williamsleonard.jpg
Getty Images

July 15 was a significant date for the 14 players who received franchise designations this year. It was the deadline for franchise players to sign multi-year contracts. Titans running back Derrick Henry and Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones were the only two to sign long-term. The other 12 players, except Jaguars defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, have signed their respective one-year franchise tenders. 

There's still some unfinished franchise tag business despite the inability to sign a long-term deal until the 2020 regular seasons ends on Jan. 3, 2021. Buccaneers edge rusher Shaquil Barrett, Steelers edge rusher Bud Dupree and Giants defensive lineman Leonard Williams have separately filed grievances in conjunction with the NFL Players Association disputing their positional designation under the franchise tag. Under NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement rules, franchise tags are determined by the position where the player participated in the most plays during the prior season.

Franchise tag grievance history

Grievances relating to the franchise tag are a rarity since the franchise/transition player system was implemented in the 1993 NFL CBA. The first grievance over a franchise tag position was in 2008 by Terrell Suggs. He challenged his franchise player designation as a linebacker by contending he had more playing time as a defensive end with the Ravens in 2007. The Ravens and Suggs settled the dispute without establishing a precedent by agreeing to use the average of the defensive end and linebacker franchise tags.

Saints quarterback Drew Brees filed a grievance in 2012 regarding the application of franchise tags. The 2011 CBA referenced a player being franchised up to three times but didn't address whether the designation applied across teams or was team specific. Brees asserted that a player could be franchised no more than three times regardless of which team used the designation. 

An arbitrator ruled in favor of Brees, establishing a precedent that franchise tags applied across teams. Since Brees had been previously franchised by the Chargers in 2005, the ruling meant a third and final franchise tag by the Saints in 2013 would have been a 44 percent increase over his 2012 salary instead of a 20 percent raise with the 2013 designation being considered as his second one where he could be designated as a franchise player by New Orleans again in 2014 with a 44 percent raise. 

Jimmy Graham filed a grievance in 2014 to determine whether tight end or wide receiver was the appropriate position for the franchise designation he received from the Saints. He lost his grievance to be classified as a wide receiver. An arbitrator ruled that Graham was a tight end when lined up in the slot within four yards of an offensive lineman, which he did on more than 50 percent of his plays in 2013. 

Jadeveon Clowney was reportedly contemplating filing a grievance through the NFLPA, like Suggs did, over his franchise designation with the Texans. To my knowledge, Clowney didn't formally initiate the proceedings.

Current disputes

Leonard Williams was the first to go the grievance route. He reportedly filed his grievance in late April. 

Williams was listed as a defensive tackle when he received his franchise tag. He wants to be classified as a defensive end. The defensive tackle tag amount is $16.126 million. The defensive end salary is $17.788 million, $1.662 million more than the defensive tackle tag. 

Williams, who was acquired by the Giants in a midseason trade with the Jets last season, lined up as defensive tackle or nose tackle on 88.14 percent of his defensive snaps in 2019 according to ESPN Stats & Information. After the trade to the Giants, only 21 percent of Williams' snaps were at defensive end. Overall, Williams lined up at defensive end on 81 of his 683 snaps last season.

Williams had previously filed a grievance over his 2019 fifth year option salary. He made the $11.407 million defensive tackle salary instead of $14.2 million for defensive ends. Option year salary position is based on snaps in the prior year, just like with franchise and transition tags.

This grievance has relevance to Williams' franchise tag dispute. If Williams wins the option year salary fight but loses on his franchise tag salary, he would still get a raise from $16.126 million. Williams' defensive tackle number would then become 120 percent of the $14.2 million 2019 salary, which would be $17.04 million.

Barrett and Dupree filed their grievances earlier this month. Both were listed as linebackers, which has a $15.828 million salary, with their franchise designations. The players want to be considered defensive ends for $17.788 million. The difference between the two positions is $1.96 million.

Barrett rushed the passer on 538 of his 889 defensive snaps (60.52 percent) last season according to Pro Football Focus under its pass rushing productivity ratings. Dupree had 507 pass rush snaps in 2019 per this PFF metric. He was on the field for 980 defensive plays last year. This translates to Dupree rushing the passer 51.73 percent of the time.

The data doesn't differentiate between pass rush snaps where the players were standing up outside of the defensive line versus lining up in three point stance with a hand on the ground as a part of a four-man defensive front. This type of distinction could be important to an arbitrator in a hearing.

Final thoughts

Williams would appear to have the hardest time prevailing in a franchise tag grievance if an arbitrator found evidence like the ESPN data compelling or persuasive. It may make sense for Barrett, Dupree and their respective teams to follow the lead of the Ravens and outside linebacker Matthew Judon, where a grievance was averted by reaching an agreement on a tag of $16.808 million, which is the midpoint between the linebacker and defensive end numbers.

There really shouldn't be a difference in how 3-4 outside linebackers and 4-3 defensive ends are treated for franchise tag purposes. The NFL's predominant personnel grouping now utilizes five or more defensive backs where these two positions essentially have the same function on the football field as edge rushers.

The time to address this discrepancy was with a change prior to the current CBA being ratified by the players in March. Unless there is a clear precedent established by an arbitrator ruling, the outside linebacker/defensive end franchise tag salary dispute will likely become a common occurrence for the next decade since the current CBA runs though the 2030 season.