Last summer, I talked to Aaron Rodgers one month before he signed his record-setting contract extension with the Green Bay Packers. We were speaking in hypotheticals—I asked him what he would do if he were NFL commissioner for a day—and we arrived at the topic of player movement. We talked about LeBron James’s move to the Lakers, as well as Cristiano Ronaldo’s transfer to Juventus, both of which occurred around the same time that summer. What, if anything, did Rodgers think could be done to increase that sort of high-profile player movement between teams in the NFL? “I think I would not allow the franchise tags,” he said. “Because I think that gives the team a lot of power over your future, and they can tag you a couple of times. That, obviously, restricts player movement.”
Rodgers was guaranteed $98.7 million in the deal he signed later that summer—with the highest annual salary in league history—but like most NFL superstars, and every superstar quarterback, he never reached free agency. He had two years remaining on his existing contract at the time, and the Packers had the option of using the three franchise tags available to them to keep him under their employ even longer. Even though Rodgers had more leverage than almost any other player in the league as one of the best players at the most important position in sports, NFL teams have the most powerful contractual tool at their disposal, one that impacts every decision a star player makes.
The reason the franchise tag is relevant this week is that the NBA’s offseason is in the process of, to use a scientific term, dunking all over the NFL’s offseason, which has become an annual tradition. In the NBA, the transaction is more popular than the actual action, and the reverse is true in the NFL. How we got here is simple: For the most part, NFL teams hate any solution that would make their offseason as action-packed as the NBA’s.
The league office does not believe it has a problem with player movement because, well, NFL owners would much rather restrict it than change the league’s rules to facilitate it. The easiest path toward making NFL free agency as chaotic as the NBA’s is to eliminate the franchise tag. Without it, for example, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott would be an unrestricted free agent in March 2020, and DeMarcus Lawrence and Jadeveon Clowney would have hit the open market this season, where they would’ve been the best players available. Instead, they each received a franchise tag. Lawrence went on to sign a $105 million extension with the Cowboys in April, while Clowney will play on the tag this season if he cannot reach an agreement on an extension with the Texans by July 15. Eliminating the tag would have dramatically changed negotiations for every star quarterback. (Drew Brees, for example, has been tagged twice by the Saints and once by the Chargers.) It is also, and this is important, wildly unrealistic to think the NFL will ever agree to do away with the tag.
Most comparisons between contracts in the NFL and other sports are useless. An NFL team, in training camp, has about six times as many players on its roster as an NBA team does. In the regular season, NFL teams have more than three times as many players as basketball teams and twice as many as baseball teams. Because of this, strict salary comparisons are misguided. NFL teams find countless ways to bake unfair clauses into contracts for players who don’t have leverage, including contracts that pay players less if they miss games with an injury. The rookie wage cap tamped down salaries and subsequently led teams to shun many lower-level veteran players. But the more useful comparison between leagues is how they treat their star players. It would be ludicrous, for instance, if the Raptors simply decided they could keep Kawhi Leonard another season for the average of the top 10 salaries at small forward, which is how the NFL’s tag operates—a one-year tender that keeps a player from free agency with no promises beyond that. In fact, if such a device existed, it’s possible the Spurs would have kept Leonard and said too bad to his trade demand last year. This is the problem that NFL superstars face when it comes to player movement. It is almost hard to overstate the impact the franchise tag plays in a sport in which careers are short, and a genuine superstar’s peak is even shorter. It doesn’t always serve to disadvantage players—Kirk Cousins made a combined $44 million playing two seasons under the franchise tag with the Redskins—but it creates an artificial cap on their market value.
A first-round pick can, in theory, be under contractual control by the team that drafts him for the first eight seasons of his career with no say in the matter. A player can be tagged a total of three times after the duration of his initial four-year contract and fifth-year team option in a sport in which a player’s prime can last three years, depending on the position. As a result, NFL free agency has a bit of a fun problem, caused almost entirely by the tag, which ends nearly all hope that a legitimate superstar can reach free agency and test their market value in a league without a maximum salary, unlike the NBA, which limits individual players’ total earnings. Since the latest collective bargaining agreement in 2011, Cousins is the only healthy starting quarterback to walk away from his team while still in his prime, when he received a three-year, $84 million, all-guaranteed deal from the Minnesota Vikings in 2018. High-profile quarterbacks like Matt Ryan, Russell Wilson, and Carson Wentz all signed lucrative extensions in the past year, ensuring that they won’t hit the open market. The internet, which would be destroyed if one of them ever did hit free agency, remains intact.
This creates a sort of strange competitive landscape: The NFL generally has more parity than the NBA, but because true franchise-changing players stay put in the NFL, there is far less chance of the absolute mayhem we saw unleashed by the NBA’s free-agency cycle. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst called Sunday the most transactional day in NBA history. There is the stunning fact that 16 of the 24 NBA All-Stars in 2017 have switched teams in the three offseasons since. NFL superstars rarely change teams and when they do—like receivers Antonio Brown or Odell Beckham Jr. did this offseason—it’s usually because of some overly complicated inside-the-facility drama.
In a single day, the NBA completely changed: Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant went to Brooklyn, which will, depending on how Durant recovers from an Achilles injury, eventually become an Eastern Conference contender. The Warriors received Nets guard D’Angelo Russell in the sign-and-trade that landed Durant in Brooklyn. The Lakers’ trade with the Pelicans for Anthony Davis in June changed the Western Conference. Leonard’s decision will send further shock waves throughout the league.
During the NBA’s free-agency mania, ESPN’s Adam Schefter said he wanted the franchise tag to go away in the next CBA, which expires after the 2020 season. The NFL is by far America’s most popular sport, so this is about a battle for eyeballs in the offseason, for a few more SportsCenter chyrons and even more talk radio oxygen. The NFL can already dominate months of the offseason when there’s virtually no chance that Cam Newton can switch teams; imagine the fervor it would cause if he could. About 30 million people watch divisional playoff games, never mind conference title games and Super Bowls. The NFL draft is one of the highest-rated events in sports, and the schedule release gets more attention than many other sports’ regular-season games. But the NFL league office has never entertained abandoning its owners’ wishes (more contractual control over players) in favor of its fans’ wishes (feverishly refreshing your Twitter feed to see where Matt Ryan might sign as a free agent).
Jets linebacker C.J. Mosley and Lions defensive end Trey Flowers were two of the top free-agent acquisitions this year, depending on how you feel about Jets running back Le’Veon Bell, who skipped 2018 as part of a contract dispute with the Steelers after they placed two franchise tags on him, or new Jaguars quarterback Nick Foles, who wasn’t tagged by the Eagles. (Mosley and Flowers could have been tagged by the Ravens and Patriots, respectively, but both teams declined to do so.)
You’d be surprised by how many meetings there are at the NFL league offices about how to drum up more attention for the sport in the offseason. The NFL has done an incredible job of making the draft one of the biggest events in sports, and the combine is televised in prime time, but I have had long conversations with people from teams or in the league office about how they are trying to carve out more attention. You don’t become the country’s most lucrative sport by being OK with seven months of attention. The fix is obvious, but the path to that fix is not.