With over $30 million projected in cap space, there is plenty of money available for the player chosen (if any) to receive the Packers franchise tag this year. With quite a few key players on offense and defense becoming free agents this year, the team may be forced to apply the tag to someone they can't work out a long term deal with, but badly want to keep. I'll be using the CBSsports.com estimated numbers for the values assigned to the tag, and analyzing how practical those numbers would really be, if applied.
On offense, the player poised to leave via free agency that meant the most to the team is Evan Dietrich-Smith. In his first year as the unquestioned starting center, EDS started every game and anchored a line that helped Eddie Lacy set franchise records in rushing. His skills have markedly improved since last year, and Aaron Rodgers would love to have continuity at the position for the first time in three years.
EDS' age (27) and relatively low use (25 starts in six years) make him a prime target for a long-term contract, not a one-year stop-gap. However, with a franchise tag value of $11 million this year, EDS would double last year's highest-paid center (Rams C Scott Wells) whose four year contract only guaranteed $13 million. Applying the tag to EDS clearly seems unrealistic, even if he's the team's best option at the position.
2013 Fourth-round pick JC Tretter was drafted as the long-term solution for the Center position, but broke his leg and couldn't join the team until December. On a rookie contract through 2016, Tretter will only count $600k towards the cap this year. Packers GM Ted Thompson won't give up on a draft pick this early, so I expect to see Tretter get every opportunity to inherit the job, even though he never played the position in college.
DefenseIt is unlikely to see BJ Raji receive the Packers franchise tag
Packers defensive tackle BJ Raji turned down an $8 million per year contract offer during the 2013 season. With a projected franchise number around $9 million, Raji won't be happy if he receives the tag. He is looking for a long-term contract, which seems unlikely from a Packers team allegedly trying to get lighter and more athletic along the defensive line. Since his dominant run in 2010, Raji's influence and stats have decreased. He recorded zero sacks over the past two seasons, and grades out as ProFootballFocus' second-to-last ranked free agent defensive tackle. I see Raji leaving in free agency as well, as some team out there will pay him a hefty amount over multiple years.
A more likely recipient of the Packers franchise tag is cornerback Sam Shields. After signing a restricted free agent contract last year, Shields made $2 million while frequently covering opponents' number one receivers. He is young (26) and has spent his entire career thus far in a Packers uniform playing in Dom Capers' defense. Shields' skills improve every year, and he still seems to have room to grow. One of the fastest men in the league, Shields is one of Thompson's prime targets to resign this offseason.
With the cornerback tag value around $11 million, however, the Packers would have $20 million total tied up in two cornerbacks (Tramon Williams has a $9.5 million cap number). The team has the cap room, but would prefer to knock Williams' number down if they are forced to tag Shields. Williams (turning 31) should sign an extension that brings his cap number down.
Packers Franchise Tag Honorable Mentions
Jermichael Finley. While speaking at the NFL Draft combine, Mike McCarthy said that team physician Pat McKenzie felt different about Finley's spinal fusion injury than Nick Collins', and that he expects Finley to play again. Despite that endorsement, Finley won't be designated with the Packers franchise tag because the value isn't there. Thompson didn't want to tag Finley two years ago when he was healthy, so I don't see him giving Finley almost $7 million for one year after a career-threatening injury.
James Jones. Jones is a number two receiver on the team. With the Packers prioritizing a contract extension for number one receiver Jordy Nelson, it is impossible to justify giving Jones the Packers franchise tag unless.
To recap, while Shields is the most likely target to receive the Packers franchise tag, it (again) doesn't seem likely that the Packers will tag anyone unless forced to. Dietrich-Smith was valuable but not irreplaceable. Raji rejected a contract offer and doesn't fit the future picture of Capers' scheme. Shields has room to grow and is young enough that he still hasn't hit his prime.