Monday marks the beginning of franchise tag season in the NFL, and with said season running through March 5, it bears watching what the Raiders will do, if anything.Oakland's two most valuable free agents are running back Michael Bush and strong safety Tyvon Branch.The Raiders have utilized the franchise tag in the recent past -- initially using it on linebacker Kamerion Wimbley last year before he re-signed a long-term deal, defensive tackle Richard Seymour in 2010 and cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha in 2008.
But the Raiders, under a new general manager in Reggie McKenzie and a new coach in Dennis Allen, are in rebuild mode and find themselves a reported 11 million over the salary cap. As such, and with the relatively hefty price to slap a franchise tag on a player, it is unlikely the Raiders will use it this time around.Still, at first it seemed a no-brainer to use it on Bush, who stepped in for the injured Darren McFadden in Week 7 and rushed for a team-high 977 yards, averaging 4.3 yards per carry after becoming the starter. The projected franchise tender for running backs is expected to be between 7.778 million and 8.088 million, according to footballoutsiders.com, and that's a lot to pay for a backup running back. Even more to pay for two running backs as McFadden is due to make 5.65 million in base salary in 2012. UnlessSlapping the tag on Bush would seem to signal the Raiders A) don't trust McFadden to get through a season healthy, or B) would be open to trading McFadden. Then again, what could they really expect to get in return for an injury-prone, albeit electric when healthy, playmaker in McFadden?If the Raiders allow Bush to hit the open market when free agency begins on March 13, he's probably gone because while he would not get franchise tag money, he'd get starting running back money.Branch, meanwhile, has become the clubhouse leader in the race of most likely to be taggedshould the Raiders decide to use it.He enjoyed a breakout season in 2011, led the Raiders in tackles with 109, had an interception, was a Pro Bowl alternate and could become the focal point of the secondary under the direction of Allen, a former secondary coach in New Orleans.The projected tag for safeties is between 6.22 million and 6.459 million. Obviously, the Raiders would like to sign Branch to a long-term deal to offer salary cap relief and to lock in Branch as an anchor for the defense.Any other candidates? Only center Samson Satele and right tackle Khalif Barnes were full-time starters among the Raiders' 16 unrestricted free agents, along with Branch, and neither of them figure to get a tag worth some 9.5 million. Yes, for an offensive lineman.