Editor’s note: Brien is a well-traveled Houstonian and Army Combat Veteran with an extremely wide range of talents and interests including the NFL (Packers), Irish History, and writing. Follow him on twitter @ODonalsVanguard
By BRIEN O’DONAL
The next phase of the NFL offseason has already started. If you follow the reports at all I’m sure you’ve heard plenty of stories about franchise and transition tags. Most of these stories have involved Kirk Cousins but there are options on the table for several teams and their unrestricted free agents. The other option available to teams is the transition tag, which can give them more options before deciding on a player. These tags are part of the free agency process which can help teams keep players around longer when there is not an easy resolution for a long term deal. Most players would say they are opposed to the tag system because it is only a one year deal. In the bigger picture, the tag can help set the market for a player and also allow more time for a player’s current team to get a long term deal done. Teams have to keep their salary cap in mind though because the tags can be expensive and take a large part of the current year’s cap.
The franchise tag is a one year deal that teams can apply to one pending free agent on their roster. The dates for this period are currently Feb. 15 to March 1. As you can tell, we are at the midway point in this process. There are two types of franchise tags: non-exclusive and exclusive. The most common of these is the non-exclusive. The money for these tags is the same; no less than the average of the top five salaries at the player’s position for the year or 120% of the players previous salary (whichever is greater). The difference is in the ability for players to move on. With the non-exclusive tag players can negotiate with other teams and their current team has the right to match any offer or receive two first round picks in return. The exclusive tag means that the players can only negotiate with their current team.
Using the franchise tag puts a huge price on the player and can directly affect their contract size. Once a player signs the tag offer that salary becomes guaranteed. If they are looking for a long term deal it’s not easy to take a pay cut just to get a deal done. Players may not like one year deals so it becomes in their best interest to get things done. On the other hand, teams have to be cautious about applying the tag for the same salary considerations. They must really be sure that they intend to work out a deal with the player long term. The compensation of two first round picks is a great deterrent for other teams when it comes to giving an offer to the player, but that’s also why the elite players usually have the exclusive tag applied to them when it’s necessary. Teams can only use this tag once per year and if a deal is not worked out before July 15. After that date contract negotiations must stop until the season ends. If a tag has to be applied the following year, that would be another 20% increase on the prior year’s franchise tag salary. That’s a huge price to pay.
The transition tag is the other available option. This is simply a tag that gives teams the ability to feel out the market for a player. The transition tag comes with an offer sheet that is no less than the top ten salaries at a player’s position or 120% of his prior year’s salary (whichever is greater). The player is free to negotiate with other teams but his current team has the right of first refusal. That means that they can choose to match another team’s offer and the player must then sign that offer. If the current team refuses to match the offer they receive no compensation for the player signing elsewhere. They would only get whatever compensatory pick that player equals. If a player chooses to sign the initial transition tag offer sheet he is then bound to his current team for a year. If he signs that sheet and then works out a long term contract before the deadline to apply the tag expires, his team can then apply the tag to another player.
Teams looking to grab a player on a transition tag and get around the first refusal hurdle have gotten into the practice of front loading their offer. This puts a large salary cap hit on a player and can make it difficult for his current team to match the offer. This is generally done with the hope that after the first year that same contract can be restructured to lessen that cap hit in future years. It’s a dangerous game but one that can be used to pry a player away. The right of first refusal allows teams to gauge the market for a player and decide whether or not their salary for a long term contract is feasible. If the offer from another team is too large it may be easy to part ways with a player, if there are no other offers the current team can try and lock in a lower cap number.
Both of these tags have a purpose and over the years they have seen ebbs and flows in their use. The biggest names associated with the franchise tag are usually quarterbacks but the increase in overall pay at that position has made that more difficult of a player is not truly elite. Kirk Cousins is an outlier there. He received the tag last year before really proving himself. The Redskins were willing to take that chance because he was better than anything they would find in the draft of free agency. It may be the same scenario again. Teams will do anything they can to keep core players on the roster and just the threat of a tag can sometimes be leverage to get a deal done. It’s all a game of strategy and it plays out for all of us to watch.
Fans watching this play out have to keep all of the salary consequences in mind when wanting their team to apply the tag. It’s a big one year deal that will hit the cap hard if a team is not prepared for it. Other times they can anticipate the upcoming use of a tag and will be forced to clear other cap space to make room for it. All these roster moves are done to keep star players in place, hopefully the long term. The good teams rarely need to use the tags because they keep a healthy cap can have room to work out long term deals before it reaches that point. This part of the season is already in full swing and there are some big names being thrown out there, we will just have to wait and see.
Here are the 2017 Franchise Tag salary numbers:
Quarterback: $23.8 million
Wide Receiver: $15.1 million
Running Back: $9.7 million
Tight End: $10 million
Offensive Lineman: $15.4 million (all linemen are based off the left tackle position)
Kickers and Punters: $4.6 million
Cornerback: $15.7 million
Safety: $9.9 million
Linebacker: $16.6 million
Defensive Tackle: $15.2 million
Defensive End: $14.7 million