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Takeaways from Week 2

September 16th, 2013 Comments off

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Steven Jackson must break loose this season

The Falcons came into Week Two very beat up with six starters questionable for the game. And they emerged from their Week Two win over the St. Louis Rams even more beat up, losing four more players to various injuries. Defensive end Cliff Matthews (neck) and cornerback Asante Samuel (thigh) re-aggravated their injuries and were forced to exit the game. Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon had been limited all week with a knee injury, but didn’t play in the second half against St. Louis after injuring his foot. Defensive end Kroy Biermann went down with an ankle injury while running back Steven Jackson (thigh) and fullback Bradie Ewing (shoulder) exited on the Falcons’ opening drive with their respective injuries.

That doesn’t include injuries to starting offensive tackle Sam Baker (knee), defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux (knee), and wide receiver Roddy White (ankle) that caused them each to struggle on Sunday.

The risk of injuries was a major factor in whether the Falcons could repeat their previous success this season. The team has been relatively injury-free in the Mike Smith era, but it seems like things are finally catching up to the team. Having an early bye week may prove very beneficial for the team.

One of the positives that the injuries are creating is that it is giving some young players some opportunities to play. Linebacker Joplo Bartu stepped up in the absence of Weatherspoon, subbing in on the nickel sub-package in the second half rather than Stephen Nicholas. Nicholas held that role last year, but has fallen hard on the Falcons’ depth chart. Akeem Dent has taken the everydown role at middle linebacker opposite Sean Weatherspoon. Bartu is now earning reps on passing downs. And the Falcons appear to be unwilling to pull Kroy Biermann off the field, as he’s been getting work at strongside linebacker. Nicholas did play a few snaps today on defense, but barely. I was happy when the team opted to keep him, but if I knew that they were going to avoid using him this much, then perhaps the team was better served cutting him, saving the $2 million against the cap, and going with a veteran to play special teams.

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Takeaways from Week 1

September 9th, 2013 Comments off

When I was fresh out of college and trying to enter the job market, I was told a very poignant piece of advice after one job interview.

I was told by prospective employers that my resume indicated I was very much qualified for the position I was interviewing for, but that I did a poor job of promoting myself. So when they were reviewing whether or not to hire me, they weren’t quite sure what they were getting.

This is still a weakness of mine. So in the efforts of changing that, I will be promoting two articles that I wrote on Sunday for Bleacher Report which included several takeaways on the Falcons-Saints game, as well as one grading Steven Jackson’s debut with the Falcons.

They are fairly quick reads, so I recommend you taking a few minutes to peruse them. That’s because many of the things that I would have written in this space are including within them. So I’m not going to do too much re-hashing.

If you’re late to the party the Falcons lost their season opener to the New Orleans Saints. It was not a surprise to me, because I picked the Saints to win the game multiple times last week. Thus my reaction to the game is probably not as negative as many of the folks that expected the Falcons to win. My pessimism over the Falcons’ chances softened the blow.

Another reason why I’m not overly negative is that the Falcons had a chance to win it in the end. It’s one thing if the Falcons had been thoroughly outplayed by the Saints from start to finish. But that was not the case. They had their opportunity to win the game at the end, but unfortunately they could not punch it in in the final moments. When you get within an inch of something, it’s hard to act like that single inch is the Grand Canyon.

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Takeaways from Last Week – September 2

September 2nd, 2013 Comments off

ICON SMI

Peria Jerry

The Falcons finalized their roster over the weekend and there were a few interesting moves. If you’ve ready any of my lengthy reaction reviews following the Falcons preseason games, you probably know my opinion on many of the players that made the roster. I want to devote this week’s column to discussing many of the players that were small surprises.

