For players, the franchise tag stinks. But the one-per-club, once-per-year device for restricting a player who otherwise would be an unrestricted free agent has been baked into the relationship between the league and the men who play the game for more than a quarter century, and it’s not going away any time soon.
But the players whose opportunities to hit the open market have been limited by the franchise tag have begun to realize that they have rights, too. And they have begun to assert those rights, in a way that possibly has made the teams begin to think twice about embarking on the annual franchise-tag dance.
It actually began more than a decade ago, when Hall of Fame tackle Walter Jones received the franchise tag for three straight years from the Seahawks, stayed away until the start of the regular season each year, and ultimately cashed in with a long-term deal after pocketing three years of the franchise tender. In 2006, the NFL and NFL Players Association altered the Collective Bargaining Agreement to make it harder for teams to franchise tag a player three straight times, bumping the third tag to the quarterback tender or a 44-percent increase over the second franchise tag, whichever is greater.
It took players a while to realize the power that they had under the franchise tag, if they are willing to refuse to sign long-term deals and instead to play year-to-year under the franchise tag. Last year, quarterback Kirk Cousins and cornerback Trumaine Johnson forced their way to the open market in lieu of being tagged a third time, and the template for other franchise-tagged players became obvious: Carry the injury risk for two years of the tag, and then finally get the chance to cash in.
Last year, running back Le'Veon Bell took it to another level, showing that non-quarterbacks have a path to unrestricted free agency by sitting out the second year of the franchise tag, which still forces a team to use the quarterback tender the next year. Which in turn makes it highly unlikely that a third tag will be applied.
Thus, while the franchise tag continues to stink for players, players can make it stink for teams — by refusing to accept long-term offers, by staying away as late as possible until the start of the regular season after a first tag, and either by forcing the team to use the quarterback tender or pay a 44-percent increase for the third tag or (again for non-quarterbacks) sitting out the entire year and making it as a practical matter impossible to franchise tag him a third time.
That’s why it’s not a surprise that Seahawks defensive end Frank Clark (pictured) reportedly vows to stay away until Labor Day, if he doesn’t get the long-term deal he thinks he deserves. And that’s also why it’s not a surprise that Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence seems to be contemplating skipping the entire season and hitting the open market in 2020, unless the Cowboys want to keep him with the quarterback franchise tender.
More franchise-tagged players need to behave this way, even if fans and media and teammates and coaches pressure them to show up and play. The teams have robbed these players of their ability to get paid on the open market, and these players have the power to disrupt things by withholding services and/or declining to give their teams a way out of the franchise-tag maze by accepting a long-term offer that pales in comparison to what they’d make on the open market.
The more that the franchise-tagged players aggressively pursue their rights, the more that the teams will think twice before using the franchise tag in the first place. While it would be better for all players if the franchise tag went away altogether, it’s good that players have decided to take a stand against this artificial device for keeping free agents from becoming free agents.
And as more players take a stand, the less likely teams will be to use the franchise tag as a knee-jerk device to deny the players the shot at the open market that their efforts and abilities have earned for them.