Le’Veon Bell turned 27 before hitting the free agency market for the first time in his career.
The former Michigan State running back was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers with a second-round pick in 2013, and by the end of the 2014 season he was a first-team All-Pro. By definition, he was the best in the world at his job and got there at age 22.
Five years later, Bell still hadn’t had a chance to shop those skills and get whatever the NFL’s free agency market decides he’s worth.
Part of that is because of the four-year contract that he and every other player picked after the first round signed in 2013. But he was slated to become a free agent in 2017 and didn’t get there, thanks to the franchise tag.
It’s an antiquated tool that gives NFL franchises the chance to rob their most elite players the opportunity to negotiate their worth. And unfortunately for those players, it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere.
Why does the franchise tag exist?
In early 1992, John Elway was nine seasons into his career with the Denver Broncos. He had already led the team to three Super Bowls, but hadn’t won one yet. Even though his statistics in 1991 were terrible by today’s standards — 13 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, and 3,253 passing yards — Elway helped the Broncos to a 12-4 record and earned a spot in the Pro Bowl.
The problem for Denver was that the team was struggling to sign Elway to a new contract before he’d reach free agency. According to Sports Illustrated, Broncos owner Pat Bowlen argued in league meetings that there should be a rule that would allow him to keep Elway for another year at top dollar so he’d have more time to negotiate a new deal.
Elway was given just under $1.957 million for the 1992 season — the 18th-highest salary in the NFL that season. It gave the Broncos enough time to strike a four-year, $20 million deal with him in 1993 that made Elway the highest-paid player in the league.
“The Elway Rule” evolved into the franchise tag. A full explanation of the franchise tag and its little brother, the transition tag, is right here. But the gist is this: NFL teams can tag one impending free agent per offseason and guarantee that player can’t leave for a year in exchange for a lofty, fully guaranteed salary that’s among the top at their position.
Players have no way to avoid getting tagged
It sounds pretty nice to get a one-year, fully guaranteed salary at a high price. A player like Bell isn’t exactly hurting financially because of it. He received $12.12 million under the franchise tag in 2017 and would’ve made $14.544 million had he played instead of holding out in 2018.
The open market is a different beast, though.
When teams are competing for a player — especially one who’s the best in the NFL at his position — that’s when the price tag really spikes.
That’s why Kirk Cousins received $19.953 million and $23.95 million under the franchise tag in 2016 and 2017, respectively, but a three-year deal that averaged $28 million once he became a free agent. And that’s for a quarterback who is above average, at best.
Bell should’ve reached free agency in 2017 as a fresh 25-year-old. He would have had the chance to reset the market for running backs with a record-breaking contract for the position. He should’ve had that opportunity again in 2018 at age 26 after his second All-Pro season.
Instead, Bell’s value continued to diminish as he got closer to age 30 and racked up a league-leading amount of offensive touches. He finally hit free agency in 2019 after sitting out a season and signed a four-year, $52.5 million contract with the Jets. Bell almost definitely would’ve received more if he hit the open market a year or two earlier.
For his trouble, Bell was labeled a selfish malcontent. But he only did what other stars previously threatened to do.
“No, I’m not going to play on the franchise tag,” Miller told ESPN. “I’ve never really played for money. It’s bigger than that for me. It’s a league-wide problem that I feel like I’m in a situation to help out with.”
The franchise tag is outdated and needs to go
It probably sets off your “Am I Really That Old?” alarms to hear a rule invented in 1992 called antiquated, but the economics of the NFL were much, much different then. An average starting quarterback made just over $1 million per year and the upper-echelon players made about $4 million.
Now the stakes are way higher and teams can prevent record-setting bidding wars. The franchise tag serves as a tool that keeps players from setting the entire market higher.
It worked out pretty well for Cousins, though. He spent a couple seasons raising his price with consecutive tags and then hit the market for his huge deal. But Cousins plays a position with more longevity, less wear and tear, and a significantly higher average salary than Bell’s position.
Few players are as fortunate as Cousins. With the franchise tag, most are often forced to jeopardize their chance at the biggest pay day of their career.
The NFLPA should’ve struck the franchise tag down
There’s really no equivalent to the franchise tag in the rest of the working world. The best doctor in the world isn’t forced to stick it out at a hospital that owns the rights to his service. The best professor in the world isn’t stuck at a university.
Professional sports are different for the sake of entertaining and equal competition. That’s not just a franchise tag thing. The NFL Draft doesn’t have a real world equivalent, either. It forces a player into multiple years under the employer that won the rights to their service, and there’s no realistic alternative for that player.
There’s an argument to be made for removing drafts in sports, but the NFL’s parity is a stronger argument that it shouldn’t go anywhere. And it won’t.
There isn’t anything like the franchise tag in other sports, though. The Cleveland Cavaliers couldn’t force LeBron James to stay, and neither could the Washington Nationals with Bryce Harper.
Is there even a logical argument for franchise tag to stay at this point? If an elite player doesn’t get a contract extension from the team that drafted them, that’s the team’s problem. It got four or five years of excellent play and it’ll get a compensatory draft pick for that player’s departure.
Are we really supposed to feel sorry for the Steelers (valued at $2.8 billion, mind you) for only getting four or five years of elite play from Bell, because they chose to offer him a contract of funny money with little actual guarantees?
The franchise tag is allowed under the current collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and NFL Players Association, but it expires after the 2020 season. For some reason though, it doesn’t appear to be an issue in the crosshairs during negotiations of a new CBA.
It looks like the franchise tag is here to stay and that’s a shame. All it does now is limit players from reaching their earning potential and subsequently raising the prices for the rest of the NFL’s talent pool too.