Vikings Rumors

2018 NFL Franchise Tag Candidates

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:

Virtual Locks:

  • 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. Le'Veon Bell (vertical) 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.

Strong Candidates:

  • 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.Sammy Watkins (vertical)
  • 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.

Toss Up:

  • 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. Kyle Fuller (Vertical)
  • 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.

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Cousins Notes: Jets, Vikings, Broncos

With free agency less than a month away, speculation is beginning to pick up around Kirk Cousins. The Redskins quarterback is set to hit the open market after the team pulled off a trade for Alex Smith in recent weeks and there are expected to be plenty of suitors.

Earlier in the day, it was reported that the Jets are willing to pay whatever it takes to land the star free agent. This comes on the heels of news out of Denver that the Broncos are also all in on the quarterback.

That’s just the beginning of the list of suitors who are expected to be in play for the fifth-year signal-caller. The Browns, Vikings and Cardinals could all make a run at Cousins, who is expected to become the highest-paid player in NFL history once he decides on a team.

Here is a collection of the latest rumors and predictions surrounding the top free agent:

  • The MMQB’s Peter King predicted landing spots for all free agent and draft-eligible quarterbacks and pegged Cousins to the Broncos. King notes Cousins’ reported desire to win and John Elway’s willingness to swing for the fences as reasons for the move. King also says that Elway appears ready to move defenders like Aqib Talib and Derek Wolfe to create the cap room to go after his guy. Among other noted quarterbacks, King listed A.J. McCarron to the Cardinals, Sam Darnold and Sam Bradford to the Browns, and Case Keenum and Teddy Bridgewater to the Vikings.
  • If his teammates have any insight on the situation, then Cousins might be indeed headed for Denver. Redskins safety D.J. Swearinger appeared on NFL Network on Monday and gave his thoughts on Cousins’ likely landing spot. “With the situation they have out there on defense, they’re missing their quarterback. I think Kirk will be getting a healthy payday and I think Denver is the team that can do that.”
  • If the Vikings do not place the franchise tag on Keenum, the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport fully expects the reigning NFC North champions to be in the mix for Cousins (Twitter link). Minnesota, fresh off posting a 13-3 mark in 2017, arguably offer the quarterback the greatest chance to win right off the bat with a strong defense and solid weapons at receiver, tight end and running back.
  • Sticking with the Vikes, the Star Tribune’s Michael Rand writes that the Jets’ willingness to back up the Brinks truck for Cousins might force the team to look elsewhere. “If suddenly Cousins — hardly a sure thing as a franchise-altering QB in the first place — can command that kind of contract from a desperate team, the Vikings (if they are interested in the first place) might have no choice but to look in other directions.”

Poll: Who Will Sign Kirk Cousins?

With less than a month until free agency begins, Kirk Cousins looks to be — barring an 11th-hour Redskins franchise tag he would fight — close to signing a long-term contract with the team of his choice.

It’s an incredibly unique situation, and teams with disparate profiles figure to make runs at signing the 29-year-old quarterback. Rebuilding teams, contending teams and operations that would seemingly be contenders if supplied a quarterback are going to pursue Cousins. So, where will he go?

The Jets and Browns are going to have the most money to chase Cousins, and the former makes sense as a destination. New York surprised many last season by winning five games and finishing well off the pace for the No. 1 pick, which many predicted the rebuilding team would secure. The Jets could have more than $90MM in cap space after a few sensible roster moves, and despite their troubles in recent years, could make a case they are a young team who could build a long-term foundation around Cousins.

Cousins has said repeatedly that after making more than $44MM the past two years he wants to play for a contending team. The Browns, though, have a staggering amount of cap space at $110MM-plus. They could sell a free agent QB on their ability to construct a foundation, but their past does not inspire much confidence. And this, by just about every indication to this point, seems like the year they draft a quarterback.

The Bills made a surprise run to the playoffs last season, but Brandon Beane said upon being hired he doesn’t plan to make many high-cost free agent signings. Considering this figures to be the most expensive free agent in NFL history, it’s difficult to envision a Bills push for Cousins. And Tyrod Taylor may not be completely out of the picture yet.

The Broncos and Cardinals are in similar positions as recent contenders who have fallen off the pace a bit, and neither will have the cap space to outflank the Jets or Browns. Both saw quarterback play lower their ceilings last season, and the Cardinals saw their longtime starter retire and his backups’ contracts expire. Denver has both Paxton Lynch and Trevor Siemian under contract but has made no secret about wanting to upgrade — via free agency or the draft — with that desire presumably being centered around complementing the core players remaining from the Super Bowl season.

