FAB 2. Will The Bucs Use The Franchise Tag On Smith?
If Tampa Bay can’t get contract extensions done for all three of its big soon-to-be free agents – middle linebacker Kwon Alexander, left guard Ali Marpet and left tackle Donovan Smith – the Bucs may have to resort to using the franchise tag for the first time since the team placed it on wide receiver Antonio Bryant in 2009.
With Tampa Bay only having about $10 million worth of salary cap room available – keeping approximately $4 million free for in-season signings due to injury – the Bucs may only have room to extend Alexander and Marpet before they hit free agency in 2019. Tampa Bay remains on Smith, who was drafted in the second round in 2015 along with Marpet, but may elect to use the franchise tag on him if general manager Jason Licht and director of football administration Mike Greenberg can’t get all three signed to extensions during the summer.
The franchise has only used the franchise tag three times since first placing it on left tackle Paul Gruber in 1993. Defensive end Chidi Ahanotu received it in 1999 followed by Bryant in 2009 and kicker Connor Barth in 2012. Smith might be the next.
Before I discuss why Tampa Bay might use the franchise tag on Smith, let’s discuss exactly what the franchise player designation is and what it means from a salary cap perspective.
An “exclusive” franchise player must be offered a one-year contract for an amount no less than the average of the top five salaries at the player’s position as of a date in April of the current year in which the tag will apply, or 120 percent of the player’s previous year’s salary, whichever is greater. Exclusive franchise players cannot negotiate with other teams. The player’s team has all the negotiating rights to the exclusive player.
A “non-exclusive” franchise player must be offered a one-year contract for an amount no less than the average of the top five cap hits at the player’s position for the previous five years applied to the current salary cap, or 120 percent of the player’s previous year’s salary, whichever is greater. A non-exclusive franchise player may negotiate with other NFL teams, but if the player signs an offer sheet from another team, the original team has a right to match the terms of that offer, or if it does not match the offer and thus loses the player, is entitled to receive two first-round draft picks as compensation.
So why would the Bucs consider using the franchise tag on Smith rather than Marpet or Alexander? The franchise tag is not position-specific in that it separates tackles, which typically make more money than guards, from interior linemen. The average of the top 10 offensive linemen make up the franchise number, which was $14.961 million for O-linemen in 2018.
The same applies at linebacker where all linebacker money – from 4-3 middle linebackers to 3-4 pass-rushing outside linebackers – is used to formulate the franchise tag number for the linebacker position, which was $14.975 million in 2018. There is no way the Bucs could franchise Alexander because the sky-high contracts of 3-4 outside linebackers like Von Miller, who averages over $19 million per year, as well as Kansas City’s Justin Houston and Arizona’s Chandler Jones, who are both over $16 million per year on average. The Bucs would love to keep Alexander in the fold for $10 million or so per year.
Since left tackles are typically the positions that drive the franchise tag number, it makes sense to use the franchise tag on Smith since he plays that spot. Some Bucs fans might feel nauseous over that notion, thinking that Smith hasn’t arrived yet as a top 10 left tackle because he still has the occasional lazy play in which he gives up a needless sack.
Yet making Smith play out his contract year and with an eye towards free agency or the franchise tag in 2019 could force him to focus on raising his play this season, which wouldn’t be a bad thing. Placing the franchise tag on Smith and forcing him into another “contract year” next season could be a really good thing as it forces him to mature and continue to step up his game before getting a lucrative long-term extension.
And if Smith falters this season or in 2019 if the franchise tag is placed on him, the Bucs are tied to him long term if his development stalls or he regresses.
