Can the Bills afford to use the franchise tag on Jairus Byrd again? - The Buffalo News

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Can the Bills afford to use the franchise tag on Jairus Byrd again?

Jairus Byrd has been tweeting pictures of himself at the Louvre.

We can only assume he was at the museum as a tourist, not a shopper.

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With his next contract, he probably could buy a masterwork or two.

Byrd, the three-time Pro Bowl safety, is heading toward free agency for the second year in a row. Once again, the Buffalo Bills will have difficult decisions to make.

The two plausible ways for the Bills to retain Byrd would be to use another franchise tag on him or blow him away with a long-term contract offer.

The period for teams to use their franchise tags begins Monday and lasts two weeks.

The Bills might not make that call immediately. They waited 11 days to place their franchise tag on Byrd last year.

Falling within the franchise-tag window is the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. As the Bills did last year, they will meet there with Byrd's agent, Eugene Parker, and try to gauge the temperature for what it would take to sign a long-term deal.

Parker and Bills senior vice president of football administration Jim Overdorf have spoken since the season ended, but contract parameters haven't been discussed yet.

Although being deemed your team's "franchise" player sounds like an honor, players don't view it that way. Franchise tags take away a player's chance -- many players consider it a right -- to discover what their value is on the open market.

The tradeoff is that a franchise player can sign his tag and receive a guaranteed, one-year salary equivalent to the average of the five highest-paid players at his position.

Guaranteed millions are wonderful. Long-term security is far more desirable.

That's why Byrd didn't like the franchise tag last year.

Drama ensued. He missed all offseason workouts, every practice at St. John Fisher College and all four preseason exhibitions. He didn't play the first five regular-season games with wearisome foot injuries.

Byrd would loathe a repeat franchise tag even more.

The Bills know this. They also know they'd have to pay him more if they franchised him a second time.

The franchise tag for safeties was $6.916 million last year, but a repeat tag on a given player raises the guaranteed salary 20 percent or the average of the five highest-paid players at that position, whichever is greater.

Byrd's tag for this year would be $8.299 million. Many analysts believe that's too much money for a safety.

If the Bills and Byrd can't hammer out a long-term deal and Byrd signed his franchise tag again, then the Bills will have spent over $15 million guaranteed for two seasons, the specter of more drama this year and no assurances for 2015.

That's why a long-term deal is the more prudent approach for the Bills.

The Bills also have an advantage over the other 31 teams. Until March 8, three days before the free-agency period begins, the Bills will have exclusive negotiating rights with Byrd.

But are the Bills willing to offer the contract numbers Byrd desires?

The problem in negotiating a long-term contract is that Byrd is considered every bit the player -- maybe better -- than safeties averaging at least $8 million a season.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers last year made free agent Dashon Goldson the third highest-paid safety with a five-year, $41.25 million contract, including $22 million in guarantees. The Bucs likely overpaid because they were about $70 million under the salary cap when free agency began.

Byrd is widely considered better than Goldson. The only two safeties who make more than Goldson are Kansas City Chiefs star Eric Berry and Pittsburgh Steelers poster boy Troy Polamalu. It's a minor point, but both of them are premier strong safeties, while Byrd, like Goldson, is a free safety.

San Diego Chargers free safety Eric Weddle ranks fourth in average salary, with a five-year, $40 million contract and $19 million in guarantees.

In only 11 games, Byrd tied for the team lead with four interceptions. He recorded 48 tackles, one for loss, a sack and a forced fumble.

When quarterbacks threw into Byrd's coverage, analytics site charted them for a 35.0 passer rating, second-lowest for all safeties behind Glover Quin of the Detroit Lions.

Byrd finished seventh among free safeties in Pro Bowl fan voting, but the other two parties in the selection process -- players and coaches around the league -- respected Byrd enough to make him one of the three original free safeties for the roster.

The other two were Berry and Seattle Seahawks monster Earl Thomas, both of whom, by the way, will be free agents in 2015.

So the financial standard for elite safeties is going to get much higher next year, a fact of which Parker almost certainly is aware.

Teams can use the franchise tag on only one free agent. Another possibility is kicker Dan Carpenter, who had one of the greatest kicking seasons in Bills history.

Kickers are the most inexpensive position to franchise. The NFL hasn't officially calculated this year's franchise numbers yet, but last year the five highest-paid kickers averaged $2.977 million.

The Bills, though, drafted kicker Dustin Hopkins in the sixth round last year. A groin injury at the end of the preseason eventually sent him to injured reserve.

Carpenter became Hopkins' emergency replacement on Sept. 3. Carpenter tied the club record for field goals in a season (33), recorded the second-best field-goal percentage (91.7) and recorded the third-most points (131).

Buffalo's other possible 2014 free agents include fullback Frank Summers, tight ends Scott Chandler and Mike Caussin, tackle Thomas Welch, defensive end Alex Carrington, linebacker Arthur Moats and safety Jim Leonhard.

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