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2020 NFL free agency: Explaining the franchise tag and what it means for the Patriots and the league

Related: Proposed CBA clears next hurdle; NFLPA decides to send it to entire membership for vote

New England Patriots v New York Jets Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

While the NFL’s scouting combine is taking place in Indianapolis and despite an uncertain collective bargaining situation between owners and players, the league takes its next step towards free agency today: the franchise tag window opens and the 32 teams now have until March 12 to use up to two of the available tags to keep impending unrestricted free agents in the fold beyond the opening of the market on March 18.

That window, of course, is opening later as initially planned. Due to a new CBA not yet being agreed on, the NFL and the NFLPA jointly decided to push the window back a couple of days. Previously, teams would have been able to apply the franchise and/or transition tags starting February 25 and through March 10. However, the entire tagging period was moved back two days in order to create more wiggle room for labor negotiations.

Now, however, the window will open under the set of rules determined in the current CBA that was signed in 2011. This means, that teams — as noted above — are still allowed to use up to two tags: they are permitted to use one of the franchise tags and the transition as well. A new bargaining agreement might cancel this stipulation though, and the expectation is that clubs would have to rescind one of the tags in case it goes in effect.

With that all being said, what exactly does this mean for the 32 clubs and the 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: ex-Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell). Meanwhile, teams shy away from using it because of the massive salary cap hits associated with the tag.

By the way, the current CBA allows for each team to use the franchise or transition tag only once. If you tag one player under one of the two available tags, you can’t use it again — even though teams can rescind it before the aforementioned deadline.

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 12 at 4:00 p.m. ET. 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 whichever 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 this year:

Projected franchise and transition tag numbers

Position Franchise Tag Transition Tag
Position Franchise Tag Transition Tag
QB $26,895,000 $24,373,000
DE $19,316,000 $16,338,000
WR $18,491,000 $15,926,000
CB $16,471,000 $14,570,000
LB $16,266,000 $14,080,000
OL $16,102,000 $14,666,000
DT $15,500,000 $12,321,000
S $12,735,000 $10,801,000
RB $12,474,000 $10,189,000
TE $11,076,000 $9,267,000
ST $5,297,000 $4,884,000
Over The Cap

When it comes to the Patriots, the franchise tag numbers that stand out are linebacker at roughly $16.3 million (FT)/$14.1 million (TT), offensive line at $16.1 million (FT)/$14.7 million (TT), and safety at $12.7 million (FT)/$10.8 million (TT) — all would be noteworthy investments if made by a club that currently has around $29.07 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 can theoretically be tagged but only two are actually allowed to get one this year. For the Patriots, this means that 15 players can receive the franchise or transition tags this year — and none of them is Tom Brady after the team and the star quarterback decided to eliminate it as a possibility during last year’s contract negotiations. The only way to keep Brady in the fold is therefore signing him to a new deal.

When it comes to the 15 men who are eligible to be tagged, only a few realistically stand out as candidates:

OG Joe Thuney: $16.1 million (FT)/$14.7 million (TT)

LB Kyle Van Noy: $16.3 million (FT)/$14.1 million (TT)

FS Devin McCourty: $12.7 million (FT)/$10.8 million (TT)

While all three were cornerstone players over the last few years, the Patriots might shy away from using the available tags on them — too small is New England’s financial wiggle room as it stands right now; too rich the one-year deals in comparison.

Which NFL players might get tagged this year?

Dozens of players are currently scheduled to enter free agency next month, but only a handful of them are really realistic candidates to be tagged. The following are the most realistic candidates due to their positional value and performance in year’s past:

Dallas Cowboys QB Dak Prescott: $26.9 million (FT)/$24.4 million (TT)

Tennessee Titans QB Ryan Tannehill: $26.9 million (FT)/$24.4 million (TT)

Tennessee Titans RB Derrick Henry: $12.5 million (FT)/$10.2 million (TT)

Cincinnati Bengals WR A.J. Green: $18.5 million (FT)/$15.9 million (TT)

Los Angeles Chargers TE Hunter Henry: $11.1 million (FT)/$9.3 million (TT)

Indianapolis Colts OT Anthony Castonzo: $16.1 million (FT)/$14.7 million (TT)

Kansas City Chiefs DT Chris Jones: $15.5 million (FT)/$12.3 million (TT)

Jacksonville Jaguars DE Yannick Ngakoue: $19.3 million (FT)/$16.3 million (TT)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers LB Shaquil Barrett: $16.3 million (FT)/$14.1 million (TT)

Denver Broncos DB Justin Simmons: $12.7 million (FT)/$10.8 million (TT)

Players such as Prescott and Tannehill appear to be no-brainers at the moment, with the rest also intriguing candidates. Only one player, however, knows that he will certainly get tagged if a long-term deal cannot be reached before the March 12 deadline: Justin Simmons will receive the tag, according to the Broncos, if this is the only option to keep him.