The National Football League's free agency process has now included a "franchise tag" option for a quarter-century, since the landmark collective bargaining agreement of 1993 took effect. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have only utilized that option four times, or about once every six years.
It has been six years since the last time a Buccaneer received the franchise tag. Has the time come again? That question will be answered definitively by March 6, though it seems unlikely that any Buccaneers will be "it" in this year's game of tag.
The two-week window in which teams can place franchise or transition tags on potential free agents begins on Tuesday and ends eight day before the market opens on March 14. The Buccaneers have 15 players set to become unrestricted free agents, including starters Brent Grimes and Kevin Pamphile. Other valuable 2017 contributors on that list include reserve quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, cornerback Robert McClain, defensive tackle Clinton McDonald and safeties Keith Tandy and T.J. Ward. None look like typical tag candidates.
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.
The Washington Redskins, for instance, kept Kirk Cousins as their starting quarterback for the last two years on consecutive franchise tags but never signed him to a new multi-year contract and now will apparently move on. In many other instances, such as with Arizona linebacker Chandler Jones and Carolina defensive tackle Kawann Short last year, players have received a tag essentially to extend the contract negotiating window and the two sides have reached a long-term deal later that same offseason.
Alternately, the tag is now sometimes used on valued players at positions where the one-year salary requirement isn't overwhelming. That explains how a handful of placekickers – certainly not the position originally envisioned as producing "franchise players" back in 1993 – have been tagged in recent years. In fact, the last time Tampa Bay used its tag was in 2012 on kicker Connor Barth, who then signed a four-year contract before that season began.
The Bucs' pending free agents don't really fit into either of those categories. 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. Cousins' two franchise-tag salaries amounted to more than $40 million. Obviously, no matter how fond the Buccaneers are of Fitzpatrick they are not going to devote that sort of collateral to a reserve quarterback.
( 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.)*
Grimes has arguably been the top performer on the list above over the past two seasons, but he has not yet indicated if he intends to keep playing in 2018. McClain, McDonald and the others have been valuable contributors as well but would not be expected to command a top-five NFL salary.
The more likely tag candidates around the NFL this year include Pittsburgh running back Le'Veon Bell, Dallas defensive end Demarcus Lawrence and Detroit defensive end Ezekiel Ansah. Those happen to be two positions at which Tampa Bay may be looking for reinforcements this offseason, so even if the Bucs are quiet during the two-week tag window, decisions made in other NFL cities could have an impact on the team's plans.
The Buccaneers jumped on the franchise-tag option immediately in 1993, using it on standout tackle Paul Gruber, who had just completed his fifth season and who had never so much missed an offensive snap in that span. His streak of 5,280 consecutive snaps to open his career abruptly came to an end, however, as the use of the tag led to a holdout that lasted five games into the season. Fortunately, the story has a happy ending, as Gruber eventually re-signed with the team, spent his entire 12-year career in Tampa and is now in the Bucs' Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium.
Between Gruber and Barth, the only other Buccaneers to get franchise tags were defensive end Chidi Ahanotu in 1999 and wide receiver Antonio Bryant in 2009. As it turned out, neither led to the player remaining a Buccaneer for much longer. Ahanotu played only two more seasons in Tampa (plus a brief return in 2004) while Bryant played only 13 more games for the Buccaneers or any team due to injuries.
Tampa Bay's entire list of pending unrestricted free agents can be found here, should you wish to look for a possible franchise or transition tag candidate. You probably won't find one, and this year's game of tag may be a quick one across the whole league. Last February, only five players received tags, only two of which (Jones and Short) later agreed to long-term deals. That was the lowest number of tagged player in the NFL in more than a decade, and 2018 may follow suit.