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Hoge’s Offseason Notebook No. 5: Bears Unlikely To Use Franchise Tag

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Henry Melton. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)

Henry Melton. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)

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By Adam Hoge-

(CBS) — Monday marks the first day teams are allowed to place franchise tags on players. They have a two-week window to do so, with the deadline being March 3.

So will the Bears put the franchise tag on anyone?

Don’t count on it.

General manager Phil Emery did a great job of quickly taking care of his most pressing in-house free agents (Jay Cutler, Tim Jennings, Matt Slauson and Robbie Gould). With those four players under contract, there aren’t many viable candidates for the franchise tag left.

While the Bears still have 25 players with expiring contracts, almost all of them played well below the franchise tag number at their respective position and none of them will command that money on the open market.

According to NFL.com, here are the projected franchise-tag amounts for 2014:

Quarterback – $16.2 million
Defensive end – $12.6 million
Wide receiver – $11.6 million
Cornerback – $11.3 million
Offensive lineman – $11.2 million
Linebacker – $11 million
Defensive tackle – $9.2 million
Running back – $9.1 million
Safety – $8.1 million
Tight end – $6.8 million
Kicker/punter – $3.4 million

Defensive tackle Henry Melton and cornerback Charles Tillman are the only two pending free agents who made anywhere close to those respective franchise tag numbers in 2013, and both players suffered season-ending injuries, lowering their value. Melton played under the tag in 2013, so if he were to be tagged again, the number would be even higher than the projected $9.2 million for defensive tackles. Considering Melton is coming off a torn ACL and a December arrest for assault, there’s no way he gets tagged again.

So are there any other possibilities? Not really. Corey Wootton is probably a guy the Bears want to keep around, but he would probably have to be tagged as a defensive end and it’s hard to believe he’d get anything close to $12.6 million per year on the open market.

Despite the high number of free agents the Bears have right now, the tag simply doesn’t make much sense this year.

Tags Around The League

The free agent market will be greatly impacted by the tags that are handed out around the NFL over the next two weeks. Keep an eye on what happens to the following players, because they could be options for the Bears if they hit the open market:

S T.J. Ward and C Alex Mack, Cleveland Browns – Both Ward and Mack are potential tag candidates in Cleveland, although I’d be surprised if they tag a center over a safety. At least one of them will likely hit the open market and both play at positions of need for the Bears.

DE Michael Johnson, Cincinnati Bengals – Johnson’s sack numbers dipped from 11.5 in 2012 to 3.5 in 2013, which is why the Bengals might let him go. However, they dipped in conjunction to Geno Atkins getting hurt and Johnson was still a productive player this past season. He seems like a good fit for the Bears, but with former Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer taking the head coaching job in Minnesota, they might have competition from the Vikings.

CB Alterraun Verner, Tennessee Titans – Having just turned 25 in December, Verner is a young, emerging cornerback, but one that likely won’t command ridiculous money on the open market. The Titans reportedly won’t tag him making Verner an interesting option for the Bears.

DE Greg Hardy, Carolina Panthers – Hardy seems like a classic tag candidate in Carolina because he’ll command a lot of money on the open market. He’s exactly the kind of pass rusher the Bears need, but I’d be surprised if they have the chance to sign him.

S Jarius Byrd, Buffalo Bills – Byrd played under the tag last season and his relationship with the Bills has reportedly been icy. He makes sense to be tagged again, but the Bills would risk having an unhappy player. Byrd is the kind of free agent safety the Bears need, but he won’t come cheap.

CB Vontae Davis, Indianapolis Colts – Still only 25 years old, Davis fits the Bears’ idea of getting younger on defense. That said, the Colts have the cap room to keep him and this could be a situation where the tag gets used and a long-term deal is worked out by July.

DE Michael Bennettt, Seattle Seahawks – Bennett has been linked to the Bears constantly because he’s the brother of Martellus Bennett, but there’s a decent chance he stays in Seattle. I don’t know if the tag will be used because of cap concerns, but a deal could be reached. Otherwise, he will be an option for the Bears should he hit the open market.

Tweetbag

If the Bears cut Julius Peppers outright, they could save about $9.8 million in cap space. And if they designate him as a June 1st cut, they could save $14 million in space for 2014. The idea of that might sound nice, but either way, you’ll be paying a decent player some money not to play for you. Look, there’s no question Peppers’ production dipped in 2013, but you can still do a lot worse at defensive end. That said, it’s hard to argue that his production is worth the $18 million he’ll count against the cap in 2014 if the Bears do nothing with him. I’d imagine that at the very least, his deal will have to be restructured. I wouldn’t rule out him getting cut, but if the Bears go that route, they’ll be doing so because they have other options coming in at the position.

As for Tillman and Melton, I mentioned them earlier, but they are both very interesting cases. I think Tillman will be looking for at least a two-year deal, as he has said he thinks he has at least two years left in him at cornerback. So, the question is, how much of a pay cut is he willing to take?

Melton’s status will likely be determined by what the Bears see from him from a commitment standpoint. He’s still a talented player and young enough that the ACL injury doesn’t completely destroy his value, but there’s no question he lost a lot of money and security by getting hurt (and arrested) in a year he was playing on the franchise tag. If he’s willing to play for a lot less money and proves he’s committed to football, then I think you bring him back.

It won’t be easy, but it’s certainly possible. Emery showed last offseason that he’s capable to making the moves to dramatically improve a unit in just one offseason. He successfully boosted the offense by drafting two players (Kyle Long and Jordan Mills) that started Week 1 and signing three others that immediate upgrades at their positions (Jermon Bushrod, Matt Slauson and Martellus Bennett). It’s going to take a similar formula this offseason to have the same result on defense and it’s also fair to say the defense is further behind than the offense was a year ago. But can the unit jump up to the middle of the pack? Absolutely.

College Prospect Of The Week

QB Aaron Murray — Georgia

One of the most common questions I get is: Should the Bears draft a quarterback this year to develop behind Jay Cutler? My answer to that depends on a) what happens with Josh McCown and b) trusting Marc Trestman to find a prospect he thinks he can develop. With Cutler locked in for three years, the Bears don’t need to draft a quarterback this year and even if McCown ends up elsewhere, looking for a backup quarterback in the draft is risky and unreliable. That said, if Trestman really likes someone, it might be worth moving on him in the fourth round or later because you can never have too many good quarterbacks.

I don’t know who Trestman likes, but Aaron Murray is someone I liked a lot before he tore his ACL late in the season. His throwing motion can look odd at times (like he’s pushing the ball), but his release is quick and his arm is strong enough to make all the throws. At 6-0 3/8, the height is adequate and his athleticism makes up for the ideal inch or two he might be missing. I liked how he showed up at the Senior Bowl even though he couldn’t participate and he told me he’ll be 100 percent for a Pro Day in April. It will be interesting to see how his mobility looks and if it checks out, Murray could still go in the third or fourth round.

Extra Point

The Bears signed defensive end Austen Lane to a one-year contract Monday. Lane played for Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker in Jacksonville from 2010-12 and spent some time with the Lions last season before getting cut in November.

This a minor signing for the Bears, but Lane is still only 26 years old, so he’s a guy the Bears will watch closely throughout the offseason program to see if he can contribute. Getting more production from the defensive line is a priority and competition only helps.

Adam Hoge covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.

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