By Rich Campbell, Tribune reporter
1:35 PM CST, February 17, 2014
One of the biggest weeks of the NFL offseason kicks off Monday with the beginning of the period in which teams may designate a franchise or transition player in order to protect his rights.
Then on Wednesday, the NFL community will congregate in Indianapolis for the annual scouting combine that takes place Thursday through Tuesday.
The Bears don’t have a standout candidate for the franchise tag. After protecting their rights to defensive tackle Henry Melton that way last winter, it would be a surprise if the Bears used the franchise tag between Monday and the March 3 deadline to do so.
General manager Phil Emery has expressed his general aversion to tagging a player because it guarantees the player a relatively expensive one-year contract, which limits the team’s ability to sign free agents. The Bears enter the week roughly $6 million under the projected salary cap, which is not expected to be finalized until the end of February at the earliest.
Although unlikely to apply their franchise tag, the Bears are sure to closely monitor other teams’ decisions over the next two weeks. Whether teams use their franchise tag to protect their rights to top defensive players will impact the supply of potential solutions for the Bears in free agency, which opens March 11.
Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, Washington Redskins outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson and Seattle Seahawks end Michael Bennett are among the best pass rushers scheduled for free agency.
On the back end, keep an eye on the statuses of Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd and Cleveland Browns safety T.J. Ward. Even if the Bears aren’t interested in signing such top-tier talent, their availability will have a trickle-down effect on the free-agent market for defensive players.
Johnson and Byrd played each played on the franchise tag in 2013, meaning their respective teams would have to guarantee them a one-year deal worth 120 percent of last year’s salary in order to protect them for another season with the franchise tag.
Remember, the NFL in 2011 changed how it calculates the salary for non-exclusive franchise tag tenders. The salary equates to a percentage against the current salary cap of the five highest salaries at that player’s position over the previous five seasons. And if a team decided not to match another club’s offer to a player it protected with the non-exclusive franchise tag, the team would receive two first round picks from the new club as compensation.
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