Starting today, NFL teams will be able to place franchise and transition tags on potential free agents for the first time. While the window for franchise tags is open, most clubs won’t actually tag any players right away.
As our list of important dates for the 2018 offseason shows, the deadline for teams to assign those tags doesn’t come until Tuesday, March 6. Usually, when it comes to NFL contract discussions, deadlines spur action, so teams will wait until that deadline approaches to officially use franchise tags, once it becomes clear that they won’t be able to strike a longer-term deal yet with their respective free-agents-to-be.
Even though the action might not heat up for a couple more weeks, it’s worth taking a closer look at what to expect during 2018’s franchise tag period. The NFL hasn’t officially announced the salary cap figure for 2017, but OverTheCap.com recently projected the 2018 franchise tag salaries based on a presumed $178MM cap. Here are the expected non-exclusive franchise tag amounts:
- Quarterback: $23.09MM
- Running back: $11.72MM
- Wide receiver: $16.23MM
- Tight end: $10.36MM
- Offensive line: $14.54MM
- Defensive end: $17.52MM
- Defensive tackle: $14.53MM
- Linebacker: $15.47MM
- Cornerback: $14.88MM
- Safety: $11.08MM
- Punter/kicker: $5.06MM
(For a refresher on the characteristics of the exclusive and non-exclusive franchise tags, as well as the transition tag, be sure to check out PFR’s glossary entry on the subject.)
Here’s our look at the most likely candidates to be tagged, along with several more outside possibilities:
- Le’Veon Bell, RB, Steelers: Last offseason, things got pretty weird between the Steelers and Bell. Just before the deadline to extend franchise tagged players, the Steelers believed that they had agreed on a five-year offer worth roughly $60MM. Ultimately, Bell backed out because he did not find the guarantees and cash flow to be to his liking. Soon after, friend and former teammate Ike Taylor said that Bell wanted a contract that reflects his performance as both a No. 1 back and a No. 2 receiver – something in the neighborhood of $15MM per year. This year, Bell topped his 75 catch total with 85 grabs, so one has to imagine that his position hasn’t changed. Despite some retirement threats in January, Bell has indicated that talks are going better this time around. Here’s where things get interesting – the Steelers say that today (Feb. 20) is the “deadline” for a long-term deal to get signed. If not, they’ll go ahead and franchise tag him for a second consecutive season, leaving Bell with a one-year, $14.5MM pact when factoring in the 20% increase. Will Bell buckle and sign a deal that isn’t quite to his satisfaction? In theory, the running back could abstain from offseason activities and even reboot retirement talk in an effort to get the Steelers to cave and abide by the real extension deadline on July 16.
- Demarcus Lawrence, DE, Cowboys: It has already been reported that the Cowboys will go ahead and tag Lawrence to prevent him from reaching free agency. Once that happens, you can expect the cash-strapped Cowboys to get to work on an extension that will smooth out the $17.5MM cap hit for defensive ends. There won’t be much drama as to whether the Cowboys will or won’t tag Lawrence, but the subsequent multi-year negotiations will be interesting to watch. Lawrence had a rocky first three seasons in the NFL, but he stepped up big in his contract year with 14.5 sacks. The Cowboys must be willing to pay Lawrence like a top DE, but they may insist on protections like an easy escape hatch or heavy roster bonuses in the event that he is injured or suspended.
- Sammy Watkins, WR, Rams: As our own Micah Powell explained on Sunday, Watkins is a candidate for the tag with mutual interest on both sides in continuing their union. Committing major dollars to Watkins is dicey, however, given his injury history and his somewhat disappointing stat line in 2017. If the Rams let Watkins hit the open market, they’ll risk losing him to other teams with more wiggle room under the salary cap. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. And in a weak crop of free agent wide receivers, Watkins could clean up and leave the Rams without an obvious replacement.
- Allen Robinson, WR, Jaguars: Tagging Watkins will be a tough call for the Rams and the Jaguars have a similarly difficult decision to make when it comes to Robinson. Robinson played only three snaps in 2017 before going down with a torn ACL and he didn’t set the world on fire in 2016. However, his 2015 performance – 80 catches, 1,400 yards, and a league-leading 14 touchdowns – makes it hard for Jacksonville to let him walk. In theory, the Jaguars could re-sign fellow free agent Marqise Lee and let Robinson go, but Robinson is clearly the more talented of the two and one could argue that Lee’s late-season emergence was fueled by advantageous matchups. It’ll be pricey, but the Jaguars are suddenly in position to win and they can’t afford to let one of their best weapons bolt.
- Kyle Fuller, CB, Bears: Frankly, I’m conflicted on this one. I’m sure Bears GM Ryan Pace can relate. Fuller turned in a strong rookie campaign and an excellent contract year, but he was a victim of the sophomore jinx and an unfortunate knee injury which cost him his entire season as an NFL junior. Jason La Canfora of CBSSports.com hears that Fuller will not be with the Bears this year. But, considering that Fuller graded out as Pro Football Focus’ No. 22 ranked cornerback and the position is already a major area of need for the team, the Bears have to at least think about tagging him for $14.88MM.
