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January 30, 2009
Tag Sale, You're It

by Keith Weiland

Now that the 2009 franchise and transition tag salary numbers are known, this is a pretty good time to revisit the quandary of cornerback Dunta Robinson. Scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in another month, Robinson might very well be the first player in Texans history to receive one of these dreaded tag designations.

Dreaded? Certainly for the player, as nothing is guaranteed for him beyond the 2009 season. It might also be dreaded for the team, too. More on this in a bit.

First let’s cover some basics. Someone tendered a franchise tag will be guaranteed to receive the average of the top five ”salaries” (which typically includes base plus prorated bonus amounts) at his position last season. For 2009, that figure will be $9.957 million. For transition tags, which include the top ten “salaries”, the figure drops to $8.374 million.

Aside from the amounts, the other key difference between the two tags is that another team would be required to fork over a pair of first round draft picks if they sign a franchise tagged player to an unmatched offer sheet. The transition tag tender only offers the player’s current team the right to match the offer from another team.

We’re covering these terms in some detail here because Robinson seems likely to receive one of these tenders if he and his agent cannot come to an agreement with the Texans on a new contract by the end of the tagging period on February 19. What is complicating an already complex negotiation is the fact that Robinson is just a little over a year removed from devastating leg injuries that caused him to miss the first five games last season.

Prior to the injury, Robinson was on the cusp of fulfilling his promise that came with being the tenth overall selection of the 2004 draft. While he had never been voted to the Pro Bowl, his performance at times seemed worthy of consideration. His return to the field in 2008 also showed his intrinsic value to the defense, as his presence and leadership gave the squad an emotional lift. It should be noted, however, that his play last season also showed a bit of rust, too.

Ideally, Robinson and Texans will find a middle ground in the next couple weeks on a new multi-year contract. Given the negotiating leverage owned by the team thanks to the tags, the uncertainty of Robinson’s full recovery to pre-injury form, and the resulting difficulty of finding comparable contracts, finding that middle ground will not be easy. Toss in the fuzzy mess that is the pending Pandora’s Box of an uncapped year in 2010, and this becomes a sort of morality play worthy of silver screen production from the Coen brothers.

So where is that middle ground? This is usually where reviewing recent contracts given to other cornerbacks might help. Chris Gamble, another first round selection from 2004, might offer the best benchmark. He signed a six-year extension with the Panthers that was reported to be worth $53 million, $23 million of it guaranteed (with $10 million of that figure being guaranteed through a roster bonus due to Gamble next month).

Gamble’s age, status, and statistical output is quite similar to Robinson’s. The biggest difference between the two is that Gamble has missed just three games in his otherwise healthy career.

So how much of a discount is appropriate for Robinson’s next contract? In a five-year contract without consideration for the risk of full recovery, Robinson might very well have earned a similar offer worth $8 million per year or more to go with $18 million or so guaranteed. That’s a lot of bucks to give a player who may or may not play at that level again.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m guessing the Texans and Robinson aren’t all that close to compromising. This is where the franchise and transition tags enter the equation.

First off, let’s eliminate the transition tag. It saves just $1.583 million. This isn’t negligible, but on a $123 million (or so) salary cap, but it isn’t going to break the team’s piggy bank, either. And for all that savings, the Texans could be in a pickle should another team sign Robinson to an offer sheet with a “poison pill”.

For all the cap room the Texans have entering the 2009 season, it isn’t anything special relative to many other teams in the league. Teams like the Eagles, Bucs, Dolphins – heck even the Titans – have $15 million or more available (thanks due in some part through usage of the Philly Loophole) and could treat some or all of the guaranteed money as a roster bonus due mid-March. The Texans would have to match the contract as tendered, and even if they could afford some difficult payment structure, it might really cramp the rest of their offseason plans. Don’t you think Bud Adams might take some perverse joy in screwing us again?

That leaves the franchise tag. There isn’t a single team in the league crazy enough to give up two first rounder for Robinson, but in using this designation, it gives the Texans the flexibility to continue negotiating a long-term contract later into the summer or the option of trading his rights to another team for more reasonable compensation.

The biggest complaint I hear about using the franchise tag on Robinson is that there is no way he is worth a top five salary. These people are completely missing the point of the modern use of the designation.

Once believed to be used on just on a team’s best player (think John Elway, Peyton Manning), now it is used as a vehicle for keeping really good players like Robinson on the roster, injury or not. Look no further than Julius Peppers in Carolina as an example of this. Peppers, also scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, really might be worth a top 5 income, but since he earns one already, a franchise tag for him would actually come at a 20 percent increase on top of his already rich 2008 salary cap figure. Franchise tags are way too expensive on players like Peppers many fans think are the ones that should be getting them.

So forget thinking about whether Robinson is worth top five money and start thinking a little more like business owner. You can either pay your employee for one year at $9.957 million (actually paid to him in 17 weekly installments for each week of the regular season), and evaluate afterward if he is worthy of a substantial long-term contract. Or you can pay him as much as double that figure in salary and up-front bonus in a multi-year contract still not knowing what type of return to expect.

A middle ground exists. Perhaps Robinson and the Texans can agree to make much of the guarantees as an option or roster bonus payable after the 2009 season. That still shifts risk back to the player, but it would be less risky than simply accepting a franchise tag tender.

I mentioned earlier that the franchise tag might be dreaded by the team as well. Franchised players have less of an incentive to sign their tender quickly and suffer through training camp. Their salary is guaranteed for the season while the ink is still wet, but their health, and therefore their future employability, is not. Plus, using a franchise designation probably won’t endear the player to sign with the team long-term. From 2004 to 2007, only a third of the players tagged eventually signed such a deal with their current team.

While a franchise tag might be undesirable for Robinson, it might be better for him than for most receiving F-tags. If Robinson’s phantom limb truly returns to pre-injury form in 2009, he’ll have a much stronger bargaining position a year from now. He might also be enjoying that position in the first uncapped season in more than 15 years, too.

Nothing is certain though for either side of the table. These are the risks that Robinson and the Texans will have to weigh. Hopefully the two sides find that middle ground – no doubt, that is the better alternative to the franchise tag for both the team and the player - but the clock is ticking.

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