We know that the franchise tag isn’t exactly loved by NFL players. An NFL team can tag a player for three straight seasons and prevent the player from testing the market in the prime of his career.
But as we are learning from the two teams who have tagged players for the second straight year, tagging a player all the time can come back to haunt you from a team management perspective.
Tagging a player sounds like a good idea in theory. You get to keep the player for three years without a long-term commitment, then you can let him test the market when he’s 28 to 30 years old, at which point his value might be declining and you get him at a lower cost.
But is it really worth doing so when it costs you a large sum over a three-year period?
Before I get to the two teams who I refer to, let’s talk about the Denver Broncos for a minute. John Elway has shown he’s not averse to using the franchise tag – he’s done it three times during his stint as the head of team operations, using it on Matt Prater, Demaryius Thomas and Von Miller. Prater agreed to an extension long before the deadline to sign such extensions while the other two reached their agreements on extensions on the last day.
But in both cases, Elway clearly negotiated in good faith with the player and accepted that he may have to pay in the neighborhood of the cost of the tag, perhaps more. That didn’t mean he gave the player and his agent everything they wanted, but he realized that there would be some give and take involved and it was in the team’s best interest to get a long-term deal done rather than play the tag game.
Which brings me to our two teams who have tagged players for two straight years: Washington and the Los Angeles Rams.
Starting with the Crimson Potatoes (thank you, Football Outsiders, for that clever nickname), it was understandable that they would use the franchise tag on Kirk Cousins for one year to see if he could be the long-term answer. The $19M tag number may have seemed excessive, but you could make the argument Washington wanted to see if Cousins would remain a viable option.
While one can debate how well Cousins played in 2016, he showed signs he could be the team’s quarterback for at least the next couple of seasons and be worth a “two years then we’ll see” type of deal. Instead, the Crimson Potatoes slapped the tag on him again and, earlier this year, Bruce Allen was hinting that Washington could just put the tag on him for a third year.
If the Crimson Potatoes tag Cousins for three straight years, they are estimated to pay him $76M in that time span, or more than $25M per season. The team seems to think Cousins isn’t worth that much money in a long-term deal, but why tag him three straight years and pay him that much anyway? If the team truly didn’t think Cousins is worth $20M per season, then tagging him a second straight year was a bad decision. They could have let him walk, pick up a high compensatory pick in 2018 and considered a short-term solution while drafting somebody.
Instead, the franchise tag game is sticking Washington with salaries that essentially amount to overpaying for a player the team supposedly didn’t want to overpay. And thanks to the recent contract extension Derek Carr signed, the Crimson Potatoes have lost a lot of leverage.
The same thing has happened to the Rams. First of all, they tagged the wrong cornerback in 2016, deciding not to keep Janoris Jenkins and tagging Trumaine Johnson instead. Given that it was a player’s market for cornerbacks in 2016, chances are the Rams still would have netted a high compensatory pick for Johnson, had they chosen to tag Jenkins. But the end result was Johnson played for $13.9M under the tag while Jenkins signed with the Giants and proved to be the better player.
The Rams inexplicably gave Johnson the tag again, now committing $16.7M to a cornerback who few would put into the top 10 at the position. It’s a move that made absolutely no sense. If the Rams believe Johnson isn’t worth being paid at the level of the tag last year, why play the tag game again? And if the Rams are convinced they’re going to tag Johnson a third season, the salary will most likely approach $20M.
Is it really worth keeping Johnson at more than $50M over three seasons, when you could have extended him last season and get a “two years, then we’ll see” deal, even if it did cost you $28M? Some would argue $28M over two years is too much for Johnson, but at least a long-term deal like that can let you escape it if things don’t work out. And the Rams might have been able to reduce that two-year commitment to $24M or $25M and simply pay more money to Johnson in the first year by using the tag amount. Instead, they have committed to more than $30M in two seasons, making the usage of the tag for the second straight year a losing proposition.
It’s easy to think of how the tag is unfair to players – and to be fair to players, there are some cases in which players were tagged, then got injured that season and lost a chance to get long-term extensions. That’s why I agree that teams who tag players in most cases should negotiate in good faith with the player and agent.
However, if the tag is used for three straight years, it actually turns out to be better for the player and worse for the team over that three-year period. And that’s why the smart thing for teams who tag players for the first year is to either get the deal done that season or, if you want to see what he does the upcoming season, make sure that you get an extension done once you have determined the player is worth retaining. And if you think the player is asking for too much, let him walk, take your compensatory pick and be done with it. Don’t just tag the player because you’re worried about having to fill a need.
Playing the tag game over multiple seasons just isn’t a winning proposition for NFL teams. All it shows is an unwillingness to negotiate in good faith while committing more money to a player than some may think he’s worth.