For the record, I would say that I was off on eight players making the roster when I did my initial prediction at the start of training camp. Forty-five out of fifty-three ain’t bad at all. Just to recap, the players I wrongly projected to make the team were: I had Sean Renfree as the third-string quarterback, instead the Falcons kept Josh Vaughan as their fifth tailback. Renfree went on injured reserve, as it’s obviously impossible to predict injuries. Marcus Jackson was on my 53-man roster instead of Kevin Cone as the fifth wide receiver. I picked Phillipkeith Manley as the backup guard, instead it was Harland Gunn. Manley was added to the practice squad. Micanor Regis was my pick for backup defensive lineman, but the Falcons instead opted to keep Peria Jerry. Pat Schiller and Brian Banks were my picks for the team’s backup linebackers, but Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow made it instead. Charles Mitchell and Terrence Johnson were the backup defensive backs, instead Shann Schillinger and Dominique Franks preempted them. Yes, I did pick Ryan Schraeder to make the roster, along with all the teams’ rookie draft picks.

This isn’t meant to toot my own horn (well, maybe just a little) but just as a vector to discuss some of the decisions the Falcons made with their roster. I should preface this by saying that I’m often critical of how the Falcons have managed their roster over the years. I think one of the larger deficiencies of this team is their struggles to develop players, especially undrafted players and guys at the back-end of their roster. When the Falcons kept Brett Romberg as a third center on their roster in 2011, it made little sense to me. What team needs three centers? Todd McClure and Joe Hawley were already on the team and had both proven they could ably play the spot. That same year the Falcons picked up Kirk Chambers at midseason to replace an injured Mike Johnson on the roster. But despite Joe Hawley’s struggles at guard that year, the Falcons never once considered plugging in Chambers there. In my eyes that’s a poor use of a roster spot. Instead the Falcons could have been smart to replace him with a player that they could develop for next year such as Shawn Andrews, Vince Manuwai, or  Leonard Davis. Essentially if a player is not contributing in some capacity by being active every Sunday, or isn’t a player that the team wants to develop for its long-term future, then that player is basically taking up unnecessary space. That might be overly harsh, but I always feel like there is room for improvement as you could replace that players’ spot on the team with someone who does fulfill those requirements.

Take for instance a player like Stansly Maponga, who made the roster as the sixth defensive end, but in truth because the Falcons will use a variety of 3-4 and 4-3 looks this year, he’s essentially eighth on the depth chart. Osi Umenyiora, Kroy Biermann, and Jonathan Massaquoi will earn the majority of the reps at end in the Falcons 4-3 looks. But the Falcons also can play Malliciah Goodman and Cliff Matthews there if need be. And in their 3-4 looks, alongside Goodman and Matthews, Peria Jerry and Jonathan Babineaux will get reps at end. And they will get those reps at times when the Falcons employ a four-man front if the preseason is any indicator as to what will happen in the regular season. So the odds are very low that Maponga will play any snaps this year unless the Falcons are hit with several injuries up front. Maponga thus will probably be inactive every Sunday because I don’t think the Falcons consider him to be a highly valuable special teams player either. So the Falcons likely won’t get any value out of him on game days this year. But in the case of Maponga there is a clear long-term value to developing him. I personally didn’t think Maponga was that impressive this year, enough that I thought the Falcons could risk exposing him to waivers with the intent of putting him on the practice squad. The Falcons obviously felt differently, and understandably so because Maponga does have developmental potential. He may not have had a great rookie summer, but he had injury concerns as somewhat an excuse, and he could still be primed to take a huge leap from Year 1 to Year 2, as many players do. Lawrence Sidbury did when he was here in Atlanta, and Maponga reminds me a lot of Sidbury, at least as an NFL prospect.

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Takeaways from Last Week – August 26

August 26th, 2013 Comments off
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Could Lamar Holmes make or break the Falcons Super Bowl chances?

The big story from the weekend is the fact that the Falcons offensive line looked very suspect against the Titans on Saturday.

In fact, calling their performance suspect is about as nice as I can be. They got whooped. And if I could travel back in time and run into myself from a year ago and told him about their efforts against the Titans, my past self would tell the future self, “No duh.”

Frankly, the Falcons front five got whooped quite a bit in 2012. And by quite a bit, I mean that I can count on one hand how many games where they could be considered the victors of the battle in the trenches. And if their performance against the Titans is any indicator, that will not change in 2013.

It’s no small wonder. The Falcons replaced long-time fixtures at center and right tackle in Todd McClure and Tyson Clabo. They are still in a plug and play mode at right guard with Garrett Reynolds, in the hopes that third time is a charm with Reynolds as far as his production goes. If I ran into my past self, he’d call me naive if not downright stupid for thinking there would be significant improvement up front considering what the Falcons did this past off-season.

