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FR: 2012 Franchise Players

Each year, we use Football Relativity as a tool to compare the class of franchise and transition players. We’ll compare them on a 10-point scale, with 10 being a franchise MVP and 1 being a why-bother-keeping guy.

DEFINITIONS: Under the current rules, the franchise tag guarantees them one-year salaries equal to the average of the top five at their position as determined by a new, complicated formula. There are two kinds of tags: an exclusive tag, which guarantees more money on the one-year tender and prohibits a player from negotiating or signing with another team, and a non-exclusive tag, which offers a guaranteed one-year tender but also guarantees a team two first-round picks if the tagged player signs a long-term contract with another team.

Saints QB Drew Brees, via si.com

On to the comparison. All players are non-exclusive franchise players except for the first entry, Drew Brees.

10 – QB Drew Brees, Saints – It’s amazing that the Saints couldn’t get a deal with Brees, who is an elite, championship-quality quarterback at the top of his game. But the team and Brees are so far apart on a long-term contract that they had to use the tag. That’s a good financial deal for the team in 2012 – the $15 million or so they’ll pay for the exclusive franchise tag is below market value for a quarterback of Brees’ caliber. But it keeps the Saints from tagging other free agents like OG Carl Nicks and WR Marques Colston, and it could also make it harder to get Brees signed long-term down the line. Chances are the Brees waits till the last possible moment to sign the tender, since that’s the only way he maintains leverage – by missing offseason workouts. That’s not a good way to go into the offseason and try to bounce back from a painful playoff loss in San Francisco. The Saints may claim to be financially responsible, but it seems like they’re just being cheap.

9 – RB Ray Rice, Ravens – Rice is by far the Ravens’ best offensive player, and they cannot afford to lose him. But at the same time, it’s hard to imagine paying the freight for a long-term deal for a running back who has gotten as many carries as Rice has. But the Ravens need to follow the examples of the Vikings (with Adrian Peterson), the Panthers (with DeAngelo Williams), and the Texans (with Arian Foster) and keep Rice around for the long term. Baltimore has a strong front office, and so we can expect them to make a deal at some point this offseason. Until then, Rice stays put on a $7.7 million tag.

9 (con’t) – RB Matt Forte, Bears – Like Rice, Forte is a do-everything back who is the best offensive player for his team. And while Forte was injured last season, he returned to play in the Pro Bowl to prove he is healthy headed into free agency. Forte may be half a step behind Rice in terms of talent, but he is as productive and as essential. It’ll be interesting to see how the Bears end up paying Forte over the long haul.

8 – WR DeSean Jackson, Eagles – Jackson is one of the most unique players in the league. Few receivers have the pure speed that he has, and so few receivers can take the top off a defense like Jackson. But he’s also a prickly personality who probably needs to be a premium No. 2 receiver but who demands the attention, targets, and money of a No. 1 wideout. For those reasons, the Eagles may look to deal Jackson if the right offer comes along. If not, the Eagles will pay Jackson $9.4 million to keep him around for 2012, and that price, though steep, is still palatable. The resolution of this tag situation will be one of the most interesting sagas of the offseason.

7 – WR Wes Welker, Patriots – The Patriots found Welker as a restricted free agent and turned him into the league leader in receptions. He’s nearly unstoppable coming out of the slot, and at this point he is Tom Brady’s preferred target. Welker’s reliable presence has allowed the Pats to develop tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski into down-field targets, and that should take a little pressure off Welker. But until New England finds a true outside threat, Welker is still irreplaceable. That made it a no-brainer decision to put the tag on Welker and make sure he’s around in 2012.

6 – CB Brent Grimes, Falcons – Grimes has developed into the type of cornerback who gets the shutdown label. That’s been vital in Atlanta, who had sought to find that corner first by drafting DeAngelo Hall and then by paying Dunta Robinson. Grimes is now better than both of them, and that means the Falcons can’t afford to lose him. The $10.6 million franchise tag is pretty stiff, but it’s a price the Falcons can’t help but pay. If they want to move from being an annual playoff team to being a true title contender, they need to add players like Grimes, not lose them.

6 (con’t) – DE Calais Campbell, Cardinals - Campbell has developed into a top-flight 3-4 defensive end, and those guys are incredibly hard to find. So the Cardinals are willing to spend $10.6 million to keep Campbell around for 2012. Last year was Campbell’s best, as he had eight sacks, 11 passes deflected, and even blocked three field goals. He is now a core player for the Cardinals, and so tagging him is definitely worthwhile. Campbell did get the non-exclusive tag, but it’s unlikely he will get away for two first-round picks.

