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Clayton: Why players now have more leverage with franchise tags

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Clayton: Franchise tag math has changed (1:10)

ESPN NFL senior writer John Clayton explain how placing the franchise tag on a player is different now than it was earlier in the decade. (1:10)

The leverage in the franchise tag game is gradually shifting from the teams to the players.

Naturally, leverage is judged on a case-by-case basis. Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller might disagree about having leverage. He had the clout to ask for $17 million or $18 million a year, but the Broncos kept him on a one-year exclusive tag at $14.129 million, which could rise after the RFA signing period ends.

But more of the cases are shifting to the players. Teams, particularly the good ones, know they can block their top players from leaving in free agency -- which was the original intent of the franchise tag -- but the strain of operating around that franchise number is making it tough.

It's no longer easy to for good teams to say, tag, you're it.

Here's the leverage shift. Only the tight ends and kickers have franchise numbers less than $10 million. The agent can negotiate knowing next year's tag will be 20 percent more than this year and ask for an average in between.

A shift is happening.

Created in 1993 to give teams the chance to keep their quarterbacks, general managers used the franchise tag or the threat of using the franchise tag to lock up their main free agents. Players hated it. Instead of long-term security that included guaranteed contracts, tagged players accepted more of the risk, playing out the one-year deal and facing financial damage if they suffered a serious injury.

The rapid rises in all of the franchise tag levels over the past three years have revised the market. Franchise tags are driving up the top salaries at several positions, assuring that some positions won't be tagged and will be free to hit the market and eventually lead to great long-term deals.

Since 2012, for example, franchise numbers for safeties, defensive tackles and kickers have risen more than 70 percent. Tight ends have jumped 67 percent. Where that is significant is those were the four positions easiest to tag because the numbers were usually low.

The running back number of $11.789 million almost assures a back the chance to hit the open market and get the best deal possible.

The change happened when the NFLPA and NFL altered the franchise tag formula. Until 2011, the franchise number came from the top five cap numbers of a position from the previous year. The 2011 collective bargaining agreement changed that by using a five-year average of cap numbers but tying it to a formula that involved the salary cap.

Last year, only five players were franchised and the one transition player got a deal with another team. In 2014, only four players were tagged and Alex Mack of the Cleveland Browns profited from the team matching an offer from Jacksonville.

Thanks to the pairing with the salary cap, franchise numbers should continue to skyrocket. The cap should continue to climb at least $10 million a year. That should translate into a $800,000 to $1 million increase in the position tenders.

Defensive tackles went from $11.193 million last year to $13.615 million this year. Quarterbacks are now at $19.953 million and should be at $21 million next year.

The other little piece of leverage working for the players is that they can hold out without having to worry about fines. Unsigned players can't be fined. Last year, Dez Bryant hinted at missing camp, but he knew he had until July 15 to get a long-term deal.

Bryant got a contract done at $14 million a year and Demaryius Thomas followed with a similar deal from the Broncos.

The franchise tag can work for both sides. It gives the team assurance it can keep its best free agent for at least a year. For the player, it may be an one-year obstacle, but the money is huge. And if no long-term deal is worked out, odds of getting a second tag aren't good.

Still, it's all about leverage.