Sammy Watkins

Extra Points: Butler, Shead, Rams, Chiefs

It’s been a wild ride for the Seahawks defense the past week. After the team traded Michael Bennett to the Eagles and released Richard Sherman, it also decided to release cornerback DeShawn Shead.

This was noteworthy because the Seahawks told the player it would release him to allow him to become an unrestricted free agent despite the NFL saying his contract should toll for 2018.

Earlier today, Shead signed with the Lions but reportedly wanted a return to the Seahawks, the Seattle Times’ Bob Condotta tweets. After Seattle honored its statement to make the cornerback a free agent, Shead wanted to give Seattle every chance to keep him, but the organization ultimately wouldn’t match the offer he received from the Lions.

Seattle now enters free agency without three of its top veterans and could be seeing the end of the Earl Thomas era, who has threatened to hold out if he doesn’t receive a new deal. The Seahawks could deal him this offseason and are reportedly looking for a first-round pick in return.

Needless to say, the Seahawks once-stingy defensive unit will look plenty different in 2018.

Here’s more from around the league:

  • Rams general manager Les Snead said on Wednesday the team traded linebacker Alec Ogletree to accommodate the ensuing move for cornerback Aqib Talib, Alden Gonzalez tweets. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips prefers cornerbacks to linebackers in his scheme, and a big move had to be made to bring in the former Broncos corner, who will count $11 MM toward the cap.
  • Snead also said he sees ways the Rams can address run defense and the pass rush in free agency, Gonzalez tweets. Though he is weighing what will be available to fill those holes with rookies, he doesn’t want to just wait until the draft to fill obvious needs. The team received some insurance for its pass rush on Wednesday when it re-signed veteran linebacker Connor Barwin.
  • New Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler said he was worried his Super Bowl benching would hurt his value on the open market, USA Today’s Lindsay Jones tweets. Butler notoriously didn’t see the field against the Eagles in February when the Patriots allowed Nick Foles to shred their secondary. The 2015 Pro Bowl selection reached a deal with the Titans on Wednesday worth up to $61 MM over five years, with $30 MM of that being guaranteed.
  • Chiefs general manager Brett Veach said cornerback Marcus Peters‘ trade to the Rams had nothing to do with national anthem protests, Pro Football Talk passes along“This was a football decision. … This wasn’t just one game, wasn’t a month, this was three years of body of work, and we look for consistency. We felt that this was in the best interest of the team,” Veach said. 
  • Veach also touched on the Chiefs move for Sammy Watkins, saying the team pounced on the receiver in the first minute of free agency, the NFL Network’s James Palmer tweets. Veach said that if Watkins received a call before theirs, the other team would’ve had to call in 30 seconds before they did. The team was motivated to move on Watkins to add him to Tyreek Hill, giving strong-armed quarterback Patrick Mahomes a pair of dynamic, stretch-the-field receivers.

Cowboys, Bears, Jaguars Were In On Sammy Watkins

Early Tuesday morning, Sammy Watkins agreed to a three-year, $48MM deal with the Chiefs. Before that, Watkins had a booming market for his services. The Cowboys, Bears, Jaguars, and the incumbent Rams were among the teams in on the highly-coveted wide receiver, according to Terez A. Paylor of the Kansas City Star (on Twitter). 

Watkins served as one of the top wide receivers available as an unrestricted free agency, along with Jaguars free agent Allen Robinson. The Bears reportedly agreed to a three-year, $42MM deal Monday with Robinson, who missed nearly the entire 2017 season with a torn ACL.

Like Robinson, Watkins has been plagued by injuries at times throughout his career, missing 10 games over the last three seasons. But the explosiveness and game-changing ability shown from the former No. 4 overall pick shouldn’t make it a surprise that teams were lining up to obtain his services. Watkins was at No. 7 in Pro Football Rumors’ Top 50 Free Agents For 2018.

If Watkins were to have gone to the Cowboys, that would’ve certainly paired up a dynamic and intriguing receiving tandem alongside Dez Bryant. The Jaguars are definitely in need of a wide receiver with the departure of Robinson, along with Marqise Lee set to become an unrestricted free agent.