Both the Broncos and Jets are rumored to be gearing up for entrances into the Cousins sweepstakes, and the Bovada sports book has these two as the early frontrunners. However, both the Vikings and Jaguars fit the profile of franchises that could use Cousins as a possible springboard to a Super Bowl. How serious are they about this, though?

The Jaguars may have complications because of Blake Bortles‘ wrist surgery. The embattled starter not being able to pass a physical come mid-March will guarantee his $19MM fifth-year option salary and cloud a potential Cousins pursuit. Jacksonville’s current plan is to keep Bortles, but is a chance at Cousins too tempting to avoid?

The Vikings would make sense as well but may opt to stick with Case Keenum via franchise tag. However, Cousins has proven more than Keenum, and although he would make for a costlier expense, Minnesota being on the doorstep of its first Super Bowl berth in 40-plus years may make ditching their 2017 setup for Cousins a worthwhile gamble. The Vikings do have several core players entering contract years, which could make a near-$30MM-AAV Cousins accord complicated. Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Stefon Diggs and Danielle Hunter are four who fit that profile. How much will that factor into a Cousins push?

So, where does Cousins end up?

Does he stick to his winning-situation statements and avoid teams who have struggled in recent years, or can the Browns or Jets submit an offer he can’t refuse? Can the Broncos make a sales pitch that their history surrounding a UFA QB with championship-caliber talent would be worth sacrificing a bit of cash, or is their nucleus’ window closing to the point Cousins looks elsewhere? How serious are the Cardinals and Bills in this derby? And how much would the Vikings or Jaguars entering the fray change the outlook of this high-stakes process? Take PFR’s latest poll and weigh in with your thoughts in the comments section.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Vikings To Hire Ex-Raiders OC Todd Downing

Todd Downing looks set for a homecoming venture. The recently dismissed Raiders offensive coordinator has landed a job with the Vikings, with Adam Caplan of ESPN.com reporting (on Twitter) he will serve as a senior offensive assistant and passing-game specialist.

Not only did the Vikings give Downing his first NFL opportunity, as an intern in 2001 when the future OC was just 21, but Downing is an Eden Prairie, Minn., native. The Vikings’ facility being located in Eden Prairie makes this a logical move for the 37-year-old assistant to rebound from a one-and-done stint as the Raiders’ OC.

Downing served as Oakland’s quarterbacks coach prior to ascending to OC in 2017, but the Raiders underwhelmed last season and turned back to Jon Gruden. Downing will join new OC John DeFilippo and QBs coach Kevin Stefanski as key staffers involved with Minnesota’s aerial attack. With each of these coaches under 40, and Mike Zimmer being a defensive-minded HC, the Vikings will have young voices in charge of their offense.

The Bears interviewed Downing in January for their QBs job but went in another direction. Downing’s work helping Derek Carr ascend to the position of MVP candidate in 2016 led to him becoming the Raiders’ OC. The Raiders proceeded to plummet from the No. 6 offense, their finish in 2016 under Bill Musgrave, to No. 17 during Downing’s year overseeing the unit.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Opinion: Vikes Could Shape NFL Offseason

  • The Vikings are one of six teams that could change the course of the offseason, Jason La Canfora of CBSSports.com writes. Minnesota has three starting-caliber quarterbacks heading towards free agency in Case Keenum, Sam Bradford, and Teddy Bridgewater and no one knows which, if any, they will retain. If they decide to move forward with Keenum, it remains to be seen whether the Vikings will use the franchise tag, the transition tag, or extend him. The Vikings also have lots of cap room to work with (just over $49MM, eighth highest in the NFL, per Over The Cap) and they should have plenty to still use even if they extend the likes of Anthony Barr, Stefon Diggs, and Trae Waynes. That number will also increase if defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd is unable to play.
  • The Lions have hired former NFLer Hank Fraley as their new assistant offensive line coach, the club announced today. Fraley, who spent 11 years in the league as an interior offensive lineman, has previously coached for the Vikings and at San Diego State and UCLA in the collegiate ranks. In Detroit, he’ll work under Jeff Davidson, who was recently hired as the team’s OL coach. The Lions also announced the retention of Evan Rothstein, who will now serve as assistant to the head coach/research and analysis.

Vikings Team To Watch For McCarron

Now that’s been declared an unrestricted free agent, Bengals quarterback A.J. McCarron says he’s “open to everything,” according to Jim Owczarski of the Cincinnati Enquirer. “It’s just awesome just to be free now and to hopefully get that opportunity and be able to compete somewhere,” said McCarron. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted. I’m just super excited.” McCarron, who won a grievance against the Bengals, will now join a free agent signal-caller class that includes Kirk Cousins, Case Keenum, and Sam Bradford, among others. In what sounds like speculation, the Browns (who nearly traded for McCarron last year) and the Vikings are two team to “keep an eye on” as McCarron hits the open market, per Ian Rapoport of NFL.com (video link).