6 (con’t) – WR Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs – After signing CB Stanford Routt, it became obvious that the Chiefs would let CB Brandon Carr enter free agency and instead tag Bowe, who has produced big numbers as the team’s No. 1 receiver. Bowe isn’t always consistent, and he can even disappear at times, but his combination of size and speed is rare. With a new offensive system in place now that Todd Haley is gone, the Chiefs need to give Matt Cassel and company the best chance to succeed, and that means keeping Bowe in town, even if he’s not a perfect receiver a la Larry Fitzgerald. So the $9.4 million tag for Bowe is a necessary move, even if it seems too pricy.

5 – S Michael Griffin, Titans – Instead of tagging CB Cortland Finnegan for $10.6 million, the Titans chose to keep former Pro Bowler Griffin around. The former first-round pick had his best season in 2010, and he has 17 picks in his five seasons. He’s a rangy player who helps corners like Finnegan play more aggressively by providing a safety net. That’s a worthwhile role, and it makes Griffin a solid investment at $6.2 million in 2012.

5 (con’t) – DE Cliff Avril, Lions – Avril is a developing player who had a career-high with 11 sacks in 2011. Obviously, he is benefitting from playing with a talented defensive line, but he has emerged as the best pass-rusher on the end over Kyle Vanden Bosch. Avril can be a core player, but the $8.8 million one-year tag is a little steep given his resume. Still, given the premium for pass rushers on the open market, it’s no surprise that the Lions used the tag to keep him around.

4 – S Dashon Goldson, 49ers – Goldson hit the free-agent market unfettered last year, but in the compressed offseason he didn’t get the kind of attention he wanted. After signing a one-year deal, Goldson now hits the market again, but this time the 49ers tagged him. He’s worth keeping for $6.2 million because he’s a big, rangy safety who hits. By tagging Goldson, the 49ers risk losing CB Carlos Rogers, who had a fine season last year. But Goldson’s tag is cheaper than Rogers’ would have been, and he’s been a key starter in San Francisco longer.

4 (con’t) – OLB Anthony Spencer, Cowboys – Spencer, a former first-round pick, had a break-out season in 2009 but has leveled off a bit the last two seasons. He’s a good outside linebacker who can create pass rush across from DeMarcus Ware, but he’s not a dynamic player. The Cowboys need to ink Spencer to a long-term deal to lessen the $8.8 million tag he’s currently under, but they’re wise to keep him.

3 – S Tyvon Branch, Raiders – Branch is a solid starter for the Raiders, not a game-changing player. But after losing CB Stanford Routt to a salary-cap saving move earlier this offseason, and with FS Michael Huff perhaps headed for the same fate, the Raiders wanted some continuity in the secondary. Branch will now provide that at strong safety for a $6.2 million price tag. By tagging Branch, the Raiders opted to let RB Michael Bush hit the open market. Picking Branch over Bush (a part-time player who would have cost $7.7 million) was probably the right move for a team with serious salary-cap management issues.

3 (con’t) – DE Robert Mathis, Colts – The Colts franchised Mathis then quickly re-signed him just after the deadline. We discussed more about why this isn’t a great idea in this post. Still, Mathis is a quality player and a potent pass rusher, so he’s worth a contract to someone.

2 – TE Fred Davis, Redskins – Davis is a good player, but he’s not a franchise-caliber player. Plus, he served a four-game suspension under the NFL’s substance-abuse policy to end the 2011 season. But the recalculated franchise value means that tight ends are tagged at $5.4 million, and Davis is worth that. In fact, the Redskins might be better off paying him a one-year contract than investing long term in a guy who needs to answer character questions. Davis is a talented receiver, and with Chris Cooley breaking down due to injuries, he will definitely help. But if the tag was at the 2011 level that was $2 million higher, Davis would be hitting the open market. By tagging Davis, the Redskins are letting S LaRon Landry hit the market, which makes sense, because Landry would cost more and is injured too often.

2 (con’t) – PK Phil Dawson, Browns – Dawson will cost more than most kickers – $3.8 million vs. $2.6 – because he was franchised last year as well. He has proven to be a solid kicker in the unfriendly Cleveland weather, and the original Brown (at least Brown 2.0) is a fan favorite. At some point, the Browns will need to lock Dawson in on a long-term deal to keep him, but they’re willing to pay the freight year by year for now.

