NFL Explained: The Franchise Tag

NFL Explained: The Franchise Tag

As we welcome new fans to each and every week, we will be building up a library of simple explanations of terminology and jargon through a series of ‘NFL Explained’ articles.

We’ll present simple, bite-sized information on all 32 teams, the NFL Combine, the NFL Draft and other league events through the year, as well as American football terms that you might hear on a typical Sunday night of NFL commentary such as the zone blitz, Cover 2 defense and the West Coast offense.

Here, we start with the Franchise Tag because this is something you will hear quite a bit in the coming weeks as free agency approaches. You will hear about the franchise tag being applied to a particular player or you may hear that a player has been “franchised.”

So here’s what it means....

What is the franchise tag?

NFL teams can apply the franchise tag to one player each year in order to prevent an unrestricted free agent from hitting the open market. The franchise tag has been used ahead of free agency since 1993. It was introduced to give teams the opportunity to keep hold of their best players, particularly those clubs in small markets.

When can the franchise tag be applied?

Teams can start applying the franchise tag to players from Monday February 20 through to Monday March 5. Free agency begins on Tuesday March 13.

Why do teams apply the franchise tag?

Teams normally slap the franchise tag on a player – it can only be one each year - who is of vital importance to their roster. It is normally a player with whom the team has been unable to work out a long-term deal but who they don’t want to lose to free agency. The aim of the franchise tag is to buy time – up to an entire season – before committing to a long-term contract. It has, in the past, also been used to force a player to accept a lower long-term deal rather than risk injury during a short-term contract.

Do players like the franchise tag?

It depends. Many like to hit the open market and make the big bucks through free agency or enjoy the financial security of a long-term deal with their existing club. Others who have been lowly-paid for years are just happy to be among the highest-paid players at their position, even if it is for just one season.

So players are financially rewarded for being ‘franchised’?

Yes. They must be paid either 120 per cent of their existing salary, or the average of the top five players at their position over the previous five years  – whichever figure is greater.

For example, Matt Forte, of the Chicago Bears, will get paid $7.7 million if, as expected, he becomes a franchised player in 2012. That is the average salary of the top five running backs in the NFL over the past five years. While he may not be overly-happy at the franchise tag being applied to him because he will feel the Bears are not committing to him in the long term, Forte will be glad to earn that kind of money considering his 2011 salary totalled $938,000.

What can a player do if he is unhappy about being franchised?

He can hold out and not report to training camp. He can further up the stakes by refusing to play in the preseason and the regular season. This requires the player to be strong of mind and fat of wallet because he won’t get paid under such a scenario.

The popular belief is that a holdout will force the team to get desperate when the games start being played and the star player in question is missed on the field. The player would then hope that the team commits to a long-term deal or trades him to a team who is willing to stump up the required salary.

But if that long-term deal does not come, the player runs the risk of having an entire year of his career wiped out and very little money in the bank. It’s a financial game of chicken, if you will.

Are there different types of franchise tag?

Without getting into what is a very complicated formula (and it can get quite complex at times) when it comes to how players are paid, there are exclusive and non-exclusive franchise tags. The phrases to listen to in the next couple of weeks are exclusive and non-exclusive franchise tags.

If a player receives an exclusive franchise tag, he is paid a little more handsomely, he cannot negotiate with any other club and he is locked into his existing team.

If a player is given a non-exclusive franchise tag, he is free to negotiate with other teams. But if he strikes a deal with another team, his existing club has one week to match the offer. If they decide not to do so, the existing team receives two first round draft picks from the player’s new club as compensation.

Are franchise tags binding?

From a player’s point of view, yes. But the team can remove the franchise tag at any time. They have up until July to sign the player to a multi-year deal before the franchise tag kicks in.

Which players can we expect to see given the franchise tag this year?

It has already been reported that the New England Patriots are strongly considering placing the franchise tag on NFL-leading wide receiver Wes Welker. The Philadelphia Eagles are reportedly going to do the same with star receiver and kick returner DeSean Jackson.

Running backs Ray Rice (Baltimore Ravens) and Matt Forte (Chicago Bears) could be franchised and, if there is no progress on negotiations towards a long-term deal, the New Orleans Saints could franchise record-setting Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees, although that is more unlikely.

Others who have been linked to the franchise tag in recent weeks include Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley, Dallas Cowboys linebacker Anthony Spencer, Washington Redskins tight end Fred Davis and Denver Broncos kicker Matt Prater.

So if those guys get franchised, who will receive what money-wise in 2012?

Here are the estimated 2012 Franchise Tag salary figures by position...

Quarterback                       $14.4 million

Running Back                     $7.7 million

Wide Receiver                   $9.4 million

Tight End                             $5.4 million

Offensive Line                   $9.4 million

Defensive End                   $10.6 million

Defensive Tackle              $7.9 million

Linebacker                          $8.8 million

Cornerback                         $10.6 million

Safety                                   $6.2 million