Players whose contracts are expiring with the requisite years of service typically look forward to finding out their true market value in free agency. There are rules in place that can stop NFL players from testing the open market. That isn't the case in the MLB and NBA.
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. 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.
What is the time frame 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, the 22nd day is Feb. 21. The designation period ends at 4 p.m. ET on the eighth day before the start of the upcoming league year, which is March 7.
How are non-exclusive franchise tags calculated?
Prior to the 2011 NFL collective bargaining agreement, non-exclusive franchise tags had been an average of the five largest salaries in the prior year at a player's position or 120% 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% and five largest salaries provisions have remained 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 derived by taking the sum of the non-exclusive franchise tags as determined by the original methodology for the previous five seasons (2018 through 2022) and dividing by the sum of the actual NFL salary cap amount for the previous five seasons (2018 through 2022). 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 (2023). The 2023 salary cap has been set at $224.8 million.
How are exclusive franchise tags calculated?
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 current top five salaries (salary cap numbers with some minor adjustments) at his position once the restricted free agent signing period of the actual league year has ended (April 21 for 2023) or 120% of his prior year's salary. The non-exclusive number is initially used as a placeholder and adjusted upwards if the exclusive calculation dictates once restricted free agency ends. In no circumstance will the exclusive franchise tag be less than the non-exclusive franchise tag.
The exclusive franchise tag typically is given to quarterbacks. Four of the last five times quarterbacks have been designated as franchise players, the exclusive tag has been used. Kirk Cousins' first franchise tag by the Commanders in 2016 was non-exclusive.
Are there any other differences between non-exclusive and exclusive franchise tags?
The non-exclusive tag allows a player to negotiate with other NFL teams when the free agent signing period begins on March 15, 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. The last time a non-exclusive franchise player switched teams for the full compensation was Joey Galloway in 2000 when he went from the Seahawks to the Cowboys. A player under an exclusive franchise tag cannot negotiate with other teams. It is a "closed" negotiation.
How is a transition tag determined?
The transition tag is used significantly less 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% 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 has been determined since the 2023 salary cap is set. The figures are a percentage of the salary cap. The chart below contains the franchise tag number at each position and the associated salary cap percentages.
|Position||2023 Cap Percentage Average||2023 Franchise Tag|
What about transition tags?
The same thing was done for the transition tags as with the franchise tags above. The following chart contains the transition numbers.
|Position||2023 Cap Percentage Average||2023 Transition Tag|
How often are designations used?
The franchise tag has been used 43 times and the transition tag twice over the last five years (2018 through 2022). The Bears made cornerback Kyle Fuller a transition player in 2018. The Packers signed Fuller to a four-year, $56 million offer sheet that was quickly matched by the Bears. Arizona put a transition tag on running back Kenyan Drake in 2020.
The Cowboys are the only team to use a designation each year. Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence was designated a franchise player in 2018 and 2019. Quarterback Dak Prescott was franchised the next two years. Tight end Dalton Schultz played the 2022 season under a $10.931 million franchise tag.
The Buccaneers (linebacker Shaquil Barrett, 2020; wide receiver Chris Godwin, 2021 and 2022), Chiefs (linebacker Dee Ford, 2019; defensive tackle Chris Jones, 2020; offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr., 2022) and Jaguars (defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, 2020; offensive tackle Cam Robinson, 2021 and 2022) each used the franchise tag three times. The Bills, Colts, Eagles and Raiders are the only teams that haven't used either tag during this time frame.
Who are the top candidates for designations?
The teams most likely to use the franchise tag are the Chiefs (offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr.), Commanders (defensive tackle Daron Payne), Cowboys (running back Tony Pollard or tight end Dalton Schultz), Giants (running back Saquon Barkley or quarterback Daniel Jones), Raiders (running back Josh Jacobs) and Ravens (quarterback Lamar Jackson).
Jackson, who represents himself, is the most intriguing case. According to multiple reports, Jackson reportedly turned down a five-year contract extension offer worth $250 million with $133 million fully guaranteed before cutting off negotiations shortly before the 2022 regular season started because he wants a fully guaranteed contract. The fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million contract the Browns gave quarterback Deshaun Watson in connection with his trade from the Browns to the Texans last March that Jackson views as a benchmark is an outlier. Instead, Jackson played the 2022 season on his fully guaranteed $23.016 million fifth-year option.
The rejected offer had the league's second-highest average yearly salary, surpassing Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson's $49 million per year. It also had the second-most money ever fully guaranteed in an NFL contract. The exact amount of the total guarantee wasn't disclosed at the time. It was believed to have at least been on par with Wilson getting 67.3% of his deal guaranteed. This would put Jackson's total guarantee in the $170 million neighborhood at a minimum.
The non-exclusive tag could invite an offer sheet from a quarterback-needy team that the Ravens might find unpalatable. An offer sheet that's fully guaranteed would be the best way to deter the Ravens from matching.
The two first-round picks for Jackson would be considered an inadequate return relative to the trade compensation for Watson and Wilson last offseason. The Texans dealt Watson and a 2024 sixth-round pick for 2022, 2023 and 2024 first-round picks, a 2022 fourth-round pick, a 2023 third-round pick and a 2024 fourth-round pick. The Broncos acquired Wilson and a 2022 fourth-round pick from the Seahawks for multiple players (tight end Noah Fant, defensive lineman Shelby Harris and quarterback Drew Lock), 2022 and 2023 first-round picks, 2022 and 2023 second-round picks and a 2022 fifth-round pick. Non-quarterbacks, such as safety Jamal Adams, cornerback Jalen Ramsey and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, have been traded for more than two first-round picks in recent years.
The 2023 exclusive quarterback franchise tag currently projects to $45.248 million. This number is subject to change depending on new quarterback deals, contract restructures, pay cuts and/or releases between now and the end of the restricted free agent signing period on April 21.
What are the salary cap implications of these designations?
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.
Trading a player after he has been given one of the designations isn't a common occurrence. The high water mark for trades was in 2019. Three franchise players, all edge rushers, were traded. 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 that April. There was also a swap of 2019 third-round picks. The Seahawks sent the Texans two players, edge rusher Jacob Martin and edge rusher Barkevious Mingo, and a 2020 third-round pick for Jadeveon Clowney at the end of 2019 preseason.
Can a franchise or transition designation 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 15 for 2023) 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 designation?
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 can do is negotiate a clause into his contract that prohibits his team from designating him as a franchise or transition player when his deal ends. The 49ers are precluded from designating quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo as a franchise or transition player. His renegotiated contract where he took a substantial pay cut last August contains a clause preventing either tag. The Cowboys can't keep Prescott from hitting the open market in 2025 in the unlikely event he plays out the four-year, $160 million contract he signed in March 2021.
What happens when a franchise or transition player is 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. His team gets salary cap relief for each missed regular season week (1/18th of the player's tender per week).
It's rare for a franchise player to sit out a full season. The last time was running back Le'Veon Bell in 2018 after the Steelers gave him a $14.544 million franchise tender. It was the second straight year Bell had been named a franchise player. Prior to Bell, a player hadn't sat out a full season in 20 years.
Are there any other significant dates for franchise or transition players?
Ordinarily, franchise players have until 4 p.m. ET on July 15 to sign multi-year contracts. Since July 15 is on a Saturday this year, the deadline is extended to Monday, July 17. After this deadline passes, players with franchise tags are prohibited from signing long-term deals until the end of the regular season on Jan. 7, 2024.
The signing period for transition players with outstanding tenders ends 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 (Nov. 14 in 2023). If still unsigned at this point, the players are prohibited from playing for the remainder of the season.