Editor’s note: This piece was originally published in February 2017 and has been updated for the 2018 offseason.
It’s that time of year when the NFL reminds you its calendar rarely slows and never stops. Less than three weeks after Super Bowl LII, the first window of player movement decisions will open.
Beginning Tuesday and continuing through March 6, teams can place the franchise tag on one pending free agent, a decision that is expensive but also provides massive leverage against losing a big-time player.
Transition tags can also be applied in this window, but the franchise tag is far more important — and popular — because it ensures the team a hefty return if a player ultimately departs. (Transition tags are cheaper, but offer only the opportunity to match an offer.)
As we enter the NFL’s 26th offseason with the tag — it made its debut in 1993 as the salary-cap era took off — let’s run through the basics, some recent trends and projections for 2018.
Please remind me exactly what the franchise tag is.
I appreciate your manners in these angry times.
The franchise tag is a labor designation that restricts a player’s potential movement in exchange for a high one-year salary. It is governed by owners and players through the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) and has two types.
Go on …
The first is the “exclusive-rights” franchise tag. Any player with this tag is bound to the team for the upcoming season. His agent is prohibited from seeking offer sheets elsewhere.
The second is the “non-exclusive” franchise tag. In this scenario, players can sign an offer sheet with another team.
What happens after the tag is applied?
It depends on the interest level between the sides.
The player can sign the tender at any time, a decision that fully guarantees the salary and immediately places all of it on the current year’s cap charge. This can increase a player’s leverage in a tight cap situation; the team will be motivated to negotiate a longer-term deal to lower the cap number.
The decision can also backfire if the team is comfortable with the high cap number; the leverage in this case would side with a player who remains unsigned as camp looms.
In either event, the sides have until July 16 to agree on a multiyear extension. After that point, the player can sign only a one-year contract, which cannot be extended until after the season.
Can a team rescind the tag?
The Carolina Panthers did just that to cornerback Josh Norman in 2016, for example, when they determined they wouldn’t be able to sign him to a long-term extension. A rescinded tag is one of the risks players take when they don’t immediately sign the tender. It can’t be rescinded once it is signed.
What typically happens in these situations?
Over the past five years, the NFL has averaged just under seven franchise tag designations per season. Here’s a look at the final results in that span, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information researcher Evan Kaplan:
33 franchise tags extended
16 players played out the season under the tag
16 signed long-term extensions
I’m an amateur capologist. Where can I find the franchise values for each position?
That’s quite a hobby you’ve got there.
The NFL hasn’t calculated them yet, and one of the twists of the franchise tag window is that teams can extend them without knowing the exact figure. They’re usually released during the annual scouting combine, in the days before free agency begins (March 14). In a few cases, deals that happen between now and then can impact the exact numbers. The exact per-team salary-cap total — also not solidified yet — can change them as well.
The 2017 numbers are in the chart. The NFL salary cap is expected to jump at least $10 million from its $168 million number in 2017, so you can count on incremental rises in each franchise tag number as well. You can feel reasonably confident that the tag numbers will rise at least $500,000 and no more than $2 million per position.
Really? No firm numbers?
OK, maybe a few.
We know, based on the CBA, that a team has only one option when it wants to apply the tag in consecutive years to the same player: 120 percent of the previous year’s tag. That could apply to a number of players in 2018, most notably Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell.
Bell played under a $12.12 million tag in 2017, meaning his 2018 tag would be worth $14.544 million. (He has said he might sit out the 2018 season rather than play a second year under the tag.)
Other than Bell, what other players are 2018 franchise-tag candidates? Here are some names to watch for if productive negotiations on long-term deals don’t materialize:
Sammy Watkins, WR, Los Angles Rams
Andrew Norwell, G, Carolina Panthers
Sheldon Richardson, DT, Seattle Seahawks
Is it always bad for the player to play under the franchise tag?
The franchise tag pays a player close to market value for one year, but provides no future guarantees. The tag becomes an advantage if a player remains healthy and valuable enough that the team feels compelled to use it multiple times. The value of the second tag is 120 percent of the first, and the third 144 percent of the second.
How rarely do teams use the tag on the same player in consecutive years?
It happens more often than you might think: 15 times since 1997, including four times since 2011: Cleveland Browns place-kicker Phil Dawson, Dallas Cowboys linebacker Anthony Spencer, Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins and Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson.
It is much less common for skill players. Cousins became the first quarterback ever franchised in consecutive years last offseason. There have been only three other skill players who have been tagged twice at any point in their careers: quarterbacks Drew Brees (2005, 2012) and Peyton Manning (2004, 2011) and receiver Rob Moore (1995, 1999).
Are some positions more susceptible to the franchise tag than others?
Per ESPN’s Stats & Information research, 30 offensive linemen have been franchise tagged since 1993, while 27 defensive ends and 26 linebackers were tagged. On the other end, there have been four punters, 10 quarterbacks, 11 running backs and 11 tight ends franchised.
Generally speaking, teams see a better economic value to leverage high-end linemen than skill-position players.
Do some teams use the tag more than others?
Yes, but given the 26-year span of the tag’s existence, the numbers are more a function of talent and cap management than a philosophical opposition or support of the tag itself. Every team in the league has used it at least once.
The Indianapolis Colts have used it an NFL-high 11 times, followed by the Chiefs (10), Seattle Seahawks (10) and Arizona Cardinals (10). The Texans (one), Falcons (two) and Browns (three) have used it the fewest times.
Quinton Dunbar, Detroit Lions reach 1-year deal
Dunbar joins the Lions after an injury-plagued season with the Seattle Seahawks, who added him last March only to see him play in six games — all starts — because of a knee problem that required season-ending surgery.
