Today marks the opening of a two-week window during which NFL teams can officially apply the franchise tag to one of their free agents. For a Packers roster with nearly 20 players without a contract, the franchise tag could prove an important tool.
Certainly, there are more than a few viable franchise tag candidates for Green Bay to consider. Highest on the list are cornerback Sam Shields and defensive tackle B.J. Raji. For general manager Ted Thompson, the decision will not only be made based on cost (franchise tag salaries are determined by position), but also on how difficult replacing that player will be.
Over the past two years, the Packers have attempted negotiations with both Raji and Shields. The former received a multi-year offer worth an average of $8 million annually before the 2013 season, but chose to wait until the offseason to sign a deal. Based on Raji's performance this past year that appears to have been a mistake. Raji produced little pressure and no sacks in his contract year while playing the lowest percentage of defensive snaps since his rookie year. Given reports that the Packers plan to move towards faster, more athletic defensive linemen moving forward, it appears unlikely the Packers would commit to signing Raji to a multi-year deal or franchise tagging him.
Shields is far more likely candidate for the franchise tag. Unlike Raji, the team views Shields as an ascending player with considerable upside. As it stands, he's already the Packers top cornerback, facing off with (and generally succeeding against) the opponent's top receiver. Shields best performances of the year came against A.J. Green, Josh Gordon, and Dez Bryant, arguably three of the top five receivers in the game. Against the Packers those wideouts averaged only 5.7 catches, 73.3 yards, and under a touchdown, and both Green and Gordon were held to under 70 yards combined. Accordingly, Shields appears set to collect a significant payday in free agency.
The question for the Packers is whether it's worth tagging Shields to prevent other teams from setting the market for him. While the tag figure for a corner could push $10 million, it's possible another team offers him that much annually. By tagging him, the Packers could create a bi-lateral monopoly that may ultimately reduce his annual cost.
It's never that simple, however. Shields is represented by Drew Rosenhaus, an agent known for advising clients to stay home for most or all of training camp as leverage. Without a contract, Shields wouldn't incur any penalties for avoiding camp. That's a fight Ted Thompson has rarely faced during his tenure in Green Bay.
It's also possible that Thompson elects not to use the franchise tag at all. The Packers still have time to work out a long-term agreement with Shields and may be better off letting the market establish a price for Raji. Even with nearly $30 million in estimated cap space, the Packers cannot afford to overpay on either player given the amount of contracts set to expire following the 2014 season.
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