The NFL Franchise Tag and Its Affect on Drew Brees’ Career

By:  John Fabiano, Ruling Sports Intern (Email:  fabiano5180@gmail.com)

The reaction from a player slapped with their NFL team’s franchise tag is often predictable: they are probably not going to be happy about it.  Becoming one of the highest paid players at their position is not what the player is upset about, but rather, it is the lack of contractual security in a league where one big hit can end a player’s career.

Each league year, teams are allowed to designate one player who would otherwise become an unrestricted free agent as their franchise player.  There are two types of franchise tags that can be applied:  the nonexclusive franchise tender and the exclusive franchise tender. 

Under the nonexclusive franchise tender, a team must pay a player the average of the five largest prior years’ salaries at that player’s position or 120% of the player’s prior year salary, whichever is greater.  Under a nonexclusive franchise tag, a player is free to negotiate with any other team.  In the event that the player agrees to a deal with another team, his original team is given a chance to match the offer sheet.  If they do not, they will be compensated with two first round picks from the player’s new team. 

Under the much more commonly used exclusive franchise tender, the team must pay the average of the five largest salaries for that league year of players at his position or 120% of the player’s prior year salary, whichever is greater.  Under the exclusive franchise tag, no other teams are allowed to negotiate with the player, and the player’s current team is given until July 15th to work out a multi-year deal.

Drew Brees has plenty of experience with the franchise tag and its pitfalls.  In 2005, he was slapped with the team’s nonexclusive franchise tag and paid a salary of $8.078 million.  Although he had the ability to negotiate with other teams, he played out the season with the Chargers.  In the last game of the season, Brees suffered a hit to his shoulder that completely tore his labrum and doctors gave his a 25% chance of ever playing football again.  After months of strenuous rehab, he hit the free agent market and received little interest, as most teams did not believe that he would ever be the same quarterback.  The Saints were a team that had faith in Brees and subsequently, signed him to a 6 year $60 million contract.

Flash forward to 2012.  The evidence shows that the Saints’ investment has paid off.  However, Drew Brees has been tagged again as his team’s franchise player.  He has shown his displeasure with being tagged by missing all of the team’s voluntary workouts thus far.  An action like this is even more telling of Brees’ feelings, when it comes from the guy that planned all of the team’s workouts during last year’s lockout.   

Last Tuesday, the NFLPA asked an arbitrator to decide if Brees has been hit with a franchise tag for the second time.  This filing could be a sign that the two sides are working out a long-term deal.  There is no denying that Drew Brees has had the franchise tag placed on him twice in his career.  However, the language of the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement Article 10 Section (2)(b) reads, “Any Club that designates a player as a Franchise Player for the third time…”  Here, it is possible that because the section starts with, “Any club who designates a player” rather than, “Any player who is designated,” the arbitrator may determine that this is the first time Brees has been hit with the franchise tag.  Such a finding would be because it is the first time he has been franchised by the Saints organization.

However, if it is decided that Brees has been franchised for a second time, it could increase his agent’s negotiating power.  If a team franchises a player a third time, the price tag on his franchise tender is 144% of his salary from the previous year, rather than the 120% increase that would occur if the arbitrator determines that this is only the first time he has been tagged.  Brees’ current tag has a value of $16.371 million, so a 144% increase would put next year’s tag at $23,574,240.  If the arbitrator agrees that this is the second time Brees has been tagged then his agent, Tom Condon, can argue that his value over the next two years (if tagged both years) is higher with an average salary at $20,072,620 per year compared to the average of $18,008,100 per year if it is determined that this was the first time he was tagged. 

Whatever results from the arbitration hearing, it is a good sign that the two sides are at least negotiating a new contract.  The Saints have had a terrible offseason and could use a positive distraction to help win back their fan base.  Signing their most talented and beloved “Franchise Player” is exactly what the team needs to get back on track.

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