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How does the NFL franchise tag work and how much do players get paid?

The franchise tag is a relatively simple process, but the ramifications can be big for both teams and players.

Super Bowl LIV - San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

When the NFL offseason heats up, one of the biggest storylines to watch every year is which players get the franchise tag. Teams have a two-week window to apply the one-year tender. Players who get the tag have to either sign their tender or negotiate a long-term contract with their teams before the July 15 deadline.

The franchise tag is essentially a one-year contract that guarantees a predetermined salary for players. The salary amount is set by the averaging the top five salaries by position for the previous league year, or if it’s higher, 120 percent of a player’s salary the previous season. So players like quarterbacks and defensive ends will have a much higher tag salary than positions like kicker or punter.

With the salary cap climbing to an estimated $200 million, here are the reported salaries for each position under the franchise tag in 2020:

Quarterbacks: $26.824 million
Running backs: $10.278 million
Wide receivers: $17.865 million
Tight ends: $10.607 million
Offensive linemen: $14.781 million
Defensive tackles: $16.126 million
Defensive ends: $17.788 million
Linebackers: $15.828 million
Cornerbacks: $16.338 million
Safeties: $11.441 million
Kickers/Punters: $5.019 million

Teams can usually only use the tag once per year. There are three different types of tags a team can assign.

Types of NFL franchise tags

Exclusive

Just what the name implies. The player is locked into his team and cannot negotiate with any other team during the free agency period.

Non-exclusive

The player is allowed to negotiate with other teams, but if a competing team makes a free agent offer, the original team has the right to match it. If they don’t match the offer, they get two first-round picks in compensation. In other words, this is basically a convoluted trade scenario.

Transition tag

Similar to the non-exclusive tag, except the player gets paid an average of the top 10 salaries at his position, rather than top five. Transition-tagged players are free to negotiate with other teams, but unlike non-exclusive players, the original team gets no compensation if it fails to match an offer.

Once a player gets tagged, that’s when the real drama begins. Both sides have until mid-July to negotiate a long-term contract. This ramps up the sense of urgency. Teams don’t want to use the tag because it ties up a huge chunk of their salary cap for just one year. The players don’t like it because they don’t have any financial security beyond that one year, and have almost no leverage outside of threatening to hold out. If they fail to agree to a long-term deal before the deadline, the player is set for his one-year contract.

Fortunately for most players, they’re often able to secure a new contract with their team and the franchise tag doesn’t have to come into play — at least until the next offseason.

Who received franchise or transition tags in 2020?

Shaquil Barrett, Edge, Buccaneers

Barrett signed a one-year, $4 million prove-it deal with the Bucs last spring and, well, proved it. He had 10 sacks in his first four games with Tampa, ultimately leading the league with 19.5 — more than he’d had the previous five seasons of his NFL career (14). The Buccaneers want to see if he can replicate that kind of production before inking him to a long-term, big money deal.

Kenyan Drake, RB, Cardinals (transition tag)

The Cardinals used a tag to keep a player they acquired via trade in 2019. Drake was traded from the Dolphins in October for a conditional sixth-round pick and rushed for 5.2 yards per carry in his eight starts with the Cardinals. With the team to parting ways with David Johnson, keeping Drake was a top priority for Arizona. Still, using the transition tag to make that happen is surprising. It’ll likely cost the Cardinals around $8.5 million in 2020, making Drake among the top 10 highest paid running backs in the league. That’s a hefty price to pay, but worthwhile if Drake continues to play like he did in his eight games with the Cardinals.

Bud Dupree, Edge, Steelers

Dupree was a perfect cantilever on the opposite side of T.J. Watt’s pass rush. His 11.5 sacks — nearly double his career high — came at the perfect time with free agency waiting in 2020. Pittsburgh has decided to lock him up before he can court other teams this offseason. He received a franchise tag from Pittsburgh, as expected.

A.J. Green, WR, Bengals

Green averaged 79 catches, 1,174 yards, and eight touchdowns per season over his first seven seasons in the league, but injuries have limited him to only nine games the past two years. Though he missed all of 2019 with an ankle injury, his past production has convinced the Bengals to keep him around atop a receiving corps that also features Tyler Boyd, John Ross, and Auden Tate. That will give the team a solid supporting cast for projected No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow next fall.

Anthony Harris, S, Vikings

Minnesota entered 2020 in salary cap hell, but releasing veteran defenders Xavier Rhodes and Linval Joseph and extending quarterback Kirk Cousins carved out enough cap room to reportedly keep Harris on the books with the franchise tag. The ascending safety tied for the league lead last fall with six interceptions and was a key component behind the Vikings’ postseason run. Time will tell whether Minnesota locks him into a long-term deal or potentially dangles him as trade bait in an effort to cut costs.

