Keller, who will be an unrestricted free agent during the offseason, is eligible for the franchise tag if a deal is not reached by free agency, but does not want that to be an option.
"I 100 percent do not want to be franchised," Keller clarified in an e-mail. "I signed a five year deal, that’s what I agreed to. To make somebody play a one year deal to something they never agreed to is crazy to me. It’s not legal in any other business, so it’s still, it’s just crazy to me. So no, I definitely don’t want to be franchised."
The franchise mark for a tight end this year is $5.962 million, according to the league's Website.
The Jets refusal to address Keller's contract has been one of the stories that many have kept a close eye on during the last calendar year. The Jets have chosen to take a wait-and-see approach with him in particular after some of their recent big money contracts. It's not that much of a surprise given the financial straits that might face the team as they start to think about 2013. Keller was an integral piece of the Schottenheimer offense -- an offense which valued and understood how to use a hybrid tight end. The current incarnation of the Jets offense might not be around much longer ... so it's hard to say how valuable Keller will be to the team anymore. Especially considering all the injuries he had to work through this season.
For the Jets, if they want to keep Dustin Keller around, there's few options. They can franchise tag him, which ensures that they will at least pay him around $6 million next year. While the Jets will have some money to spend, based on their need to preserve cap space I'm unsure how much they'd realistically be able to allocate that amount of money to Keller when they have Cumberland gaining experience and some promising depth players in Reuland and the IR'ed Josh Baker. Of course, Mike Tannenbaum was the one who's invested time and roster spots into Baker and Cumberland ... not whoever might replace Tannenbaum in a matter of weeks. Still, if they franchise Keller and and can't work out a long-term deal, they could still try and trade him before the draft. There's enough teams in the league looking for a reliable hybrid tight end for their young quarterbacks that they might get a late day two pick. The transition tag is an option, but one that few teams use and is nothing more than a first right of refusal that extends into free agency. Meh.
If the Jets do offer him a long-term deal, they would probably try and load most of the money into the contract's second year. That way they would get over the 2013 cap hurdle, get Keller his money towards the front end of his deal and still allow the Jets to get out of the contract in a reasonable amount of time as most tight end's production starts to drop precipitously after about year six / year seven.
I like Keller a lot and would love for the team to keep him around, but much as Brad Smith did two years ago, I wonder if his tenure with the Jets might fall victim to the team's priorities this offseason.