In 1993, Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” was the number one song in the country, Jurassic Park became the highest grossing film of all time, and the Dallas Cowboys would go on to win their second of back-to-back Super Bowls.
What great times those were.
It also happens to be the moment the NFL started using the franchise tag to secure the services of a player for one season at a price determined by averaging the top five contracts at that player’s position. Since it made it’s debut 27 years ago, the Cowboys have slapped the tag on one of their players eight different times, with six of them occurring since 2012, including each of the last three years.
The Cowboys have used the franchise tag for a variety of reasons. In some cases, the team has doubt about committing to a long-term deal and will pony up the heavy cost for a one-year rental to see if their performance is repeatable. But in other cases, it’s just used a placeholder to keep a player from entering free agency while the team can negotiate a long-term deal.
For Dallas, they’ve experienced a little bit of everything. They’ve even had two players where they’ve placed the franchise tag on them in two consecutive seasons, and both of those situations were quite different. Recently, the Mothership examined all eight of these instances to see how each of them panned out. Today, we’re going to cover them in a little more detail to try to get a sense if the Cowboys are on their “A game” when using the tag.
Before Tyron Smith was the Cowboys left tackle, the team relied heavily on Flozell Adams to protect the quarterback’s blind side. Adams slid to the second round of the draft due to a hearing impairment in his right ear, but he proved to be a very reliable fixture on the offensive line. But after his rookie deal expired, the front office wasn’t completely sold on him so in 2002, he became the first Cowboys player ever to receive the franchise tag. He played under the tag and got a five-year, $25.5 million deal the following year when Bill Parcells took over. It turned out to be a wise decision as Adams went on to earn Pro Bowl honors in five of his next six seasons.
Adams was so dependable that he earned a third contract in 2008, this time worth $43.8 million over the next six years. Unfortunately, an aging Adams became a penalty machine and he was released two years later in a cap-saving move.
Result: Good move. Despite the negative gains later in his career, the Cowboys were smart about it and got good return on their investment.
A second-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks in 2003, Hamlin looked to be on his way to a promising career. He had four picks his second year in the league, but his third season was cut short after being hit with a street sign during a night club altercation. He sustained serious injuries as he was taken to the hospital in critical condition with a fractured skull. He returned the following year and had three more picks, but concerns about his long-term health gave teams pause in free agency. The Cowboys finally took a chance on him and signed him to a one-year deal.
Hamlin was outstanding for Dallas as he had five picks en route to his first ever Pro Bowl season. The Cowboys placed the tag on him in 2008 as a placeholder before signing him to a six-year, $37.5 million deal at the July 15th deadline. As soon as the ink dried, Hamlin’s performance fizzled. He only lasted two more seasons with the Cowboys during which he had just one interception. He was a cap casualty in 2010 and played nine games the following year between the Ravens and Colts before finally calling it quits.
Result: Bad move. The greatness of the 2007 team created a false sense that their defense was better than it was. Jerry Jones jumped the gun on that one.
By the end of his rookie deal, Spencer had shown a lot of promise, recording at least five sacks in his previous three seasons. The front office still wasn’t sure what to make of him so they franchise tagged him in 2012. At first, it seemed like the Cowboys played it too safe as he went on to have a Pro Bowl season with 11 sacks in just 14 games. It appeared the front office’s reluctance to commit was going to cost them as his price was on the rise.
The team turned around and tagged him a second time in 2013, and once again - no long-term deal was reached. This time it turned out to be a blessing for the Cowboys and detrimental for Spencer as a bone bruise suffered in preseason turned into microfracture surgery after just one regular season game.
Spencer did return the following year on a cheap one-year, $2 million deal in what would be his final NFL season. He never started a game and wasn’t much of an impact.
Result: Good move. While the team paid nearly $20 million for the two tagged seasons, they ultimately dodged a bullet by what could’ve been a much more costly dead money hit.