Derrick Henry, RB, Titans

Tennessee’s $122 million contract extension with quarterback Ryan Tannehill created the opportunity to retain the Batman to his Robin. The Titans tagged Henry after a monstrous 2019 where the burly running back led the NFL with 1.540 rushing yards. The biggest question he’ll face is whether he can avoid a regression after taking 303 carries last fall and remain a throwback, undisputed No. 1 rusher. If the two sides don’t come to an extension, Tennessee will have at least one more season to test him.

Hunter Henry, TE, Chargers

Henry has been a top-flight target for the Chargers ... when he’s on the field. The four-year veteran has never played a full 16-game season thanks to injuries, but has averaged nearly 13 yards per catch with a 71 percent catch rate at tight end. That, his age (25 years old), and a thin market at his position made him a desirable piece in free agency, but Los Angeles is putting a kibosh on that before it can even begin.

Chris Jones, DT, Chiefs

Jones played a major role in Kansas City’s first NFL championship in 50 years. The pass-rushing defensive tackle has 24.5 sacks in his past two seasons. His fourth-quarter deflected pass in Super Bowl 54 was instrumental in the Chiefs’ comeback victory. Unsurprisingly, the team has decided to lock him down via the franchise tag as it works on a potential long-term extension.

Matt Judon, Edge, Ravens

Judon was counted on to lead a Baltimore linebacking corps that lost Za’Darius Smith and C.J. Mosley to free agency in 2019. He responded with career highs in starts (16), sacks (8.5), and QB hits (33) — fourth-most in the NFL. The Ravens seemingly won’t allow him to follow Smith and Mosley’s lead; they’re locking him in for 2020 with the franchise tag — at the cheaper OLB position instead of DE. However, it’s possible Judon is a tag-and-trade candidate.

Yannick Ngakoue, DE, Jaguars

Ngakoue has no interest in signing a long term deal with the Jags:

That doesn’t mean he won’t be in Jacksonville next season. The Jaguars locked him in for 2020 with their franchise tag. That will give the team a few extra months to negotiate with the powerful pass rusher or, if necessary, begin exploring trade options.

Dak Prescott, QB, Cowboys

Dallas couldn’t risk allowing its budding star quarterback to leave after only four years with the club, but also couldn’t get him to sign a contract extension that didn’t include top-of-the-market cash. That led Jerry Jones to place the exclusive franchise tag on him while the two sides continue negotiations — ones that will probably end with Prescott signing one of the richest deals in NFL history.

Brandon Scherff, OG, Washington

Washington has to protect second-year quarterback Dwayne Haskins in 2020, so it makes sense the team would want to keep Scherff in town. The former first-round pick has missed 13 games the past two seasons due to injury, but he remains a vital part of Washington’s offensive identity moving forward.

Justin Simmons, S, Broncos

Simmons blossomed from “role-player” to “star” in his four seasons in Denver, becoming one of the league’s most versatile safeties in the process. Rather than let him leave without any renumeration aside from a 2021 compensatory draft pick, the Broncos tagged him to keep him in the fold for at least one more season.

Joe Thuney, OG, Patriots

Thuney’s been an unheralded piece of the Patriots’ success, but the league had taken notice. Rather than allow him to leave New England on a mega-deal elsewhere — like tackled Trent Brown and Nate Solder had done in recent years — Bill Belichick locked him in for 2020 by handing him more than $16 million. If that number holds, Thuney and Scherff would each claim the highest salary of any interior lineman in NFL history.

Leonard Williams, DT, Giants

New York gave up a third-round draft pick to acquire Williams, who was in the final year of his rookie contract in 2019. Rather than let him walk after half a season with the club, the Giants reportedly decided to protect their investment by tagging the high-potential, low-production lineman. Williams is a versatile interior lane-clogger at his best, but has offered little as a pass rusher after his breakout 2016 season. His average tackle depth rose from 1.5 yards as a Jet to 2.7 as a Giant. That’s a fairly average number for a tackle who’ll now be paid as a top-five player at his position.

Who received the franchise tag in 2019?

While a whopping 15 players were tagged in 2020, only six players received the tag in 2019 — the same number as in 2018. That included four pass rushers: Frank Clark, DeMarcus Lawrence, Dee Ford, and Jadeveon Clowney. All but Lawrence wound up being traded after being tagged, and only Clowney failed to use his tag as a springboard to a long-term contract last offseason. Kicker Robbie Gould and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett were also given the franchise tag in 2019. Each signed a lucrative contract extension later that summer.