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Ravens likely to use franchise tag on Justin Tucker if they can't reach deal

Which player are the Ravens likely to use the franchise tag on?

The Ravens are getting closer to having to make a decision on one of their top pending free agents.

Tuesday starts a two-week window during which teams are allowed to place the franchise tag on a prospective free agent, keeping that player from hitting the open market. It appears to be a near formality that the Ravens will use the tag on kicker Justin Tucker if the two sides are unable to reach agreement on the terms of a contract extension by March 1.

"When you have a kicker like him, you don't mess around with that," said Joel Corry, a former agent who writes about the salary cap and the business of football for CBS Sports and National Football Post. "You don't want someone to come in and poach him. Kickers don't grow on trees. I'd think long and hard about letting him hit the open market."

All along, the Ravens have said that the goal is to extend the contract of Tucker, the 26-year-old who is the second most accurate kicker in NFL history. There has been no indication that the two sides have made significant progress in negotiations on a new deal. However, deadlines often lead to compromise.

Tucker's agent, Robert Roche, didn't return a phone call seeking comment. Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome doesn't comment on negotiations with players, but he said at the team's end-of-season press conference last month that the organization would "go to work" on trying to get a deal done with Tucker. He also acknowledged that the front office is aware of what the franchise tag would cost for a kicker "if it gets to that."

The league has yet to announce the exact cost of the franchise tag for each position, which is figured by determining the average of the top five salaries at each position. It is expected, though, that it will cost approximately $4.5 million to use the franchise tag on a kicker.

Stephen Gostkowski of the New England Patriots is currently the league's highest-paid kicker in terms of average per year ($4.3 million) and guaranteed money ($10.1 million). The Patriots signed Gostkowski to a four-year, $17.2 million extension last July after initially using the franchise tag on him earlier in the offseason.

The list of the league's other highest-paid kickers includes the Oakland Raiders' Sebastian Janikowski ($3.775 million per year), the Chicago Bears' Robbie Gould ($3.75 million), the Minnesota Vikings' Blair Walsh ($3.25 million) and the Dallas Cowboys' Dan Bailey ($3.214 million).

Tucker, an undrafted free agent in 2012 who has developed into one of the league's most accurate and clutch kickers, will surely join the group when he gets a new contract, whether it's from the Ravens or another team. Even in what constituted an off year by Tucker's standards, he still made 33-of-40 field-goal attempts and all 29 extra-point tries and finished second in the NFL in touchback percentage in 2015.

Over his career, Tucker has made 130-of-148 field-goal attempts with 12 of those misses coming from 50 yards or longer. He has booted 10 game-winning field goals, including three in 2015.

"He's a great candidate for this year and next year to be franchised if they can't come to an agreement," said one industry source with knowledge of the Ravens' salary cap situation. "A long-term deal for him, he's going to be paid as a top two or three kicker, which means he's going to be close to $20 million, which is the Gostkowski money. Do you want to give him $20 million or do you want to just give him the one-year franchise tag and see how it goes? It's the obvious move, and history has shown it. There is no other viable candidate and he's the most valuable commodity."

Complicating matters for the Ravens is that they don't have a lot of salary cap flexibility. Even if they agree to a contract extension/restructuring with quarterback Joe Flacco, who is currently due to count an untenable $28.55 million against the cap this season, they still are going to be relatively limited in what they can add in upgrading a roster that had myriad issues last season.

There has been some talk about using the tag on free agent offensive guard/tackle Kelechi Osemele, but that would cost approximately $14 million in 2016. The Ravens seemingly don't have enough cap space to spend that much on Osemele, even if they project him as their starting left tackle.

However, Tucker's price under the tag would be far less prohibitive, which is the reason why kickers and punters have been popular targets for the franchise tag. A kicker or punter has been "franchised" in seven consecutive seasons, including Gostkowski last year and the New York Jets' Nick Folk in 2014.

"You typically see a kicker franchised and [Tucker's] the most logical candidate. I expect it if there's not a deal," Corry said.

The Ravens have used the franchise tag seven times in team history, with the most recent occurrence coming in 2012 with running back Ray Rice. It served as a precursor to long-term deals for both Rice and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata in 2011.

If the Ravens used the franchise tag on Tucker, they would have until July 15 to reach a long-term deal with the kicker or he'd play the season under the tag. So not only would the tag keep him off the free-agent market, but it would buy the Ravens some time in negotiations.

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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