More On Kevin Stefanski, John DeFilippo

New Vikings OC John DeFilippo is viewed as a rising star in the coaching world, and Minnesota is obviously high on the former Eagles quarterbacks coach, as it targeted DeFilippo as soon as former OC Pat Shurmur left for the Giants’ head coaching job. The Vikings were also willing to wait for Philadelphia’s season to be over before naming Shurmur’s replacement, which shows just how much they liked DeFilippo. Despite the hire, though, the Vikings denied the Giants’ request to interview Minnesota quarterbacks coach Kevin Stefanski for the New York OC gig, and Alex Marvez of SiriusXM NFL Radio suggests that there are two reasons for that (Twitter link). Obviously, the Vikings value Stefanski and want him around in 2018, but the team also thinks there is a good chance DeFilippo could get his own head coaching opportunity in 2019, so Minnesota views Stefanski as a potential replacement (after all, the Vikes did interview Stefanski for the OC position this year before hiring DeFilippo). However, Marvez reports that Stefanski only has one year left on his current contract, so he could become a coaching free agent in 2019.

Vikings Deny Giants Permission To Interview Kevin Stefanski

The Giants are going to have to look elsewhere for an offensive coordinator, because the Vikings don’t plan to open the door for Kevin Stefanski to leave the Twin Cities.

The Vikings denied the Giants permission to interview their quarterbacks coach for their OC job, Adam Schefter of ESPN.com reports (Facebook link). This comes even after the Vikings hired Eagles QBs coach John DeFilippo to replace Pat Shurmur.

Shurmur will now have to move on to other candidates to fill the OC post in New York. DeFilippo’s arrival in Minnesota certainly makes the franchise preventing Stefanski from becoming an OC interesting, especially after the Eagles granted DeFilippo permission for the Vikings interview, but the defending NFC North champions did interview Stefanski for their OC job and clearly don’t want to lose him just yet.

The Giants are also believed to be considering Eagles running backs coach Duce Staley and former Seahawks OC Darrell Bevell for the position. But with Stefanski’s ties to Shurmur, he was the logical favorite to be the new Big Blue HC’s right-hand man on offense.

No interviews have commenced for this position, with Stefanski apparently set to be the first. Meetings about this job figure to occur soon, though, now that Stefanski won’t be going to the Big Apple.

Stefanski, 35, has been with the Vikings for 12 seasons. He was already an assistant quarterbacks coach by age 27, when then-starting passer Brett Favre was 40, illustrating how the franchise views him. Stefanski’s moved from tight ends coach to running backs instructor to QBs coach over the past four years, and it looks like he’ll stay on for a second season developing Minnesota’s signal-callers — now under DeFilippo’s direction.

Shurmur and Staley have an extensive history, with the former running back being a player during Shurmur’s first Philadelphia stint and then a coach during his second, whereas Shurmur and Bevell have never coached on an NFL staff together. However, Shurmur looks to be seeking an OC with experience coaching quarterbacks, and Staley has yet to serve in that role since breaking into the coaching ranks. Former Cardinals OC Harold Goodwin has also been mentioned as a candidate.

Staley will require Eagles permission to interview with the Giants, whereas Bevell and Goodwin are coaching free agents.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

John DeFilippo Sheds Light On Minnesota Plans

Friday morning, former Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo was hired as the offensive coordinator in Minnesota to replace Pat Shurmur, who took the head-coaching gig with the Giants. In the afternoon, he addressed his plans for the team’s offense and noted a few opportunities in the league that were presented to him. John DeFilippo (vertical)

The 39-year-old coach said he interviewed for head-coaching positions in Arizona and Chicago and was requested by a few teams for the offensive coordinator positions, Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press reports“When the Minnesota Vikings want to talk to you, that’s a whole different ball game,” DeFilippo said. “It was obviously a special opportunity to work for Coach Zimmer and learn from him and work for another great head coach and another opportunity for myself to call plays.”

DeFilippo hasn’t called plays since serving as the Browns’ offensive coordinator in 2015. There was an opportunity for him to become the offensive coordinator in Philadelphia if current offensive coordinator Frank Reich became head coach in Indianapolis. He, however, would not call plays due to head coach Doug Pederson fulfilling that role.

With Sam Bradford, Case Keenum and Teddy Bridgewater all preparing to enter free agency, DeFilippo said athleticism in the pocket is a must, Tomasson reports (Twitter link). None of those passers are really known for their athleticism, but Keenum did show an ability to sidestep the rush during his breakout 2017 campaign.

DeFilippo also said he will incorporate elements of the Eagles offense while keeping the aspects that Minnesota did well in 2017, the Star Tribune Ben Goessling tweets.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.