Why the NFL Needs to Redo Franchise Tags to Include EDGE Performers

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystJuly 13, 2020

Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Shaquil Barrett (58) chases down Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) for a sack during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 10, 2019, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Jason Behnken)
Jason Behnken/Associated Press

The NFL could cost two franchise-designated performers millions of dollars based on nothing but an outdated argument over semantics. As such, the league needs to immediately change its current procedural setup to better reflect today's game, those producing at a high level and the implementation of the franchise tag. 

This past week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Shaquil Barrett and Pittsburgh Steelers' Bud Dupree rightly filed grievances after signing their franchise tenders, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport and ESPN's Brooke Pryor, respectively. 

Why? Because the NFL will cost them $1.96 million each simply because they're listed as linebackers rather than what they truly are: edge-defenders. 

The discrepancy over pay stems from the league not reflecting the actual on-field product. An antiquated system remains in place despite the evolution of defensive principles and how opposing offenses must be attacked in a wide-open passing league. 

Position designations remain a sticking point for both Barrett and Dupree based on how the franchise tag is applied with out-of-touch classifications. In this instance, the league still adheres to squads utilizing two base fronts—the 4-3 and 3-4—when modern usage doesn't always mirror those formations.

Yes, most teams still claim one of those basic front sevens, but the majority of snaps have five or six defensive backs on the field.

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To better understand how prevalent nickel and dime schemes now are—make no mistake, they're closer to actual base defenses than the traditional setups previously mentioned—the league as a whole only used four defensive backs on the field a minuscule 18 percent of the time when quarterbacks dropped back to pass, per Sports Info Solutions (h/t USA Today's Doug Farrar). 

Think about that number for a moment. Let it simmer. 

NFL units had five defensive backs (nickel) on the field 59 percent of the time, while six defensive backs (dime) were utilized during 20.9 percent of those snaps.

The league's "base" defenses barely crack the top three, and it's not like defensive coordinators are primarily going to use goal-line defense anytime soon. 

Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Bud Dupree
Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Bud DupreeKeith Srakocic/Associated Press/Associated Press

This is important to note because of how it dictates overall utilization, which is vital to Barrett and Dupree's argument. 

Generally speaking, three current position designations should be boiled down to two. As a 3-4 outside linebacker, those individuals aren't really full-fledged flying-all-over-the-field defenders. Neither Barrett nor Dupree is regularly dropping into coverage. Their value derives from pressuring opposing quarterbacks, as anyone can determine by their 31 combined sacks last season, including Barrett's league-leading 19.5. 

They're not linebackers in a traditional sense. They're pass-rushers who alternate between two- and three-point stances while dropping into space on occasion, as some traditional defensive ends do on fire-zone blitzes. 

All of this can be boiled down to two different designations: edge-defenders and off-ball linebackers.

If a defender's primary job—whether he's a defensive end or linebacker—is to rush the quarterback, especially over the tackle, he's an edge-defender. If the individual primarily plays off the line of scrimmage as more of a traditional linebacker, he fits the other category. 

The valuation of these two positions in today's game is very different. 

Some may quibble, "Well, it's less than a $2 million difference for one season, and they're going to both be guaranteed more than $15 million this fall," as Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer relayed: 

But that misses the point. The contributions of Barrett, Dupree and future franchise-tag possibilities labeled as 3-4 outside linebackers aren't properly represented by the current valuation. 

Pass-rushers are far more highly valued today than traditional linebackers. Those who can disrupt opposing passing games are considered premium performers, whereas the second-line defenders are declining in value with each passing year. 

Taking a step back for a moment, how non-exclusive franchise tags reach their yearly costs must be explained. 

A franchise tag's cost is determined by a running tally of the top five players' salary-cap percentage at the position or by calculating 120 percent of the individual's salary from the previous year. (The latter is less likely than the former except in specific situations, like a quarterback receiving back-to-back tags.)

The discrepancy between the two positions' assigned value will continue to grow if the system remains unchanged. 

Spotrac shows the linebacker position's adjusted percentage of the yearly salary cap decreased from 9.95 percent in 2015 to 7.91 over the course of just five seasons, and those numbers are being buoyed by the edge-defenders still counted among the group. Some organizations simply don't value off-ball linebackers like the league as a whole once did and invest very little in their second line of defense. 

On the other hand, those deemed edge-defenders saw their salaries steadily increase during the same time frame. In '15, the top five edges averaged $16.98 million in salary. That number moved to $18.01 million last season and will increase to a whopping $22.95 million this fall. 

Interestingly, defensive ends claimed four of the five largest salaries five seasons ago. Three of the top four highest-paid edge-rushers this coming season are considered 3-4 outside linebackers. 

While the Steelers currently have Dupree operating under the franchise tag, his grievance and how positions are designated in the future could have significant long-term implications.

Teammate T.J. Watt will likely demand a $100-plus million deal or require the franchise tag before he becomes a free agent after the '21 campaign. Pittsburgh could pay a very different price if the NFL does re-evaluate the franchise tag's application.

Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Yannick Ngakoue
Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Yannick NgakoueStephen B. Morton/Associated Press

This adaptation to accurately assess an individual's contributions has already been accepted by many outside of professional football. Edge-defenders, interior defenders (defensive tackles) and off-ball linebackers are a regular part of the game's lexicon, just like those who prefer to use more technical terms like 1-technique, 3-technique, 5-technique, "Mike" linebacker, "Will" linebacker, etc. 

The overall rigidity and adherence to antiquated terminology will cost deserving participants what they've earned based on their on-field performances. There's absolutely no reason whatsoever for an arbitrary delineation between Barrett and the Jacksonville Jaguars' Yannick Ngakoue, who also received the franchise tag this offseason. 

Barrett was the better player. He led the league in sacks and finished fourth among all edge-defenders with 81 total pressures, per Pro Football Focus. Ngakoue wasn't anywhere near as productive, yet he's scheduled to make more this season simply because the Jaguars roster lists him as a defensive end. 

Stupid. 

Embrace the change, NFL, by accurately representing your stars and fairly compensating those individuals. 

     

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @brentsobleski.

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