The Rams were hoping to retain Watkins but that move became difficult to facilitate with the additions of Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, as well as placing the franchise tag on Lamarcus Joyner. It was reported that the Rams were deciding between Watkins and Joyner on who to give their franchise tag to.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Chiefs To Sign Sammy Watkins

The Chiefs and Sammy Watkins have agreed to a three-year, $48MM deal, sources tell Ian Rapoport of NFL.com (on Twitter). The deal includes $30MM fully guaranteed at signing.

The deal brings one of the biggest offensive weapons in this year’s free agent class to Kansas City. Watkins did not have the kind of year he wanted to in Los Angeles, but he is still potentially lethal, particularly if he can stay healthy. From 2014 to 2016, Watkins averaged 66 grabs for 1,063 yards and seven scores per 16 games – numbers that are a bit skewed since he missed 13 games between ’15 and ’16.

The Chiefs now boast a scary offense led by Watkins, Travis Kelce, Kareem Hunt, Tyreek Hill and dynamic quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Albert Wilson and De’Anthony Thomas are the only players in the team’s receiving corps that are due to hit unrestricted free agency this offseason.

Watkins — a former No. 4 overall pick in 2014 by the Bills — became the second major wide receiver free agent domino to fall over the last two days, with Allen Robinson agreeing to a deal with the Bears on Monday. Robinson’s deal with the Bears is expected to be in the range of three years, $42MM.

The Rams were reportedly intent on retaining Watkins but placing the franchise tag on Lamarcus Joyner made that a difficult proposition for them. The Rams have already added Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib to their secondary and have the likes of Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, Josh Reynolds and Pharoh Cooper at receiver. The Rams have already announced they plan to cut ties with Tavon Austin when the new league year begins Wednesday.

[RELATED: Chiefs Depth Chart]

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

PFR’s Top 50 NFL Free Agents For 2018 1.0

There will be tons of free agents available in March, but only a some of them can be real difference makers for your favorite team. To help separate the wheat from the chaff, we’ve assembled our early list of the Top 50 NFL Free Agents for 2018.

Our early version of the NFL’s top 50 free agents may include players who will be re-signed between now and March 14. When we update this list next week, a few of the big names will be spoken for while new high-profile names will join the fray as veterans become cap casualties.

Recently, we broke down the top free agents by position on both offense and defense, but our rankings below may not have each player listed in the same order. Those position lists took the short-term value of a player into account more heavily, meaning many players in their 30s received prominent placement. Our overall top 50 list favors longer-term value, and is more about forecasting which players will be in highest demand when it comes to years and dollars.

With those caveats out of the way, let’s dive in! Here are Pro Football Rumors’ top 50 NFL free agents for 2018:

1. Kirk Cousins, QB (Redskins): At long last, Kirk Cousins is headed towards unrestricted free agency. You may or may not regard Cousins as a star, but he is the best quarterback in recent history to reach the open market and QB-needy teams will be rolling out the red carpet for him. The Jets, Vikings, Broncos, and Cardinals have been named as the top suitors for his services, but the NFL is full of surprises this time of year and we would not be surprised to see other teams get involved. The cash-flush Browns are reportedly keen on signing a lower-cost vet and drafting a QB early, but who’s to say they won’t change course and get in on the Cousins sweepstakes? The Bills, Giants, Dolphins, Bucs, and Colts could also consider kicking the tires here, but there are obstacles in that bunch ranging from established starters already in place (Eli Manning, Ryan Tannehill, Jameis Winston, and Andrew Luck) to financial constraints. No matter where he goes, it’s almost certain that Cousins will become the league’s highest-paid player of all-time. That is, until another top-tier QB signs a contract extension soon after.

