In 2012, 21 of the NFL's 32 teams used the franchise tag in order to prevent one of their key players from hitting free agency. At that point, the tag was as popular as ever, having been applied to 33 players over a two-year span post-2011 lockout.
Since then, the tag total has been chopped pretty much perfectly in half from 21 to eight to four in back to back seasons.
I understood why the tag total dropped off so much last year. It probably had to do with the stagnant salary cap, as explained here by Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio:
Even though the franchise tenders are now based on the five-year average cap percentage consumed by the five highest-paid players at each position, it becomes more difficult to give one large chunk of cap space to one player at a time when the total cap grew by only 0.5 percent in 2012 and 1.9 percent in 2013.
But the cap shot up by over eight percent in 2014, hitting an all-time high water mark of $133 million. Now that the cap has had a mini explosion, you'd think more tags would be applied. After all, teams can afford that short-term hit in order to protect themselves against losing key players. Fourteen teams have at least $20 million in cap space, according to Spotrac, and 23 have at least $10 million.
The difference might be that not enough key players are becoming unrestricted free agents. Henry Melton's elite, but he's coming off a torn ACL. T.J. Ward, Alterraun Verner and Vontae Davis are good, but are they invaluable? Are they worth eight-figure tag prices?
Now that we have a full grip on the cap within the relatively new CBA, more teams seem willing to roll the dice on letting good, not amazing players hit the open market. As a result, fewer teams are playing tag.
Something tells me the players are fine with that.