The NFL marches toward free agency this week with a key date on the calendar: Beginning Feb. 20, NFL teams can use the franchise tag on a pending free agent, which would allow them to keep that player from hitting the open market.
If a team uses the tag on a player, the two sides have until mid-July to work out a long-term deal or the player must play the season under the tag, essentially a one-year contract at the prescribed salary and cap charge.
The Ravens have used the tag only once since 2012, on kicker Justin Tucker in 2016. It seems unlikely they will do so this year, but they will be watching closely to see if some of their potential free-agent targets get pulled off the market via the franchise tag.
The Ravens' top candidate for the franchise tag would seem to be center Ryan Jensen, but it is a pricey proposition; because offensive linemen, including high-priced tackles, are all grouped together in the salary calculations that set the tag prices, the cost to franchise Jensen would be roughly $14.2 million. The Ravens, always tight against the cap, simply can't afford that.
There's a chance the Ravens and Jensen can work out a long-term deal that keeps him in Baltimore, but he won't be cheap, and it's more likely Jensen hits the open market and finds a new home.
Veteran receiver Mike Wallace is another of the Ravens' top pending free agents, but to tag Wallace would cost the Ravens more than $15 million. That's not happening for a 32-year-old receiver whose 748 receiving yards last year was the second-lowest total of his career.
However, three receivers who could receive the franchise tag are Jarvis Landry of the Miami Dolphins, Allen Robinson of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Sammy Watkins of the Los Angeles Rams. Any of those players could potentially be of interest to the Ravens, who face critical needs at wide receiver.
Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said at his news conference earlier this month, "I think that we can make a splash and help us on the way to getting our offense clicking better."
But if any of those receivers are tagged, that would thin an already shallow pool of free-agent receivers, which could drive up the price of Wallace and the others. Wallace said at the end of the season that he's open to returning to Baltimore but at this stage of his career he is most focused on playing for a team with a legitimate shot at the Super Bowl.
The Ravens' receiver position is in great flux this offseason, with both Wallace and Michael Campanaro set to become free agents, Jeremy Maclin a potential cap casualty after a disappointing year and former first-round pick Breshad Perriman returning from a lost year during which he had just 10 catches and was a healthy inactive for several games.
Teams have until March 6 to apply the franchise tag. Free agency officially begins March 14.