Agent's Take: These seven players are the most likely candidates to get franchise tags in 2019
The Cowboys could put Demarcus Lawrence on the tag again, while Houston braces for a Jadeveon Clowney grievance
The franchise tag was originally intended to be a precursor for marquee players signing long-term contracts. It doesn't necessarily work that way. Just over 50 percent of franchise players (15 of 29) over the last five years have signed long-term deals (this excludes cornerback Josh Norman because his designation in 2016 was rescinded by the Panthers).
Traditionally, most players haven't been happy when given a franchise tag. The designation has evolved into a powerful management tool that restricts a team's best free agent in a given year from entering the open market regardless of whether he is a true marquee player. It can hinder the ability to gain long-term security.
Most notably, Kirk Cousins didn't share this view. The quarterback bet on himself during the 2016 and 2017 seasons by embracing the franchise tag, and it led to him getting the first fully-guaranteed NFL veteran contract in free agency this year. He signed a three-year, $84 million deal (worth a maximum of $90 million through incentives) with the Vikings.
Trumaine Johnson did the same thing, but it flew somewhat under the radar. After making just under $30.7 million during two seasons playing for the Rams on franchise tags, the cornerback signed a five-year, $72.5 million deal with the Jets containing $45 million in guarantees. Johnson is making a little less than $56.7 million from 2016 through 2018, which includes the first year of his Jets contract. The almost $56.7 million is NFL record compensation for a cornerback over a three-year period.
Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell is taking a different approach to being franchised for a second-straight year. He is the first franchise player to sit out a full season since the late 1990s. Bell was concerned that another heavy-usage season would impact his ability to land a huge contract in 2019. He led the NFL in rushing attempts and touches (combined receptions and rushing attempts) in 2017 despite sitting out the season finale for precautionary measures with the playoffs looming. Missing the season ensures Bell will be completely healthy for the offseason.
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Some important information about franchise-tag logistics is below. The projected 2019 franchise numbers and an examination of the best candidates to receive the designation next year follow.
NFL teams can retain the rights to one of their impending free agents in 2019 with the use of a non-exclusive or an exclusive franchise tag during a 15 day period from Feb. 19 to March 5.
The NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement mandates a tender at the greater of 120 percent of a player's salary in the prior year or the sum of the non-exclusive franchise numbers at his position (average of five largest salaries annually) over the last five years divided by the cumulative salary caps for the same period where the resulting percentage is multiplied by the upcoming league year's salary cap (known as Cap Percentage Average). For franchise tag purposes, salary means a player's salary cap number, excluding workout bonuses and most other performance bonuses.
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.
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 (or 120 percent of his prior year's salary) once the restricted free agent signing period of the current league year has ended (April 19 for 2019). The non-exclusive number is initially used as placeholder when the average of the top-five salaries is controlling 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.
Teams also have the option to apply a transition tag, which is used less frequently, instead of a franchise tag. The transition tag operates similarly to the non-exclusive franchise tag, except it is based on the average of the top-10 salaries at a player's position. 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.
The Bears gave cornerback Kyle Fuller a transition designation this year. The four-year, $56 million offer sheet he signed with the Packers became a binding contract for the Bears after exercising their right to match.
2019 franchise-tag projections
The chart below contains an early look at the 2019 franchise tags. I keep track of the salary data necessary to do the calculations under the franchise-tag formula. I recently confirmed with my NFL sources the 2018 data entering the formula. The franchise tags are preliminary because the numbers can't be finalized until the 2019 salary cap is set in late February or early March.
For the 2019 salary cap, $190 million is being used. The 7.22 percent increase from the current $177.2 million figure is consistent with the growth in the salary cap in recent years. The average annual increase over the last five years has been 7.58 percent.
Best 2019 candidates
An average of seven players per year have been given designations over the last five years. The breakdown is six franchise and one transition designation.
Several players who would have received or been good candidates for franchise tags in 2019 have already signed contract extensions. These include Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, Rams interior defensive lineman Aaron Donald, Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr., Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins and Bears outside linebacker Khalil Mack.
The Steelers putting a third and final franchise tag on Bell would be too cost prohibitive. The procedures outlined in the CBA dictate that Bell's third franchise tag will be the greater of 144 percent of his second franchise designation or the largest number at any position, which would be quarterback at approximately $25 million. This $25 million tag would operate like the exclusive one Bell received this year. Bell would be prevented from soliciting an offer sheet from other NFL teams.
