Every organization in the NFL has players that they covet and feel they can’t do without. For the continuity of a franchise, teams have to make the hard decisions as to who they pay and who they allow to potentially leave via free agency.
There is one other options that teams use as a last resort – the franchise tag. Collectively bargained and in place since 1993, the franchise tag has been a last resort for teams that can’t reach a long-term agreement with a player before free agency begins.
At first, the imposition of the franchise tag seemed like a windfall for players, since it typically involved a one-year deal that came with a significant pay increase. But that didn’t last long, as contracts became negotiated with an eye more to guaranteed money as opposed to the overall number associated with the contract.
Very few players ever fully play out (and pay out) on long-term, nine-figure contracts. The numbers sound mind-boggling when put in terms of the full value of a contract, but the numbers are typically just window dressing beyond the amount that is guaranteed.
We’ve seen this year that animosity can grow when a player is assigned the franchise tag. Alshon Jeffery has threatened to hold out and, even if he does sign the franchise tender, his agent has hinted that this may well be his last year in Chicago because of the animosity over not getting a long-term deal.
Von Miller signed a $114.5 million deal with the Denver Broncos Friday that included $70 million in guaranteed money to be paid out by March 2018. The contract total remained almost identical from the first numbers that were thrown out four months ago when a long-term deal was discussed. The only question in dispute was the amount of guaranteed money, which was almost tripled from what Denver originally offered ($23.5 million). Both Miller and Baltimore kicker Justin Tucker had made it clear that they would likely stay out if forced to play under the franchise tag or, if they did sign at some point, walk at the end of the season. Both were eventually signed to long-term deals.
It is a game that has been played between organizations and players for almost 25 years. Sometimes everything works out. Other times it creates a fracture between team and player and he leaves the following year in free agency.
Of all the organizations in the NFL, nobody has used the franchise tag fewer times than the Minnesota Vikings. In the 24 years of the franchise tag, the Vikings have used the franchise tag just twice – and both on Dakota boys they were convinced didn’t want to leave their home franchise (tight end Jim Kleinsasser in 2003 and Chad Greenway in 2011).
That isn’t to say the Vikings haven't had players in that span that would have been candidates for the franchise tag, including Cris Carter, John Randle, Randall McDaniel, Todd Steussie, Randy Moss, Daunte Culpepper, Matt Birk, Kevin Williams, Adrian Peterson, John Sullivan, Everson Griffen and Harrison Smith.
Several of those players could have potentially reached the point where their contracts would expire and the Vikings would have to either franchise that player or allow him to leave via free agency. However, Minnesota has employed a management system that locks down players before they get to the point where they will be eligible to reach free agency heading into the prime of their careers. In recent years, the Vikings have done that with many of their star players, as well as second-tier starters like Brian Robison, Brandon Fusco, Phil Loadholt and Kyle Rudolph – assuring they don’t get away.
It is a management strategy that has worked well for the Vikings and has also resulted in them almost never getting high draft compensatory picks for lost free agents. Nobody has lost fewer premier free agents than the Vikings – and it has been by design. That design has been to not allow themselves to get into the position of drawing a line in the sand with the franchise tag.
Over the last 10 years, 100 players have been given the franchise designation. The Vikings have only done it once – Greenway in 2011.
In that same decade, the Houston Texans are the only other team to apply the franchise designation once. The other 30 teams have found it necessary to name franchise players two or more times. New England and Kansas City lead the way with six players named in the last 10 years. Two more teams, Baltimore and Cincinnati, have named a franchise player five times. Those using the franchise tag four times include Indianapolis, Oakland, Denver, Dallas, Chicago, Carolina and Seattle. Those using it three times include the Jets, Miami, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Giants, Philadelphia, Washington, Green Bay, New Orleans and Arizona.
As the franchise tag signing period has come and gone, Miller made headlines by setting the bar for percentage of a contract being guaranteed, but more teams found themselves at an impasse that may create a fracture with the players involved. Fortunately for the Vikings, they aren’t one of those teams and, historically speaking, never have been in the 24-year history of the franchise tag.