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The franchise tag and the Falcons’ history with it (2023 Update)

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The Atlanta Falcons have been very conservative in their use of the franchise tag.

Chicago Bears v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

This is one of the more informative articles I’ve written, going in-depth about the franchise tag and how the Falcons have used it. Since it’s an evergreen article, I’ve gone back to update it with each passing year to reflect how the tag was used around the NFL, and with the Falcons, the previous offseason.

Today is the beginning of the window for teams to use the franchise tag (we are in year 2023 at this point). What better time to dust off and to update this article than now? Below you will find all the information you could possibly want about the tag, including its use around the league in 2022.

We’re fully entrenched in the NFL offseason, and now the two-week window where teams are allowed to use the franchise tag has opened. Before we look at the Falcons’ use of the franchise tag since its inception in 1993, let’s look at what the tag is.

Simply put, the franchise tag is a one-year tender which pays players a specific salary for the season in which it is applied. The salaries of the top five earners by position are averaged out to determine the one-year salary (and cap hit) of the player who got tagged. If the player in question was among the five highest earners at his position the season before, he gets 120% of his previous year’s salary if tagged (a 20% pay raise). If a player gets tagged three years in a row, he earns 144% of his previous year’s salary (a 44% pay raise).

Let’s use Tampa’s Chris Godwin as our first case study. He was given the tag in 2021 by the Buccaneers, without agreeing to a long term extension. After playing out the final year of his rookie extension in 2020 at $2,133,000, he was paid $15,983,000, which was the average calculated salary of the top five earners at the wide receiver position that season. Last offseason (2022) he was tagged again and was set to earn $19,179,600, which was 120% of that previous salary.

Godwin and the Bucs ended up agreeing to a 3 year/$60 million extension which gave him long term security and lowered the team’s cap hit from $19.1 million to $5 million last Spring (it shoots up to $23.75 million this offseason), rendering the tag inconsequential. However, had Godwin opted to not sign an extension and had the team tagged him again in 2023, he would have been set to earn $27,618,624, which is a 44% increase from the 2022 tag salary.

Brandon Scherff was tagged by the Washington Football Team (not Commanders) for a second consecutive year, in 2021, without agreeing to a long term extension. His salary under the tag in 2020 was $15,030,000, and it increased to $18,036,000 in 2021. If the Commanders opted to tag him for a third consecutive offseason in 2022, they would have had to give him a 44% pay raise, pushing his salary (and cap hit) to $25,971,840. They instead traded him to Jacksonville, who worked out a 3 year/$49.5 million contract with the former top 10 pick.

A brand new contract extension rips up the one year franchise tag number. An example of this happened when the Seattle Seahawks used their franchise tag privileges by applying it to DE Frank Clark in 2020. After making $943,938 in the last year of his rookie contract in 2019, Clark would have earned $17,128,000 in 2020 (Spotrac) had he not agreed to a long-term extension later in the offseason, as this was the average salary of the five highest-earning defensive ends in the NFL at the time.

After applying the tag, the Seahawks traded Clark to the Kansas City Chiefs who promptly signed him to a five-year extension worth $104 million, ripping up the $17.1 million tag figure in the process.

Green Bay’s DaVante Adams was hit with the franchise tag last offseason, after his 4 year/$58 million extension had run out following the 2021 season. Adams was set to earn $20,145,000 had he opted to sign his tender and play through it, costing the Packers that same figure as a cap hit. Unable to work out a long-term extension, Green Bay opted to trade the All-Pro wide receiver to the Raiders, who immediately worked out a 5 year/$140 million contract extension, thus ripping up the tag.

QB Kirk Cousins of the Washington Commanders is the ideal case study when looking at the franchise tag. He had the tag applied to him in both 2016 and 2017. Because players who play the quarterback position are the highest earners in the NFL, the tag is most expensive when used on a quarterback. He earned $19,953,000 as a result in 2016.