2. Drew Brees (Saints): There are multiple possibilities for Cousins but it’s hard to see a scenario in which Brees actually leaves the Saints. Brees has already said that he does not plan on testing free agency, so he’ll likely put pen to paper before things begin on March 14. As far as we can tell, the only way Brees will think about leaving is if he is lowballed to an extreme degree by the Saints, but that seems improbable based on his history with the team

3. Case Keenum (Vikings): One year ago, no one ever would have expected Keenum to be one of 2018’s most sought-after free agents. The Vikings signed the former Rams signal caller to a one-year, $2MM deal in March with the idea that he would back up Sam Bradford and, eventually slide down to third on the depth chart when/if Teddy Bridgewater returned to full health. When Bradford went down in September, Keenum exceeded all expectations and put together the best season of his career. The 30-year-old graded out as Pro Football Focus’ ninth-ranked QB in 2017, putting him above the likes of Jimmy Garoppolo, Aaron Rodgers, Marcus Mariota, Matthew Stafford, and Tyrod Taylor. With Keenum at the helm, the Vikings earned a first-round bye and beat the Saints in a playoff thriller before succumbing to the Eagles in the NFC championship game. Of course, after four seasons of mediocrity, teams are wondering whether this was an aberration or a real sign of things to come. Teams know that Keenum is not a lock, but he’s also the best Plan B for any team that loses out on Cousins or doesn’t have the means to sign him.

4. Andrew Norwell, G (Panthers): There was a time when tackles were the only offensive linemen to really cash in on the open market. That’s no longer the case, as evidenced by the contracts of Kevin Zeitler (five years, $60MM) and Kelechi Osemele (five years, $58.5MM). Osemele inked his free agent deal with the Raiders in 2016 and Zeitler signed his in the 2017 offseason. Given the cap increase and the natural progression of the market, Norwell figures to reset the market for interior linemen. Keenum figures to gross no less than $20MM/year on his next contract, so he’s slotted behind him, but an average annual value of $13-14MM is not out of the question for the former undrafted free agent.

5. Nate Solder, OT (Patriots): Solder isn’t coming off of his best season and he might be the least sexy name in the top ten. Still, there’s a dearth of tackles league-wide and Solder has been among the league’s best at his position for quite some time. The Patriots are bracing for Solder to leave as they fear he’ll garner offers of $12MM/year. No other tackle in this year’s free agent crop is even close to him in terms of ability, so we’re also buying into the hype. Injuries contributed to Solder’s up-and-down season, particularly early on, so teams will take that into account when evaluating him.

6. Allen Robinson, WR (Jaguars): The Jaguars opted against using the franchise tag on Robinson, which is understandable since they have limited cap space. Robinson missed almost all of 2017 with an ACL tear, but his 2015 season (and even his so-so 2016 campaign) gives teams reason to believe that he can be a quality WR1. Robinson is one of only two such players on the unrestricted market, so expect him to get paid. Robinson probably couldn’t do worse than Kenny Britt‘s four-year, $32MM deal with the Browns from last season (and he should do a whole lot better), but if he is underwhelmed by the multi-year offers he receives, he could always go the Alshon Jeffery route. Jeffery inked a one-year, $9.5MM prove-it deal with the Eagles and that turned out to be a smashing success for both parties. Jeffery was rewarded with a four-year, $52MM extension in December, so Robinson’s camp will surely be open to a pillow contract if necessary. 

7. Sammy Watkins, WR (Rams): Some may view Robinson and Watkins as 1A and 1B in this year’s wide receiver class, particularly since Robinson missed all of 2017 and Watkins, despite his own injury history, played in all but one of the Rams’ games. Unfortunately, Watkins did not have the platform year he was hoping for as he caught just 39 passes for 593 yards. If we strike Robinson’s lost year and Watkins’ down year from the record, the breakdown favors the Jags receiver – Robinson averaged 77 receptions for 1,078 yards and eight touchdowns per 16 games in that set versus Watkins’ 66 grabs for 1,063 yards and seven scores. These two should come pretty close in average annual value, but we give the edge to Robinson.

8. Trumaine Johnson, CB (Rams): Players often bemoan the franchise tag, but Johnson can’t really complain after receiving two consecutive tags from the Rams and earning more than $30MM between 2016 and 2017. The Rams, rightfully, did not consider a third consecutive tag for Johnson at a cost of ~$20MM and they already have his replacement in Marcus Peters. That’s one suitor down, but plenty of other teams will be eager to speak with Johnson, who profiles as the best cornerback in a deep class.

