Allen Robinson contract: What franchise tag deadline means for Bears, WR

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Adam Hoge
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Where things stand between Robinson, Bears as tag deadline nears originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Allen Robinson sounds like a player willing to play for another team. The Bears sound like they have no intention of letting that happen.

“We want to keep our good players and Allen is a good player for us,” Bears general manager Ryan Pace said Tuesday.

This is a common situation for a player likely to have the franchise tag used against him in contract negotiations. There’s almost no chance Robinson hits the open market on March 17. There’s a good chance he’ll be playing for the Bears in 2021 with or without a contract extension. However, there’s also a scenario in which Robinson is traded because he refuses to play on the franchise tag.

With this is mind, let’s evaluate the positions of both sides, with context added as needed:

What the franchise tag deadline means

The Bears have until Tuesday, Mar. 9 to tag Allen Robinson. The threat of the tag – which players do not like because it decreases their leverage and long-term security – could lead to some last-minute negotiations. More often, it just kicks the can down the road, as it sets a new deadline of July 15. After July 15, a tagged player can no longer sign a long-term extension. At that point, they either play on the one-year deal, which is fully guaranteed, or they can demand a trade, giving the team one last chance to get a return on a player they’ll likely lose in the coming offseason.

In Robinson’s case, he would earn $18 million under the franchise tag, which is 120% of his $15 million cap charge in 2020. That number would represent a $5 million raise from what Robinson earned in 2020 (because his actual salary after bonuses was only $13 million), but it’s likely significantly less than he would earn on the open market.

Robinson’s position

Both Robinson and the Bears anticipated getting an extension done before the 2020 regular season began. That did not happen and Robinson grew so frustrated that he briefly asked for a trade after the first game of the season. Since then, there hasn’t been much dialogue, which is why a tag appears likely.

When Robinson signed a 3-year, $42 million contract with the Bears in 2018, he was coming off a torn ACL, which wiped out his 2017 season. Robinson was only 24 at the time, so by signing a shorter deal, he knew he could cash in when he hit the market again at 27. Both sides understood this and Robinson has done nothing but outperform his contract while also being the perfect teammate both on-and-off the field. He was the Bears’ Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee in 2019 and the offense essentially goes as Allen Robinson goes. That’s why it’s surprising a deal has not gotten done at this point. Part of Robinson’s limited leverage against the threat of a franchise tag is that the Bears don’t look great in not rewarding such a valuable piece of the organization.

“We have a history of extending our players. We usually find a way to make that work. The proof is kind of in the pudding with that,” Pace said. “But it’s a process. It takes both sides to work through that, and every one of them is unique … Allen has a really good agent that we’ve worked with in the past, and it’s a process. We’re kind of going through that.”

Interestingly, Robinson’s agent, Brandon Parker, is the son of the late Eugene Parker, who represented Alshon Jeffery when Pace placed the franchise tag on the former Bears wide receiver. Jeffery played under that tag in 2016, but left in free agency the following the season.

Parker has openly criticized the Bears on Twitter and Robinson has done multiple interviews in recent weeks indicating that his side is digging their heels in. In some ways, this seems bigger than just himself. He is an avid fan of the NBA, where players have a lot more control than they do in the NFL. There's been a recent shift in players fighting against the franchise tag by demanding trades and Robinson seems willing to fight this out. Because Robinson once again assumed the injury risk in a contract year and outperformed his contract, he’s almost certainly not going to take less now – nor should he.

The Bears’ position

The Bears’ position is that they don’t talk publicly about negotiations and they didn’t say much Tuesday. But it’s safe to assume Robinson was asking for more money than they were willing to pay back in September. The problem is, Robinson is almost certainly worth more now – unless a shrinking salary cap is going to suppress the market this spring.

That’s why it might make business sense for the Bears to wait this thing out, even if they look bad in the meantime. The Bears don’t have a lot of salary cap space to work with, yet they are on a determined hunt for a considerable upgrade the quarterback position – which would bring on another big contract.

Tagging Robinson would put $16.43 million on the books for 2021, but that’s less than Robinson is worth on an average annual basis. On the other hand, a contract extension would allow both sides to manipulate the money in a way that could actually lower Robinson’s cap number in 2021, which would give the team more space to add, say, a much better quarterback to throw the star wide receiver the ball. Both sides would likely be right in assuming that Robinson will be even better if he finally received the opportunity to play with a great quarterback.

As it is, both age and statistics make 28-year-old Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen a good comparison for Robinson. Allen signed a 4-year, $80.1 million extension with the Chargers last year that starts in 2021.

Is the transition tag an option?

This is an interesting question because the transition tag is a tool the Bears used to sign cornerback Kyle Fuller to a long-term extension following his breakout 2017 season. The transition tag would usually come at a reduced price of $14.269 million in 2021, according to OverTheCap.com, but in Robinson's case, it would still cost $18 million (or 120% of his 2020 cap charge). Under the transition tag, Robinson could negotiate and sign an offer sheet with another team with no compensation returning to the Bears if they refused to match.

On one hand, that could allow both sides to see what Robinson is really worth on the market, but on the other, it would also greatly reduce the flexibility the Bears would have in structuring an extension to best fit the team’s current cap situation. The Bears would have to match whatever offer sheet Robinson signed with another team to retain the wide receiver. 

Theoretically, the shrinking salary cap could negatively impact Robinson’s market, but there are still enough teams with an abundance of cap space (including Robinson’s former team – the Jacksonville Jaguars, who will likely have Trevor Lawrence at quarterback) that you’d think he’ll do just fine earning what he’s worth.

Given the Bears’ cap issues – and the fluid situation at quarterback – the franchise tag appears to be the more stable way to prolong negotiations and eventually fit an Allen Robinson extension into the books in the most team-friendly way.

“I know Allen wants to be a Chicago Bear and we want him to be a Chicago Bear and it's a sensitive process that we're kind of in the middle of,” Pace said. “And we gotta work through it.”

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