Most professional athletes dream of being The Franchise. As in: “Dude, you ARE the franchise.”
NFL athletes just don’t want to be tagged as the franchise by their team. That has a who-o-o-o-le different meaning. Especially this year.
Monday is the first day this off-season that NFL teams can designate one of their soon-to-be unrestricted free agents as a “franchise” player.
It doesn’t mean the club thinks he is the best player, although he might be. Nor does it compel the team to make him its highest-paid player.
Franchise-tagging a player, in most cases, is the means by which the team hangs on to him for one more season, delaying by one year his becoming an unrestricted free agent.
Only unrestricted free agents can be franchise-tagged. That is, NFLers with at least four years of experience. Restricted free agents — players with three years experience — cannot be.
Quarterbacks set to become UFAs on March 15 include New Orleans’ Drew Brees, San Francisco’s Alex Smith, Kanas City’s Kyle Orton and touted Green Bay backup Matt Flynn.
Running backs include Baltimore’s Ray Rice, Jets’ LaDainian Tomlinson, Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch, Cleveland’ Peyton Hillis, Green Bay’s Ryan Grant and Chicago’s Matt Forte.
There are prominent such players at every position. Any of them might be franchise-tagged by their respective teams in the next two weeks (the window expires March 8). But, again, just one per team.
A club has two choices when applying the franchise tag. It can tender the player either an “exclusive” offer and thereby lock him up for a year, or a “nonexclusive” offer. The latter means the player is still free to negotiate with any other club, but if another club signs him, it owes the first team two first-round draft picks as compensation — a steep price, thus it seldom happens.
In “exclusive” franchise-tagging, there is no salary negotiation. The collective bargaining agreement between owners and players spells it out. The player is to be paid whichever is greater of (1) the average of the salaries of the five best-paid NFL players at his position the previous season, an amount reduced slightly this year by a new multiplier, or (2) 120% of the player’s own salary the previous season.
Teams do not have to franchise-tag any of their pending UFAs. Only 13 clubs did so last year. And even after they do, there is a window (this year until July 16) to rip up the franchise-tag contract and sign the player to a longer-term deal. That’s what Philadelphia did last year with Michael Vick, and Indianapolis with Peyton Manning, a contract the Colts no doubt now regret offering.
One last point: There is nothing preventing a team from franchise-tagging the same player again the next year, or even the year after that. But if it’s a player a team truly wants to lock up for a while, the benefit of giving him a long-term contract is that most of the money can be back-loaded, thus freeing up more salary-cap space in the short term than by repeated franchise-tagging.
After the period for franchise-tagging ends, the free-agent signing frenzy commences March 15. Six weeks after that, the entry draft takes place April 26-28 in New York City.
According to a report at NFL.com, the new means of calculating the franchise-tag recipient’s salary will result in lower salaries. It is no longer just the average of the previous season’s salaries of the five highest-paid NFLers at that position. Now that figure is reduced slightly by this calculation, added in the new CBA: Divide it by the sum of the previous five seasons’ team salary caps, then multiply that by the salary cap for the coming season. Here are the resultant 2012 salaries for franchise-tagged players, position by position, compared to 2010 and 2011:
POSITION 2012 2011 2010
Quarterback $14.4M $16.1M $16.4M
Running back $7.7M $9.6M $8.2M
Wide receiver $9.4M $11.4M $9.5M
Tight end $5.4M $7.3M $5.9M
Off. lineman $9.4M $10.1M $10.7M
Defensive end $10.6M $13.0M $12.4M
Defensive tackle $7.9M $12.5M $7.0M
Linebacker $8.8M $10.1M $9.7M
Cornerback $10.6M $13.5M $9.6M
Safety $6.2M $8.8M $6.5M