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Breaking down the franchise tags

The Saints managed to franchise Drew Brees in the middle of a tumultuous weekend, but it could cost them a lot elsewhere in free agency. (Getty Images)

The NFL's franchise tag deadline came and went on Monday afternoon, but not before a plethora of big names -- and potential free agents -- were locked down by the league's one-year contract clause.

The players that receive the franchise tag have until July 15 to work out a long-term deal with their teams. Otherwise, they must play the 2012 season under the terms of the franchise tag tender, and their teams stay on the hook for whatever salary cap hit that involves.

In all, 21 teams utilized the franchise tag, with the list of players hit ranging from a record-setting QB to a handful of kickers.

Drew Brees, Saints: Amazingly, New Orleans moving to lock down its superstar QB took a backseat to the "bounty" story shenanigans coming from the Big Easy. The good news for the Saints is that Brees will be back at the helm in 2012.

But the bad news is two-fold: 1. Reports indicated that Brees and the franchise were several million per season apart in contract talks, an issue that doesn't figure to go away prior to 2013, assuming Brees does not get a long-term deal in the coming months; and 2. New Orleans cannot utilize the tag on pending free agents Carl Nicks or Marques Colston.

Between the possible loss of several key players (Tracy Porter is also set to hit free agency), unrest in contract talks with Brees and the NFL's investigation into the alleged Gregg Williams bounty program, this has set up to be a tumultuous offseason in New Orleans.

Wes Welker, Patriots: There was no chance Welker was going to find his way into free agency, though the use of the franchise tag means that Welker and the Patriots could not come up with a long-term solution ... yet.

The looming question now is: Will Welker sign his franchise tag tender or use it as leverage against the Patriots in negotiations? Teammate Logan Mankins held out through seven games of the 2010 season after being hit with the franchise tag. If Welker adopts a similar strategy, this could backfire on New England.

Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs: Kansas City waited until the last minutes before the 4:00 p.m. ET franchise-tag deadline before making sure Bowe would be back for 2012. It was a no-brainer decision for the Chiefs, who need Bowe's play-making ability on their offense.

The move did, however, eliminate yet another potential free agent from this year's class. With Bowe, Welker and DeSean Jackson tagged and Stevie Johnson re-signed, several big names have to be crossed off the list. What will that mean for guys like Vincent Jackson, Marques Colston and Brandon Lloyd? Probably big things for their wallets.

Ray Rice, Ravens: Another player who was never going to hit free agency but wants a long-term deal with his current team. Rice's thus far astronomical asking price -- reportedly in the neighborhood of a seven-year, $96 million deal -- forced the Ravens' hand a bit here, as they do not want to meet those demands but could not risk Rice reaching March 13 without something in place.

The big news in relation to Rice's tag came Monday morning from outside Baltimore, when both Seattle's Marshawn Lynch and Houston's Arian Foster signed new contracts. Lynch received $32 million over four years with $18 million guaranteed, while Foster cashed in for a reported $43.5 million ($20.75 million guaranteed) over five years. Those numbers are more realistic than Peterson's deal and give Rice a target.

Matt Forte, Bears: Forte is in a similar position to Rice's, though Forte's season-ending injury changes the playing field a tad -- even if Forte returned for the Pro Bowl. He would like a new long-term deal, and the Bears would prefer to give him one, especially if it helped them bring down the $7.7 million cap hit caused by the franchise tag.

But will Forte wait out the Rice situation or vice versa? Whichever running back budges first will certainly catch the attention of the other.

DeSean Jackson, Eagles: If Jackson signs his franchise tag tender and does not rework a long-term deal, either in Philadelphia or via trade elsewhere, he'll make $9.4 million in 2012. Compare that to the five-year, $36.25 million contract Stevie Johnson just signed in Buffalo and ask yourself this: Why wouldn't Jackson sign?

No matter what anyone thinks about Jackson's potential and production through four NFL seasons, it would be very hard to argue that he's worth two million dollars per year more than Johnson, whose numbers were actually better last season.

That's especially true if you consider there were questions all last season about Jackson's focus and effort.

Brent Grimes, Falcons: Grimes has developed into one of the premier cornerbacks in the league, and if Atlanta did not know that before, it certainly found out when its secondary struggled after Grimes suffered an injury in 2011. The cornerback franchise tag comes with a $10.431 price, but Grimes would have had a shot at a contract similar to that had he reached free agency.