The offensive line certainly is going to be a work in progress. And in truth it may be several years before things get fixed up front.

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Takeaways from Last Week – August 19

August 19th, 2013 Comments off
ICON SMI

Could we see the return of Mike Peterson?

Roddy White is injured, and I’m not worried. At least I should say I’m not worried right now. If White is out of the lineup in Week 1, then I’ll be worried.

But I’m pretty calm at this point in time, even knowing that White will miss the rest of the preseason with an ankle injury that he suffered on Thursday night against the Baltimore Ravens.

The Falcons now have three weeks for White to get some rest and hopefully heal what the team termed a “minor” injury. Initial reports seem to confirm the lack of severity on this injury, suggesting White could suit up within a week if this were the regular season. But to be honest, I don’t fully buy that. The Falcons routinely have underestimated the amount of time it would take for their players to return. One famous example came in 2010 when Michael Jenkins suffered a shoulder injury in early August that was originally slated to put him out 4-6 weeks. Jenkins did not suit up for a Falcons game until 10 weeks later.

Now it should be noted that since 2010 I don’t recall any other blatant misreads of a player’s recovery. And the team may be a lot better today now three years removed at estimating the timetables for players’ recoveries. But generally speaking, I tend to add a week or two to all prognoses that the Falcons release about their injured players. The fact that the Falcons usually don’t put a timetable on players’ returns is also indicative that they also realize that it only opens themselves up for more criticism.

But the term “minor” is such a relative term. It could be minor in the sense that it may only keep him from practice or playing for a week or two. It could be minor in the sense that it won’t require surgery, but could keep him out of the lineup for a month or more. We really won’t know until Wednesday, September 4, when the Falcons practice report for Week 1 is released and it says either FP (full participation), LP (limited participation), or DNP (did not practice) to indicate where White’s status is. My personal philosophy is que sera sera, thus there is no sense worrying about things you cannot control.

And losing White is arguably the lesser of two evils, at least compared to losing Julio Jones. While I think Richard Sherman’s “dissing” of White several months ago went a bit too far (by saying he’s a product of the system), I do think there is a small sliver of a kernel of truth to what Sherman was saying in that White isn’t as good a player as Jones. Jones is the player that really makes the Falcons offense go, at least in the sense that it changes the way teams try to defend the Falcons. I do think there is a lot more overlap in regards to how the Falcons normally use White in comparison to his replacement, Harry Douglas.

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Takeaways from Last Week – August 12

August 12th, 2013 Comments off
Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Is Vick the one to lead the Eagles in 2013?

I don’t feel the need to really discuss the Falcons preseason opener against the Cincinnati Bengals. I spent 4,300 words breaking down nearly every player on the roster on both offense and defense, an hour-long podcast, as well as seeing which players’ stock is up and down following the game.

But the one thing I do think is worthwhile mentioning about the preseason opener is just many of the reactions I’ve seen and read about it. For whatever reason, people seem to have what I believe to be an overreaction to preseason games in general, but particularly the first one. If I am to wager a guess as to why that is, it’d be that since it’s really the first real football action we’ve seen in six months, people tend to probably overrate it. Similar to if you’re on a diet and you’ve decided to cut out soda or pizza. If you were to a regular consumer of either and then went six months without it, you might think that first sip of cola or slice of pepperoni is among the greatest thing you’ve ever eaten. Even if it is just the generic brand you bought for $0.89 at the local grocery store, or the crappy pizza from your local parlor that makes Pizza Hut look like gourmet stuff.

It’s not surprising that many fans do this. They are probably just aping what the media is doing, whose job it seems to be only about overreacting to things.

Take for instance the happenings in Philadelphia. First, Riley Cooper mouths off and says a racial slur. This might be a controversial viewpoint to some, but I don’t get what the big deal is. Cooper did what tens (if not hundreds) of millions of (white) Americans have done in the past, especially when they have imbibed alcohol. The only difference is that Cooper is semi-famous and it was posted on YouTube. I’m certainly not trying to condone what Cooper said, but why is the media coverage of this incident to the degree like he is/was the first person to use a racial slur. If you just paid attention to television, you would think Cooper and Paula Deen were the only people to use a racial slur in the past twenty years.

