Christian Wilkins

Falcons Were Interested In Top Defensive FAs; More On Kirk Cousins’ Decision

On the day before the 2024 league year opened, the Falcons agreed to a four-year, $180MM deal with former Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, a deal that will pay the 35-year-old passer (36 in August) $50MM in guaranteed money. Even if Atlanta had not signed Cousins, the club was still prepared to make a major free agent splash.

Albert Breer of SI.com, in a piece that is well-worth a read for fans of the Falcons and Vikings in particular, explores in considerable detail how Cousins came to sign with Atlanta, beginning with the February 2022 meeting between the quarterback, his agent, and Minnesota head coach Kevin O’Connell, whom the Vikes had just hired. While most of Breer’s writing focuses on the discussions, both football and contractual, between Cousins’ camp and Vikings brass and then between Cousins’ camp and Falcons brass, he does note that Atlanta had interest in top defensive free agents Danielle Hunter — another long-time member of the Vikings — and Christian Wilkins.

Per Breer, if the Falcons had not been successful in their pursuit of Cousins or another high-priced FA signal-caller like Baker Mayfield, they would have spent their money on defense, with Hunter and Wilkins named as potential targets. Mayfield had agreed to a new contract with the Bucs while Cousins was still in limbo, so Atlanta GM Terry Fontenot spoke with the agents for Hunter and Wilkins in case he would have to address his QB position via a trade for a player like Justin Fields or via the draft. He was told that both players would fetch at least $25MM per year, which turned out to be pretty accurate. Fontenot also explored the possibility of trading up into the top-three of the draft to land a blue-chip collegiate quarterback, though the teams holding those selections (the Bears, Commanders, and Patriots) were not interested in dealing, at least not that early in the process.

Ultimately, Cousins chose to sign with the Falcons, and Atlanta subsequently bolstered his pass-catching contingent by authorizing a notable contract for wide receiver Darnell Mooney and sending displaced quarterback Desmond Ridder to the Cardinals in exchange for slot man Rondale Moore. Without a high-end QB contract on their books, it was the Vikings who pivoted to the defensive side of the ball, adding Jonathan Greenard, Andrew Van Ginkel, and Blake Cashman in quick succession while bidding farewell to Hunter.

Shortly after Cousins decided to make the move to Atlanta, he said the team simply seemed more prepared than Minnesota to commit to him on a long-term basis. Indeed, Breer reports that while the Vikings did improve their offer to Cousins as negotiations went on by putting more guaranteed money on the table, it was the structure of those guarantees that swung the pendulum in the Falcons’ favor. The Vikings’ proposals always gave them the ability to part ways with Cousins in 2025 without many financial ramifications, and Cousins ultimately felt he was being viewed as a bridge to a passer that the team would select in next month’s draft.

The Falcons’ deal, on the other hand, guarantees all of Cousins’ 2025 base salary of $27.5MM, effectively tethering player and team to each other for the next two seasons. Atlanta can realistically get out of the deal in 2026, at which point Cousins’ cap number skyrockets to $57.5MM. Still, he will at least have an NFL home beyond the upcoming campaign, which was clearly a top priority for him.

Having devoted so many resources to their offense, Fontenot & Co. will have to turn their attention to the draft to address a defense that finished 24th in DVOA and 21st in sacks in 2023. To that end, the team has scheduled a predraft visit with Alabama edge defender Dallas Turner, as Tom Pelissero of the NFL Network reports. The Vikings and Bears will also visit with Turner, who could be the first defensive player off the board.

Raiders To Add DT Christian Wilkins

Following Chris Jones‘ decision to stay with the Chiefs, the Raiders will pick up this year’s top defensive free agent remaining. Christian Wilkins is heading to Las Vegas.

Like Jones, Wilkins will benefit from betting on himself in a contract year. The Raiders are giving the former Dolphins first-rounder a four-year, $110MM deal, NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport reports. Wilkins will receive a whopping $84.75MM guaranteed to help the Raiders’ defensive line.