After his rookie contract expired, it was clear that Bryant was one of the game’s elite wide receivers. He was coming off three-straight 1,200+ yard seasons, including a year where he set a Cowboys franchise record of 16 touchdowns. In the offseason, he was ranked 15th by his peers for the Top 100 players entering the 2015 season. The front office placed the franchise tag on him in 2015, but it was merely a placeholder to give them time to negotiate a long-term deal. And right on cue, Bryant signed a five-year, $70 million deal at the July 15th deadline.
Just as the Cowboys committed big money his way, things would go south for the All-Pro receiver. He suffered a foot injury the following year that caused him to miss seven games. A hairline fracture in his knee caused him to miss time the following season. And even when he was fully healthy in 2017, he just wasn’t the same Dez.
Some say that father time caught up with him as his athleticism just wasn’t the same and Bryant wasn’t a fundamentally sound route runner to win at the line of scrimmage. Whatever the case, Dez never eclipsed 900 yards receiving after signing his new deal, and he had the three worst drop rate seasons of his career. The Cowboys finally had enough and released him in 2018 with two years still remaining on his deal.
Result: Bad move. It’s hard to blame the front office considering Bryant’s body of work entering his contract year, but man - things went south in a hurry. Props to the team for cutting their losses and completely overhauling the position group so quickly.
The Cowboys loved what they saw in Lawrence so much that they traded away a third-round draft pick to move up and select the Boise State edge rusher 34th overall in the 2014 NFL Draft. For the first three years, it appeared as if the team had not chosen wisely as he wasn’t living up to expectations. In two of those first three years, Lawrence missed a total of 16 games from a combination of injuries and a suspension for violating the league’s PED policy. He only had one sack in those two years years combined.
But timing is everything, and Lawrence balled out in the nick of time, recording 14.5 sacks in the final year of his rookie deal. The Cowboys placed the franchise tag on him to see if his performance was repeatable. Understandably, Lawrence quietly signed the tag and went on to have a second-straight double digit sack season. It was clear that Tank was one of the most disruptive edge rushers in the game.
Just like Spencer, the team tagged him again the following offseason; however, this time it was just to keep him from entering the open market. Lawrence balked at this notion of a second tag and didn’t sign it. He also threatened to delay his offseason shoulder surgery needed until a long-term deal was reached. The strategy worked as he and the Cowboys agreed to a five-year, $105 million agreement a month later.
Result: This one is hard to judge. The Cowboys were smart to proceed with caution because Tank’s history of greatness early on was so scarce. The wait ultimately cost the Cowboys some extra scratch, but at least they can feel good about knowing they have a legit playmaker along the edge of their defensive line.
What is there to say that hasn’t already been said about Dak Prescott? He’s been pretty darn good his first four years, including coming one yard shy of matching Tony Romo’s franchise record for passing yards in a season. Prescott is just getting started.
He’s been the greatest bargain in football for the past four years, and now he’s on the verge of becoming one of (if not the) highest players in NFL history. Good things come to those who wait. The Cowboys placed the franchise tag on him in March to keep him off the market, but it is expected that a new long-term deal will be reached within the next couple weeks.
So, what is the Cowboys track record with the franchise tag?
First, it should be noted that waiting to the last second to finalize a deal is the Cowboys forte as they’ve gone down to the July 15th deadline whenever they already have their mind made up that they’re going to sign a player. And Dak falls into that category.
With the previous five players who have received the tag, there are two stand out bust moves - Bryant and Hamlin. It just so happens that they are also the only two instances where the player never had to play under the tag as both received a long-term deal at the July 15th deadline. This just seems like a coincidence.
In those other cases where the player did actually play under the tag, the extra time did present the front office with more evidence to make their decisions. The team paid a little extra in the form of the franchise tag price to make them feel better about their decisions. In some cases, it cost them a little more, but in another instance - it ended up saving them.
Overall, the Cowboys have done okay using the tag. It would be great if they could guess right and get some of these guys signed a little earlier to save some money, but that same strategy has also resulted in bad deals when they’ve guessed wrong.