Tagging Franks makes sense

Tight ends have become more valuable in NFL offenses than ever before. That's why the Green Bay Packers will have an important decision early next week on Bubba Franks, who is soon scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent.<p>

Green Bay has until 3 p.m. (CDT) Feb. 22 to decide whether or not to place either the franchise or transition designation on one of their players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents. Of the 10 candidates, Franks likely will be tops on Green Bay's list to be tagged.

The Packers are very thin at the tight end position, and Franks is among the team's most durable players. He hasn't missed a game since he was selected by the Packers in the first round of the 2000 NFL draft. Franks has improved his blocking through the years and has good hands.

Though Franks only finished with 34 catches in 2004 and is not a deep threat, he is a big target, and has been invaluable in the red zone. He had seven touchdowns last year and was selected as a Pro Bowl alternate after making the all-star squad the previous three seasons.

"I think there's always a possibility that they put the franchise tag on him or that they put the transitional tag on him," Franks' agent, Gene Mato, recently told the Green Bay News-Chronicle. "Anytime you have a Pro Bowl player that's going through free agency, you have to take a look at that."

Mato said he has had discussions with new Packers general manager Ted Thompson and contract negotiator Andrew Brandt in recent weeks.

"I know the Packers would love to have Bubba back, and Bubba would like to get something done," Mato said. "But they have not indicated which way they're headed."

Green Bay has been trying to groom David Martin to succeed Franks for the past three years, but that has not paid any dividends. Martin finished the season last year on injured reserve, and has missed a number of games in previous seasons because of injuries. Green Bay is currently working with Ben Steele and Sean McHugh, who both were on the team's practice squad early last year before getting promoted to the 53-man roster, but they are far from Franks' caliber.

Of the top 31 receivers in the National Football League last year, seven were tight ends. Kansas City's Tony Gonzalez led the league in receptions with 102. Dallas' Jason Whitten had 87 catches to lead NFC tight ends, two less catches than Green Bay's top receiver Javon Walker.

Unrestricted free agents can sign with any of the league's 32 teams beginning on March 2, and the Packers won't receive any compensation if they sign with another team.

Last year, the Packers named offensive tackle Chad Clifton as a franchise player and in 2003 tagged defensive tackle Cletidus Hunt as a transition player. Both signed multi-year contracts with the Packers prior to the start of free agency.

If the Packers designate Franks as a "non-exclusive" franchise player, he can still negotiate with the league's other 31 teams. Should Franks receive an offer from another team, the Packers can either match the new club's offer, or receive two first-round choices from that club. As a "non-exclusive" franchise player, Franks will receive a one-year contract offer from the Packers that is the average of the top five salaried tight ends from last season.

A transition player receives the average of the top 10 salaries of last season at the player's position or 120 percent of the player's previous year's salary, whichever is greater. A transition player designation gives the club a first-refusal right to match within seven days an offer sheet given to the player by another club after his contract expires. If the club matches, it retains the player. If it does not match, it receives no compensation.

The Packers can get Franks back for next season at a relative bargain by tagging him. The franchise number for tight ends is $2.687 million and the transition number is $2.095 million. However, his salary cap number probably would be lower in 2005 if he was signed to a long-term contract because the team would be able to prorate his signing bonus over the term of the deal.

Guard Mike Wahle is expected to become an unrestricted free agent, but is still under contract with the Packers. He is currently scheduled to receive a roster bonus of $6 million on top of a scheduled base salary of $5 million, which is unrealistic for an offensive lineman and will likely be released probably right before free agency begins. Since Wahle is under contract, the Packers will not be able to use the transition or franchise tag on him.

Tagging Franks seems to be the most sensible move for the Packers at this point.

Note: Todd Korth is managing editor of Packer Report. E-mail him at packrepted@aol.com.

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