Cornerback Sam Shields and defensive lineman B.J. Raji took a step closer to hitting the unfettered free-agent market after the Green Bay Packers declined to use their franchise tag by Monday’s 3 p.m. deadline.
Shields, Raji and the Packers’ other 15 unrestricted free agents can start negotiating with all teams Saturday and sign with a new club starting March 11.
The Packers’ inability to work out a deal with Shields or Raji by Monday’s tag deadline means that both the team and player are willing to see what the market yields. Both players’ entry into free agency won’t preclude them from re-signing with the Packers, though more often than not when players hit the market, they move on to new teams.
Still, the players aren’t on the market yet. The Packers have four days to negotiate exclusively with their free agents, and even though Shields’ camp went public last weekend with his plan to test the free agent market after talks stalled, there’s at least a chance the Packers could restart negotiations and perhaps even sign him before Saturday’s deadline. Clubs often do deals with players just before free agency begins.
Though there will be no knowing the players’ value until free agency, Shields’ market began to take shape Monday when the Miami Dolphins re-signed one of the top cornerbacks about to hit free agency, Brent Grimes. Grimes’ four-year contract averages $8 million a season and includes $16 million in guarantees.
Grimes was a better player than Shields last season, but a few factors suggest Shields probably will be in line for a similar deal.
For one, Shields will be one of the top remaining cornerbacks on the market, along with Tennessee’s Alterraun Verner, New England’s Aquib Talib and Denver’s Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
Also, Grimes will be 31 by the start of training camp this year; Shields is 26. So with the $133 million salary cap almost $7 million higher than expected this year, plus likely to increase by $10 million in each of the next two years according to national reports, a team that sees Shields as a still-improving player for the next few seasons might be willing to pay him a premium.
Projecting Raji’s value on the open market is more difficult. Raji has been a key player since the Packers drafted him No. 9 overall in 2009, but the dip in his production the past two years, and especially last year in a contract season, has given the Packers pause and could do the same for the rest of the league.
It’s difficult to know whether he’ll get a deal that averages in the $3 million to $4 million range, twice that, or somewhere in between.
If the Packers seriously considered using the tag, it was on Shields at an $11.834 million tender rather than Raji at $9.654 million. They easily could have absorbed the cost — they’re about $35 million under the salary cap a week before the start of the new league year.
However, Thompson must have considered that substantially too high a salary for Shields and a threat to the team’s salary structure and locker-room harmony.
Using the franchise or transition tag ($10.081 million for Shields) would have ensured the Packers’ right to match any offer he signed with another team, and in the case of the franchise tag entitled them to two first-round draft picks as compensation if they didn’t match.
The Packers also could have used the franchise tag with the intent of trading him, though that would have entailed risks.
For one, the NFL’s CBA prohibits tagging for that purpose, though teams still do it occasionally, and no one has been sanctioned for it.
More importantly, they’d have had to feel strongly another team would offer Shields a contract he considered worth signing. Shields would have had the leverage in talks with any team because he’d have been guaranteed of making $11.834 million for 2014 the moment he signed the tender, and the Packers would have had to take on that contract if Shields didn’t find a long-term deal to his liking.
Four teams used franchise tags this year, and two others their transition tags.
The teams that used the franchise tags were New Orleans with tight end Jimmy Graham, Washington with outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, the New York Jets with kicker Nick Folk and Carolina with defensive end Greg Hardy.
The transition tags went to Cleveland center Alex Mack and Pittsburgh outside linebacker Jason Worilds.
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