NFL CBA Explained: Franchise Tag

Article 10 in the NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement covers the use of franchise and transition tags. Both grant each NFL team different abilities to hinder or stop a player from becoming a free agent. The Franchise Tender, affectionately known as the “franchise tag,” is by far the more widely known of the two. The names that have been franchised in recent years—Peyton Manning, Matt Forte, Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham—go to show why these individuals are deemed franchise players. Here we will discuss the laws governing both tenders.

Teams that have failed, up to this point, to reach a contract agreement with an upcoming free agent have until Monday, March 1, at 4 PM EST to use the franchise or transition tag on a single player. The window to use this tender began on the 22nd day and ended on the eighth day (February 15 – March 1 in 2017) before the start of the new league year (Art. 10, Sec. 1, p. 44). Although the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) allows for restricted free agents to be franchised, the tag is typically reserved for unrestricted free agents due to the existence of more cash- and cap-effective restricted free agent tenders.

The application of the franchise tag does not bar further negotiations with free agents. In 2012, the Eagles and wide receiver DeSean Jackson agreed to a long-term contract extension about a week after the start of the league year. Both parties can agree on a long-term contract until July 15.

We’ve seen this deadline flirted with in the past. Most recently, Jimmy Graham signed a four-year, $40-million contract with the New Orleans Saints on the day of the deadline. Should a deal not be in place, the team can only ink the player to a one-year contract that can’t be extended until after the team’s final regular season game (Sec. 2, (k), 46).

Whether a player decides to sign the tender or not is another story. When the player does sign, the one-year pact is guaranteed for skill, cap and injury. Essentially, from that point forward, regardless of what happens (outside of a failure to maintain “excellent physical condition”), the player will receive the full amount designated for his position’s tender.

This guarantee goes both ways in a sense as well. If he accepts the tag, the player is then obligated to attend mandatory offseason activities (OTAs, mini-camps) and training camp. The team also gains the right to trade the player after he signs (the right to use the tag can’t be traded).  The Kansas City Chiefs flirt with the idea of trading offensive tackle Branden Albert after the 2013 NFL Draft when the team selected another tackle, Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher with the first overall pick.

This gives the player leverage. He can hold out of team activities because he is not under contract and therefore not subject to the daily fines imposed under the new CBA. However, if a player has not yet accepted his contract, the team can rescind the offer at any time. If this occurs, the player automatically and immediately becomes an unrestricted free agent.

CBS Sports Joel Corry actually wrote a great open letter to Dez Bryant in 2015 concerning how he should go about reacting to the Cowboys’ offer. He goes into great detail on reasons why the wide receiver shouldn’t jump to sign his franchise tag. The deadline for a player to sign the franchise tag is the Tuesday following the tenth week of the regular season.

If a player doesn’t sign by that deadline, he is ineligible to play in the NFL for the remainder of the league year. Although not signing the deal at all may seem like a hand to play, it really isn’t. By sitting out the entire season, the player would not be on full-pay status for six or more regular season games. He would therefore not accrue a season towards free agency, and his former team would retain the right to franchise him again the following season.

There are two types of Franchise Tenders: Non-Exclusive and Exclusive.

Non-Exclusive Franchise Tag Explained

The Non-Exclusive Franchise Tender is a one-year contract with a salary set at the greater of either a calculation* of the average cap percentage of the five highest Prior Year Salaries for players at the same position (a list of which will be compiled by the NFL and provided to the NFLPA on or before February 1) or 120% of the player’s own Prior Year Salary (Sec. 2, (a) (i), p. 44). Salary (for both tenders) is defined as total Paragraph 5 (base) salary, roster bonuses, reporting bonuses, prorated portion of signing bonus and any other payments for playing football in the NFL (essentially the player’s cap number minus incentives).

The latter is far less common (mostly due to the rookie cap implemented under the new CBA), but there was the possibility of it happening this season. Had the Detroit Lions decided to tag defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, the team would have committed to a one-year salary (and cap hit) of $26.87 million because Suh’s 2014 cap number was $22,412,500. When a player receives the increase, all other terms in his previous player contract are transferred to the tender, including (but not limited to) incentives and performance bonuses.

Non-exclusive franchise players are free to negotiate with other teams, but the player’s former team holds the right of first refusal and the right to draft choice compensation. To be specific, the former team will be able to match any offer and will receive two first-round draft choices in the next two season if it decides not to. All players tagged this season were non-exclusive.

The following players received the non-exclusive franchise tender in 2017:

  • Trumaine Johnson, Los Angeles Rams – $16.74 Million (120% increase for second tender)
  • Jason Pierre Paul, New York Giants – $16.93 Million
  • Melvin Ingram, Los Angeles Chargers – $14.55 Million
  • Chandler Jones, Arizona Cardinals – $14.55 Million (*Agreed to a five-year, $83-million contract with Arizona)
  • Kawann Short, Carolina Panthers – $13.39 Million

Exclusive Franchise Tag Explained

The Exclusive Franchise Tender is a one-year deal for the greater of either the average of the five-largest Salaries at the player’s position at the conclusion of the Restricted Free Agent Signing Period or the amount of the Non-Exclusive Franchise Tender (Sec. 2, (a) (ii), p. 44). These players are not free to negotiate with other clubs, and no team can negotiate or sign such a player.

The following players received the Exclusive Franchise Tender in 2017:

  • Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins – $23.94 Million (120% increase for second tender)
  • Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers – $12.12 Million

Defensive tackle Henry Melton was the Chicago Bears exclusive franchise player in 2013. It was also an example of how dangerous playing under the tag can be for a player. After a stellar 2012 season, Melton accepted the team’s franchise offer but tore his ACL during the season and proceeded to receive a paltry one-year deal with a team option for three more from the Dallas Cowboys. Had he been able to hit the open market after the 2012 season, he would have received far more security and guaranteed money than the franchise tag offered. The tag moves all risk of injury to the player.

Multiple Franchise Tags

The new CBA does finally protect players who have been franchised multiple times. A second tag entails a 120% increase. A third tag becomes extremely pricey for teams. If tagged for a third time, the player will receive a one-year contract at the greater of three options: (1) the average of the top five players at the position with the highest such average, (2) 120% of the average of the top five Prior Year Salaries at his position or (3) 144% of his Prior Year Salary. The CBA clarifies this example with a kicker. Should a kicker be franchised a third time, he would receive the greatest of the average of the top five quarterback salaries, 120% of the salaries of the top five kickers or 144% of his prior salary (Sec. 2, (b), p. 45).

In 2012, Drew Brees won a grievance against the NFL and the New Orleans Saints over multiple uses of the franchise tag. He fought to have all tenders, from any previous team, count towards this previously mentioned number. This means that the three-tag rule applies to a player’s career and not his tenure with a specific team.


*Calculation (an example chart is in Appendix E of the CBA):

  • Adding the amounts of five previous years Franchise Tenders for player’s at the same position
  • Dividing this number by the sum of the salary cap for those years
  • Multiplying the resulting percentage by the salary cap for the upcoming League Year.


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