As of yesterday, NFL teams can now place the franchise tag on any one player they see fit. For the Chicago Bears, the most likely candidate to be tagged is wide receiver Alshon Jeffery.
Before we dive into the pros and cons, and potential outcomes, of tagging Jeffery, here's a refresher on how the franchise tag works.
There are three different types of franchise tags: exclusive rights, non-exclusive rights and transition. Exclusive-rights tags mean that a player's agent is only allowed to negotiate with his current team. If no long-term deal is reached, the player will play under the tag that season with a contract equal to the average of the top five contracts at his position. For wide receivers, the franchise tag in 2016 (based on a $153 million salary cap) is projected at $14.4 million.
Non-exclusive tags allow players to seek offers from other teams. Once they receive an offer, the original team has five days to match it. If they choose not to match it, the player's new team must send two first-round draft picks to the old team as compensation.
The transition tag is similar to the exclusive-rights tag, except the original team receives no compensation if the player signs elsewhere. Transition tags cost less than an exclusive-rights tag.
Once tagged, the player and team have until July 15 to work out a long-term contract. If no deal is reached, the player must play that season under the franchise tag price, which is fully guaranteed.
Is Jeffery worth tagging?
There's a widely held belief among Bears fans that Jeffery is injury prone and, thus, not worth $14 million this season. Jeffery dealt with calf, hamstring and groin injuries last season, which cost him seven contests.
Yet before his string of soft-tissue problems, Jeffery was never known as a player prone to injuries. He broke his hand his rookie season and missed six games but that's a freak injury. No player has ever been "prone" to broken bones.
In 2013 and 2014, he did not miss a single contest. His totals from those two full seasons: 89-1,421-7 in 2013; 85-1,133-10 in 2014. In both years, he was named to the Pro Bowl.
In nine games last season, he caught 54 passes for 807 yards and 4 TDs. He averaged 89.7 yards per game, which was eight best in the league. Extrapolated over 16 games, his 2015 numbers would have been 96-1,434-7. While none of those totals would have ranked in the Top 5 at his position, each would have been in the Top 10.
So in terms of the $14.4 million, yes Jeffery is every bit worth that price tag. Even if they reach a long-term agreement, he'll likely earn close to $14 million per season, so money shouldn't be an issue.
OK, he's tagged. Now what?
If and when the Bears slap the tag on Jeffery, it will most likely be the exclusive-rights version. Jeffery is one of the top receivers in the NFL and just turned 26. He's about to enter his prime, which will likely result in him posting some of the best numbers in franchise history. They don't want to risk another team coming in and offering him more money than they're willing to spend, especially with the uncertainty of Kevin White and a lack of other viable receiver options.
Once tagged, the Bears will begin working on a long-term deal. Something in the range of five years for $60M-$70M, with $30M-$40M guaranteed is a reasonable estimate.
As far as Jeffery goes, he's never struck me as the type to squabble for months over a few millions dollars either way. His agent will obviously drive a hard bargain but Jeffery has always been a team player and GM Ryan Pace understands his value to the team. It would be very surprising if the two sides stay deadlocked until the July 15 cut-off date.
But if that does happen, there's nothing wrong with paying Jeffery $14.4 million next year. He's worth it and the Bears can afford it.
As for concerns about him being unhappy under the tag, that's unlikely as well. He's only 26 and if he doesn't get the big deal this year, he'll get it next year. He knows that, so he's not going to complain about receiving $14.4 million, which is likely more than he would make in the first year of a long-term deal, just to wait one more season for his big pay day.
Are there other options?
Yes, there are two other options. The first is to sign him to a long-term deal before the start of free agency on March 9. Problem solved.
The second is to tag Jeffery and then look to trade him. The Bears are a 6-10 team with a roster littered with holes. If they could land a pair of high-round picks in this year's draft for Jeffery, that would help them build a more complete team, one that could potentially compete for a playoff spot next season.
Yet that's a risky strategy. Jeffery is a sure thing, one of only maybe three sure things on the entire roster. Sending one of the best recievers in the game to another team and then banking on a bunch of inexperienced and unproven players is scary, to say the least, and could blow up in the team's face.
It's extremely doubtful Jeffery will be playing elsewhere next season. I expect the Bears to tag him by next week and then sign him to a long-term deal before July 15. I then expect him to play a full season, like he's done the past two years, and put the "injury prone" nonsense to rest.
Jeffery showed last year, based on his per-game totals, that he doesn't need Brandon Marshall to be successful. If he gets support from a healthy and talented Kevin White, then the sky is the limit. Bears brass understand this and aren't going to make a mess of a situation that can easily be tidied up in short order. Pace isn't going to low ball the team's best player and Jeffery knows he's not worth Calvin Johnson money.
It's a pretty cut-and-dry situation that should be concluded well ahead of the July 15 deadline.