Throughout the past few years, NFL contracts have been under increasing scrutiny by players and fans as other professional leagues such as Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association have been handing out massive guaranteed contracts to their players. The contracts that NFL players receive are not even remotely comparable, especially considering both the average longevity of an NFL player’s career and the injury risk that they undertake every season. While there have been some breakthroughs, such as Kirk Cousins contract with Minnesota that was fully guaranteed, there have been a number of other contract issues that need to be addressed. The franchise tag is one of the most prominent targets of the NFLPA.
The franchise tag has been highlighted this year in particular because of the situation with Le’Veon Bell and the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers placed the franchise tag on Bell for the second year in a row; in 2017 he played on the tag at a value of $12 million, and in 2018 he was set to play for $14.5 million. However, Bell has instead chosen to sit out so far, forgoing money in an attempt to preserve his health and future options. Bell’s status as arguably the best running back in the league has put this issue on display.
Just a quick summary of the franchise tag: Each team gets one franchise tag every offseason. This can be used on a player who is set to become an unrestricted free agent. The tag places them under contract for the next season. Firstly, it provides a time extension for teams to work out a long-term contract, as they have until July 15th to try to resign the player. If a deal can’t be reached, then the player plays on a one-year contract through the following season, with the monetary value being either 120% of the player’s previous contract or the average of the top five contracts for players at the same position, whichever is greater. So for example, in 2017 Bell’s contract was based on the average of the top five running back salaries in the league.
Teams would argue that the franchise tag is a fair deal because it provides players with an extremely high salary for the next season. Players would counter by saying that it is only a one year deal, and if they play and are injured then they could lose out on a long-term, guaranteed contract during the next offseason.
Most observers are starting to come around to the side of the players. The NFL is one of the most ruthless of the major professional sports leagues. Players can be elite but be dropped in a heartbeat due to an injury. These injuries are also more common and more severe than in other sports, thus increasing the risk that players are taking. Playing under the franchise tag is an extreme risk for players because of how quickly their future contracts will evaporate.
A compromise needs to be made somewhere to entice players to play under the franchise tag instead of holding out. The best option would be for teams to add some type of injury guarantee into the franchise tag contract. For example, if a player were to play under the tag and suffer a catastrophic injury such as a torn ACL, they would receive some type of insurance or contract extension that would provide them financial security in the wake of their injury. Numbers aren’t exactly my forte, but one very high-level solution could be that if a player gets injured then they are automatically signed for the following season at 3/4 of the franchise tag contract that they played on. So for example, if Bell played this season and was injured, then he would automatically be signed to the Steelers in 2019 at a contract of $10 million. This is not an uncommon practice, as first-round rookies have been getting more injury guarantees built into their contracts over the past few seasons.
Teams need this compromise as much as players do. While James Conner has not been a bad replacement for Bell so far this season, Bell provides star power that can increase the Steelers viewership and revenue. Fans want to see star players on the field, not on jet skis in Miami while their team is stuck tying the Browns.
The NFL needs to adapt, especially if they want to avoid a lockout before the 2021 season. Their revenue has skyrocketed over the past decade. If they would like that to continue then they will need to keep their players happy, ensuring that their product continues to remain elite.
Until next time – B$