I thought that, as the franchise player window opens, we should play relativity with this year’s class of franchise players. We’ll rate them on a 10-point scale, with 10 being a franchise MVP (think Albert Haynesworth for Tennessee last year) and 1 being a why-bother-keeping guy. As we are doing with the head-coaching post, we’ll update this post with franchise players until the Feb. 19 deadline to name them passes.
(I’ve also begun including links to PFW’s free agent scouting reports, which are interesting reads and a great resource.)
10 – DE Julius Peppers, Panthers – The next evolution of man, as Peppers was called by teammates, is an athletic freak. He’s 6-7, a lean 290 pounds, and as quick as most wide receivers. He wants out of Carolina, which runs a 4-3 defense, so that he can play in a 3-4 system as an outside rush linebacker. Peppers could be absolutely devastating in that role because of his athleticism, even though he’s almost too big to stand up and rush. The question is whether he could learn a new system quickly. His instincts aren’t always top-notch. Peppers wants out of Carolina, but the Panthers committed $16.683 million of cap room to him. (Insted of getting the $9 million tag that most defensive ends would, Peppers is guaranteed 20 percent more than his massive 2008 salary-cap figure.) Peppers has been a very good, productive player in Carolina, but for some reason he has stayed half a rung below elite level. Still, Peppers should fetch a trade bounty at least equal to what Jared Allen elicited last year (a first-rounder and two third-rounders). He is the biggest free agent tagged on the market this year, and his impending trade will be one of the biggest moves of the offseason whenever it happens.
(A note, just for the record: If the Raiders hadn’t been able to re-sign Nnamdi Asomugha and had franchised him again, Asomugha would have rated as a 10, and Peppers would have been a 9 with Suggs. Asomugha is the best player in the NFL at his position, and you just can’t say the same about Peppers.)
9- OLB/Rush DE Terrell Suggs, Ravens – The Ravens enter free agency this offseason in a pickle. Three of their starting linebackers – Suggs, Ray Lewis, and Bart Scott – are entering the market. But Suggs’ skill set is the most irreplaceable. He is a strong pass rusher who fits perfectly in the Ravens’ 3-4 system. Suggs doesn’t get the hype of Demarcus Ware or Shawne Merriman, but he is nonetheless in their class as a rush specialist. The Ravens couldn’t afford to let him go, no matter the franchise price tag.
8- LB Karlos Dansby, Arizona – Along with Adrian Wilson, Dansby has been the heart of the Cards’ defense. Dansby is big and fast, and while his instincts don’t always seem to click, he still makes his share of plays. While some other players on this defense are more talented (namely Darnell Dockett and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie), you could argue that only Wilson could be considered more important. That’s why the Cardinals are tagging Dansby for the second straight year. It’ll be interesting to see whether the Cardinals can get a long-term deal done with Dansby, as both sides say they want to. They should, because Dansby is a core player for this aggressive defense. This was a move the Cards had to make.
7- RB Brandon Jacobs, N.Y. Giants – Jacobs played as part of a RB trio with Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw, so at first blush it’s a little surprising that he’s franchised. But when you look behind the surface, you realize that Ward is a free agent as well and will most likely be too rich for the Giants’ given his role in Earth, Wind, and Fire. Jacobs is at his best as a 20-carry guy who has a speedy counterpart. The Giants are set up for exactly that scenario. Few backs have Jacobs’ size and power, and his style dovetails with the kind of team the Giants want to be. This is a good fit between player and team, and it’s good to see the Giants recognize it. Jacobs is in the best position he could be, and it seems he realizes it. He wants a long-term deal and is confident it will happen. He even is taking the franchise tag as a compliment, which doesn’t always happen. This is a marriage that should and will continue. The only reason this ranking doesn’t go higher is that a running back’s career is shorter, and Jacobs is part of a duo. He won’t determine his team’s success, but he’s a big contributor.
6- WR Antonio Bryant, Buccaneers — The Bucs grabbed Bryant off the scrap heap, and he paid huge dividends in 2008 with 83 catches, 1,248 yards, and 7 touchdowns. Those are true No. 1 receiver numbers, and they reflect the way Bryant emerged last year. But that emergence was a long time coming for Bryant. Originally a Cowboy, he bombed out in Dallas after butting heads with Bill Parcells. He played for the Browns for 2 years, notching his first 1,000-yard season, and then played a year for the 49ers before being out of football in ’07. That background plays into this move. The Bucs need Bryant next year, because he’s by far the best receiver they have, and true No. 1 receivers just don’t hit the free-agent market very often. But it has to be a little scary to think about giving Bryant a long-term deal. So while the franchise tag probably represents an overpayment in ’09, it mitigates Tampa Bay’s long-term risk. For that reason, this move was necessary – even if it makes you grit your teeth just a smidge.
