Agent's Take: 17 most likely players to get franchise and transition tags in 2020
Dak Prescott, Jameis Winson and A.J. Green make the list; here's what else to look for, and how it all works
The rules relating to franchise and transition tags are different for 2020, which is the 10th and final year of the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement. In the CBA's other nine years, teams could designate one impending free agent as a franchise or transition player. 2020 allows for the use of a franchise and a transition tag so teams can keep two players with expiring contracts from hitting the open market. This year, six players were given franchise tags. Teams having an extra tag available should result in more players being restricted in 2020.
The 15-day period to name franchise and transition players begins on Feb. 25. The designation deadline is March 10 at 4 p.m. ET.
A look at how franchise and transition tags work is below. The projected 2020 franchise and transition numbers and an examination of the best candidates to receive the designations next year follows.
How franchise and transition tags work
There is some confusion on how franchise and transition tenders are calculated. Prior to the 2011 CBA, non-exclusive franchise tags had been an average of the five largest salaries in the prior year at a player's position or 120 percent of the prior year's salary of the player, whichever was greater. For franchise tag purposes, salary means a player's salary cap number, excluding workout bonuses and most other performance bonuses.
The 120 percent and five largest salaries provisions remain intact, but the formula component is now calculated over a five year period that's tied to a percentage of the overall salary cap. More specifically, the number for each position is determined by taking the sum of the non-exclusive franchise tags as determined by the original methodology for the previous five seasons and dividing by the sum of the actual NFL salary cap amount for the previous five seasons. The resulting percentage, which is known as the Cap Percentage Average in the CBA, is then multiplied by the actual salary cap for the upcoming league year.
This non-exclusive tag allows a player to negotiate with other NFL teams, but if he signs an offer sheet with another club, his team has five days to match the offer. If the offer is not matched, his team will receive two first round picks as compensation from the signing team.
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Under the exclusive franchise tag, a player will receive a one-year offer from his team that is the greater of the average of the top five salaries at his position once the restricted free agent signing period of the current league year has ended (April 17 for 2020) or 120 percent of his prior year's salary. The non-exclusive number is initially used as placeholder and adjusted upwards if the exclusive calculation dictates once restricted free agency ends. A player cannot negotiate with other teams with the exclusive franchise tag.
The transition tag has been used with less frequency than the franchise tag. It is based on the average of the top 10 salaries at a player's position using the same methodology as non-exclusive franchise tag calculations. The 120 percent provision also applies. Teams have the same right of first refusal as with franchise tags but do not receive any draft choice compensation for declining to match an offer sheet.
2020 tag projections
The chart below contains an early look at the 2020 franchise and transition tags. I keep track of the salary data necessary to do the calculations under the franchise and transition tag formulas. I recently confirmed with my NFL sources the 2019 data entering the formula. The tags numbers are preliminary because the numbers can't be finalized until the 2020 salary cap is set in late February or early March.
NFL teams were informed at a league meeting on Dec. 10 that the 2020 salary cap is preliminarily projected to be between $196.8 million and $201.2 million. $200 million is being used for the 2020 salary cap. This is because of how the Cowboys and Raiders are valuing the restricted free agent (RFA) year in linebacker Jaylon Smith and tight end Darren Waller's respective contract extensions. RFA tenders are tied to the rise in the salary cap subject to a five percent minimum and 10 percent maximum increase. The Cowboys applied a six percent increase to the current $4.407 million first round RFA tender with Smith's deal. The Raiders valued Waller's 2020 RFA year at $3.3 million, which is a 6.62 increase over the existing second round tender.
$200 million is consistent with the Raiders and Cowboys applications. It is a 6.27 percent over the current $188.2 million salary cap.
Note: Projections assume 2020 salary cap is $200 million
Franchise tag candidates
A few players who would have been prime franchise or transition tag candidates aren't because of language in their contracts. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Seahawks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who was franchised this year, have clauses preventing them from being designated as a franchise or transition player in 2020.
The ship has probably sailed on getting Prescott to accept a long term deal for less than the one Rams quarterback Jared Goff signed right before the regular season started. Goff's four year, $134 million extension averages $33.5 million per year and is worth as much as $147.95 million because of incentives and salary escalators. The deal contains an NFL record $110,042,682 in guarantees.
