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NFL Transition Tag: What it is and how it works

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

NFL Transition Tag: What it is and how it works
LANDOVER, MD - OCTOBER 25: A detailed view of an NFL logo before the game between the Washington Football Team and the Dallas Cowboys at FedExField on October 25, 2020 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

One of the earliest parts of the NFL season revolves around impending free agents and whether NFL teams will consider using the franchise or transition tag to retain players for the coming season. Let’s discern what the transition stage is, the difference between the transition and franchise tags, and the projected salary for any player who receives the transition tag in the 2021 NFL season.

What is the NFL transition tag?

The transition tag allows NFL players to retain any impending unrestricted free agents for the upcoming season. Applying the transition tag allows the team the first right of refusal to match any offer given to the player during free agency. The tag must be applied prior to the deadline, which is usually eight days before the new league year begins. Each NFL team can apply up to one transition or franchise tag per season.

If a player is given the transition tag, he can still negotiate a contract with a new team in free agency. However, if that team offers a deal, the team that tagged him can choose to match that offer. If they do so, the player must sign with his original team.

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

Yet, if the team that tagged the player declines to match the offer, the player is free to leave and join the new team. On the other hand, if by July 22nd the player has not signed an offer sheet with another team, he can only negotiate with the team who initially applied the tag.

Which players have received the transition tag in recent years?

In 2020, Kenyan Drake was the only NFL player to receive the transition tag. Drake was not offered any long-term deals by other teams or by the Arizona Cardinals. Therefore, he played out the 2020 season on the transition tag and is an unrestricted free agent heading into the 2021 offseason.

In addition to Drake, just four players have received the transition tag in the past decade. The Bears tagged Kyle Fuller in 2018. Charles Clay received the tag from the Dolphins in 2015. In 2014, both Jason Worilds and Alex Mack were tagged by the Steelers and Browns, respectively.

Of those four, three were offered long-term deals after receiving the transition tag. The Browns and Bears chose to match the offer sheets extended to Mack and Fuller. However, the Dolphins chose not to match, and Charles Clay signed a contract with the Buffalo Bills.

What is the difference between the transition tag and the franchise tag?

There are a couple of differences between the transition tag and the franchise tag in the NFL.

Teams get different compensation if they lose a player on the transition tag vs. the franchise tag

The compensation is different for the team applying the transition tag if they decide not to match an offer sheet.

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

If a player is given a non-exclusive franchise tag, the team signing him must send two first-round picks to the team that tagged the player. However, there is no compensation for the original team with the transition tag if they refuse to match the offer sheet.

Players who receive the NFL transition tag earn slightly less in salary

A franchise-tagged player has his salary based on the top five salary cap hits at the position for the past five years. In contrast, the transition tag uses the sum of the top 10 salary cap hits for the past five years. These are then divided by the total salary cap over those five years. Once the percentage is calculated, it is multiplied by the current year’s salary cap to achieve the transition tag number.

One similarity between the franchise tag and transition tag is the calculation for players with a high prior-year salary. If 120 percent of the player’s prior year’s salary is higher than the number calculated above, that figure is used to determine the player’s salary under the tags — the transition tag will take the larger of the two numbers.

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

We’ll confirm the numbers of the 2021 transition tag once the NFL salary cap is known. Per a report from Adam Schefter, the cap will likely be around $180 million. According to Over the Cap, here are the projected transition tag numbers for the 2021 NFL season.

  • Quarterback: $21.7 million
  • Running Back: $8.9 million
  • Wide Receiver: $14.3 million
  • Tight End: $8.6 million
  • Offensive Line: $13.2 million
  • Defensive Tackle: $11.4 million
  • Defensive End: $14.8 million
  • Linebacker: $13.4 million
  • Cornerback: $13.2 million
  • Safety: $9.6 million
  • Punter/Kicker: $4.4 million

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