Franchise tag lags as game evolves

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The ruling that Jimmy Graham is a tight end and not a wide receiver illustrates a need to update the franchise tag system.

The potential solutions, however, might be too complicated and could create more problems than they resolve. What's clear is that the game has changed since the franchise tag system started in 1993.

Gene Upshaw, the former executive director of the NFLPA, recognized a team's need to keep a top player. Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue wanted to protect a team from losing its franchise quarterback. Together, they worked out a system in which a tagged player was guaranteed at least a one-year deal for the average salary of the top five players at his position. Other teams could sign the player, but they would have to turn over two first-round picks to do so.

Teams twisted the system by threatening to use the tag at all positions -- including kickers. The threat of using the franchise tag to block a player's chance at unrestricted free agency often led to long-term deals. Upshaw wasn't happy teams used the tag threat on all players, but he didn't fight it because it affected only one player per team each year.

The Graham grievance was just one example of how the changing strategies of the game have made the system look outdated. The NFLPA noted Graham lined up wide -- not in the traditional tight end spot next to an offensive tackle -- on 67 percent of his snaps for the Saints in 2013. Under the 2014 franchise tag structure, a receiver gets a $12.132 million tender and a tight end gets $7.053 million.

In his decision, arbitrator Stephen Burbank noted there isn't a true definition of a tight end's duties. Receiving jobs are also undefined for legal language. Top outside receivers can get $12 million a year contracts, but those receivers who work the slot usually top out at $6 million a year.

"The evidence also supports findings that, like tight ends, wide receivers and running backs often line up in the slot ... and that the defense employed against any player so aligned turns on the player's position, not his alignment, because of the physical attributes and skill sets of the players in those positions," Burbank said in his ruling.

Burbank concluded that Graham played 51.7 percent of his snaps within 4 yards of a tackle, and thus he decided Graham was a tight end.

Tight end isn't the only position of vagueness. Linebackers get a franchise tag at the $11.455 million level. Defensive ends get $13.116 million. Because of spread offenses, a pass-rushing outside linebacker will line up with a hand on the ground like a defensive end on more than 60 percent of the snaps. Expect a linebacker to challenge the tag in the next year or two.

A problem for teams is that once a player plays under the franchise tender, it's harder to get him signed for a long-term deal. A second franchise tag comes with a 20 percent raise from the first one. Because that raise might make the short-term average higher than the average of a long-term deal, more teams are electing to let the player walk after the first tag expires.

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