In terms of full guarantees, the Raiders are giving the 2019 first-rounder $57.5MM, Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk notes. But Wilkins’ 2026 salary ($27.25MM) locks in on Day 3 of the 2025 league year, giving him the kind of year-out security Jones scored from the Chiefs. This effectively makes that above $84.75MM the full guarantee number. Jones and Wilkins’ deals finish off a transformative week for the D-tackle market.

To illustrate where this market has gone over the past four days, Quinnen Williams‘ $66MM in guarantees topped the field entering March. Justin Madubuike soon scored $75MM guaranteed on his Ravens extension, and Jones has a practical guarantee of $95.3MM. Wilkins, despite the Dolphins being reluctant to pay him in line with Williams last year, will outdo the Jets performer in AAV and guarantees.

At $27.5MM per year, Wilkins is now attached to the third-highest D-tackle AAV — behind only Jones and Aaron Donald. Despite committing to the Raiders for just four years (as opposed to Jones’ five-year Chiefs pledge), Jones will see his guarantees spike to this rare place. Only four edge rushers match the guarantee Wilkins just scored with the Raiders, illustrating the value of hitting the market at the right time.

After the Raiders struggled for 20 years to assemble a quality defense, Patrick Graham’s unit did take a step forward in 2023. The Raiders ranked ninth in scoring defense — their first top-15 ranking since 2002 — but the team was light on D-line investments. That will change, as Wilkins joins Maxx Crosby to anchor the Raiders’ pass rush.

The Texans and Vikings were believed to be among the teams in on Wilkins, and the Dolphins made a futile attempt to keep him at the 11th hour. But Miami does not reside in a good cap situation. The team offered Wilkins a deal north of the $17MM-per-year point in 2023; Wilkins moved to a higher NFL tax bracket in free agency. Wilkins is coming off his best year as a pass rusher. After totaling 11.5 sacks over his first four seasons, the Clemson alum registered nine last season. He has also been one of the NFL’s top run-defending DTs in recent years, ranking in the top two in ESPN’s run stop win rate metric in 2021 and ’22. At 28, Wilkins brings upside on two fronts to Vegas.

The Raiders ranked 21st against the run last season. Bilal Nichols, Adam Butler and John Jenkins are free agents, leaving Las Vegas with more work to do here. But Wilkins will become the team’s centerpiece D-lineman. The Raiders will hope their latest Clemson investment pays off alongside Crosby for the long haul.

Dolphins Unlikely To Retain G Robert Hunt, DT Christian Wilkins; CB Xavien Howard Will Not Return

As of Friday afternoon, the Dolphins are still $20MM over the cap. They will not pick up any savings from the Xavien Howard post-June 1 cut for months, meaning more moves will need to transpire for the team to move under the 2024 salary ceiling.

This will affect how the Dolphins proceed with their top two free agents. Barring an 11th-hour change, both Robert Hunt and Christian Wilkins look to be headed out the door. Each will be a candidate to land a near-top-market deal at their respective positions, and it does not look like the Dolphins will be prepared to match such an offer.

[RELATED: 2024 NFL Top 50 Free Agents]

Hunt’s return looks unlikely due to the salary he will command, per the Miami Herald’s Barry Jackson. Kevin Dotson‘s $16MM-per-year Rams deal (feat. $32MM guaranteed) may set the floor for Hunt, who has been a more consistent player. The Dolphins have maintained a good relationship with Hunt’s camp during this process, Jackson adds, but the market will probably push them out of the bidding. The parties discussed an extension months ago, but with the Dolphins paying Austin Jackson along with Terron Armstead, Hunt is probably on his way out.

Moved from right tackle to right guard in 2021, the former second-round pick has played well inside. As injuries and position changes (along with an O-line coach carousel) continued to take place over the past three years in Miami, Hunt was probably the team’s most reliable O-lineman. But with a top-10 guard contract likely, the Dolphins will face the prospect of replacing both their starting guards and starting center. Connor Williams is also a UFA-to-be, and while he is coming off a December ACL tear, he played well on a two-year Dolphins deal and should garner extensive interest regardless.

