Everything you need to know about the NFL’s 2019 franchise tag
Your brief NFL offseason breather is over. It’s tag time.
The NFL now moves into its first offseason window for major personnel decisions. Beginning Tuesday and continuing through March 5, teams can place either the franchise or transition tag on one pending free agent. It’s an expensive decision that provides substantial leverage against losing a cherished player — and in many cases depresses the value a player might realize on the open market.
Before things get too crazy, let’s run through everything you need to know about the tag process and how it applies to the 2019 offseason.
How does the franchise tag work?
The franchise tag is a labor designation that restricts a player’s potential movement in exchange for a high one-year salary. It is governed through the collective bargaining agreement (CBA), represents a fully guaranteed salary once signed and has two types.
What are the two types?
The first is the “exclusive-rights” tag. Any player with this tag is bound to the team for the upcoming season. His agent is prohibited from seeking offer sheets elsewhere. The second is the “non-exclusive” tag. In this scenario, players can sign an offer sheet with another team. The original team has the right to match the offer. If it doesn’t, it will receive two first-round draft picks from the new team.
What about the transition tag?
The transition tag is less expensive but isn’t used as much because it does not extract compensation from the new team. NFL teams have employed it six times since the CBA was signed in 2011, most recently in 2018 by the Chicago Bears on cornerback Kyle Fuller. (The Bears matched the four-year, $56 million offer sheet Fuller signed with the Green Bay Packers.)
The only advantage of the transition tag is that it allows the original team to match an offer. It has sometimes been used to judge the market value of a pending free agent. This year, there have been some indications that that the Pittsburgh Steelers will use it on running back Le’Veon Bell as a way to impose a level of control over his future.
How are the tag numbers determined?
I was afraid you would ask this question. Tag values are position-specific. Here’s the basic math:
The exclusive-rights tag is calculated by taking the average of the top five players’ cap percentage at the position for the current season, or 120 percent of his previous year’s salary, whichever is greater. It has the highest value among the tags, and its specific value isn’t determined until late April to account for current-year deals.
The non-exclusive franchise tag is determined by calculating the average cap percentage at the player’s position during the past five years, or 120 percent of his previous year’s salary, whichever is greater.
The transition-tag value is calculated by taking the average of the top 10 players at a position during the past five years.
What happens after a tag is applied?
It depends on the interest level between the sides. The player can sign the tender at any time, a decision that fully guarantees the salary and immediately places all of it on the current year’s cap charge. This can increase a player’s leverage in a tight cap situation; the team will be motivated to negotiate a longer-term deal to lower the cap number. That decision also can backfire if the team is comfortable with the high cap number. The leverage in this case would side with a player who remains unsigned as camp looms. A tagged player can’t participate in offseason workouts or any camps until he has at least signed the tender.
In either event, the sides have until July 15 to agree on a multiyear extension. After that point, the player can sign only a one-year contract, which cannot be extended until after the season.
Can a team rescind a tag?
Yes. The Carolina Panthers did just that to cornerback Josh Norman in 2016 when they determined they wouldn’t be able to sign him to a long-term extension. A rescinded tag is among the risks a player takes when he doesn’t immediately sign the tender. It can’t be rescinded once it is signed.
Can a tagged player be traded?
Yes. In fact, there have been reports that the Philadelphia Eagles could do just that with quarterback Nick Foles. In this scenario, the compensation is agreed to by both teams and does not necessarily have to be two first-round picks. The new team can accept the terms of the tag or renegotiate into a multiyear deal.
How many players will be tagged in 2019?
Decisions each year are based on unique current details, but there has been an average of 6.3 franchise tags per year over the past six offseasons.
What players could be tagged this year?
If productive long-term negotiations don’t materialize, the possibilities include:
Does the tag usually lead to a multiyear deal?
Not necessarily. During the past six seasons, it has happened in less than half of the situations. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, there have been 38 franchise tags extended: 17 signed multiyear deals during their tag season, while 21 did not.
Among those who did not sign long-term deals was Bell, who sat out the entire 2018 season rather than play under the tag (or agree to a new deal) with the Steelers. That list also includes defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who had a special circumstance after injuring himself in a summer fireworks accident.
Will Bell’s path become more common?
That seems unlikely. Forget the $14.45 million tag value he missed out on, Bell went an entire year without being paid an eight-figure salary. Assuming he enters the free-agent market this spring, Bell at the very least must find an offer large enough to make up for the base value of the multiyear Steelers contract he turned down during negotiations. It reportedly would have guaranteed him $33 million over the first two seasons. It would be quite an accomplishment to get that value added to any deal he eventually signs.
How much will it cost to tag players in 2019?
The NFL hasn’t calculated the values yet, and one of the twists of the franchise-tag window is that teams can extend players without knowing the exact figure. The numbers will be released in the coming weeks (no later than the March 13 start of the new league year). In a few cases, deals that happen between now and then can affect the exact numbers. The exact per-team salary-cap total — also not solidified yet — can change them as well.
The 2018 numbers for the non-exclusive tag are in the chart. The NFL has projected its 2019 salary cap will fall between $187 million and $191.1 million, a jump of about 5.5 percent. You can expect roughly similar growth in the positional values.
Is it always bad for the player to play under the franchise tag?
The franchise tag pays a player close to market value for one year, but provides no future guarantees. The tag becomes an advantage if a player remains healthy and valuable enough that the team feels compelled to use it multiple times. The value of the second tag is 120 percent of the first, and the third 144 percent of the second.
OK, but how rarely do teams use the tag on the same player in consecutive years?
It happens more often than you might think: 16 times since 1997, including five times since 2011: Cleveland Browns kicker Phil Dawson, Cowboys linebacker Anthony Spencer, Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins, Los Angeles Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson and Bell by the Steelers.
It is much less common for skill players. Two years ago, Cousins became the first quarterback ever franchised in consecutive years. There have been only four other skill players tagged twice at any point in their careers: quarterbacks Drew Brees (2005, 2012) and Peyton Manning (2004, 2011), receiver Rob Moore (1995, 1999) and Bell (2017, 2018).
Are some positions more susceptible to the franchise tag than others?
Yes. Per ESPN Stats & Information, 30 offensive linemen have been franchise-tagged since 1993, while 29 defensive ends and 26 linebackers were tagged. On the other end, there have been four punters, 10 quarterbacks, 11 tight ends and 12 running backs franchised.
Some of those positional descriptions seem vague …
You’re right, and sometimes that causes conflict between players and teams. Offensive line positions, for example, are valued quite differently from a financial perspective. Teams will pay much more for a left tackle than, say, a right guard. But it costs the same to franchise them. For pass-rushers, disputes often arise from whether a player is designated as a defensive end or an outside linebacker. The CBA says only that it should be based on “the position at which the franchise player participated in the most plays during the prior league year.” Today’s hybrid schemes can sometimes make that answer a debatable point.
Do some teams use the tag more than others?
Yes, but given the 26-year span of the tag’s existence, the numbers are more a function of talent and cap management than a philosophical opposition or support of the tag itself. Every team in the league has used it at least once. The Indianapolis Colts have used it an NFL-high 11 times, followed by the Chiefs (10), Seahawks (10) and Arizona Cardinals (10). The Texans (one), Falcons (two) and Browns (three) have used it the fewest times.