Tag you’re it!

Contracts in sport between players and their teams, clubs, franchises are a very emotive subject. This is true of almost every high profile sport you can think of and the question of ‘ownership’ of a player and the balance of power between player and the organisation generates discussion day in day out – and this is particularly true of the NFL at this moment in time as we approach the free agency period.

There is much to laud about the way in which the NFL attempts to level the playing field between successful and unsuccessful teams. The draft gives the poorest teams the opportunity to secure the brightest young talent from the College system every year. The salary cap is a safety valve which means that franchises have to cut their cloth carefully when it comes to contract negotiations – no one team can simply offer players more and more money. As a team becomes successful their players value can increase and they can then struggle to retain those players when it comes to renegotiating their contracts. The LA Rams may be an example of that this year as they try to balance the books whilst retaining the talent which took them to Super Bowl LIII.

However, there is one aspect of contract negotiations with players I have trouble getting on board with and that is the Franchise Tag.
Bear with me here – as a UK fan I’m still learning the intricacies of NFL contracts but my understanding is this: a team can apply the franchise tag to one unrestricted free agent (let’s set aside what makes a restricted / unrestricted FA for now). The team can apply this to a player they ideally wish to keep on the roster but one that they might not be able to agree the value of contract the player could command on the open market. The value is determined by the league based on average salaries for top players in that position in the league. There is also a ‘transition tag’ option which allows teams the opportunity to match an offer from another side – a first refusal if you like.

Let’s look at the main franchise tag.

If a player is so valuable to a team how do they let it get to a situation whereby, often against the player’s wishes, the front office is able to slap a “you’re not going anywhere” sticker on them. It can of course be argued that attempting to negotiate contracts during a season is not helpful and that there is not enough time between the end of the season and the franchise tag deadline (March 5th this year) to conclude often protracted contract negotiations. That may be so – but the current system still leads of potentially unnecessary disruption and ill feeling between player and organisation.

Take Landon Collins and the Giants for example. Collins is a prime target for the franchise tag and earlier this week there were reports of him ‘clearing his locker’ suggesting he might wish to sit out the Spring/Summer holding out for negotiations after the Giants apply the tag (as most expect them to). Other reports suggested this was perfectly normal – but still it looks like this ‘circus’ will rumble on for a while – something the Giants do not need as they seek to rebuild.

LeVeon Bell and the Pittsburgh Steelers is the other obvious story of recent times which ultimately led to Bell sitting out the entire 2018 season. Not going into detail of the rights and wrongs of it all but the bottom line is that an exceptionally talented running back spent a year sat on the sidelines – it will be interesting to see how part 2 of his career kickstarts in 2019.

What to do?

What if the NFL dispensed with the franchise tag? The chances are more players would hit the free market – perhaps giving positives and negatives for franchises but more freedom for the players.

What about something more radical?

It is strange to me that free agency period comes before the draft. It would appear more logical to draft players first and then fill the holes on your roster using a later free agency. Take into account here that the Combine is at the end of February beginning of March with the draft some 7 weeks later. This enables the draft frenzy to whip up as we have hundreds of mock drafts and prolongs the uncertainty for the college prospects.

What might a change look like then?

Super Bowl LIV is on 2nd February 2020.
Bring the NFL Combine a week earlier (2 weeks after Super Bowl).
NFL Combine – the week of 17th February 2020.
Give sides 1 month for pro days etc.
NFL Draft – 26th -29th March 2020
An additional 2 weeks to set franchise tag (if retained)
Free Agency opens – 13th April 2020

This would involve resetting the NFL League Year by about one month – and i bet there are consequences I have not thought of (and I’m sure folk will point them out to me – please do!). There may be other ways to sort this out but I think the franchise tag is a flawed process and needs reviewing to ensure the balance of player power and ‘ownership’ by teams is fair to all parties.

Would love to hear your thoughts!!

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