9. Sheldon Richardson, DT (Seahawks): Richardson gave the Jets lots of headaches, but he also gave them high-end production. He didn’t quite match that production in Seattle, but Richardson is positioned for a massive payday anyway since impactful defensive linemen are at a premium. Our own Dallas Robinson estimates that Richardson will garner about $9MM/year, but I would say that is his floor. The top-end of free agency rarely yields team-friendly deals, so Richardson could easily creep into eight figures in AAV, particularly since he does not turn 28 until November.

10. Dontari Poe, DT (Falcons): Poe thought he was in for a monster contract last offseason, but concerns about his lingering back issues forced him to take a one-year, $8MM deal with Atlanta. Teams may still worry about his back being a ticking time bomb, but perhaps they’ll view him in a different light now that he has played back-to-back 16 game seasons and has only missed two regular season contests over the course of his career.

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Rams Tag Lamarcus Joyner

The Rams have placed a non-exclusive franchise tag on safety Lamarcus Joyner. Because each team is only allowed to tag one player per offseason, this means that Sammy Watkins will be ticketed for free agency unless the two sides come to an agreement between now and March 14. 

[RELATED: Rams Trade Robert Quinn to Dolphins]

The Rams are still intent on keeping Watkins, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com (Twitter link). Although the Rams value both players, tagging Joyner was the less costly option. The franchise tag for safeties this year is $11.287MM. Conversely, the tag for wide receivers is $15.982MM.

The Rams have a fair amount of flexibility this offseason, so an extension for Watkins could still be in the cards. At the same time, they’ll have to factor for future deals with running back Todd Gurley and defensive tackle Aaron Donald. On the plus side, their recent trade of Robert Quinn to the Dolphins has opened up additional room.

Joyner, a 2014 second-rounder, never started more than eight games in a season until 2017. He shifted from cornerback to free safety in his contract year and broke out in a big way. Last season, Joyner started 12 contests and graded out as the third-best safety in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus.

The Rams have until July 16 to hammer out a long-term deal with Joyner. If the two sides are unable to reach a multi-year accord, Joyner will play out the 2018 season under the terms of his one-year tender.

Before the tag, Joyner profiled as the top available safety in free agency. Now, the best safeties available include the likes of Eric Reid, Morgan Burnett, Tre Boston, Kenny Vaccaro, Bradley McDougald, Tyvon Branch, and Marcus Gilchrist. It remains a deep class at safety, but none of those players offer the same kind of upside as Joyner. There will be some notables on the trade market as well, but as of this writing, the Seahawks seem intent on keeping Earl Thomas.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Top 2018 NFL Free Agents By Position: Offense

NFL free agency will get underway on Wednesday, March 14th, and while the list of free agents will change between now and then, we do have some idea of who will be available when free agency kicks off. The frenzy is right around the corner and it’s time for us to break down the outlook for each position. We’ll start today on offense, before getting to defense and special teams later this week.

Listed below are our rankings for the top 15 free agents at each offensive position. The rankings aren’t necessarily determined by the value of the contracts that each player is expected to land in free agency, they are simply the players we like the most at each position, with both short- and long-term value taken into account. Restricted and exclusive-rights free agents are not listed here since they are unlikely to actually reach the open market. The same goes for players who have been franchise tagged or transition tagged.

We’ll almost certainly be higher or lower on some guys than you are, so we encourage you to make your voice heard in our comments section to let us know which free agents we’ve got wrong.

Here’s our breakdown of the current top 15 free agents by offensive position for 2018:

Quarterback:

  1. Kirk Cousins
  2. Drew Brees
  3. Case Keenum
  4. A.J. McCarron
  5. Sam Bradford
  6. Teddy Bridgewater
  7. Colin Kaepernick
  8. Josh McCown
  9. Mike Glennon
  10. Drew Stanton
  11. Jay Cutler
  12. Chase Daniel
  13. Ryan Fitzpatrick
  14. Brock Osweiler
  15. Tom Savage

There were many difficult calls when putting this list together, but ranking Kirk Cousins as the No. 1 QB available was not among them. Cousins is the best quarterback to reach free agency in recent history and he’ll become the highest-paid player of all-time – at least, for some period of time – in mid-March. Who will make history with Cousins? That’s anyone’s guess right now. The Browns have more cap room than any other team, but a recent report from Adam Schefter of ESPN.com listed the Broncos, Cardinals, Jets, and Vikings as the final suitors for Cousins. Of those four, the Jets have the most money to work with, but they’re concerned about the Vikings winning out and Cousins’ desire to win could point him in another direction. If the Broncos and Cardinals want in on the Cousins sweepstakes, they’ll have to get creative with the books.