The Dolphins are believed to still be trying to keep Wilkins, effectively revealing a priority queue with Hunt at No. 2, but the price point will presumably move them out of the running. Wilkins should be expected to command an average salary in the $24-$25MM range, ESPN’s Adam Schefter said recently. The Dolphins offered the 2019 first-round pick top-10 DT money last year, before the sides broke off talks ahead of the season, but Jackson adds the team has not shown it is comfortable going to the $25MM-AAV place to retain Wilkins.

ESPN’s run stop win rate ranked Wilkins in the top two in 2021 and ’22, and after the Dolphins were hesitant to go to the Quinnen WilliamsDexter LawrenceDaron PayneJeffery Simmons level with their offer due to Wilkins’ modest sack production (11.5 from 2019-22), the Clemson alum ripped off a nine-sack contract year. He is set to cash in, with teams like the Texans and Vikings expected to be in on the bidding. In that likely event, the Dolphins will be tasked with replacing a five-year starter.

Elsewhere on Miami’s depth chart, no Dolphins-Howard reunion — one GM Chris Grier floated as a possibility — will come to pass. Regarding a return to Miami at a reduced rate, the former All-Pro cornerback said (during a 560 WQAM interview) “that door is closed.” Howard expressed a similar sentiment earlier this offseason when asked if he would take a pay cut to stay. That said, the soon-to-be 31-year-old corner will need to play the 2024 season at a lower rate compared to the big-ticket deal — which included $50.6MM in new money — the Dolphins gave him after the Byron Jones deal prompted the ballhawk to gripe about his own contract in the early 2020s.

Texans, Vikings On Radar For DT Christian Wilkins

Making it past the franchise tag application deadline, Christian Wilkins is days away from becoming one of this year’s top free agents. The interior defensive lineman’s 2023 bet on himself appears close to paying off.

With the Ravens franchise-tagging Justin Madubuike, Wilkins will have a big opportunity ahead. If the Chiefs can re-sign Chris Jones at the 11th hour, Wilkins will have a clear runway to become the top defender available this year. Four days from this year’s legal tampering period, two landing spots have emerged for the five-year Dolphins D-lineman.

Several GMs are predicting (via the Washington Post’s Jason La Canfora) the Texans will come out of this year’s signing period with Wilkins. They will be far from the only team interested in the high-level run defender who showed his best pass-rushing stuff in 2023; KSTP’s Darren Wolfson mentioned during an appearance on SKOR North the Vikings are expected to have interest in the former first-round pick.

Ranked fourth on PFR’s top 50 free agent list, Wilkins has a clear Vikings connection in second-year Minnesota DC Brian Flores. The veteran coach made Wilkins his first draft choice when in place as Dolphins HC back in 2019; Flores coached Wilkins for three years. The Vikings have not enjoyed much success in terms of interior D-line pressure in many years. Wilkins’ nine sacks from 2023 would be Minnesota’s most from an interior defender since Kevin Williams reached 11.5 in 2004. The Vikings also have major questions about their pass rush as a whole, with Danielle Hunter, D.J. Wonnum and Marcus Davenport due for free agency.

The construction of the Texans’ roster gives them an interesting opportunity. GM Nick Caserio avoided expensive deals during his first two years in charge, and while he made some pricey moves to bolster Houston’s O-line last year, the rookie contracts of C.J. Stroud and Will Anderson should set up the Texans to spend more than they have during Caserio’s tenure. Placing a dynamic DT alongside Anderson would be a start, and two of them — Wilkins and Jones — are set to be available.

While Jones has proven to be one of this era’ best defenders, Wilkins is a bit younger — at 28 — and has played three fewer NFL seasons compared to the Chiefs standout. ESPN’s run stop win rate placed Wilkins as a top-two DT in 2021 and ’22; Flores was in place during the first of those seasons. After the Dolphins framed their offer — a top-10 DT proposal in terms of AAV — around Wilkins’ lack of sack production, he broke through during Vic Fangio‘s season in charge. Wilkins’ 23 QB hits were 10 more than his previous single-season best.

