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2019 NFL free agency: Explaining the franchise tag and what it means for the Patriots and the league

Beginning today, teams can start tagging their free-agents-to-be.

Super Bowl LIII - New England Patriots v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Starting today, NFL teams can start assigning the franchise tag to their class of upcoming free agents. But what exactly does this mean for the 32 clubs and the reigning world champions New England Patriots in particular? Let’s break down the different types of tags and the players in and outside of New England who are realistic candidates to get tagged one way or the other to find out.

What is the franchise tag?

In basic terms, the franchise tag can be explained as follows: it is a fully guaranteed one-year contract teams use to keep one of their unrestricted free agents from hitting the open market. Ideally, this buys a club more time to reach a long-term contract with a player — after using the tag, it has until July 15 to do that or else said player plays the upcoming season under the franchise tag and the cost associated with it (more on that a little later).

However, that’s not always how it works. From a player perspective, the tag offers limited long-term security despite being a guaranteed contract — which from time to time leads to players not signing it and skipping parts of offseason workouts or training camp or even the regular season (see: the Pittsburgh SteelersLe’Veon Bell). Meanwhile, teams shy away from using it because of the massive salary cap hits associated with the tag.

By the way, the collective bargaining agreement signed by the clubs and the players association allows for each team to use only one of either the franchise or transition tag per year. If you tag one player, you can’t use it again — even though teams can rescind the tag.

What types of tags are there?

The NFL differentiates between three different types of tags: the non-exclusive franchise tag, the exclusive franchise tag, and the transition tag — all of which can be applied starting today and through March 5. Let’s break down the three types of tags.

Non-exclusive franchise tag: The non-exclusive franchise tag is the most commonly used method to keep unrestricted free agents from hitting the market. The one-year tender offer pays a player the average of the top five salaries at the respective position over the last five years, or 120% of his previous salary — depending on which is greater. In the meantime, the player can negotiate with other teams but the club applying the tag has the right to match any offer or receive two first-round draft picks as compensation in case the player leaves.

Exclusive franchise tag: The exclusive franchise tag, as the name indicates, prohibits other teams from negotiating with the tagged player. However, it also carries a higher financial burden with it: the one-year tender sheet is worth the average of the top five salaries of the player’s position for the current year, or 120% of his previous salary. This means that the exclusive tag is more expensive than the non-exclusive one.

Transition tag: The third form of the tag also functions as a one-year fully-guaranteed contract, but still works a bit differently. On the one hand, it “only” pays a player the average of the top 10 salaries at the position over the last season and is therefore cheaper than the two franchise tags. On the other, however, it only guarantees a club the right of first refusal to match any incoming offers for the player — and no compensation in case he leaves.

How much does franchise-tagging a player cost?

The final numbers have not yet been announced by the NFL, but according to our friends at Over The Cap — the best source for those calculations — the following numbers are projected to be in play for the franchise and transition tags:

Projected franchise and transition tag numbers

Position Franchise Tag Transition Tag
Position Franchise Tag Transition Tag
QB 25,578,000 23,356,000
DE 18,653,000 15,735,000
WR 17,101,000 14,738,000
CB 15,992,000 13,891,000
LB 15,777,000 13,627,000
DT 15,571,000 12,287,000
OL 15,283,000 13,717,000
S 12,037,000 10,268,000
RB 11,980,000 9,739,000
TE 10,930,000 9,124,000
ST 5,162,000 4,712,000

When it comes to the Patriots, the franchise tag numbers that stand out are defensive edge at roughly $18.65 million (FT)/$15.74 million (TT) and offensive line at $15.28 million/$13.72 million (TT) — both noteworthy investments if made by a club that currently has around $17.91 million in salary cap space available (per the Boston Sports Journal’s Miguel Benzan). Speaking of which...

Which Patriots players might get tagged this year?

As noted above, every unrestricted free agent but only one player per club can be tagged. For the Patriots, this means that 17 players can receive the franchise or transition tags this year. Of course, not all of them are worth being tagged. Realistically, there are only three players the Patriots might consider to get tagged:

OT Trent Brown: $15.28 million (FT); $13.72 million (TT)

DE Trey Flowers: $18.65 million (FT); $15.74 million (TT)

K Stephen Gostkowski: $5.16 million (FT); $4.72 million (TT)

While Brown and Flowers are the team’s undisputed top free agents, the team might shy away from using the tag on them — too small does New England’s financial wiggle room appear to be as it stands right now; too rich the one-year deal in comparison. The third option, kicker Stephen Gostkowski, might therefore be more realistic: Gostkowski already received the tag in 2013 and it would not be surprising if the team again used it in order to set up a longer-term contract with the 35-year old.

Which NFL players might get tagged this year?

According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, at least ten players are realistic candidates to receive the franchise tag this season — among them the aforementioned Gostkowski. The others include the following players:

Philadelphia Eagles QB Nick Foles: $25.58 million (FT); $23.36 million (TT)

Dallas Cowboys DE DeMarcus Lawrence: $18.65 million (FT); $15.74 million (TT)

Seattle Seahawks DE Frank Clark: $18.65 million (FT); $15.74 million (TT)

Houston Texans LB Jadeveon Clowney: $15.78 million (FT); $13.63 million (TT)

Kansas City Chiefs LB Dee Ford: $15.78 million (FT); $13.63 million (TT)

Atlanta Falcons DT Grady Jarrett: $15.57 million (FT); $12.29 million (TT)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers OT Donovan Smith: $15.28 million (FT); $13.72 million (TT)

New York Giants FS Landon Collins: $12.04 million (FT); $10.27 million (TT)

Pittsburgh Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell: $11.98 million (FT); $9.74 million (TT)

San Francisco 49ers K Robbie Gould: $5.16 million (FT); $4.72 million (TT)

The two most interesting candidates on the list would arguably be Eagles quarterback Nick Foles — whom the team will likely try to tag and later trade — and running back Le’Veon Bell. Bell, as alluded to above, sat out the entire last season after refusing to sign the franchise tag one year ago. It will be interesting how the situation changes in 2019.