Drew Brees is included here, but by his own admission, he’ll be re-signing with the Saints rather than testing the open waters of free agency. Unless the Saints lowball their franchise QB, it’s hard to see him leaving New Orleans.

Case Keenum put together a tremendous season for the Vikings, but he doesn’t have a history of success beyond 2017. There will be plenty of interest in Keenum, but only after QB-needy teams strike out on Cousins. The incumbent Vikings could re-sign Keenum, but right now, it seems like they are intent on exploring the Cousins waters first.

There isn’t a ton of footage on A.J. McCarron, which made his placement on this list awfully tricky. We know this much: McCarron did well in place of Dalton in the home stretch of the 2015 season and his former offensive coordinator Hue Jackson was salivating at the chance of landing him before the Browns bungled the trade with the Bengals. McCarron’s relative youth is a plus (he won’t turn 28 until September) and his lack of experience can be looked at as a positive. Unlike some of the other names on this list, he hasn’t run up his NFL odometer.

What will NFL teams make of Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford this offseason? Not long ago, both seemed like quality starting options. However, there are serious injury questions about both players and any team signing them will either look to backstop them with another decent option or ask them to come onboard as a QB2. With that in mind, one has to wonder if Bradford would consider retirement if asked to hold the clipboard for another signal caller. Bradford has earned upwards of $110MM over the years in the NFL, so it’s safe to say that he has enough money in the bank to call it quits if he wants. For now, he’s intent on playing.

Colin Kaepernick‘s placement on this list is sure to draw some strong reactions from his fans and detractors alike. Looking purely at his football ability, there’s no question that he belongs on someone’s roster. At minimum, Kaepernick profiles as a high-end backup, even after a year out of the game.

Quarterbacks coaches have long believed that Mike Glennon is capable of great things, due in part to his height. At 6’7″, he can see over any defensive line, but he hasn’t done much on the field to prove that he is a quality Week 1 starting option. Josh McCown, who is a decade his senior, edges him here for his surprisingly strong performance in 2017 at the helm of a weak Jets offense.

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Rams To Tag Either Watkins Or Joyner

The Rams have two franchise tag candidates in wide receiver Sammy Watkins and safety Lamarcus Joyner. One of those players will receive the tag on Tuesday, Ian Rapoport of NFL.com tweets, but they have yet to decide which one. 

[RELATED: Sammy Watkins, Franchise Tag Candidate]

By tagging one of the players, the Rams will guarantee that they will not lose both players to unrestricted free agency. However, if they cannot come to terms on a deal with either Watkins or Joyner before March 14, they’ll risk losing a key cog to the open market.

Late last month, it was reported that the Rams are leaning towards tagging Joyner over Watkins. Joyner would represent the cheaper tag as the projected cost for safeties is just over $11MM. Tagging Watkins would be more costly at a rate of about $16.23MM.

There’s more to the decision than just the Rams’ evaluation of each player and the cost. For all of Watkins’ drawbacks, including a dicey health history and a down year in 2017, he stands as one of the best potential free agents at his position. If the Rams do not tag him, they’ll be embroiled in a bidding war with other WR-needy teams and his price could quickly become too rich for their blood. Joyner, meanwhile, may profile as the best safety on the market, but there are other quality options near the top including Morgan Burnett, Kenny Vaccaro, Tre Boston, and Eric Reid.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Rams Leaning Toward Tagging Joyner?

The Rams made a deal to add a snazzy new piece to their secondary on Friday by agreeing to trade for Marcus Peters, and while this figures to relocate Trumaine Johnson, the other key UFA in Los Angeles’ defensive backfield might not be going anywhere.

