Thankfully we're less than a month away from free agency, and the first move in the offseason tango between teams and players is the designation of the franchise tag, which starts February 20th. Last year a record fourteen players were slapped with the franchise tag, and that number could rise this year. ProFootballTalk has a list of potential franchise tag recipients, but while they look at the overall NFL landscape, let's take a look at potential franchise tag players and how those moves could affect the Bears offseason plans.
Below you'll see featured positions that have players possibly getting the franchise tag and how those tags could impact the Bears offseason shopping spree (if there is one). We're going to avoid positions like quarterback and kicker, since we're not looking for any upgrades at those positions that would merit considering possibly tagged players.
Running Back - Obviously Forte comes first on this list, since it appears like the Bears won't let him hit free agency and don't seem like they are making progress towards a long-term deal that needs to be reached before the franchise tag deadline on March 5. Forte and Cutler make a great offensive tandem when healthy, so he'll be back next year one way or another.
What it Means: Forte will eat up approximately $7.7 million with a franchise tag, and possibly more with a long-term deal, but as I wrote earlier this week, if the Bears exercise the Cap Carryover Clause that wouldn't have an impact on the free agent dollars left available.
Tight Ends - Jermichael Finley, Green Bay and Fred Davis, Washington - These are your top two available tight ends on the market. Its been reported Davis will get the tag in Washington, and Finley's availability goes back and forth. He'd be worth a tag due to health and hands concerns, and it doesn't look like a long-term deal is on the horizon any time soon.
What it means: If both of these guys get franchised or resigned, that means any free agent addition at tight end is going to be minimally superior to what we have, and increases the importance of bringing back Kellen Davis or drafting a tight end with receiving skills. If one of them hits the market the price is likely to go up $1-2 mill a year.
Wide Receiver - Desean Jackson, Philly; Wes Welker, New England; Stevie Johnson, Buffalo; Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs; Mike Wallace, Steelers; Marques Colston, Saints; Vincent Jackson, San Diego. Out of all these guys, Welker is most likely to stay put via the tag and Jackson (and maybe Colston) are most likely to not be franchised. Desean will get tagged and traded, most likely, while the Steelers will do everything they can to keep Wallace.
What it means: The wide receiver market will get a lot clearer after the tags are handed out. I think VJax is the only one that makes it through without a tag, but the Chiefs have to resign either Bowe or Carr to franchise the other, while the Saints have to resign or franchise Colston/Nicks/Brees, and no deals are close right now for any of those guys. If Wallace doesn't get a tag, he'll be a restricted free agent which would cost a team that signs him to an offer sheet (that wasn't matched) a first-round pick. This is an important group to watch closely, as I think, maybe, the Bears may want to upgrade this position. Maybe.
Offensive Line - Carl Nicks G Saints.
What it means: Nicks is the only name I came up with on the offensive line with a possible tag designation. If he's available, he's going to be popular and expensive, like the head cheerleader after she dumps the starting quarterback after he hurts his knee (Yer dumb, Billy Bob! Its your fault!) Whether he hits the market or not, I don't see it really impacting the Bears. I really don't see us going big for a guard, sorry.
Defense - Robert Mathis DE Colts; Cliff Avril DE Colts; Cortland Finnegan CB Titans; Brandon Carr CB Chiefs; Calais Campbell DE Cards. Not a lot of tag-worthy free agents on the defensive side of the ball that would affect the Bears. Spencer could get tagged in Dallas, but he's a 3-4 OLB that would be an expensive square peg in a cover-2 hole. Mario Williams isn't here because he won't get tagged since he would cost the Texans over $20 million next year, while the Jets nose tackle Pouha is talented but doesn't really fit our scheme (plus he's 33).
What it means: As you can see, the franchise tags on defense - at least the ones that could impact the Bears' free agency plans - hone in on the end and cornerback positions. Again with the Chiefs, unless they can get a deal done with Carr and then franchise Bowe (Carr's the more likely of the two to get a deal done) one of those guys is hitting the market. Mathis may be too expensive and old for the new hybrid defense of the Colts, and would be a great compliment to Peppers. The Lions have some contract re-working to do to even have the cap space to franchise Avril, but they'd obviously like to keep him (and apparently sign Finnegan as well). What the Lions do with Avril will clear things up; if he and Mathis hit the market we could sign Mathis for a big, short deal as opposed to participating in a crazy auction for Avril.
In general, watch for the franchise tags that could limit the top-tier players at positions we're looking to upgrade, specifically: wide receiver, defensive end, and cornerback. The less guys that hit free agency, the tougher it'll be to win the bidding war. There are plenty of other great free agency options out there that we'll discuss in the coming weeks, but the futures of these guys will definitely impact the Bears' plans this offseason