The other thing in Philly is how quickly everyone seems to be slamming the door on the quarterback competition between Michael Vick and Nick Foles. I don’t deny that Vick’s performance against the New England Patriots likely means he’s the front-runner and likely winner of the job going into the regular season. In fact, it’s not really the notion that people believe the competition is over since I’m fairly confident that it is over as well. But it’s the notion that Vick’s performance in the preseason opener means that all the question marks that the Eagles have at that position are answered.

Vick threw an extremely pretty pass to DeSean Jackson for a score against New England. But hitting deep passes to Jackson really hasn’t been Vick’s problem over the years. It’s been managing games and limited turnovers. His performance against New England did nothing to indicate those won’t continue to be issues for Chip Kelly and the Eagles to try and overcome this season.

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Takeaways from Last Week – August 5

August 5th, 2013 Comments off
David Kohl-US PRESSWIRE

Carlos Dunlap

Today the Falcons begin their joint practice sessions with the Cincinnati Bengals as they prepare for their preseason opener against them on Thursday night. Two days of practice, which all of the players look forward to because it’s nice to hit someone that is not your teammate. One of the more interesting developments that could come from this session will be if any fights occur. I could be mistaken but generally speaking it seems like the number of training camp fights is a lot lower with Mike Smith than previous regimes.

One of the drawbacks for these two days of joint practices will be the absence of Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green. Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford have both taken their fair share of lumps from Roddy White and Julio Jones through the first week-plus of training camp, and it would be nice to see them go against another top wideout. Green injured his knee last week, and is expected to be held out by the Bengals for this first week of preseason if not the next week. He is by far their primary offensive weapon, and they don’t want to risk further injury to him.

If there was another matchup that I’d be curious to see is how right tackles Mike Johnson and Lamar Holmes handle standout Bengals left defensive end Carlos Dunlap. Dunlap is one of the premier situational pass rushers in the league. So much so that he just earned a $40 million contract, despite the fact that he’s only technically started two games in three seasons in Cincinnati. We won’t know how much work either party will see in Thursday’s game, so how they fare in practice against a premier pass rusher like Dunlap could determine a lot about how much confidence the team has in either player. It’s probably too late for the Falcons to try and make a move in free agency to bolster the position if they don’t like what they see this week. But it could go a long way to determining just how the Falcons handle their protections this year. Most NFL teams tend to roll their protections to the left side in order to protect the blindside of the quarterback, with the Falcons being among those teams. But given all the question marks that the Falcons could have on the right side with a pair of unproven starters in Garrett Reynolds at right guard, and either Johnson or Holmes at tackle, the Falcons might have to do the opposite. Given the Falcons have invested nearly $80 million in the left side of their offensive line, it would only make sense then that they should feel comfortable enough with them to put them more on an island.

Another fascinating development will be getting to see these joint practices and the upcoming preseason game portrayed on HBO’s series Hard Knocks. The cameras are enveloping Bengals training camp for the second time in the series’ history. The Falcons have indicated that they are interested in the show in the past, but have said that the timing wasn’t right. Personally, I believe the Falcons want to be on Hard Knocks. Arthur Blank very much strikes me as the type of owner that would be very open to the idea of millions of viewers seeing the greatness that is the organization he’s built in Atlanta. But they also don’t want to deal with the potential for distractions it creates. I think they are waiting until after they win a title before we’ll see the NFL Films crew descend upon Flowery Branch. But until then, we’ll just have to settle for the taste we’ll likely receive in the second episode, which will air next Tuesday.

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Takeaways from Last Week – July 29

July 29th, 2013 Comments off
Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Should Stephen Nicholas be worried?

Training camp has begun for the Falcons. And it’s still early, but there have been a few interesting developments.