If it’s between Lamarcus Joyner or Sammy Watkins as to which player the Rams will use their franchise tag on, Mike Garafolo of NFL.com reports the team is leaning toward Joyner as of Friday.

The goal remains to reach a long-term agreement with one of the two UFAs in order to keep the other player via the tag, Garafolo notes. The looming Aaron Donald contract could complicate that strategy, but the Rams appear to be interested in retaining both Joyner and Watkins for 2018.

A tag for Joyner would be the cheaper course of action, with a safety tag expected to cost $11.08MM. A Watkins tag would be pricey, locking him down for $16.23MM. The Rams, though, invested more in Watkins by trading a second-round pick and E.J. Gaines. But the former Bills first-round pick struggled to assimilate in Los Angeles, although eight of his 39 catches ended in touchdowns.

Joyner was a 2014 second-rounder and hadn’t started more than eight games in a season until his contract year, when he started 12 and had a strong season. On a safety market flooded with talent, Joyner may be the top UFA if he reaches the market. With the Dolphins tagging Jarvis Landry and the Jaguars possibly set to tag Allen Robinson, Watkins would surely also fare well on the open market.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

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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Franchise Tag Candidate: Sammy Watkins

The Rams pulled off a blockbuster move leading up to the 2017 season, trading defensive back E.J. Gaines and a second-round pick in 2018 to the Bills in exchange for former first-round receiver Sammy Watkins and a sixth-round selection in 2018. "<strong

The move was a mixed bag for Los Angeles. On the one hand, Watkins led the team with eight receiving touchdowns, averaged 15.2 yards per reception and helped the Rams post the No. 1 scoring offense in the league. On the other hand, however, the fourth-year wideout made only 39 receptions on the season and ranked fourth on the team with 593 yards. The thought is that the receiver will benefit of a full offseason with the high-powered offense.

“I just think he got on a roll with the guys that [Jared Goff] had during OTAs, and once a guy is used to throwing it to someone else, he throws to his guys,” Watkins said. “It’s just part of the game where you need more time, or maybe another year.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Watkins would like the remain with the Rams and that they would like to have him back. His proficiency on vertical routes opens up the middle of the field for chain movers like Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp, and frees up space in the flats for Todd Gurley. What could hold the team back from tagging the explosive wideout is twofold. First, the cost to franchise tag a receiver is projected to be $16.2 MM, according to overthecap.com. That’s a hefty price to pay for a receiver who has missed 12 games in the last three seasons and didn’t show much in 2018. The second reason is that the Rams are also debating placing the franchise tag on safety Lamarcus Joyner. That would only cost Los Angeles a projected $11 MM.

In 2018, Pro Football Focus rated Watkins the No. 33 receiver in the NFL with a grade of 76.2, tying him with Ted Ginn. The site also published a piece on the receiver, detailing how his touchdown rate — 11.43 — is almost impossible to replicate. From the in-depth article:

So, from 2007 to 2016, 60 players had a 10-percent touchdown rate on 50-plus targets. Of those 60, two (2012-13 Danario Alexander and 2013-14 Marvin Jones) did not play at all the next season. So 58, then. Those 58 players averaged 10.8 touchdowns on 87.12 targets (12.7 percent). A year later, that same group averaged 5.5 touchdowns on 83.8 targets (6.8 percent). Essentially, guys who score touchdowns at a 10-percent rate one year see that rate cut in half the next.

There is no doubting the talent Watkins possesses. If he can recapture and build on his success from his Buffalo days, there is no doubt the Clemson product has the potential to be an 80-catch, 1,200-yard, 10-touchdown receiver in one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL.

As detailed earlier on Pro Football Rumors, receiver is not one of the Rams’ most pressing needs entering the 2018 offseason. With Woods, Cupp and the emerging Josh Reynolds, Los Angeles appears set with plenty of talent at the position. With a projected $51 MM in cap space, however, the team could afford to bring back Watkins for another year to see if Watkins can live up to his projected playmaker status coming out of college.

The choice is a boom-or-bust one for the Rams. Do they think he is likely to emerge as a No. 1 pass catcher in a potent attack with a full season working with Goff in the books? Or do they think that 2018 is the beginning of a trend rather than an outlier?

 

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.