Early Look at the 2011 NFL Offseason: Franchise Tag Debate

With the Super Bowl a day away, it’s almost time to start looking forward towards the NCAA tournament and ultimately baseball season. Still, this means it’s also just about time for the NFL offseason. This offseason will be different than years past due to the labor uncertainty facing the league, and the effects of this will likely be most pronounced during the offseason. While the situation may not cause any games to be missed in 2011, it also seems improbable the owners and players association will agree to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement before the March 4 deadline. Missing this deadline will almost certainly impact free agency and offseason workouts, among other things. The Kansas City Star is even reporting that the players union is discussing with player agents a boycott of NFL draft activities, such as the scouting combine.

As a Colts fan, the most important goal for my team this offseason is to resign quarterback Peyton Manning. Although it is highly unlikely Manning would sign with another team, it is still in the best interests of both parties to get a deal done as soon as possible. Also, as Colts blog Stampede Blue notes, Manning’s contract has implications for the rest of the league, in that his contract “will become the new ‘ceiling’ for the players going forward.” In addition to Manning, other notable free agents this offseason include Logan Mankins of the New England Patriots, Michael Vick of the Philadelphia Eagles, David Harris of the New York Jets, and Cullen Jenkins of the Green Bay Packers, according to ProFootballTalk. Like Manning is for the Colts, retaining these players will be high priorities for these other teams. As of now, it seems very likely that the labor uncertainty will interfere with this process.

In years past, teams have been able to use a franchise or transition tag to ensure they maintain high profile free agents. This year, with the CBA set to expire in March, the question is whether teams will have the luxury of employing these tools this offseason. Greg A. Bedard of Boston.com reported that according to a league official, teams would still be able to apply the franchise tag.  NFL senior vice president Peter Rucco, the official quoted in Bedard’s report, said that teams could still use the tag because the window to apply it opens and closes before the current CBA expires.  Teams can first employ the tag on February 10 and then have 14 more days to do so, according to the report. The CBA currently in place does not expire until March.

The players union apparently sees this issue differently.  According to Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk, the NFLPA sent out a memo that contradicts the league’s claims. The report quoted the memo as saying:

The current CBA provides that ‘each club shall be permitted to designate one of its players who would otherwise be an Unrestricted Free Agent [or Restricted Free Agent] as a Franchise Player each season during the term of this Agreement.’ The 2011 season is not a ‘season during the term of this Agreement’ so the NFL has no valid basis for claiming the right to franchise players in 2011.

It is apparent there are increasingly few issues the league and players union can agree on. How the franchise tag issue will be resolved remains to be seen.

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