The confetti from the New England Patriots Super Bowl parade is still being swept up from the snow banks of Boston, but the NFL is already making headlines again only a few short weeks into the off-season. Yesterday at 4 p.m. ET was the deadline for team management to offer a player their franchise tag. This is a one-year tender offer for an amount no less than the average of the five highest paid players at that position the prior year, or 120 percent of the player’s previous salary, whichever is greater. The tag is given to someone who would otherwise become an unrestricted free agent.
While there were not a lot of tags handed out, there were some big names being slapped with the tender for the 2015 season. Justin Houston from Kansas City, Julius Thomas from Denver, Jason Pierre-Paul of the New York Giants and Stephen Gostkowski of New England were all given the franchise status, but no name was bigger than Dallas’ stud wide receiver Dez Bryant. If he signs the tag he will make $12.8 million this season. Not a bad pay raise considering last year he made $1.8 million and statistically had the best season in team history.
In 2014, Bryant played all 16 games, hauling in career highs in touchdowns (16) and reception yards (1,320). Only time will tell if he can match, or exceed, those numbers, but if history tells us anything, it might be a long season in the Lonestar State. Since 2008 there have been 18 players in offensive skill positions given the franchise tag. While this move comes with high expectations, the majority of the time it has followed with major disappointment.
The last wide receiver franchised was DeSean Jackson in 2012. That season his production dropped by 326 receiving yards and 6 touchdowns. He also discovered fumbling that year. Before Jackson it was Wes Welker with the New England Patriots in 2012. His stats took a major hit as well, tallying 200 yards and 3 touchdowns less than the prior year. Being slapped with the franchise tag also forced Welker to fumble as well. The list continues with Dwayne Bowe and Antonio Bryant. The one exception to the Wide Receiver Franchise jinx has been Vincent Jackson who had his best year in the NFL while being the San Diego Chargers’ franchise player. In 2011 he put up 900 yards and 6 touchdowns more than the prior year. The one critical detail in comparing these seasons however, is that he played in 16 games that year compared to only 5 games in 2010, so his numbers should be much higher.
The running back position has often been a target of the tag, although some teams may look back and wonder why. Matt Forte is the only running back since 2008 with better numbers in his franchise season than the year before, and it was only by 97 yards and two touchdowns. He also played in 5 more games that season. Ray Rice watched his stats dwindle by over 200 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2012 and Brandon Jacobs saw his scores drop by ten in 2009.
There have only been three quarterbacks franchised in this time, Peyton Manning, Michael Vick and Drew Brees. In 2011 Manning missed the entire season after being tagged while Michael Vick tossed three less scores and eight more interceptions. Drew Brees had a great year before being franchised, then he saw his completion percentage drop 8% to go along with 400 less yards, 3 less touchdowns and 5 more fumbles. Brees did not cough up the ball once the season before that.
The only offensive player to be franchised in 2014 was Jimmy Graham. In a confusing off-season where Graham took his team to arbitration over whether he should be designated as a wide receiver or tight end, he pulled in 6 less touchdowns and fumbled twice. As disappointing as this may have been, no franchise season has been worse than tight end Marceses Lewis who watched his touchdown total fall from 10 to zero.
Now that we know the stat decline and the lack of production from the majority of franchise players, let’s look at why this has become a trend.
Whether it’s a myth created by the media or cold hard facts, players perform better when they are happy. That doesn’t just mean they get along with their coaches and teammates, but that they feel they are being paid their worth on the football field as well. Let’s not forget, players are always one brutal hit away from retirement every time they go across the middle for a pass. If you’re wondering why Bryant wouldn’t be happy getting a 700% raise, it’s because that number comes with a much bigger risk.
Two years ago Calvin Johnson signed an eight-year, $130 million contract. The next year Mike Wallace landed a five-year, $60 million offer. These wide receivers will be paid well for a while, not just for one year. Now that Bryant has the franchise tag bringing him the average pay of the top five wide receivers, he is right up there with other top earners Andre Johnson, Dwayne Bowe and Vincent Jackson. While it’s good company to keep, to be amongst the richest players in the league, Bryant had a season worth much more than theirs, considering they combined for only 5 touchdowns while Bryant had 16. How can he score that much more than a combined trio of high profile athletes, yet still be on the same pay grade? You can understand why Dez is not happy about this deal.
The other important thing to view while looking at the lack of production for the franchise players, is their health. A franchise tag is good for one season, not multiple. Teams do this to keep that player around for one year while they structure the rest of the team through the draft and cheaper free agents. If the player does not perform as expected, than the management will have all of the bargaining leverage in the off-season. For that player, the tag is a quick grab at a high pay, but it’s risky. If Dez were to get injured in week four or five next year how do you judge his market value in the off season? How can you justify making him the highest paid wide receiver in the league, or even history? It is hard to imagine a player of his caliber not running full speed or avoiding hits just to stay healthy for the off season, but you have to imagine it goes through his mind every time he gets hit in the knees while lunging in the air for a Tony Romo jump ball.
There is no doubting his talent; Dez is one of the best athletes in the sport of professional football. His stats this year are the best in Cowboy history and the reward he was given was one fat paycheck for the next 365 days. Then it’s up to him to do the rest. He will need to play well and be healthy this season to earn a big time contract next year. History tells us that it’s unlikely for him to match, or even come close to last year’s numbers while playing under the shadow of the franchise tag. It will be interesting to see if he can break the jinx and earn himself possibly the richest contract in the league this time next year.
While Bryant is not the only player, or even the only wide receiver, to receive the franchise tag this year, it does feel like he is the one with the most to loose this season.
Follow Pat Sullivan on Twitter @_PatSullivan_
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