Sure, the current labor deal has five more years remaining. But if, at some point, the NFL starts making noise about an extension, the NFL Players Association should consider putting at the top of the list one very clear and specific request.
Get rid of the franchise tag.
Concocted in 1993 to help teams adjust to true free agency (Reggie White was exempt because he was a named plaintiff in the case that resulted in true free agency), the franchise tag gives every team the ability, once per year, to hold a free agent in place. Previously, the franchise tender was determined by taking the average of the five highest paid players (based on cap number) at the same position in the prior year. Now, a much more complex five-year average that takes into account the percentage of the salary cap applies.
Whatever the formula, the franchise tag continues to be a device for keeping the best players in the league from getting to the open market. And with the rookie wage scale, launched in 2011, now taking full root, few players will be in position to do what Ndamukong Suh did a year ago: Force his way to market under the provision that determines the franchise tender by taking the cap number from the final year of his contract and increases it by 20 percent.
While that could change in 2017, when Saints quarterback Drew Brees would have a jaw-dropping franchise tender of $43.2 million (he has a $30 million cap number this year and would get a 44-percent raise for his third career franchise tag), fewer and fewer great players will land on the open market unless and until they are willing to retain the injury risk for three years under the franchise tag, passing on a long-term offer that would give more security — but that wouldn’t come close to providing what the player would get if truly free to sign anywhere.
Consider this year. Linebacker Von Miller has a franchise tender of $14.129 million. A long-term deal based on the tag would guarantee Miller his 2016 franchise tender and his 2017 tender, which would be $17.148 million. That’s $31.277 million fully guaranteed at signing.
On the open market, defensive end Olivier Vernon got $40 million fully guaranteed at signing plus total cash flow of $41 million through two years. How much more would Von Miller have gotten on the open market, if it had been him instead of Vernon at the top of the 2016 free agency class of pass rushers?
Making Miller’s predicament even more unfair to him personally is the fact that he already has put in five years before getting a crack at the franchise tag, since he was a first-round draft pick. Vernon has hit the lottery with only four years of NFL experience.
Since the franchise tag affects only a small percentage of all players, the NFLPA could be inclined not to fight to get rid of it, because doing so could require a concession that would affect all players. But the franchise tag currently affects all players by keeping the top of the market at each position in check. Basically, it’s legalized collusion — separate and apart from the illegal collusion that plenty of agents believe is happening.
Remember when it seemed like half the league perpetually occupied salary-cap purgatory? With the cap now spiking every year but none of the best players in position either to get to the open market or to force their current teams to pay them market value, few if any teams are scratching and clawing to comply with the cap. Which means that less of the total available money under the cap is being paid to players.
For every player like Miller, who’d need to put in eight total years and remain healthy and effective in order to get a big payday, there will be a player like Vernon, who will be in the right place at the right time to get a deal that seems shocking to the average fan, in large part because the best players rarely will be in position to squeeze out a deal that would be truly shocking.