A lot has been made of the beatings that rookie corners Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford have had at the hands of Julio Jones and Roddy White. It’s somewhat silly, given it’s their first few days in camp. They are going up against arguably two of the ten best receivers in the league (I’d love to meet the person that would argue against it). And they are rookies after all. Frankly, if Patrick Peterson didn’t set the world on fire as a rookie, and he was the best cornerback prospect to come out since Champ Bailey, then why would anybody expect either Trufant or Alford to not suffer through growing pains? The key for them is going to be how much progress they show over the course of camp and the preseason. And then they’ll face Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints in the season opener. And I have no doubt that Sean Payton and Brees are going to very purposefully attack them in that game. And my expectations are that Payton and Brees will get the better of them more than they won’t. But even then, I won’t be upset. In regards to Trufant, Alford, and Robert McClain, it’s less about how good they are in September, but how good they are in January. After all, everyone expects this Falcon team to make the playoffs and make a title run.

It’s hard to tell who is ahead in some of the other position battles that dot the roster. What limited word we’ve heard about the right tackle position, suggests that Mike Johnson is still slightly ahead of Lamar Holmes. But one can’t put too much stock in one observation during one drill. We’ll see how that plays out the rest of summer. In past summers, things usually start to pick up by the second preseason game for offensive line battles so we’ll see how that goes.

It’s going to be interesting to see how the tight end battle plays out with Tony Gonzalez’s prolonged absence from camp. Chase Coffman and Tommy Gallarda appear to be getting much of the first-team reps thus far, with Levine Toilolo working as a reserve. While Toilolo’s roster spot isn’t really in jeopardy, we’ll have to see if he can leapfrog either in the coming days and weeks. As I’ve mentioned before, what sort of summer Toilolo has could have significant impact on how the rest of the roster plays out at that position. If he shines as a blocker, then Gallarda loses a bit of value. If he shines more as a receiver, then Coffman loses a bit of his luster there.

Defensively, there isn’t any direct competitions per se that I’m paying attention to. I’m more curious to see and hear how the Falcons use certain players like Kroy Biermann and Osi Umenyiora, who seem to getting a lot of time playing on their feet thus far. Eventually, I’m curious to see how the competition between Akeem Dent and Stephen Nicholas plays out for the second linebacker in the nickel. I fully expect Dent to win the job, but I’m curious how it all plays out. I’d like to see Dent win the job handily, that would give me more confidence that things are looking up for the Falcons coverage abilities from the linebacker position. There is some risk that Nicholas winds up a cap casualty at the end of camp. I don’t expect that to happen, but I also didn’t expect the Falcons to cut John Abraham at the beginning of the off-season. The Falcons cap situation currently (projected at roughly $5.7 million in cap space after Ryan’s extension) doesn’t call for the team to really need to purge salary at the end of the summer. As I’ve noted before the Falcons can save $905,000 against the cap by cutting Peria Jerry. Well actually that’s not true, the savings really only becomes $498,000 when you factor in a player like Micanor Regis (2013 cap hit of roughly $407,000) would then take up a roster spot and eat into those savings.

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Takeaways from Last Week – July 22

July 22nd, 2013 Comments off
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Desmond Trufant

The Falcons will report to training camp on Wednesday, July 24 and practices begin on Thursday of this week. And with no positive news on Matt Ryan’s deal, focus now centers on the possibility of some rookie holdouts. That was a thing that should have been a thing of the past with the new Collective Bargain Agreement’s rookie wage scale.

Word broke Sunday morning of the potential risk of a holdout from Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant per Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio. There is an impasse looming between Trufant and the Falcons over guaranteed money. And it all stems from previous deals negotiated at the 22nd overall spot where Trufant was selected by the Falcons.

In 2011, the 22nd overall pick was Indianapolis Colts left tackle Anthony Castonzo.  The Colts refused to fully guarantee all of Castonzo’s four-year deal with the team, only the first three years. Castonzo eventually relented and reported to work on the second day of Colts training camp with $6.535 million in guaranteed money in his pocket.

However in 2012, the Cleveland Browns sweetened the pot for quarterback Brandon Weeden, also taken 22nd overall. They guaranteed the first three years of his deal, and about 60% of his base salary in the fourth year, giving him guaranteed money of $7.511 million.

