On Sunday, February 16, the NFL-watching world held its breath. The next day would be franchise-tag day, one of the biggest events of the offseason calendar. In just hours, we'd all learn which free agents-to-be would be kept off the market and which would be released to glorious freedom!
Then, at the appointed time, nothing happened.
The franchise-tag window opened February 17—but as anyone who's watched the first round of the NFL draft knows, if you give teams a window to decide something, they'll wait to the end of it.
Now that this window has slammed shut, we finally know which of the offseason's most anticipated free agents have been kept off the market with tags.
Further, we've learned quite a bit about how the new-look franchise tags work under the new collective bargaining agreement, especially in light of a surprisingly high 2014 salary cap.
The Precedent-Setting Jimmy Graham Saga Drags On
In what's shaping up to be the most acrimonious contract negotiation of the season, New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham received the non-exclusive franchise tag, according to ESPN.
This seems like the end of the saga, but it's closer to the beginning. As Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio broke down, there are many directions Graham and the Saints could go from here; they could even part ways.
Graham, who far outstripped all other tight ends in yards and touchdowns, and was named first team All-Pro by The Associated Press, is clearly the best pass-catching tight end in football. However, he's such a great pass-catcher—and used so often split out wide or in the slot—that Graham contends he's really a wide receiver, and he should be tagged (and paid) as such.
Article 10, Section 2(a)(i) of the Collective Bargaining Agreement explains that the tender will be issued for “the position . . . at which the Franchise Player participated in the most plays during the prior League Year.”
A literal application of that language requires a simple counting of the plays in which Graham lined up as a tight end, and the plays during which he lined up as a receiver. There’s no dispute that Graham lined up in the slot or split wide more times than he lined up next to a tackle.
As Florio noted, "the difference amounts to $5.28 million on a one-year deal."
This could set a key precedent in the NFL. The plain text of the CBA clearly defines a player's cap position by snap count, yet modern offenses (and defenses) use so much more shifting and unorthodox alignments than ever before.
Whether or not a clear, fair compromise can be reached, changes to the CBA itself could be forthcoming.
No matter what the NFL Management Council determines Graham's tag amount is, the tag is non-exclusive. The Saints can try to negotiate a long-term deal with him until July 15—but so can any other team.
Should Graham sign an offer sheet with another team, the Saints could either match it, or let Graham go in return for two first-round picks.
Can any non-quarterback make a big enough impact to be worth two first-round picks and a cap-busting eight-digit salary? We'll find out as the saga continues.
Most Tags Went Unused
Besides Graham, only Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, Washington pass-rusher Brian Orakpo and New York Jets kicker Nick Folk received franchise tags. Cleveland Browns center Alex Mack, per NFL Media's Ian Rapoport, received a transition tag, as did Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds.
That's the fewest number of applied franchise tags since 2007, the first year of the previous collective bargaining agreement. It's well below the average of 10.75 tags applied per year since then:
With an unexpected increase of the 2014 salary cap by almost $10 million, per NFL Media's Albert Breer (via NFL Media's Dan Handzus), many teams suddenly had the wiggle room to extend possible tag candidates to long-term deals.
The San Francisco 49ers re-signed star receiver Anquan Boldin, too, according to Boldin's own Twitter feed:
What does this mean?
Are Franchise Tags Over?
This could well be the start of a major trend in the NFL. With new television-rights deals like the CBS Sports Thursday Night Football package pumping new money into the NFL's coffers, the salary cap could keep climbing over the next few seasons.
As Breer reported, the 2015 cap could make an even bigger jump, to nearly $150 million, and anticipated future revenue streams could keep pushing that pace to 2020—just before the current collective bargaining agreement expires.
The sensible rookie deals and flat salary cap of the past few seasons have left most teams with very few albatross contracts and very little dead money. If the cap keeps growing at the projected pace, the only reason a team wouldn't re-up a player set to hit the market is if it didn't think he was worth it.
At this rate, it wouldn't be a surprise if relatively low-paid specialists like Folk are the only players getting franchise tagged in the years to come.
The Perception Gap
The franchise tag was intended to do two things, per Breer: protect franchises' "signature players" from hitting the open market and entice those players to spend their careers with one franchise.
In this case, the tag is helping to keep Graham—the most integral part of the Saints offense, save quarterback Drew Brees—in New Orleans. However, if the Saints let him walk, it won't be because a restrictive salary cap compels them to, but because they simply don't want to meet his asking price.
That's likely why the Saints used the non-exclusive tag; Graham is free to establish his own market. If a team really wants to pay him $12 million per year, the Saints are fine with letting him walk and collecting two first-rounders for their trouble.
That's why the franchise tags still have a place in the NFL: Sometimes, the gap between a "signature player"'s idea of his worth is irreconcilably different from his team's.
The transition tag, the cheapest of the three, allows a player to shop himself and gives his original club the right to match any offer. There's no compensation if it chooses to let him walk.
The non-exclusive tag allows a player to seek a kind of free-market contract arbitration, to find his true worth, and his original club either gets the player at an acceptable salary or two first-round picks.
The exclusive tag is typically much pricier for the club but gives the player a very high, fully guaranteed salary in return for one more season off the market.
The way the tag amounts dramatically escalate for a player receiving his second and third consecutive franchise tags will scare most teams off of using the so-called "prison tag" more than once. Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd would likely have been tagged if it hadn't meant a 120 percent raise over his 2013 franchise-tag contract.
As the salary cap (and floor) continue to rise, the use of the franchise tag should continue to fall. However, the current set of tags and rules are too well balanced—and too beneficial to both parties in a case like Graham's—to fall completely out of use.