Almost by accident, the franchise tag has become one of the most powerful contractual weapons in sports. The franchise tag was originally introduced as a way to keep true "franchise" players in the same uniform for the long term, preventing players such as Brett Favre or Tom Brady from changing teams every four or five years.
In short, the franchise tag can be used once a year on any pending unrestricted free agent. If tagged, the pending free agent will be essentially forced to sign a one-year, fully guaranteed contract that equates to the average of the top-five salaries at the player's position.
Over time, the franchise tag became more than just a last-resort tool to keep a player around for one more year. It gives clubs a tremendous amount of leverage and flexibility in terms of how they handle their pending free agents. This leverage has rippling effects on the open market—after all, if the top players don't get the contracts they earn on time, neither will the secondary and tertiary free agents after them.
What is the Franchise Tag?
Most players hate the franchise tag. Instead of testing their value in the open market, they are forced to prove themselves for one more season. While they will make a healthy salary that is fully guaranteed for one season, they are just one injury away from never having a chance to land the almighty second contract that they have been working toward their whole lives.
The biggest deterrent of using the franchise tag is the cap room it takes up. Depending on the position, the franchise tag can eat about $15-20 million of cap space if used on more valuable positions.
If tagged, there is little a player can do to retaliate. Holding out for a long-term deal is the best option—especially since they cannot be fined for not attending workouts and training camp if they are not officially under any kind of contract—but doing so subjects a player to unwanted public criticism.
A franchise tag can also be used as a mere means to buy time in contract negotiations. If a team wants to extend a player with a long-term deal, they can use the tag to prevent the player from hitting the open market.
While they risk overpaying the player for the upcoming season under the franchise tag, it provides an alternative to losing the player to the market outright.
Meanwhile, the Jets find themselves in a position in which they are trying to bring in more outside help than keep what earned them an 8-8 record last year. Will they have any use for the franchise tag?
Dealing With Austin Howard
There is one player that stands out as a lone candidate for the franchise tag—right tackle Austin Howard.
Since taking over the starting job at right tackle in 2012, Howard has established himself as one of the better right tackles in football. In fact, Howard was arguably the most consistent offensive player on the Jets in 2013.
After ranking as the 31st-best offensive tackle in the league (out of 80), the Jets handed him a one-year tender (as a restricted free agent), forcing him to prove that his breakout season was no fluke. He responded by allowing just two sacks on 1071 snaps in 2013.
With 8 games up so far some big grades coming through. New York Jets Austin Howard quietly leading all tackles so far with his +5.2 grade.— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) September 9, 2013
While he is not quite in the "elite" category of offensive tackles, Howard is a young, quality starter who has earned an upper-level contract—which is where the use of the franchise tag gets to be a tricky decision.
According to Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News, the Jets have cracked the ice on contract talks with Howard. If a deal is struck before the market opens up, the franchise tag will be a moot point.
However, there is certainly a possible scenario in which the Jets would unsheathe the franchise tag. Howard's camp will make its case to give him a contract that is equal with the top tackles in the league, while the Jets will certainly look to categorize Howard in the "less than elite" category and pay him accordingly.
If the two sides cannot come to an agreement, the Jets can put the tag on Howard to buy them some time to get a deal done without allowing other teams to get involved.
This does not mean that the Jets are absolved from any risk. If Howard sticks to his guns and plays out 2014 under the tag at a high level, the Jets would be virtually forced to hand Howard a big-time contract (or let him walk).
The 2014 franchise tag numbers have yet to be released, but based on last year's number for offensive linemen ($9.8 million), Howard would be looking at about $10 million in fully guaranteed money—not a shabby number for a player that was on the roster bubble a couple years ago.
Howard won't get elite left tackle money, but he has earned the right to be the highest-paid right tackle in football. Based on the pay of the top right tackles in the game (via OverTheCap.com), he should see an average salary per year (APY) north of $7 million.
|Gosder Cherilus||Indianapolis Colts||$7 million|
|Anthony Davis||San Francisco 49ers||$6.64 million|
|Phil Loadholt||Minnesota Vikigns||$6.25 million|
The question the Jets must answer is whether or not they are willing to pay Howard as the top right tackle in the game, even though his play indicates that may not quite be as good as the salary numbers would indicate.
Is the Tag Worth the Risk?
If Howard is as important to the Jets as he seems to be (as he should be), the franchise tag could very well be a viable option if the two sides are unable to see eye-to-eye in their interpretation of Howard's value as a player.
Even if the Jets wind up having to use the tag on Howard, there is still a lot that has to go wrong in order for them to go through with having to actually pay Howard $10 million for one season. They would have to allow an entire summer to pass by without coming to an agreement for the tag to transform from a formality into a real contract.
Howard will certainly try to leverage every dime he possibly could into his long-term deal, as he should—players only get one chance at a life-changing deal like this.
Still, as nice as a $10 million deal would be, having long-term security that gives Howard a job for more than one season would be quite appetizing for a former undrafted free agent who was one bad training camp from getting cut not long ago.
Ultimately, the franchise tag being a major factor in the Jets' offseason seems unlikely, but it could determine the fate of the most important pending free agent if contract talks start to disintegrate.