Pittsburgh placing a transition designation on Bell is a realistic possibility according to CBS Sports Insider Jason LaCanfora. Since the running back number from the Cap Percentage Average projects to $9.186 million if the 2019 salary cap is $190 million, Bell's previous salary would be seem to be applicable. The precise language in the CBA defining the prior year's salary calculation dictates that the 120 percent will be measured from the $12.12 million franchise tag Bell played under in 2017 because he is sitting out this season. Bell's transition number would be same $14.544 million as his current franchise tag. The NFL reportedly would take the position in a grievance that Cap Percentage Average should be applicable since Bell is sitting out the season. It's hard to see how the NFL would prevail given wording in the CBA.
2018 franchise-tag recipients Lions defensive end Ziggy Ansah and Rams safety Lamarcus Joyner are unlikely to be designated for a second-consecutive year. Ansah is one of the NFL's better pass rushers when healthy, which has been a rarity since the 2015 season. He missed six games earlier this season because of a right shoulder injury. The Lions have been managing his snaps since his return. Joyner isn't playing at the Pro Bowl level he did in 2017. A 20-percent increase over his current $11.287 million franchise tag is $13,544,400.
Left tackles are the only offensive linemen that typically receive franchise tags. The franchise player system doesn't account for the salary differences at the three main offensive line positions (center, guard and tackle). A guard or center hasn't been franchised since the Patriots and Panthers used their designations on Logan Mankins and Ryan Kalil respectively in 2011.
The linebacker designation has been almost exclusively reserved for pass rushers in a 3-4 defensive scheme. The tag would be a financial windfall for other types of linebackers. It doesn't reflect the top of their market, which is currently $12.5 million per year. The linebacker number hasn't been below $12.5 million since 2014.
Lawrence is putting himself in a position to capitalize on his great attitude about playing this season under a $17.143 million franchise tag. He views the tag as an opportunity to break the bank in 2019 since the Cowboys were content to let the mid-July deadline for franchise players to sign long term deals pass without reaching an agreement with him. There were concerns about his 2017 breakout season -- in which he was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time while tying for second in the NFL with 14.5 sacks -- being an anomaly.
Lawrence is tied for third in the NFL in sacks over the last two seasons with 23 in 28 games. According to Pro Football Focus, Lawrence has the NFL's second-most quarterback pressures (combined sacks, quarterback hurries and quarterback hits) since the beginning of the 2017 season with 129.
By CBA rule, the Cowboys are precluded from signing Lawrence long-term until the regular season ends. Lawrence has been adamant about not playing under a tag two years in a row, although a second designation in 2019 will be $20,571,600 with the CBA's required 20-percent increase from his current number.
The top of the non-quarterback market has changed dramatically since the mid-July franchise-player deadline. Donald and Mack became charter members of the $20 million-per-year non-quarterback club in early September. Donald was the first to break the barrier when the Rams gave him a six-year, $135 million contract extension with $86.892 million in guarantees, which averages $22.5 million per year. Less than 48 hours later, Mack received a six-year, $141 million extension containing $90 million of guarantees from the Bears in conjunction with his trade from the Raiders. Mack's $60 million fully guaranteed at signing established a new record for non-quarterbacks as well as one for average yearly salary at $23.5 million.
Lawrence should be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the changing market conditions considering that players who can consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks are paid a premium. The five-year, $85 million contract containing $52.5 million in guarantees Olivier Vernon signed with the Giants during 2016 free agency was an important data point in offseason contract discussions. Lawrence is represented by David Canter, who negotiated Vernon's deal. It wouldn't be surprising if Canter viewed adjusting Vernon's contract to a 2019 salary-cap environment as a general contractual framework when negotiations can continue once the regular season ends. A comparable deal to Vernon's would average a little more than $20.75 million per year with the expected 2019 salary cap increase.
The Texans put a Clowney extension on hold because of his slower-than-expected recovery from minor knee surgery performed early in the offseason, which was a reminder of the injuries that defined his first two NFL seasons. Clowney, who has been named to consecutive Pro Bowls and earned some first team All-Pro/All-NFL honors in 2016, missed all of Houston's offseason activities because of the surgery. The 2014 first-overall pick is playing this season on a $12.306 million fifth-year option since the Texans have longstanding policy against in season contract negotiations. Clowney has said the blockbuster contracts of Donald and Mack, fellow 2014 first-round picks, are giving him additional motivation.
