When it comes to watching the NFL, you may hear things about players being “an x-round draft pick”, a quarterback winning the Heisman or free agents being picked up by a team. You may have also heard of players being franchise tagged, which is a bit more uncommon.
So, what is a franchise tag in football?
A franchise tag restricts a player for one year to a team, which can only apply to players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents. Teams tend to use franchise tags on players that they want to see perform strongly for another year before offering them a long-term contract.
There’s a lot of fine print when it comes to franchise tags, which is why they aren’t mentioned too often. Along with that, there is a lot of confusion about how different tags works, the pros and cons of each, and what it means for players and teams.
How Does the Franchise Tag Work in Football?
Franchise tags are used by teams to restrict players that are slotted to become unrestricted free agents (meaning they can sign with any team) to stay with the team for another year. In return, the player gets a one-year salary at a predetermined rate (usually the average of the top five salaries for the position).
This allows for teams and players to have 12 months to agree to long-term contracts. However, players can decline offers they receive but there are some consequences for refusing if an agreement is not made by the start of the season.
Franchise tags also give teams a chance to ease into a commitment to a player by giving them another season to play for the team to see if there is enough opportunity for growth with the player or if the player plays a key role in a team’s success. Take Shaq Barrett for example.
Barrett is a linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and was franchise tagged at the beginning of the 2020 season. Barret went on to be a leading role in that defense during Super Bowl LV, which saw the Bucs beat the Chiefs 31-9.
So there is some motivation for teams to keep talent close by through tags without extending a long-term contract if the season doesn’t go as planned.
Franchise Tag Rules
Each of the 32 NFL teams has one franchise tag per season that can be used only on one player. This is why it’s not often heard of by fans—a max of 32 people out of the whole NFL can be tagged in a season (but usually it’s only a handful).
Teams also can’t tag just any random player. The player has to become a free agent after the season is over. So players that are locked into long-term contracts or who already agreed to extensions and signed on the dotted line don’t qualify to be tagged.
There are three types of tags that a team can use: exclusive, non-exclusive, and transitional. We’ll discuss each one in-depth later in the article. For now, it’s best to know that no matter what type of tag it is, teams only get one. Not one of each type, just one tag period.
There is a pre-determined pay scale (which we’ll discuss next) and deadlines for franchise tags to be used and for players to agree to them. Factors include position, previous tags by the same team, and whether or not the player agrees.
Franchise tags are often used to keep a player close at hand during the off-season while contracts are negotiated or written. Sometimes they can be used to see how a player develops for another season with the team before committing to a long-term deal.
The entire franchise tag process happens in the off-season.
If the player and team don’t come to an agreement for a long-term contract or extension by the final deadline, then the player can either sit out the whole season without pay, hold out in hopes the team will agree to their terms, or agree to the tag. Either way, no long-term contracts can be signed until the next offseason.
Franchise Tag Salary
One attractive aspect for a player that has been franchised tagged is the salary. This can be an incentive for some players as it brings in a considerable chunk of change.
When a player is franchise tagged, their salary is no less than the average of what the top five salaries for that position earn. This average is taken from the salaries in April of the current year the tag is set to apply.
If a player is franchise tagged multiple times, their salary is 120% of the previous salary the year before they were tagged for a second time by the same team.
A third franchise tag increases the rate to be 144% of the previous year’s salary. It’s often because of this steep increase in pay that most teams don’t tag a player more than once, if at all.
Franchise Tag Deadline
Franchise tag deadlines happen during the offseason. So if you aren’t the type of fan that follows football through the offseason, it’s understandable why franchise tags are new to you. Combine that with the rarity of their use anyways, and it can seem a little outlandish.
Usually, teams have until late February to the middle of March to place their franchise tags on players. Players then have until mid-July to negotiate their long-term contract with those clubs. If an agreement isn’t made or the extension signed, the player has two choices: play on the tag salary or sit out for the season and not get paid.
How Many Times Can a Player Be Franchise Tagged?
A player can be franchise tagged three times by the same team. Due to the significant hike in pay in the second and third tags, many teams don’t tag the same player more than once.
It can also cause frustration for both parties to use franchise tags in consecutive seasons. The player may not be able to make career moves or grow with other teams, and the team is stuck shelling out a pretty portion of their budget on one player.
Can a Player Refuse a Franchise Tag?
Yes, a player can refuse a franchise tag. Players can refuse to sign and make a counter-offer of sorts, usually for longer playing seasons or extensions to existing contracts. However, if the player doesn’t sign the franchise tag contract, they risk the team not meeting their demands and negotiations, and the player could sit out for the season without any pay.
If you were curious as to all the headlines around Le’Veon Bell at the start of the 2018 season, Bell found himself in the predicament that we’re discussing.
Bell had been tagged by the Pittsburg Steelers for the second year in a row. Bell had held out and not signed by the deadline of the franchise tag, and hoped to negotiate with the Steelers for a different salary. In the end, he ended up sitting the entire season out with no pay.
For players like Bell, it can be frustrating to be tagged multiple times back-to-back. As franchise tags only secure a contract for one year, it doesn’t allow for any long-term contract with the team after that season.
