Low franchise tag may shrink safety market

A low franchise tag number relative to other positions will make it easier for the Texans to keep safety Glover Quin, if they choose to use the tag on the pending free agent. Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

The free-agent market for safeties could actually be pretty good.

Among those with expiring contracts are Buffalo’s Jairus Byrd, the Giants’ Kenny Phillips, Atlanta’s William Moore, San Francisco’s Dashon Goldson and Houston’s Glover Quin.

It’s a tantalizing list, but it’s sure to shrink.

That pesky franchise tag is dangling out there, threatening to keep quality players at a position of need for Tennessee and Indianapolis from becoming free agents.

At many positions the tag can be prohibitively high. But the new CBA drove the numbers down. Instead of the tag equaling the average of the five highest-paid players at the position, like it was under the old CBA, the new formula is more complex. It uses the average of the five highest-paid players at the position over the past five years and figures in the salary cap, too.

Long story short: Safeties will have a modest tag number of about $6.798 million. Only tight ends and kickers/punters are slated to be lower.

Should teams keep a quality guy for another year for less than $7 million or try to replace him? For most teams, tagging a safety isn’t a tough call at all. I’d guess Byrd, Goldson and Quin will all get tagged if they don’t get long-term deals. If that’s the case, an intriguing safety pool dries up a good deal. Players such as Moore and Phillips, if they are not tagged, could wind up in advantageous negotiating positions.

That’s one reason George Wilson, recently released by the Bills, might be wise to wait. He has a head start -- free agency begins March 12 -- and is slated to visit Detroit on Thursday, a day after he was in Tennessee. But if supply shrinks before free agency starts, demand for him could go up.

For many years, safeties and guards have been relatively cheap players. Many roster architects put a higher priority on other positions, believing it was easier to find serviceable safeties or guards.

Some franchises believe they can draft corners who come up a bit short at the position and shift them inside. Quin came into the league as a corner out of New Mexico. Jacksonville free safety Dwight Lowery, acquired from the Jets in a 2010 trade, played cornerback for his first two years in New York.

Now, it seems safeties are being viewed as more important, but the price tags haven’t necessarily caught up to any new thinking.

“I don’t think people really understand the importance of safety,” Goldson told me at the Super Bowl in a chat about the low franchise tag. “Safety is definitely like quarterback on defense. Everybody looks at [middle linebackers] as more of the captains, but safeties are pretty much the ones who are running the show.

“They are smart football players, they understand defenses and get guys lined up, make adjustments on the fly and they have to know everything. They have to know as much as quarterbacks do on offense."

In Houston, the secondary was not nearly as good in 2012 as it was in 2011. Still, the Texans like their top five guys -- corners Johnathan Joseph, Kareem Jackson and Brice McCain and safeties Danieal Manning and Quin.

Quin rates as their most significant pending free agent.

He’s a versatile guy, a converted corner who probably still hasn’t peaked. I expect the team will do what it has to in order to retain him, though the Texans don’t have a lot of cap freedom.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Quin said. “What I would hope happens is a good deal, a long-term deal to stay in Houston, obviously.”

The adjustment of the formula for determining the tags in the new CBA is another example of how poorly the players fared in the deal. Most reports of the change in the tag equation suggested the owners had slipped one past the NFLPA.

The positional groupings for tags also make little sense.

Defensive ends and defensive tackles each have their own number. But on the other side of the ball there is simply an "offensive linemen" umbrella that covers tackles, guards and centers despite the differences in the positions and their prices. It's too broad, which is great for interior guys but terrible for tackles who are worth more.

As for the judgment of the worth of a good safety …

In 2011 the Chargers determined Eric Weddle was worth $19 million guaranteed and as much as $40 million over five years. He’s continued to be excellent for them after getting the deal. In 2012, after initially tagging Michael Griffin, the Titans decided he was worth $35 million over five years with $15 million guaranteed. He remains a symbol of their defensive struggles and needs to be surrounded by better people.

To have a chance to make the Griffin deal look OK, the Titans need to pair him with a better player. If they can’t land Moore, Phillips or Wilson, that guy will have to arrive via the draft.

He must show up somehow.

If the Texans want to maximize their chances to play good defense, they need to hold on to Quin. If the Colts want to improve, they should upgrade from Tom Zbikowski.

The AFC South could be part of getting that franchise tag to grow.

Goldson says the number will rise, that safeties won’t be near the bottom of the list forever.

“I think we’ll get to that point eventually,” he said. “I think the market will go up. I would hope I help drive it up.”