The top of this year’s NFL free agent class was stocked with defensive linemen and edge rushers. Most never hit the market.
Both Pro Football Focus and Sports Illustrated had DeMarcus Lawrence (Cowboys), Grady Jarrett (Falcons), Jadeveon Clowney (Texans), Frank Clark (Seahawks), and Dee Ford (Chiefs) ranked in the top 10 on their respective lists of this offseason’s potential free agents. But all five of them were slapped with the franchise tag, a designation each team is permitted each year to place upon one veteran free unrestricted agent. The trade-off for the player is that the one-year tag money is comparatively good, in addition to being fully guaranteed. For some players, the tag can be beneficial. But most players detest the tag because it restricts their earning power and their ability to play where they’d like.
That was especially true this year, but the tag dates to the advent of modern free agency, and it was born from one owner’s desire to retain a star quarterback. It quickly evolved into something else, even as its purpose remains wholly unnecessary in a league in which owners share national television revenues while simultaneously operating under the constraints of a hard salary cap. And no matter how much the players might want it to disappear, the tag is also likely not going anywhere anytime soon.
The franchise tag system followed what was known as Plan B free agency, which was instituted in 1989, after the NFLPA decertified in the wake of the failure of the 1987 players strike. Under Plan B free agency, teams were given limited rights—first refusal, compensation—to retain 37 players. After several players challenged this system in court and won, a settlement was reached. In 1993, a new CBA was approved that granted players unrestricted free agency in exchange for a salary cap and a set of designations that included the franchise tag.
The franchise tag was birthed during negotiations for the 1993 CBA because Broncos owner Pat Bowlen was concerned he wouldn’t be able to retain John Elway. So after some back and forth with the NFLPA—Al Davis, the late Raiders owner, pushed to allow teams to have up to five franchise tags at their disposal—the league and the players union agreed to allow each team to designate one player to whom it would pay top dollar in exchange for an extended bargaining window. “In the NFL offices,” Sports Illustrated’s Jacob Feldman wrote last year, “the policy came to be called ‘The Elway Rule.’ Then it morphed.” As then-NFLPA lawyer Jim Quinn told Feldman, “I never thought it would ever apply to any other player [other than a quarterback].” Yet here we are. The 2019 cap, which is tied to revenues, is up to $188.2 million, a 53 percent increase from where it was in 2013. Teams are also on the hook for another $40.5 million in benefits. But NFL teams each received a record $255 million in TV revenue last year—more than enough to cover those salary and benefits costs. Yet the tag remains a tool for teams to cling to.
“The franchise tag,” wrote SI’s Gary Gramling, for whom inveighing against the tag is a favorite hobbyhorse, “is now a contradictory loophole that allows front offices to claim a certain player is so valuable that they can’t possibly afford to lose him, but … also isn’t valuable enough to give a market-value deal.”
Elway might have been the impetus for the tag, but in 1993, as teams scrambled to understand the new rules, they immediately set about franchising all sorts of players at a variety of positions—10 in all, according to Mike Tanier, then writing for Football Outsiders. One of those 10 was then-Eagles defensive end Reggie White, who had been granted free agency as part of the ’93 CBA because he was a named plaintiff in an antitrust lawsuit against the league. “Eagles owner Norman Braman hoped that by tagging White he would receive compensatory draft picks,” Tanier wrote. (White’s unrestricted free agency was ultimately granted that year.) But even after the CBA was ratified and approved by the federal judge overseeing the player lawsuits, the NFL and the newly re-certified NFLPA reached an additional compromise that split the franchise tag into two varieties: exclusive and non-exclusive. What’s called the transition tag was also a part of the 1993 CBA.
The exclusive tag prohibits a player from bargaining with other teams, and pays a salary equal to the average of the top five salaries at the player’s position for the current year. (The player’s position is based on where he played the most snaps in the previous season.) The non-exclusive tag allows a player to bargain with other teams, but requires two first-round picks as compensation if that player were to sign elsewhere. The tender for the non-exclusive tag is equal to the average of the five highest salaries from the previous year at that player’s position, which is now calculated by using a formula that factors in the previous five years of tag numbers and salary cap percentages. Which is important, for reasons I’ll discuss later.
The transition tag tenders a player at the average of the top 10 salaries at his position the previous year, according to the same formula as the non-exclusive tag. A transitioned player can bargain and sign with another team, but his current team has a right of first refusal. The current team also receives no draft choice compensation.
