Franchise system flaws exposed

Originally, the franchise tag was created to give teams the ability to keep their most important players -- the quarterbacks.

Through the 21 years of tagging, teams twisted the concept by using it at all positions. Often, the threat of a franchise tag leads to long-term deals with pending free agents. Instead of being trapped in a one-year deal, players might be willing to take a little less on the average to get a long-term deal with more guarantees.

Over the next week, we'll find out if there are flaws in the franchise system. Eight players were franchised this year, but none have reached a long-term deal. The deadline for doing more than a one-year deal is July 15.

If teams and players go zero-for-eight, something is wrong. From the teams' standpoint, it's one thing to have an strategic insurance policy to annually keep their most important free agent, but history shows more than 50 percent of franchise players on one-year deals end up with other teams the next year.

From the players' standpoint, the one-year franchise tag can be a roadblock to growing annual income. Cornerback Brent Grimes had a $10.281 million salary last year as the Atlanta Falcons' franchise player. He blew out an Achilles tendon and ended up getting a one-year, $5.5 million contract with the Miami Dolphins this offseason. Washington Redskins tight end Fred Davis suffered the same fate, blowing out his Achilles. His franchise salary last year for the Redskins was $5.446 million. He stayed with the Redskins this year on a one-year, $2.5 million deal.

Last year, nine of 21 franchise players settled for their one-year tender, and most watched their salaries shrink. Perhaps the most publicized was Wes Welker. The New England Patriots franchised him at $9.515 million for 2012. The Pats only offered him $5 million a year this offseason, so he moved to the Denver Broncos on a two-year, $12 million deal.

Cliff Avril felt he was sitting at a comfortable number with the Detroit Lions last year. He had a $10.605 million franchise-tag salary. The best he could do this year was a two-year, $13 million contract with the Seattle Seahawks. That's a $4.1 million reduction in annual salary.

Kickers Phil Dawson and Mike Nugent were franchised last year. Dawson took a $1.5 million pay cut this year as he moved from the Cleveland Browns to the San Francisco 49ers. Nugent watched his $2.65 million franchise salary drop to a two-year, $3 million deal to stay with the Cincinnati Bengals.

There is no question the flat salary cap is causing problems on the franchise numbers. With top quarterbacks getting $18 million to $20 million a year, other positions are finding it tougher to grow salaries.

Ryan Clady is a three-time Pro Bowl left tackle whose job is to protect Peyton Manning's blind side. Naturally, he would like to come close to the $11.5 million-a-year deal signed by Joe Thomas of the Cleveland Browns in 2011. The Broncos offered Clady a five-year, $50 million deal. He's unsigned and might hold out, but a holdout would limit him to eventually accepting his one-year, $9.818 million franchise tender.

The Kansas City Chiefs are expected to make an offer to left tackle Branden Albert this week, so there is a chance something could get done long term.

Four other negotiations to watch involve defensive end Michael Johnson of the Bengals, defensive tackle Henry Melton of the Chicago Bears, safety Jairus Byrd of Buffalo Bills and defensive end Anthony Spencer of the Dallas Cowboys.

Johnson's franchise number is $11.175 million, but $10 million-a-year contracts for non-quarterbacks are harder and harder to obtain. Spencer has been franchised twice by the Cowboys, but talks for a long-term deal have been slow.

Byrd isn't overly optimistic about getting long-term security with the Bills and might hold out. He's unsigned. It's debatable whether something long-term can be done for Melton in Chicago.

Only one week remains. I'm not suggesting an overhaul of the franchise-tag system, but something needs to be studied. There is a problem at tight end. Over the past two years, teams with franchise-quality tight ends have been gun-shy applying the tag because tight ends used in the slot and in flex positions, the same way wide receivers are used, could argue they'd be due a higher receiver franchise salary.

Similar problems could be growing at linebacker. A pass-rushing linebacker in a 3-4 can make a case for higher defensive end numbers. When defenses go into pass coverage, the linebacker often puts his hand on the ground and lines up as a defensive end.

It's a building problem affecting the franchises and the players who get tagged.

From the inbox

Q: I know you're tired of Pro Bowl talk, but I have an idea. Keep the fan/writer voting and name the Pro Bowl players but eliminate the game. Instead, have a Pride Bowl the week before the Super Bowl in the host city. Players have to nominate themselves, make a case for being in the game, and agree to play their hardest. If they slack off or don't try to win, they can't go back the next year. I believe fans just want to see good football. I'd rather see a borderline starter nominate himself and play his butt off than a star jog during a play. It would be a great way for guys to make a name for themselves and earn some extra money for competing. I think this would also pressure some of the good younger players to compete and be "the guy" on the field. I could see guys like Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck taking a game like this seriously.

Clark in Bonner Springs, Kan.

A: Sad to say, but I can see the end to the Pro Bowl over the next few years. The next bad game could seal the fate of the Pro Bowl. I agree with you that fans want to see good football. Robert Griffin III, Wilson and Luck could help save the game. They are dedicated to the sport and love the game. They won't slack in their effort. If their efforts inspire others, maybe the game has hopes of being around. No matter how you tweak it, the ratings remain decent when played between the championship games and the Super Bowl. But if the players don't take it seriously, the Pro Bowl will eventually become a reward and not a game.

Q: I was looking at the stats from last season and I noticed that in the list of receivers with most yards, the common thread for success was size. The top six receivers are considered big receivers in the NFL. Is speed overrated at that position considering the fact that none of the top 10 receivers are particularly speed demons and all, with the exception of Wes Welker and maybe Reggie Wayne, are bigger receivers?