- Ezekiel Ansah, DE, Lions: Ansah has performed pretty well over the last two seasons, despite playing through some serious pain. The Lions probably aren’t thrilled about extending a one-year, $17.5MM tender to Ansah, but pressure generating edge rushers like him are at a premium. Consider this: Ansah tallied 12 sacks last year despite knee, ankle, and back ailments. Only seven players topped that total: Chandler Jones, Calais Campbell, DeMarcus Lawrence, Everson Griffen, Cam Jordan, Ryan Kerrigan, and Joey Bosa.
- Case Keenum, QB, Vikings: Is one year as an elite quarterback enough to justify the franchise tag? Maybe, but the Vikings have options at their disposal, including two other pending free agents already on the roster. If the Vikings can’t retain Keenum or Bradford or Bridgewater with a reasonable multi-year deal between now and free agency, they can use their mountain of cap space to get involved in the Cousins sweepstakes.
- Sheldon Richardson, DT, Seahawks: The Jets had both Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson under contract, but they could only afford to pay one of the two defensive linemen. Clearly, they chose wrong. For all of the headaches that Richardson gave the team, the five-year, $86MM deal given to Wilkerson wound up being a monumental mistake and will continue to be an albatross for the Jets even after they cut him this offseason. The Seahawks gave up a second-round choice and wide receiver Jermaine Kearse to get Richardson – will they make the same mistake and let him get away? Perhaps not, but it would also be a major gamble to tag him at $14.5MM with limited cap space and other holes to address. The best course of action here may be to try and work out a fresh deal without the franchise tag as a floor for Richardson’s camp. If that fails and the two sides can’t come to terms, the Seahawks can at least collect a 2019 compensatory pick.
- Kirk Cousins, QB, Redskins: Team president Bruce Allen has intimated that the Redskins could tag Cousins in an effort to get something for him via trade. Could the Redskins be that petty when it comes to Cousins? Yes, absolutely. But the Redskins would be taking on a monumental risk by applying the tag to him when they already have Alex Smith penciled in as their starter. Cousins also feels that he has a strong grievance case against Washington if he is cuffed, so the Redskins could wind up hurting their own flexibility during the most important part of the offseason for absolutely nothing.
- Andrew Norwell, OG, Panthers: Heading into this week, our feeling was that Norwell was a very strong candidate for the tag. But, on Monday night, Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer learned that the Panthers are not expected to use their franchise tag on any player. Norwell, a former UDFA, has established himself as one of the very best guards in the NFL. This year, he set new personal watermarks in advanced analytics and graded out as the No. 3 ranked OG in the league, per Pro Football Focus. If the Panthers do not tag him and do not find a way to retain him before mid-March, he could be a goner. Old friend Dave Gettleman, who has roughly $24.5MM in cap space to work with, would pounce at the chance to add Norwell to the Giants’ offensive line.
- Star Lotulelei, DE, Panthers: Again, the Panthers are not expected to use the tag. If they change their minds on that front, they’d probably lean towards using it on Norwell anyway. With limited cap room to work with, Carolina will likely allow Lotulelei to leave while giving a larger role to 2016 first-round pick Vernon Butler.
- Jarvis Landry, WR, Dolphins: In December, Landry’s agent asked the Dolphins for a deal worth about $14MM annually with $30MM in guarantees. As of late January, the ‘Fins have not come to the table with a counter offer. The Dolphins could surprise us and keep Landry in place with the tag, but right now it doesn’t feel all that likely. The wide receiver has told those close to him that he doesn’t expect to return to Miami, so he could be in position to be the highest-paid wide receiver in this year’s free agent crop. A word of caution to Landry and agent Damarius Bilbo: Alshon Jeffery, Terrelle Pryor, and Kenny Britt reportedly believed that they were in line for $12MM/year offers last year. Jeffery and Pryor both had to settle for one-year, eight-figure pillow contracts (with drastically different results, of course). Britt got an AAV of just $8.1MM on a four-year deal, and that failure will be fresh in the mind of any team exploring Landry.
- Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Jets: The Jets reportedly offered ASJ a two-year, $8MM deal, which he rejected. The one-year tag ($9.8MM) is worth more than the total of that two-year offer, so it seems highly unlikely that Gang Green will take the plunge. Seferian-Jenkins had his best career year with 50 catches for 357 yards and three TDs, but the Jets reportedly won’t go overboard to retain him.
- Justin Pugh, OG, Giants: Pugh is perhaps the longest of the longshots listed here. He is included only because of the Giants’ serious need up front and the dearth of quality interior linemen in this year’s free agent class. In theory, the Giants could overpay to put a placeholder on him, but we don’t expect the new regime to go that route, particularly since he didn’t grade out well in his injury-shorted 2017. If the Giants want to apply the tag to Pugh, it will be interesting to see how he is classified since he has also spent time at tackle.