Source: Saints to tag DE Grant as franchise player

Barring an unexpected breakthrough in contract negotiations, ESPN.com has learned that the New Orleans Saints will designate left defensive end Charles Grant as a franchise player before Thursday's deadline, a move that will keep him off the unrestricted free agent market.

There has been virtually no momentum in contract discussions since the end of the season, and it will take considerable progress in the next few days to even close the gap in talks, much less reach an accord. Teams who want to exercise the franchise or transition marker on a player have until Thursday to do so.

The value of the franchise marker for a defensive end, which basically represents a one-year qualifying offer, is $8.66 million.

If the Saints use the franchise tag, Grant will be able to negotiate with other teams, and New Orleans will have a right of first refusal. But the cost for another club to sign a franchise player is exorbitant, with compensation set at a air of first-round draft choices, so franchise players rarely change teams.

Grant had hoped to avoid the franchise tag because of the acrimony it typically entails and because, like most pending free agents, he would prefer to be unrestricted.

A former University of Georgia standout, Grant, 28, was New Orleans' first-round choice in the 2002 draft and has played his entire career under his original contract.

Grant, who has never missed a game in five seasons, comprises half of a standout defensive end tandem, teaming with another former first-round choice, Will Smith. Most experts feel that Smith is the better all-around player, but there is no denying Grant is a force.

He is an intense two-way performer, a defender whose motor typically runs high, and who plays well versus the run and the pass. Without the franchise tag, his value would be further enhanced in what projects as a very thin unrestricted free agent market.

In 80 appearances, Grant has 298 tackles, 36 sacks, one interception, 24 passes defensed, 15 forced fumbles and five recoveries. He totaled 20 sacks in 2003-04, but fell off to just 2 sacks in 2005, before improving to six in 2006.

With the Thursday deadline looming, there have been four players -- Chicago weakside linebacker Lance Briggs, Cincinnati defensive end Justin Smith, New England cornerback Asante Samuel and defensive end Dwight Freeney of the Super Bowl-champion Colts -- designated as franchise players.

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.