Before the 2009 season began, Jerry Jones and the Cowboys were already working on a deal to extend DeMarcus Ware's stay in Dallas. If by chance the two sides couldn't get a deal worked out, the following change in the Collective Bargaining Agreement would have worked in the team's favor.
A year ago, if a player's contract expired and he had at least four seasons in the league, he was an unrestricted free agent. In 2010, only players who have been in the league six years or more will qualify for unrestricted free agency.
Ware, drafted in 2005, would have been entering his sixth season; and because of the 2010 rule changes, a restricted free agent. Although Ware would most likely not have appreciated it, Dallas could have placed the franchise tag on him.
October 11, 2009. Dallas @ Kansas City. Miles Austin, starting for the injured Roy Williams, turned in the most productive day for a wide receiver in club history with a 10 catch, 250 yard performance. His two touchdowns helped the team avoid an embarrassing loss to a winless team.
October 25, 2009. Atlanta @ Dallas. Austin would catch another six balls for 171 yards and two more touchdowns in a 37-21 Dallas victory.
After these two performances, Austin not only cemented himself in the starting lineup, but proved to be perhaps the most important playmaker to the offense. Having begun his NFL career in 2006, Austin, like Ware, would be a restricted free agent in 2010. And teams can only franchise one player.
On October 26, Ware signed a six-year contract extension. Coincidence? Perhaps. But looking at the Cowboys' list of free agents along with the rules concerning franchise and transition player tags, the team could very well buy itself some negotiation time with Austin's camp should it choose to tag him.
Austin, who will be a restricted free agent should the league not resolve its CBA issues before March 5, made $1.54 million in 2009, playing under the second-round tender. The Cowboys could choose to give him the highest-level tender this year ($3.1 million), which would net them first- and third-round picks as compensation if another team signed him away. The Cowboys would have the right to match any offer Austin received.
Remembering that a player must be in the league six or more years to be considered unrestricted, let's take another glance at Dallas' 2010 free agents.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENT
OG Montrae Holland
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
WR Miles Austin
S Gerald Sensabaugh
DE Marcus Spears
DE Stephen Bowen
DE Jason Hatcher
WR Sam Hurd
S Pat Watkins
OT Pat McQuistan
C Cory Procter
NT Junior Siavii
CB Cletis Gordon
C Duke Preston
K Shaun Suisham
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENT
CB Alan Ball
LB Steve Octavien
It's hard to argue that any of the above players, besides Austin, would necessitate a franchise tag. Some, such as Sensabaugh, Spears, Bowen, and perhaps Hatcher, Siavii, or Hurd, could warrant transition tags. And while the rules of the uncapped year restrict teams from signing other teams' free agents, they benefit teams in re-signing their own.
Rather than being able to use a franchise tag (average salary of top five players at position; two first-rounders as compensation) or transition tag (average salary of top 10 players at position; no compensation but seven days to match offer), teams will get a franchise tag and two transition tags. Thus, a team could practically lock up three of its unrestricted free agents instead of just one.
The new rules do not impact a team’s right to match another team’s offer to its restricted free agents by making a qualifying offer. There are four tender levels — original-round compensation ($1.01 million last year), second round ($1.545 million), first round ($2.198 million) and first and third round ($2.792 million).
Because it is an uncapped year, money is not as much of an issue (for this year, at least). Any tag that the Cowboys place on Austin would give them the right to match any offer - no matter what the price is. So how much is it to tag a player in 2010? Here are the official numbers by positon:
CORNERBACK: $9.566 million (franchise), $8.056 million (transition)
DEFENSIVE END: $12.398m, $10.193m
DEFENSIVE TACKLE: $7.003m, $6.353m
LINEBACKER: $9.680m, $8.373m
OFFENSIVE LINE: $10.731m, $9.142m
PUNTER/KICKER: $2.814m, $2.629m
QUARTERBACK: $16.405m, $14.546m
RUNNING BACK: $8.156m, $7.151m
SAFETY: $6.455m, $6.011m
TIGHT END: $5.908m, $5.248m
WIDE RECEIVER: $9.521m, $8.651m
And to further breakdown how the league arrived at these numbers...
An Exclusive Franchise player is offered a minimum of the average of the top five salaries at the player's position as of April 15, or 120% of the player's previous year's salary, whichever is greater. If the player is offered a minimum of the average of the top five salaries of last season at his position, he becomes a "non-exclusive" franchise player and can negotiate with other clubs. His old club can match a new club's offer or receive two first-round draft choices if it decides not to match.
A Transition player must be offered a minimum of the average of the top 10 salaries of last season at the player's position or 120% of the player's previous year's salary, whichever is greater. A transition player designation gives the club a first-refusal right to match within seven days an offer sheet given to the player by another club after his contract expires. If the club matches, it retains the player. If it does not match, it receives no compensation.
Like Ware did during the time of his negotiations, Austin has expressed his desire to remain a Dallas Cowboy. Also like Ware, Austin knows that as long as he proves himself on the field, the business end of his career will be handled accordingly.
"Dallas is an amazing city and it's a great organization," Austin said, "My teammates are unbelievable. I mean the guys are good friends, for real. You can't beat it. I love Dallas, but I can't focus on that because I can't control that."
By the time free agency opens on the fifth of March, Jerry Jones and the Cowboys should have their decision made on Austin. For us, fans, the best thing would be for the two sides to come to an agreement on a contract extension beforehand. If they cannot, they should tag him.
But at what level?
Franchise him exclusively, and he's a Cowboy for sure - at least for another year.
Franchise him non-exclusively, and a team has got to fork up two first-round picks if the Cowboys choose not to match.
As far as transition tags go, he wasn't drafted so the "original draft-compensation" option is out. A second-round level is way too low considering the Cowboys used that to keep Cory Procter last year. A first-round tender is also much too low for a proven WR of his playmaking caliber. Would it be wise to risk losing Austin for a first and a third-round tender?
I don't think so. Personally, I feel a franchise tag is necessary in this situation.
The team has been developing Austin's raw talent since 2006. Now, they've seen results. Imagine what he could do starting a full 16-game season.
Don't risk losing this guy, Mr. Jones. Keep him around. Franchise him.