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NFL franchise tag window opens: What does it mean and how does it work?

Related: Setting the important dates on the Patriots’ 2022 offseason calendar

NFL: OCT 24 Jets at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This year’s NFL free agency period will not officially open until 4 p.m. on Mar. 16, but the first major date on the league’s 2022 calendar has already arrived. Starting today, teams can use the franchise tag to keep pending free agents from entering the open market.

The different kinds of franchise tags and their usage will be mentioned quite a bit over the next three weeks and leading into the new league year. What exactly does it all mean, however? And how do the franchise and transition tags work?

Let’s 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, the use of the tag buys a club more time to reach a long-term contract with its franchise player. However, theory and practice tend to differ from time to time.

From a player perspective, after all, the tag offers limited long-term security despite being a guaranteed contract. This 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 the tag because of the massive salary cap hits associated with it.

The current CBA allows for each team to use the franchise or transition tag only once. Even though teams can rescind it before the aforementioned mid-July deadline, every team has only one shot at naming a franchise player.

When is the franchise tag window?

As specified in Article 10 of the NFL-NFLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement, the franchise tag window opens exactly 22 days before the start of the new league year. It will close again two weeks later:

The period for Clubs to designate Franchise Players will begin on the twenty-second day preceding the first day of the new League Year and will end at 4:00 pm New York time on the eighth day preceding the first day of the new League Year.

For this year, this means the window is open from Feb. 22 until Mar. 8 at 3:59 p.m. ET. Any free agent-to-be not tagged with either the franchise or transition tag by that point will remain scheduled to enter the open market once the new league year begins.

The closing of the window on Mar. 8 is only one part of the full franchise schedule. After employing the tag, after all, a team has until mid-July to reach a contract extension with its franchise player or else said player spends the upcoming season under the franchise tag and the cost associated with it:

Any Club designating a Franchise Player shall have until 4:00 p.m., New York time, on July 15 of the League Year (or, if July 15 falls on a Saturday or Sunday, the first Monday thereafter) for which the designation takes effect to sign the player to a multiyear contract or extension. After that date, the player may sign only a one-year Player Contract with his Prior Club for that season, and such Player Contract may not be extended until after the Club’s last regular season game of that League Year.

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. 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 percent 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 percent of his previous salary. The one-year basis as opposed to the five years used with the non-exclusive tag means that the exclusive one is more expensive.

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 hand, however, it only guarantees a club the right of first refusal to match any incoming offers for the player. If he leaves, his now-former team will not receive any compensation.

How much does franchise-tagging a player cost?

The final numbers have not yet been announced by the NFL. With the salary cap expected to be set at $208.2 million, however, the following numbers are projected for the franchise and transition tags this year (via Over the Cap):

Projected franchise and transition tag numbers

Position Franchise Tag Transition Tag
Position Franchise Tag Transition Tag
QB $28,598,000 $25,651,000
DE $20,186,000 $16,623,000
WR $19,127,000 $16,740,000
LB $17,417,000 $14,882,000
CB $17,295,000 $14,904,000
DT $16,888,000 $13,596,000
OL $16,698,000 $14,997,000
S $13,544,000 $11,265,000
RB $12,536,000 $10,148,000
TE $10,834,000 $9,332,000
ST $5,469,000 $4,980,000
Over the Cap

As far as the New England Patriots are concerned, the franchise tag number that stand out is $17.3 million. That is how much it would cost the team to place the non-exclusive tag on its premiere free agent, cornerback J.C. Jackson.

Which NFL players might get tagged this year?

Dozens of players are scheduled to enter free agency next month, but only a handful of them are really realistic candidates to be tagged. Their combination of positional value and performance in years past makes the following players receiving the tag a realistic outcome.

S Jessie Bates III, Cincinnati Bengals: Cincinnati may have come up short in the Super Bowl, but the team played an impressive season on both sides of the ball. Defensively, Jessie Bates was a big reason why. He may have had some ups and down during the regular season, but his playoff performance was on point.

TE David Njoku, Cleveland Browns: The Browns ended another disappointing season and face questions at multiple positions. The tight end spot, however, does not have to be one of them: Njoku, Cleveland’s receiving touchdowns leader in 2021, is a starter-level player and big part of the team’s offense.

TE Dalton Schultz, Dallas Cowboys: Dallas led the league in scoring during the regular season, and Dalton Schultz’s performance played a significant part in it: he caught 78 passes for 808 yards and eight touchdowns. However, the Cowboys’ dire salary cap outlook might force them to let Schultz enter the open market. The same is true for...

WR Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers: Green Bay is in a tough salary cap situation, which in turn will force to make some toughness business decisions over the coming weeks. Adams still remains a candidate to receive the tag, but the circumstances might work against him and the team.

OT Cam Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars: Robinson is coming off a quality season protecting rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence’s blindside. If Jacksonville wants some stability up front, keeping Robinson around would be a start.

OT Orlando Brown Jr, Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs’ offensive line bounced back nicely in 2021, and acquiring Brown via trade was a big reason why. His presence with just one year left on his rookie contract helped transform the unit, and the team will likely prefer keeping him around for at least one more season.

WR Mike Williams, Los Angeles Chargers: Justin Herbert is one of the best young quarterbacks in football, which means the Chargers should do what they can to keep him in a position to succeed. One potential order of business: tagging Mike Williams, who led the team in receiving yards and touchdowns last season.

TE Mike Gesicki, Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins still appear to be committed to building around Tua Tagovailoa, which means that keeping his number two target around should be a priority this offseason. Gesicki caught 73 passes for 780 yards and a pair of touchdowns in 2021.

CB J.C. Jackson, New England Patriots: Over the last four years, Jackson has developed from rookie free agent to the league’s best ballhawk. A true shutdown cornerback and New England’s CB1 last season, Jackson will get paid in March. The question is, will the Patriots open the checkbook either through the franchise tag or an extension?

S Marcus Williams, New Orleans Saints: The Saints are in a tricky financial situation seemingly every year, and 2022 is no exception. If the club finds a way to create cap space, however, keeping its standout safety around should be high up on the list of offseason to-dos.

CB Carlton Davis, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: With Tom Brady headed for retirement and a long list of free agents, the Buccaneers might just be entering rebuild territory. Having a solid cornerback to lead the secondary might be worth the investment that is the franchise tag.

LB Harold Landry III, Tennessee Titans: Landry is in an interesting position. The Titans signed Bud Dupree to a five-year, $82.5 million deal just last offseason, so there is no guarantee they will make another big investment on the edge. That said, Landry registered 13.5 sacks in 2021 compared to Dupree’s four.

There are other candidates to receive the franchise tag, but the players listed here should be seen as the most realistic. The next two weeks will show if any of them indeed get tagged.