There were audible gasps in South Florida last week when it was revealed that the franchise-tag number for a quarterback in 2007 had skyrocketed to a mind-boggling $12.615 million.
Not only is that the highest charge ever for a franchise player at any position, but it is also a whopping increase of 43.5 percent from the 2006 season, and it represents nearly 12 percent of the individual team spending limit of $109 million for next season. It was, at a time, a sobering dose of reality.
But here's an even greater reality: The astronomical franchise charge at quarterback doesn't matter much. Nor, for the most part, do the spiraling increases for the franchises salaries at other positions, which in some cases exceed 30 percent bumps from 2006.
The franchise-value figures, which range from $2.078 million for a kicker or punter to the $12.615 number at quarterback, are undeniably monstrous for 2007. But they are, in most cases, also moot.
How come? Because there isn't a quarterback in the league who will be designated as a franchise player. Outside of Kansas City journeyman passer Damon Huard, there isn't a quarterback in the NFL who started at least eight games in 2006 and is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent in less than a month.
There are, in fact, only a handful of potential pending unrestricted free agents overall -- such as Indianapolis defensive right end Dwight Freeney, left cornerback Asante Samuel of New England, and perhaps Chicago weakside linebacker Lance Briggs -- who figure to merit any consideration for the franchise marker at other positions.
Clubs were permitted to start designating franchise and transition players Thursday and, not surprisingly, no club forwarded the pertinent paperwork for such a move. The deadline for declaring franchise and transition players is Feb. 22, and the league won't be particularly busy on that front.
"The number [of franchise players] definitely is going down," said NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw. "A few years ago, we had 11 or 12. Then last season, there were only three. I don't think there will be many [in 2007]."
Franchise Tag Numbers
Position.....2007 charge.....Change from 2006
OL......... $9.556 million .........+36.8%
DE......... $8.664 million......... +3.7%
CB......... $7.790 million......... +32.2%
WR.........$7.613 million......... +23.3%
LB......... $7.206 million......... +0.5%
RB......... $6.999 million .........+15.0%
D......... $6.775 million......... +19.8%
S......... $4.490 million......... +9.3%
TE.........$4.371 million......... +31.2%
P/K.........$2.078 million......... -15.8%
Ironic that, in the early 1990s, when the league began negotiating the basic framework for its collective bargaining agreement, Oakland owner Al Davis blocked progress because he felt that each team should have as many as five franchise markers available to it. Only a decade and a half into the accord, it now seems that one franchise tag is one more than necessary for most clubs.
Among the reasons for the reduction: Most teams simply have become smarter in dealing with the salary cap and more adept at identifying their "nucleus" players and signing them to extensions before their contracts ever come close to expiring. Starting quarterbacks, for instance, never make it to the unrestricted market. Both sides abhor the acrimony that usually results from the use of the franchise marker and try hard to avoid it. The most recent extension to the collective bargaining agreement limits the times a team can use a franchise tag on the same player and, essentially, imposes stiff penalties.
Even with the salary-cap level rising -- the spending limit is set at $109 million per team in 2007 and $116 million in 2008 -- the cost of carrying a franchise-designated player is often prohibitive. That won't stop the Colts from using the marker to retain the rights to Freeney, a pass-rusher Indianapolis officials reiterated last week won't get away from them, but he will be among the few exceptions.
"I would say [the franchise designation] is the last thing the player wants and probably the last thing the team wants, too," Briggs said last week. "It's not a good alternative to a long-term contract, that's for sure. Just thinking about it, I mean, it knocks the air out of you."
The rising level of franchise charges announced last week are enough to leave just about anyone breathless. Fortunately, they aren't going to apply to many players.
By Len Pasquarelli
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.