Starting Tuesday, courtesy of the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and NFLPA, teams can begin to systematically constrict the very best potential free-agent talent in the league from hitting the market on their terms.
It's an annual exercise that causes frustration and angst among the NFL's labor force, but that has become a key window in the league's calendar and a primary mechanism for owners to keep their best players for six years or more and extend the period of time before he can truly negotiate, unencumbered, with all 32 teams as an unrestricted free agent. And this year, unlike many in the past, one could make the case that at least half the teams in the NFL will at least consider applying a franchise or transition tag to a player.
Indeed, by the time the league year opens in mid-March, I would anticipate at least eight teams, and probably more like 10, will apply a tag of some sort on a player to retain a measure of control over his next contract, mechanisms that will render most "Top 20 NFL Free Agent" lists meaningless, as many of those premier players are now actually franchise or transition players, and not unrestricted free agents after all. Of course, as unsettling as that prospect is for the players themselves – who know that they now will likely have to play out one more year without long-term security at a time when they would be getting $40M-plus guaranteed on the open market – it could always be worse …
Imagine a world in which we are a week away from the start of preseason games, and Demarcus Lawrence, Dee Ford, Le'veon Bell and Grady Jarrett were all still without a team. How disconcerting would that be? With the tagging window officially opening Tuesday, most NFL teams will wait until closer to the deadline two weeks from now to formally execute these transactions, but still, we could see several tags applied before baseball superstars like Manny Machado, Bryce Harper and Adam Jones have signed contracts. Crazy.
Here is a primer on the players and teams at least under consideration for the tag (excluding specialists), ranked in likelihood of them getting applied. I'm not listing every prominent free agent for a reason; these are the situations to watch:
DAL • DE • #90
One of the most dominating defensive players on the planet, the Cowboys are prepared to tag the defensive lineman for a second straight year. Given all the money Jerry Jones is about to spend on his defense -- Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper and Zeke Elliott will have their hands out -- does Lawrence pocket the tag and then figure on breaking the bank as a UFA at age 27? I wouldn't bet against it. Worked out pretty well for Kirk Cousins.
ATL • DT • #97
He is the anchor of that defense and a truly elite defensive lineman who the Falcons – in win-or-bust mode – can not live without. Jobs are on the line down there and letting him sniff the market is not in the cards. Will make a concerted push to get him signed long-term before the July cut-off.
TB • RB • #6
The Steelers have been planning for this since early in the regular season, when Bell decided not to sign his 2018 franchise tag. The NFL Management Council is prepared to fight the NFLPA over the right to apply this tag, and the Steelers want to control his rights. The transition amount could end up being essentially the $14M that Bell walked away from last year, and the Steelers remain eager to trade him to recoup 2019 assets. Could remain one of the most interesting and unusual contract showdowns of recent NFL history.
KC • DE • #55
After enduring a painful purge of top defensive talent in recent years, and retooling on the fly, the Seahawks aren't going to let this emerging pass-rushing force walk. They have some other huge issues to sort through before they get a handle on their budgets – Russell Wilson is in his walk year and KJ Wright is also a free agent – but I don't envision a scenario where it doesn't all begin with Clark on a tag.
NYG • SS • #26
Bad team with few signature players on defense cannot afford to let this playmaking safety get away. Especially at a time when I figure the Giants are trying to move the bloated contracts of corner Janoris Jenkins and pass rusher Olivier Vernon. GM Dave Gettleman has a sorted history with the tag (see Gettleman v. Josh Norman, circa 2016) but it is a necessary evil in this instance.
SF • OLB • #55
The Chiefs were leaning against going this route during the season from what I heard, but the linebacker/end just kept piling up the sacks and going from a suspect to a prospect after seeming like a tweener/potential bust for much of his career. Young pass rushers almost never see the UFA market in their prime; if he does he'll get a big-time payday.
CLE • OLB • #90
I am not sure there is a long-term marriage to be had between these parties. In fact, I would bet against that. But I also know that Bill O'Brien is expected to start winning in January, and doing so without this edge disrupter – a force in the run and pass game – will be difficult. Can you bank on another year of good health from JJ Watt? Could you trade him in 2020 if need be after applying a second tag? We might just find out.
IND • QB • #9
The Eagles are weighing playing a very dangerous game with their back-up QB. IF they tag Foles he will sign it ASAP and lock in his $25M. Ultimately, besides Jacksonville I don't know who else trades anything of value for him, and it's not like Foles is the only QB out there (Teddy Bridgewater, anyone?). How much more than the fourth-round pick Baltimore got for Joe Flacco can the Eagles hope for? And does it make more sense to just take the comp pick return in 2020 rather than risk it in 2019? Smart people I talk to around the league think the Eagles apply the tag in the end. Personally, I would not.
KC • T • #79
He is a very good and durable left tackle on a team that will be trying to turn it around ASAP behind a coach who just un-retired to return to the sidelines (Bruce Arians). And with developing Jameis Winston the priority, letting linemen walk is hardly ideal. The Bucs are tight against the cap but that is always fungible with a purge of older players expected. Wouldn't be surprised if they used the tag here.
NE • T • #77
Retaining Brown, who came out of nowhere to perform like an elite left tackle a year ago, may carry the day. Brady got pristine protection a year ago and will need it to continue and I understand they have an OL coach able to cultivate diamonds in the rough, with a chance to go to a fourth straight Super Bowl, and sufficient means to work the salary cap, I believe Belichick thinks long and hard about Brown in particular.
MIA • DE • #93
Flowers' ability to do everything on defense and get to the quarterback will get him paid to a level the Pats don't go.
NYJ • ILB • #57
One of the few blue chip players the Ravens have drafted since their last Super Bowl, he has significant appeal within their front office … But this team has a history of always finding young and cheap linebackers and has a bevy of position groups to try to address this offseason with youngster Lamar Jackson now the QB. They are pushing to get an extension done, though it is hard to see Mosley not hitting the market at this point. A tag of over $15M for a run-stuffing LB who doesn't get to the QB and does not shine in coverage is super steep.
DAL • OLB • #42
It wasn't just Cousins who got a huge payday from the Vikings a year ago, it was just about every other impending free agent on the roster, too. Well, except for this guy. And all of that spending has put the team in a position where a $15M tag for this linebacker is going to be hard to swallow. Barr wants to be get to rush the passer more – no shortage of teams will be willing to let him do just that.
BAL • T • #71
He is going to kill it on the open market given the desperate need for tackles across the league. But Miami has a brutal cap situation and is repositioning (tanking?) for the future and keeping him on a tag for one year probably doesn't fit that model. Need to get stud left tackle Laremy Tunsil signed to a long-term deal.
SF • DB • #2
The Chargers love this young corner and when he has been healthy he has been excellent. But injuries have limited him to just five games the past two years and he is coming off another lost season and recovering from surgery. The Chargers will work to keep him in the fold. But I can't foresee the tag being involved.
SF • DE • #94
I am putting him on this list since he did get the tag a year ago, but that was a risk the Lions took with little reward. Ansah's health remains a major concern, Detroit's defense struggled with him and giving him a 20 percent raise on top of the $17M he pocketed a year ago isn't going to fly. Will be interested to see if he doesn't end up on a high-end prove it contract for 2019 (kinda like Ndamukong Suh a year ago).