My answer: It happens.
It’s not like every guy who gets tagged winds up on the wrong end of things, but you can come up with several examples from as recently as last year to show how the franchise designation can hurt players. Such as …
Rams S O.J. Atogwe: One of the bright young safeties in the game coming out of 2008, the Rams tagged him at a rate of $6.34 million. And after having 13 picks over the ’07 and ’08 seasons, Atogwe had just two in 2009 — playing in a new defense for a rebuilding team — before going on IR after 12 games with a serious shoulder injury. Now, with five accrued seasons, the Rams don’t even have to tag him. They just have to give him a 10 percent raise, as a restricted free agent, and he’ll have first- and third-round compensation affixed to him.
Buccaneers WR Antonio Bryant: After an 83-catch, 1,248-yard, 7-touchdown, renaissance of a 2008 season, Bryant was tagged. In 2009, he battled injuries, and the Bucs changed quarterbacks twice, going from Byron Leftwich to Josh Johnson, then Johnson to Josh Freeman. The results: 39 catches, 600 yards and four touchdowns. And a whole lot less value on the open market, with Tampa ready to set him free.
Chargers RB Darren Sproles: Like Atogwe, he’ll be a restricted free agent in 2010. Yes, he did make his $6.621 million in 2009. But his value coming out of 2008 was pretty high, and someone likely would’ve given him a sizable deal based on his big-game performances that season if he was on the open market. After the Chargers running game sunk to the bottom of the league, and Sproles’ role only expanded marginally, perception of him (last year it was about “potential”) has worsened.
… Now, there are other examples of guys (Julius Peppers, Dunta Robinson) who could make out like thieves after playing for their one-year tenders. But there are two sides to this, and a great deal of risk the player takes on under the one-year agreement.
Say Vince Wilfork is worth $30-35 million guaranteed on the open market. That means, when you look at the $7.003 million tender he could have in front of him soon, you can’t see that figure in a vacuum. You also have to look at the $23-28 million he would stand to lose in the deal.
The reward could be, of course, that he collects the $7.003 million and then gets the big money anyway, which is one heck of an upshot. But that season in between Point A and Point B has a hell of a lot of variables packed inside it, as Sproles or Atogwe or Bryant could tell you.