Time to Bag the Franchise Tag

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186916102New Orleans Saints fans hope to have Drew Brees’ number one target Jimmy Graham back next season. And judging by the comments that he’s made, Graham seems to want that too, so long as he’s seen as a wide receiver rather than a tight end.

This just might seem like semantics, since Graham is viewed as a hybrid player of sorts, but it actually has huge salary implications for him this upcoming season thanks to the franchise tag provision in the NFL collective bargaining agreement.

First, a quick overview of what the franchise tag actually is. Each year, teams are allowed to place a franchise tag on one player whose contract is expiring and would otherwise be eligible for free agency. Teams can label this tag as an exclusive tag, non-exclusive tag or a transition tag. Players who receive an exclusive tag are not afforded the right to negotiate on the open market with other teams and must either sign a one-year contract that pays them the average of the top-five highest rated players at their position or 120 percent raise (whichever is higher) or sign a long-term contract with their team, though this deal is likely to be skewed in the team’s favor since the player can’t use the threat of leaving to garner a higher offer. Non-exclusive tagged players can in theory negotiate with other teams, but these other teams have strong incentive not to do so, for if they sign another team’s non-exclusive franchise tag player, they must give that team two first round draft picks. Most of the time, non-exclusive tagged players end up playing for the same team as before and are compensated at a rate similar to the top five highest paid players at their position. Transition tag players are pretty rare and are essentially the same thing as restricted free agents in basketball — the player can sign an offer sheet with any team they want, but their original team has the option to match that offer or not.

The next issue to consider is Graham’s candidacy for being considered a wide receiver. Although most people (and all fantasy leagues) generally acknowledge that Graham is a tight end, playing in the Saints’ innovative offense with all its personnel shifts means that Graham only lines up as a traditional tight end with his hand on the ground beside his offensive linemen about 33 percent of the time. In the other two-thirds of the Saints’ plays, he is in the slot or spread out wide a la a traditional wide receiver.

The fact that Graham spends 67 percent of his plays in a wide receiver like role is hugely important, as Article 9, Section 2 of the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement plainly states “that the (franchise tag) tender will apply to the position in which the player participated in the most plays.” In other words, Graham and his agent have a very compelling case that he ought to be considered a wide receiver.

But why does the tight end versus wide receiver distinction make such a big difference? As with most things in professional sports, it’s a matter of show me the money. According to Jason Kisk of the Big Lead, initial projections of what franchised wide receivers will make in 2014 is somewhere in the $11.5-11.7 million range, while franchised tight ends will hover around the $6.7 mark. All in all, Jimmy Graham could have about 5 million reasons to push for being recognized as a wide receiver.

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Above was a recap of the NFL franchise tag provision and how it applies to Jimmy Graham. Below is a two-part discussion on why the franchise tag provision needs to be removed from all subsequent collective bargaining agreements in the NFL.

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Should it ultimately be decreed that Graham be considered a tight end, there is a serious problem in play. Not so much in the label itself – for Graham does bear more in common with Jason Witten and Tony Gonzalez than he does with AJ Green or Calvin Johnson – but in the way that he would be compensated as a franchise tag player.

Since Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots is almost never healthy, Graham is, by all knowledgeable NFL people, the best tight end in the NFL. But if and when the Saints use the franchise tag on Graham, he will not become the highest-paid tight end in the league, he will make the average of his five highest paid compatriots. This is a pretty glaring weakness when it comes to the franchise tag: If the premier player at a given position gets tagged, they are only compensated like the average of his five lesser rivals. A fairly easy solution to this would be to do away with the non-exclusive and transition tags completely and simply mandate that any player hit with the exclusive tag be paid at a rate of 120 percent of the highest paid player at their position, with an additional 120 percent increases on that salary for all players tagged multiple times. But even that is simply a band-aid that fails to mask a gaping wound. The real problem lies in the very nature of the franchise tag, which was designed to restrict a team’s best player from leaving in free agency.

This is not simply an opinion, but rather the words of former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who recently explained, “The franchise player tag, it was Pat (Bowlen, Denver Broncos owner) who said, ‘Call it the Elway Rule, call it whatever you want, but we’re not letting our best player go out on the market.’ It doesn’t make sense from the fans’ standpoint. That’s what builds fan bases is continuity with the great players. That’s what we as the league called the franchise tag in the beginning, the Elway Rule.”

Tagliabue’s decision to look at the issue from his version of a fan’s perspective is an interesting choice and no doubt a convenient one. It’s important to note however, that Tagliabue does not reference any study that found player retention and fan support to be linked, nor does he mention that the NFL has grown exponentially since the true dawn of NFL free agency, which the league had to be dragged to kicking and screaming and with no small amount of lawsuits in 1992.

Another, perhaps more obvious way of looking at it, is that teams such as the Broncos wanted to curtail their cornerstone player (in the Broncos case, star quarterback John Elway) from pulling a LeBron James and taking their talents to South Beach (or the South Beach of their choosing) and leaving their old team high and dry. From an owner or team’s perspective, preventing this from happening makes a great deal of sense. What doesn’t make sense is why the NFLPA agrees to this time after time in collective bargaining, since it directly violates the rights of its union members finding an employment situation they enjoy more so than others.

If Bud Selig and the other MLB owners came to the MLB Player’s Association with a franchise tag proposition, they would summarily be laughed out of the room, as they usually are whenever MLB owners want to suggest fundamental changes to the status quo of baseball. The NBA Player’s Association, even with all its internal strife, would never go for it, no matter how much Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert cries and yells and stamps his feet for it. And yet in football, where a player’s professional – and to a slightly lesser extent, personal – lives are at risk on each individual play, the NFLPA has continually accepted this practice for over twenty years now. In a league riddled with ACL tears, concussions and general deterioration of player’s bodies and minds, the thought that any player should be restricted on making as much money as they can, when they can, is simply unconscionable.

Because of the vast sums of money that professional athletes make, it is sometimes difficult to muster much outrage on their behalf when they have their rights violated. But make no mistake about it, that is what the franchise tag does. NFL contracts are already horribly one-sided, and players who survive long enough to reach free agency should be afforded the right to test the market for the services. It is the NFLPA’s responsibility to make sure that those rights are secured, but they evidently didn’t think that it was a battle they could win in the 2012 collective bargaining agreement negotiations, so they just let it slide.

John F. Kennedy once said: “The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”

Let’s hope the NFLPA remembers that in their next negotiations eight years from now.

About Ryan Hallagan

Ryan Hallagan recently graduated from the University of San Diego with a B.A. in Psychology and English and plans to parlay that education into writing about his greatest passion: the big business that is professional sports. He also enjoys writing short stories, obsessively listens to bands like The Gaslight Anthem and actively wishes that a time-traveling DeLorean really did exist, so that he could go back to 1975, far away from all of the terrible music he hears on the radio today. Follow him on Twitter @rallyforhally
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