Franchise tag 101: How is it used, and who's likely to get it?

'Franchise tag deadline' has been in the NFL lexicon for years, but it's a complicated process that could become more significant this year. Here's a primer on what the franchise tag is.  

Lynne Sladky/AP/File
The Philadelphia Eagles on Thursday placed their franchise tag on wide receiver DeSean Jackson.

The season may be over, but for the front offices of teams around the National Football League, work is just getting started.

This week, the focus is on franchise tags – the option given to each NFL team to lock up an important player whose contract is set to expire for a year, without signing him to a long-term contract. Each team gets the option of one franchise tag, and the deadline to use it is Monday, March 5 at 3:59 p.m. Eastern time.

But why, exactly, is a franchise tag so important? Let us explain.

Basically, it has everything to do with the NFL's salary cap. Teams, of course, want to squeeze as many good players under the salary cap as possible. One way to do that is to sign a player to a long-term deal that spreads his salary out over many years.

But teams don't have enough room under the salary cap to do that with every one of their good players. So, assigning the franchise tag is generally among the first off-season moves a team will make. It allows teams to square away a crucial player without having to take a long-term hit against the salary cap.

From the league's perspective, the tag tamps down on player movement – something that can wreck smaller market teams that have less draw than major markets. With the tag, owners and coaches can more easily maintain consistency at key positions. 

The result is that the free-agent signing season essentially begins at the franchise tag deadline. After franchise tags are assigned, other teams know which players are available or unavailable.

For players, it means a generous salary for a year, and the opportunity to prove themselves worthy of a longer-term deal. This year, because of the terms of the league's new collective-bargaining agreement, there are likely to be more franchise tags than ever before.

 But what sort of player is the most likely to be tagged?

Common examples are players who are valuable but who might be risky to sign to a long-term deal – because of age, injury issues, or off-field problems.

The Tennessee Titans, for instance, were hesitant to give defensive end Albert Haynesworth – a talented player with a bad temper and a questionable work ethic – a long-term contract. So they franchised him. Later, the Washington Redskins signed him to an ill-advised seven year, $100 million contract. After two unproductive, scandal-ridden years, Washington waived Haynesworth’s contract, but not before eating its $41 million guarantee.

He’s an extreme case, but tagged players usually fit the Haynesworth bill in some way. DeSean Jackson is a ridiculously gifted athlete and the only NFL player in history to be a Pro Bowl starter at two positions, wide receiver and punt returner. But an unproductive year for the Eagles, plus a few off-field issues, made a long-term contract out of the question. So he has been franchised. 

The franchise tag garners Jackson at least $9.4 million for the coming season. But the distinction isn’t as sweet a deal for players as it used to be.

Under the new terms of the NFL’s collective-bargaining agreement, franchised contract salaries are determined by the average salary of players tagged at a certain position during the past five years. The figure used to be an average of the five highest-paid players at each position from the previous year, which resulted in budget-busting spikes at certain positions from season to season.

So while a franchise tag for a quarterback was worth $16.1 million in 2011, now it’s worth $14.4 million. The most drastic salary drop was at defensive tackle, which went from $12.5 million in 2011 to $7.9 million in 2012. Had Jackson been franchised a year earlier, he’d be walking away with $2 million more.

Not every team uses a tag every year. But because of that lower price tag, NFL insiders are predicting that there will be more franchise tags than ever in 2012.

The franchise tag used to be reserved for players that teams really wanted to commit to, said ESPN business analyst Andrew Brandt on ESPN Radio Friday. “It used to be for true franchise players. Now it’s every team looking at who’s their best free agent that year, and that’s why we’re going to see so many tags. It’s a huge management weapon.”

The most surprising franchise tag so far this year? New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, whom the Saints clearly want to sign long-term. Unable to agree on the terms of deal by Monday, however, the Saints were forced to use the tag on Brees. 

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