Dissecting the Franchise Tag & Potential 2014 Candidates


It’s been 21 years since the implementation of one of the most unique practices in sports: the franchise tag. Though the intricacies of the franchise tag have changed over time, one thing has remained constant: it adds an element of strategy to offseason negotiations in the NFL.

This past November in an article for CBS Sports, former agent Joel Corry provided an excellent explanation of the two types of franchise tags: exclusive and non-exclusive (below).

Non-exclusive franchise tag: A player must be offered a one-year contract based on the average of the non-exclusive franchise numbers at his position over the last five years and their percentage of the current year’s salary cap or 120 percent of his prior year’s salary (usually salary cap number), whichever is greater. This tag allows the player to negotiate with other NFL teams but if he signs an offer sheet with another club, his team has five days to match the offer. If the offer is not matched, his team will receive two first-round picks as compensation from the signing team.

Exclusive franchise tag: A player will receive a one-year offer from his team that is the greater of the average of the top five salaries at his position once the restricted free-agent signing period has ended (May 2) or 120 percent of his prior year’s salary. A player cannot negotiate with other teams with the exclusive franchise tag.

Corry also provided projections for the 2014 franchise tag amounts:

Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 1.20.44 PM

In today’s NFL, first round draft picks are commodities that teams rarely part with, so the non-exclusive tag nearly always suffices (a team would have to commit a huge amount of money AND give up two first round picks in order to sign a player that another team slapped the “non-exclusive tag” on.)

I decided to look at the recent history of the franchise tag (offensive and defensive players only):

Franchise Tag History, 2007-2013

YearDefensive Players TaggedOffensive Players TaggedTotal (non K/P) Tagged

Some things to note–over the past 7 years, the number of non-Kicker’s/Punter’s that have been slapped with the franchise tag has ranged from 4-13; the annual average is 9.4.  Also, defensive players are more likely to be tagged than offensive players (65% of the players tagged over this period played on defense).

The Franchise Tag in 2014

Looking at 2014, I’d guess the number of non-K/P’s that end up being franchise tagged will be between 5 and 8. Below are some candidates (ranked in order of most likely to be tagged to least likely to be tagged):

Jimmy Graham (NO)

If the Saints and Graham can’t come to terms on a deal before the March 3rd deadline, Jimmy Graham will be slapped wit the franchise tag. He will not hit the open market—it’s that simple.

TJ Ward (CLE)

Although Ward would greatly prefer signing a long-term deal, the Browns have the leverage in these negotiations.  Based on the 2014 franchise tag projections, thee Browns can sign Ward—who had an excellent 2013—to a one-year-deal for around $8 million. This scenario seems likely, while Ward and the Browns try to hammer out a long-term extension over the summer.

Dennis Pitta (BAL)

The Ravens offense wasn’t close to the same this past year with Pitta on the sideline. The Ravens would theoretically like to lock up Pitta long-term, but I have a feeling that’ll be tough to do for a guy coming off a serious injury (my gut says that Pitta will want more than the Ravens will be willing to ante up.)

With the projected tag amount for a TE at just $6.7 million, the Ravens will almost certainly use that on Pitta if they can’t reach a long-term deal before the March 3rd deadline.

Brent Grimes (MIA)

A free agent last offseason, many teams were not interested in Grimes after he tore his Achilles and missed the final 15 games of the 2012 season. Grimes settled for a 1 year/$5.5 million deal with the Dolphins, hoping to reestablish his open market value.

Grimes certainly proved his worth—he had an excellent year, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd overall CB.  But he turns 31 in July, so the Dolphins may be weary of giving him a long-term deal. He’s too talented to let walk, though, so the projected $11.25 million CB tag will likely be applied.

Greg Hardy (CAR)

When a player signs a franchise tender, the amount hits a team’s salary cap immediately. This could cause a problem for the Panthers if they intend to franchise Hardy—they currently have approximately $8.3 in cap space, while the projected 2014 franchise tag amount for a DE is greater than $12 million. So if the Panthers were to slap Hardy with the tag, they’d have to make a move elsewhere by March 11th at 4pm—the start of the new league year in which all teams must be in compliance with the 2014 salary cap.

When all is said and done, I think the Panthers will tag Hardy.  I don’t think there’s enough time for them to come to terms on a long-term deal between now and March 3rd, and he’s too valuable to the Panthers for them to let hit him the open market. Panthers GM Dave Gettleman won two Super Bowl’s as a high-ranking member of the Giants’ front office, so he’s aware of the importance of having a dominant pass rush.

One option for Gettleman could be to restructure the deal of DE Charles Johnson for the second consecutive year (possibly even adding some guaranteed money). Johnson, who turns 28 in July, is under contract for 3 more years with respective cap hits of $16.4 mil, $17.4 mil and $12.4 mil for 2014, 2015 and 2016. Like Hardy, Johnson also had a tremendous 2013.  Johnson was willing to restructure his deal last offseason, so there’s certainly a chance he’d be open to something again.

Vontae Davis (IND)

Davis is an interesting case.  The Dolphins shipped him to the Colts for a 2nd round draft pick last offseason after a down 2012, and the soon-to-be 26 year went on to have an excellent 2013 in Indianapolis (he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd overall corner this past year).

Although Davis might not be worth an $11.25 million salary for one year, the Colts have the cap space to be able to take this hit. The issue here is that while Davis won’t fetch $11.25 annually on the open market, the Colts risk losing Davis if they allow him to become an unrestricted free agent, as he’ll undoubtedly have multiple suitors on the open market.

If the Colts goal is to lock Davis up long-term, placing the franchise tag on him shifts the leverage of negotiations in Davis’ favor, as he’ll likely have no problem signing a 1-year deal at greater than $11 million while becoming a free agent again in 2015. But if they aren’t ready to commit to Davis long-term, franchising him ensures that he’ll be around in 2014–a year in which the Colts should certainly be contenders.

Andrew Cohen