The Super Bowl might have come and gone, but if you’re a football fanatic, you know there really is no such thing as an NFL offseason. Even now, mere weeks since that final game was played, sports shows and blogs are buzzing with talk about the Combine and NFL Draft. Once the playoffs end, it’s time for all teams to get back to business, and many crucial decisions must be made.
One such decision is determining which free agents a team wants to keep, and who should be let go. The NFL has a salary cap which places a limit on the amount of money a team can spend on players’ salaries. This can present a challenge to teams that have many good free agents that they want to keep, as oftentimes there simply isn’t enough money to pay everyone.
That is where the franchise tag comes in.
What is the Franchise Tag?
The NFL introduced the franchise tag in 1993 as a way for each team to keep an unrestricted free agent on their roster for an additional year. It was implemented, in part, with the idea that it would help prevent elite players, especially those in smaller markets, from leaving during free agency. Teams can place the franchise tag on one player per year, and this basically gives the player a one-year contract.
All teams have until March 6th to use their tag, but most only use franchise tags as a last resort effort to keep their best free agent from leaving. When a franchise tag is used, a player and team have until July 15th to work out a new deal. If no deal is struck, the franchised player will get locked into his one-year deal.
Three Types Of Tag
When it comes to using a franchise tag, teams actually have a few options to choose from. There are three types of franchise tag.
First, there is an exclusive franchise tag, which completely binds the player to his team. The player cannot negotiate a contract with any other team, and the team is required to pay the player a guaranteed salary. This salary is calculated one of two ways – either by averaging the top 5 salaries in the NFL for that position, or a team may pay 120% of the player’s previous salary, whichever is greater.
Then there is a nonexclusive franchise tag. With this tag, a player may sign an offer sheet with another team, but the original team has the right to match the offer. If they do match the offer, they will retain the player. If they let the player leave, then they will receive two first-round draft picks as compensation. This is the most common usage of the franchise tag.
Finally, there is the transition franchise tag, which works like the nonexclusive franchise tag, except the original team only has the right to match the other team’s offer. If the original team does not offer a matching bid, no compensation is awarded. This option isn’t used very often.
Who Gets The Tag?
A team can choose to use the franchise tag on any player, but often it is reserved for players who would be in high demand on the open market. A lot of times, it is valuable offensive linemen, like pass-protecting tackles, that are given the tag. Defensive ends and linebackers also get tagged often, especially those that are effective pass-rushers.
Quarterbacks don’t often reach this point in the process, as the elite ones are often given deals before reaching free agency.
It’s also worth noting that some teams use the tag more often than others. The Colts have used the tag 11 times since 1993, and the Seahawks 10. Conversely, the Texans have only used the tag once, and the Falcons, only twice. It really does come down to the individual needs of the team.
These days, the franchise tag is often used more as a negotiating ploy. Of the players tagged since 2012, around half have signed long-term deals by the July 15 deadline.
What Do The Players Think?
The franchise tag is a nice option for a team’s management to use, but that doesn’t mean the players actually support its use.
One argument against the tag is that it gives little bargaining leverage to players. Once a player is franchised, they are locked into a one-year deal. If they are unhappy with that deal, their only real option to get a new contract is to just sit out and not play that season.
Why would a player be unhappy about their one-year deal? For one, the really elite players don’t feel they get paid what they are worth. For a superstar seeking a giant pay-day, earning the average salary of the top 5 players actually might not be that much compared to what you are really worth.
Furthermore, players are not guaranteed a contract beyond that one year. If a player has a bad season, or even worse, gets injured, they lose out on potentially earning more had they signed a long-term contract upon becoming a free agent.
Then there is the whole disrespect aspect. Some players feel that their loyalty and performance for a particular team might warrant a long-term contract, and to them, anything less could be seen as disrespect. How a multi-million dollar deal could be seen as disrespectful is probably open for some debate.
Regardless of what the players think, the franchise tag has become an integral part of the NFL, and it appears that it’s here to stay.
The drama that is the NFL offseason continues.
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.