The science and mystery behind the franchise tag

Ah, the NFL news, it never stops.

As the league hurtles toward the start of free agency, many key players have been given, or notably not given, a franchise tag from their teams. Many people find the term “franchise tag” confusing, so lets look at what a franchise tag really is and what it can mean when it is used.

Essentially, a franchise tag is what a team uses on a star caliber player when his contract has expired and they want to keep him on their team but are unable to negotiate a new contract by the deadline. The tag lasts for one season, and pays the player the average of the five highest salaries at his position or 120 percent of his previous salary, whichever is higher. A team is allowed to tag only one player per offseason, and that’s why the tag is usually reserved for star players who are pending free agents.

A prime example of this is the tagging of Cowboys’ wide receiver Dez Bryant on Monday.

The Cowboys were in an interesting situation as they had both Bryant and the NFL’s leading rusher Demarco Murray at the end of their contracts.

By choosing to tag Bryant, at a price of roughly $12.8 million, they are allowing Murray to test the free agent market and sign with any team he chooses. Murray would have been paid a little over $10 million had he been the one tagged. By choosing to tag Bryant, they made it clear he is a more important to their continued success than Murray. Despite a larger salary, the Cowboys are acknowledging the pass first nature of the NFL and the huge workload Murray shouldered last year, combined with his injury history, by choosing to keep their stud wide receiver.

A more interesting case is the Detroit Lions choosing to not exercise the franchise tag on defensive tackle Ndamkong Suh.

Due to a contract restructuring prior to the 2014 season, the 120 percent rule would have applied to Suh and made his franchise tag worth about $26.9 million.

In comparison, JJ Watt signed the richest contract ever for a defensive player last year with six years and $100 million, which breaks down to about $16.6 million per year. So the Lions appear to have saved money by not tagging Suh, assuming they pay roughly market price for him.

But make no mistake, the contract Suh signs will be costly. Suh has said he wants to be the highest paid defensive player in the league, and with his production he will have no lack of suitors looking to set him above Watt now that he is set to be an unrestricted free agent. The Lions will pay dearly to keep the mercurial defensive lineman, but fans should keep in mind that it will likely be a bargain compared to what the 2015 season could have cost them for his services.

When choosing to tag a player, teams have to assess the players value to themselves and to other teams, both in terms of production and financially. The most troublesome facet is what the tag can do to a teams salary cap.

The Cowboys thought Bryant’s tag was worth it, and that Murray’s was not. The Lions chose to try and save some money by not tagging Suh, but they run the risk of losing him to another team.

As with most moves in the NFL, these were bold strategies. We’ll see how it plays out for them.