Tag puts star players in tough spot

If they don't sign, they can't show. And there is little doubt that Drew Brees, Matt Forte, Wes Welker and Ray Rice have any intention of signing their franchise tenders.

It's not happening. Nor should it.

On Monday, teams across the NFL will open their doors for offseason workouts. Teams with new coaches already have been allowed to have their players in for voluntary workouts that will steadily build to a mandatory minicamp some time after the draft.

All players under contract are expected, although not required, to participate in the voluntary workouts.

Brees, Forte, Welker and Rice are not under contract. All four players have refused to sign their tenders. They don't want to play under a one-year deal, even if the salary is high. They want security. They want to be compensated fairly for their performance. They want a long-term deal. They want respect.

Contract negotiations can get sticky sometimes, and negotiating under a franchise tag is no different. The purpose of the tag, in theory, is for teams to be able to continue contract negotiations with a star player and not lose him in free agency. The practice -- as Brees knows all too well -- often is that the team just wants to lock up a player for one season and see what happens.

Players don't like to get tagged. They often see it as an insult, not a compliment. They see it as an easy out for the team. While the one-year salary is high -- Brees would haul in about $16 million in 2012 -- there is no up-front bonus or security past the season. There are 17 checks payable once the regular season begins.

It is not chump change, mind you, but for players with lengthy résumés and significant value, the franchise tag is not enough.

When tagged, players have few options. They can sign the tender, as Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson did earlier this offseason, and hope that negotiations on a new deal will continue in earnest, which, for Jackson, they did. They can sign it, take the cash and hope for the best in the next offseason. Or they can refuse to sign the tender and try to force the team's hand by holding out.

This appears to be the tack that Brees, Forte, Welker and Rice will take, and it is tough to blame them.

Brees might have more leverage than any player in the NFL has ever had in a contract negotiation. With coach Sean Payton exiled for the season, New Orleans can ill afford to have its most vital player boycotting the practice facility. The Saints need Brees now more than ever. He is the face of the franchise. He is the team. He is popular and honest and philanthropic and sincere.

He also has been through this before. In 2005, the San Diego Chargers franchised Brees, and as he told ESPN Radio's "Mike and Mike in the Morning" recently, "that ended with 13 anchors in my right shoulder and a 25 percent chance of playing football again."

Brees is worth more than $16 million for one season. In six seasons in New Orleans, he has been selected to the Pro Bowl five times. He took the franchise to its first Super Bowl and won it. Last season, Brees threw for more yards than any quarterback in history. If that doesn't put him in the Tom Brady/Peyton Manning category of $18 million per season, I don't know what does.

Forte and Rice have each outplayed their rookie contracts. They are in the prime of their careers. Forte is 26; Rice is 25.

In 2011, Rice had an NFL-best 2,068 yards from scrimmage, set a franchise record with 15 touchdowns, had a career-best 1,364 rushing yards and was the Ravens' leading receiver with 76 catches for 704 yards. He put the multi in multipurpose back.

Forte was leading the league in yards from scrimmage when he went down in Week 13 with a minor knee sprain that sidelined him for the rest of the season. He was on pace for the third 1,000-yard rushing season of his four-year career. Forte was often the Bears' first, second and third offensive option. He undoubtedly has watched as new Chicago general manager Phil Emery has been aggressive in free agency, signing new players and re-signing old ones, such as Lance Briggs on Wednesday.

The franchise tender for running backs is $7.742 million, which for Forte would be about a $7 million raise from 2011.

For running backs, financial security is crucial. Their windows are so short and their potential for significant injury is so great that wasting a year playing under a franchise tag would be foolish.

Welker also hasn't signed his franchise tag of $9.5 million, although he has acknowledged that he isn't upset about being franchised, given the exorbitant salary. The Patriots have said that re-signing Welker remains a "contractual priority." It should be, given his value to Tom Brady and the New England offense. Welker finished second in the league to Calvin Johnson in receiving yards with 1,569 in 2011. It was the fourth time in the past five seasons that he topped the 1,000-yard mark.

Teams have until July 15 to work out a new deal or franchised players will have to play 2012 under the tag. That would make no one happy.

"That didn't work out too well for me," Brees said of the last time he was franchised. "I've talked to the Saints about this many times."

For good reason. Brees knows what can happen playing under the franchise tag. He doesn't want to do it again. No player should.