So what would a long-term contract extension for Smith, a player who has never made the Pro Bowl or gotten much consideration, look like?
|Nate Solder||Giants||$62,000,000||$15,500,000||$34,800,000||$8,700,000||56.1%||2022 UFA|
|Russell Okung||Chargers||$53,000,000||$13,250,000||$25,000,000||$6,250,000||47.2%||2021 UFA|
|Trent Williams||Redskins||$66,000,000||$13,200,000||$30,000,000||$6,000,000||45.5%||2021 UFA|
|Terron Armstead||Saints||$65,000,000||$13,000,000||$20,880,000||$4,176,000||32.1%||2022 UFA|
|Tyron Smith||Cowboys||$97,600,000||$12,200,000||$22,118,013||$2,764,752||22.7%||2024 UFA|
|David Bakhtiari||Packers||$48,000,000||$12,000,000||$16,000,000||$4,000,000||33.3%||2021 UFA|
|Eric Fisher||Chiefs||$48,000,000||$12,000,000||$22,000,000||$5,500,000||45.8%||2022 UFA|
|Cordy Glenn||Bengals||$60,000,000||$12,000,000||$26,500,000||$5,300,000||44.2%||2021 UFA|
|Riley Reiff||Vikings||$58,750,000||$11,750,000||$26,300,000||$5,260,000||44.8%||2022 UFA|
|Duane Brown||Seahawks||$34,500,000||$11,500,000||$14,250,000||$4,750,000||41.3%||2022 UFA|
The highest paid left tackle in the NFL was former New England Patriot Nate Solder, who signed a four-year, $62 million deal with the New York Giants this year at age 30. The deal included $34.8 million in guaranteed money, including a $16 million signing bonus and guaranteed base salaries in 2018 and ’19. Solder, a former first-round pick, has also never been to a Pro Bowl.
Tennessee’s Taylor Lewan, a two-time Pro Bowler, surpassed Solder’s deal when he signed an extension worth $80 million over five years, an average of $16 million, which makes him the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history. Lewan will have a cap hit of $9.341 million in 2018, but that contract hasn’t been reflected in OverTheCap.com’s table above.
Solder’s $15.5 million per year average is now the second-highest in the league, followed by Atlanta’s Jake Matthews, who just signed a five-year, $75 million extension that will pay him $15 million per year. Matthews has never been to a Pro Bowl, and his new contract is also not reflected in the OverTheCap.com table above.
The next closest is San Diego’s Russell Okung, who averages $13.25 million per year. Okung, a former top 10 pick, has never made the Pro Bowl.
There are currently 14 left tackles earning at least $10 million per year with most of them never making the Pro Bowl. That’s not including some of the league’s better left tackles in San Francisco’s Joe Staley ($8.75 million) and Baltimore’s Ronnie Stanley ($5.12 million). That just shows that the going rate for a starting caliber left tackle is north of $10 million regardless of whether they are a Pro Bowler or not.
New Orleans’ Terron Armstead averages $13 million per year, while Carolina’s Matt Kalil averages $11 million per year. Armstead has never made a Pro Bowl, while Kalil made the Pro Bowl during his rookie season in Minnesota in 2012, but has not returned to that level in five years.
If the Bucs are looking for a comparison it may be Armstead’s $13 million per year, or Cincinnati’s Cordy Glenn, who was a second-round pick in Buffalo before signing with the Bengals this offseason. Glenn, who also has never been to a Pro Bowl, is averaging $12 million per year. But without enough salary cap space to sufficiently increase the salaries of Alexander, Marpet and Smith before the start of the 2018 regular season, the Bucs may have to overpay a bit by placing the franchise tag on Smith.
The offensive lineman franchise tag amount could be around $15 million per year in 2019, which might seem rich, but using the tag might be necessary to keep Smith until a long-term contract extension could be worked out. Using the franchise tag on Smith would make him the third- or fourth-highest left tackle in the league either ahead of Matthews or tied with him, depending on what the actual franchise tag salary for offensive tackles comes in at in 2019. And keep in mind that Seattle’s four-time Pro Bowl left tackle Duane Brown could come in around Lewan’s $16 million per season average when he gets a new contract before hitting free agency in 2019.
Using the franchise tag on Smith might cost the Bucs a few million dollars more next year and make some Bucs fans cringe in the meantime, but it could also buy the team time to see how the 25-year old develops over the next two seasons while assessing his true value before locking him up with a lucrative long-term deal.