Everything You Need to Know About the 2018 NFL Franchise Tag
The first significant offseason date occurs Tuesday when franchise tags can be applied to the NFL's best and brightest free agents, thus preventing them from testing the open market.
League officials implemented the rule in 1993 as a way to offset a team losing its star players and maintain competitive balance.
The one-year agreement isn't used lightly since its implementation can lead to long-lasting repercussions.
Organizations can't allow productive players counted among their core performers to leave, while the individuals want to maximize their earning potential. Sometimes, everything works out for both. Other times, a rift forms between the two sides without reaching a resolution.
This give-and-take makes the franchise tag's usage such a difficult proposition.
The Washington Redskins placed the tag on quarterback Kirk Cousins for two straight years and never found common ground on a long-term deal. Eventually, the organization decided to move beyond its previous starter by trading for Alex Smith. Cousins, meanwhile, is set to become the richest quarterback in NFL history with multiple franchises bidding for his services.
Either way, a significant investment will be made in those being considered. The one-year franchise compensation may not reflect the individual's optimal value, yet most teams are counting on the short-term solution to provide a long-term answer.
Tuesday may be the first day teams can use the franchise tag; however, a final decision isn't needed until the 4 p.m. deadline on March 6.
How the Franchise Tag Works
The franchise tag isn't a ubiquitous designation preventing an athlete from exploring his options. Although, three levels exist which teams can use to best serve their goals.
1. An "exclusive" franchise tag doesn't allow negotiations with other teams. The player will receive the average of the top five salaries at his position during the upcoming season or 120 percent of his previous year's salary, whichever is greater.
Example: Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (2017).
2. A "non-exclusive" franchise tag allows an individual to sign an offer sheet with another franchise if it's willing to give up two first-round picks for his services. The original team has the right to match the offer, though. If the player doesn't sign an offer sheet, he'll receive the same one-year compensation as the exclusive designation.
Example: Arizona Cardinals linebacker Chandler Jones (2017)
3. The "transitional" tag is different than the previous designations on two fronts. First, it allows the player to negotiate with other organizations like the non-exclusive tag. However, his original team receives no compensation if the offer isn't matched. Also, the individual receives the average of top 10 salaries of the prior season at the player's position or 120 percent of the player's prior year's salary, whichever is greater.
Example: former Cleveland Browns center Alex Mack (2014)
The franchise tag often serves as a trigger for a long-term agreement. During the last two offseasons, 14 individuals were designated franchise players, and six agreed to new deals. The two sides have until the July 16 deadline to negotiate before the franchise tender must be signed.
Projected Franchise-Tag Prices
A franchise player's worth is determined by his position.
The 2018 salary cap has yet to be determined, so actual franchise-tag numbers haven't been established. Inflation occurs to varying degrees based on contract and cap growth.
Quarterbacks, of course, always hold the highest value. The San Francisco 49ers made Jimmy Garoppolo the NFL's highest-paid player. His contract affects teams around the league on two fronts. First, he's not available for others to pursue. Second, his average salary of $27.5 million per year skews the amount commensurate with the franchise tag.
Different numbers can be found based on the projected 2018 salary—which has the potential to reach $180 million or more.
Three numbers will be provided to ballpark the upcoming franchise tag's worth for each position. The first is last year's numbers. The following two are from former NFL agent and CBS Sports contributor Joel Corry and MMQB's Albert Breer. The 2018 valuation should fall somewhere between these parameters (in millions).
Cornerback: $14.212 | $15.212 | $15.04
Defensive end: $16.934 | $17.414 | $17.22
Defensive tackle: $13.387 | $14.159 | $14.00
Linebacker: $14.55 | $15.197 | $15.03
Offensive line: $14.271 | $14.299 | $14.14
Kicker or punter: $4.835 | $5.017 | $4.96
Quarterback: $21.268 | $23.555 | $23.29
Running back: $12.12 | $12.054 | $11.90
Safety: $10.896 | $11.465 | $11.34
Tight end: $9.78 | $10.001 | $9.90
Wide receiver: $15.682 | 16.235 | $16.05
The overall usage of the tag decreased in recent years as the numbers became more cost-prohibitive. In 2012, 19 players received a franchise tag. Only five held the designation last season. The number isn't expected to increase this year, with five likely candidates to receive a tag.
Before moving onto those worthy of a franchise tag, a few others will be considered but don't make as much sense due to their current situations. Each is a standout performer and a fantastic talent, yet they're devalued for multiple reasons.
The Jacksonville Jaguars offense is better with Allen Robinson in it. Although, Robinson is coming off a torn ACL and an underwhelming 2016 effort. Still, the wide receiver is only 24 years old with a 1,400-yard, 14-touchdown season in his back pocket.
"Every team across the league knows what I've done in this league and what I'm capable of, so that's not really an issue," Robinson said Wednesday during an interview on SiriusXM NFL Radio.
While re-signing Robinson remains a possibility, the Jaguars are deep at wide receiver, especially with the emergence of Keelan Cole. The organization also already made a significant investment in Allen Hurns.
