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The Franchise Tag Conundrum for NFL Running Backs

By: Mike Patt

Hello sports fans, and welcome back to the IE Sports Radio blog. July 17th was a big day for a controversial NFL topic. It was the last day for players who were given the franchise tag by their teams earlier this off-season to sign a long-term extension. Those who have not reached a deal on a new contract must play the 2023 season on the tag. There are three players who were impacted by this; Dallas Cowboys RB Tony Pollard, Las Vegas Raiders RB Josh Jacobs, and New York Giants RB Saquon Barkley. Yes, all three are running backs. Additionally, Jacobs and Barkley have not signed their tag, leaving their statuses for this year in question. Man, there is so much to unpack.

Let’s start by looking at what the franchise tag is and what purpose it serves. The tag was introduced in 1993, the same year the current format of NFL free agency began. It is a designation that teams may apply to a player who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent (IE team has no rights or control over the player’s situation). As part of that designation, that player is eligible to sign a one year contract equal to the average of the top five salaries at their specific positions. In the interest of keeping this article short, I will not delve deeply into the different options or structures for the tag. Long story short, teams get another year of control over a player.

From this description, you can see where the scrutiny comes in. Players do not have control over whether they are given this designation. What makes matters worse is that if a player does not sign the contract, he does not have the option to sign a different contract for the rest of the year. Essentially, it forces a player to either play under the tag, negotiate a new deal, or sit out the season. There is also the possibility of teams trading for a player with the tag, but that comes at a hefty price (usually multiple first round picks). What usually happens is the player plays under the tag, with the next most common option being the negotiation of a new deal. Teams do have the option of applying the tag to the same player multiple times, but each time the salary increases.

To no one’s surprise, this is not the first conflict involving the tag. Back in 2018, Steelers RB Le’veon Bell was unhappy at the prospect of playing under the designation, and proceeded to sit out the entire season. He would sign a new contract the following year as a free agent, but would never produce the same as he did prior to the holdout. His story is a tale to warn players of what could happen when you take this approach. Just earlier this off-season, the big drama was about QB Lamar Jackson’s situation in Baltimore. Thankfully, the two sides reached an agreement, but there was much media scrutiny over not only the Ravens’ approach, but the league as a whole.

Now we come to the current situation with the RBs. There are a few different components at work here, the first of which is the control teams have with the tag. The second is the current market value of the position. Teams are having more and more success with less and less at RB. Recent Super Bowl champions have managed to win it all without a high-priced back. Many teams have turned to cheaper mid-late round rookies to man their backfields. Its an approach that has worked, and the new trend is to draft a back every year or every other year and rotate through them. Better to spend your cap space on the passing game, which now dominates the league.

The third issue is the recent history of teams spending big on a running back. There are many examples of a back getting a premier contract only to have his career interfered with by injuries, such as Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliot, and Christian McCaffrey. Teams are working to offload some of these previously agreed deals, with the latest casualties being Elliot and Dalvin Cook. All of these factors make it a really bad time to be an NFL RB, and they can see the writing on the wall. Many players, including names listed in this article and some who are not, held a zoom meeting to discuss recent events. I assume they also discussed how they were going to respond as a group.

And in all fairness, who can blame them. The average career span of an NFL player is 3.3 years, and due to the physical demands of the position, running backs coming in the with the lowest position average at 2.57 years. Now, this does include every single player who comes into the league, so let’s get a little deeper into the numbers. The average career for a rookie who makes an opening day roster is 6 years, and this increases to 9.3 for first round picks. If you prorate the numbers given RBs have shorter careers, that equates to 4.7 and 7.2 years on average. Well, if you play out a 4 year rookie contract (5 for first rounders), and then get franchise tagged, you’re already near the end of the line. Yeah, I would be trying to secure a fresh contract as well.

When it comes to contracts, I usually side with the players over the owners. I have seen what teams are willing to do, how they manipulate the salary cap and find loopholes in the system. Players (normally) want to get paid their due when they have contributed to a team’s success. For the guys stuck in the tag conundrum, their play is vital to their team’s success. Tune in to Let’s Wine About DMV Sports with host Mike Patt on Fridays at 9PM EST/6PM PST. Be sure to check out all of the great shows throughout the week on IESR, as well as the live calls on our partner station USRN. Shout out to all you loyal listeners that continue to help our network grow. Thank you for reading, and we will see you next time on IE Sports Radio; your direct feed for ALL that is sports.

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