Analysis  

 

Jairus Byrd, Ryan Clady, others reveal franchise tag's new reality

Quietly, and during what (arrests permitting) is the lone real dormant period on the NFL calendar, the league is churning toward a first.

In early March, eight players were assigned the franchise tag by their respective teams. None have since signed long-term deals. And if none do so before Monday's 4 p.m. ET deadline, it will mark the first time since the rules changed in 2006 (to include this particular July 15 deadline) that no franchised player receives a multi-year contract.

Last year, 12 of 21 tagged players agreed on long-term deals, and even that was a decided drop from 2011, when 10 of 14 franchised players signed multi-year contracts.

"I think it's probably a perfect storm of factors here," said one NFC executive who serves as his club's chief negotiator. "In some cases, agents are asking for ridiculous deals. There were situations last year where I couldn't believe agents had players playing their deals out; with another year of a flat cap coming, there was no reason to expect a better market. And then there are teams that are notorious for franchising players to hold on to them for a year."

This year's group includes a safety (Jairus Byrd of the Buffalo Bills), two defensive tackles (Henry Melton of the Chicago Bears and Randy Starks of the Miami Dolphins), a defensive end (Michael Johnson of the Cincinnati Bengals), a linebacker on his second tag (Anthony Spencer, who will convert to defensive end this season for the Dallas Cowboys), two offensive tackles (the Denver Broncos' Ryan Clady and the Kansas City Chiefs' Branden Albert) and a punter (Pat McAfee of the Indianapolis Colts).

Of the eight, the player most likely to get a long-term deal appears to be Clady, who has been offered more than $10 million per year. Alternatively, if he signs his tender, he'll be guaranteed $9.828 million for playing this fall.

Of course, it must be acknowledged that deadlines spur action, as we saw with the buzzer-beating deals inked by Ray Rice, Matt Forte and Josh Scobee last year. But with three days to go, there's at least a decent chance that the league will record its first O-fer under the current deadline.

Whereas executives like the one from the NFC see this scenario as resulting from a confluence of circumstances, some agents look at one element of a larger problem that has surfaced throughout this offseason.

"I'd love to know what the percentage of veterans playing on one-year deals is," said one agent who's had clients tagged. "(NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith) fought for injury protection, but that goes out the door in these cases, even the corner deals during free agency."

The agent continued to say, "For a team, with the tag, they can just say, 'We have this guy at this price,' and not take on any more risks, especially if it's a guy with injury history."

Indeed, there was an unusual number of one-year deals for free agents, particularly when it came to cornerbacks (like Aqib Talib, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Nnamdi Asomugha and Brent Grimes). And there was another flood of short-term deals awarded to high-profile names like Cliff Avril and Wes Welker, both of whom played on franchise tenders in 2012 before walking as free agents in March.

Last July, we delved deep into the intent behind the development of the franchise tag. Originally pushed by Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen as a way to keep players like John Elway, it's become more of a leverage point and method of tying up second-tier players at certain positions. That is especially true this time around. Just take a quick look at the list of players tagged in 2013; Clady might be the only one of the bunch who is viewed by his team as a cornerstone, while the respective standings of Johnson, Byrd, Spencer and Melton are arguable.

In the cases where it's arguable, things can get sticky. For Johnson, Spencer and Melton, earning between $8 million and $11 million on the tag in 2013, with another crack at free agency looming, could be more appealing than signing a long-term contract that has been discounted. With regard to Byrd, the relatively low cost of the $6.916 million tender could be a motivator for the team to hold firm in its position.

As we explained in our piece last year, big-ticket former bonus babies like Calvin Johnson have benefited big time from the franchise tag, as have some quarterbacks like Peyton Manning. Johnson and Manning reaped the rewards of leverage on back-loaded contracts. But there aren't many other players who are able to maximize their value through it.

"Those are the only players it really helps; that's it," the agent said. "That's not to say it's bad for everyone. Worst case for Albert and Clady, provided they're healthy and play just OK, is maybe someone gives them (Will) Beatty money next year, and they wind up with $20 million over two years."

That is to say, if the tag was originally conceived as a placeholder for long-term deals, then this year stands as a glaring example of its failure. As it's presently constituted, it probably hurts more guys than it helps, since so many teams have gotten into the practice of signing core players early and using the tag on players who are either on or outside the fringes of the core.

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Of course, whether this three-year trend is a sign of the way the tag will be used going forward remains to be seen.

"I think it's an anomaly, not the way things are going," the NFC exec said. "The tags are higher than they have been in the past and, if you're a player who's willing to bet on himself, getting one year at $8 million or $9 million or $10 million isn't that bad. Four years ago, at too many positions, the number wasn't a burden for teams. Now, it's different. And say you're a receiver; you're still gonna make $10 million and be able to take care of generations of your family."

Is that the end of the world? Of course not.

But based on this year's evidence, the tag has become a money-saving mechanism. And the windfall isn't going to the players.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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