The Los Angeles Rams are in a similar position with Sammy Watkins. The team traded a second-round pick and cornerback E.J. Gaines to acquire his services. Watkins didn't quite live up to expectations, though. The 2014 fourth overall pick led the Rams with eight touchdown receptions yet finished fourth overall with 39 receptions. His disappearing act for long stretches is concerning enough to not warrant the franchise tag.
Jarvis Landry is considered a top available free agent after setting an NFL record with 400 receptions in his first four seasons. He's the NFL's top slot receiver, and there's the rub. He's not a complete target after averaging a career-low 8.8 yards per receptions last season. Some team will pay him like an elite receiver when he's not one. Meanwhile, the Miami Dolphins already invested plenty in Kenny Stills and DeVante Parker.
Andrew Norwell resides in the same limbo as Landry. He's a fantastic player and will be a highly sought-after free agent. Yet his positional value doesn't reflect the franchise tag's worth. The offensive line tag is set at a singular price. It doesn't differentiate between centers, guards or tackles. Thus, the number is skewed by higher-paid left tackles, whereas Norwell is a top-notch left guard. Also, the Panthers invested a five-year, $45 million contract in fellow guard Trai Turner less than a year ago.
Positional value isn't a problem for cornerback Malcolm Butler. However, the relationship deteriorated between the defensive back and the New England Patriots coaching staff when Butler didn't play a single defensive snap during Super Bowl LII. Plus, the organization signed Stephon Gilmore to a five-year, $65 million contract in free agency last year. Butler is expected to enter free agency as one of the top two or three available defensive backs.
While the franchise tag isn't the best allocation of resources for these specific players, five more deserve serious consideration.
Case Keenum, Minnesota Vikings
Considering the current state of the quarterback market, the Minnesota Vikings must strongly consider using the franchise tag on Case Keenum, even though he remains an enigma. The uncertainty is exactly why the organization needs to give itself a one-year safety net to figure out which direction it should undertake.
Of course, the Vikings have options with Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford about to enter free agency. All three proved themselves to be capable starters. Although, Bradford's lingering knee issues almost certainly take him out of the equation, and Bridgewater hasn't played a meaningful snap in two seasons.
That leaves Keenum as the best option.
Even at $23-plus million with an exclusive or non-exclusive designation, the price tag isn't prohibitive for the Vikings, who have $53.22 million in available cap space. Kirk Cousins is going to break the bank in free agency with a yearly average nearing $30 million per season. Teams paid Mike Glennon and Brock Osweiler between $14-16 million to eventually serve as backups. Obviously, Keenum is better than both.
In fact, the former backup developed into a legitimate starter last season when he completed 67.6 percent of his passes for 3,547 yards, 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Can he maintain this level of play over an extended period? This is why a one-year deal makes sense.
Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur became the New York Giants head coach this offseason after Keenum blossomed under his supervision. The hire of John DeFilippo to replace Shurmur is promising for the quarterback's future, but his system fit won't be exactly the same.
General manager Rick Spielman has the option to use the transitional tag instead of the exclusive or non-exclusive variants. The price tag drops slightly, yet the team retains control to match any offer if another organization values Keenum enough to sign him.
A starting quarterback must be identified and secured before all three are able to test the open market. Keenum's recent play suggests the organization can rely on him for another season without committing long term. The situation can be broached against next year if the 30-year-old continues his upward trend.
Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
Le'Veon Bell is experiencing deja vu this offseason after playing under the franchise tag last season. Both the running back and the Pittsburgh Steelers prefer to reach a long-term agreement.
"We know Le'Veon has been a great player for us. We think he can still be a great player from this point forward, and we would love to have him be a Steeler for the rest of his career," general manager Kevin Colbert said Thursday, per NFL.com's Aditi Kinkhabwala.
But another franchise designation remains a possibility.
"Everybody knows that's an option," Colbert said. "Even if you do tag a player, you can still sign him."
Using a second tag increases last year's cap hit from $12.12 million to $14.5 million, according to Spotrac. On the surface, the potential pay raise appears to be an exorbitant amount since no other back averages more than $8.25 million. However, another one-year power play makes sense on three levels.
First, Bell's demands are steep after turning down a five-year deal worth more than $60 million in total value with more than $30 million being paid in the first two seasons, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette.
Second, the 25-year-old is counted among the league's best backs, if not the best, with 1,946 total yards from scrimmage. His effectiveness in the offense takes pressure off quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who turns 36 next month.
Finally, former offensive coordinator Todd Haley turned Bell into a true workhorse with 406 touches last season. The running back is still in the prime of his career, yet an immense workload tends to signal a downturn in production.
The Steelers can leverage Bell's best years on a series of one-year deals before letting him leave to sign a massive long-term deal with another organization.
DeMarcus Lawrence, Dallas Cowboys
DeMarcus Lawrence will be the No. 1 non-quarterback available if the Dallas Cowboys allow the defensive end to reach free agency. The likelihood of this happening is slim to none.