Because Cousins was automatically among the five highest earners at the QB position that season, he got 120% of his previous salary when tagged again in 2017, resulting in a payday of $23,943,600 (instead of the $21,260,000 which he would’ve received if he wasn’t one of the top five earners at the position the year before). If Washington had theoretically tagged Cousins again in 2018 (instead of trading for Alex Smith and letting Cousins hit the market), he would have earned a salary of $34,478,784 (144% of $23,943,600). This is how a player can “beat” the tag — get tagged over and over again until it becomes too expensive for a team to continue the practice. This plan does come with risk as there is no long term security, however.

Le’Veon Bell is a famous example of a player and a team coming to an impasse over the tag being applied. In the 2018 offseason, he was tagged for the second year in a row and was set to make $14,544,000 as a result of getting a 120% raise from his 2017 salary, but he famously held out the entire season without signing the tender. He didn’t make any of that money and the Steelers, in theory, could have tagged him for the same salary again the next offseason (though, they opted to instead just let him hit the open market).

Had Bell reported to the team before Week 10 and played out the second half of the 2018 season, there would have been no ramifications on him other than the missed paychecks from the first nine weeks. In that scenario Bell would have made $20,943,360 if tagged by Pittsburgh again the next offseason (144% of his 2018 salary).

Things ended up working out for Bell, as he was allowed to hit the open market and to sign a four-year deal worth $52 million ($27 million guaranteed) with the Jets, but his is an example of just how much leverage a team can theoretically exercise over a player in regard to the tag.

A team can also rescind a franchise tag and let a player become a free agent at any point, which is what the Carolina Panthers famously did with CB Josh Norman in 2016.

Here are the non-exclusive franchise tag salary totals by position from last season (according to Spotrac)

Quarterback: $29,703,000

Running back: $9,570,000

Wide Receiver: $18,419,000

Tight Ends: $10,931,000

Offensive Lineman: $16,662,000

Defensive End: $17,859,000

Defensive Tackle: $17,396,000

Linebacker: $18,702,000

Cornerback: $17,287,000

Safety: $12,911,000

Kicker/Punter: $5,220,000

As you can see, not all franchise tags are created equal. Jimmy Graham and the New Orleans Saints famously got into a dispute over positions in 2014 after the Saints applied the tag to Graham, who argued that he should be paid as a wide receiver because he had lined up out wide for a vast majority of plays the previous year. An NFL arbitrator, however, ruled that Graham would classify as a tight end whose tag cost was $7,053,000. Had he been declared a WR, Graham’s tag cost would have been $12,132,000. This is information the Falcons will likely keep in their back pocket if there ever comes a scenario where they ever apply the franchise tag to Kyle Pitts.

There are differences in the types of franchise tags which teams can apply to players. If a player gets the exclusive tag, then he isn’t allowed to negotiate with any other team and is locked in with the team that applied the tag (unless traded). If the player gets the non-exclusive tag, then he is allowed to negotiate with other teams but whatever contract he gets can be matched by the original team; and if the deal isn’t matched then the original team gets two first-round picks from the new team as compensation. A team can use the franchise tag (either in the exclusive or non-exclusive form) one time each offseason.

There’s also a slight difference in pay for each tag. The exclusive tag pays the player the average of the five-highest paid players at his position (or a 20% raise in salary if he was among those five players). The non-exclusive tag carried with it the same stipulations until the 2011 CBA re-negotiation changed that — now, the non-exclusive tag pays the player the average of the five-highest paid players at his position over the last five years (or a 20% raise in salary if he was already one of the five-highest earners).

If a team elects not to use the franchise tag then it has the option to use the transition tag on a player of its choosing. This tag pays said player an average of the top 10 salaries being made by his position (instead of five) and gives the team the right to match any offer sheet he signs with another team. However, if they elect not to match, then they get no compensation for letting the player go.