This was a no-brainer for the Falcons. However, Grimes has indicated that he doesn't want to sign the franchise tag tender yet, so Atlanta could face a holdout situation if it cannot get its top corner inked to a multi-year deal.

Cliff Avril, LionsNot only is this a significant commitment for the Lions (we'll get to that), but Avril would have been one of the hotter names in free agency. There are very few defensive ends floating out there with double-digit sack totals from 2011, and Avril might only get better.

That aside, though, this was a major decision by Detroit. Why? Well, barring a reworked, long-term deal, Avril will cost $10.2 million against the cap in 2012, meaning that the Lions' D-line will account for upwards of $30 million and that Avril, Ndamukong Suh, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford would make up more than half of the entire team's payroll.

Detroit also now faces the very real possibility of losing middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch, who made 111 tackles and started all 16 games last season.

Robert Mathis, Colts: All indications out of Indianapolis on Monday were that Mathis and the Colts were very close to working out a new contract. The franchise-tag deadline came first, though, so Indianapolis opted to be safe instead of sorry and tagged Mathis anyway. Of all the players on this list, Mathis has to be near the top in terms of being most likely to receive a contract that overrides the tag before July 15.

Dashon Goldson, 49ers; Tyvon Branch, Raiders; Michael Griffin, Titans: Good luck finding a reliable safety with these three coming off the market -- Griffin was the last to go, as Tennessee slapped him with the franchise tag on Monday.

Like Brees and Avril, each of these tags could wind up in the respective teams losing another key contributor. Goldson's return could make it very difficult for the 49ers to keep cornerback Carlos Rogers, who picked off six passes and was a force for the San Francisco defense in 2011. Rogers will be 31 before the 2012 season and no doubt has his sights set on an extended, pricey contract to set him up for the twilight of his career.

Oakland's decision to tag Branch means that running back Michael Bush (among others, like Michael Huff and John Henderson, who could be cut) will probably head into free agency, since the Raiders are a reported $16 million or so over the cap as it is. Keeping Branch over Bush made sense given Oakland's needs, but it could not have been an easy choice.

Finally, Griffin's tag -- though entirely expected -- more or less guarantees that cornerback Cortland Finnegan will dash into free agency. The 28-year-old could be in line for a monster payday, one that's even bigger than Rogers', as several teams figure to come calling.

Calais Campbell, Cardinals: Cardinals general manager Rod Graves sounded an optimistic tune last week, stating that he thought his team could avoid using the tag on Campbell. No such luck, but this shouldn't be a major problem.

Arizona wants to give Campbell a deal spanning several years, and all indications are that the talented 25-year-old defensive lineman is very open to that possibility.

Anthony Spencer, Cowboys: Spencer was terrific against the run last season, but is he worth $8.8 million a year? Given that DeMarcus Ware plays on the other side of Dallas' defense, it would not be out of the question for the Cowboys to covet a bigger pass-rushing force at Spencer's spot. That's why the team will continue to try to work on a multi-year deal with Spencer -- that potential cap number just doesn't jibe with what Spencer brings to the table.

Fred Davis, Redskins: A $5.5 million tag might seem high for a player coming off a three-touchdown season, but this came to be because of a couple of factors.

First off, the Redskins have the salary cap room to commit $5.5 million to its tight end starter. Secondly, Davis, with 59 catches for 796 yards, was one of the most reliable players on a dismal offense. At 26 years of age, he could be entering his prime too, which should up his value in this era of TE dominance. Of course, that all will make signing him to a long-term deal difficult, since there might be a more profitable market for him after the 2012 season.

Steve Weatherford, Giants: Using the franchise tag on Mario Manningham would have cost the Giants upwards of $9 million. So instead, they opted to pull the nearly unprecedented trick of slapping the tag on their punter for $2.6 million. Weatherford was terrific for New York this season, including in the Super Bowl. 

Mike Nugent, Bengals; Phil Dawson, Browns; Connor Barth, Buccaneers; Josh Scobee, Jaguars; Matt Prater, Broncos: No offense meant to the kickers -- all of these guys' teams thought they were valuable enough to retain -- but the relatively frugal franchise tag at this position (about $2.7 million) doesn't move the needle quite as much as other spots.

The most noteworthy fallout from the quartet above came in Cleveland, where Dawson's tagging meant that the Browns could allow Peyton Hillis to test the waters next week. Had Dawson not been tagged, it's possible Cleveland would have fiddled with the notion of giving its running back the honor instead.

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