Every year, a few weeks before free agency begins, teams have a two-week window to tag a player. Lawrence, Jarrett, Clowney, Clark, and Ford, plus 49ers kicker Robbie Gould, were all given the non-exclusive franchise tag this year. Those numbers broke down as follows:
- Grady Jarrett, defensive tackle: $15.209 million
- DeMarcus Lawrence, defensive end: $20.571 million
- Jadeveon Clowney, linebacker: $15.443 million
- Dee Ford, linebacker: $15.443 million
- Robbie Gould, kicker: $4.971 million
- Frank Clark, defensive end: $17.128 million
Lawrence’s tag figure is higher than Clark’s because he had been tagged last season. By rule, a second consecutive tag calls for a 120 percent raise above the previous year. A third consecutive tag—a scenario that has only happened twice, to Seahawks offensive tackle Walter Jones and Jaguars safety Donovin Darius, both during the aughts—mandates a 144 percent raise above the prior year.
The franchise tag allows each player’s current team to bargain with him toward a long-term deal until July 15. If the two sides can’t reach an agreement by then, they’re forbidden from talking about an extension until after the season. A player who signs his tender locks in his salary (in cash and cap) for the season, fully guaranteed. A player who refuses to sign his tender is not considered to be under contract and can avoid the team for as long as he likes, without consequence; he’ll only start to lose salary once the regular season starts. If the player is still sitting out by the start of Week 11, he can’t play at all that season. That’s what Le’Veon Bell, tagged in back-to-back seasons by the Steelers, did last year.
In a given year, the tag can be advantageous to individual players. Kirk Cousins and cornerback Trumaine Johnson both played two years on the tag in 2016 and 2017 before cashing in. In 2012 and 2013, the Cowboys tagged outside linebacker Anthony Spencer in back to back seasons—for a total of $19.4 million. As Spencer once explained to ESPN’s Todd Archer, he wound up getting more by getting tagged twice than he likely would have gotten in guarantees had he signed a long-term deal. But had Spencer gotten seriously injured under the tag, he’d have been shit out of luck. Which, according to Robert Mays, then writing for Grantland, is what happened to Bears defensive end Henry Melton, who tore his ACL while playing on the tag for $8.45 million in 2013. Melton spent the ensuing two years with two other teams and never came close to earning that kind of money again. He was out of the league by the start of the 2016 regular season.
Designating each tag figure by position puts an additional artificial restraint on what each player can earn—this is the system Bell was fighting against; as a dual-threat pass catcher and ball carrier capable of lining up anywhere, he didn’t want his compensation hemmed in by a position-based structure. (That didn’t quite work out for him.)
The tag only seems to directly affect a fraction of the league’s 1,700 players, and those tagged still stand to earn millions of dollars. But the team-friendly features in the tag system run much deeper and are hiding in plain sight—and not just because the player is restricted from hitting the market. Notice that while the tag figures distinguish between defensive tackles and defensive ends, there is no separating outside linebackers from inside linebackers. And if you’re an edge rusher who happens to play more frequently as an outside linebacker than a defensive end—facts of life for both Clowney and Ford—you’re getting less.
That’s not all. As noted above, the non-exclusive tag calculation is made by averaging salary and cap numbers stretching back five years, rather than just one—a wrinkle new to the current CBA. Typically, as the cap keeps rising and players at the top of the market keep earning more, the next group of top-shelf players is expected to raise the bar. That’s how the quarterback market has grown so substantially, to where Cousins, Matt Stafford, Jimmy Garoppolo, Derek Carr, and Alex Smith are all among the top nine in average annual value for QBs, at a rate of $23.5 million and up. Yet even though Aaron Donald (an interior defensive lineman) and Khalil Mack (an edge rusher) reset the market last year at $22.5 million AAV/$50 million fully guaranteed and $23.5 million/$60 million, respectively, a potentially historic DL/OLB class was effectively kneecapped. And the effects can trickle down, because players tendered in the future will similarly have their tag numbers determined by a formula that includes five years of salary and cap data.
As wideout Brandon Marshall said on Inside The NFL back in 2016, after the Bears had tagged his former teammate Alshon Jeffery (via NJ.com):
“It impacts all of us. The best players set the market, and our best players are getting franchise tagged. When you have a guy like Alshon Jeffery that could go out into free agency and possibly get $15 million a year because there’s a need on another team, another club, he sets that market. The next year, the player goes above that.
“So, what have we done? We are not only affecting those players that are getting tagged, but we are affecting all the other wide receivers, all the defensive backs, all the other defensive ends that are going to approach free agency the next year and two years after.”
