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Overhaul NFL tagging system to fit positions players actually play

Should a pass-catching tight end like Dennis Pita be classified like a wide receiver?  (USATSI)
Should a pass-catching tight end like Dennis Pita be classified more like a wide receiver? (USATSI)

Agent's Take: Franchise tags, team by team | La Canfora: Salary cap cuts coming

NFL teams can start tagging players with either the franchise or transition tags, which leads -- in come cases -- to the annual confusion over which position a player should be tagged.

Before we get into a better way of tagging players, a quick review of the NFL's tagging system definitions:

Franchise tag: Based on the average of the top five salaries at a player's position over the past five seasons (an exclusive franchise tag is the average of the top five salaries from the past season). If Team A wants to sign Team B's franchise player, they owe the original team two first-round draft picks.

Transition tag: Based on the average of the top 10 salaries at a player's position, but there is no compensation if a tagged player is signed by another team, only Team A's right to match the offer.

When originally constructed, the tagging system seemed to cover all the bases, but the system needs an overhaul of position definitions, because they are too broad today.

Back in the early 1990s, it appeared most positions were handled properly, but even then there was an issue with the offensive line, and now that's just the tip of the iceberg. While defensive line tags were split into tackles and defensive (which makes sense), o-linemen were grouped together. That means centers and guards are the same as left tackles. Left tackles make a lot more money than centers and guards and that's why we rarely see centers or guards franchise or transition tagged. But offensive line tags are far from the only area in need of repair.

Jimmy Graham and Dennis Pitta were drafted as tight ends and have been listed as tight ends throughout their careers. But now they claim they should be tagged as wide receivers because they don't always line up in the traditional tight end spot. Of course the wide receiver tag pays more than the tight end tag, so that's easy enough to figure out. I would remind them that they can't find in writing anywhere that tight ends are restricted to one spot in the formation, nor are changes in alignment grounds for a position change. But it raises a larger issue, maybe it is time to widen the scope of positions to be tagged.

Here are areas that need better clarification. You would think the NFL and NFLPA could sit down and make these adjustments.

1. Offensive linemen need four tags: Left tackle, right tackle, guard and center. When it comes time to tag an offensive lineman, look up which position he played the most and that's his tag.

2. Tight ends need to be split: There are in-line tight ends, slot tight ends and H-backs. If a guy spends most of his career next to a tackle he's an in-line tight end. If he plays most of his snaps away from the tackle he's a slot tight end. If he spends most of his time in motion and shows up in the backfield or as a wing he's an H-back.

3. Returners: There is no tag who are primarily return specialists. Presently they are treated at their listed position (WR, RB, CB, S). They rarely get tagged because their listed position doesn't make sense when tagging them. Time for a "returner" tag.

4. Wide receivers: They need two tags -- Wide Receiver and Slot receiver. The players that lineup as the X or the Z are wide receivers, like Calvin Johnson. A guy lining up in the slot, typically the third wide receiver, is a slot receiver, like Wes Welker. Wherever that player takes the majority of his snaps designates his position.

5. Linebackers vs. pass rushers: Now, all linebackers are under one tag. This is the issue that Terrell Suggs had a few years ago. The Ravens tagged him as a linebacker, but he believed he should have been tagged as a defensive end position, which pays more. Suggs knew it was a grey area and the tags didn't solve the issue. A 3-4 right outside linebacker a much more active pass rusher than a 4-3 middle linebacker, even though both reside under the same tag. If a player rushes the passer more than he drops in coverage he's a pass rusher, so a tag for the position makes sense. Inside linebackers in the 3-4 and 4-3 should be tagged as linebackers.

6. Running backs: There currently is only a running backs tag, which includes fullbacks. No fullback will ever be tagged under that system. What if the Packers desperately wanted to keep FB John Kuhn? They couldn't tag him. It's time for two tags, including a fullback tag, instead of one.

The present system has 11 tagged positions, but my system would have 20 tag designations, which would end grievances and confusion about what position a player actually played. The game and its positions have changed, so it's time for the tagging system to change, too.


Pat Kirwan has been around the league since 1972, serving in a variety of roles. He was a scout for the Cardinals and Buccaneers, a coach for the Jets as well as the team's Director of Player Administration where he negotiated contracts and managed the team's salary cap. He is the author of Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look, and the host of Sirius NFL Radio's Moving the Chains.
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