That’s more guaranteed money than 2013′s 21st overall pick, tight end Tyler Eifert, got in his deal with the Cincinnati Bengals. Eifert received $7.49 million in guaranteed money, which represents all of his contract minus approximately a $765,000 roster bonus he’s due in the fourth year. Eifert’s guarantees differ little from those of defensive end Chandler Jones ($7.421 million), the previous year’s 21st overall pick.

Due to the flat increase of the salary cap, Trufant will receive the same signing bonus that both Weeden and Castonzo received ($4.318 million). If following suit from the Colts’ example by guaranteeing the first three years and signing bonus, Trufant should be due guarantees around $6.65 million this year.  That is based off the first three years and bonus of Weeden’s deal multiplied by roughly the same increase rate seen from Jones to Eifert’s deals (about 1%). More than likely the Falcons will have to relent and guarantee a portion of that fourth year money, but the question becomes how much. The fact that the Falcons moved up eight spots in this year’s draft to select Trufant, buoys his camp’s stance of maximizing the guarantee dollars.

The Falcons gave up third round (92nd overall) and sixth round (198th overall) picks to move up to get Trufant and got back a seventh round pick in 2015. Players taken with those picks were St. Louis Rams wide receiver Stedman Bailey and Houston Texans defensive tackle Chris Jones. Bailey received a $527,400 signing bonus from the Rams, while Jones got $92,512 from the Texans. Combined that would be $619,912, suggesting that it would make sense for the Falcons to guarantee a comparable amount of his fourth-year salary seeing that they were willing to give up that amount via trade. Adding that to his $6.65 million, that would give Trufant a guaranteed payout of around $7.271 million. Whether the actual terms of the deal signed by Trufant are that remains to be seen, but it’s a fair compromise in my eyes. Hopefully it results in Trufant not missing a single snap of practice.

While the possibility of a holdout would hurt Trufant’s chances to win the starting right cornerback position, I don’t think any potential holdout will be long. Trufant displayed his eagerness and commitment to the team this spring during OTAs when he was Skyping with Tim Lewis while away due to league rules. My suspicion is that he’ll push for agent, Doug Hendrickson of Octagon Sports, to get him in camp on time, no matter what. But even if he does miss a few practices, I would be shocked if it was more than a day or two’s worth, and thus I don’t think would be a significant setback to his chances of winning the starting job by camp’s end.

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Takeaways from Last Week – July 15

July 15th, 2013 Comments off
Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE

I feel your pain

A week from today, we will be on the two-week anniversary of when the lockout ended. And now with two years of hindsight to show for it, it’s clear that the players dropped the ball.

Last week, I discussed Roger Goodell and the NFL’s corporate image in efforts to “protect the shield.” The fact that the players didn’t fight harder to have Goodell removed as the entity that disciplines players. This became a major issue last off-season with the BountyGate decisions, where Goodell clearly overstepped his limits when meting out player punishment.

The players signed a deal believing that their would be a landfall with money coming in 2014. Well, current projections indicate that at the earliest that will be coming in 2015. Until then there has been a flat cap which has led to teams spending much less money, leading some players to believe that teams are colluding with one another to keep prices down.

The players also didn’t fight hard enough to get rid of the franchise tag. Look at the number of tagged players that aren’t getting deals. Eight players got tagged this off-season. And only one of them as of this posting Monday morning, Denver Broncos offensive tackle Ryan Clady, got a long-term deal. In fact, several of them such as Randy Starks and Anthony Spencer were pretty much told point-blank that their respective teams had no interest in locking them up to long-term deals.

That’s the same way that the Falcons treated Brent Grimes an off-season ago. They had no intention to really give him a long-term deal, which led to the bitterness expressed by Miko Grimes.

Look at the following table. Since 2008, 73 players have received franchise tags. Only 35 of them have gotten long-term deals from their respective teams. Even discounting this year’s group of eight, the percentage was still barely about half (52.3%). Basically when a player is tagged, it’s a 50/50 proposition that he gets a new deal from his respective team. This is why players hate the franchise tag. It’s denying them money that they should be able to get on the open market.

Year
Total
Signed
Not-Signed
Pct. Signed
TOTALS73353847.9%
201381712.5%
20121911857.9%
20111310376.9%
201064266.7%
20091541126.7%
2008125741.7%

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