A valuable tool for teams to keep top free agents off the market, the franchise tag has been in existence since 1993. This week brought the opening of the 2024 tag window. Clubs have until 3pm CT on March 5 to apply tags. As the Giants’ situation showed last year, most of the tag-related business comes near the close of this window. Teams will continue to work toward re-signing their respective tag candidates, thus preventing a lofty franchise tender from hitting their cap sheet.
The legal tampering period opens March 11, with the new league year (and official free agency) starting March 13. Once a player is tagged, he has until July 15 to sign an extension with his respective team. Absent an extension agreement by that date, the player must play the 2023 season on the tag (or go the Le’Veon Bell/Dan Williams/Sean Gilbert route, passing on guaranteed money and skipping the season).
High-profile free agents remain weeks away from hitting the market. As PFR’s tag recipients list shows, a handful of players are prevented from taking their services to free agency each year. This year looks to present a few more tag candidates compared to 2023. With a handful of teams determining if they will need to use the tag to prevent a free agency path, here are the players who figure to be tagged or at least generate conversations about being franchised ahead of the March 5 deadline:
Josh Allen, OLB (Jaguars)
Tag cost: $24MM
GM Trent Baalke did not leave much suspense when he addressed Allen’s future last month. The veteran exec said the 2019 first-round pick will be a Jaguar in 2024, indicating the team would use its franchise tag if necessary. The Jaguars do have Calvin Ridley as a free agent, but the team would owe the Falcons a 2024 second-round pick if it extended the wide receiver’s contract before the start of the league year. The second pick sent to Atlanta will only be a third-rounder if Jacksonville lets Ridley hit free agency. It makes more sense for Jacksonville to circle back to Ridley after allowing him to test the market. An Allen tag effectively ensures that will happen.
Timing his sack breakthrough well, Allen registered a Jags-record 17.5 during his contract year. The five-year Jaguar has combined for 55 QB hits over the past two seasons and ranks top 10 in pressures over the past three. The tag regularly keeps top edge rushers from hitting free agency, and the 26-year-old pass rusher — while obviously wanting to be paid what he’s worth — expressed a desire to stay in Jacksonville long term.
The Jags have regularly unholstered their tag during the 2020s, cuffing Yannick Ngakoue in 2020 and then keeping Cam Robinson off the 2021 and ’22 markets. The team kept Evan Engram out of free agency last year. Robinson signed an extension in 2022, and the Jags re-upped Engram last July. The Ngakoue situation could be notable, as the edge rusher became disgruntled with the Jags and was eventually traded to the Vikings that summer. No signs of that level of trouble are brewing with Allen yet.
Jaylon Johnson, CB (Bears)
Tag cost: $19.8MM
Johnson is likely to become the first franchise-tagged cornerback since the Rams kept Trumaine Johnson off the 2017 market. The Bears are the most recent team to tag a corner, using the transition tag to cuff Kyle Fuller in 2018. They will almost definitely follow suit with Johnson, who has been rumored to be tagged for several weeks. A Ryan Pace-era draftee, Johnson expressed his desire to stay with the Bears ahead of his contract year. With that platform campaign producing some twists and turns, that price has gone up significantly.
After unsuccessful in-season extension talks, the Bears gave Johnson an 11th-hour opportunity to gauge his trade value. The Bears did not alert teams Johnson, 24, was available until the night before the Oct. 31 deadline. Although the Bills and 49ers engaged in talks about a trade, the Bears held out for a first- or second-round pick. Nothing materialized, which will likely come up during the team’s talks with Johnson. The Bears then extended trade pickup Montez Sweat, leaving Johnson in limbo. But the former second-round pick stuck the landing on an impact season. He is firmly in the Bears’ plans, and the team holds more than $66MM in cap space — plenty to squeeze in a tag onto the payroll.
Pro Football Focus’ top-graded corner in 2023, Johnson displayed a new gear that has made him worthy of a tag. Finishing with four interceptions and allowing just a 50.9 passer rating as the closest defender, the Utah alum soared to second-team All-Pro status. The Bears, who last used the tag on Allen Robinson in 2021, made no secret of their interest in retaining Johnson and will have a few more months to negotiate with him as a result of the tag.
Likely tag recipients
Brian Burns, OLB (Panthers)
Projected tag cost: $24MM
The Panthers hiring a new GM and head coach classifies this as just short of a lock, but familiar faces remain. Carolina promoted assistant general manager Dan Morgan to GM and blocked DC Ejiro Evero from departing. Burns has been viewed as a likely tag recipient since last season, after negotiations broke down. The Panthers have not offered a negotiating masterclass here, as Burns has been extension-eligible since the 2022 offseason. Since-fired GM Scott Fitterer had viewed Burns as a re-up candidate for two offseasons, but multiple rounds of trade talks boosted the 2019 first-rounder’s leverage.
In what looks like a mistake, the Panthers passed on a Rams offer that included two first-rounders and a third for Burns at the 2022 trade deadline. Carolina then kept Burns out of 2023 trade talks with Chicago about the No. 1 pick, ultimately sending D.J. Moore to the Windy City for the Bryce Young draft slot. Carolina also kept Burns at the 2023 deadline, as teams looked into the top pass rusher on the NFL’s worst team. Burns also saw his position’s market change via Nick Bosa‘s record-setting extension ($34MM per year). The 49ers’ landmark accord came to pass after Burns had set a $30MM-AAV price point, complicating Morgan’s upcoming assignment.