Dunbar, 28, finished 2020 with one interception and five passes defended.
Lions general manager Brad Holmes had said the secondary was an area of focus for his team, which also signed free-agent cornerback Corn Elder last week.
“The corner position — and I can say it with more than just the corner position — is a position that we’ll continue to address now throughout the entire process, up until the draft and even after the draft, if need be,” Holmes told reporters last week, according to The Detroit News. “But it’s definitely a position that is not gonna be overlooked or ignored. It is a young group that we have now. I really like the group that we have, in terms of the youth and the upside. … But that is a position that we’ll continue to look to address now and through the draft.”
The Seahawks acquired Dunbar for a fifth-round pick in a March trade with the Washington Football Team. He missed most of the offseason program and the start of training camp while dealing with armed robbery charges that were later dropped due to insufficient evidence.
Dunbar made 25 starts over five seasons with Washington, which signed him as an undrafted free agent out of Florida in 2015. He began his NFL career as a wide receiver, then was converted to cornerback as a rookie. He has 10 career interceptions and a sack in his six seasons.
Washington signed Dunbar to a three-year, $10.5 million contract after the 2017 season. The Seahawks inherited the final year of that deal, which paid Dunbar roughly $3.34 million in 2020.
ESPN’s Brady Henderson contributed to this report.
Minnesota Vikings CB Jeff Gladney turns self in on assault charge
Police said the charge stems from an incident on Friday when Gladney allegedly assaulted a 22-year-old woman.
“We are aware of Jeff’s arrest and are gathering additional information,” the Vikings said in a statement Monday. “We take this matter very seriously, as the reported allegations are extremely disturbing. At this time we will have no further comment.”
Gladney, 24, was a first-round draft pick out of TCU in 2020 and started 15 games for Minnesota last season.
What trading for Sam Darnold means for the Carolina Panthers’ future
They also faced the possibility of being shut out of getting one of the top quarterbacks at No. 8 in the upcoming draft after San Francisco traded with the Miami Dolphins for the No. 3 pick, meaning the top three picks (Jaguars, Jets, 49ers) likely will be signal-callers.
So the Panthers turned to Darnold, giving up a sixth-round pick this year and second- and fourth-round picks in 2022 for a quarterback the Jets had, for all practical purposes, given up on.
What does the deal mean for the Panthers? Will it turn them into a playoff contender and allow Darnold to live up to the expectations cast upon him coming out of USC? Let’s examine:
How much does the addition of Darnold improve the Panthers?
This isn’t Tom Brady going to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, so don’t pencil in plans for a Carolina run at the Super Bowl just yet. This is settling for the best the Panthers could get after other options disappeared.
Will Darnold be better than Bridgewater, who was 0-8 last season in games in which he had the ball on the final possession with a chance to tie or win? The simple answer is the Panthers can’t be much worse off.
From the perspective of Carolina general manager Scott Fitterer, Darnold is an upgrade. He’s a player with good mobility and leadership that he liked in 2018 coming out of college.
Fitterer said if Darnold turns into what he believes he can be, “for this price, it’s definitely worth the gamble.”
Note, he said gamble.
For Darnold, this means finally being surrounded by a supporting cast that can help him reach his potential and an offensive coordinator in Joe Brady, who proved with Joe Burrow at LSU he can turn a good player into a great one.
Darnold will have no excuses after this season, getting to play with Christian McCaffrey, arguably the best all-purpose back in the league. He’ll also have solid wide receivers in DJ Moore and Robby Anderson, who both topped 1,000 yards receiving in 2020. Darnold is familiar with Anderson, who was his most dangerous receiver in his first two seasons with the Jets.
The Panthers upgraded some at tight end by signing Dan Arnold in free agency, and they’re probably not finished there with the draft a possibility to upgrade further.
The Panthers plan to discuss exercising the QB’s fifth-year option with Darnold’s agent, per league source, which means it likely is to happen. That would give him in essence two years to prove himself in Carolina.
This likely is a bigger win for Darnold than for the Panthers, who were initially looking for more of a veteran presence to make them a playoff contender this season. If the gamble pays off, it’s a win-win for both.
What does this mean for Bridgewater?
That his days with the Panthers are essentially over — even though Joe Brady called him a franchise quarterback early last season. Trading him is the best option, with Bridgewater set to count $23 million against the 2021 cap, but that will be a tough sell. He can be released with a post-June 1 designation and save $7.9 million, but Carolina would take a $15 million hit in dead money this year and $5 million in 2022.
Worst case, Bridgewater will remain on the roster and offer his veteran expertise. Fitterer didn’t rule out that, but he didn’t exactly endorse it.
Bridgewater has always been a team player and overcame a career-threatening knee injury in Minnesota in 2016 to become a starter again. If anyone can handle being a backup, he can.
The best scenario for both parties would be for Bridgewater to restructure his deal to make him more tradeable. Fitterer said he has talked to Bridgewater and his agent and they’re all on the same page, but he didn’t clearly define that page.
“We’re going to find the right place for him, whether it’s here or someplace else,” Fitterer said.
How does this alter the Panthers’ draft approach, especially at No. 8 overall?
It would be stunning now if the Panthers used that pick on a quarterback with Will Grier and P.J. Walker also on the roster, although Fitterer didn’t rule out Carolina drafting a quarterback should the right player fall to them.
What this trade does is give them the flexibility to upgrade at possibly offensive tackle or tight end — two big needs — if Oregon’s Penei Sewell or Florida’s Kyle Pitts falls to them. That would also give Darnold a better chance to succeed and upgrade the overall offense long term.
“He’s highly competitive,” Fitterer said of Darnold. “He’s smart enough. I really like what he can bring to us with his ability to push the ball down the field.”
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