The clock is ticking for the seven franchise players that haven't signed long-term deals. These players have until 4 p.m. ET on July 15 to sign multi-year contracts. Once this deadline for franchise players has passed, the earliest a long-term deal can be is signed January 1, 2017 when the 2016 regular season ends.
Kirk Cousins, Alshon Jeffery, Trumaine Johnson and Justin Tucker have already signed their franchise tenders, which doesn't preclude a long-term deal. Eric Berry, Von Miller and Muhammad Wilkerson have not. Miller is the only one of the seven given an exclusive franchise tag, which prevents the Super Bowl 50 MVP from soliciting offer sheets from other teams.
Most franchise players don't reach an agreement until the deadline is rapidly approaching. In some cases, this occurs at the eleventh hour. Last year, long-term deals with the Dallas Cowboys and Denver Broncos seemed unlikely for Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas. The two wide receivers signed on deadline day.
Here's an assessment of each franchise player's situation with a prediction on whether a long-term deal will be signed before the July 15 deadline.
Franchise Tag: $14.26 Million
The Broncos and Miller have been at an impasse since the two sides couldn't agree on a long term contract in time for mandatory minicamp, which was June 7-9. Talks broke down over guaranteed money and cash flow of the deal.
A general framework for a contract is already in place since both sides are comfortable with a $114.5 million total and six years in length, which will make Miller the NFL's highest-paid non-quarterback at $19,083,333 per year. But the two sides are at an impasse over guaranteed money. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Denver's offer has $58 million in overall guarantees, with $38.5 million fully guaranteed at signing and $39.8 million guaranteed within the first two years. Included in that $38.5 million is a $21.5 million signing bonus.
To find common ground, the Broncos need to recognize Miller's contract should be structured similar to Fletcher Cox's recent six-year, $102.6 million extension with the Philadelphia Eagles containing a non-quarterback record $63.299 million in guarantees. In Cox's deal, $36.299 million is fully guaranteed. $55.549 million of Cox's deal will be fully guaranteed early next March. Having Miller's 2018 guarantee in his third contract year vest on a comparable time frame will give him $58 million fully guaranteed by next February or early March. This aspect of the deal will be more important to Miller than topping Cox's $63.299 million of overall guarantees.
Miller is adamant about sitting out the 2016 season if he doesn't sign a long-term deal. This is likely just posturing that should be taken with a grain of salt. Dan Williams of the Kansas City Chiefs in 1998 was the last franchise player to sit out an entire season.
Franchise Tag: $19.953 Million
Prediction: No deal
Cousins' smartest move may be to play the 2016 season on his franchise tag. That is, unless the Redskins are willing to sign him to a contract paying him as an above-average starting quarterback. This is unlikely. The Redskins have reservations because of his limited track record.
Currently, the average of the top 15 quarterback contracts is approximately $20.5 million per year. The average deal contains slightly less than $59 million in guarantees where a little more than $36 million is fully guaranteed at signing with 4.6 years as the length. For the top 10 QBs, the average rises to a little less than $21.75 million per year with approximately $60.75 million in guarantees, of which slightly under $38.5 million is fully guaranteed at signing. The average contract length for a top-10 QB is 4.2 years.
If Cousins plays well next season, Andrew Luck's newly signed five-year, $122.97 million contract extension containing $87 million in guarantees becomes highly relevant. Luck's deal resets the NFL pay scale, and absent a long-term deal before early next March, the Redskins would be forced to franchise Cousins again next year for $23,943,600.
This would put Cousins in position to command a long-term deal averaging a minimum of $24 million per year where he's in the same ballpark as Luck in other key contract metrics. If Cousins regresses with a mediocre season, he could still be in line for a deal similar to the four-year, $72 million deal that the Texans gave Brock Osweiler. Osweiler's deal has $37 million fully guaranteed.
