This is the fourth story in Real Football Services' offseason series, a preview of the NFL's free agency signing period, which starts Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET:
In the ultimate game of tag, 22 of the 32 NFL teams have already applied their franchise tags to their own free agents, and the number could climb even higher before today's 4 p.m. deadline.
There's a good reason for the record number of tags. The NFL has set the 2012 salary cap at $120.6 million, an amount that does not represent much of an increase over the previous year (about $225,000), causing some concern among team personnel people about their ability to effectively negotiate with top free agents in the open market. But the "low" cap number also gives each team a manageable ceiling and some leverage in keeping its own top players.
However, while the finances are one thing, from a personnel standpoint, the excessive number of tags has also significantly changed the free agency landscape set to begin Tuesday afternoon. The talent pool has been depleted as more teams have used the tag, which shifts the negotiation leverage to the players who remain.
For example, the tags placed on WRs DeSean Jackson, Wes Welker and Dwayne Bowe have made the Chargers' Vincent Jackson a very hot commodity, and placed him firmly in the driver's seat when dealing with teams looking at a limited pool of elite talent in the draft beyond Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon, Notre Dame's Michael Floyd and Baylor's Kendall Wright.
The same sort of situation exists in the safety market. Michael Griffin, Tyvon Branch and Dashon Goldson have all been tagged, and with a weak draft crop at the position, players who were not expected to garner much initial interest like Reggie Nelson and LaRon Landry are now the beneficiaries.
The running back pool is thin after Ray Rice, Marshawn Lynch, Matt Forte and Arian Foster all either signed new deals or received the tag. Which means teams like Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, which need a back and are watching players like Trent Richardson slip down the draft boards, will have to sit and talk turkey with players like Mike Tolbert and Michael Bush.
Abe Is Still in Play
Former Jet and Falcon John Abraham, who many thought had played out his last contract, may actually get another nice payday with four of the top DEs already tagged, including Robert Mathis, who received a surprisingly strong deal.
Pass-rushing ends are always in high demand, and players like Jeremy Mincey and Cory Redding will garner interest. In fact, more than interest, they could also see a significant payday after the 31-year-old Mathis got a four year deal worth $36 million, severely skewing the market for defensive ends on the wrong side of 30.
One instance where the franchise tag is not helping the player is the Drew Brees situation in New Orleans. The franchise tag represents the average of the top five players at the position. Brees has been looking for a deal worth about $23 million per year, while all reports had the Saints willing to spend about $18 million per year. But with players like Eli Manning and Carson Palmer renegotiating their contracts to create cap space for their teams, the average number has gone down, leaving Brees to deal with a franchise tag number worth $14.4 million per season.
Of course, any discussion of free agent quarterbacks can't go without mentioning Peyton Manning. When the former Colt signs his new deal, it may alter the number for Brees when franchise numbers are reevaluated. But after Manning publicly limited his considerations, and Washington traded away the farm for the right to selected RGIII in the draft, the fight for Matt Flynn just got more intense.
So all of this leaves the Jets, and every other team in the league, dancing in a minefield of sorts. Where do they go from here? Well, they certainly can't look at free agency in a vacuum. Because with so much of the free agent market being tagged ahead of time, each team will have to take a careful look at its draft options before making its first move.
What Will the Jets Do?
Come draft day, the Jets could be in a very good position to select one of the top OLBs in the draft in Melvin Ingram or Zach Brown, and their needs at OG and RT can also be addressed by an O-line class that scouts describe as being very deep.
As mentioned above, the running backs in this draft are dropping, and you may not see anyone other than Richardson come off the board in Round 1 (Lamar Miller is another possibility), which will give the Jets some viable options in the middle rounds.
In our eyes, that leaves them looking for a safety and a wide receiver in free agency. While the team does have some space under the cap, it is limited, so don't look for the big marquee signings this spring.
At safety, LaRon Landry has already been rumored as a Jets target and is a big, physical guy who might be the best "in the box" safety in the league when healthy. That's been an issue for him in recent years, however.
At receiver, the Jets aren't giving up a first-round pick for Mike Wallace, and Reggie Wayne and Marques Colston have age and injury issues. Jackson would provide a big target for Mark Sanchez, but they would have to outbid the Redskins to get him. They could be better off looking for a player like Brandon Lloyd, Robert Meachem or Pierre Garcon.
If the Jets do venture into the O-line business during free agency, look for them to sign a player like OG Adam Snyder, who played very well for San Francisco last year. There will be higher-priced guys like Carl Nicks, Ben Grubbs and even Philly's Evan Mathis, but Snyder could be an immediate upgrade and a great value at the right price.