Look at the way free agency played out this year. Trey Flowers, the only DL/OLB in PFF’s and SI’s respective top 10s to hit the market, signed with the Lions for $18 million in AAV and $50 million fully guaranteed—even with Donald in full guarantees, but far below the top of the market in AAV. And though the rules explicitly prohibit teams from using the tag as a placeholder to facilitate a trade (in the absence of a “good-faith intention to employ the player,” per the CBA), the Chiefs wound up trading Ford to the 49ers, where he signed a deal with $17 million in AAV and just $20.5 million fully guaranteed.
“That’s a deal that’s probably right now being cursed by DeMarcus Lawrence, Jadeveon Clowney, and Frank Clark, and all those guys,” Overthecap.com founder Jason Fitzgerald told me. “They probably look at that as nightmares for them in terms of negotiating anything.”
Contrast that with several other position groups, where free agents were able to set the market in AAV or full guarantees, just as Marshall said they should (all figures via Overthecap.com):
- Inside linebacker: C.J. Mosley, Jets, $17 million AAV, $43 million fully gtd.
- Left tackle: Trent Brown, Raiders, $16.5 million AAV/$36.25 million fully gtd.
- Center: Mitch Morse, Bills, $11.125 million AAV
- Right tackle: Ja’Wuan James, Broncos, $12.75 million/$27 million gtd.
- Safety: Tyrann Mathieu, Chiefs, and Landon Collins, Washington, $14 million AAV; Earl Thomas, Ravens, $32 million fully gtd.
There’s been little in the way of news surrounding contract talks for the franchised players, but The Athletic’s Calvin Watkins reported last week that Lawrence wants something in the range of $22.5 million a year, with the Cowboys having brought their latest counteroffer up to $20 million. There’s still plenty of time till any of this matters; the tag’s July 15 negotiating deadline can work to get the two sides to make a deal just in time for training camp—as it did in recent years for Dez Bryant, Von Miller, and Muhammad Wilkerson, who all came to terms at the last minute—but that doesn’t always happen. Just four of the 11 players tagged in 2017 and 2018 wound up getting deals, and one was Jarvis Landry, who had been traded from the Dolphins to the Browns. And, again, teams aren’t forced into bidding against other teams once the tag is applied.
“They should call it the prison tag,” an agent once told Albert Breer, then of NFL.com. “It locks the player in, keeps him in jail contractually, doesn’t allow him to test what his true market is, or seek what his compensation should be. It’s take it or leave it.” This is what happened to Gould, who had openly expressed a desire to return to the Bears, for whom he had played for 11 seasons, only to get tagged by the Niners days later.
Remember: The tag is also being applied to players who have already had their bargaining position and earning power suppressed by the rookie-wage scale, which locks in four years of cost control for those drafted—and up to five years for those selected in the first round.
So why hasn’t the NFLPA fought to get rid of the tag? A union source once told Breer that the NFLPA “knew it’d be fruitless” during the talks that led to the current CBA, which was implemented in 2011. Similarly, Breer reported that the owners successfully fought for a change in the tag formula—the one that includes five years’ worth of numbers, rather than just the previous year—because “the 2011 tag figures were inflated by contracts like Miles Austin’s and Albert Haynesworth’s, which stashed astronomical numbers in the uncapped year of 2010.” This resulted in the 2012 tag figures being lower than they were in 2011, and in the subsequent tag figures remaining lower than they would have been without the change in formula. (It’s also worth remembering that the league later punished the Cowboys and Washington for what they did with Austin and Haynesworth in the uncapped year, even after it had leveraged a significant cost-control mechanism from that behavior.)
Several people have told me they don’t think the owners will ever let go of the tag, because of how beneficial it is. The CBA expires in two years, and Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio recently reported that the union is interested in getting management to ditch it in the next one. But at what cost? A major concession like an 18-game schedule? Florio said the NFLPA isn’t too hot on that idea. Andrew Brandt, the ex-Packers executive and former agent, doesn’t see a hard push to dump the tag as being worth it for the NFLPA. “That is doubtful as a high priority to change with so many other issues they have to address (and with very little if anything to bargain with),” Brandt told me via email.
Fitzgerald instead suggested some workarounds that could benefit the players: shortening the length of rookie contracts, or reducing the compensation to something much less than two first-round picks.
“If they can bring rookie contracts down to two or three years, where the tag comes into play when these guys are 25 instead of 27, that would probably make the tag something that’s at least more reasonable for players to play on,” Fitzgerald said. “And if instead of two first-round picks [as compensation], you go to one first-round pick, you may see more movement that way.”
So while there might be indirect ways to loosen its control, the surest sign that the franchise tag is player-unfriendly is that the owners will never let it go without a fight.