Thanks to some savvy negotiating by owners during the CBA talks, all 32 teams wield a powerful weapon that changes the free-agent landscape year after year: the franchise tag.
Simply put, the franchise tag allows a team to keep any pending free agent they would like—at a costly premium. A team can delay a player's arrival on the free-agent market for a season at the cost of handing them a fully guaranteed contract that amounts to the average of the top five contracts at the player’s position.
This is a great tool for NFL teams who cannot reach an agreement on a long-term deal with a pending free agent, as it both buys them time and gives them leverage in contract negotiations. As a result, most players despise the franchise tag: It forces them to put up yet another stellar season without getting seriously injured to achieve the big contract they have been working toward for years. The lack of long-term security under the franchise tag forces many players to take lesser contracts for the sake of peace of mind.
As much as most players despise the franchise tag, it is not a tool to be wielded with reckless abandon. Doing so could cost a franchise millions in guaranteed money on a player that is not worthy of having the distinction of being a “franchise player.”
The good news for the Jets is, they don't have many talented players to choose from when deciding who to divvy out their franchise tag to in 2014.
One of the (few) benefits of having an inferior roster like the 2013 Jets is that there are much more assets to gain than to lose.
Of all of the top pending free agents from New York's 2013 roster, there are only two players the Jets would have a strong sense of urgency to keep: kicker Nick Folk and right tackle Austin Howard.
|Player||Position||Franchise Tag Number (in millions)|
|Austin Howard||RT||$11.2 (offensive lineman)|
|Nick Folk||K||$3.4 (kickers and punters)|
|Leger Douzable||DE||$12.6 (defensive end)|
|Calvin Pace||OLB||$11 (linebacker)|
|Willie Colon||G||$11.2 (offensive lineman)|
|Jeff Cumberland||TE||$6.8 (tight end)|
|Ed Reed||FS||$8.1 (safety)|
|Ellis Lankster||CB||$11.3 million (cornerback)|
|Kellen Winslow||TE||$6.8 million (tight end)|
There are a handful of important free agents on this list, but “important” rarely equates to deserving such a significant amount of cap space. The Jets would love to have backups Leger Douzable and Ellis Lankster back in their respective roles, but not at the price of an elite player.
Nick Folk and Austin Howard, however, have a good chance of earning a top-dollar contract on the open market (respective to their positions)—particularly Nick Folk.
A former Dallas Cowboys castoff, Nick Folk has completely turned his inconsistent career around with the Jets. He missed just three field goals in 2013 and made a handful of game-winning kicks that gave the Jets a season to ruin in the first place. Through the first half of the season, Folk was as instrumental in the team’s surprising success as any other player.
If he hits the open market, Nick Folk will be the most sought-after available kicker, but that does not make him the clear favorite for the tag.
Since stumbling into the starting job in 2012, Austin Howard has established himself as the best young offensive player on the Jets. According to Pro Football Focus, Howard has yielded just two sacks all season. By comparison, left guard Brian Winters has allowed 10 in 11 games.
Howard was working on a one-year tender in 2013 to prove that his surprising 2012 season was no fluke, which is exactly what he did. Howard has now established himself as one of the better starting right tackles in the league, and he should be paid accordingly.
The Jets made the responsible decision to tender Howard last offseason (as opposed to giving him a long-term extension), but it also means that they will have to give him fair market value if they want to keep him around without using the franchise tag.
Cost vs. Positional Value
If Folk and Howard are the only two Jets “competing” for the franchise tag, the real question the Jets must answer is how much they value each position in accordance with their franchise tag total.
Obviously, tagging Howard will be the more expensive option ($11.2 million) than Folk ($3.4 million), but they must consider positional value and how easily they can find at least a capable replacement without it costing them any wins.
Folk is an excellent kicker, but players at his position can be found on the street for the minimum salary. Kickers are also prone to having a high variance in their year-to-year performance; there is a much greater chance that Folk misses a handful of kicks than Howard massively underperforming at right tackle.
While kickers come at a dime a dozen, finding even an adequate right tackle is a chore for every NFL general manager. This year’s upcoming class of right tackles is less than exciting, to say the least.
Relying on the draft to fill a position can be even more damaging. Not only are college prospects unknown commodities until they hit the NFL, but desperately filling roster holes with draft picks forces a team to “reach” for players and overdraft them, depleting the overall talent level on the roster.
After considering these options, biting the bullet and using the franchise tag on Austin Howard is the more logical choice—but the Jets will be better off if things never get to this point.
Not Using the Tag
Every team gets a franchise tag to use—but not using it is often the best strategy. In fact, many teams, such as the New York Giants, are notorious in their refusal to use the franchise tag.
This year, the Jets would be best suited to follow the Giants’ model and not use their franchise tag at all.
Austin Howard is a quality right tackle, but there is no chance that he earns all $11.3 million he would be due under the tag. After all, Pro Football Focus graded him as the 47th tackle (including both left and right tackles) in their rankings—above average, but he is not quite a dominant player.
If possible, John Idzik would be best off finding a way to get both Folk and Howard on long-term deals before the franchise tag becomes a possibility. The Jets will have the cap room to make such deals this offseason; it is now a matter of finding common ground and getting a deal signed.
Ultimately, the more the franchise tag is involved in the Jets’ offseason, the better chance there is that they will wind up losing or overpaying a free agent.
Advanced statistics provided by ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required).