Whether you’re an NFL general manager looking to do everything within his power to keep a franchise cornerstone in the fold while sorting out a tricky salary cap situation or you’re a budding superstar desperate to get the long-term contract extension that sets you up for life after your wage-capped rookie deal, the franchise tag has become a point of contention in recent years.
It’s been a staple of NFL contract negotiations since 1993, and for the most part it was a win-win situation. Short of being an out of this world talent who’d rather set the market than play into it, it meant you’d get a pretty hefty salary hike for a year while biding the franchise time for a year to figure out what to do, but with the most recent collective bargaining agreement completely reshaping the importance of a player’s second contract, the franchise tag isn’t exactly the stop-gap that it used to be.
Slotted rookie contracts designed to redistribute the wealth after guys like Sam Bradford signed ludicrous, record-breaking contracts straight out of college were endorsed by both the NFL owners and the NFLPA when the CBA was being discussed in 2011. Franchises didn’t want to spend that kind of money on unproven commodities and the NFLPA’s obligation was to their current workforce, so it made sense to just about everyone except the rookies without representation and their agents to concede that rookies were overpaid.
So in 2011 fully guaranteed, cap friendly, rookie contracts appeared to be the simplest compromise. Ultimately, it completely reshaped roster development in the NFL and changed the nature of the franchise tag.
Veteran salaries went up and franchise tag numbers came up with it, but with talented young players locked into relatively modest (by NFL standards) contracts for the first four years of their careers in a sport where the average NFL career lasts somewhere between three years and six years depending who you ask, that second NFL contract has become paramount. And despite the fact that receiving the franchise tag guarantees you a hefty one-year lump sum, it still serves as an obstacle to the value of a potential long-term deal.
Massive signing bonuses and guarantees are the most critical aspect of NFL contracts given everything we seem to be beginning to understand about the dangers of the sport, and when you’re playing a game where everything can be over in an instant, playing one year on a lucrative deal when you could be seeing three or four times that amount in guaranteed money on a lengthier contract isn’t all that appealing.
However, the franchise tag (as its name might indicate) gives the franchise the majority of the leverage, so the only recourse that leaves tagged players is to talk an extremely tough game, and talk has gotten tougher throughout the years. This season in particular has been increasingly hostile as Jason Pierre-Paul, Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant (him in particular), among others, have all been embroiled in pretty contentious discussions with their respective teams.
Bryant, of course, has taken his frustrations to an extreme, having sat out all of OTAs and minicamp before publicly threatening to sit out of all of training camp and even regular season games, if necessary. That’d ultimately be a decision that cost him $800,000 a game, and even though it seems ludicrous to pass up that kind of guaranteed money, it’s also probably the only way that he can exercise any sort of leverage over the Dallas Cowboys.
The Cowboys are a team with legitimate title aspirations and they most certainly can’t afford to have their most dynamic playmaker absent when you consider that they have a 35-year-old starting quarterback with recurring back problems leaving many to wonder how long the window can remain open (if it can open) in the first place. Unfortunately, the flaw in that logic is that the July 15 deadline for signing a long-term deal puts more pressure on Dez than it does the team.
Even if Dez rebukes his franchise tag offer and sits out of regular season games, the Cowboys can’t offer Bryant a long-term contract even if they come to their senses and realize they need him in Week 4, so Dez’s threats are either hollow or downright stupid. If he sits out the entire season and forfeits the $12.8 million salary he’s owed out of principle, how do you think that effects his value on the open market? If he even got to the open market in the first place.
The Cowboys could always elect to franchise tag him again next season and start the process anew.
Bryant and every other player who has been franchise tagged finds themselves in a rather untenable position right now. They can talk a big game, and for the sake of negotiating the best possible deal they absolutely should, but until the tag is reworked in collective bargaining, there’s not a hell of a lot they can actually do about it besides be upset.