Flacco and the Price of the Tag

February 18, 2013 | Thyrl Nelson

Joe Flacco and the Ravens have just about 2 weeks to hammer out a deal and avoid the use of the franchise tag and a continuation of the high stakes poker game that’s been going on between them for close to 12 months and counting.

In the lead-up there’s been lots of discussion as to whether the Ravens should assign Flacco the “regular” franchise tag, which comes with a payday of $14.5 million or so, but would also leave him able to negotiate an offer sheet with the highest bidder; or if they should give him the “exclusive rights” franchise tag at a cost of $20 million or so but prohibits the interference of other teams in the parties’ ongoing negotiations.

From a team standpoint, there’s big savings in the non-exclusive version of the franchise tag, but it could leave them vulnerable. While the Ravens would have the opportunity to forego the pair of first round picks another team would have to relinquish in signing Flacco under that tag, and simply match the offer made by the signing club, it would still put them in the awkward position of having another team negotiate the biggest contract in franchise history on behalf of the Ravens…and likely to their detriment.

While “poison pills” haven’t been an issue in free agent negotiations since the Seahawks and Vikings took turns hustling each other a few seasons ago, there are other creative ways that teams could choose to make life uncomfortable for the Ravens in matching an offer sheet. The new NFL CBA mandates that teams spend a greater percentage of their salary caps than ever before. Therefore it’s not unreasonable to think a team with a surplus of cap room might front load a deal with big upfront salary numbers, making the early years of the deal cap heavy and potentially deescalating their cap number over the life of the deal. The Ravens are going to have difficult decisions to make no matter what type of deal they reach with Flacco, but a frontloaded contract might be close to impossible for them to match. Additionally, the likelihood that the Ravens will have to match whatever deal a competitor might offer would likely compel that team to be a bit freer with the money as they’re not likely spending it anyway.

Those possibilities would make it seem likely that the Ravens have little choice but to bite the $20 million bullet and apply the exclusive rights tag to Flacco. That’s where things get interesting.

Keep in mind we’re talking about a quarterback who left (allegedly) $85 million or more on the table and $30-$35 million up front because he wasn’t satisfied that the Ravens were being fair enough a year ago. He did this in a season where he was scheduled to make just $6.75 million. If we concede that “Drew Brees money” was the goal, then Flacco risked everything over $5-$10 million up front and as little as $15 million over the life of a 5-year deal. In a season where he was scheduled to make less than $7 million, that was a $23-$28 million gamble or between 3.5 and 4.5 times what he was scheduled to make.

Fast forward to March 4th; if the Ravens assign Flacco the exclusive tender he’ll get $20 million guaranteed, even if he doesn’t make it to day-1 of mini-camp, as soon as he signs the tender. If he plays out the 2013 season under those terms, healthy or not, the Ravens would have to guarantee him an additional $24 million under any version of the franchise tag, or let him go to free agency. Finishing 2014 it’d be all but impossible for the Ravens to hang on to Flacco’s rights, thereby releasing him to free agency and a likely $40 million more upfront at the age of 30.

Let’s recap:
2012 Flacco takes $6.75 million leaving $30-$35 million upfront on the table to gamble over what amounts to another $5-$10 million up front and an average of $3 million per year over 5-years.

2013 Flacco is guaranteed $20 million just for signing his name, and $44 million if he remains a guy that the Ravens are unwilling to part with after 1 more season. Two non-disastrous seasons would put him in line for $85 million actual dollars paid just 2-years from today.

Brees, by comparison, got $40 million in year 1 of his new deal, will get another $10 million for year 2 of his deal ($50 million combined) and another $10 million for year 3 ($60 million combined).