2021 NFL Franchise and Transition Tags, Explained

Tuesday, February 23rd marks first day that teams can apply the franchise tag to free-agents-to-be for 2021. While no clubs have designated franchise players yet, there will likely at least a handful of players receiving the tag before the March 9 deadline, so it’s worth taking an in-depth look at what exactly it means to be designated as a franchise player.

Essentially, the franchise tag is a tool that a team can use to keep one of its free agents from freely negotiating with rival suitors on the open market. Designating a franchise player means tendering that player a one-year contract offer. The amount of that offer changes every year and varies from position to position. The number will also differ lightly depending on what sort of specific tag the team employs. Here’s a breakdown of the three types of franchise/transition tags:

Exclusive franchise tag:

  • The amount of the one-year offer is either the average of the top five highest-paid players at the player’s position in the current league year or 120% of the player’s previous salary, whichever is greater. The top five highest-paid players at the position are determined once the free agent signing period ends, so the exact amount isn’t known until then.
  • The player isn’t allowed to negotiate with other teams.
  • The player and his team have until mid-July to work out a multiyear agreement. After that date, the player can only sign a one-year contract.
  • The exclusive tag is typically only used for extremely valuable free agents, such as franchise quarterbacks.

Non-exclusive franchise tag:

  • The amount of the one-year offer is determined by a formula that includes the salary cap figures and the non-exclusive franchise salaries at the player’s position for the previous five years. Alternately, the amount of the one-year offer can be 120% of the player’s previous salary, if that amount is greater.
  • The player is free to negotiate with other teams. If he signs an offer sheet with another team, his current team has five days to match the offer.
  • If the offer is not matched, the player’s previous team will receive two first-round draft picks as compensation from the signing team.
  • As is the case with the exclusive franchise tag, the deadline will also come in mid-July.
  • Due to the attached compensatory picks, the non-exclusive franchise tag is generally sufficient for free agents. Few rival suitors are willing to sacrifice multiple first-rounders in order to sign a free agent to a lucrative deal, so there’s not much risk for a team to give up exclusive negotiating rights.

Transition tag:

  • The amount of the one-year offer is either the average of the top 10 highest-paid players at the player’s position in the previous league year or 120% of the player’s previous salary, whichever is greater.
  • The player is free to negotiate with other teams. If he signs an offer sheet with another team, his current team has five days to match the offer.
  • If the offer is not matched, the player’s previous team does not receive any compensatory draft picks.
  • Because it does not include any draft compensation or exclusive negotiation rights, and is only slightly more affordable, the transition tag is rarely used. However, it can be an effective placeholder for teams.

The exact amounts of these tags won’t be known until sometime after the salary cap number for 2021 is announced. Of course, this year’s cap is expected to drop from last year’s figure, though it will be no lower than $180MM, the agreed upon floor for the coming year.

This year’s candidates for the franchise tag include Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, Bears wide receiver Allen Robinson, and Buccaneers wide receiver Chris Godwin. Here are a few other notes to keep in mind as the franchise tag period gets underway:

  • A team can withdraw a franchise or transition tag at any time once when the free agent period begins, but it would immediately make the player an unrestricted free agent, allowing him to sign with any team.
  • If a player is designated a franchise player for a third time, the amount of his one-year offer is equal to the exclusive franchise salary for the highest-paid position (QB), 120% of the five largest prior-year salaries at his position, or 144% of his previous salary. That’s generally a non-starter, but there are no 3x-tag candidates in this year’s class anyway.
  • Teams are allowed to designate one franchise player and one transition player per offseason. A team can also designate two transition players if it doesn’t designate a franchise player, but can’t designate two franchise players.
  • Restricted free agents can be designated as franchise players.
  • If a player chooses to sign the one-year franchise tender, his salary is essentially guaranteed. The CBA notes that if a team releases the player due to a failure “to establish or maintain his excellent physical condition,” the team may recoup his salary. However, a franchise player released due to poor performance, injury, or cap maneuvering will receive his full salary.

Note: Information from OverTheCap.com was used in the creation of this post.

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2 comments on “2021 NFL Franchise and Transition Tags, Explained

  1. phenomenalajs

    Not sure if comments are allowed, but I believe there is one more rarely used tag – UFA – that was used last year by the Giants to sign Markus Golden for a 5% raise, I believe.

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