Prescott is having the best statistical season of his four year NFL career. He already has his first 4,000 yard passing season. Prescott has also set a career high with 24 touchdown passes. He is leading the league in passing yards and is track to become the eighth quarterback in NFL history to throw for over 5,000 yards in a season. Prescott's 98.2 passer rating is his highest since he was a rookie in 2016.
What Prescott is doing just isn't translating into wins for the Cowboys. After a 3-0 start against weak teams, the Cowboys are 6-7. Despite a below .500 record, Dallas still has a legitimate chance of winning the NFC East, the worst division in football, and hosting a wild card playoff game.
Quarterbacks usually get the exclusive version of the franchise tag. The exclusive designation currently projects to $33.229 million and is subject to change. A second franchise tag in 2021 at a 20 percent increase over this projection would be $39,874,800. If the franchise tag game starts being played, there won't be much incentive for Prescott to sign before there's a resolution with 2018 NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes, who is eligible to sign an extension with the Chiefs once the regular season ends on Dec. 29. Mahomes is potentially the NFL's first $40 million per year player. Doing Prescott after a Mahomes contract is in the market place will probably force the Cowboys to beat Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson's $35 million per year extension, which presently tops the NFL, by a considerable margin.
It's been nearly five seasons and the Buccaneers still don't know if the 2015 first overall pick is the answer at quarterback. Head coach Bruce Arians, who is known as a quarterback whisperer, apparently is going to reserve judgment about making a commitment to Winston for 2020 and/or beyond until the end of the season. Arians developed his reputation primarily because of his work with Peyton Manning early in his career, Ben Roethlisberger's ascension as an upper echelon passer and for resurrecting Carson Palmer's career when was with the Cardinals.
Winston's good, bad and ugly were on full display in Sunday's 38-35 win over the Colts. He threw for a career high 456 yards and had a career best five touchdowns (four passing and one rushing). Winston also threw three interceptions. It was his fourth game this season with at least three interceptions.
Turnovers have plagued Winston throughout his career. Winston easily leads with 104 turnovers (81 interceptions and 23 lost fumbles) since he entered the NFL in 2015. He has a realistic shot at leading the league in touchdown passes and interception this season. It last happened in 2012 with Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Winston is second with 26 touchdown passes and his 23 interceptions are seven more than any quarterback has thrown.
Tannehill has gotten the Titans back in the AFC South race by going 6-1 since replacing 2015 second overall pick Marcus Mariota as starting quarterback. The Titans have reportedly had internal discussions about offering Tannehill a long term deal rather than giving him a non-exclusive franchise tag because of the turnaround. Tannehill leads the NFL with a 118.5 passer rating and is second with a 73.4 completion percentage. With Tannehill under center, Tennessee has been averaging 31.4 per points per game. It was 16.9 when Mariota was starting. Offensive yards have also increased dramatically from 290 per game to 395.
The Chiefs made a major investment in a pass rusher during the offseason. It just wasn't Jones, even though he set a NFL record last season by recording a sack in 11 straight games and was third in the league with 15.5 sacks. Defensive end Frank Clark, who had been franchised, was signed to a five-year, $104 million contract with $62.305 million in guarantees ($43.805 million fully guaranteed at signing) in connection with his trade from the Seahawks shortly before late April's NFL draft. Jones isn't duplicating his 2018 performance, which was always going to be a difficult task. He missed three games earlier this season with a groin injury. The Chiefs are hopeful about keeping Jones in Kansas City long term although most teams don't have two high priced pass rushers.
Peters has looked more like the player who was named the NFL's 2015 Defensive Rookie of the Year and earned All-Pro honors in first two years since his midseason trade to the Ravens than at any point during his 25 games with the Rams, which includes last year's playoffs. He has picked off three passes and returned two for touchdowns during his seven games with the Ravens.
The cornerback market is due for a major re-set. It's been stagnant for several years. Xavien Howard, who signed a five year extension averaging $15.05 million per year with the Dolphins in the offseason, is the highest paid cornerback. Josh Norman is still the position's standard bearer in the most important contract metrics. The five year, $75 million deal he signed with the Redskins in 2016 has a cornerback best $50 million in overall guarantees, $36.5 million fully guaranteed at signing and a $51 million three year cash flow.
