Vikings quiet on franchise front … for now

The Vikings weren’t even close to using their franchise tag, but that could change in years to come as their rookie contracts age and franchise values continue to ascend.

As expected, the Vikings had no reason to use the franchise tag on an in-house free agent. Their rationale was simple – nobody who was unsigned deserved to paid a top-five salary at their position. They simply followed a system that the Vikings have put in place to sign their top potential free agents before they close out the final year of their contracts – typically rookie contracts – and don’t have to face the issue very often.

That design has generally worked. They’ve only opted to use the franchise tag twice in the last 15-20 years – in 2003 on Jim Kleinsasser, and 2011 on Chad Greenway. In 2003, Kleinsasser wasn’t playing up to the level of the franchise tag designation, but the rumors were running amok that four teams – Washington, Dallas, Cincinnati and Houston – were interested in Kleinsasser and would likely offer him a deal that would be hard for the Vikings to match. In 2011, there was a new coaching regime in place as Leslie Frazier got the interim tag knocked off his title and he wanted to have a veteran like Greenway as a rock of what was going to be a changing of the guard of defensive personnel.

Other than that, the Vikings haven’t had much, if any, involvement in the dilemma that becomes the imposition of the franchise tag. In many ways, that is a good thing because the players being tagged are looking for that second contract that, if allowed to hit the open market, would be massive – both in terms of the offers that would be received from teams with money to spend (see our story here on the adjustments to the salary cap and how much money teams like Jacksonville and Cleveland have to overspend). The players who were tagged have a right to be a little upset about it.

For years, signing the franchise tag documents was something players didn’t typically do until they absolutely had to. No spring workouts. No two-a-days in training camp – back in the days when two-a-days actually meant two practices a day, not one practice and another session with baseball caps and sunglasses on. A franchise tag was a slap in the face and the return slap was to sign the deal days before the regular season was to begin – the thinking being that it minimized risk of getting hurt and trying to put the heat on to get a long-term deal with his hostage-takers.

Any of the five players tagged Monday – wide receivers Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas, defensive end Jason-Pierre Paul, linebacker Justin Houston and kicker Stephen Gostkowski – have a right to be a little salty about have the franchise tag thrust upon them. But, in the short-term picture, thanks to bloated contracts for some veteran players, the salary cap numbers have been inflated to a rate that, considering what they were making, is a pretty nice little bump in pay – penance for denying them significant 10-figure numbers in guaranteed money.

Bryant and Thomas are both going to get $12.8 million if they end up playing on the franchise tag. While their guaranteed money would have been three times that, it represents a 107 percent increase from the franchise tag in 2007.

Houston will get $13.17 million – a significant 84 percent increase since 2007. Pierre-Paul will be the best compensated of the five, pulling in $14.78 million – defensive ends are second only to quarterbacks ($18.51 million) in franchise bounties. That $14.78 million is a 77 percent increase in a nine-year span. Gostkowski gets the slum tag for kickers and punters at $4.12 million. But even that is an increase of 67 percent.

No running backs were franchised, for good reason. Their value as a position of burn-’em-out, spit-’em-out has come home to roost. The current number to franchise a running back is $10.93 million, thanks in large part to Adrian Peterson. The top five salaries that are calculated into the formula were comprised of deserving candidates – Peterson, Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, Arian Foster and Matt Forte. And nobody has an argument with No. 6 Marshawn Lynch. That explains why the running back position is no longer tag-worthy.

In terms of contract salary implications for 2015, beyond No. 6, it gets dicey. In order, these well-compensated backs are Jonathan Stewart, Trent Richardson, Darren Sproles, Donald Brown, Toby Gerhart, DeAngelo Williams, Shonn Greene, Joique Bell, Dexter McCluster, Danny Woodhead, Fred Jackson, Rashad Jennings, Maurice Jones-Drew and Pierre Thomas. Those guys round out the top-20 paid running backs.

That is a numbing thought, especially considering that the farther you go down the list, the more impressive is becomes – Giovani Bernard (No. 24 at $1.31 million), LeVeon Bell (No. 27, $1.03 million), Jeremy Hill (No. 30, $938,000), Eddie Lacy (No. 34, $848,103), Andre Ellington (No. 68, $565,966) and Alfred Morris (No. 74, $555,755).

On the flip side of the devaluation of the running back position is the ascent of the cornerback spot. As the game has evolved into a “pass-first-for-success/run-to-keep-’em honest” era of the NFL, having elite corners to shut down star wide receivers is a must. To franchise a cornerback this year costs $13.05 million. In 2007, it was $5.89 million. The difference is an increase of 214 percent, which explains why corners don’t get franchised unless they absolutely have to.

What makes 2015’s franchise tag deadline for the Vikings significant is that it was meaningless. It may not be meaningless for some time to come.

Harrison Smith is entering the final year of his rookie deal. He could be subject to 2016 tagging, even though it has gone up a whopping 234 percent in nine years. Two years from now, the Vikings will need to make hard decisions on Sharrif Floyd, Xavier Rhodes and Cordarrelle Patterson. Then comes Teddy Bridgewater. The organization can’t do anything in signing a long-term deal until after his third season, but you can bet if the next two are better than his debut, they will be looking to be actively locking him down.

The franchise tag deadline came and went without much local fanfare. Enjoy it now. It may not last.

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