He can't break free. Photographer: Stacy Revere/Getty Images
He can't break free. Photographer: Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Jimmy Graham has always been good, but last season he was exceptional, leading the New Orleans Saints in catches (86), total yards (1,215) and touchdowns (16).

His stellar season was perfectly timed: It was the final year of Graham’s contract, which means that he should now be an unrestricted free agent, soliciting bids from the market and commanding top dollar. Instead, the Saints have slapped a “franchise tag” on him.

Sounds pretty prestigious, doesn’t it -- like being labeled a “marquee star?” In a sense, it is. Each NFL team is allowed only one franchise tag. So, what sorts of benefits accrue to our lucky winner? Was Graham honored in a ceremony? Awarded a cash prize? Given a new Chevy?

Actually, Graham is probably going to have millions of dollars extracted from his wallet. Winning a franchise tag is like winning employee of the month, and then being told that the honor comes with the privilege of longer hours and no vacation. Due to this unwelcome distinction, Graham not only forfeits his right to test his value on the open market, he also loses the ability to negotiate a long-term contract when his leverage may be at its peak.

Here’s how the tag works: Franchise players are obligated to remain with their current team at a salary based on the average of the five highest-paid players at that position the previous season.

In Graham’s case, this is surprisingly complicated. The Saints want to designate him a tight end, while Graham believes he should be deemed a wide receiver. Because receivers are paid a good deal more than tight ends, the difference is more than $5 million.

A battle has ensued, which may ultimately require the intervention of an arbitrator. Much time and energy will be devoted to whether it matters more that Graham lines up next to the tackle or that his primary responsibility is to catch passes. This debate will help obscure the much larger issue: The injustice of the franchise tag.

Conceptually, the idea is presumably rooted in the belief that a “franchise player” should stay with his team forever. This is a childish, sentimental notion. It’s also criminally unfair. Once a player’s contract expires, shouldn’t he have some control over whether he stays or goes?

Even if you buy into the idea that keeping a player in one place for the duration of his career is a worthy goal, there are ways of accomplishing it without completely obliterating a player’s financial leverage. Consider the NBA’s Larry Bird exception, which at least forces teams to negotiate with players whom they want to retain (albeit at an amount up to the league’s maximum salary).

By contrast, the franchise tag is a get-out-of-jail-free card for owners. It allows a team to take its best player off the market for a year simply because it can. Is it possible the player will be even more valuable at the end of that lost year? Sure, but NFL players don’t have guaranteed contracts, and the average career lasts all of three years. Graham, who is 27, already has four productive NFL years behind him. His contract is up. There shouldn’t be a rule preventing him from signing a new one. He is no one’s property. Set him free.

(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)