Decision time is approaching for the Buffalo Bills in regards to Stephon Gilmore.
The window for NFL teams to apply the franchise tag opened Wednesday, and continues through March 1. The Bills have 23 impending unrestricted free agents, but the only realistic candidate to receive the tag is Gilmore. If the team wants to keep its top cornerback, and is unable to reach agreement on a long-term contract extension, it may apply the tag as a means of ensuring his return.
Doing so would come at a significant cost. A projection from ESPN's John Clayton this week put the cost of the tag on a cornerback at $15.095 million. Given that the Bills are entering free agency with just a shade over $21 million in cap space, a long-term deal with Gilmore that would lower his cap number would be preferable.
Here are a few refreshers on rules pertaining to the franchise tag, which has been in existence for 25 years, dating back to 1993:
• There are two types of tags – exclusive and non-exclusive. An exclusive tag means a team holds all negotiating rights with a player, and that his agent can not seek offers from another team. The non-exclusive tag means a player can sign an offer sheet with another team, but his original team has the right to match the offer, or receive two first-round draft picks in return if it chooses not to.
Both tags pay an average of the top five salaries at the player's position or 120 percent of the player's salary the previous year -- whichever is greater -- with a slight difference being that the exclusive tag calculates that top five through the end of the current year's restricted free-agent signing period (April 21 this year), while the non-exclusive tag averages the top five salaries from the previous season.
• The deadline this year for any players who receive the franchise tag to sign a long-term contract extension is July 15. If the two signs can't come to an agreement before then, a player's only option is to play out the year on the tag. A player can sign his franchise tender before July 15, and the two sides can still work a long-term extension. This happened last year with the Bills and left tackle Cordy Glenn.
• When a player signs the franchise tender, that amount becomes fully guaranteed and immediately goes onto a team's salary cap. If Gilmore were to get tagged, signing immediately would eat up most of the Bills' available cap space, and could motivate the team to come to a contract agreement that would provide more cap space, along with a greater amount of guaranteed money for the player.
• A team can rescind the tag, which happened last year when the Carolina Panthers used it on cornerback Josh Norman, but removed it when no process was made on a contract extension. Norman later signed with Washington.
• According to ESPN Stats & Information researcher Evan Kaplan, 47 players have been given a franchise tag in the past five years. That includes Glenn and Jairus Byrd, who got tagged by the Bills in 2013. Since its inception, the Bills have used the franchise tag five times, with Byrd and Glenn being joined by left tackle John Fina in 1996, receiver Peerless Price in 2003 and cornerback Nate Clements in 2006.
Kaplan's research showed that of the 47 players tagged, 22 played out the season, like Byrd, while 24 signed long-term extensions, like Glenn.
• In addition to Gilmore, ESPN's Kevin Seifert made a list of other players who could get tagged. It includes Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell, Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins, Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower and Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery, among others. Cousins and Jeffery played in 2016 on the franchise tag, meaning if they were to get it again they would receive a 20-percent raise from last year.
The day after the 2016 season ended, Gilmore spoke about the possibility of getting the franchise tag.
"That's their opportunity," he said. "I don’t think anybody really wants the tag. I wouldn’t want it, but it is what it is if it happens."
The downside for a player who gets the tag is the inability to realistically shop his services to all 32 teams, since it's highly unlikely any team would pony up the two first-round picks as compensation to try and pry a tagged player away. If a tagged player is unable to come to a long-term agreement and forced to play on a one-year deal, a catastrophic injury could prevent that big pay day from ever happening.
On the flip side, as long as that doesn't happen, that player can cash in after a tagged season. Byrd, for example, got a six-year contract worth up to $54 million from the New Orleans Saints after playing his season on the tag.
According to ESPN, a team has used the tag twice on one player 13 times since 1997. If Cousins were to get get tagged again, he'd become the first quarterback ever to receive it in back-to-back years, and just the third to get it two times, joining Drew Brees and Peyton Manning.
The Bills could also elect to apply the transition tag to Gilmore or another one of their pending UFAs, but doing so guarantees a contract that is the average of the top 10 salaries at his position and only offers the ability to match any contract offer he receives. Two years ago, the Bills signed tight end Charles Clay away from the Miami Dolphins after he was given the transition tag.