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NFL players hate the franchise tag, even if it means a big paycheck

There are a few reasons the franchise tag has a lot of detractors.

NFL: Washington Redskins at Chicago Bears Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL franchise tag is a relatively contentious issue during the offseason. Ostensibly, the tag is meant to give teams more time to negotiate long-term deals with important players, but the process can lead to bad feelings and many players would prefer to skip it entirely.

Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry, who played under the tag last year, has already fired an early salvo. Berry told the Kansas City Star that he won’t play at all next year if he’s tagged for a second straight season.

“I’m out, I’m out ... I’m out,” said Berry. “I’m just prepared mentally and emotionally to do what I need to do.”

Berry made a healthy $10.8 million under the tag last season, and would earn about $13 million in 2017 if he’s tagged again. Despite the hefty paycheck, he doesn’t want the tag — and he’s not alone.

Why do NFL players dread the franchise tag?

1) Say goodbye to leverage

The biggest issue is that the tag strips players of almost all leverage during a time when they’re hoping to cash in on big seasons. Getting tagged essentially locks you in with your current team for one year, with little hopes of testing the free agent market.

Granted, there’s the “non-exclusive” tag, which gives players the right to negotiate with other teams, but there’s a major catch — if an opposing team makes an offer the original team doesn’t match, they give up two first-round draft picks as compensation. Those are incredibly huge assets to give up for one player, so naturally, teams generally don’t make the jump. Therefore, the player is stuck with his team even under the non-exclusive tag.

2) There’s no long-term security

There’s also the matter of financial security. NFL players don’t have a long shelf life, and injuries can derail an entire career in the blink of an eye. Taking advantage of breakout seasons and nailing down guaranteed money for multiple years is a huge priority, especially when players are in the middle of their prime.

The franchise tag doesn’t afford them that opportunity — sure, they get a huge salary, but it’s for just one year, and who knows what happens in that one year. Even if they get through the season healthy and still playing well, they have to do this all over again in the offseason, except they’re a year older. It’s a vicious cycle.

So what can players do if they’re tagged?

If a long-term deal isn’t reached by July 15, most franchise-tagged players just sign the one-year tender. But there is one option left in their leverage: threaten to hold out, like Berry said he would.

Last year, we saw the conflict between short-term gains and long-term security reach its logical conclusion. With Josh Norman coming off a career-year and establishing himself as one of the best cornerbacks in the game, the Carolina Panthers slapped the tag on him. Norman wanted big money, but the Panthers were unwilling to offer it with their cap space compromised.

Eventually, both sides called each others’ bluff — with extension talks going nowhere, Carolina rescinded the tag and Norman became a free agent on the spot. He signed a lucrative five-year, $75 million deal with Washington and continued his star production, while the Panthers struggled with CB depth all season.

That is just an extreme example of what happens when the franchise tag strains relationships between player and team, but sometimes the holdout threat can help speed talks at the bargaining table.

Last year, the Denver Broncos tagged Von Miller, fresh off a Super Bowl MVP campaign, and unquestionably the most important player on their defense. They went back and forth for several months, with Miller making the usual threats about not playing, but cooler heads prevailed and Miller got the blockbuster contract he wanted all along. Few people would argue that the holdout threat was always a negotiating tactic, and that’s about the only thing players like Miller have to hold on to when they get stuck with the tag.

Are there any positives to getting tagged?

With all that said, there are some benefits for tagged players, if only because it’s their biggest paycheck yet. Case in point: Kirk Cousins, a fourth-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. The former Michigan State QB was expected to just hold the clipboard for Robert Griffin III, but when RGIII flamed out, Cousins stepped up and managed to establish himself as an above-average QB.

He had some major turnover issues in his early career, so Washington was understandably gun-shy about handing him a major long-term deal last offseason. Cousins played under the franchise tag in 2016 and delivered another solid season, making $19.953 million in the process.

Now Washington finds itself in a difficult position — commit big money to Cousins, or kick the can down the road again and see if he can keep his production up? Right now, rumors suggest that Washington will tag Cousins for a second straight year, which would net him around $24 million. If the sides are able to work out a long-term deal, Cousins is more likely to earn a yearly salary in the $16-18 million range.

Is the long-term security worth the tradeoff of earning a massive salary for at least one more year? That’s a question Cousins and his camp will have to figure out while Washington weighs its options.

But last month, Cousins told ESPN that he’d sign the tender if he’s tagged again, while conceding, “It will be hard to have a lack of security at that point.”

The one upside of the franchise tag is that it guarantees the player will be one of the highest-paid at his position for one year. Everything that happens after that year, though, is a mystery, and that uncertainty is why many players would rather avoid it altogether. And on the team’s part, general managers don’t like having such a huge part of the salary cap tied to one player, for one year, so they’re also eager to work out a more stable extension.

The tag affords more time for both sides to get something hammered out, but it’s certainly not a pleasant experience for the players, no matter how large their bank accou gets in the end.