The NFL franchise tag deadline was today at 3 p.m. CT. Here is a rundown of those players hit with the franchise tag:
Quarterbacks: Drew Brees (NO)
Running backs: Matt Forte (CHI); Ray Rice (BAL)
Wide receivers: DeSean Jackson (PHI); Wes Welker (NE); WR Dwayne Bowe
Offensive linemen: None
Tight ends: Fred Davis (WAS)
Defensive linemen: Cliff Avril (DET); Calais Campbell (ARI); Robert Mathis (IND)
Linebackers: Anthony Spencer (DAL)
Cornerbacks: Brent Grimes (ATL)
Safeties: Tyvon Branch (OAK); Dashon Goldson (SF); Michael Griffin (TEN)
Notable players that avoided the tag and will hit the open market:
WR Vincent Jackson
As far as the Chicago Bears are concerned, the tags with the most impact were those of Avril, Davis and Grimes. All three are at or near the top of their position and would have provided significant upgrades at positions of need.
NFL teams have until March 13 at 3 p.m. to re-sign players currently on their roster. At that point all unrestricted free agents – and restricted free agents not tendered – hit the open market.
The Buffalo Bills signed WR Steve Johnson to five-year deal this morning. That – coupled with tags on Bowe, D. Jackson and Welker –depletes the pool of free agent wide receivers. The top options at the position – one in which the Bears desperately need an upgrade – become V. Jackson, M. Colston and Mario Manningham.
The market for Jackson will be huge and he'll likely command somewhere in the $10 million-$12 million per-year range. That might be more than the Bears are willing to pay. Colston and Manningham, both of whom would instantly become the best receiver on Chicago's roster, are cheaper options.
Garcon is also interesting, although he's not much more than a deep threat. If the front office is worried about the health of speedster Johnny Knox, Garcon would be good option to replace him.
The Bears are set to potentially lose three cornerbacks this year to unrestricted free agency: Tim Jennings, Corey Graham and Zack Bowman. Carr and Finnegan would be solid options opposite Charles Tillman. Both are quality cover corners. Rogers was great in San Francisco last year but he turns 31 by the start of the 2012 season and isn't worth a big contract at this point in his career.
The big prize would be Carl Nicks. Many believe that guard is not a priority in Chicago but I beg to differ. The entire offensive line needs an upgrade. Chris Williams was playing well at left guard before his injury but that doesn't mean he's a quality long-term option. He's just as likely to revert back to his 2010 form as he is to take the next step.
Nicks is one of the best guards in the game – if not THE best guard in the game. If you watch the tape of last year's playoff game between New Orleans and Detroit, you'll see Nicks browbeating Ndamukong Suh, arguably the best defensive tackle in the league, all game long.
It may cost the Bears $10 million a season to sign Nicks but they have plenty of money to spend under the salary cap. When you have the opportunity to sign the best player in the league at his position, you go for it.
You can apply that same logic to Mario Williams. Yet Williams will likely command a contract that is out of Chicago's reach. He's arguably the best edge rusher in the NFL, which could make him the highest paid defensive player in the league. The Bears need another pass rusher but with Julius Peppers earning more than $12 million next season, it will be hard to justify breaking the bank on Williams.
This year, 21 players were tagged, the most ever in an NFL offseason. Yet there are plenty of players still available that could provide instant, significant upgrades to Chicago's roster. New GM Phil Emery needs to get to work.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of Bear Report magazine and BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.