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The NFL franchise tag, explained

The NFL's window for teams to use the franchise tag opened Tuesday and runs through March 5. 

Beginning Tuesday, Feb. 20 through 4 p.m. on March 5, teams are allowed to place the franchise tag on a player who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent when the new NFL league year begins on March 13. 

That sounds simple enough, right? Unfortunately, there's a lot that's complicated about the two-week franchise tag window. Fortunately, we have you covered. 

Here's what you need to know about what can happen between now and March 5:

What is the franchise tag?

The franchise tag is a collectively-bargained tool teams can use on one impending unrestricted free agent per year. Players who have the franchise tag placed on them, and then sign the tender, receive a guaranteed, non-negotiable one-year contract for the upcoming season. 

There are two different kinds of franchise tags:

  • Exclusive franchise tag: This prevents a player from negotiating offer sheets with other teams, but costs more than the non-exclusive tag. The salary is determined by whichever figure is higher: The average of the top five salaries at the player's position during the current year, or 120 percent of that player's previous salary. This type of tag is rarely used – it hasn't been placed on a non-quarterback since 2018 (Pittsburgh RB Le'Veon Bell) and has only been used four times in the last decade. 
  • Non-exclusive franchise tag: The much more common tag. Players can negotiate and sign offer sheets with any team once the new league year begins, but the player's previous team retains the right to match that offer sheet. If they do not match it, that team will receive two first-round picks from the team that signed the player to an offer sheet. The last time a player who had the non-exclusive tag placed on him changed teams was 2000, when the Seattle Seahawks declined to match the Dallas Cowboys' offer sheet for wide receiver Joey Galloway and received two first-round picks in return. The salary for the non-exclusive franchise tag is lower than the exclusive tag, as it's determined by the higher figure between: the average of the top five salaries at a player's position over the last five years applied to the current salary cap, or 120 percent of the player's previous salary. 

The short version: Almost all franchise tags are non-exclusive ones, which cost less but carry a chance – albeit a slim one – that the player will sign an offer sheet with another team. 

The third option

Teams can also place the transition tag on an impending unrestricted free agent (under the new CBA, only one franchise tag or transition tag can be used per offseason; prior to 2020, teams could use one franchise tag and one transition tag per year). 

Like the non-exclusive franchise tag, players can negotiate offer sheets with other teams while on the transition tag. There are two key differences: First, the salary of the transition tag is determined by the average of the top 10 salaries at a player's position over the last five years; second, if a team declines to match an offer sheet, it does not receive compensation in return. 

Five players have received the transition tag in the last 10 years: Cardinals RB Kenyan Drake (2020), Bears CB Kyle Fuller (2018), Dolphins TE Charles Clay (2015), Browns C Alex Mack (2014) and Steelers LB Jason Worilds (2014). 

The short version: The transition tag is cheaper than both franchise tags, but teams don't get anything in return if they decline to match an offer sheet. 

Timing & extension window

While the window for tags is now open, only a handful of teams have tagged players well in advance of the deadline. Just three players have been tagged in February over the last six offseasons: Washington DT Da'Ron Payne (2022), San Francisco PK Robbie Gould (2019) and Miami WR Jarvis Landry (2018). 

Once a team uses a franchise tag, it has until mid-July to sign that player to a contract extension. If a contract extension is not signed prior to that date – last year it was Monday, July 17 – then that player can only sign a one-year contract with his prior club for the 2024 season, and cannot sign an extension until after his team's regular season ends. The same deadline exists one week later for players on the transition tag. 

Players can sign the franchise or transition tag at any point, locking them in to a fully-guaranteed one-year contract (with the possibility of an extension being reached before training camp begins). Players can opt to not sign the tag, as Bell did in 2018; teams can also rescind an unsigned tag, as Carolina did with cornerback Josh Norman in 2016, allowing the player to become an unrestricted free agent. 

Colts history with franchise & transition tags

The Colts have used the franchise tag six times since its inception in 1993:

  • P Pat McAfee (2013)
  • DE Robert Mathis (2012)
  • QB Peyton Manning (2011)
  • DE Dwight Freeney (2007)
  • QB Peyton Manning (2004)
  • TE Marcus Pollard (2001)

The Colts have the second-longest streak of not using the franchise tag in the NFL behind only the Philadelphia Eagles, who last used it in 2012 to tag wide receiver DeSean Jackson. 

In January, general manager Chris Ballard was asked if he's comfortable using the franchise tag or worries about the potential ramifications of it. 

"I don't worry about the ramifications, no, but it's a tool," Ballard said. "I don't want to use it, but it's a tool. If we have to use it, we will."

The Colts have used the transition tag three times over the last 30 years, too:

  • LB Tony Bennett (1998)
  • CB Ray Buchanan (1997)
  • LB Quentin Coryatt (1996)

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