The Texans hold $70MM in cap space, while the Vikings sit at $37MM. Though, Minnesota has a more complex path to a player like Wilkins. Kirk Cousins not re-signing by 3pm CT March 13 would trigger a $28.5MM dead money hit. The Vikings also have been talking to Hunter about re-signing, though given the issues the edge rusher expressed about his previous Minnesota deal, it would surprise if he did not test free agency.

The Dolphins are in worse cap shape than both, and while they are attempting to keep the Clemson alum off the market, time is running out after they passed on franchise-tagging him. By hitting the market, Wilkins should have a clear path to being paid on the level of 2019 first-round classmates Jeffery Simmons, Quinnen Williams and Dexter Lawrence, who each signed extensions last year while Wilkins and the Dolphins could not come to terms.

Dolphins Offered Christian Wilkins Top-10 DT AAV, Still Trying To Strike Deal

Christian Wilkins‘ bet on himself is close to producing a big payoff. The Ravens taking Justin Madubuike off the free agency board will benefit the Dolphins defensive tackle, who already saw a host of his 2019 DT draft classmates steer clear of the market via 2023 extensions.

The Dolphins’ exclusive negotiating rights with Wilkins expire in less than a week, and while it will be hard for the team to keep the five-year veteran off the market at this juncture, the Miami Herald’s Barry Jackson indicates it is still trying. Though, the parties have been negotiating off and on for more than eight months. Sorting through cap issues, the Dolphins declined to use their franchise tag on Wilkins before today’s deadline.

[RELATED: Dolphins Release LB Jerome Baker]

During the talks last year, the Dolphins offered Wilkins a deal that would have paid him a top-10 D-tackle salary, Jackson adds. The team’s proposal included more than $40MM guaranteed. It is likely that $40MM sum represents the money guaranteed in total, rather than at signing, as only six DTs are tied to deals with that much locked in at signing. Jackson adds the Dolphins’ Wilkins offer came in significantly higher than Zach Sieler‘s $10MM-AAV extension. If the AAV came in within the top 10 at the position, Miami’s offer would have been north of Kenny Clark‘s $17.5MM-per-year accord.

Considering the deals that set the non-Aaron Donald market last year, it is understandable why Wilkins balked at an offer that may not have been in line with those 2019 draft classmates Quinnen Williams, Dexter Lawrence and Jeffery Simmons received. The issue of Wilkins’ sack production hovered during these negotiations.

Although the Clemson alum had been regarded as one of the NFL’s best run-defending DTs in prior years, he had totaled just 11.5 sacks through four seasons. He posted nine last season. The Dolphins may well have used the Bills’ extension for fellow 2019 first-rounder Ed Oliver — $17MM per year, $45MM guaranteed in total, $24.5MM fully guaranteed — as a closer comp than the Williams-Lawrence-Simmons-Daron Payne group. That foursome each received between $22.5MM and $24MM per year and between $46MM and $47.8MM fully guaranteed. Wilkins may soon strike a similar deal.

Miami has been creating cap space in recent days, cutting Baker and Emmanuel Ogbah. The team also is set to designate Xavien Howard as a post-June 1 release. Prior to the Howard cut, the Dolphins are more than $18MM over the cap. That will make affording Wilkins’ second contract difficult. If the Chiefs can pull off a Chris Jones re-signing before the legal tampering period begins March 11, the runway will be clear for Wilkins as DT-needy teams prepare their offers.

Dolphins Will Not Use Franchise Tag On Christian Wilkins

MARCH 4: Confirming the direction Sunday’s report pointed this situation in, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport notes Wilkins will not be tagged tomorrow. Unless an eleventh-hour agreement can be reached after the deadline but before the new league year, therefore, Wilkins will reach free agency.

MARCH 3: Even considering the recent cap spike, the Dolphins are still more than $31MM over the new NFL spending limit with 10 days left in the 2023 league year. That will create challenges, and it will impact the team’s ability to retain its top free agent.

Although GM Chris Grier said a Christian Wilkins franchise tag would be on the table, ESPN.com’s Jeremy Fowler notes the team is unlikely to cuff the five-year defensive tackle. As it stands, Wilkins appears barely a week away from free agency. After making strides as a pass rusher, the former first-round pick would be poised to do quite well on the open market.