2 (con’t) – PK Matt Prater, Broncos – Prater has huge power in his leg, which makes him a perfect fit for the high altitude in Denver. He’s good at creating touchbacks and also dependable on long-distance field-goals. That makes him a valuable weapon, especially in the Tim Tebow era where first downs aren’t always easy to come by. The Broncos get to keep that weapon at a reasonable $2.5 million price.

2 (con’t) – PK Josh Scobee, Jaguars – Scobee isn’t well known, but he also has a big-time leg that shows itself on kickoffs and field goals. For a Jaguars team that isn’t always a big spender, paying the lowest franchise tag to keep a solid kicker in town makes sense. Tagging DE Jeremy Mincey would have cost much more but kept an impactful pass rusher, but Scobee is a guy the Jaguars need too.

1 – PK Mike Nugent, Bengals – The recalculated franchise values made it almost a bargain to keep a kicker with a one-year franchise tag at $2.6 million, which is a bit below the market value of a top kicker. That led the Bengals to lock in Nugent, the former Jet who has done a nice job of stabilizing the kicking position since moving to Cincinnati. The Bengals may be better off letting Nugent play under the tag in 2012 and trying to lock in a long-term deal for 2013 and beyond than doing the long-term deal now, since Nugent is coming off a great year but has shown inconsistency in the past.

1 (con’t) – P Steve Weatherford, Giants – Weatherford had a nice season moving across the hall in the Meadowlands from the Giants to the Jets, and his NFC championship game performance against the 49ers was spectacular. He isn’t a Shane Lechler/Andy Lee level of punter, but for a one-year, $2.5 million price tag, he’s a worthwhile investment. It’ll be interesting to see if the Giants seek to lower that cap number by investing in Weatherford for the long term, or whether they wait for him to prove it once again.

1 (con’t) – PK Connor Barth, Buccaneers – Barth has emerged as a solid kicker in his 2 1/2 years in Tampa Bay, and his 26-for-28 field-goal performance in 2011 was terrific. But he’s not a kickoff specialist – Michael Koenen does that for the Bucs – and he’s not an elite long-distance kicker a la Scobee or Prater. Still, given the low franchise-tag number for kickers, you can’t criticize the Bucs for buying a little certainty for $2.5 million.

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Pick ‘em – Super Bowl 46

After a mediocre season of NFL picks and a 5-5 playoff run, it’s time for our Super Bowl 46 pick. Let’s break down the game as we do.

Tom Brady will be the key to a Patriots win in Super Bowl 46, via cbsboston.com

The question that has stayed at the forefront of our minds over the past two weeks is which team is best at something. While many of the matchups seem to favor the Giants, we believe the Patriots will throw the ball better than the Giants do anything. So the question is whether the Pats’ success in the passing game – which we believe will happen, at least to some degree – will overcome its shortcomings elsewhere.

So while Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and company may harass Brady, and while Eli Manning to Victor Cruz may find room in the Patriots secondary, the key to the game will be Brady finding Wes Welker and his two tight ends. The big plays in the Patriots passing game will mean more than the sacks from Big Blue or the Giants’ offense.

That will lead to a Patriots win. That’s not the popular pick – the bets in Vegas are leaning toward the Giants, and the majority of analysts we hear lean toward the Giants as well. But we’re going to go with the Patriots to win and cover the three-point spread.

New England 28, New York Giants 20

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Pick ‘em – Conference Championships

We are 4-4 against the spread and 5-3 straight up so far in the playoffs, so this week is key to going over .500 in our postseason picks. Here’s what we expect to happen in the AFC and NFC championship games.

49ers LB Patrick Willis (52) will try to batter Eli Manning and the Giants, via salon.com

Baltimore +7 at New England

There’s a trend happening in this year’s playoffs, and nobody’s talking about it. Twice, we have seen high-flying teams upset by opponents who were far more physical. The 49ers did it to the Saints, and the Giants did it to the Packers. Now we expect the Ravens to do the same to the Patriots. The Ravens aren’t a perfect team, but they’re very well-balanced, which means they have enough offense to overcome a few big Patriots plays. But the Ravens’ defense will push around New England’s offensive line and give Tom Brady some heartburn. Meanwhile, on offense, Ray Rice and company should be able to find lanes, and despite the hullaballoo this week Joe Flacco will make some big-time throws against a Patriots secondary that still isn’t good. Brawn beats beauty, and the Ravens go to the Super Bowl for the first time in 11 years. Baltimore 27, New England 24

