Franchise Frank Clark? Why it makes sense for Seahawks

It's been nine years since the Seahawks applied their last -- and only -- franchise tag, but that could change this offseason with Frank Clark. Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY Sports

The Seattle Seahawks are one of three teams that haven't used the franchise tag in the past eight years.

The streak may come to an end with defensive end Frank Clark reaching the end of his rookie contract after the best season of his career.

The window for applying the franchise tag opened on Tuesday, so here's a look at why that's the likely outcome for Clark, barring a last-minute extension, and what a tag would mean for the Seahawks and their top pass-rusher.

How they got here

It isn't for a lack of trying that Clark remains without an extension. His agent, Erik Burkhardt, told ESPN.com in October he's had "several very productive and positive talks with the Seahawks." He said Clark loves Seattle and the team wants to keep him around. They've just differed on the price.

Burkhardt made it clear he considers Clark to be in the same class as Khalil Mack, DeMarcus Lawrence, Ezekiel Ansah and Jadeveon Clowney. Mack set the bar for pass-rushers with an extension that averages $23.5 million. Lawrence and Ansah are set for big paydays after playing on the $17.14 million franchise tag in 2018. So is Clowney, the first overall pick in 2014, who played last season on a fifth-year option.

While Burkhardt declined to discuss specifics of his talks with the Seahawks, one could read between the lines and assume the team looked to extend Clark last year while his value was more in the $14 million to $16 million range. Clark's side, which took out a loss-of-value insurance policy, hasn't been in any hurry to do a deal knowing that more money awaits.

"I don't care if those guys were high first-round picks," Burkhardt said of the aforementioned pass-rushers. "I don't mind being quoted saying I absolutely put Frank in that echelon with those guys, so I'm not going to sit here and do a deal early and then watch in March when those guys get $X million a year and Frank not be in that range. Why would we do that? I feel like I have just as good of a player, and I want to be very clear, that is not a knock on anybody. Frank is on that level, and I believe everybody around the league will tell you that as well."

Burkhardt pointed to Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins as an example of a player who bet on himself and won after playing on the tag.

"Frank and I are not scared of the franchise tag," he said. "That's going to come in at about $18 million next year for a D-end on a one-year, fully guaranteed deal. It's what Ansah and Lawrence have done. They get that top-of-the-market value for one year, and 12 months later will get their long-term deal as well. That's winning."

Seahawks' tag history

Kicker Olindo Mare remains the answer to an obscure Seahawks trivia question as the last player on whom they used the franchise tag. That was in 2010, the year coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider arrived.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Packers and Texans are the only other teams that have not used the tag since. But there's a simple explanation: The Seahawks haven't had a reason to.

The Seahawks who were good enough to command the franchise tag, and the top-of-the-market salary, all got early extensions. Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Russell Wilson, Bobby Wagner and Kam Chancellor were extended with a year remaining on each of their contracts, meaning it never got to the point of the Seahawks having to use the tag.

Golden Tate, Byron Maxwell, Bruce Irvin, Russell Okung, Sheldon Richardson and Jimmy Graham are some of the best players to leave the Seahawks as free agents under Carroll and Schneider. But among that group, only Graham signed a deal elsewhere that averaged anywhere close to what it would have cost the Seahawks to franchise him (and in Graham's case, it seems that both parties were ready to move on). Tagging any of the others would have meant overpaying to keep them.


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What a tag would mean

It's effectively a guaranteed one-year deal that would keep Clark from reaching free agency this offseason, making him one of the highest-paid pass-rushers for 2019 and buying time for the two sides to work out a long-term deal.

The tag for defensive ends is projected to be around $18 million; the exact figures are typically released during the scouting combine later this month. That would be a significant raise from the $944,000 Clark made in 2018.

Of the two types of tags, the non-exclusive tag is more common than its exclusive counterpart. The non-exclusive tag allows another team to sign a franchised player to an offer sheet. If the original team declines to match the offer sheet, it receives two first-round picks as compensation from the other team. That scenario almost certainly wouldn't come into play here, as no other team is going to part with two first-rounders to give Clark a top-of-the-market extension, especially with this year's draft considered to be rich with pass-rushers.

The Seahawks could still negotiate a long-term deal with Clark if they tag him with a deadline of July 15. Otherwise, they'd have to wait until next offseason. If Clark plays the 2019 season on the tag, the two sides would be in the same position this time next year. One difference: By rule, a second tag would cost 120 percent of the first.

Why Clark is worth it

The simple answer: A top-tier pass-rusher is one of the most valuable assets in the NFL.

Clark, who turns 26 in June, had a career-best 13 last season. (Clark was initially credited with 14 sacks before the league’s official stats took one from Week 17, although he added another sack in Seattle's playoff game.) His 33 sacks since 2016 rank ninth in the league, and his 2,045 defensive snaps in that span are fewer than the eight players ahead of him, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Of the 21 players with at least 25 sacks since 2016, Clark's average of a sack every 63.9 snaps ranks seventh.

Interestingly, Clark's past two seasons weren't as spectacular in terms of ESPN's pass-rush win rate (PRWR), a metric that measures how often a pass-rusher beat his block within 2.5 seconds. His PRWR was 31 percent in 2016 and 22 percent in both 2017 and '18. That put Clark 36th among defensive ends and outside linebackers with at least 240 pass rushes last season.

One plausible explanation for the discrepancy, as posited by ESPN's Seth Walder, is Clark is simply very good at converting pressure into sacks. He also played through injuries to each of his elbows, among other ailments, last season and for the first time in his career didn't have Michael Bennett or Cliff Avril rushing off the other edge and taking some of the opponent's focus away.

At any rate, Clark is one of the NFL's most productive pass-rushers, and given that he's still in his mid-20s, his best football could be ahead of him.

Carroll is of the mind a team can never have enough pass-rushers. It's why the Seahawks drafted Clark in the second round in 2015 even though Bennett and Avril were still productive players who had recently been extended. It's impossible to imagine the Seahawks letting Clark get away now that they have less in the pass-rushing cupboard.

Carroll has made more than one mention of Seahawks' plan regarding Clark, indicating they would use the franchise tag if necessary.

"He had a great year," Carroll said after the season. "I've said to you tons of times, not only did he have a great year on the field, he had a terrific year developing off the field and has become really a complete factor on this team and a leader and all that. So we're hoping -- we plan on Frank being with us. We don't want to lose him, and so we've got to figure out how to do it."

Is a long-term deal still in play?

Yes. Teams can extend their own free agents before the start of free agency in March. The Seahawks could, in theory, skip the franchise tag, let Clark hit the open market and then re-sign him, although it likely would get a lot more expensive with other teams bidding. And as mentioned, the Seahawks could still extend Clark after tagging him, provided they do so before the July 15 deadline.

This is where the 120 percent rule comes into play. If the tag for defensive ends winds up at $18 million for 2019, a second tag would cost $21.6 million in 2020.

An agent in Burkhardt's situation would typically approach the possibility of an extension like this: If the alternative is playing out consecutive franchise tags worth a total of $39.6 million over two years, what sense would it make to accept an offer right now unless it has at least that much money guaranteed and an annual average of $19.8 million?

From the agent/player perspective, those figures become the benchmarks for a deal.