Green is one of the NFL's best wide receivers when healthy. Healthy is something Green hasn't been in recent years. He missed six games in 2016 because of a hamstring tear and was limited to nine games last season due to a toe injury requiring surgery. Green hasn't played this season because of an ankle injury suffered in training camp that also required surgery. He had career lows of 46 receptions and 694 receiving yards in 2018.
The Bengals have a history of signing core players to extensions rather than letting them hit the open market. Green, who turns 32 in July, has expressed a desire to remain in Cincinnati for as long as possible but also doesn't want to be franchised. It remains to be seen what type of impact Green's injuries and age will have on his next deal in an escalating wide receiver market. One thing we do know is any deal that keeps Green in Cincinnati will not have comparable security to the top wide receiver deals because Bengals veteran contracts are historically light on guarantees.
Hooper was arguably the NFL's most productive tight end before spraining the MCL in his left knee during a Week 10 contest against the Saints. He returned to action on Sunday versus the Panthers after missing three games because of his knee injury.
Hooper became only the third tight end in NFL history to have at least 50 receptions, 500 receiving yards and five touchdown catches in the first half of a season. This feat was previously accomplished by Ben Coates (Patriots) and Shannon Sharpe (Broncos) in 1994 and 1996 respectively.
Hooper may be pricing himself out of Atlanta absent a franchise tag. It would be a major surprise if Steve Caric, Hooper's agent, wasn't looking to re-set a stagnant tight end market. Jimmy Graham became the NFL's first $10 million per year tight end in 2014 with the Saints. He's still the league's only $10 million per year tight end on a different deal. Graham signed a three-year, $30 million contract with the Packers in 2018 free agency.
It will take some salary cap gymnastics for Atlanta to comfortably accommodate a Hooper franchise tag. The Falcons have one of the NFL's more challenging salary cap situations for next year. There are $206.4 million of 2020 cap commitments, which is the second most in the NFL, with 42 players under contract. The top 51 cap numbers matter under offseason cap accounting rules. The Falcons have just under $4.5 million of existing cap space, which can be carried over to next year.
Henry was expected to have a breakout season in 2018 before suffering a torn right ACL in offseason workouts. He was bit the by the injury bug again in first game of this season. Henry missed the next four games with a tibia plateau fracture to his left knee. In the eight games since his return, Henry has 37 catches for 476 yards with four touchdowns. The Chargers might want Henry to put a full healthy season together before making a potential tight end market setting long term commitment to him.
Linebacker Myles Jack, a fellow 2016 draftee, signing a four-year, $57 million extension at the end of the preseason seemingly assures that Ngakoue won't be hitting the open market. Players with a demonstrated ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks are typically paid a premium in free agency.
Ngakoue's brief training camp holdout came to end in early August primarily because of the need to earn another accrued season (i.e.; a year of service towards free agency). One isn't earned when a player doesn't report to his team at least 30 days prior to NFL's first regular season game. Missing this August 6 deadline with Ngakoue playing out his rookie deal after a failed holdout would have made him a restricted free agent in 2020 rather than unrestricted.
The Jaguars will be hard pressed to sign Ngakoue to a long term deal that doesn't put him in the $20 million per year pass rusher club, which currently has four members (Mack: $23.5 million per year; Aaron Donald: $22.5 million per year; Lawrence: $21 million per year; Clark: $20.8 million per year).
The Redskins made an effort to lock up Scherff, who earned Pro Bowl honors in 2016 and 2017, before the season started. The two sides were reportedly far apart in negotiations. History suggests that an offensive guard won't be given a franchise tag, but retaining Scherff takes on additional importance because disgruntled left tackle Trent Williams is expected to be traded in the offseason. The last guard was Logan Mankins by the Patriots in 2011. Scherff's franchise tag would be $15.03 million, which is 120% of his $12.525 million 2019 fifth year option salary. Recent history also suggests that a Pro Bowl caliber guard in his prime will re-set the market in free agency. The current standard is the four-year, $56.55 million extension averaging $14,137,500 per year Brandon Brooks recently received from the Eagles.
