The Franchise Tag: Blessing Or Curse?
2021 is proving to be a wild year moving into free agency and one of the factors that have been shaken up the most, is the franchise tag. With the cap falling from $198.2M in 2020, to $182.5M for 2021, the franchise tag has been the biggest question for most teams this off season. The tag fully guarantees the entire dollar amount to the tagged player regardless of injury, so it is a big time risk. Not to mention the history of the franchise tag, more often than not, signifying the end of the player/team relationship. Not always of course, but tags definitely scare me, especially when in regards to players that I like.
So, for those that don’t know, the tag can be a very team friendly AND player friendly option heading into free agency. It allows the team to hold onto the rights of the player for another year, and it allows the player to collect a year of salary which is averaged by the top 5 players of the position over the last 5 years combined with overall salary cap movement. Cap goes down, tag cost goes down. Teams tend to use this to give more time to work out long term deals, but sometimes, teams can use the tag to create draft capital in a tag and trade scenario. See Allen Robinson and the Chicago Bears.
There is also the non-exclusive tag where the player can negotiate with other teams, however, that is often looked at as look, but don’t touch.
There is a big risk to teams negotiating with a player on a non-exclusive tag. Say that new team makes an offer, the original team says they won’t match it.. Well, that player does get to go to the new team, but that new team now has to give their next 2 first round draft picks to the old team. Not a risk many are willing to do. You will see QB’s go on that non-exclusive tag more often than any other position. No other position really holds the value for 2 #1’s other than QB.
A casual fan can look at this situation and think to themselves, “Hey, we just got (Insert player name here) for another year! That’s awesome!” But for those of us who deep dive into this sport that is our passion, we see the dark underbelly and the truth of how the tag is generally perceived inside the locker room. We see Le’Veon Bell holding out for all of 2018 until he was finally out of contract after being tagged the first time. We remember Eric Berry telling the Chiefs to not even think about tagging him again in 2017. We remember Josh Norman forcing his way out of Carolina, eventually signing his mega-deal in Washington for $75M over 5 years.
The point being, franchise tags generally don’t end well for the tagging organization.
This year has seen something very interesting. Few teams have slapped the tag on their player this year. Notable exceptions to this are the Bears tagging Allen Robinson, the Bucs tagging Chris Godwin, the Washington Football Team tagging Brandon Scherff, and the Jets tagging Marcus maye. Say it ain’t so Joe D! The reason for this is a reduction in the salary cap from $198.2M in 2020 to $182.5M in 2021. There were 12 teams negative in cap space and only 5 teams over $50M in available space. So with teams still needing to plan ahead for signing their draft classes, not many teams had the luxury of hitting a player with the tag. Take that for what you will, I call it a win. It allows the players to test the waters in free agency to get their dollars and I am 100% ok with that. These guys play a brutal sport and most have a shelf life of 7-10 years, and fun fact.. Do you know the actual overall average career length in the NFL? That would be 2.5 years.. Go ahead.. Google it. And a team can tag a player twice. 2 years... Is there still anyone out there putting players down for wanting job security or big contracts or injury protection? It isn’t like you or I going to work 40-50 hours per week for 30 years. These guys
have a very small window to make their money and franchise tags often block them from achieving that long term security and financial freedom.
Now, of course, there are two sides to every coin. And as I said above, sometimes a team needs to tag a player to maintain the rights to said player while a long term extension is being put in place. I totally get that. And if the front office and player and agent can be all good with that, then there is nothing wrong with it. But this is a very tricky path to navigate especially in the world of social media where everyone knows the business almost instantly and then ten million opinions are fired out there all at once. It can cause a ton of drama in a deal that was all but agreed upon. But business is business and the show must go on right?
Ultimately, I believe tags are a necessary evil when used at the best of times and are down right shady at the worst of times. When you are in a trillion dollar per year business, these are the dark demons that don’t often show up at the surface with all the glitz and glamour of the visible NFL, or any sport for that matter with whatever system they have in place to keep players past their contract term.. And isn’t that what they really are at the end of the day? You decide.
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