The March 5th deadline for teams to designate their franchise player came and went and there were a few surprise players who went untagged and will be able to dip their toes in free agency if their current team can't come up with a long-term deal before free agency begins on March 13th.
First let's go over a quick recap of the players who did get the tag and will be with their respective teams for at least one more year if they aren't traded:
49ers S Dashon Goldson, Bears RB Matt Forte, Bengals K Mike Nugent, Broncos K Matt Prater, Browns K Phil Dawson, Buccaneers K Connor Barth, Cardinals DL Calais Campbell, Chiefs WR Dwayne Bowe, Colts DE Robert Mathis, Cowboys LB Anthony Spencer, Eagles WR DeSean Jackson, Falcons CB Brent Grimes, Giants P Steve Weatherford, Jaguars K Josh Scobee, Lions DE Cliff Avril, Patriots WR Wes Welker, Raiders S Tyvon Branch, Ravens RB Ray Rice, Redskins TE Fred Davis, Saints QB Drew Brees**, Titans S Michael Griffin
**Assigned the exclusive-rights franchise tag. Brees can't talk with other teams and is also guaranteed roughly $1 million more than the regular franchise tag.
It was somewhat surprising to see so many kickers hit with the tag this year. But because the average salary for the kicker tag for 2012 was so low at $2.665 million, it made sense for the Bucs, Jags, Bengals and Browns to lock up guys with no one else more deserving on their squads. And after averaging 45.7 yards per punt, with no blocked punts or punts returned for a touchdown, it made sense for the Giants to pay Steve Weatherford the $2.5 million for the 2012 season.
Below are the players who were rumored to be on the franchise-tag radar, but could now make it to free agency. Several of these guys could be in for a big payday by another team. I won't go over EVERY player (Peyton Hillis, Pierre Garcon, etc) who didn't get the tag, but here are the top 5 guys who should land big bucks on a new team.
1. Matt Flynn - There were a few subtle rumors that the Packers were going to franchise Flynn just to get compensation instead of letting him walk and get nothing, but the chances were just too great that their plan would backfire. Flynn has a good chance to get big money in free agency from a team who is desperate enough for a starting quarterback. The Dolphins are one team who could have interest, with the "Joe Philbin" connection, but it sounds like owner Stephen Ross is going to try and break the bank for Peyton Manning. The Redskins are another team, with the Browns coming in third. However, both teams have been heavily linked to Robert Griffin III in the draft. Regardless of what happens, chances are high Flynn will start somewhere in 2012.
2. Michael Bush - I'm overjoyed that Bush is finally able to get out of the shadows of Darren McFadden and make a name for himself as a potential starter somewhere else. While his 3.8 ypc average last year was the lowest of his NFL career, there will be a few teams who will view him as a workhorse in their backfield. The Bengals and the Buccaneers are two teams who have been linked so far. With Cedric Benson also entering free agency, Bush could follow his former head coach Hue Jackson to Cincinnati.
3. Vincent Jackson - If the Chargers can't re-sign Jackson to a new deal before free agency begins, GM A.J. Smith better have a strong Plan B since Malcom Floyd and Vincent Brown are currently penciled in as the No. 1 and 2 receivers on the depth chart. Antonio Gates could still be considered Philip Rivers' go-to guy, but losing Jackson will hurt. Jackson should be considered one of the biggest prizes in free agency outside of Peyton Manning. There are already talks that the Bears, who have needed a legitimate No. 1 receiver for years, will be the team that goes after Jackson the hardest. The Bills may look at Jackson as well, despite having just re-signed Stevie Johnson.
4. Marques Colston - Colston was never really a legitimate option for the franchise tag, with offensive guard Carl Nicks running a close second behind Drew Brees. The Saints will do their best to re-sign their No. 1 receiver. But after declaring he wouldn't give the Saints a hometown discount, Colston is preparing for a big push as a free agent. The Raiders and Redskins, who are a team that will be linked to every free agent receiver out there, have been linked to Colston so far. I might be pessimistic, but I just don't envision Colston putting up big numbers somewhere else. A part of me believes he had success as a Saint because of the system and not 100 percent on talent.
5. Brandon Lloyd - The St. Louis media made it a possibility that Lloyd would have received the tag, but in the end he may wind up following offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to New England if the Rams can't bring him back. Lloyd has racked up 2414 receiving yards and 16 touchdown catches under McDaniels in Denver and St. Louis. If Lloyd wants another chance to have that type of success, he had better hope the Patriots want him as much as he may want them if he isn't in St. Louis this upcoming season.