Colts general manager Chris Ballard hasn't made building the offensive line a priority just to let Castonzo walk out the door. Good left tackles are hard to find. The Eagles didn't do Ballard any favors by making right tackle Lane Johnson the league's highest paid offensive lineman at $18 million per year a couple of weeks ago with multiple years left on his contract. Castonzo, who turns 32 before next season starts, isn't going to re-set the market. It should be noted that 35 year old Joe Staley signed a two-year extension averaging $14 million per year in the offseason.
The Seahawks making perennial All-Pro Bobby Wagner the NFL's highest paid inside linebacker at the start of training camp made the franchise tag a more viable option. Reed hasn't been able to build upon his breakout 2018 season in which he had 10.5 sacks because he missed the first six games this season serving a suspension under league's personal conduct policy. Reed surely took note of the four-year, $68 million deal with $42.5 million in guarantees defensive tackle Grady Jarrett received from the Falcons in July as a franchise player.
Simmons picked the right time to play his best football, his contract year. The 2016 third round pick is thriving in first year head coach Vic Fangio's defense. Broncos strong safety Kareem Jackson, who is 31, signed a three-year contract averaging $11 million per year with $23 million fully guaranteed in free agency this year. Simmons, who recently turned 26, will surely be looking to better those marks in a long term deal.
Transition tag candidates
Getting a deal done with Prescott before the March 10 designation deadline would allow the Cowboys to franchise Cooper. The 120 percent provisions would apply to a transition designation on Cooper. 120 percent of Cooper's $13.924 million fifth year option salary for this season is $16,708,800.
The Cowboys didn't give up their 2019 first round pick to the Raiders for Cooper to have a short stint in Dallas. Prescott's improved play since the second of the 2018 season has coincided with Cooper's arrival as the legitimate receiving threat that had been sorely missing. Cooper is currently fifth in the NFL with 1,054 receiving yards and tied for second with eight touchdown receptions. He is on pace for 86 catches for 1,297 yards and 10 touchdowns, which would all be career highs. This gives Cooper a tremendous amount of leverage in negotiations.
Patience has been Cooper's best friend. Michael Thomas raised the bar for wide receivers in July when he signed a five-year, $96.25 million extension (worth up to $100 million through salary escalators) with the Saints. Julio Jones took salaries for pass catchers to new heights with the three-year, $66 million extension, in which $64 million was fully guaranteed at signing, he received from the Falcons right before the season started. Expect any long term deal Cooper signs with the Cowboys to fall between these two deals even though he isn't the same caliber of player.
Henry doesn't fit the profile of running backs who command top dollar. Dual threat running backs have been getting that type of money lately. The bottom of the top tier is the $13 million per year the Cardinals gave David Johnson in 2018. Henry doesn't add much in the passing game. He is more of a traditional ball carrier from the previous era. There's a big drop to the high end of the next salary tier, which is currently the $8.25 million per year Devonta Freeman received from the Falcons in 2017.
Nonetheless, Henry may be more valuable to the Titans than anyone else because of his role in the offense. Henry's 1,243 rushing yards are second in the NFL. He is tied for the league's second most touchdowns with 15. The only thing that seems like it could potentially slow Henry down is a lingering hamstring issue.
Henry establishing a new second tier of running back pay between Freeman's $8.25 million per year and Johnson's $13 million average yearly salary could be in order. The Titans wouldn't have to worry too much about another team creating a difficult to match offer sheet with a transition tag. Tennessee should still have over $20 million in cap space if it placed designations on both Tannehill and Henry. The Titans also don't have any pass catchers making number one wide receiver money, which is north of $15 million per year.
Barrett's bet on himself with a one-year, $4 million deal (worth up to $5 million in incentives) should pay big dividends. He earned NFC Defensive Player of the Month honors for September with nine sacks in the first four games. The nine quarterback takedowns also tied an NFL record for the most sacks through four games. Although Barrett isn't getting to the quarterback with the same frequency as in September, he still leads the NFL with 15 sacks.
Dupree is rewarding Pittsburgh's faith in him by keeping his $9.232 million fifth year option intact. He is having a career year. Dupree has 9.5 sacks and 46 quarterback pressures (combined sacks, quarterback hurries and quarterback hits) this season. The Steelers have been one of the biggest proponents of the transition tag, applying it to offensive tackle Max Starks in 2008 and linebacker Jason Worilds in 2014. Dupree is more productive than Worilds was when he was designated as a transition player. Worilds had eight sacks and 50 pressures in 2013.
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