If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are going to use the franchise tag option for the first time in seven years, they will have to do it within the next two weeks.
The franchise tag, which came into existence with the first collective bargaining agreement in 1993, allows a team to retain exclusive negotiating rights with one pending unrestricted free agent, or set itself up for a significant amount compensation if that player signs elsewhere. It carries with it a hefty one-year price tag that varies by position.
A player who receives an "exclusive" franchise tag may not negotiate with other teams; the "non-exclusive" tag allows the player to sign with another team but gives the original team the right to match the offer or receive two first-round draft picks from the other club. Teams also have the lesser-used option of designating a player with a transition tag, which gives the original team right-of-first-refusal on any offer the player receives from another team but does not include compensation if the contract is not matched. A team can use either a franchise tag or a transition tag in any given season, not both.
The two-week window for NFL teams to designate players with franchise tags begins on Tuesday, February 19, and ends on Tuesday, March 5. Over the last five years, an average of roughly six teams per season have utilized the franchise tag. Will the Buccaneers be on that list in 2019?
The one-year salary attached to a franchise tag is calculated by taking the average of the top five salaries at a player's position as of April of the current year, and it escalates if the tag is used on the same player in consecutive years. Last year, for instance, the price tag for a quarterback getting the non-exclusive franchise tag for the first time was roughly $23 million, while a wide receiver would have cost close to $16 million.
Tampa Bay has 15 pending unrestricted free agents, but most of them seem unlikely to draw compensation commensurate with the top five players at their position. Considering age, position and recent production, the most prominent names on that list of 15 free agents are linebacker Kwon Alexander, wide receiver Adam Humphries and tackle Donovan Smith.
There's an interesting parallel to Smith's current situation from the very first year of unrestricted free agency and franchise tags. The Buccaneers jumped on that option right away in 1993, using it on starting left tackle Paul Gruber. A first-round pick in 1988, Gruber had started all 80 games at left tackle in his first five seasons in Tampa; in fact, he hadn't missed a single offensive snap in that span. With Gruber's original five-year deal expiring, the Bucs gave him the franchise tag, which led to a five-game holdout but, eventually, a new long-term deal. Gruber is now a member of the Buccaneers' Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium.
Smith, a high second-round pick in 2015, has started all 64 games in his first four seasons, joining Gruber as the only two players in franchise history to do so. Smith's game-to-game and play-to-play durability is reminiscent of Gruber's; he has been on the field for 4,407 of the team's 4,437 offensive snaps since 2015, including 100% participation in three of those four years.
The franchise tag contract value for an offensive lineman this year is estimated to be in the $14-15 million range.
After using it on Gruber in 1993, Tampa Bay has only used the franchise tag three more times in the last 25 years, and the last time they utilized that option was in 2012 on kicker Connor Barth. In 1999, the Buccaneers gave their 1999 tag to defensive end Chidi Ahanotu; they wouldn't utilize the option for another decade before tagging wide receiver Antonio Bryant in 2009.
As its name suggests, the franchise tag was negotiated into the first CBA to give teams a way to keep a single "face of the franchise" type of figure around for many years, even as players finally achieved a true free agency system. Over time, it has evolved primarily into a way for teams to extend the amount of time they need to decide whether or not to make a long-term commitment, and then ultimately how to do so.
For instance, after the Bucs tagged Barth but before he signed the offer, the two sides worked out a new four-year contract. Alternately, Bryant followed up his outstanding 2008 season with an injury-plagued 2009 that would prove to be his last year in the league, so his tag proved to be just a one-year commitment.