C.C. in Baltimore

A: First of all, great observation on your part. I don't know if you should include Wayne, though. He's 6-0, 200 pounds, which may not qualify for the "big receiver" idea. Plus, he started doing more things out the slot last year than at any time in his career. But your point is a great one. Speed is important, but having a big threat on the outside is vital for an offense to do well. Andre Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Demaryius Thomas, Vincent Jackson and Dez Bryant certainly qualify as big receivers. The bigger receiver creates matchup problems for smaller cornerbacks. Quarterbacks can target them more because of their size. The good ones average 13-16 yards per catch and 10 or more targets a game. That's why the yardage numbers are up.

Q: With almost everybody in the NFL trying to air it out I have to ask you this question: What's the difference between, for instance, the Kurt Warner Rams or even the Packers' passing game of recent years and the run 'n' shoot or the K-gun? The Bills made four Super Bowls, but nobody really copied them in a copycat league. And if not for the greatest comeback/choke in NFL history, Warren Moon had a good shot at winning one with the Oilers. I remember the Drew Hill, Curtis Duncan, Haywood Jeffires, Webster Slaughter days. Is there a fundamental difference between the high-powered offenses of the early '90s? I mean, even Scott Mitchell had one good year running it. And I didn't include Peyton Manning's Colts because clearly he revolutionized the way QBs control the game. I'm not even sure you can call that a scheme.

Will in Detroit

A: The NFL is a copycat league and there is no doubt coaches are reaching into the past to get some strategies. The K-gun featured a simplified play-calling system. New Eagles coach Chip Kelly is using a similar concept. A lot of the NFL spread offenses have elements of the run 'n' shoot. Kevin Gilbride, the Giants' offensive coordinator, uses elements of the run 'n' shoot. Sure, there are differences from the past, and you can look at them as upgrades. The shotgun continues to evolve. The pistol formation works because it allows the use of running plays that are available on snaps under center. Offenses continue to evolve, but the past creeps into that planning.

Q: Andy Reid's offenses are known for throwing to the running back as opposed to handing it off. Does this help or hurt the K.C. offense, especially Jamaal Charles?

Brady in Raleigh, N.C.

A: Reid isn't big on running the football, but he's a good coach. He may swap a few screens for running plays, but he will be getting the most out of Charles. Charles would help every offense. Even though the Chiefs won only two games last season, Reid has a lot of assets. He'll find the right way of using them.

Q: There seems to be a lot of talk from fans over which division is the strongest, and it seems ESPN is a fan of power rankings. Has there ever been any thought about adding division power rankings? If not, what's your opinion on how division power rankings might look? This could be the first time Bengals and Steelers fans could agree on anything other than Cleveland sucks.

Chris in Cincinnati

A: There hasn't been any talk of divisional rankings, but it's not a bad thought. I would have the NFC West, NFC North, NFC South, AFC North and NFC East as the top five, in that order. The reason the three NFC divisions rank ahead of the AFC North is that the 12 teams in those NFC divisions have decent quarterbacks. Christian Ponder might be the most debated quarterback in the NFC North, but he has established himself a little more than Brandon Weeden of the Browns. Plus, the Browns are still in the rebuilding mode.

Q: Everyone gave the Ravens grief this offseason for losing a lot of starters to free agency while paying Joe Flacco like the franchise QB he has proven to be, but isn't this exactly what will happen to the Colts, Redskins, Seahawks, and Niners in the next 3-4 years? With the new CBA lowering wages for rookies and not allowing them to receive extensions for a few years, doesn't it make sense to go "all in" on every position except QB knowing that he will cost between $15 million and $20 million a year when he extends? To me, that is exactly what happened with the Ravens and their rings justify the hard roster decisions they had to make as a result.

Jacob in Las Vegas

A: You are 100 percent correct. I did a column recently that noted the average age of the Ravens' starting lineup in last year's Super Bowl was 28.6. They were tight against the cap. In letting go of six starters on defense and two on offense, the Ravens cleared cap room, got younger and got better in the ability to stop the run. All good teams have gone through this, as you mentioned. The Ravens have a smart organization.

Q: Is it possible that the combination of Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas, and Eric Decker will be too much in Denver this season? Keep in mind that we have two viable starting tight ends in Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme, too. Will there be enough passes to go around, or will one of the three wide receivers be left high and dry? I thought it was a bit much when Welker was signed. Your thoughts?

Connor in Flagstaff, Ariz.

A: I see no problem. These aren't selfish players. These are players who want to win. Thomas and Decker played half a season with Tim Tebow as the starting quarterback. That's where there would have been a problem. In a Tebow offense, there weren't enough catchable passes to provide adequate stats. Peyton Manning brings one of the best passing attacks in the league. There are plenty of completions to go around, and there should be plenty of wins.

Q: With all the buzz around Colin Kaepernick, am I one of the few doubters? First off, he hasn't even played a full season. Look at all the other players who are great read-option QBs. They always dip the next year: Tim Tebow, Cam Newton and Jake Locker. Sure he has the best frame besides Cam. He does have the strongest arm of them, and he is the fastest of them. But if you watched the Super Bowl, some of his passes were inaccurate, especially when the Ravens got pressure on him and he wasn't able to get out of the pocket and run. Where do you stand on Kaepernick?

Ian in Virginia

A: I think Kaepernick is the real deal. If there is a drop-off this year, it will have more to do with the receiving talent around him. Losing Michael Crabtree was huge. Any good quarterback needs a good outside receiver to succeed. Much of Kaepernick's success could depend on how A.J. Jenkins and Quinton Patton develop. The balance between experienced pass-catchers and inexperienced ones is thin. I believe Kaepernick can succeed, but until Crabtree returns I can see some problems.