Players whose contracts are expiring with the appropriate years of service typically look forward to finding out their true market value in free agency. There aren't any rules in place to stop such players from testing the open market in MLB and the NBA, but that isn't the case in the NFL.
Here are answers to the most frequently asked questions about the mechanisms that can prevent football players from becoming free agents.
What can be done to keep players from becoming free agents?
Teams can keep impending restricted free agents (players with three accrued seasons or years of service) or unrestricted free agents (players with four or more accrued seasons) from hitting the open market with use of franchise or transition designations.
How many franchise or transition tags can each team use?
Ordinarily, each team can designate one of its impending free agents as a franchise or transition player. The franchise designation can be exclusive or non-exclusive. That's how the process worked in the first nine years of the current NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement.
The rules relating to franchise and transition tags are different for 2020, which is the 10th and final year of the CBA. 2020 allows for the use of both a franchise and a transition tag so teams can prevent two players from hitting the open market.
The only way teams won't be able to use both designations is if the owners and players quickly reach an agreement on a new CBA. The players are expected to vote on whether to ratify the owners' latest proposal this week. If the proposal is accepted, it would be business as usual where teams could use either the franchise or transition designation on just one player.
What is the timeframe for naming franchise and transition players?
There is a 15-day window beginning on the 22nd day before the start of the upcoming league year to use the designations. This year that start date was scheduled for Feb. 25. The NFL and NFLPA agreed to push back the start of the designation period two days until Feb. 27 because of a meeting scheduled between NFLPA leadership and NFL Management Council Executive Committee on Tuesday in Indianapolis where the NFL combine is taking place. The designation period now ends at 4 p.m. ET on March 12 instead of March 10.
How are non-exclusive and exclusive franchise tags calculated?
Prior to the 2011 CBA, non-exclusive franchise tags had been an average of the five largest salaries in the prior year at a player's position or 120 percent of the prior year's salary of the player, whichever was greater. For franchise tag purposes, salary means a player's salary cap number, excluding workout bonuses and most other performance bonuses.
The 120 percent and five largest salaries provisions remain intact but the formula component is now calculated over a five-year period that's tied to a percentage of the overall salary cap. More specifically, the number for each position is determined by taking the sum of the non-exclusive franchise tags as determined by the original methodology described above for the previous five seasons and dividing by the sum of the actual NFL salary cap amount for the previous five seasons. The resulting percentage, which is known as the cap percentage average in the CBA, is then multiplied by the actual salary cap for the upcoming league year.
Under the exclusive franchise tag, a player will receive a one-year offer from his team that is the greater of the average of the top five salaries at his position once the restricted free agent signing period of the current league year has ended (April 17 for 2020) or 120 percent of his prior year's salary. The non-exclusive number is initially used as placeholder and adjusted upwards if the exclusive calculation dictates once restricted free agency ends.
Are there any other differences between the two franchise tags?
The non-exclusive tag allows a player to negotiate with other NFL teams when the free agent signing period begins on March 18, but if he signs an offer sheet with another club, his team has five days to match the offer. If the offer is not matched, his team will receive two first-round picks as compensation from the signing team. A player under an exclusive franchise tag cannot negotiate with other teams.
How is a transition tag determined?
The transition tag has been used with less frequency than the franchise tag. It is based on the average of the top 10 salaries at a player's position using the same methodology as non-exclusive franchise tag calculations. The 120 percent provision also applies. Teams have the same right of first refusal as with franchise tags but do not receive any draft choice compensation for declining to match an offer sheet. As with the non-exclusive franchise tag, transition players can start negotiating with other teams at the beginning of the free agent signing period.
How much will it cost to use a non-exclusive franchise tag?
The exact cost for each position can't be determined until the 2020 salary cap is set, as the figures are a percentage of the salary cap. The NFL's preliminary projections have the 2020 salary cap between $196.8 million and $201.2 million.
The chart below contains the range for franchise tags at each position based on the projections and the associated salary cap percentages. A new CBA could make the projections obsolete.
|Salary Cap %
How much will it cost to use a transition tag?
The same thing was done for the transition tags as with the franchise tags above. The following chart contains the range for the transition numbers.
|Salary Cap %
Who are the top candidates for designation?