Burns, 25, has registered at least 7.5 sacks in each of his five seasons. While he has only topped nine in a season once (2022), the two-time Pro Bowler is one of the league’s better edge rushers. Given the Panthers’ history with Burns, it would be borderline shocking to see the team allow the Florida State alum to leave in exchange for merely a third-round compensatory pick.
Burns has said he wants to stay with the Panthers; he is unlikely to have a choice this year. The Panthers last used the tag to keep right tackle Taylor Moton off the market in 2021; the sides agreed to an extension that offseason.
Tee Higgins, WR (Bengals)
Tag cost: $21.82MM
Seeing their hopes of capitalizing on the final year of Higgins’ rookie contract dashed due to Joe Burrow‘s season-ending injury, the Bengals look to be giving strong consideration to keeping the Burrow-Higgins-Ja’Marr Chase trio together for one last ride of sorts. The Bengals hold $59.4MM in cap space — fifth-most currently — and structured Burrow’s extension in a way that makes a Higgins tag palatable. Burrow’s deal does not spike into historic cap territory until 2025.
While a future in which Chase and Higgins are signed long term is more difficult to foresee, the Bengals still carry one of the AFC’s best rosters. It is likely Burrow’s top two weapons remain in the fold for at least one more year. Higgins, 25, did not come close to posting a third straight 1,000-yard season. Burrow’s injury had plenty to do with that, though the former second-round pick started slowly. A Bengals 2023 extension offer underwhelmed Higgins, but the Bengals kept him out of trades. A tag will give Cincinnati the option to rent him for 2024. A tag-and-trade transaction is viewed as unlikely, as the Bengals load up again.
How the organization proceeds beyond 2024 will be a key storyline, but the Bengals — who kept Jessie Bates in similar fashion in 2022 — are positioned well to run back perhaps the NFL’s best receiving tandem. While director of player personnel Duke Tobin stopped short of guaranteeing Higgins will be a Bengal in 2024, signs point to it.
Justin Madubuike, DL (Ravens)
Tag cost: $22.1MM
Seeing their defensive coordinator depart and once again facing questions at outside linebacker, the Ravens have the option of keeping their top 2023 pass rusher off the market. They are probably going to take that route. Madubuike raised his price considerably during an impact contract year, leading the Ravens with 13 sacks. While Mike Macdonald was able to coax surprising seasons from late additions Jadeveon Clowney and Kyle Van Noy, Madubuike drove Baltimore’s defensive engine and will likely be guaranteed a high salary by signing his franchise tender.
Perennially interested in hoarding compensatory picks, the Ravens have regularly let breakthrough pass rushers walk in free agency. This dates back to the likes of Paul Kruger and Pernell McPhee and subsequently included Za’Darius Smith and Matt Judon. The Ravens have only been able to replace Judon with stopgap options — from Clowney to Van Noy to Justin Houston — and again must figure out a solution alongside Odafe Oweh on the edge. Madubuike, 26, proved too good to let walk; the former third-round pick will once again be expected to anchor Baltimore’s pass rush in 2024.
Antoine Winfield Jr., S (Buccaneers)
Tag cost: $17.12MM
We mentioned Winfield as the Bucs’ most likely tag recipient around the midseason point, and signs now point to that reality coming to pass. The Bucs want to re-sign Baker Mayfield and Mike Evans. The bounce-back quarterback’s tender price would check in at nearly $36MM, and because Evans was attached to a veteran contract, his tag number would come in well north of Higgins’ — at beyond $28MM. As such, the Bucs cuffing Winfield has always made the most sense, and after the second-generation NFL DB’s dominant contract year, it would be stunning to see the team let him walk.
The Bucs have let their recent top free agents test free agency, only to re-sign Shaquil Barrett (2021), Carlton Davis (2022) and Jamel Dean (2023). Winfield may be on a higher plane, having secured first-team All-Pro acclaim last season. Davis and Dean have never made a Pro Bowl; Winfield’s productive and well-regarded 2023 stands to separate him. Winfield, 25, tallied six sacks and three interceptions while forcing an NFL-leading six fumbles. This included a pivotal strip of DJ Chark in the Bucs’ Week 18 win over the Panthers, which clinched them the NFC South title.
Winfield will undoubtedly be eyeing a top-market safety extension. Derwin James established the current standard, $19MM per year, just before the 2022 season. Last year’s safety market did not feature big-ticket prices, for the most part, but the Falcons made Jessie Bates (four years, $64MM) an exception. If Winfield were to reach free agency, he would be expected to eclipse that.
The Bucs, who have used the tag three times in the 2020s, should not be considered likely to let Winfield follow Davis and Dean’s path by speaking with other teams. Tampa Bay has used the tag three times in the 2020s, cuffing Barrett in 2020 and tagging Chris Godwin twice. The team eventually re-signed both, and while the statuses of Mayfield and Evans (and All-Pro tackle Tristan Wirfs) create a crowded contract queue, the Bucs will certainly be interested in re-upping Winfield.
On tag radar
Saquon Barkley, RB (Giants)
Tag cost: $12MM
Barkley has said he wants to finish his career with the Giants, and the team will meet with the Pro Bowl running back’s camp at the Combine. But a recent report indicated the team is highly unlikely to tag the six-year veteran a second time. The Giants should not be ruled out from reversing course and keeping Barkley, given his importance to an otherwise low-octane offense, but it appears they are prepared to move on if the talented RB does not accept their extension offer this time around. A host of talented backs await in free agency, though Barkley would likely be the top prize were he to reach the market.