The first day that NFL teams may designate franchise or transition players for 2017 is Wednesday, February 15. The deadline is March 1. If the trend holds, about eight to 10 teams will decide to use their tag during that two-week period; chances are, the Buccaneers will not be one of them.
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Offensive tackle and eventual Ring of Honor inductee Paul Gruber was that first franchise tag recipient for the Buccaneers, though it wasn't exactly warmly received at the time. A contract dispute followed and Gruber sat out the first five games of the 1993 campaign after not missing so much as a single offensive snap in his first five NFL seasons.
Gruber had anticipated hitting true free agency after the landmark collective bargaining agreement in '93 had finally made that a reality for NFL players. However, part of the bargain in that agreement was the creation of franchise and transition tags, which were literally and originally meant to help teams hold on to true "franchise players."
The salary requirements of the franchise tag* are calculated by taking the average of the top five salaries at a player's position as of April of the current year. Alternatively, if the 120% of the player's salary from the previous season would be a higher number, he gets that instead. Cousins' figure is particularly high because he plays the game's most important and highest-paid position. Last year's tag for a cornerback, for instance, would have been roughly $14 million, and for a running back almost $12 million. A 2016 franchise tag for a kicker would have cost a relatively affordable $4.5 million, which helps explain why there has been at least one kicker tagged in the NFL in seven of the last eight years.
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(* There are actually three kinds of tags: exclusive franchise, non-exclusive franchise and transition. The exclusive franchise tag keeps the player from negotiating with any other team; the non-exclusive tag allows that negotiation but carries with it steep draft-pick compensation. The transition tag is less commonly used because it does not provide for draft pick compensation to the original team if the player departs.)
As the tags for kickers demonstrate, the purpose of the franchise tag has evolved over the two-plus decades since the first CBA. It is not necessarily going to be used to make sure that John Elway remains the Denver Broncos' "franchise player" for his entire career. Now it is more likely to be used by a franchise seeking to determine the best long-term approach to a free agent such as Cousins or former Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman. It is also an effective way to extend the negotiating window between a team and a key pending free agent. For example, the Denver Broncos tagged elite pass-rusher Von Miller last year and then subsequently signed him to a new six-year deal.
Could the Buccaneers add a player to that list? On one hand, the team does have a very lengthy list of 17 pending unrestricted free agent, and a clear desire to keep some of those players around. Six of those 17 players were starters for at least half of the 2016 season, and combined those pending free agents made 93 starts last year. Employing a tag would at least shorten up the to-do list for Jason Licht and his staff.
On the other hand, there isn't an obvious candidate for the tag among those 17 players. Will Gholston jumps out from that list as a player whose career seems to be on the rise, but his position would seem to make that option unlikely. The franchise tag for a defensive end is expected to carry with it a salary of about $17 million in 2017, and the transition tag will probably cost about $14 million. Those numbers are spiked, of course, by players with high sack totals. The New York Jets' Muhammad Wilkerson, for instance, got the tag last year after racking up 12.0 sacks in 2015. Gholston proved to be a very valuable player for the Buccaneers in 2016 and has improved steadily throughout his career, but his career sack total after four seasons is 10.5.
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Mike Glennon could be an intriguing name on the upcoming free agency market for teams with unsettled quarterback situations. However, Glennon would remain the backup to Jameis Winston if he returns to the Buccaneers, so he's not in line for the franchise tag and the unwieldy salary number it carries for his position. Similarly, running back Jacquizz Rodgers showed that he could handle a featured-back role in his first real opportunity to do so, but has too little history in that regard to warrant a tag. Running backs are rarely tagged anyway – only four times in the last decade and none since 2012.
Much of the rest of the Bucs' list is populated by valuable starters and role players – Joe Hawley, Akeem Spence, Josh Robinson – but no obvious franchise tag candidates. That doesn't mean this two-week tag window around the NFL is inconsequential to the Buccaneers, however. The decisions made by other teams with their potential free agents will help shape the market to come, and there is a good chance the Buccaneers will be shopping in that market.