Starting Monday, the two-week window opens for application of the franchise tag. The device, launched two decades ago with the commencement of true free agency, gives each team the ability to apply some restriction to one otherwise unrestricted free agent each year.
Any player who receives the nonexclusive version of the tag may still negotiate with other teams. An offer sheet may be signed. The franchise player’s current team has seven days to match. If the current team doesn’t match, the contract becomes effective and the new team gives two first-round draft picks to the player’s former team.
Before 2011, the nonexclusive franchise tag was determined by calculating the average cap number of the five highest-paid players at the same position in the prior year. The current labor deal determines the tender by calculating the average salary-cap percentage of the franchise tag in five prior years, a device that keeps the growth of the tag from outpacing the growth of the cap — and likewise from not fully reflecting any growth of the market for the position that surpasses the growth of the cap.
In English (or close to it), this means that, for some positions, the franchise tag may not track the top of the market. As to quarterbacks, for example, the tag will remain in the mid-teens for the next few years, even as the top of the market pushes higher and higher above $20 million annually.
Teams also may use the exclusive franchise tag, which prevents the player from talking to another team and from signing an offer sheet. This heightened restriction carries an additional cost; the player receives an amount equal to the five highest-paid players at the position in the current year, as of late April. The exclusive franchise tender typically is much higher than the non-exclusive tender.
Regardless of the franchise-tag calculation, a player is entitled to a 120-percent raise over his most recent cap number, if that’s greater than the base tender amount. A player tagged a third time gets a 144-percent raise, or the average of the five highest-paid quarterbacks in the prior season.
The franchise salary becomes guaranteed the moment the offer is accepted by the player. Until the player signs the tender, it may be withdrawn.
Players often choose not to sign the franchise tender because, if not under contract, they can withhold services without consequences. On multiple occasions, a franchise player has shown up days before the start of the regular season, signed the franchise tender, and earned the full amount of the franchise salary.
Still, some franchise players have the tender withdrawn, making them free agents well after the big money from other teams has stopped flowing.
Even though the window opens Monday, it’s unlikely that teams will rush to use the tag. Most teams will use the period to attempt to negotiate a long-term contract, which will allow the franchise tag to be used on another player. Or not at all.
Last weekend, we took a team-by-team look at the players who could be tagged. In 2012, a record 21 players were tagged. In 2013, the number plummeted to eight. The reduced tags became obvious once the free-agency market opened, and spending was much lower than expected.
This year, tag use could hinge on the extent to which teams believe other teams will be poised to spend money to sign away their free agents. If a spending spree is anticipated, more tags will be used.
The biggest name to watch over the next two weeks will be Saints tight end Jimmy Graham. He’s arguably the best player eligible for free agency, and Graham and the Saints seem destined for a fight over whether he should be tendered as a receiver, which would result in more than $4.5 million in additional salary for 2014 alone.