NFL players and agents routinely complain about the franchise tag, and for good reason. It restricts player movement and, in turn, limits the top of the market at each position from being maximized. But the franchise tag likely won’t be going away as part of the next Collective Bargaining Agreement, given the magnitude of the concession that the NFL Players Association would have to make in order to wipe the 26-year-old device off the books.
That said, the franchise tag has changed over the years. The Walter Jones situation (he was tagged three times before signing a long-term deal with the Seahawks) prompted the 2006 effort to make it much more expensive to tag a player for a third time, giving him either the quarterback franchise tender or a 44-percent increase over his prior year salary, whichever is greater. In 2011, the formula for the franchise tender quietly was adjusted, tying the calculation to the average percentage of the salary cap consumed by the five highest-paid players at each position over a five-year rolling average. This resulted in the franchise tender outpacing the market at positions like running back, where for example Le'Veon Bell received $12.1 million in 2017 even though the highest-paid running back was making roughly $8 million per year at the time.
More changes are possible this time around. One possibility would be to eliminate the position designations, and to make the amount of the tender the average of the 10 highest-paid players in the sport, at any position.
That would make the tender, in most cases, a device to hold quarterbacks in place. But that’s fine; if the goal is to ensure that “franchise” players can be kept off the open market, only “franchise” players (primarily, quarterbacks) should be restricted.
Whether something like that happens hinges on whether the NFLPA would make the concession necessary to make it happen. So the question becomes how much of a concession would the NFL want?
In making that assessment, the NFL should consider the disconnect between fan interest in the NBA regular season and fan interest in NBA free agency. Even though this year’s basketball market opened at the non-optimal time of 6:00 p.m. ET on a summer Sunday, it captured the attention of most of the sports world. If the NFL franchise tag truly applied only to franchise players, more players would make it to free agency, more interest would be driven by free agency, and more money would be made by the NFL from the enhanced interest and buzz.
It’s unclear at this point whether any changes will be made to the franchise tag in the next CBA, but each of the last two labor deals have chipped away at the primary device for keeping players off the market. The next CBA could, and should, chip away at it some more.