It’s impossible to escape the Lamar Jackson drama this off-season. One of the most electric players in the NFL, there are logical arguments for and against the Baltimore Ravens giving him a long-term, fully guaranteed contract, but while neither side refuses to budge, we’re experiencing the most recent example of a franchise tag completely failing to serve the intended purpose. Unlike opt-out clauses or team options, the NFL’s franchise tag is actually mostly detrimental to the game and the men who play it.
The Franchise Tag Is Predatory
What is the Franchise Tag?
When a player’s contract is expiring with a team, and the two parties cannot agree to an extension, the team can apply the franchise tag to him, essentially adding a year onto their contract. There are two different kinds of tags, exclusive and non-exclusive. The exclusive tag guarantees the player a one year deal, paying the averaged amount of the top five contracts at their position. The non-exclusive tag would do the same, except it would be the averaged amount of the top five salary cap hits at the position, and it allows other teams to bid on the player. However, should a team other than the one who applied the tag sign the player, they owe that team two first round picks.
On the surface, it doesn’t seem that bad. Sure, the player loses the option to maximize their value in free agency, but it is only for one year, and they are generously compensated in return. Teams only receive one tag per off-season, and can only tag a player twice, paying 120% of whatever they paid the first time around. Hypothetically, an elite player would still receive their market value and could still hit free agency in two seasons, assuming their team doesn’t re-sign them to a long-term deal first.
The first issue? NFL careers are short. The average NFL career is a hair over three seasons. Football is a violent game, and everyone from placekickers to fullbacks gets injured eventually. All it takes is one bad play and their career is over, completely robbing them of any opportunities to make more money from the NFL.
Now, the average player doesn’t get the franchise tag. Typically, there are three reasons a player receives the tag. Firstly, the team values the player too much to let them leave, but they’re not sure they’re worth a long-term contract so they want one more year. Secondly, the player simply wants too much money, and they’re not willing to pay it, but again, they’re too valuable to let go of. And thirdly, most problematically, is our second issue.
The second issue is the increased popularity of the “tag and trade.” Teams will franchise tag a player to prevent them from hitting free agency, and then simply trade them off for value. Sure, the team the player gets traded to will almost certainly pay them handsomely, but it isn’t like they had a chance to go out and negotiate with multiple teams to get the most value.
Something we’re seeing more and more in the NFL is an outright refusal of the players to participate. They’ll simply stay home and threaten to hold out. Le’Veon Bell revolutionized it by skipping a whole season, and it’s become more and more common for tagged players to simply hold out or demand a trade. More often than not, it works out fine, and new faces end up in new places with a healthier bank account, but that could still be the case without giving NFL teams the benefit of controlling their destiny and improving with improper reimbursement.
Imagine if you were due a raise at work, and your boss refused to pony up the cash. So obviously, you decide to move on and try your luck elsewhere, right? Wrong, because your boss has a clause in your employment contract that allows them to make you stay on for a limited time at the rate they’ve decided, and it doesn’t matter if you say no, because there’s nowhere else you’re allowed to work in the meantime. Then, they can force you to work somewhere else in return for that company’s assetts, rewarding them for nothing and impairing your new company’s ability to succeed.
The Fan’s Perspective
From a fan’s perspective, it also hurts free agency. Very rarely do game-changing players hit free agency. They usually don’t get a chance to see their market value realized until they’re in the second act of their career, either into their third or fourth contract. Take this year’s free agency as an example. Who was the best quartrback available? Derek Carr? Jimmy Garoppolo? Running backs? Saquon Barkley and Josh Jacobs were both handed the franchise tag. What about wide receivers? Jakobi Meyers? JuJu Smith-Schuster? Very few dynamic players get to hit free agency because the teams hold the players hostage and trade them where they please.
The teams benefit. They get to control the players. Either they play at your rate or you can trade them in for picks, likely sending them to a bad team in another conference. They don’t always get a king’s ransom, but they get more than they would simply letting them walk. Players like Jalen Ramsey and Khalil Mack have been stars on multiple teams, with Ramsey even helping the Los Angeles Rams hoist the Lombardi Trophy, but neither man has ever been allowed to test free agency and negotiate their value versus what other teams are willing to pay on the open market. Most trades aren’t finalized until the two parties have agreed on compensation, and that would’ve likely just been an initial offer in free agency, that most agents would be able to leak to other teams to increase the value.
Maybe it’s time to get rid of the exclusive tag, and create the opportunity for a player to negotiate their true value on the open market, but even then, the team holding the player hostage is rewarded with two first round picks. Why the NFLPA hasn’t pushed to abolish the franchise tag, I’ll never know. It, alongside with teams playing on Thursday Night getting a bye the week before (or the elimination of TNF altogether), and staving off Roger Goodell’s lust for an ever-expanding regular season, should be the first priorities of the NFLPA if they’re actually doing their job in good faith.
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