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.
Ex-Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt to be defensive assistant with New York Giants
In addition, two of Pruitt’s former assistants at Tennessee are also on the move. Defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley has taken the defensive backs job with the Los Angeles Chargers and running backs coach Jay Graham is headed to Alabama as the Crimson Tide’s special-teams coordinator and tight ends coach.
Pruitt, who spent three seasons as the Vols’ coach, was fired for cause on Jan. 18 following an investigation that uncovered what university chancellor Donde Plowman called “serious violations of NCAA rules.”
Pruitt has retained Michael Lyons and the Dallas-based trial firm Lyons & Simmons to represent him and plans to fight the university’s decision to fire him for cause. Lyons accused the university of trying to disparage and destroy Pruitt’s character in an effort to keep from paying Pruitt what the university owes him.
Pruitt was 16-19 overall at Tennessee and 10-16 against SEC opponents. He previously was the defensive coordinator at Alabama under Nick Saban and a part of the Crimson Tide’s 2017 national championship staff. Pruitt, 46, also was the defensive coordinator at Florida State in 2013 when the Seminoles won the national championship.
Giants coach Joe Judge and Pruitt worked together under Saban on the Alabama staff from 2009 to ’11.
Tennessee announced Josh Heupel as its new head coach on Wednesday. Heupel was previously at UCF.
Texans coach David Culley tasked with changing culture, but will he have Deshaun Watson?
HOUSTON — Before all of the trade talk, reports about his future and the hiring of new coach David Culley, Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson was asked what he was looking for in his next head coach.
“I mean, we just need a whole culture shift,” Watson said earlier in the month. “We just need new energy. We need discipline, we need structure, we need a leader so we can follow that leader as players. That’s what we need. We’ve got to have the love of not just the game of football, because that’s what we do, but the love for people and the people in this organization.”
“… We need someone that stands tall and [says] this is who we’re following and this is the way it goes … and we’re going to do it this way to win.”
Of course, Watson might not be with the Texans to play for Culley, as ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported on Sunday that the quarterback is expected to still want out of Houston regardless of whom the team hires. Watson wasn’t the only one who felt there needed to be a culture change.
By hiring Culley, the Texans hope they’ve found that person to build the foundation that Watson asked for.
But, for most Texans fans, Culley’s name isn’t a familiar one. So who is he and why did Texans CEO Cal McNair and general manager Nick Caserio pick him to be the franchise’s next head coach?
Who is David Culley?
Culley, 65, has spent the past three seasons in Baltimore as the Ravens’ assistant head coach, passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach. He just finished his 27th season as an NFL coach after 16 seasons in various college coaching roles. He’ll be the oldest coach in NFL history at the time of his head-coaching debut.
Culley has never been an offensive coordinator at the NFL level, but he has been an assistant head coach before his stint in Baltimore, for the Kansas City Chiefs. The Ravens were a run-first offense in 2020, as they led the NFL in rushing yards and ranked last in passing yards.
What does he bring to Houston?
The Texans were serious about fixing the culture within the organization, and they believe Culley is that person.
After doing a second interview with the Texans — this time in person — the team was impressed by Culley’s energy and believe he has the NFL experience to deliver that cultural shift within the building, even if he hasn’t been a coordinator before.
“The thing I would emphasize about Coach Culley, more than anything, is what an amazing teacher and communicator he is,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said in 2019. “He’s probably the best — I would say he’s the best straight-up teacher, communicator, that I’ve seen coaching football one-on-one, not just because he coaches it so well, but because he’s so relentless and he coaches the important things.”
“You can be relentless, but if you’re coaching things that don’t matter, then that’s just a lot of hot air. He’s coaching the things that matter, and you see the guys getting better every day within his position group.”
McNair knew he wanted whomever he hired as general manager to take the lead on the coaching search. That is Caserio, who said the characteristic he was looking for most in a head coach was an ability to “lead people.”
“Because in the end, football is a sport but it’s about people, right?” Caserio said. “You have to make an investment in people. You have to be able to lead people. … Those are some of the things that will be important relative to whether or not they’re a good playcaller on their respective side of the ball. But whoever it is will have some competency in some area.”
“… I would say in our situation, relative to Deshaun, trying to put something in place that’s sustainable for him that can allow him and the rest of the team and the organization to go out there and perform to their maximum capacity on a week-to-week basis. That’s the goal.”
What does this mean for Deshaun Watson?
This is perhaps the most important question that only Watson can answer. If Watson still wants out regardless of whom the Texans hired, as Mortensen reported, then hiring Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy instead wouldn’t have made a difference.
Now that the Texans have hired their new coach, the question is whether Watson will be here to see the culture shift he asked for in Houston. The quarterback hasn’t requested a trade, but he could decide to do so once the hire is officially announced.
While the Texans could agree to trade terms with another team before the start of the new league year on March 17, a trade cannot be executed until then. The key timeframe to pay attention to is before the NFL draft in April, because if the Texans were to trade Watson, they would want to make sure they’re getting 2021 draft capital, when the pick slots are locked in.
What’s next in Houston?
Watson put up the best numbers of his young career in 2020 and the team won only four games. Houston’s defense struggled all season, finishing 30th in Football Outsiders’ weighted DVOA. Of course, there are still a lot of holes on a defense that struggled primarily because it lacked young difference-makers, so whomever Culley hires as his defensive coordinator will have a tall task ahead.
Regardless of whether the Texans trade Watson or not, those holes on the roster will remain. The Texans’ first pick in this draft is No. 67, so they won’t be able to add impact talent at a team-friendly price, and they are currently $18 million over the projected 2021 salary cap (although that matters less than the cash they’ve already committed, which gives them some flexibility).
If Houston trades Watson, they will be able to plug in pieces on the defense and upgrade that side of the ball significantly, but then questions will remain at quarterback.
Houston Texans hire Baltimore Ravens’ David Culley as head coach, sources say
Culley, 65, who has spent the past three seasons in Baltimore, just completed his 27nd season as an NFL coach. Along with serving as the team’s assistant head coach, Culley was Baltimore’s passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach. The Ravens finished the 2020 season ranked last in the NFL in passing.
“It’s a great opportunity there,” Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said of the Texans’ opening in the week leading up to Baltimore’s divisional playoff game. “They have a heck of an organization. I do believe that David Culley would be a tremendous hire for any team; maybe, especially, the Texans with Deshaun Watson.”
Culley has never been an offensive coordinator at the NFL level. He was also an assistant head coach for the Kansas City Chiefs. When the Ravens hired Culley in 2019, Harbaugh said the coach was highly respected “as a teacher, game-planner and motivator.”
When the Texans fired head coach and general manager Bill O’Brien in October, Houston became the first team with an opening for either position. The Texans hired Nick Caserio as their new general manager earlier this month and gave him the reins to their head-coaching search.
Along with Culley, Houston interviewed Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, former Detroit Lions and Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Caldwell, Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus and current Texans quarterback Josh McCown after Caserio took over. The Texans also interviewed Brandon Staley before he was hired by the Los Angeles Chargers.
Amid the Texans’ coaching search, sources told ESPN that Watson was not happy with the process the organization used to hire Caserio. And sources told ESPN’s Chris Mortensen that regardless of whom the Texans hired as their next head coach, Watson’s desire to be traded was not expected to change.
The Texans are coming off a 4-12 season, one in which Watson played the best football of his NFL career. The fourth-year quarterback set career highs in touchdowns, passing yards and completion percentage. He also threw a career-low seven interceptions.
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