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Eight in the Box: Franchise tag candidates

Jimmy Graham The Saints have a decision to make on Jimmy Graham, who has caught 41 TD passes in his four seasons. (Getty Images)

There are five million reasons that the Saints would prefer to avoid using the franchise tag on Jimmy Graham. That's the approximate number of dollars difference between what a tight end is expected to earn under 2014 tag costs ($6.7 million) and what a wide receiver would get ($11.5 million).

Graham has been listed as a tight end throughout his career but takes on more of a receiver role in the Saints' attack. Because of that, should New Orleans fail to reach a long-term deal with him and thus have to use the tag, Graham would have grounds for an argument that he deserves the $11.5 million salary -- a stance that could be groundbreaking if successful, especially in terms of how teams are able to utilize the tag. Could rush linebackers then argue for the more lucrative DE tag? Would safeties who play CB in nickel situations fight to be priced as the latter?

The Saints ideally would avoid all of this by just locking up Graham for several seasons. The downside of using the franchise tag from a team's standpoint (aside from the price) is that it limits negotiation time for a multi-year deal and often throws a player back into pending free agency the next offseason.

So, if Graham is tagged, we might have this same discussion in 2015.

Teams can begin applying the franchise tag on Monday. This week's Eight in the Box wanders through the most likely candidates to receive that designation:

Honorable mention: Jairus Byrd, S, Bills.

Byrd was none too pleased to be tagged last season. For Buffalo, repeating that plan of action would cost an extra 20 percent on Byrd's 2013 salary, escalating the cost to about $8.3 million. The only way that scenario seems plausible is if Buffalo then plans to trade Byrd -- as opposed to letting him walk away for nothing more than a shot at a supplemental draft pick next year.

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Losing Byrd would hurt, but tagging him again might not be a viable path.

8. Aqib Talib, CB, PatriotsThe Boston Herald's Jeff Howe reported recently that there's "no chance" the Patriots tag Talib at the CB cost of more than $11 million, so that's why Talib sits further down this list. Might New England reconsider that stance if Talib seems eager to hit free agency? Maybe, if only because it has seen first-hand just how much worse the secondary is without Talib in it -- he's been banged up each of the past two playoff seasons.

7. Donald Butler, LB, ChargersCommitting more than $10 million to Butler on the franchise tag would be too much of a hefty investment in reality. As mentioned above, utilizing the tag does buy a team more time -- as opposed to the player in question hitting free agency on March 11, he'd be under team control and able to negotiate a long-term deal until July 15. The Chargers may go that route with Butler, though it also can complicate things as it leaves on the table for the player the possibility of earning the full tag salary for a season.

Regardless of how San Diego attacks this, Butler appears to be a top priority this offseason. And when that's the case for any team, the franchise tag is in play.

6. Brian Orakpo, LB, RedskinsOrakpo bounced back from a major injury in 2012 to record 10.0 sacks this past season. After Washington hired new head coach Jay Gruden, general manager Bruce Allen said that the defense would stick with its 3-4 look, which makes Orakpo's presence imperative. The Redskins have cap space, even if Orakpo has to play out 2014 on a tag price of $10.8 million or so.

5. Brent Grimes, CB, DolphinsMiami swiped Grimes, coming off an injury, in free agency last offseason at $5.5 million for one season. The projected cornerback tag cost is expected to be more than twice that: $11.3 million. Even considering how well Grimes played for the Dolphins, that constitutes a massive leap. It still may be worth it, despite Grimes steadfastly saying that he doesn't want to be tagged.

4. Jared Veldheer, OT, RaidersVeldheer missed 11 games last season after tearing his triceps, but he remains one of the league's most imposing left tackles. Oakland has more cap space available than any other team in the league -- upwards of $60, based on current projections -- so setting some aside for Veldheer ought to be manageable. Tagging him would cost the Raiders more than $11 million for 2014.

3. Greg Hardy, DE, Panthers: The 25-year-old Hardy delivered 11.0 sacks in 2012 and 15.0 in 2013 as part of the Panthers' phenomenal front seven. He would be a hot commodity in free agency, with the number of impact defensive ends relatively limited. The DE tag has stayed the second-highest behind only quarterbacks -- the QB price could top $16 million in 2014; DEs could push up near $12.5 million. 

The Panthers are not exactly flush with cash, so they'd prefer to avoid anteing up that much for Hardy. If they have to, though, they probably will bite the bullet.

2. Alterraun Verner, CB, TitansVerner may be the top cornerback in free agency (and one of the most talented players, period) should Tennessee fail to lock him up for at least 2014. Don't bet on that happening. A multi-year contract probably would save the Titans some money off the $11.3 million cap hit a tag here would cost, though potentially not that much -- Verner's last contract paid him more than $8.5 million on average, and he has only improved recently.

1. T.J. Ward, S, BrownsByrd and Ward would steamroll into free agency at a position that's near the top of the wish list for a growing number of teams. The safety tag price is driving up, from $6.9 million last season to a touch above $8 million for 2014. The Browns should be willing to pick up that tab.

One potential complication here: center Alex Mack's also on the verge of free agency. The O-line tag cost of $11.1 million might be too elevated for the Browns to justify using on Mack, but it's also apparent right now that they want their anchor back in the middle.

Free agency previews for every division

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