Franchise tag no longer quick fix

Saints quarterback Drew Brees cleared up a vague part of the franchise-tag rules this week.

With his successful challenge to the franchise rules, no player can be franchised more than three times during his career, no matter if he moves to another team. Brees was franchised once with the San Diego Chargers and this year by the Saints, who felt they also had the ability to franchise him next year at 120 percent of his 2012 salary and possibly a third time in 2014.

Unless the Saints get a long-term deal with Brees by July 16, they face the possibility of either letting him hit free agency next year or giving him a $23.6 million franchise tag in 2013. Because the Saints have four other starters who become free agents next year and are already a little more than $3 million over the projected 2013 salary cap, the Saints will either have to restructure a lot of contracts to fit in Brees' franchise tag or release a bunch of starters.

With relatively flat salary caps ahead for at least the next three years, franchising a player won't be as easy as it was when plenty of cap room was available. Currently, half the league has $7 million or less of cap space. Teams have the ability to carry over unused cap dollars into the following year, but if the cap is at $121 million in 2013, the teams with limited carryovers may have to rethink their franchise strategies.

Houston Texans general Rick Smith was among the first to do this, and he did it this year. Defensive end Mario Williams was a free agent coming off his rookie contract this year. The switch to the 3-4 defense put Williams at linebacker, not defensive end, giving Smith the thought that Williams might be replaceable. A Williams franchise tag would have cost the Texans $22.02 million.

Figuring defensive coordinator Wade Phillips could once again generate a pass rush with with young linebackers Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed (Williams missed 11 games in 2011, when Houston won the AFC South), Smith let Williams go to Buffalo in free agency.

The franchise tag was created in the early 1990s to give teams the luxury of keeping their most important players. When it was created, the NFL Players Association thought it would be used by teams to keep quarterbacks. Once general managers got their hands on it, they used the threat of the tag on all positions in order to get favorable long-term deals, knowing most players wouldn't want to accept one-year deals based on the average salary of the top-five players at a position.

History has shown, however, that in most seasons roughly 60 percent of the franchise players end up not getting the long-term deal and simply play out the one-year contract. In 2010, four of the six franchised players stayed at the one-year offer. In 2009, seven of 12 played out the one-year deal.

So far this year, only seven of the 21 franchise players have signed long-term deals. That means 14 tagged players are eating up $107.61 million of cap room. If no deals are done by July 16, those cap dollars are gone, unable to be carried over to next year. Even worse, the 13 franchise players -- excluding Brees -- not signed to long-term deals will get 20 percent raises if they are franchised again. Brees, if he's franchised a third time, will get a whopping 44 percent raise.

The bigger the franchise tag number, the more cap room it eats up, and that's going to be a growing problem for teams.

Going through a list of 2013 free agents, I could see as many as 22 teams handing out franchise tags unless contract extensions are resolved. Decisions will be messy.

• If the Ravens don't meet Ray Rice's $9 million-a-year price tag,and they don't sign QB Joe Flacco to an extension, both Rice and Flacco could be free agents next year. The Ravens have about $15 million of cap room, but all of that would be gone with a quarterback franchise tag.

• The Bears have about $13 million of cap room next year and a little less than $4 million remaining this year. They are going to need it. Matt Forte's franchise number would go to $9.29 million if he plays at the tender. Brian Urlacher is one of seven starters up next year. In 2014, 10 more starters become free agents.

• The Packers are facing three major problems over the next two years. Wide receiver Greg Jennings is up next year. Clay Matthews and B.J. Raji are up in 2014. The Packers have retained quality cap dollars for rainy days, but those three deals will force them to bring out the umbrellas.

• Retaining left tackles won't be easy. Up next year are Jake Long of the Dolphins, Ryan Clady of the Broncos, Duane Brown of the Texans, Branden Albert of the Chiefs, Jermon Bushrod of the Saints and Sam Baker of the Falcons. Left tackles go for $11.5 million to $12 million a year.

• Brees is just the start of a busy couple seasons of quarterback re-signings. Matt Schaub of the Texans and Flacco are up after this season. Matt Ryan, Tony Romo and Jay Cutler have their contracts expire after the 2013 season.

• No deals for Wes Welker of the Patriots, Dwayne Bowe of the Chiefs and restricted free agent Mike Wallace of the Steelers could eat up plenty of franchise dollars unless the Pats and Chiefs let Welker and Bowe go free. Jennings will be either franchised or re-signed. The Saints, who lost Robert Meachem this season, may have to say goodbye to Devery Henderson if they are forced to franchise Brees.

If teams don't handle their franchise tags properly, they'll run the risk of losing valuable core players.