Eight players got franchise tagged last offseason. Chris Godwin and Cam Robinson got tagged for the second consecutive offseason, while DaVante Adams made 120% of his salary as a result of being one of the five highest-paid players at his position the year leading up to the tag:

Kansas City Chiefs OL Orlando Brown Jr. - $16,662,000 (played under the tag, free agent again in 2023)

Cleveland Browns TE David Njoku - $10,931,000 (signed long-term extension)

Dallas Cowboys TE Dalton Schultz - $10,931,000 (played under the tag, free agent again in 2023)

Miami Dolphins TE Mike Gesicki - $10,931,000 (played under the tag, free agent again in 2023)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Chris Godwin - $19,179,600 (signed long-term extension)

Jacksonville Jaguars OL Cam Robinson - $16,662,000 (signed long-term extension)

Green Bay Packers WR DaVante Adams - $20,145,000 (traded; signed long-term extension)

Denver Broncos S Jessie Bates III - $12,911,000 (played under the tag, free agent again in 2023)

This year, teams have from February 21 until March 7 to apply the tag. If they do use the franchise tag on a player, then they have until a deadline of July 15 to agree to a long-term contract or that player will have to play out this upcoming season under the tag. The player can also be traded after getting tagged, which is what the Packers did with Adams. If a long-term contract is agreed upon, then the franchise tag salary number gets ripped up.

It’s generally in the best interest of both the team and the player in question to work out a long-term contract after the tag is applied. Playing under the franchise tag affords the player no long-term security in case of injury, and it eats up a large chunk of the team’s cap space (more cap space than what they would have to sacrifice if they agree to a long-term deal). Players don’t normally like getting tagged, and may even hold out because of it (see: Le’Veon Bell). Relations between a player and team can fracture as a result of the franchise tag.

The following are the projected franchise tag totals for the 2023 season according to Over The Cap (ranked from most expensive position to least expensive position)

Quarterback: $32,416,000

Linebacker: $20,926,000

Wide Receiver: $19,743,000

Defensive End: $19,727,000

Defensive Tackle: $18,937,000

Offensive Lineman: $18,244,000

Cornerback: $18,140,000

Safety: $14,460,000

Tight End: $11,345,000

Running Back: $10,091,000

Kicker/Punter: $5,393,000

The Falcons’ history

Atlanta is a team which has rarely ever used the tag; in fact, only one other team has put the tag to use fewer times (Houston Texans). There are only three occasions in which the Birds have applied the tag to a player, and all three happened in the Thomas Dimitroff era.

In 2009, the Falcons applied the franchise tag to Punter Michael Koenen for a salary of $2,480,000. Koenen would stay with the team for one more season after the 2009 campaign before signing a long-term contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2011.

In 2012, the Falcons applied the franchise tag to CB Brent Grimes for a salary of $10,280,000 after the two sides failed to agree to a long-term extension. Grimes ended up tearing his Achilles tendon in the first game of the season, forcing him to miss the entirety of the campaign. He went on to sign a contract with the Miami Dolphins a year later.

The franchise tag most recently came into play in the 2019 offseason, as the team could not immediately come to terms with star defensive tackle Grady Jarrett on a long-term extension. Jarrett’s rookie contract had expired, and he was be set to hit the open market had there been no intervention from the Falcons.

Atlanta had no interest in letting Jarrett go, however, and they applied the tag to the Clemson alum. That resulted in an immediate cap hit of around $15,209,000, but it bought Dimitroff until July 15 to negotiate a contract extension, which he did at the last hour.

Jarrett and the Falcons came to terms on a four-year extension worth $68 million ($42.5 million in total guaranteed money) right before the July 15 deadline hit. Had they not been able to come to terms on an extension, Jarrett would have been set to hit the market once again in 2020, during which his tag number would have been $18,250,800.

Even going beyond that, working out a long term extension which decreased the 2019 cap hit from $15.2 million under the tag to $11 million gave the Falcons just enough financial flexibility to sign Deion Jones to a contract extension in 2020, eliminating the need of potentially having to tag him.

The Birds have one real candidate for the franchise tag in 2023, and that’s right tackle Kaleb McGary, who just had the best season of his career. Atlanta will likely look to lock up the former first rounder to a long-term extension, but the tag could also come into play. projects that tagging McGary would result in a $18,244,000 cap hit for the Falcons with no long-term extension.

ESPN’s Bill Barnwell actually predicts that McGary will be one of the NFL players tagged this offseason, and that Atlanta will ultimately come to terms on a long-term extension.