[RELATED: 2024 NFL Franchise Tag Candidates]

This would make Wilkins one of the top free agents available, and if the Ravens follow through with their likely Justin Madubuike tag and the Chiefs can complete a Chris Jones deal before the legal tampering period, the Miami-based D-tackle’s free agency stock would be set to skyrocket. The Dolphins and Wilkins negotiated for months in 2023, but no extension agreement came out of the talks. That led to the Clemson alum playing out his rookie contract, separating him from the other high-end DTs from the 2019 first round.

The Dolphins continue to mull their options, per ESPN.com’s Adam Schefter, but the veteran reporter indicates a tag is not expected. Three of Wilkins’ 2019 first-round DT peers — Jeffery Simmons, Quinnen Williams and ex-Clemson teammate Dexter Lawrence — signed big-ticket deals worth between $22.5MM and $24MM per year. With the cap now nearly $31MM north of its 2023 place, Wilkins surely could approach this price range.

Some hesitancy on Miami’s part regarding a long-term deal is believed to have stemmed from Wilkins’ prior lack of sack production. The interior defender made a notable effort on this front last season, tallying a career-high nine sacks. That number bettered his previous single-season best by 4.5. Wilkins, 28, has been one of the NFL’s top run-defending DTs in recent years as well. The Dolphins, however, have made other commitments up front. They extended Bradley Chubb shortly after trading for him in 2022, and DT Zach Sieler signed a new deal last year. That complicates a Wilkins South Florida future.

Trade interest emerged for Wilkins late last summer, and the Dolphins are again implementing a new defensive scheme thanks to another coordinator change. With Tua Tagovailoa squarely on the extension radar and the likes of Jaylen Waddle and Jaelan Phillips potentially behind the QB in the payment queue, the Dolphins may be prepared to pass on paying Wilkins now. A bidding war would be set to commence in that event.

Dolphins Prepared To Tag DT Christian Wilkins; CB Xavien Howard Reunion In Play

The Dolphins have work to do in the near future to achieve cap compliance, and a pair of notable defenders in Christian Wilkins and Xavien Howard could find themselves playing elsewhere next season. In both players’ cases, though, a continued Miami tenure cannot be ruled out.

Wilkins profiles as a top franchise tag candidate given his importance to the Dolphins’ defensive front. The former first-rounder is on track for free agency after extension talks were tabled until after the 2023 campaign. Wilkins certainly helped his value by recording career-highs in sacks (nine), QB hits (23) and pressures (30) this year. As was the case previously, he could therefore join the list of defensive tackles landing lucrative second contracts.

The position’s market saw a new second tier emerge below Aaron Donald during the 2023 offseason. Jeffery SimmonsDexter LawrenceEd Oliver and Quinnen Williams secured new pacts after Daron Payne hammered out an agreement with the Commanders following the team’s decision to tag him. Miami would be hit with a $22.1MM cap charge with a Wilkins tag.

To no surprise, general manager Chris Grier noted at the Combine that a franchise tag remains a consideration in Wilkins’ case (h/t Adam Beasley of Pro Football Network). Using it would further complicate Miami’s cap situation, but it would ensure he would not be able to test the market in free agency once the new league year begins. A long-term deal would be an obvious team priority, and it would lower his 2024 cap figure. Tagged players can continue negotiating extensions until mid-July before being forced to play on the one-year tender.

Grier also noted that the door is still open to cornerback Xavien Howard remaining with the Dolphins on a new deal. Miami informed the veteran last month that he will be released in a cost-cutting move, but not until the new league year opens on March 13. A post-June 1 designation would be necessary for the Dolphins to see notable cap savings. As a result, time could still exist for both parties to come to a new agreement.

Howard’s release would save $18.5MM presuming it proves to be one of the two post-June 1 cuts teams are allowed each offseason. An agreement eating into that total would come as a surprise, but the 30-year-old would still be a capable member of Miami’s secondary if he were to be retained. One of the league’s top ballhawks during his Dolphins tenure, Howard recorded only one interception in 2023, though, and the team already has Jalen Ramsey on the books for the next two seasons at a significant cap hit.

