Power at the core of franchising issue

With signing deadline looming, teams' control over top players becomes magnified

Originally Published: July 9, 2012
By Andrew Brandt | ESPN.com

As a year since it was signed approaches, we are still discovering nuances of the NFL's collective bargaining agreement.

We are fully aware of the commissioner's continuing power over player conduct, but there is another issue with immediate relevance, as July 16 is the deadline for franchise players to sign long-term contracts or be limited to a one-year contract with their teams.

Even though Drew Brees won his grievance regarding the amount of a potential third tag next year, the franchise tag continues to be a sore spot for elite NFL players. Although one-year earnings are high, it prevents elite players from establishing true market value. We can speculate as to the worth of Brees, Matt Forte, Ray Rice, Dwayne Bowe, Cliff Avril and the other tagged players in an open market in 2012, but we will never know.

Stronger than intended

The franchise tag was originally designed as a way for teams to keep true franchise players such as John Elway and Dan Marino throughout their careers. It has evolved into something much more potent, restraining a team's best free agent for a particular year from entering the open market. That was clearly not the original intent of the tag.

As we watch NBA stars leverage their teams and leave in free agency, NBA owners and general managers can only dream. Were a tag in place in the NBA, LeBron James may well still be Cleveland, Dwight Howard may face a longer future in Orlando, and the league's star alignment would be appreciably different.

As with conduct, I understand the NFL Players Association had other priorities in bargaining. The tag affects only 15 to 20 players a year, so perhaps the union felt it did not need to press on this issue. However, the lesser amounts empower teams to set lower negotiating ceilings and bargain more aggressively than before with elite players, affecting negotiation parameters around the league.

Tag reduction

The tag not only continues as part of the new CBA, but it also comes with an added twist. The calculation for the nonexclusive tag -- all tags this year except Brees are nonexclusive, which means the players can negotiate with other teams -- is no longer based on the average of the top-five salaries for a player's position for the preceding year. It's now based on the average of the top-five salaries at a player's position for the preceding five years.

The effect has led to 2012 tag numbers dropping by roughly $2 million per position from 2011. The running back number of $7.7 million for Forte and Rice is down from $9.5 million in 2011. The receiver number of $9.5 million for Bowe and Wes Welker is down from $11.3 million last year. The defensive end number of $10.6 million for Avril is down from $12.9 million. And in the most prevalent position of its use in 2012, the number for kickers went from $3.1 million in 2011 to $2.6 million.

Furthermore, the "found money" of $2 million in 2012 allows teams to better handle cap numbers than they could in 2011. With a lower number, teams can deal with top players on a year-to-year basis rather than sink heavy long-term guarantees. This is especially advantageous to the Bears and Ravens, which can use the tag on Forte and Rice while taking advantage of their prime years. The tag allows for a scenario where their workload may actually be hurting their contract drive more than helping it.

If contract negotiations are about one thing, it is the allocation of risk. The tag, while providing high earnings for the current year, transfers all the risk of future security to the player. It is a powerful weapon.

Brees' limited impact

The Brees ruling sets a two-year earnings floor of $40 million for Brees, but it is hard to see that ruling dramatically affecting the negotiation. Nonquarterbacks such as DeMarcus Ware, Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Joe Thomas and Mario Williams are making guarantees above $40 million. I would be surprised if the Saints weren't already offering more than that.

With the deadline looming, some players may sign long-term deals -- I believe Brees will -- but others will watch and wait as teams continue to brandish this increasingly powerful weapon over their best players.

From the inbox

Q: I understand that players gave Roger Goodell the power he had, but didn't the Steelers vote against the CBA due to the Goodell power issue? -- Bill in Pittsburgh

A: They did, citing a couple of reasons. Their players felt rushed into approving the agreement and did not fully understand it. As the team that had felt the largest footprint of commissioner power, there was clearly frustration that Goodell was retaining his conduct power. Players such as Ryan Clark were vocal at the time about the lack of change in the process. Now that process binds all players for at least the next nine seasons.

Q: Besides the Steelers, was there anyone in union leadership questioning the power that Goodell had? -- Steve in New York

A: Since the bounty suspensions, I have heard from a couple of players involved in the rushed process to sanction the CBA who are now regretting not being more vocal about this issue. One player I spoke with was in the meetings and says he wishes there was more time to digest the issues, especially commissioner power.

"It was definitely hard to question some of the things that were agreed to at the end of the negotiation," he said. "Those of us who resisted and asked about taking more time were seen as holding up the deal and preventing football from starting again."

Q: What is the holdup in negotiations for the top eight picks in the draft? -- Lee in Minneapolis

A: We know how much money players are going to make, so that is not the issue. The holdup may well be the teams' demand for guarantee offset language, meaning that were the player released and signed to another team, their obligation would be offset by the other team's salary. The highest pick to sign so far -- the Panthers' Luke Kuechly, the No. 9 pick -- does not have offset language, nor does the 14th pick, the Rams' Michael Brockers. However, teams are steadfast to not set precedent that would be used against them by agents in future first-round negotiations. Thus the staredown continues, waiting for the other side to blink first.