The 2017 NFL free-agency period is less than a month away. Plenty of players will change teams this offseason, but not all of them will have outright freedom to maximize their market potential. Some players that want long-term deals but are not able to come to an agreement with their teams before free agency starts will be subjected to the dreaded franchise tag, which will pay them the average salary of the five highest-paid players at their position. Below, we’ll dig into some players that are candidates for the tag.
Kirk Cousins, QB, Washington
Cousins is one of three players on this list that played under the franchise tag during the 2016 season. If he’s tagged again, he would receive 120 percent of that 2016 tag value (approximately $23.9 million) as his 2017 salary. He has made no secret of the fact that he wants a long-term deal, but it would not be a surprise if Washington used the tag as a fail-safe so that it could still negotiate with him on a long-term pact it finds agreeable but be protected in case he finds a suitable contract from another team. It would cost two first-round picks in addition to the money paid out on the actual contract for a non-Washington team to do that, though, so it seems pretty unlikely.
Bell is arguably the best player in the league at his position and doesn’t turn 25 until later this week. That makes him the perfect candidate for a long-term deal. However, his history of injuries and suspension (he’s one more failed drug test away from being suspended for 10 games) might give Pittsburgh the slightest bit of pause in locking him up. The Steelers are reportedly planning to go the franchise route, per NFL.com, which would give Bell a 2017 salary of approximately $12.2 million. With Antonio Brown’s expected new deal set to hit the books this offseason, the Steelers could push their decision on Bell down the line another year; if he stays healthy and clean, they can then lock him up heading into 2018.
Think of Pryor as this year’s version of Cousins in 2016. The Browns found a player they want to keep but whose short track record means they can’t yet be certain he justifies a long-term, big-money deal. The two sides will surely attempt to negotiate a long-term deal, but there is likely a fairly sizable gap between the deal Pryor is expected to seek and what Cleveland is willing to pay out. The franchise tag becomes a place-holder that allows the team to take one more season to see what it has. It also gives Pryor the security of a guaranteed contract that pays him like one of the best players in the league at his position.
Jeffery, like Cousins, played last season on the franchise tag. Tagging him again would put the Bears on the hook for approximately $17.5 million for the 2017 season. That’s a whole lot to pay for a player that has missed 11 of the team’s past 32 games, but given his injury issues it doesn’t seem like the Bears are thrilled about signing him long-term, either. They have plenty of space under the cap and can fit a deal like this if they want to, plus they would get draft pick compensation if someone else were to sign Jeffery to a long-term contract the Bears don’t feel like matching.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera came out and said the team will “probably have to tag” Short. The tag will probably be a temporary fix while the two sides attempt to work out a long-term deal. Part of the reason the Panthers didn’t want to give Josh Norman big-time money last offseason was that they wanted to save some space in order to keep Short around for a while. Short himself has stated -- like many others that expect to be subjected to the tag -- that he would prefer not to be tagged, but that still seems like the most likely result.
The Cardinals traded a second-round pick and former first-rounder Jonathan Cooper for Jones last offseason, and they want to keep him around for a long time. He’s on this list because coach Bruce Arians said recently, “Chandler’s not going anywhere because if we have to, we will franchise him,” per the Cardinals’ official website. Jones plays a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker position in Arizona’s scheme, so it’ll be interesting to watch which tag he is subject to, if Arizona does elect to use it on him.
A.J. Bouye, CB, Houston Texans
Bouye broke out as one of the top cornerbacks in the AFC during his fourth season in Houston, starting the final 11 games and recording an interception in each of Houston’s playoff contests. He doesn’t really have any track record of high-level play beyond the 2016 season, though, and it seems likely that there will be a disconnect in the contract he seeks and the one Houston is willing to give. The franchise tag will get him paid and get the Texans another look at whether they want to invest big money over multiple years.
Berry played last season under the tag and will be eligible for 120 percent of his 2016 salary for next season if he’s tagged again. He has made back-to-back Pro Bowls and back-to-back All-Pro teams since returning from his bout with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and wants to be paid like the star safety that he is, even stating that he is “definitely not going to play under the franchise tag” next season. It makes sense for the Chiefs to use the tag in the event they don’t come to a long-term agreement by the start of free agency. Doing so would then extend their negotiating window into July.