Miami will be a team to watch over the coming days as the franchise tag deadline (March 5) and the start of free agency approaches. Further clarity on the team’s plans with Wilkins and Howard will be in place soon as Miami seeks to improve in general on defense compared to last year’s showing.

2024 NFL Franchise Tag Candidates

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:

Locks

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.

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AFC East Notes: Dolphins, Jets, Thornton

The 2019 draft produced several long-running partnerships between defensive tackles and the teams that chose them in the first round. Four of the six DTs selected in Round 1 that year signed extensions this offseason. Quinnen Williams, Ed Oliver, Dexter Lawrence and Jeffery Simmons have new deals in hand. Jerry Tillery did not work out for the Chargers, but he was the only first-round DT from the ’19 class not to negotiate an extension this offseason. Christian Wilkins spent months discussing a deal with the Dolphins, but the sides have tabled matters to 2024, when the former No. 13 overall pick will be on the cusp of free agency.

Guarantees represented a sticking point for Wilkins, but Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald offers that the Dolphins appeared to be skittish about authorizing a Williams-level deal for a player without much in the way of sack production. Wilkins’ camp undoubtedly pushed for terms in the Williams-Lawrence-Simmons-Daron Payne neighborhood ($22.5-$24MM per year), as the Clemson alum led all DTs with 98 tackles last season. Wilkins, who produced 89 tackles in 2021, has never topped 4.5 sacks in a season. He has also eclipsed seven QB hits in just one of his four NFL slates (13 in 2021). Wilkins has not requested a trade, per Jackson, and the Dolphins — despite trade interest emerging — are not interested in moving him.

The Dolphins will have the option of franchise-tagging Wilkins next year. The Commanders used the tag as a bridge to a Payne deal, but the D-tackle tag number will likely come in north of $20MM in 2024. The Dolphins are currently projected to be $27MM over the cap next year (29th in the league), though much will obviously change between now and then. Here is the latest from the AFC East:

Dolphins Tabling Extension Talks With Tua Tagovailoa, Christian Wilkins

Two notable members of the Dolphins won’t be signing extensions with the organization during the 2023 campaign. General manager Chris Grier revealed to reporters that the front office is tabling contract talks with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and defensive tackle Christian Wilkins until after the season. Per ESPN’s Marcel Louis-Jacques, Grier is tabling negotiations “as to not cause a distraction” during the upcoming regular season.

Wilkins would be the more pressing extension, as the defensive lineman is playing on his fifth-year option and is set to hit free agency following the season. The former 13th-overall pick has compiled 108 tackles and eight sacks in 34 games over the past two seasons, transforming into one of the team’s leaders on the defensive line.

However,Wilkins decided to stage a hold-in and not participate in training camp and preseason games while pursuing a new contract. Wilkins will be with the team in Week 1, and Grier revealed that there was no ill will between the two sides after they failed to agree to an extension.

“We’ve had a lot of great dialogue with him and his agent, very positive,” Grier said (h/t Alain Poupart of SI.com). “We made an offer that we thought was fair, and when you do things like that it has to work for both sides. And so there was never any ill will from each side. I enjoy his agent. We have good conversations. For right now we’re going to hold off until in my mind at the end of the season because I don’t think it’s fair to distract Christian from his goal of what he wants to achieve and for the team.”

Tagovailoa, meanwhile, is locked in through the 2024 campaign after the Dolphins picked up his fifth-year option earlier this offseason. The QB first became eligible to sign a new deal with the organization this year, which was good timing with the former fifth-overall pick coming off a career year.

Tagovailoa finished last season with 25 touchdowns passes vs. only eight interceptions, leading to his first career Pro Bowl nod. However, he was limited to 13 games for a second-straight season. Grier said the player’s ongoing concussion issues had nothing to do with a lack of an extension.

“I think just think for him, it’s just to let Tua play again,” Grier said (via Poupart). “Those things can be a big distraction, family, friends, you guys (the media), everyone constantly asking him about it. His agents and I have had discussions just general but not really about that and just kind of agreed, like, let’s just let him play out the season and then we’ll attack that in the offseason.”