened. In recent years, some decidedly low-profile positions like kicker, punter, center and run-stuffing defensive tackle have all been tagged. More of the same is expected during the franchise tag period this year. Broncos K Matt Prater, Jaguars K Josh Scobee and Jets DT Sione Pouha are all strong candidates for the tag.

Heck, even a player at a fairly high-profile position, like Cowboys OLB Anthony Spencer, is considered a possibility for the tag even though he's not nearly the player that his fellow bookend DeMarcus Ware is.

So that's what it's come to now? Second-tier outside linebackers and non-descript kickers and nose tackles?

The franchise tag numbers for 2012 also are significantly less than they have been in recent years. The tag used to pay the player the average of the five highest paid players at his position for that year. Under the new collective bargaining agreement, it now pays an average of the five highest paid players at his spot over the last five years, a clause that will cost players $2 million to $3 million, depending on position. That's significant.

Two other likely franchise tag recipients are Bears RB Matt Forte and Ravens RB Ray Rice. It makes perfect sense to tag those players -- career longevity is short and the injury risk is particularly high at running back. Teams might as well franchise them for a year, maybe even two, and in the meantime draft their next young running backs. They can avoid having to pony up close to the $36 million in guarantees that Adrian Peterson got from the Minnesota Vikings -- before he tore his ACL last season, of course.

At a minimum, a team should not be allowed to franchise a guy more than once. That just seems like cruel and unusual punishment. But that won't be changed for the next 10 years, thanks to the latest CBA.

So let's at least change the name in the interim. Maybe that will make me feel better about it. How about the "guy whose contract is expiring and we want to restrict his ability to hit the open market" tag? Has a certain ring to it, doesn't it?

From the inbox

Q: I love reading your mailbags and getting the players' perspective versus all the reporters who have never played the game. That being said, I have an idea for the Pro Bowl that could actually improve the game! What if there are still Pro Bowl spots for every position just like now, and those players all get compensation for being elected? For the actual Pro Bowl game, make it a 7 on 7 flag football tournament/game. Have 4 teams or a team from each division play a weekend long tournament. You'd have the normal flag football rules; 2-3 linemen, a QB, then whatever skill positions needed. Winners of the flag football tournament get compensation/donation to charity and bragging rights until next year. Players already give half effort at the Pro Bowl; and who could blame them? I wouldn't want to risk an injury that could alter my career at a game that doesn't mean anything. This way fans could get competitive games, the players could be competitive and have fun at the same time, and there is some motivation for winning (donation/money and bragging rights). I'd love to hear your thoughts about this idea!

Ray from Norfolk, Va.

A: I'm all for outside-the-box thoughts on the Pro Bowl, and at this point I actually favor something that takes the helmet and shoulder pads off -- the guys aren't using them anyway. Maybe some sort of flag football game like you suggest could work because then they could at least have fun and not pretend they are playing a real game. The entire situation frustrates me because the NFL is considering eliminating the game entirely. That would be a real shame for guys who would cherish the opportunity to get a free family vacation for a week in Hawaii and an additional $25-50K depending upon whether their team wins.

Q: I was wondering whether you see DeSean Jackson being traded for another 2nd or 3rd round draft pick?

Wyeth from Baltimore

A: Jackson is a free agent, so at this point he can't be traded. Reports indicate that the Eagles are likely to place the franchise tag on him and retain his services for the upcoming season, which is exactly what they should do. Jackson was a distraction last year because he was upset about not getting the long-term contract he wanted. That should make the Eagles extremely cautious about giving him the leverage of a big contract that includes a lot of guaranteed money. The franchise tag allows them to keep him for one more year with the hope that he will be motivated to be on his best behavior and earn a long-term deal. It's a make-or-break year for Eagles coach Andy Reid.

Q: I watched Alex Smith play all season. The only conclusion I can come to about how the 49ers had a 13-3 season was that the defense, special teams, and kicking unit were just that good. Even though Smith had a career season, I didn't see him playing that much better than the past few seasons. They are saying that the 49ers are going to re-sign him, and their real need is a wide receiver. Do you agree with this? I think that the Niners have a good offense and that their quarterback is the problem. Would Matt Flynn be someone they should look at? What do you think the 49ers need to go further next year?

Jonah from San Francisco

A: I understand your concern with Alex Smith, especially considering the team's red zone woes and its abysmal performance on third down in the NFC Championship Game against the Giants. But Smith had his best season ever. He set career highs for yards and completion percentage in his first year playing in new coach Jim Harbaugh's system. More importantly, he threw only five interceptions and gave his team a chance to win every week, which it did more often than not. He's earned the right to be the starter in 2012. I don't think you can count on Matt Flynn to be an upgrade with such a small body of work.

Ross Tucker, who played on the offensive line for five teams in a seven-year NFL career, writes regularly for ESPN.com.