Players wonder about the free part of free agency

Being labeled a franchise player sounds like a good thing. But those who get that label from teams are quick to disagree and are happy to explain why, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Originally Published: April 6, 2007
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Having had the free component to free agency denied by the Chicago Bears' decision to designate him a franchise player, two-time Pro Bowl weakside linebacker Lance Briggs has been vocal in recent weeks about wanting to have the restrictive marker rescinded.

Or about being traded, or released, or sitting out the first 10 games of the 2007 season.

Earlier this week, another franchise player, New England cornerback Asante Samuel, who tied for the league lead with 10 interceptions in 2006, aired his grievances about the lack of progress in contract negotiations. And he trotted out his trade demand on The NFL Network, a media entity essentially subsidized in part by Patriots owner Bob Kraft.

So who's next to air some dirty laundry? Take your pick.

Asante Samuel
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesAsante Samuel has not been shy about voicing his displeasure with being saddled with the franchise tag.
There are five other franchise players around the league -- Seattle kicker Josh Brown, defensive ends Dwight Freeney of Indianapolis, Charles Grant of New Orleans and Justin Smith of Cincinnati, and Detroit defensive tackle Cory Redding -- from whom teams and fans have yet to hear complaints about their status.

But rest assured, they will raise their voices, too. And probably soon.

Because it's cryin' time again for franchise players, that juncture of the signing period by which they have watched lesser veterans not constricted by the detested designation land fat contracts with guarantees exceeding $20 million. And if there is one thing more guaranteed than the fact NFL owners annually will throw good money at guys who frequently wind up as bad investments, it's that those who consider themselves aggrieved because they didn't enjoy full free agency privileges don't stay quiet long.

Not being a totally free agent, after all, doesn't preclude freedom of speech.

"The system [stinks]," said Seattle Seahawks seven-time Pro Bowl left offensive tackle Walter Jones, designated three straight years, 2002-2004, as a franchise player. "Maybe when it was invented, it was good, I don't know. Teams tell you how much you should be flattered that they think enough of you to make you their franchise guy. It's like their attitude is that they're doing you a favor. You know, like, 'How could you not be thrilled to get a guarantee that averages what the top five players at your position are making?' But it's not a thriller. No way. It's a killer watching all the deals get signed with huge bonuses and you're not getting the big money upfront. [It's a] lousy system."

Few played the system, albeit unhappily, better than Jones. He skipped training camp and offseason workouts for three years and signed the one-year franchise qualifying offer for three straight seasons for salaries totaling nearly $20 million. Not until 2005, when agent Roosevelt Barnes and Seahawks officials were able to strike an accord on a multi-year contract that made Jones one of the highest-paid blockers in league history, did the parties finally eschew their inexplicable year-by-year arrangement.

Coincidence or not, the Seahawks, able to prepare for the 2005 season with Jones having been in camp that summer, made their first Super Bowl appearance. Not by happenstance, of course, Jones earned a signing bonus on the multi-year deal that of itself nearly equaled the total compensation from his three one-year contracts combined.

"That's the part that drives the [franchise-designated players] crazy," Barnes said. "Sooner or later, they get their money. But they want it to be all about the sooner, not the later. The owners can put whatever pretty name on it they want: 'Franchise player. Superstar. Elite player.' Fancy titles don't pay the bills. The franchise money is a one-year guarantee. And in a league where a lot of guys don't even last five years, that isn't enough. So they treat the franchise tag like it's a fatal disease or something. They don't want the risk involved."

That risk is, of course, that the player will sign the one-year qualifying offer, suffer a career-ending injury and be forced from the game never really having cashed in on the benefits of unfettered free agency. Actually, no one can cite a franchise player to whom that has ever occurred. But the mere potential for such physical and fiscal catastrophe is sufficient reason, apparently, for virtually all players to disdain the franchise label.

Indeed, what was designed as a tag that was supposed to be the crowning glory of a player's career -- one that would elevate him to a special status and, at the same time, allow his team a mechanism for maintaining him -- has become a curse.

And not only for the players involved.

Because of the characteristic acrimony involved, an inherent by-product in virtually every franchise case now, teams have to think long and hard about applying the marker. There are implications on the field, sometimes in the locker room, and obviously on a club's salary cap, although recent increases in the spending limit have diminished some of the pinch.

In the early 1990s, when the NFL and the NFL Players Association were hammering out the framework for a new collective bargaining agreement, some owners, such as Al Davis of Oakland, actually wanted teams to have multiple franchise designations. His rationale was that no team could afford to lose one or two of its superstar performers and by designating the top guys as franchise players stability would be maintained. Davis figured the players involved would be satisfied because they'd be rich.

But revenues have escalated salaries and raised the franchise qualifying offers -- only three of the 11 position categories recognized by the CBA carry franchise qualifying offers of less than $6.7 million -- and players can score bigger contracts in free agency auctions. Even for teams, having one franchise marker available has become one too many.

The other evolution that has affected the use of franchise tags: Teams have grown wiser in how they spend their money and concentrate more on retaining their own nucleus veterans. They don't see free agency as a potential panacea.

"It's a critical decision," said Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay, who has predicted that Freeney will sign a long-term contract at some point in the offseason. "[It's] one of those deals where you take all the angles, not just the money, under advisement. But ultimately, let's face it, the thing is usually coming down to money anyway."

This year, it probably won't come down to big-money decisions on franchise players until mid-July. Under the former terms, there was a four-month moratorium of sorts, from mid-March until mid-July, during which the rules all but forbade the practicality of signing a franchise player to a long-term deal. The latest collective bargaining agreement stipulates that any contract signed by a franchise player after July 16 can be only a one-year deal.

So at least, with most franchise players and the teams by whom they are employed, there has been some negotiating. Unless there is progress on some fronts soon, though, other franchise players will join Briggs and Asante as offering monologues on their individual plights.

For most league players, financially upward mobility comes in the form of mobility, period. Or, quite simply, the chance to gauge their value while operating in an open market. The franchise marker, and to a lesser extent the occasionally used transition label, stifles such open trade and, in their minds, blunts the market.

Briggs simply could sign the one-year qualifying offer, return to the Bears, and bank a cool, guaranteed $7.2 million for 2006. But that's barely one-third of the $20 million in guarantees the Miami Dolphins rewarded former Pittsburgh linebacker Joey Porter, a former Pro Bowl player who is in decline, in trouble with the law after allegedly assaulting Cincinnati Bengals offensive tackle Levi Jones and isn't regarded in Briggs' class.

The guarantee on the one-year qualifying offer for Samuel, a former fourth-round pick who has unquestionably outplayed his draft status, is $7.79 million. That's a lot of money for a player who mostly has earned minimum-salary paychecks during his four NFL seasons. Until, that is, Samuel considers the guaranteed money that unrestricted free-agent cornerback Nate Clements received from the San Francisco 49ers this spring (an eight-year, $80 million contract that includes $22 million in guarantees). Or the money involved in the new contract extension cornerback Dre Bly signed with Denver last week (a five-year, $33 million deal that includes $18 million in bonus money, $16 million guaranteed).

His breakout 2006 performance notwithstanding, Samuels isn't yet considered by personnel evaluators in the same class as Bly or Clements. That doesn't mean, however, those two elite cornerbacks should earn double or triple his guaranteed money.

"My patience has run out," Samuels told The NFL Network. "Business is business."

And, it seems, griping about the franchise tag has become part of the business of being tagged with the marker.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.