Franchise tag keeps NFL players from making what they’re worth
Von Miller thinks he’s really underpaid and is willing to take a stand
Your boss walks into your office and says, “You are doing a great job around here. How does a $4 million raise sound to you?” I assume you would be overjoyed. So, why is Von Miller so angry that the Denver Broncos said the same thing to him by franchise-tagging him?
If you are like many casual NFL fans, you might think the answer is: Because professional athletes are arrogant and entitled. Maybe we are, but that is not why he is outraged by getting hit with the dreaded Exclusive Franchise Tag. He is rightfully furious because the Franchise Tag hurts elite players in a few specific ways.
The most common explanation for why players hate the franchise tag is the lack of security it offers compared with a long-term deal. The Franchise Tag is a one-year guaranteed contract and a multi-year deal would guarantee three or four times the money – in Miller’s case, that could mean $70 million in guaranteed money. Obviously, that is a significant amount of money, given the reality of career-altering injuries in football.
To be fair, most tagged players eventually get a long-term deal even if they play a year or two under the tag. So barring injury, playing under the franchise tag for a couple of years doesn’t hurt the earnings of some really good players. It can even have positive influence on the free agency market for some players. This year, Chicago Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery was tagged. Coming off of an underwhelming, injury-plagued season, Jeffery was not likely to warrant an annual salary equal to the $14.6 million he will make under the franchise tag. He will get another chance to have a dominant season and enter free agency next year.
In March, nine players were designated as their team’s franchise player. Two negotiated long-term deals before the Friday deadline, when they would be required to sign the franchise tender and no longer negotiate for a long-term deal. The threat of being forced to play for the franchise tag tilts the leverage in favor of the team, causing some players to accept contracts for less money than they would attract on the open market.
Rather than play for the franchise tender, Buffalo Bills offensive tackle Cordy Glenn re-signed with the Bills for $60 million over five years, with $36 million in likely-to-earn guarantees. Though the Dallas Cowboys’ Tyron Smith has the gaudiest contract of $97 million over eight years, it is not the best. The New Orleans Saints’ Terron Armstead and Washington’s Trent Williams have likely-to-earn guarantees of $38 million and $41.3 million, respectively. So, despite the fact that Cody is of their caliber, he earns less in likely-to-earn guarantees and per-year average salary.
In April, the Carolina Panthers mercifully rescinded the franchise tag they applied to cornerback Josh Norman, who went on to negotiate with the Washington Redskins for the richest contract at his position. Ironically, Washington was the same team who nabbed a Carolina’s tagged player 19 years ago: The Panthers took Sean Gilbert from Washington. Gilbert so opposed the franchise tag that he sat out the entire 1997 season rather than play for one season for $3.4 million.
Publicly, Miller is threatening to imitate Gilbert. Miller has said, “No, I’m not gonna play on the franchise tag. It just doesn’t make sense in any way.” He continued by saying of the franchise tag: “I’ve never really played for money, it’s bigger than that for me. It’s a leaguewide problem that I feel like I’m in a situation to help out with.” Maybe it’s just bluster, but Broncos fans should take him seriously.
Miller is a principled person who is not afraid to take an unpopular stance. His rookie season corresponded with the NFL lockout, and rather than be a spectator, he volunteered to be the only rookie named as a plaintiff in an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL.
He is, without question, one of the best players in the league and was the most impactful player in the Broncos’ Super Bowl season.
If Miller plays for the franchise tender of $14.1 million this season, he will earn $4 million less than players of comparable impact. While for some really good players such as Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins, the $20 million franchise tender he will receive next season is equivalent to what he would earn for one year of the long-term contract, but for Miller and other elite players, it is compensation deserved that they might never capture.
A possible scenario is Miller will get franchised this year and next because the franchise salary will be less than he would command in the open market. He is unlikely to be franchised a third time because the collective bargaining agreement calls for a 44 percent salary increase if a player is tagged three times.
In that scenario, Miller will make approximately $31 million in two seasons, then enter free agency and sign a long-term contract. Playing for about 35 percent less than he deserves for two seasons may not seem like a big deal to the average wage earner. However, he has been underpaid by much more than 35 percent for much longer than two years. Miller has been one of the top performers at his position for each of his five seasons. The Broncos have paid him an average of $6.2 million a year, when the top player at his position earned $14.2 million a year. So, it is more than reasonable that Miller would be offended that after a Super Bowl championship, his MVP performance in the Broncos’ Super Bowl win and five years of game-changing performances, the Broncos are still unwilling to pay him what he is worth.