San Francisco -3 vs. N.Y. Giants

No matter whether this line is two or three points, we believe the 49ers will surpass it. While the AFC championship is a game of contrasting styles, this one will be a slugfest, a la Ravens/Texans last week. And we believe the 49ers are the more physical team on both sides of the ball. While Eli Manning has gotten a lot of pub for making big throws thus far in the playoffs, he can’t block for himself. The 49ers should also be able to shut down the Giants running game. It’s not going to be pretty, but it should be effective for San Francisco to make its first Super Bowl appearance since the mid-1990s. San Francisco 20, N.Y. Giants 16

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Crazy Kicker of Divisional Week

Normally, in the playoffs the kicker craziness abates, but we had two good crazy kicker candidates this week. So while Packers PK Mason Crosby’s surprise onside kick would normally suffice, this week the craziest kicker is Patriots QB Tom Brady. Brady quick-kicked on third down, punting for 48 yards and pinning the Broncos at the 10-yard. The fact that a fight broke out after the kick only made things crazier.

QB/Punter Tom Brady, via cbsboston.com

Our National Football Authority friends show you why Tom Brady is this week’s crazy kicker of the week.

Crazy Kickers of the Week 2011
Divisional round: QB/P Tom Brady, Patriots
Week 17: PK David Akers, 49ers
Week 14: P Andy Lee, 49ers
Week 12: PK Dave Rayner, Bills
Week 11: P Michael Koenen, Buccaneers
Week 10: PK David Akers, 49ers
Week 9: P Chas Henry, Eagles
Week 6: P Shane Lechler, Raiders
Week 5: P Daniel Sepulveda, Steelers
Week 4: PK Mason Crosby, Packers
Week 2: P Michael Koenen, Buccaneers
Week 1: P Sam Koch, Ravens
Preseason Week 4: P Dustin Colquitt, Chiefs
Preseason Week 2: P Andy Lee, 49ers
Preseason Week 1: PK Josh Brown, Rams

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Football Relativity: Conference Championships

Each week, we compare all 32 NFL teams using our Football Relativity comparison. On the comparison, the 10 level is reserved for the best teams, and the 1 level for the worst. Normally, we note throughout where teams have moved up or down from last week. We will do so this week, but we will discuss only the 4 remaining playoff teams. As a result, we’re removing the 10-point scale and just discussing these teams in order of which we think is best.

Giants WR Hakeem Nicks breaks free against the Packers, via nj.com

Baltimore Ravens – Not many people will have the Ravens as the top remaining team in the playoffs, but we do. That’s because the Ravens have the most pieces of any team left. The defense, while not at the elite level it reached over the past decade, is still quite good. The offense has an elite runner in Ray Rice, as well as some terrific young pieces in the passing game. The weakest spot is quarterback Joe Flacco, who is inconsistent but can still rise to the occasion. The Ravens didn’t look great in their 20-13 win over the Texans, but that was a tricky matchup between two teams with similar styles, and the Ravens won out. Now they get to play the Patriots in a game of contrasting styles, and we saw in the Giants/Packers matchup and the Saints/49ers matchup this weekend that the physical style has a great shot of overcoming the flashier, high-flying approach. Plus, the Ravens have risen to the occasion at every big moment this year, with wins over the Steelers, 49ers, Texans, and more, so they won’t be intimidated going into New England.

San Francisco 49ers – We move the 49ers up after their enthralling 36-32 victory over the Saints Saturday afternoon. We discussed in this post the impact that Justin and Aldon Smith had for the 49ers, and they were part of a defense that completely outmuscled the Saints. That physical style will be tested this weekend against the Giants; like this week’s Ravens/Texans game, Giants/49ers will be a battle of two teams with similar approaches and styles. We believe the 49ers can play the style better than the Giants, as long as QB Alex Smith avoids key mistakes. Smith showed that he was clutch this past week, but he has a high bar to clear against Eli Manning this week.

New England Patriots – The Patriots lambasted the Broncos 45-10 this weekend, repeating their domination in Denver from earlier this year. QB Tom Brady and crew have one of the league’s most unstoppable offenses, thanks in large part to TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. And Tim Tebow and the Broncos were not refined enough offensively to test the Patriots’ sometimes spotty pass defense. But the Ravens are good enough to do so, and they will also be more physical up front than the Patriots are. Don’t let one playoff blowout against an inferior team trick you into thinking that the Patriots are far and away better than anyone else left in the playoffs.

