A dangerous game of tag — the Bears’ Allen Robinson quandary

GM Ryan Pace could buy time to negotiate a long-term deal with Robinson by applying the franchise tag. But he also risks alienating a productive player who embodies the culture the Bears cherish.

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Bears were ranked 26th in total offense.

Bears wide receiver Allen Robinson (12) caught 102 passes for 1,250 yards and six touchdowns in 2020. The Bears were ranked 26th in total offense.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Allen Robinson quandary — whether to apply the franchise/transition tag — is a paradox for Ryan Pace. 

Pace is as cool and measured and calculated as general managers get. He’s able to eliminate emotion from any equation, ignore the media buzz, analyze the pros and cons of a big decision and “do what’s best for the Bears.” While affable in his rare public appearances, Pace is the ultimate “business is business” guy. The franchise tag is just business.

But Pace also is among the biggest proponents of the cherished culture at Halas Hall that at times seems like the only thing keeping his ship afloat. Every team loves a great culture, but the Bears live it — from chairman George McCaskey on down. And Pace builds his team on a foundation of it. The Bears believe they become a resilient team by making it personal.

Those two philosophies could come to a head this week if Pace decides to apply the franchise tag on Robinson. It ostensibly would keep Robinson with the Bears for 2021. But it also would potentially alienate the player who most embodies the culture Pace values. Robinson has made it clear he disdains the franchise tag, preferring to stay in Chicago with a long-term contract he has sought since the end of the 2019 season. 

We’ll see what happens. The NFL’s 15-day window for teams to apply the franchise and transition tags to their own free agents opens Tuesday. The window closes March 9. If the Bears don’t apply the tag, Robinson would become an unrestricted free agent. The free-agency period begins March 15, and teams can officially sign players March 17.

If Pace applies the franchise tag on Robinson, it would be a one-year tender for $17.9 million (120% of Robinson’s 2020 salary) and would give both sides time (until July 15) to negotiate a long-term contract. 

If it’s an “exclusive” franchise tag, Robinson is bound to the Bears. If it’s the more likely “non-exclusive” tag, the Bears can match any offer Robinson gets or let him go and receive two first-round picks in return. With either franchise tag, Robinson has the option of not signing the tender and sitting out the season, as Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell did in 2018. (That gambit, it should be noted, has not worked out well for either side.) 

Pace also has the option of applying the transition tag, which would allow the Bears to match any contract offer Robinson receives in free agency. When Pace used the transition tag on cornerback Kyle Fuller in 2018, the Bears matched the Packers’ four-year, $56 million contract offer, and it has turned into a fair deal, with Fuller continuing to play at a Pro Bowl level. But unlike the non-exclusive franchise tag, there is no compensation if a team loses a player with the transition tag.

Pace has a history of signing productive players, including safety Eddie Jackson, nose tackle Eddie Goldman, defensive lineman Akiem Hicks and offensive linemen Cody Whitehair and Charles Leno. Robinson is arguably as deserving as any of them. He had 102 receptions for 1,250 yards (12.3 average) and six touchdowns in 2020, a particularly impressive season on the 26th-ranked offense in the NFL. 

But Pace is in a tight spot because the Bears no longer have the salary-cap room they did when those previous deals were done. As it is, the Bears likely will have to cut productive players or rework current contracts to get under the 2021 cap, which will decline about 10% in the aftermath of the coronavirus-impacted season.

In better salary-cap times, Robinson would be a player Pace could afford to splurge on — a reward for his production and consistency, for being a receiver who makes any quarterback better, for being a mentor to other impressionable receivers and a leader on a team that puts a premium on leadership. 

Pace’s failure to sign Robinson to a long-term deal is an oddity — though admittedly with Pace’s public silence on contract matters, you only hear one side of the story. And the franchise tag is a risky proposition for both sides. 

When Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery was given the franchise tag in 2016, Jeffery boycotted the voluntary portion of the offseason program, seemed ready to bolt the first chance he got and signed with the Eagles after the 2016 season — the first chance he got.

When defensive tackle Henry Melton was given the franchise tag in 2013, he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the third game of the season and never got the long-term contract he was looking for. He was out of the league at 29 after the 2015 season. 

The best value of applying the tag in Robinson’s situation would be to give time for the salary-cap dust to settle and find common ground on a long-term contract. That’s how this should work. But in these challenging times, nothing is certain. 

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