Deal or no deal? The odds for Kirk Cousins, Le'Veon Bell and Trumaine Johnson
Of the three remaining franchise tag players, only two have a real shot at a long-term contract
The NFL is finally on vacation. Offseason programs are complete. Coaches, execs and players, by and large, have left the building (save for teams like the Ravens who are keeping their rookies around for a few extra weeks), and the business of football is generally on hold.
In many years there would still be a handful of players on the franchise tag racing to beat the mid-July deadline for contract extensions, but even that is a tepid proposition this time around. The tag was only applied in seven instances in 2017 -- some years the figure is double that -- and it was used primarily on players who have the ability to get to the quarterback (Chandler Jones, Jason Pierre-Paul, Melvin Ingram, Kawann Short) and those players have already signed their lucrative, multi-year deals. In many cases, long ago.
That leaves us with just three players still sitting on the tag: Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins, Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell and Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson. Those three players now have less than a month to attempt to negotiate long-term deals to their liking in an attempt to gain more security and earning potential beyond just this season. And for Cousins and Johnson, this is the second straight year they are sitting on the tag at the start of summer, which in the case of the quarterback only makes it more likely he gets that new payday, while in the case of the corner it all but assures he won't.
In most of these cases, the real work won't get done right before the July 17 deadline – deadlines, as all who follow the NFL know well by now – truly do spur actions. We won't know what these teams are ultimately willing to put on the table until we get closer to the date where those offers expire, but we are far enough along in the process where it makes sense to size up the odds on the likelihood that these three prominent players are signed beyond just the upcoming season.
As a brief tangent, expect to hear more and more about a pushback from the NFLPA and especially the agent community on the franchise tag as this collective bargaining agreement draws closer to its conclusion. It's always been a bone of contention, but now with rookie contracts so capped and streamlined by the new system, the cries are growing louder about eliminating this tool to constrain salaries on the high end as well. In the past the NFL has said eliminating the tag was a deal breaker, but we'll see in a few years if that's the case. I could also see a mechanism in place where perhaps QB salaries count differently against the cap than other positions, to allow for more spending and cap relief as well. It's very early in what will undoubtedly be a long and early war between the owners and players, but since I'm writing about the franchise tag I might as well pass it along. Don't shoot the messenger.
So, what are the odds that these three players are sitting on gobs of more cash and a long-term deal by mid July? Here's what I know:
Odds: 80 percent
The sides have come too far and been through too much not to see this through. For as much was made about faux trade demands and how Cousins allegedly only wanted to play for the 49ers or whatever, the odds have always been strongest that he re-signed with the Redskins. Cousins was certainly not thrilled about being tagged again, but that's the business, and he's nothing if not pragmatic.
A year ago these sides were playing footsie, with no chance of a deal really getting done and owner Dan Snyder and team president Bruce Allen wanting to see Cousins prove it on the field for another season. He's done that now, and they aren't going to be picking high enough to land a top QB next year and they can't try to make another RG3-type trade to get one and franchising Cousins for a third straight year is silly and shortsighted as well.
This is the time to make something happen and Allen knows that and he is motivated to make the quarterback a known and fixed cost for the owner. Letting Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson walk was a nod to that, and the Redskins believe Cousins can help further develop young receivers. He's become a leader and a fixture at a position of perpetual angst for Snyder, and this team knows what it's like not to have a function, winning passer.
And they can't go back to the abyss. For as much as Cousins can reasonably talk about $25M a year, he and his representatives are smart, savvy people, and if it ends up being $23M a year and four seasons are in essence guaranteed by the salary structure, that's a major win for the former fourth round pick. I don't see this falling apart. There's just too much at stake for both sides.
Odds: 50 percent
It's certainly less than ideal for the Steelers to be carrying a running back counting over $12M against the cap. Given all of their talent, the Steelers are always doing an adroit juggling act working the cap in the first place, and for as great as Bell is, he is often injured and he has been suspended and that's a lot of assets in a position that has been diminished in the modern game.
But, given the fact he has been hurt a fair amount -- especially late in seasons when games matter the most -- and that he has missed time due to suspensions, and with Ben Roethlisberger still floating a possible retirement as soon as 2018, this might not be the worst time in the world to go year-to-year with Bell, either. The RB market has recalibrated significantly since the salad days when Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch were getting record deals and teams are loathe to reset that market now. Negotiating off the tag would be a tricky predicament for Pittsburgh, given how much money is already tied into offensive skill guys.
I don't blame Bell for not signing the tag, and his absence from minicamp was no big deal. You don't have a signed contract, you don't practice if you are a veteran. That won't complicate anything here. What does make it tricky is the fact that no other running back in the NFL is making over $8M a year, and Bell is guaranteed $12.1 million for 2017 alone, on the tag.
I believe he is the most complete back in football, but that's a steep premium and the timing works against a deal here. But I also know the Steelers don't let premium talent leave, especially when the player is in his prime, and I suspect these sides each have at least something to consider by the eve of the deadline. Given the acute risk associated with the position he plays, might Bell blink in a month?
Odds: 0 percent
In most cases I'd never say never, but this is the exception. The sides spoke just once, a ways back, and weren't close enough to even merit a follow-up phone call. Which actually isn't surprising, given the particulars at play. Johnson is a very good corner, but not a Pro Bowler, much less an All Pro. But the Rams opted to keep him on the tag in 2016 when they knew they would lose their best corner at the time, Janoris Jenkins, who became a vital signing for the Giants.
Johnson's camp has played this situation perfectly, willing to gamble on the player and knowing that the Rams' only chance to trying to be competitive would come with keeping its defense together (with the offense non-existent in 2016). So a year later, the Rams tagged Johnson again, and now Johnson will make $31M over two years.
He is the highest paid corner in the NFL in 2017. His pockets are straight. No reason not to play out that tag and keep this process going, knowing he's likely to be a well sought-out free agent next March.
As for the Rams, they are on the cusp of paying defensive lineman Aaron Donald like a quarterback and have bigger fish to fry right now as they fight for relevance in the Southern California marketplace and try to get their stadium built. They've been over-paying players for years, so carrying Johnson at this exuberant rate isn't out of the norm and if I'm repping Johnson I'm not doing much talking ahead of July 15. Play it out. Cash those checks.
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