With the franchise tag period beginning on Monday, the topic of who will be slapped with a tag will be much-discussed within NFL circles from now until the period ends on March 3. The free agency statuses of sought-after players like Jimmy Graham and Greg Hardy are on the line, and teams will have to decide between locking them down with the tag, offering long-term deals or letting them walk.
While many who follow the league are familiar with the term "franchise tag," fewer understand exactly what it is or how it works. Here's a quick primer on how the system functions and the players most likely to be tagged this offseason.
What is the franchise tag?
The tag is a way for NFL teams to lock down a key player without having to sign him to a multi-year contract. When a team tags a player, he receives a one-year contract with a fully guaranteed salary derived from the average salaries of the top players at his position (more on dollar amounts later).
Each team gets one franchise tag per year, which they aren't required to use. They can technically tag the same player in consecutive years, but because exorbitant pay increases kick in on the second and third years, this is rarely done.
What are the different types of tags?
There are three subsets of the franchise tag: the exclusive tag, the non-exclusive tag and the transition tag.
The exclusive tag immediately locks down a player into the one-year contract, preventing negotiations with other teams. Because of its binding nature, it's the most expensive of the three types. It guarantees the player an average of the top five salaries at his listed position for the upcoming season or 120 percent of his previous year's salary, whichever is greater.
The non-exclusive tag allows the player to work the market a bit and receive offers from other teams. If he signs an offer sheet, the team that placed the tag on him has the opportunity to match the new contract and retain him. If he leaves, they receive compensation, usually in the form of two first-round draft picks. This tag is cheaper than the exclusive tag. It's also derived from the average of the top five salaries at the position, but takes the average number over the previous five seasons and calculates them as a percentage of the average salary cap number over that same period. That percentage is then taken from the salary cap of the upcoming season to calculate the player's one-year salary.
The transition tag works the same way as the non-exclusive, except there is no compensation if the team decides not to match an offer sheet and the player leaves. Because of this, the transition tag is much cheaper, though it's rarely used.
Who could get the franchise tag in 2014?
Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints: The NFL's best tight end is the most likely candidate for a tag, and he's also the most interesting. If the Saints tag Graham, it will be at his listed position, tight end. But Graham's camp will likely file a grievance insisting he be tagged as a wide receiver -- which carries a higher salary average -- arguing that he had wide receiver production and spent a lot of snaps split out wide.
Greg Hardy, Carolina Panthers: Hardy has posted back-to-back double-digit sack seasons and is a key to Carolina's aggressive defense. But the Panthers have salary cap issues and a myriad of other expiring contracts to address, so the defensive end tag (second only to quarterbacks in cost) may not be affordable.
Brian Orakpo, Washington Redskins: There's not much upside in tagging the pass-rushing outside linebacker as opposed to locking him into a multi-year deal, but if contract negotiations turn sour, it may be the Redskins' only option.
Brent Grimes, Miami Dolphins: The cornerback tag is expected to be around $11.3 million, which is a steep price even for a Pro Bowler. The Dolphins might pony up, though, if they have concerns about giving a long-term contract to a guy that will be 31 next season.
T.J. Ward, Cleveland Browns: The Browns will have to decide whether to tag their starting safety or their Pro Bowl center, Alex Mack. The safety tag is expected to be roughly $3 million cheaper than the offensive line tag, so Ward may end up being the recipient.