A Gift and a Curse: The Repercussions of Using the NFL Franchise Tag

For player and organization, the franchise tag can be both beneficial and a nuisance.

Updated: March 13, 2019 • 8:15 AM ET

Both Kirk Cousins and DeMarcus Lawrence have been franchised multiple times.

Utilizing the franchise tag, a tool NFL general managers can use to lock up top free agents, is risky business. It’s a one-year partnership that pays the player no less than the average of the top five salaries at the player’s position, or 120 percent of the player’s previous salary, whichever is greater. The idea is that it helps both the team and the player.

The organization wants to keep the player on their roster for at least one more season, while the player earns a high salary and attempts to play his way through another outstanding campaign that will ultimately lead to a multi-year, monster contract. However, several recent instances involving the franchise tag should be cause for concern to NFL brass.

The Washington Redskins completely mishandled their situation with former quarterback Kirk Cousins. As a result, Cousins started for the Minnesota Vikings this past year.

In 2012, the Redskins traded a king’s ransom to the then-St. Louis Rams to acquire the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL Draft. Washington selected quarterback Robert Griffin III out of Baylor with the pick, but the fact that head coach Mike Shanahan pushed to draft Michigan State’s Cousins in the fourth round of the same draft was a bit of an afterthought.

Cousins played in just 14 games from 2012-2014, while Griffin was the NFL’s Rookie of the Year in 2012, throwing for 3,200 yards with 20 touchdowns and five interceptions. Griffin added 815 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns in his rookie campaign.

Fast forward three years.

A combination of injuries and poor play forced Griffin down the depth chart. Cousins emerged as the Redskins’ starting quarterback, a designation he wouldn’t give up. He threw for 4,166 yards, 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in 2015, while RGIII moved on to the Cleveland Browns and eventually became a backup with the Baltimore Ravens.

With Griffin out of the nation’s capital, the team applied the franchise tag to Cousins in 2016 and again in 2017. He threw for 4,917 and 4,093 passing yards in those seasons, respectively, but the Redskins doubled down by offering their starting quarterback below market value offers.

Their tactics backfired, as Cousins signed with Minnesota last offseason.

Elsewhere, the Dallas Cowboys put the franchise tag on defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence for the second straight year last week, and if they botch further negotiations with him, they could soon be watching him compile sacks for another team.

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The franchise tag allows teams to retain a player on a one-year deal, while also extending the time period to negotiate a new deal. If a new deal is reached, everyone’s happy. If a new deal is not reached and multiple franchise tags are applied to the same player, things can get testy.

In the Cowboys’ case, Lawrence is the best pass rusher on the team. He’s a team-first player, and the only black mark on his pro record is a 2016 four-game suspension for amphetamines. And with 25 total sacks and six forced fumbles the last two seasons, Lawrence may be thinking, “What do I have to do to get paid?”

And if the Cowboys and Lawrence don’t agree to a long-term deal by the July 15 deadline, Lawrence will likely be with a new team after next season. If that happens, the Cowboys only have themselves to blame. They only had to look at Le’Veon Bell’s situation with the Pittsburgh Steelers last season.

The Steelers tagged Bell for the second time last season, but the running back chose to sit out the entire 2018-19 season instead of playing under a second franchise tag. Consequently, he'll cash in with the New York Jets this offseason.

Reports are that Lawerence has already said he does not intend to sign his newest tag and may sit out unless a new deal is reached.

The franchise tag can create a happy marriage between both player and team. The organization is able to keep a pivotal piece of its puzzle for another year, and the player is compensated handsomely.

However, the franchise tag can also lead to an ugly divorce. If a team mismanages negotiations and multiple tags are placed, the player could become a pivotal piece to another team’s puzzle.

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