Franchise tag lags as game evolves

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The Graham grievance was just one example of how the changing strategies of the game have made the system look outdated.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.

The solutions are complicated. Pass-rushing linebackers could be put into a pass-rushers category with pass-rushing defensive ends. To get that trade-off, owners would ask for offensive tackles to be put into their own category to lower the franchise tags for guards and centers, who are paid less than tackles. Slot wide receivers could be put in a category with tight ends.

Players might not go for those options because it would give teams more leverage to tag centers, guards, tight ends, slot receivers and non-pass-rushing linebackers at a lower price. The high price of franchise tags has scared teams away from overusing them.

Adjustments to the franchise system need to be discussed, but I don't anticipate much change.

From the inbox

Q: Without deep knowledge of the collective bargaining agreement, is the following a viable strategy for an unhappy player? If you want a new deal but the team won't budge, you simply retire. You wait for them to fill your role and commit what money they would have paid you. Then, unretire. They still have your rights but would need to cut other players to fit you back in. This essentially forces their hand. They can either take you back, in which case you are playing, or cut you, which gets you what you wanted in the first place.

John in Chicago

A: Withholding services is the one thing a player can do. But the retire-unretire strategy is shaky. A retired player would have to apply to the commissioner for reinstatement. That would be approved. But if the player misses games to try to gain some leverage, it might not work. The team can try to reclaim any prorated signing bonus money for the lost time. The commissioner might give the team a short roster exemption to give it time to adjust the roster. The team might not be close enough to the cap or the roster limit to be forced to make a move. That makes it a dangerous gamble for the unhappy player.

Q: Compared to most other teams, how is Dallas thin at WR? They have Dez Bryant and last year's great pick Terrance Williams, plus Cole Beasley and Dwayne Harris. Plus, they added a good draft pick this year (Devin Street) and have a TE in James Hanna who is bigger and faster than any WR on the team.

Doug in Cleveland

A: But injuries happen, and that's why the Cowboys need to keep an eye on the receiver market. The question is whether they are good enough at the No. 2 receiver position without Miles Austin, even though he was hurt often. They have numbers. They have good, young options. Because of their defensive problems, the Cowboys are going to have to outscore teams to win.

Q: After such a lopsided Super Bowl last year, what do you think of this idea? There often have been suggestions regarding seeding teams at the end of the regular season. How about putting the top seeds on opposite sides of a draw, so in theory the best two teams make it to the Super Bowl, regardless of their division or conference?

Dennis in Long Island, New York

A: Why make that change after one blowout Super Bowl? We have witnessed some of the most competitive Super Bowls over the past decade. There were a lot of blowouts in the 1980s and 1990s. No change was made then. No change is needed now. One of the great parts of the three weeks of playoffs is developing conference or divisional rivalries. There is never a guarantee the best two teams will get into the Super Bowl. That's why they play the game.

Q: As a Bengals fan, I am excited about Hue Jackson bringing a more physical approach to the offense. Nevertheless, in a passing league, do you think the run-first-and-often approach will help Andy Dalton get the Bengals over the playoff hump, or are we destined for another promising regular season that will fall short of playoff expectations?

Eric in Chicago

A: I wouldn't say Jackson is going to run the ball like the Seattle Seahawks or San Francisco 49ers. Dalton averaged 41 attempts a game in playoff losses the last three seasons. That works for Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Dalton is not Manning or Brady. The Bengals have too much pass-catching talent to just be a run team. Remember, Jackson believes the Dalton-to-A.J. Green tandem is the best quarterback-receiver relationship in football. He will exploit that. For talent, Dalton is good enough to get the Bengals to the playoffs. To win a playoff game, he needs the help of the others around him.

Q: With all of the conversation about a developmental league, why doesn't the NFL help the myriad minor leagues get together and form a farm system similar to baseball's? Each NFL team could have its own farm team with players gaining experience and being available to be called up at almost any time.

Mike in Socorro, New Mexico

A: The NFL is working on a league. It knows there are numbers of investors willing to put together developmental leagues for them. The NFL is waiting for the right option, and I believe it will do something. I just don't know when. Too many good, young players are falling through the cracks. When a team loses a starting player to injury, the pool of potential replacements is poor. Owners know that, but they don't want to create a loss-leader to solve the problem when they can have outside investors pay to be aligned with the NFL.