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Franchise Tags: Working as Intended, Even for Tight Ends

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Receiving tight ends get to stand on the shoulders of their blocking brothers, and get paid like guys who have to compete against the world's best cornerbacks every week.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

In an age where an NFL team is fighting to protect its own name, people are quick to use the word "discrimination" whenever they want to push a hot button and get others to pay attention to their argument.  And the NFL's franchise tag is not immune to this phenomenon.  In his article on CBS.com, retired tight end Tony Gonzalez wrote the following about Jimmy Graham's contract dispute as a franchised tight end:

I can think of a few terms to describe what's going on in the NFL like "backward," "lack of common sense" or "behind the times" but the one that makes the most sense is "discrimination." Salaries should be set based on production and contributions, not positions.

But salaries are, in fact, based on production and contributions.  If a player is good enough, a team will pay him to play for them.  And -- despite the former tight end's assertions -- there has not been discrimination against the tight end position.

Tight Ends vs. Wide Receivers

Any player who believes himself capable of being a wide receiver is free to shop themselves to NFL teams as a wide receiver.  Of course, if that player does not convince a team that he is capable of doing what is required of an elite wide receiver -- consistently lining up in the wide receiver position, and beating the best cornerbacks in the league -- then he's not going to earn a roster slot as a No.1 receiver.  Nor will he be paid elite WR money, nor franchise tagged as a wide receiver.  If the same player is breaking into the football scene, can catch the ball well, and can create match-up nightmares for safeties and linebackers who are less skilled in such coverage, he might be more likely to find a team willing to use him as a tight end.

So one could say that a receiving tight end is essentially a player who can run a route and catch the ball, but who didn't have the chops to make it as a primary receiver when covered like one.  And there's nothing wrong with that.  Any NFL tight end, whether used primarily to catch passes or to block defenders, is going to be a much better athlete than most of the people watching him play.  But if a player designates himself as a tight end, and signs a contract as a tight end, then he shouldn't expect to be treated as anything other than his designation until he runs his course in that position, through the contract, the franchise tag(s), and whatever else he signed on for when declaring himself a tight end.

The argument has been made that the role of a tight end is changing, and to some degree that is true.  Some tight ends are being used more as pass catchers than their predecessors.  And these tight ends are becoming more valuable to their respective teams than ever before.  And by doing so, they are driving up the average salaries for all tight ends in general, which is helping tights ends as a whole, not discriminating against them.

There are basically four reasons a team might assign a franchise tag to a player:
  1. The team may founder if they lose this player.
  2. This player might have one good year left in him.
  3. The team hopes to get a trade for this player.
  4. The team wants to lock this player up relatively cheap.

The first three tag situations are rather straightforward.  First, a team can't lose a guy like Drew Brees, but they are going to have to pay him well -- either via the tag, or a new contract -- to keep him around.  Second, a team may not want to get tied into a contract with an elite but aging player whom they plan to replace in a year, even if they are willing to pay good money to keep him around for one last season.  Or third, a team might not really need any of their free agents as much as they know another team is willing to trade for one of them; so they may lock a player up with the franchise tag and then shop him around to other teams.

The fourth category covers a number of scenarios.  If a team doesn't have any players who fall into the first three categories, they might use the tag on any player for whom they aren't willing to commit to a long term-deal.  Maybe they don't want to bother with signing a replaceable kicker whose tag figure is insignificant.  Perhaps they have seen flashes of brilliance from a young player whose rookie contract has just expired, and they want to give him another year to prove he's worth an extended commitment.  Or the team may wish to minimize the bargaining leverage of any given player whose skills are in high demand.  The franchise tag guarantees the player will be paid well for his position; but without the opportunity for a multi-year contract elsewhere, such a player may be more willing to strike a deal which benefits both parties.

Jimmy Graham may have been a combination of the third and fourth categories.

Although Jimmy Graham has proven to be an excellent asset to the New Orleans Saints, his production last year suffered for a couple of reasons.  There were multiple games during which the star tight end all but disappeared under coverage.  There is no guarantee that Graham's performance this year will improve, nor that he won't be injured again.  Regardless, it was clear that most teams would be willing to pay top dollar for the tight end, both in order to improve their own team and to keep Drew Brees from using him so effectively.  So the Saints put the franchise tag on him, to keep him around.

By using the non-exclusive tag, however, the Saints also sent the message that he was not indispensable to the team.  The New Orleans offense was among the best in the NFL before Graham arrived, and would continue to be among the best without him, if need be.  If someone were willing to part with two first-round picks in addition to offering Graham the kind of money reserved for Calvin Johnson, the Who Dat Nation would likely be wishing him well on his way to somewhere else.  But, unsurprisingly, no other team was willing to do anything of the sort.

So, with the franchise tag, the New Orleans Saints were able to remove some of Graham's leverage at the bargaining table.  And though they were willing to make him the highest-paid tight end in history, and one of the highest paid receivers in the NFL, they also didn't have to pay him like a top receiver if he was unwilling to agree on a contract.

Or did they?

under the franchise tag as a tight end, Jimmy Graham would have received about the same salary as Saints star wide receiver Marques Colston, and would have been among the top 5% of all wide receivers


Had he played under the franchise tag as a tight end, Jimmy Graham would have received about the same salary as Saints wide receiver Marques Colston, and would have been among the top 5% of all wide receivers in the league, in terms of annual salary.  More and more tight ends are making names for themselves as pass catchers, mostly because they don't have to deal with the same challenges as wide receivers.  But whatever the reason for their value to their respective teams, receiving tight ends are getting paid like some of the best receivers in the league.  And because of these more lucrative contracts, the franchise tag for tight ends is increasing every year.

Even if 97 percent of all tight ends are not contributors to their teams, and even if they were all given the league minimum, the franchise tag is based on the top five salaries for any given position.  So these high-paid tight ends are actually making it less likely that any tight end will be franchised simply to forgo the contract process.  Yes, it's true that the next highest-paid player for any given position will likely find themselves bartering against the franchise tag.  But this is not unique to the tight end position.

After all, had Calvin Johnson received the franchise tag this year, the $12 million tag figure would have been closer to Jimmy Graham's contract than to Megatron's current annual income.  And Jimmy Graham, while perhaps the best tight end in the league, and despite being paid like a top wide receiver, was no Calvin Johnson when matched against a solid cornerback.