Franchise Tag: $15.701 Million
Prediction: No deal
Wilkerson and the Jets have never been close on a new deal despite negotiations starting over two years ago. Cox becoming the NFL's second highest-paid non-quarterback last month on a six year extension averaging $17.1 million per year only complicates matters.
The Jets were reportedly open to trading Wilkerson prior to this year's NFL Draft because of a surplus of quality defensive linemen and his contract demands. Leonard Williams, the sixth overall pick in 2015's draft, was as good as advertised as a rookie and 2013 Defensive Rookie of the Year Sheldon Richardson's off-field problems appear to be behind him.
Expect Wilkerson to skip the early part of training camp if he doesn't sign a long-term deal by the deadline. Other franchise players in Wilkerson's position in recent years (Cliff Avril, Dwayne Bowe, and Jairus Byrd) have done the same to minimize the risk of injury during the preseason or to protest not getting a long-term deal since they weren't subject to a $30,000 fine, which is now $40,000, for each missed day because they weren't under contract. Wilkerson could finally hit the open market in 2017 because designating him as a franchise player next year would be $18,841,200, a 20 percent increase over his current franchise tag.
Franchise Tag: $10.806 Million
The five year, $51.25 million extension Harrison Smith signed with the Vikings last month should pave the way for a deal. Smith established new benchmarks for safeties in average yearly salary ($10.25 million) and overall guarantees ($28.578 million). In addition to topping Smith's new standards, the $22 million that the Patriots' Devin McCourty has fully guaranteed at signing in his contract will likely be important to Berry.
Kansas City is last in the NFL in salary cap room with slightly over $225,000 available. A long-term deal will give the Chiefs some much-needed salary cap relief. It could be as much as $7.5 million because the Chiefs typically structure their most lucrative contracts with modest first year cap numbers.
Franchise Tag: $14.599 Million
Prediction: No Deal
The Bears re-opened talks last month. Reaching an agreement on a long-term deal could still prove difficult. A contract comparable to Bryant, Thomas, Julio Jones and A.J. Green's will probably be required for Jeffery, who was one of the game's best wide receivers in 2015 when he wasn't plagued by nagging leg injuries that limited him to nine games.
These deals, which were signed in 2015, average between $14 million and $15 million per year. With the exception of Green, the players received between $43.5 million and $47 million of guarantees in their contracts. Letting Jeffery, who didn't miss any games in 2013 and 2014, play under the franchise tag would buy the Bears more time to decide whether to make such a big financial commitment until he can prove last year's injuries were an anomaly.
Franchise Tag: $13.952 Million
Prediction: No Deal
There hasn't been much progress on a new deal ever since the Rams used their franchise tag on Johnson instead of fellow cornerback Janoris Jenkins at the beginning of March. Johnson's salary floor should be slightly above what the Giants paid Jenkins in free agency. Jenkins got a five-year, $62.5 million contract ($12.5 million per year), which contains $28.8 million fully guaranteed.
Johnson finding a contract in the Josh Norman neighborhood more to his liking shouldn't come as a surprise. The Washington Redskins made Norman the NFL's highest-paid cornerback on an extremely front-loaded five-year, $75 million deal containing $50 million in guarantees a couple of days after the Carolina Panthers rescinded the franchise player designation that they had placed on him.
Franchise Tag: $4.572 Million
Tucker expressed optimism about getting a deal done last month during voluntary Organized Team Activities. He is the second most-accurate kicker in NFL history with an 87.8 percent conversion rate (minimum of 100 field goal attempts) despite hitting a career low 82.5 percent of his field goal attempts last season. In fairness, six of Tucker's seven misses were from 50 yards and beyond.
Tucker may not supplant Stephen Gostkowski as the NFL's highest-paid kicker but shouldn't be far behind him if he's doesn't. Gostkowski, who is the third-most accurate kicker in NFL history, got a four-year deal averaging $4.3 million per year with $10.1 million in guarantees last July as New England's franchise player.