Rookies Need to Demand no Franchise Tag Designations

I was reading an article the other day over at PFT about Von Miller threatening to sit out the year rather than play on the franchise tag. While I have my own opinions on that scenario it did get me thinking again about the franchise tag and something Bryce and I had discussed off the cuff on a podcast a few weeks back (I touched on it this week too on the podcast). While we can all argue about the merits of the tag I think we all agree that it severely limits player movement. The tag backs star players into a corner because of health and age concerns and in turn that drives prices down across the NFL. Teams go wild in free agency for second tier players because the first tier is almost never available. The CBA is years away from being re-opened but I think it is time for more agents to begin to do their parts in trying to fix the problem now and start digging in their heels on these rookie contracts rather than quickly signing for the sake of getting a deal done. 

The new CBA changed the complexion of rookie contracts. For those who are too young to remember or were not paying as much attention to the NFL 6 years ago, agents and NFL teams would basically get into a mini war regarding signing their draft picks. At this time on the calendar if you had 5 first round picks signed it was probably a lot. Under this CBA probably all but 5 are signed. There were all kinds of things to negotiate and find compromise on. For the most parts agents found ways to exploit the system and certain teams were complicit in helping it along.

Because owners felt that their front offices, many of which had been run by coaches, gave up too much and they could not get it under control, they completely revamped the system in 2011.  In this system they effectively blocked every single loophole that had been found in the prior CBAs that gave agents great power to hold out and often sign, depending on their position, players to contracts that ranked close to the top of the market despite their player never having set foot on an NFL field.

With their power stripped it seems as if agents have just given up. The money is now officially slotted and in many ways the negotiations are a mere formality. As it is we predict with about 95% accuracy every single player’s 4 year salary within $8 the minute the salary cap is set.

About the only things agents have fought for is a silly thing called offsets. Offset clauses deal with how guaranteed salary is treated if a player is released before all his guarantees are earned. Its really a useless battle on both sides. If the player is any good the offset will never be an issue. If he is really bad it will also never be an issue. If he has been so-so but a team thinks he is fixable it is not an issue as his existing contract will be claimed on waivers. For the small subset of players that this could possibly impact the amount really we are talking about here is somewhere around $750,000 which is pennies on a $28M contract.

For the most part even the offset battle has been given up on. The Dolphins created a compromise with Ryan Tannehill a few years back by getting Tannehill to agree to offsets and in return they would pay him most of his yearly salary in August rather than across a 17 week season. That has pretty much become the model that many teams now follow.

But why can’t agents do more?  The CBA has stripped the top 7 or so picks of huge earning potential compared to their equals in the old CBA. Yet players are agreeing to limit themselves further by agreeing to franchise tag provisions. Most players only get one real big opportunity at a contract and it comes when their rookie contract expires after 4 or 5 years. It is imperative that these players are available as free agents if they want to maximize their worth. But instead the stars like Miller are blocked from ever getting there. It doesn’t need to be that way.

From Article 7, Section 3(c):

A Rookie Contract may also contain non-compensation terms relating to:… (13) waiver of a Club’s rights regarding the designations of, or the Required Tender amounts for, Franchise or Transition Players.

That to me is a pretty clear statement that a player can negotiate a no franchise or transition tag designation when they sign a contract. That clause, if agreed to, carries over to the option year (all non-compensation terms carry over since the contract is essentially an automatic inclusion).

So unless Im reading this completely wrong (and we all do that from time to time) why aren’t agents fighting this and using the little ability the CBA gives them to negotiate to actually do something positive for the player?  Because it doesnt put money in their pockets today?  Because they don’t think they can get it?  Rather than having Miller in a situation now where his only option is a relatively hollow threat to sit out he could have pre-emptively avoided this scenario had he dug in back in 2011 to demand true unrestricted free agency in 2016.

Miller, or any player, sitting out as a franchise player would be foolish. The team will simply tag them the following season and in the process the player lost out on millions of dollars to be back at square one. But sitting out as a rookie costs next to nothing. Almost every rookie contract will consist of the same terms- a minimum salary of $450,000 and the signing bonus. Sitting out half the year would end up costing $225,000, about 1% of what Miller is threatening to give up this year. They will still receive the full signing bonus, it will just get paid out a few months later. This is the time to hold out not as a 6th year player with millions on the line.

Part of the problem for players in the current NFL system is because the sides agreed to remove the salary cap minimum spending requirement and automatically carry over any unused cap room teams now have gigantic amounts of cap room every year or project to have it in the near future. Rather than having to scramble to make cap room to tag players, which was a natural deterrent of sorts in the past, over 75% of the league doesnt have to do a thing to tag a player. This impacts extension talks as well as the tag decision. Those are little things that helped players in the old CBA. Maybe its lost on some that this has really changed the dynamic from the past, but that tag threat is much worse than in the past.

While Im sure teams will balk at this initially look at the way they caved in the old CBA. Teams like the Eagles and Rams gave up so much to draft a quarterback the media and fan response to them failing to sign the player over a tag designation would be pretty overwhelming. But it requires the star college player to be willing to sit things out rather than sign a standard contract in May. There have been plenty in the past that did this over escalator clauses, guarantees, and free agency terms and it sure seems the option is there to fight over something now, something that will pay off big for the Von Miller’s and Andrew Luck’s of the world who give up all that leverage as rookies because that’s the way teams do business and its just become accepted. Someone needs to step up and try to make that change.

Questions about this article? Reach Jason Fitzgerald on Twitter at @jason_otc