NEW YORK — While the league and union play a game of chicken over a new collective bargaining agreement, the 32 teams also are playing tag.
As in applying franchise tags to key players.
It's another contentious issue for both sides, with the owners saying they have the right to franchise players before the CBA runs out March 3, and the NFLPA claiming with no agreement for the 2011 season, how can anybody be franchised? While the merits are debated, an impressive group of stars, including Peyton Manning and Michael Vick, will have been tagged by Feb. 24.
By applying the exclusive franchise tag, a team must pay the player the average of the top five salaries at his position. Manning, naturally, would get such a big paycheck anyway — he's almost certainly headed for the most lucrative deal in NFL history at around $23 million should he remain Indianapolis' franchise player.
More likely, the Colts will reach a long-term deal with the four-time MVP that probably will be his final NFL contract.
Baltimore's Haloti Ngata, the NFL's best nose tackle, will get around $12 million — if the tags stick.
Barring a new CBA in the next two weeks, the union will continue to fight on this issue, even though some of its members will collect a windfall from being tagged.
San Diego's Vincent Jackson, for example, is in line for a phenomenal payday, even if he isn't one of the league's top five wide receivers. Certainly, Jackson had to go through some distressing maneuvering to get to this point, including a seven-game holdout and three-game team suspension in 2010. But his salary for 2011, assuming there is a season, will go from around $300,000 to a projected $11 million.
Jackson also could wind up elsewhere. Along with Ngata, Jets linebacker David Harris and Patriots guard Logan Mankins, Jackson received a non-exclusive tag. They can negotiate with other teams, with compensation for signing them two first-round draft picks.
That's a steep price, although a game-changer like Ngata might be worth it. Then again, the Ravens almost certainly would match any offer, particularly if it came from an AFC team like the Jets, Colts or Chargers, all of whom could become even more of a Super Bowl threat with Ngata anchoring the defense.
A number of teams aren't expected to use the franchise tag, including the Bears and Lions, who have said as much. Others unlikely to franchise a player are teams with no pending free agents worth the kind of money it would cost: the Cardinals, Bills, Bengals, Browns, Texans, Dolphins, Saints, Rams, 49ers and Seahawks.
At the other extreme, Jacksonville tight end Marcedes Lewis is worth keeping. So are Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley, Kansas City linebacker Tamba Hali, and Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams or center Ryan Kalil.
Tampa Bay must choose between linebacker Barrett Ruud and guard Davin Joseph. Minnesota could tag Sidney Rice, who comes off an injury-plagued season, or linebacker Chad Greenway.
Asked whether the CBA uncertainty might factor into the decision, Vikings player personnel vice president Rick Spielman said, "Potentially it can because of the restrictions you have with getting some extensions done on these guys. It puts you in a bind a little bit."
Super Bowl champion Green Bay has several upcoming free agents, including defensive Cullen Jenkins, wide reciever James Jones, guard Daryn Colledge or placekicker Mason Crosby. Of that group, Jenkins is most likely to draw the franchise tag. Considering all the competition for roster spots with 16 players coming back from injured reserve, though, the Packers probably will stand pat rather than increase their payroll with a tag.
Denver considered tagging star cornerback Champ Bailey, which would cost around $15 million. Rather than do so for the 32-year-old Bailey, who comes off a decent season in which he missed one game with a right heel injury, the Broncos want to get a multiyear deal done. Bailey was mulling an extension in October when the team suddenly pulled the offer.
Others with tough decisions to make are the Giants (WR Steve Smith or RB Ahmad Bradshaw); the Titans, who saw DE Jason Babin have a breakout season with 12½ sacks; and the Falcons (RT Tyson Clabo). Babin already has expressed his desire not to be tagged, even if it would bring riches he couldn't have contemplated a year ago.