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Franchise Tag A Point Of Contention in NFL Labor Dispute

Will the Steelers use the franchise tag on LaMarr Woodley, and what will that mean about the upcoming labor negotiations?

With the March 4 deadline to iron out a new NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) rapidly approaching we're about to hear the conversation shift away from revenue allocation and the extension of the regular season schedule to the nitty-gritty of free agency. That could begin as early as tomorrow, February 10, when NFL teams are free to designate the franchise tag on unrestricted free agents. NFL teams are still free to tag free agents this offseason, but from the sound of it, the NFLPA will challenge the legitimacy of such transactions this year because of the pending expiration of the CBA.

"If we don't have a deal for 2011, that means they don't have the right to do it for 2011. It's as simple as that," Berthelsen said after the NFLPA's annual Super Bowl news conference. "If they want to get together and do it anyhow, we can't stop them from doing that. But the agreement doesn't allow them to do that."

The franchise tag, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a way for teams to retain valuable players for at least an extra year. Because the deadline to tag players comes before players officially become free agents, teams have a small window to retain certain players at a high price before they hit the open market in early March and subsequently become significantly more expensive to sign when competing against a large pool of potential bidders.

In 2010, the Pittsburgh Steelers were one of five teams to slap the franchise tag on one of their free agents (now- departed kicker Jeff Reed). Of course, when you get paid an average of the top five salaries at your position, you're not too upset, but there's an obvious reason why you hear players publicly denounce being slapped with the franchise tag. Even though they may be paid handsomely for one season, the designated player is missing out on an opportunity to sign a long-term deal typically with sizable guaranteed sums that far exceed what's guaranteed to them in the year they've been tagged.

Think about it this way: would LaMarr Woodley like to be franchised for roughly $10 million in 2011, then run the risk of a devastating injury next season? Or would he rather than shop his talents on the open market as an unrestricted free agent and sign a long-term deal in Pittsburgh or elsewhere somewhere in the 6-7 year range for at least $70 million, $40 million of which would likely be guaranteed?

So, what will happen in Pittsburgh and around the rest of the National Football League beginning tomorrow? Will the Steelers opt to use the franchise tag on one of their players? Doing so would certainly intensify the stalemate that's already in place between the owners and NFLPA. The Rooneys have always played an extraordinarily important role in labor negotiations throughout the league's history. And until recent years, the Steelers have typically shied away from using the Franchise Tag on players. Will the Steelers ownership take a prominent role once again in trying to ensure a deal gets done before March 4? And would franchising one of their own players signify their stance on things one way or another? I don't have the answers, that's for sure. These are just a few of the things I'll be keeping an eye on in the upcoming days and weeks.

Photographs by dizfunk used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.