Everything you need to know about the NFL's 2018 franchise tag

Darlington: 'Bell wants to be paid like a playmaker' (0:55)

Jeff Darlington breaks down the Steelers' options if they designate Le'Veon Bell with the franchise tag for the second year in a row. (0:55)

Editor's note: This piece was originally published in February 2017 and has been updated for the 2018 offseason.

It's that time of year when the NFL reminds you its calendar rarely slows and never stops. Less than three weeks after Super Bowl LII, the first window of player movement decisions will open.

Beginning Tuesday and continuing through March 6, teams can place the franchise tag on one pending free agent, a decision that is expensive but also provides massive leverage against losing a big-time player.

Transition tags can also be applied in this window, but the franchise tag is far more important -- and popular -- because it ensures the team a hefty return if a player ultimately departs. (Transition tags are cheaper, but offer only the opportunity to match an offer.)

As we enter the NFL's 26th offseason with the tag -- it made its debut in 1993 as the salary-cap era took off -- let's run through the basics, some recent trends and projections for 2018.

Please remind me exactly what the franchise tag is.

I appreciate your manners in these angry times.

The franchise tag is a labor designation that restricts a player's potential movement in exchange for a high one-year salary. It is governed by owners and players through the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) and has two types.

Go on ...

The first is the "exclusive-rights" franchise tag. Any player with this tag is bound to the team for the upcoming season. His agent is prohibited from seeking offer sheets elsewhere.

The second is the "non-exclusive" franchise tag. In this scenario, players can sign an offer sheet with another team.

What happens after the tag is applied?

It depends on the interest level between the sides.

The player can sign the tender at any time, a decision that fully guarantees the salary and immediately places all of it on the current year's cap charge. This can increase a player's leverage in a tight cap situation; the team will be motivated to negotiate a longer-term deal to lower the cap number.

The decision can also backfire if the team is comfortable with the high cap number; the leverage in this case would side with a player who remains unsigned as camp looms.

In either event, the sides have until July 16 to agree on a multiyear extension. After that point, the player can sign only a one-year contract, which cannot be extended until after the season.

Can a team rescind the tag?

Why, yes.

The Carolina Panthers did just that to cornerback Josh Norman in 2016, for example, when they determined they wouldn't be able to sign him to a long-term extension. A rescinded tag is one of the risks players take when they don't immediately sign the tender. It can't be rescinded once it is signed.

What typically happens in these situations?

Over the past five years, the NFL has averaged just under seven franchise tag designations per season. Here's a look at the final results in that span, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information researcher Evan Kaplan:

  • 33 franchise tags extended

  • 16 players played out the season under the tag

  • 16 signed long-term extensions

  • One player (New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul) signed a modified contract after July 15.

I'm an amateur capologist. Where can I find the franchise values for each position?

That's quite a hobby you've got there.

The NFL hasn't calculated them yet, and one of the twists of the franchise tag window is that teams can extend them without knowing the exact figure. They're usually released during the annual scouting combine, in the days before free agency begins (March 14). In a few cases, deals that happen between now and then can impact the exact numbers. The exact per-team salary-cap total -- also not solidified yet -- can change them as well.

The 2017 numbers are in the chart. The NFL salary cap is expected to jump at least $10 million from its $168 million number in 2017, so you can count on incremental rises in each franchise tag number as well. You can feel reasonably confident that the tag numbers will rise at least $500,000 and no more than $2 million per position.

Really? No firm numbers?

OK, maybe a few.

We know, based on the CBA, that a team has only one option when it wants to apply the tag in consecutive years to the same player: 120 percent of the previous year's tag. That could apply to a number of players in 2018, most notably Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell.

Bell played under a $12.12 million tag in 2017, meaning his 2018 tag would be worth $14.544 million. (He has said he might sit out the 2018 season rather than play a second year under the tag.)

Other than Bell, what other players are 2018 franchise-tag candidates? Here are some names to watch for if productive negotiations on long-term deals don't materialize:

Is it always bad for the player to play under the franchise tag?

The franchise tag pays a player close to market value for one year, but provides no future guarantees. The tag becomes an advantage if a player remains healthy and valuable enough that the team feels compelled to use it multiple times. The value of the second tag is 120 percent of the first, and the third 144 percent of the second.

How rarely do teams use the tag on the same player in consecutive years?

It happens more often than you might think: 15 times since 1997, including four times since 2011: Cleveland Browns place-kicker Phil Dawson, Dallas Cowboys linebacker Anthony Spencer, Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins and Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson.

It is much less common for skill players. Cousins became the first quarterback ever franchised in consecutive years last offseason. There have been only three other skill players who have been tagged twice at any point in their careers: quarterbacks Drew Brees (2005, 2012) and Peyton Manning (2004, 2011) and receiver Rob Moore (1995, 1999).

Are some positions more susceptible to the franchise tag than others?


Per ESPN's Stats & Information research, 30 offensive linemen have been franchise tagged since 1993, while 27 defensive ends and 26 linebackers were tagged. On the other end, there have been four punters, 10 quarterbacks, 11 running backs and 11 tight ends franchised.

Generally speaking, teams see a better economic value to leverage high-end linemen than skill-position players.

Do some teams use the tag more than others?

Yes, but given the 26-year span of the tag's existence, the numbers are more a function of talent and cap management than a philosophical opposition or support of the tag itself. Every team in the league has used it at least once.

The Indianapolis Colts have used it an NFL-high 11 times, followed by the Chiefs (10), Seattle Seahawks (10) and Arizona Cardinals (10). The Texans (one), Falcons (two) and Browns (three) have used it the fewest times.