And if there is a long-term contract in the works (which is why a lot of teams use the franchise tag in the first place) and isn’t signed by the tag deadline, then all long-term deals have to wait until the next offseason.
Can You Trade a Franchise Tagged Player?
Well, yes and no. It depends on the nature of the contract and whether or not the player agrees. This is why there are deadlines and even some pressure for one side of the contract to cave in to the other’s demands, no matter if it’s the team or the player.
Franchise tagged players can be traded just as if they were any normal player. A franchise tagged player can be traded if they agree to the tag-tendered contract. Under the tag contract, they are just like any other player in the league and can be traded.
However, and this was the case for Le’Veon Bell, if a player doesn’t sign the tag and there is no agreement on a contract, they can’t be traded. Remember, the rules don’t allow for any long-term deals to be signed until the next offseason, no matter what team it is.
Since Bell was in limbo between being unpaid but still with the Steelers, but not a free agent, it meant that at the time he could not be traded.
Is Getting Franchise Tagged Good or Bad?
Well, it depends on who you ask. Some players and teams use the tag to agree on long-term contracts before the deadline. Other players don’t mind getting tagged if the team is showing some success or wants an increase in salary.
Teams may also want to keep young talent close by, but want to give them one more season before thinking long-term.
In some cases though, getting tagged can feel… cagey. Perhaps a player doesn’t gel with a team or coach anymore. Other times, they just may want to see other opportunities elsewhere. And depending on the type of franchise tag used, it can feel more like a box than anything.
Teams may not want to franchise tag a player for a variety of reasons, mainly the pay scale. But it does cause stress to be in constant negotiation over the same issue for both players and teams. Given the rarity of franchise tags used in general, most players and teams come to a consensus or part ways.
What Is a Non-Exclusive Franchise Tag?
The non-exclusive tag is almost exactly what you think it is. Players are not exclusive to the team that tags them and may negotiate with other teams. So what does that mean for the team itself? Well, the team can then match any offer that is made by other teams.
The non-exclusive franchise tag is the most common tag used. Players can work with other teams during free agency without any restrictions. However, the team that placed the tag can still be in the bid to retain the player. So there is a little bit of friendly competition between teams if they use non-exclusive franchise tags.
And if the team decides not to match the offer? Well, the compensation is rather impressive. The team is awarded two first-round draft picks in the event they decline and allow the player to sign with the other club. So the risk of losing a player to a different team can garner some big rewards.
What Is an Exclusive Franchise Tag?
Exclusive franchise tags, in comparison to non-exclusive, means that the player has to stick with the team. The player cannot negotiate with another team after the current team places a tag on them. The pay for this type of tag can be a little more, as many teams use it on star performers in highly-valued positions, which cost more on average in general.
For example, quarterback Dak Prescott was franchise tagged under an exclusive tag by the Dallas Cowboys for the 2020 season. He and his agent were not allowed under the exclusive tag to negotiate with any other team at the time.
Given the rather pricey nature and that there is no compensation for the team, the exclusive franchise tag is not used often. Exclusive tags are pretty much used in an attempt to extend negotiations with a player to long-term deals and contracts, which is how they often end.
What Is a Transition Tag?
A transition tag is a lot like the non-exclusive franchise tag in many ways, but the pay is measured a little differently. Not to mention, the team doesn’t receive any compensation if they decide not to match an offer. Transition tags are a little more confusing, so we’ll try to keep it as simple as possible.
When a club places a transition tag on a player, both sides can make and negotiate deals with other players and teams, without any rules or restrictions. Similar to the non-exclusive franchise tag, teams can match any deal made by another team.
However, transition tags work a little differently. The team that placed the transition tag has the right of first refusal and can withdraw the tag at any time. If the team withdraws the tag, the player is automatically an unrestricted free agent. Teams aren’t given compensation for this withdrawal or refusing to match an offer.
It may seem to be a little unbalanced in favor of the teams themselves rather than the players. However, under a transition tag, players are paid the average of the top ten salaries for their position.
This may equate to being lower than franchise tags but can create a bit of a bidding war in terms of if a different team wants to pay them more. So there is some incentive for the player as well. Not to mention, it could be quite a raise for a player who is new to the NFL.
You can ask Kirk Cousins about that. In the 2017 season, Cousins was tagged using the transition tag by his then-team the Washington Football Team (formerly the Washington Redskins until a name change in 2020).
Given that he was fresh off of his rookie contract with some ups and downs in terms of stats, Washington wanted to get a better idea of what his value was in the league. And under the transition tag, Cousins ended up netting around a 4 million dollar raise that season.
There you have it. A very barebones way of explaining the complexities around franchise tags in the NFL. Franchise tags can be beneficial deals and contracts for teams to have more time with a player, and a player can receive a nice little raise in return.
But again, tags are limited to one per team and can only be used on players scheduled to be free agents at the end of the season. Franchise tags are very rare, which is why there isn’t a lot of talk about franchise tags in general.
A total of 10 tags were used out of the 32 teams for the 2021 season, with a notable mention going to Dak Prescott with the Dallas Cowboys, which led to a long-term contract with the team in that year.
Given that franchise tag debates only take place in the offseason, they remain out of the public eye and ears for quite some time, especially if you don’t follow during the offseason.