6 (con’t) – CB Dunta Robinson, Texans — Houston has focused its drafts, at least in the first round, on defense for years now. They’ve had some big hits with Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans, and some misses with Travis Johnson and perhaps Amobi Okoye. Robinson has fought injuries, but when healthy he’s fit more in the hit category. That’s why the Texans have decided to pay nearly $10 million next year to keep Robinson, who has 13 interceptions in his 5-year career. Robinson isn’t an elite corner in the class of Nnamdi Asomugha, but he’s a legit starter. Ideally, the Texans would lock Robinson up long term and save some dollars this year. If Robinson could get a deal like the one Panthers CB Chris Gamble took (6 years, as much as $50 million), he should take it. And you could justify that from the Texans end as well. If this team is going to take the next step, they must keep core players, and Robinson is good enough to be considered part of that core.
5- RB Darren Sproles, San Diego – Sproles made a name for himself by starring for the Chargers in the playoffs this season. Although he’s tiny, he has superb speed that allows him to bust free as a return man or from the backfield. Sproles probably shouldn’t be a go-to back – I doubt he would hold up for the whole season – but in a Reggie Bush type of role, he can be a game changer more often than not. But is that worth $6.6 million a year? It is to the Chargers as long as they’re not expecting Sproles to replace LaDanian Tomlinson. But if they cut LDT, this move could easily blow up in their faces.
5 (con’t) – S Oshiomogho Atogwe, Rams – Atogwe isn’t a big name, but he’s built a nice reputation in league circles. In fact, he probably would have been the top safety on the open market had he not been tagged. Atogwe, who has 13 interceptions over the last 2 seasons, is one of the few defensive building blocks the Rams have, so it was smart of them to make sure and keep him despite the $6.3 million investment.
4- QB Matt Cassel, New England – This is a bit of a strange move because Cassel projects as a backup for New England in ’09. Cincinnati (Stacy Andrews) and Pittsburgh (Max Starks) made similiar moves last year with offensive linemen, but the stakes (and dollars) are bigger at QB. (Cassel has signed a contract guaranteeting him $14.65 million, while Andrews and Starks were in the $7 million range.) The Pats will be investing a huge sum in quarterbacks, and Cassel’s decision to sign the tender means a trade is now unlikely. (A team would have to be under the salary cap enough to take the full hit on that contract.) But Cassel does provide insurance in case Tom Brady suffers a setback, and the Patriots retain the option to trade Cassel after the season. (Thanks to Mike Lombardi, we know that Cassel is someone who will not be an unrestricted free agent next offseason unless there’s a new agreement between owners and players.) The wisdom of this move is more than a 4, but the impact during the 2009 season likely won’t be, which is why Cassel falls where he does on this relativity scale.
4 (con’t) – TE Bo Scaife, Titans – Tennessee might have tagged PK Rob Bironas for the second straight year, but the Titans got a contract done just under the wire. So instead, they tagged Scaife, who was their leading receiver last year with 58 catches. The cost isn’t severe – $4.46 million – so it’s a good move. Scaife isn’t a game-changer, but he’s dependable. And because he’s depended on, he’s worth a tag.
3- P Michael Koenen, Falcons – Koenen has developed into quite a weapon for the Falcons. He was the king of no-return punts this year, as the Falcons allowed just 49 punt return yards all season. (That’s a league record.) Koenen’s leg strength is also a boon on kickoffs (he had 16 touchbacks), which allows the Falcons to use veteran kicker Jason Elam’s reliability on field goals without wasting a roster spot on a kickoff-only specialist. Koenen’s net-yardage speciality makes him one of the top punters in the league, so it’s fair – and smart – for the Falcons to pay him as such.
3 (con’t) – LB Leroy Hill, Seattle – I first watched Hill when he was a redshift freshman at Clemson making more plays than a backup usually does. He continued exceeding expectations and became an immediate starter in Seattle despite being only a third-round pick. Hill hasn’t gotten the pub of fellow ‘backer Lofa Tatupu, but he has been a defensive stalwart nonetheless. But the $8.3 million guarantee the Seahawks are making to keep Hill is quite steep for a player who is only solid and not spectacular. This tag will only make sense for Seattle if they can reach a long-term deal with Hill.
2- PK Shayne Graham, Bengals – Graham is a consistent kicker (85.6 percent field goals in his career), and he has found a home in Cincinnati after bouncing around as kickers often do at the beginning of their careers. Graham is a good kicker, but he’s not a game-changer. But given the Bengals’ free-agency status – and WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh’s vocal desire to leave – it makes at least a little sense to keep the guy who wants to stay. But Graham, while a good kicker, isn’t so much better than the rest of kickers that he deserves to be paid as a top-five guy. So this is a marginal move for a team that must make some serious upgrades in free agency to move forward.
1- OT Max Starks, Pittsburgh – Starks was a backup entering last offseason, but the Steelers gave him a tag worth almost $7 million. He ended up starting 11 games at left tackle when Marvel Smith got hurt. This year’s tag guarantees Starks $8.45 million. But here’s the thing – Starks isn’t starter quality. As a stopgap, he’s at least above putrid, but not much more than that. The Steelers have a ton of free agents on their line this offseason, so it makes sense to keep someone. But I get the feeling that Starks isn’t a solution now, nor will he ever be. He’s simply not worth the cost.