Analysis  

 

Prison tag? Franchise designation has changed over the years

It's been 20 years since the franchise player designation went into practice -- a mechanism Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen insisted on during a CBA negotiation to ensure he'd keep John Elway at the advent of free agency. And one thing's become clear over two decades of the procedure: The tag needs a new name.

"Usually, the tag isn't for your 'franchise player'," one NFC club executive said. "It's for your best-available free agent."

One agent who's had multiple players hit with the tag provided a more aggressive assessment: "They should call it the prison tag. 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."

Bowlen's stated goal all those years ago was twofold. First, he wanted teams to be able to protect signature players from the market. Second, he wanted to push the idea of those types of guys spending their entire careers with single clubs.

Suffice it to say, plenty of liberties have been taken since.

Over the past four years, 55 players have been tagged, and 11 of them (20 percent) were kickers and punters. Over the past five years, 67 players have been tagged, and just 35 of them got long-term deals.

So much for Bowlen's vision.

This year, a record 21 players were tagged -- the previous high was 14, which was the number in both 2009 and '11 -- and just 12 reached multi-year deals. Four kickers were tagged, as was a punter, and it all calls into question what the tag means these days. It's not always a bad thing for players. It can create framework for deals, leverage a negotiation, or get a young, unproven player a quick buck. But it can also create contempt.

With the 2012 franchise-player signing period and the new CBA's first year in the books, the tag is ambiguous. It means different things to different players.

"(Players) do get angry when they get tagged, but I'm not sure they always understand the tag fully," said another prominent agent who's had multiple players tagged. "When the numbers are low, they have a right to be mad. But with higher numbers, it can lead to a deal, especially with the talented young guys. Where players gets stuck is when a team is using the tag to hold you for a year, if you're unproven or getting older. You see that with (Wes) Welker. But it can provide framework, as well."

The new CBA runs another nine years, so the tag, for better and for worse, is something everyone will need to live with for some time to come. And there are a few conclusions we can draw.

* * * * *

The first thing to do when analyzing the franchise tag now is to mark 2011 and '12 as transitional years.

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In 2011, 10 of 14 players tagged received long-term deals. A big reason for the high percentage was, for once, the list was full of core-type players. And the explanation for that was simple: Teams were being careful about signing players long-term before the lockout because of the uncertain financial landscape ahead, so they used the tag that year to stall negotiations and gain a clearer picture of the economic future. Guys like Peyton Manning, Mike Vick, LaMarr Woodley and Haloti Ngata always were going to get paid.

In 2012, that circumstance has been flipped. Owners wanted a reconfigured franchise-tag formula in the new CBA 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. And they got that, with the new formula calculating over a five-year outlay. This deflated the 2012 franchise numbers to the point where the list of tagged guys reads more like a "Who?" than a "Who's Who" of players.

"I don't mind the tag, so much as I mind that the numbers were reduced to the point where it allowed so many players to be tagged," the first agent said. "You're telling me that out of nowhere, seven more teams than ever before just decided to use the tag?"

Among those tagged were San Francisco 49ers safety Dashon Goldson, Kansas City Chiefs receiver Dwayne Bowe, Dallas Cowboys linebacker Anthony Spencer and Washington Redskins tight end Fred Davis -- all examples of clubs taking a wait-and-see approach on a player (at best), rather than forcing a long-term commitment. Then take into account the four kickers and one punter who were tagged (three of those five got long-term deals), and you see where the issue lies with intent of the designation.

"The kicker and punter point is valid," a club president said. "But playing on the tender is exactly what was anticipated for these guys if a deal couldn't be worked out. There are many things that changed in practice from the original CBA drafting -- like the rookie pool -- and the tags don't stand out. If it were that out of whack, it would've been a bigger issue last year. ... If there are unintended consequences for the players, they aren't recent, and it wasn't enough of an issue that the PA made it a major deal."

A union source agreed that the NFLPA didn't fight hard against the franchise tag last year: "We knew it'd be fruitless." In the end, the team president said, "We know we could've gotten a lot if we traded it out last year." This explains how important it was for the owners to hold on to it. And from the union's standpoint, signing away the farm to repeal a tag that isn't altogether bad for players, and affects a smaller percentage of the rank-and-file, just wasn't worth it.

The expectation of the union is that the franchise-tag numbers will correct themselves over the next two or three years, and consequently, the number of tagged players will drop. The idea is that the unusual circumstances of 2011 and '12 -- exacerbated by a backlog of players restricted by the uncapped-year rules or held back by the rushed, lockout-impacted offseason signing period of last year -- will be resolved, and normalcy will return.

That normalcy would mean a few things for those in the crosshairs of the tag in the years to come.

* * * * *

Goldson might be the best example of a player that the tag, as it stands now, hurts. Coming off a big year for one of the league's elite defenses, the 27-year-old 49ers safety would've been in a position to cash in back in March, had San Francisco not held the option to tag him at a very reasonable $6.4 million. Instead, the Niners now get the chance to see whether or not Goldson can repeat his 2011 performance, and likely will get him at a cheaper rate if they do decide to commit to him when he's 28 next offseason.

In short, you won't see many Jeremy Lins in the NFL. Lin parlayed a strong four weeks with the New York Knicks in the winter into a three-year, $25 million deal this summer with the Houston Rockets. Were he a football player, there's little question that he'd be franchised, with clubs having protection against the chance this kind of guy could, in fact, turn out to be a flash in the pan.

"You can say, 'Well, we don't know just how good he is, but let's pay him for a year and we can find out,' " said the NFC executive. "You see the Rockets paying Lin $25 million. In football, Lin would never find out what he'd be worth on the market like that. He'd get franchised, no question."

The other type of player the designation hurts is best represented by Welker, who is 31 and plays a position (slot receiver) where guys have a history of declining quickly. The tag allows a team to go year-to-year on those guys, rather than forking over big guaranteed dollars.

And it also allows teams control on players like Mike Wallace, who has to consider the economics of being tagged in 2013 and '14 when he looks at what the Steelers are offering him. If Pittsburgh can have him for around $22 million on those two tags, plus the $2.72 million restricted free-agent tender he's been assigned this year, can Wallace really expect guarantees in the $50-60 million range that Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald got?

But there are those the tag helps, too. The rule that tagged players get at least a 20 percent raise forced the Detroit Lions' hand in paying Johnson this offseason, and likely will do the same with Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh, with big, back-end cap numbers pushing each player's franchise figure into the same stratosphere. That rule also made it logistically impossible for the Houston Texans to tag Mario Williams, which led to his enormous financial windfall with the Buffalo Bills.

The tag also certainly didn't hurt Drew Brees or Peyton Manning the past two summers, with each signing record-breaking long-term deals while under the tag. Though quarterbacks are, most definitely, to be examined in a separate category.

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But that does help lead you back to this conclusion: The franchise designation is determined by a player's individual circumstances. Some players have been hosed by it. Others have gotten rich off it.

"To me, it's not as much a CBA issue as a competitive balance issue," the NFC executive said. "(In 2009, Bengals kicker Mike) Nugent was cut four games in. Now he's tagged. Think that's a bad thing for him? Calais Campbell is a good defensive player, the tag gave him leverage, he's paid like a great one now. The one inarguable thing is that teams value the guys they franchise."

But it's increasingly rare these days that tagged guys are actually "franchise players." True franchise players, more often than not, are taken care of well before a contract expires.

That makes the tag something far different than what was envisioned back in 1993.

And far harder to define than anyone would've guessed back then.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

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