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NFL Franchise Tag: What it is and how it works

What is the NFL franchise tag, how does it work, and what are the projected salary cap numbers for the positions in the 2021 season?

NFL Franchise Tag: What it is and how it works
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - SEPTEMBER 08: A general view of the National Football League Shield on the field prior to the National Football League game between the New York Jets and the Buffalo Bills on September 8, 2019 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ.(Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Following the Super Bowl, the eyes of the NFL begin to shift fully to the offseason, with one of the first major events being the opening of the NFL franchise tag window on February 23rd. Ahead of the franchise tag window, let’s look at what the franchise tag means, how it works, and what monetary values the tag is expected to carry in 2021.

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What is the NFL franchise tag?

The NFL franchise tag is a designation that teams can apply to one player per year who will be an unrestricted free agent. The franchise tag keeps the player under contract with the franchise that applies the tag for another year. The franchise tag can only be applied to one player per NFL team; teams can only use either the franchise tag or the transition tag, but not both.

How does the NFL franchise tag work?

Since its introduction in 1993, the franchise tag has seen its importance fluctuate. However, the franchise tag is still a valuable commodity for NFL teams when planning strategically.

Related | When does NFL free agency start in 2021? Other key NFL free agency dates

Tags allow teams to buy more time to work on an extension or retain a player for a further year if they believe they are valuable to the team’s success. A great indication of that is Shaq Barrett’s franchise tag in 2020 by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Barrett went on to be a valuable member of the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl-winning defense.

There are two different types of franchise tags that teams can apply. The first is the exclusive franchise tag and the second is the non-exclusive franchise tag.

What is the difference between an exclusive and non-exclusive franchise tag?

The difference in the tags is exactly what the name says to some extent. The exclusive franchise tag means an NFL player cannot negotiate with another team once the tag has been applied.

In contrast, a player who is given the non-exclusive franchise tag can negotiate with another team. If that team offers the player a contract, the team that tagged him gets the first right of refusal to match the deal. If the team that applied the tag does not match the deal, the new team would send two first-round draft picks to that team.

For example, in 2020, Dak Prescott was given the exclusive franchise tag. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Chargers gave Hunter Henry the non-exclusive variety. Henry was then able to at least negotiate with other teams during free agency. On the other hand, restrictions were in place for Prescott and his agent, preventing them from discussing a contract with any other teams.

Related | 2021 NFL Free Agents: Top available at each position

The two franchise tags come with different costs. The non-exclusive franchise tag’s value is the average of the top five cap hits at the position for the previous five years. This number adjusts according to the salary cap number in the new league year. However, the franchise tag value could also be 120 percent of the players prior year salary, if that is a higher number than calculated using the previously described method.

Meanwhile, an exclusive franchise tag salary is the average of the top five cap hits at the position following free agency in the new league year. This number is usually determined at a defined date in April.

Can a player refuse the NFL franchise tag?

The franchise tag has proven to be unpopular among NFL players. Following its introduction in 1993, the idea of the tag was to protect small-market franchises that could not compete financially with the bigger teams. However, with that no longer being the case, many players express concern about playing at least another year before they get another opportunity to sign a long-term deal.

Franchise-tagged players have reacted in several different ways. Some players can work out subsequent extensions with the franchise that tagged them.

For example, in 2019, five of the six players who received a franchise tag signed an extension. Four of those were with their original team. Another was traded prior to his extension. Only Jadeveon Clowney actually played on the franchise tag in the 2019 season. In contrast, the 2020 season saw just one franchise-tagged player sign a long-term deal.

Other franchise-tagged players will hold out of training camp and preseason in protest. However, the player normally reports to the team either in time for the first game of the season or during the season itself.

In 2018,  Le’Veon Bell refused to play on the franchise tag. Bell had already played on the franchise tag in 2017 and was not happy to be franchised for a second straight season. The Steelers then had the option to franchise tag Bell for a third time in 2019. However, with the potential cost escalating to around $25 million, the Steelers chose not to do so.

The only real option for a player to refuse the franchise tag is to sit out the year with no pay.

How many times can you tag a player?

The maximum that any one NFL team can franchise tag a player is three times. However, the escalating costs of applying the franchise tag often means that a player will not receive the tag more than once or twice. In the first season the tag is applied, the calculations above are used.

However, in the second season, the price of the tag is 120 percent of the previous years’ salary cap number. If there is a third tag, a player’s salary cap number increases 144 percent over the previous year’s salary.

For example, let’s look at how the tag’s cost would escalate for a player tagged at $20 million in year one. With the second tag, the cost jumps to $24 million a year. If there is a third tag on the player, his salary in that year would be $34.56 million.

What are the projected cap numbers for the 2021 NFL franchise tag?

We’ll have confirmation on the numbers of the 2021 franchise tag once the NFL salary cap is known. According to Adam Schefter, the cap will likely be around $180 million. According to Over the Cap, here are the projected franchise tag numbers for the 2021 NFL season.

  • Quarterback: $24.1 million
  • Running Back: $11.1 million
  • Wide Receiver: $16.4 million
  • Tight End: $10.2 million
  • Offensive Line: $14.5 million
  • Defensive Tackle: $14.2 million
  • Defensive End: $17.8 million
  • Linebacker: $15.7 million
  • Cornerback: $15.3 million
  • Safety: $11.2 million
  • Punter/Kicker: $4.8 million

Want more NFL news and analysis?

Be sure to follow us on Twitter (@PFN365) to stay up to date with all things around the NFL. Also, continue to visit Pro Football Network for NFL news and in-depth analysis concerning the 2020 season and beyond.

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