"Our first goal is to sign him to a long-term deal, obviously," Executive Vice President Stephen Jones said at the Senior Bowl, per the Dallas Morning News' Drew Davison. "To me, the only reason you use a franchise tag is to hopefully protect yourself if you can't get a long-term deal signed that you like. That's normally the route we like to go."
Lawrence is in line for a monster deal after finishing tied for second overall with 14.5 sacks. When his age (25) and value at a premium position are taken into account, his next deal should rival the five-year, $85 million contract Olivier Vernon signed at the same age prior to the 2016 campaign.
"Certainly, we're going to roll up our sleeves and see if we can do something with DeMarcus without having a franchise tag," Jones said.
Even though a long-term deal is in the organization's plans, the Cowboys can protect themselves by using the franchise tag as a preventative measure to keep Lawrence from discussing options with other franchises. The designation may also prevent the Cowboys from making a poor long-term decision if the two sides are far apart in negotiations.
No one can deny how well the defensive end played in 2017. He outperformed every previous expectation with the best season of his four-year career, as Pro Football Focus noted. It's fair to ask if his production will continue beyond a contract year.
Prior to last season, Lawrence managed nine career sacks and required back surgeries after the 2015 and '16 campaigns. He's also in the NFL's substance-abuse program after being suspended for the first four games of the 2016 season due to a violation.
Plenty of red flags exist for the Cowboys to lean on the franchise tag and be certain the defensive end they're signing to a lucrative long-term deal is the same one from 2017 and not the previous three campaigns.
Ziggy Ansah, Detroit Lions
Many of the same arguments made in DeMarcus Lawrence's favor apply to Ziggy Ansah's situation with the Detroit Lions. Premium pass-rushers in their prime don't hit the open market all that often. Ansah shouldn't, either.
The Detriot Lions underwent changes this offseason with the hire of new head coach Matt Patricia. Even so, the incoming coaching staff should still see the value in Ansah for the short term. Although, a long-term marriage isn't as beneficial for the Lions.
The team's 2013 first-round pick turns 29 in May, and he's already battled numerous injuries to slow him the past two seasons. A commitment beyond the upcoming season isn't ideal. Instead, the Lions can use the franchise tag for one year and move on from Ansah while building up the rest of the defense for Patricia and Co.
Right now, Detroit lacks quality pass-rushers. Anthony Zettel and Kerry Hyder are functional pieces, but Ansah is a Pro Bowl-caliber talent when he's healthy. In fact, he earned a Pro Bowl nod after the 2015 campaign when he recorded 14.5 sacks. The defensive end returned to form in 2017 with 12 sacks.
As a unit, the Lions finished in the bottom half of the league in sacks the last two seasons. Even with Ansah in the lineup, an addition to the pass-rush ranks remains a top offseason priority. It makes no sense to allow the team's best edge-rusher to leave until a suitable replacement is found, especially when the organization has a way to control his destiny.
"I think there's a lot of critical decisions, I think that's probably one of them," general manager Bob Quinn said of Ansah's future, per Tim Twentyman of the Lions' official site. "But that's something that once the new staff is in place, the new head coach, the scheme, all that's figured out, that's going to be factored into what we do with Ziggy."
The short-term commitment, even at a projected $17 million, allows the new staff to get settled without making a major investment in a player who may not fit their approach. If he does, the two sides can revisit negotiations next year.
Lamarcus Joyner, Los Angeles Rams
The Los Angeles Rams can't allow both Trumaine Johnson and Lamarcus Joyner to leave in free agency. A secondary rebuild isn't in the cards after a surprise 11-5 campaign and postseason berth.
General manager Les Snead already has plenty to do this offseason with $45.11 million in projected salary-cap space. First and foremost, Aaron Donald needs to be re-signed, and his next contract will be north of $100 million. Second, Sammy Watkins' status is still up in the air. Veteran starters John Sullivan and Connor Barwin are free agents as well.
Meanwhile, Johnson has been designated the team's franchise player the last two seasons, and the Rams may have priced themselves out of his market since a third will push his 2018 salary well beyond $17 million.
Joyner's situation, however, is far more manageable.
The four-year defensive back's $11 million franchise tag creates more flexibility for the team's other roster moves. The fact he found his niche in the Rams defense is due to Wade Phillips' abilities to identify talent and scheme around it.
"We came in, we watched the film from the year before, and we said, 'This guy's one of our best players, and he only played half the time—what should we do?'" Phillips recalled, per ESPN.com's Alden Gonzalez. "We said, 'Well, let's play him all the time then.' It sounds simple, but he's too good a player not to be on the field, in my opinion."
Joyner is listed as a safety, but he's so much more to the Rams defense. Obviously, he can handle slot responsibilities. The 5'8", 190-pound defender blitzes and plays the alley as well. To top it all off, Pro Football Focus graded Joyner as the NFL's best safety in coverage last season.
The Rams will be forced to make hard decisions on a few significant contributors. Joyner is a keeper, though.