While NFL teams can technically begin assigning their franchise tags Thursday, that's still a tricky matter that needs some clarification.
First off, the franchise tag is worth an average of the top five salaries at that respective player's position from the previous season. For example, if the Colts franchised Peyton Manning, he'd receive a one-year, guaranteed contract for the 2011 season that is worth the average of the top five quarterback salaries in 2010.
From a Patriots perspective, there's the chance they could place the franchise tag on left guard Logan Mankins, but that's a hefty price, because all offensive linemen are lumped together. Therefore, Mankins would receive a one-year salary that would approach the value of the NFL's best left tackles, and it would be surprising if the Patriots were willing to give him that much money, particularly with their recent reluctance to sign him to a long-term deal.
Anyway, here's where it gets confusing. Since the league's collective-bargaining agreement expires March 4, there's no telling whether or not the franchise tag will even be in play in 2011. Essentially, a team can franchise a player in February, and he could be turned into a free agent once the NFL implements its new CBA.
Since most players despise the franchise tag, that outcome could cause the franchised players to bolt for free agency out of spite.
Also, consider this: Since the NFLPA is set to agree to the terms of an 18-game season — remember, that proposal came from the owners, and the vast majority of the players hate the concept — the owners are going to have to agree to some concessions. Since the players hate the franchise tag so much, because it keeps them from the open free-agent market, it seems like a real possibility that the franchise tag could disappear under the new CBA.
While teams have the ability to use the franchise tag over the next two weeks, it's much more of a gamble this year than it's ever been.