Whether teams can use two designations or just one will have a big impact on the number of players that are prevented from reaching free agency. The teams most likely to use both designations, if available, are the Buccaneers (linebacker Shaquil Barrett and quarterback Jameis Winston), Cowboys (wide receiver Amari Cooper and quarterback Dak Prescott) and Titans (running back Derrick Henry and quarterback Ryan Tannehill).
Prescott will be given a franchise tag if he isn't signed to a long-term deal before the designation period ends. It's just a matter of which franchise tag he would get, exclusive or non-exclusive. The other prime candidates include Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green, Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones, Ravens linebacker Matthew Judon and Jaguars defensive end Yannick Ngakoue. Broncos safety Justin Simmons also believes he will be franchised. It is rare for a non-quarterback to get an exclusive franchise tag.
What are the salary cap implications of these tags?
A franchise or transition tag counts against a team's salary cap as soon as the designation is made. It doesn't matter whether a player has signed his franchise or transition tender. Once signed, the franchise or transition tender becomes a fully-guaranteed one-year contract.
Can teams trade a franchise or transition player?
Yes. Franchise and transition players can be traded. However, players with unsigned tenders can't be traded until signed. A franchise or transition player essentially has a de facto no-trade clause or veto power on being dealt.
Three franchise players, all edge rushers, were traded in 2019. The 49ers dealt a 2020 second-round pick to the Chiefs for Dee Ford, who signed a team-friendly five-year, $85 million contract in conjunction with the trade. The Chiefs gave Frank Clark a five-year, $104 million contract with $62.305 million in guarantees ($43.805 million fully guaranteed at signing) when he was acquired from the Seahawks for a 2019 first-round pick and a 2020 second-round pick shortly before the NFL Draft was held last April. There was also a swap of 2019 third-round picks. The Seahawks sent the Texans two players, Jacob Martin and Barkevious Mingo, and a 2020 third-round pick for Jadeveon Clowney at the end of last preseason.
Can a franchise or transition tag be withdrawn?
Yes. The player immediately becomes an unrestricted free agent if the tender is withdrawn after the start of the league year. He becomes unrestricted at the same time as everyone else with an expiring contract (March 18 for 2020) when the tender is rescinded before the start of the upcoming league year.
Franchise tenders have been revoked on four occasions. The last revocation was Josh Norman's by the Panthers in 2016 shortly before the NFL Draft. He promptly signed a long-term deal with the Redskins making him the NFL's highest paid cornerback.
Can a player reject a franchise or transition tag?
No. A player cannot become an unrestricted free agent by refusing a franchise or transition tag. A player doesn't have to sign his franchise or transition tender though.
One thing a player who has leverage can do is negotiate a clause into his contract that prohibits his team from designating him as a franchise or transition player when the deal ends. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Seahawks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney have such language in their contracts.
What happens when a franchise or transition player remains unsigned?
A lot of unsigned franchise and transition players skip voluntary and mandatory team offseason activities while they aren't under contract to try to pressure the team into meeting their financial demands. A designated player can't participate in offseason workouts anyway without signing a player contract or a participation agreement for the tendered amount protecting him in case of an injury. Participation agreements are rarely signed.
Franchise and transition players without an NFL player contract can't be fined for missing the mandatory June minicamp or training camp. Their attendance isn't required because of the absence of a signed contract. Unsigned players aren't withholding services they are contractually obligated to perform. Of course, a player extending his absence into the regular season won't get paid while he remains unsigned.
Only one player receiving a designation in the last 20 years has sat out a full season. Running back Le'Veon Bell didn't play in 2018 after being given a $14.544 million franchise tag. It was the second straight year Bell had been named a franchise player.
Are there any other significant dates for franchise or transition players?
Franchise players have until 4 p.m. ET on July 15 to sign long-term deals. After this deadline passes, players with franchise tags are prohibited from signing long-term deals until the end of the regular season.
The signing period for transition players with outstanding tenders ends a week later on July 22 at 4 p.m. ET. After this date, a player's prior team has exclusive negotiating rights.
Franchise and transition players must sign by 4 p.m. ET on the Tuesday after Week 10's games (November 17 in 2020). If still unsigned at this point, the players are prohibited from playing for the remainder of the season.