10 things to know about the franchise tag
The franchise tag is old enough to vote, and nearly old enough to drink. The tag made its annual return more than a week ago. Unlike the Great Pumpkin, the tool for restricting a player’s ability to move from team to team will indeed make an appearance, in multiple NFL cities.
Eventually. We think. Perhaps starting as soon as today.
So here are 10 things to know about the tag. You may have already known them. You may have known and forgotten. Or you may not have known at all.
Or perhaps that you didn’t want to know.
1. The formula has changed.
Under prior labor deals, the non-exclusive franchise tag was determined by calculating the average of the five highest-paid players at each position from the prior year. Under the 2011 CBA, the franchise tenders come from a more complex procedure.
Under Article 10, Section 2 of the CBA, the number is based on the five-year average cap percentage for the tag at each position.
So it’s no longer driven by what players at the same position made in the prior season, but by the average cap percentage consumed by the franchise tender over five years. Then, that percentage will be applied to the 2013 salary cap to determine the franchise tender at each position.
Already confused? We’ve got nine more.
2. In some cases, the formula doesn’t matter.
A player getting the non-exclusive franchise tag is entitled to the greater of the formula clumsily explained above (and that was the fourth draft of it) or 120 percent of the player’s cap number from the prior year.
That’s why, for example, the franchise tender for Dolphins tackle Jake Long would be much higher than the franchise tender for an offensive lineman. Long made enough in 2012 to result in a 20-percent raise, trumping the franchise tender.
This dynamic often applies to players who were taken high in the draft before the implementation of the rookie wage scale. As rookie contracts expire under the new labor deal, franchise tenders for many of them will be lower.
3. The transition tag has become meaningless.
Teams can use, in any given year, one franchise tag or one transition tag. The transition tag gives a team the right to match an offer sheet, but no compensation if the team chooses not to match.
At one point, the transition player’s contract was not fully guaranteed once it was accepted by the player. It now is.
The fact that the guaranteed pay on the one-year transition tender isn’t much less than the guaranteed pay for the one-year franchise tender, coupled with the lack of draft-pick compensation, has made the transition tag largely meaningless.
4. Franchise tags can be withdrawn.
The amount of the franchise tender becomes fully guaranteed once the player signs it. Since signing the franchise tender puts the player under contract, requiring him to show up to all mandatory offseason activities and training camp, some players choose to wait deep into the preseason before inking the offer.
The risk is that the franchise tag can be withdrawn, at any time, before it has been signed.
It doesn’t happen often, but it’s not unprecedented. Especially in Philly. In 2002, the Eagles pulled the franchise tag from linebacker Jeremiah Trotter in early April. Three years later, the Eagles removed the franchise tag from defensive tackle Corey Simon in late August.
The move immediately converts the player to an unrestricted free agent. But if it comes after the big money has been spent, the player will have a hard time getting the pay day he would have realized on the first day of free agency.
5. Franchise tender is guaranteed, with one exception.
Once a player signs the franchise tag, the one-year salary becomes fully guaranteed. But there’s a little-known exception.
Under Article 10, Section 2(c) of the CBA, the contract can be terminated if the player fails “to establish or maintain his excellent physical condition.”
Any effort to do so would result in a review of the situation by a neutral physician and, eventually and inevitably, arbitration. Still, the franchise tender technically isn’t fully and completely guaranteed.
6. No non-quarterback will be tagged more than twice.
Former Seahawks tackle Walter Jones once spent three straight years under the franchise tag, pocketing a total of $20 million and then signing a long-term deal that paid him $20 million more guaranteed, back when $20 million was a very big deal for NFL purposes.
Jones rolled the dice on bearing the injury risk for the three franchise years, and he won. Most players prefer the certainty of a long-term deal.
That’s why the 2006 CBA changed the formula to pay a non-quarterback the quarterback franchise tender if he’s tagged a third time.
Quarterbacks are protected, too. In the third year of the franchise tag, they get at least a 44-percent raise over their cap number in the prior year.
7. Arguably, no player can be tagged more than three times.
Last year’s grievance filed by Saints quarterback Drew Brees established that, if a player is tagged once by two different teams, it counts as being tagged twice. Which would have entitled him to a 44-percent raise in 2013, if he had played under the franchise tag last year for the Saints. (He was tagged in 2005 by the Chargers.)
Based on the language of the CBA, there’s an argument to be made that no player may ever be tagged more than three times during the course of his career.
Of course, tagging a player a fourth time would entail paying out a second 44-percent raise one year after paying out an initial 44-percent raise. Which would make it highly unlikely that any team would ever want to use the tag more than three times.
8. It’s cheap to tag kickers and punters.
There’s a belief among some fans that the use of the franchise tag meant that the player was a “franchise player.” And so, when a team uses the tag on a punter or a kicker, fans are confused and/or amused.
But the formula for calculating franchise tenders has made it cheaper to use the tag than to sign the player to a market-value deal.
At $2.9 million for 2013, more kickers and punters could find themselves being regarded as “franchise players.”
9. Long-term deals can be negotiated, through July 15.
Previously, the window for a team signing its franchise player to a long-term deal closed not long after the free-agency period started and then opened again on July 15. Now, the window remains open until July 15.
After July 15, the franchise player can sign only a one-year deal with his current team. It can be for more than the franchise tender, and it can include other terms, like playing-time or performance triggers that would prevent the tag from being used again.
But the duration can be no more than one year.
10. One offer sheet may be signed, through July 15.
For a player carrying the non-exclusive tag, he can negotiate with any other team. Ultimately, one offer sheet can be signed.
Once it’s signed, the situation simplifies considerably. The player’s current team will match the offer and keep him, or the player’s team will not match the offer and collect a pair of first-round picks from the new team.
The two first-round picks given as compensation must be the team’s original picks -- not any picks obtained via trade or otherwise.
And there’s a loophole which, eventually, a desperate coach or G.M. may use. The period for signing franchise players to offer sheets lingers beyond the current year’s draft. Thus, for example, a team that wants to sign quarterback Joe Flacco (if the Ravens use the non-exclusive tag) could, in theory, wait until after the draft, sign Flacco to a front-loaded offer sheet that the Ravens can’t match, and then surrender not the 2013 and 2014 first-round picks, but the first-round picks for 2014 and 2015.
There’s nothing in the labor deal that prevents this from happening until July 15, after which date the player can sign only a one-year deal with his current team.