NFL teams wield power of franchise tag

ByDAN GRAZIANO via <a href="" title="ESPN" class="espn_sc_byline">ESPN </a>
July 19, 2016, 11:10 AM

&#151; -- The NFL's franchise-player deadline gave us some fun on Friday, including a surprise last-second deal between the New York Jets and Muhammad Wilkerson. But it still wasn't the big-money frenzy that it was a year ago.

Last year, on the day of the deadline, the  Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys and Denver Broncos did long-term deals with Justin Houston, Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas. The only franchise player who didn't get a long-term deal in 2015 was the  New York Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul, who as you surely recall was dealing with extenuating circumstances.

This year? Von Miller got his record deal from the Broncos, kicker  Justin Tucker did a deal with the  Baltimore Ravens and the Jets surprised everybody with Wilkerson. Not bad, but that still means  Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins, Chiefs safety Eric BerryLos Angeles Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson and  Chicago Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery can't negotiate long-term deals again until after the season. Each is tied to his team for one year on a franchise-player price.

That's a win for the teams -- and for the franchise-tag rule itself. Washington gets a year to see if Cousins is the real deal before deciding whether to commit long term to him. Chicago and Kansas City get a year to see if Jeffery and Berry can stay healthy.

The difference between last year and this year lies mainly in the caliber of the players, of course. Houston, Bryant and Thomas were all established as high-level performers at key positions. Their teams were sure they wanted to commit long term to them. Of this year's crop, Miller and Wilkerson are the only ones on the list of seven whose one-year franchise numbers are clearly less than their market value. If Olivier Vernon is making $17 million, it's crazy for Miller to be making $14.13 million.

And likewise, Wilkerson performance dictates he's worth J.J. Watt money at the 3-4 DE position. Wilkerson is an established performer and the only member of the 2011 draft class who had yet to hit free agency or sign a long-term deal with the team that drafted him. What made his situation a challenge was that the Jets kept drafting first-round defensive linemen after they picked him and didn't necessarily feel they had to commit big money to him long term to stay strong there. In the end, he got it done, but it was never a sure thing.

But these other guys? On the $10.81 million franchise tag, Berry is the highest-paid safety in the NFL by a wide margin over Minnesota's Harrison Smith ($10.25 million). Johnson's $13.95 million tag makes him the fifth-highest-paid cornerback. Jeffery, at $14.6 million, is the second-highest-paid wide receiver. Cousins' $19.95 million is a 3,000 percent raise from his 2015 salary. 

Because the salary cap keeps going up -- a $32.27 million rise in the past three years -- teams are comfortable carrying these steep cap numbers in the short term while they weigh whether to give out deals with even higher guarantees.

Now, agents and top-level players hate the franchise tag because it restricts earnings at the top of the market. But the vast majority of NFL players will never have to worry about the tag, and that's why the union isn't driven to try to abolish it.

"The fact is, the franchise tag affects so few overall players, it's hard to get the majority to rule for that few guys who are affected," said former  Indianapolis Colts center and union executive committee member Jeff Saturday, who's now an ESPN analyst. "They don't want to hold out or take a season off or whatever it would require to enact a change that would affect so few."

So the tag is here to stay, and it will continue to work as a means for teams to delay decisions on long-term commitments to some of their best players. The Von Millers of the world will get their deals, as they should. The Trumaine Johnsons have to show more before they get theirs, which is fair. 

But what we have in 2016 is a situation in which the franchise tag is an easy out for teams, because they can afford it and it doesn't upset every player the way it used to. The franchise numbers are tied in part to the rising cap, which is why many of the players affected don't mind. If you're Alshon Jeffery, why would you even want to negotiate a long-term deal now, after missing so many games last year? Making close to $15 million while working to prove you're healthy and worthy of a long-term deal doesn't sound like a bad consolation prize.

In the end, this year's franchise-tag process was a win for the Bears, Rams, Chiefs and Redskins, who didn't find themselves forced into deals about which they weren't sure. This year's crop of franchise players didn't make out the way last year's did, mainly because outside of Miller and Wilkerson, they didn't come to the table with the same kind of juice.

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