New York Giants – All credit to the Giants for going to Green Bay and pulling off a convincing 37-20 win over the Packers. New York dominated the game physically, and WR Hakeem Nicks continued his emergence as a star wideout. With Nicks and Victor Cruz, along with other good supplemental pieces, Manning has a terrific crew of wideouts. The question is whether the Giants can win a battle of wills against the 49ers. San Francisco’s front seven is better than the Giants, even though we know more about the Giants’ front four. Ultimately, we think that will win out and that the 49ers will outslug the Giants.

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Pick ‘em – Divisional Round

We got off to a 3-1 start to the playoffs last week, missing only the Broncos’ upset win over the Steelers. Let’s see if we can hit that number or even improve on it this week.

QB Tom Brady and the Patriots try to repeat their regular season performance against the Broncos, via milehighreport.com

New Orleans -4 at San Francisco

The 49ers are good, but being a defensive-first team trying to stop an offensive juggernaut is tough. That’s because offensive explosiveness gives you more of a margin for error. The 49ers, meanwhile, have little margin for error given the fact that they don’t score a ton of points because they don’t score touchdowns in the red zone. So even if DE Justin Smith and company and hold down the Drew Brees-led Saints offense, I don’t expect them to operate efficiently enough offensively to get over the hump and win. New Orleans 21, San Francisco 16

New England -14 vs. Denver

This is a huge line, which is not surprising given the fact that the Patriots have scored a ton of points this season while the Broncos have struggled at times to reach the end zone. The Patriots’ defensive isn’t that great, but we figure that they will do a better job of taking away Tim Tebow’s No. 1 passing option (even if it’s down the field) than the Steelers did. If they do that, Tebow could struggle, because he hasn’t done a great job of moving through his route progressions this year. New England may give up a few plays, as they did in the first meeting between these teams, but they should do a good enough job to let Tom Brady and the offense shine. In the end, that would make the game kind of similar to the 41-23 regular-season meeting. New England 38, Denver 21

Baltimore -9 vs. Houston

The wild-card round of the playoffs couldn’t have played out better for the Ravens. They avoid a third game against their AFC North rival Steelers and instead draw a Texans team that is solid but playing with a rookie quarterback in T.J. Yates. The Texans defense is good, but we saw the Ravens smash a similar team when they thumped the 49ers at home earlier this season – and when they beat the Texans (with Matt Schaub) 29-14. Baltimore has enough offensive firepower to make some plays thanks to Ray Rice and some young receivers, and the defense should be able to force Yates into mistakes. While Yates did a good job getting the ball downfield last week against the Bengals, we’re still not confident that he can do so against a top-level defense like the Ravens – especially on the road. Baltimore 24, Houston 10

Green Bay -9 vs. N.Y. Giants

It’s possible that the Giants could go to Green Bay and win. They could outmuscle the Pack on both sides of the ball and use a ball-control approach to steal a win. But while that pattern is possible, we don’t think it’s likely. Instead, we think that the Packers team that was terrific all year long will play up to that level and be so explosive that the Giants just can’t keep up. So while this matchup reminds everyone of 2007, when the Giants won in Green Bay and then avenged a late-season 38-35 loss in the Super Bowl, our preja vu tells us there won’t be any deja vu. Green Bay 35, N.Y. Giants 17

Playoffs: 3-1
Season: 46-51-5 pro, 94-86-7 overall

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Pick ‘em Week 5

A small step forward, a small step back. The last couple of weeks, we’ve been stuck in neutral in our picks. We’ll try to rectify it this week.

Tom Brady and the Patriots try to soar over the Jets, via thecriticalarizonan.com

NCAA picks
Oklahoma -10 vs. Texas (Dallas)
LSU -14 vs. Florida
Auburn +10 at Arkansas
Georgia -1 at Tennessee
Kansas State +3 vs. Missouri

NFL picks
Buffalo +3 vs. Philadelphia
Carolina +7 vs. New Orleans
Oakland +6 at Houston
Tampa Bay +2.5 at San Francisco
New England -8 vs. N.Y. Jets
Green Bay -6 at Atlanta
Detroit -6 vs. Chicago

Last week: 3-2 college, 1-4 pro, 4-6 overall
Season: 17-11-1 college, 7-15-1 pro, 24-26-2 overall

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