LaCanfora recently reported that Clowney is expected to file a grievance to be classified as defensive end if designated as a linebacker. For purposes of franchise tags, a player's position is determined by where he participated in the most plays during the prior season. A hybrid tag wouldn't be a foreign concept. In 2008, Terrell Suggs challenged his franchise-player designation as a linebacker by contending that the Ravens played him more at defensive end. The Ravens and Suggs settled the dispute without establishing a precedent by agreeing to use the average of the defensive end and linebacker franchise tags.
Clowney's fifth-year option was initially the $13.846 million defensive end number. It was lowered to the linebacker figure during the offseason. The change suggests that Clowney might have a hard time prevailing in a grievance. The difference between the two tags should be around $1.7 million.
Ford is this year's Demarcus Lawrence: A pass rusher who is having a breakout season with an expiring contract following an injury plagued year. His six sacks and four forced fumbles in five October games helped him garner AFC Defensive Player of the Month honors. Ford's 65 quarterback pressures are third in the NFL and first among edge rushers. He also has a career-high 10.5 sacks, which are eighth most in the league.
Any reluctance by the Chiefs to hand Ford a lucrative multi-year contract would be justifiable given that his play this season is an outlier, Ford would be in such high demand if the Chiefs let him hit the open market because he is a highly productive pass rusher in his prime that he would quickly join Donald, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and Mack, who won the award in 2016, in the $20 million-per-year non-quarterback club.
A long term deal will likely require a bigger commitment by the Chiefs than the one made to fellow outside linebacker Justin Houston in 2015 when he was Kansas City's franchise player. Houston, who was coming off a 2014 season in which he came close to breaking Michael Strahan's single-season record of 22.5 sacks by posting an NFL leading 22 sacks, signed a six-year contract averaging $16,833,333 per year with $52.5 million in guarantees. He had 87 pressures in 2014, which is Ford's projected 2018 total. Houston's deal is outdated in the current pass-rusher market.
Collins established himself as one of the game's best safeties during a 2016 campaign in which he earned first-team All-Pro honors. He hasn't done anything to dispel that notion over the last two seasons. Collins' 428 tackles are best among safeties since he entered the NFL in 2015. The Giants rebuffing inquires about Collins as the Oct. 30 trading deadline approached was a good indication that his future is New York although negotiations for a new contract haven't started. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the Giants intend on franchising Collins if a long-term deal isn't signed by the end of the tag designation period in early March.
Making left tackle Duane Brown and wide receiver Tyler Lockett contract extension priorities over Clark could prove to be costly for Seattle. Clark is currently tied for ninth in the NFL with 10 sacks. Clark's 29 sacks since the start of the 2016 season are the ninth most in the NFL, although he didn't become a starter until Cliff Avril's career-ending neck injury early last season. Erik Burkhardt, Clark's agent, recognizes the value of pass rushers and wouldn't be opposed to a franchise tag if he and Seahawks can't get on the same page financially.
Gostkowski is the third-most-accurate kicker in NFL history with an 87.4 percent conversion rate on field goals (minimum of 100 made). He hasn't missed a field goal inside of 48 yards this season. Gostkowksi is perfect on his 37 extra point attempts this season. The four-year, $17.2 million deal Gostkowski signed in 2015 as a franchise player still sets the kicker market. Gostkowski could have his sights set on becoming the league's first $5 million per year kicker. It will cost $5.98 million for New England to franchise Gostkowski under the 120 percent of the prior year's salary rules.
The Falcons tabled contract discussions with Jarrett's agent, Todd France, as the start of the regular season approached after a busy offseason in which Ryan, left tackle Jake Matthews and safety Ricardo Allen received new deals. Jarrett cemented his status as one of the NFL's premier run-stuffing interior defensive linemen in 2017. The top of the market for these types of players is the $12.5 million per year Linval Joseph received from the Vikings in a four-year extension he signed in 2017 with $31.5 million of guarantees.
Jarrett has displayed more ability to put pressure on quarterbacks, particularly with his three sack performance in Super Bowl LI against the Patriots, than most of the other interior defensive lineman who are a force against the run. He has already matched the career high of four sacks he set last season during 15 games in the 10 games he has played this season. Jarrett is also approaching a career-high 39 pressures he had in 2017. His 34 pressures with four games left in the season give him a chance at reaching 50.
The Falcons aren't opposed to doing extensions during the season. Cornerback Robert Alford and right tackle Ryan Schraeder signed new deals during the latter part of the 2016 season. France may be looking at the six-year extension he got Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox averaging $17.1 million per year with $63.299 million of guarantees in 2016 as a benchmark for Jarrett.
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