The clock is ticking on the NFL’s franchise-tag window. As we all know, deadlines spur action, and most teams will wait until close to Wednesday’s 4 p.m. deadline to officially place a franchise or transition tag on a key player. In most cases, negotiations on a long-term deal will continue through the weekend and right up until the cut-off point.
Much like the free-agent class overall, this isn’t a particularly sterling group when gauged against the NFL’s superstars, but an already shallow crop of available talent will be lessened considerably once many of these players are essentially taken off the market. But there is sufficient intrigue around several of these players, and if their current employers are not able to find a way to fit their unwieldy franchise tender amounts under their salary cap for 2017, or opt altogether to allow them to hit the open market by not tagging them, other clubs will pounce.
General managers and contract negotiators I spoke to this week said most teams aren’t optimistic of getting long-term deals secured at this point, but will chat with agents over the weekend in the off chance someone flinches, and then get around to the inevitable.
“You’ll see teams go ahead and use the tag by the end of the day Monday,” surmised one team exec, “and by Tuesday pretty much all of the guys on your list will be tagged.”
With that in mind, here’s a look at the top candidates to get tagged, with an estimate of where the process is headed with just a few days remaining before the deadline. These percentages are indicative of the odds they get tagged – but do not necessarily reflect the odds of the players staying with the club. As in, some of them will get long-terms deals before Wednesday’s franchise cut-off, so they won’t be going anywhere either way … they just might not be staying via the franchise tag. And keep in mind, not every player who gets tagged necessarily will be playing for the team that tagged him in 2017, as trades still remain possible and might even be viable in some cases.
Chances he’s tagged: 100%
I’ve been reporting since Thanksgiving that the powers that be in Washington – i.e. chief purse-string controller Bruce Allen and owner Dan Snyder – had decided they would be willing to tag Cousins again and let him play 2017 for $24 million if need be.
This hasn’t been lost on Cousins, either, and therefore there wasn’t much motivation or provocation for him to start talking about a new deal until March, after the tag had been applied for a second straight year. Once it is applied, Washington will try to sign him long-term up to the July 15 deadline to do so, and will also have one ear open in case any other club blows them away with a trade offer (that means you, San Francisco).
Any deal for Cousins is going to have to start around $24 million per year and be worth upwards of $60 million over the first two years, and once Washington goes ahead and apply the tag, my best hunch is that he ends up with a five-to-six-year deal to stay when this all eventually get resolved.
Chances he’s tagged: 100%
When the team president comes out in mid-February and says there is no way in heck this player is leaving the organization, and that he is the focal point of a strong group of free agents the Cardinals would like to retain, you should listen to him. He speaks the truth.
And after seeing the kind of money Olivier Vernon got from the Giants in free agency a year ago, and seeing how rarely young pass rushing talent ever hits the market, Jones should hold out for the top dollar possible before he signs a franchise tender or any contract offer. He is sitting pretty; he knows it, and the Cardinals know it.
But the time for him to be truly motivated to do a deal comes around July 15, not now, so there isn’t the same kind of pressure to execute a long-term contract for him as there may be for some others. When you are truly best of breed, time is on your side.
Chances he’s tagged: 100%
The Panthers fell off a cliff last year, and things starting going in the wrong direction when they yanked a franchise tender from top corner Josh Norman in the spring. They can’t afford to get too cute with top personnel again.
Short anchors the Panthers’ defensive line, and their attempts to sign him have gone nowhere. Some of the blame for that can be attributed to the DT market exploding in recent years with deals for Marcell Dareus and Fletcher Cox, among others.
Getting something done for the long haul right now is bleak at best … but letting another elite player from Carolina’s defense walk while getting nothing but a compensatory draft pick 15 months from now in return isn’t really viable for this franchise, either. A year after nearly winning the Super Bowl, they need to be doing whatever is possible to win some games in 2017, and Short is certainly part of that equation.
Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell
Chances he’s tagged: 90%
Relax, Steelers fans: the odds of Bell leaving for another team are 0%. He’s not going anywhere, and the Steelers are fully prepared to tag him if need be.
But the running back market has been soft in recent years, and getting softer. Bell has had off-field issues in the past and missed games due to suspension, and he’s aware the team is negotiating what will surely be a blockbuster extension with receiver Antonio Brown at this very time as well.
So, while there hasn’t been any progress between Bell and the team on a long-term deal recently, I’m not ruling it out by Wednesday. Things can change pretty quickly, and it could make sense for all sides to have something worked out for the long haul now. That would significantly reduce Bell’s cap charges when the league year opens, and the Steelers have been up tight against the cap for several years now as they have stepped up to retain their top talent time and time again.
Chances he’s tagged: 75%
This situation is a little tricky. Like Cousins, Johnson was tagged by his team a year ago. Thus he would be guaranteed a 20-percent raise over last season, and his personal tag in 2017 would be roughly $16 million -- considerably more than other corners.
But the Rams are in a bind. When they tagged Johnson a year ago, then let Janoris Jenkins walk -- and he went on to have a splendid season for big money with the playoff-bound Giants. The prospect of losing Johnson, and subsequently being out two top corners on a team that is absolutely predicated on having a top defense given the dire state of its offense, would be damning.
If Johnson gets away, there are no guarantees the Rams land one of a handful of other free agent corners who one might try to claim is a true No. 1 corner. And even then, to what degree will they have to overpay to get once of these corners they don’t already know inside and out?
There isn’t anything much going on between these sides, but after being willing to overpay to keep guys like Tavon Austin in the recent past, entering the offseason with a void at corner might not be the best way to go.
Chances he’s tagged: 75%
The Chargers are being tight-lipped on this one and not showing their cards either way. But when you talk to other teams about Ingram and his development, as well as how much money he is poised to make if he hits the open market, I don’t see how this team, trying to establish itself in a suddenly-crowded L.A. market no less, lets a talented young pass rusher walk. Go ask the Dolphins about letting Olivier Vernon get away a year ago.
Having Ingram with Joey Bosa for a full season would arguably give the Chargers the best young duo in the league, and letting him walk would be silly. Even if the team is a little cash-strapped – as has been a knock on them at times in the past – you don’t have to spend a dime on Ingram until September when the game checks start going out. The Chargers get to the pay the $15 million salary in weekly installments at a time when the TV money and preseason money and season ticket money has already rolled in.
Even if you only have Ingram and Bosa (who missed the start of the 2016 season due to a contract impasse) together for just one full season, given the Chargers’ results the past two years I’m signing up for that right now. Other teams can’t imagine the Chargers don’t at least transition him, and with Philip Rivers not getting any younger and the Chargers asking big money for tickets in their first year at StubHub Center, letting Ingram walk would send a bad message all around.
Chances he’s tagged: 75%
This could end up being a transition tag, which should be enough to scare other teams off. At this point, the club has not given Pryor an indication of what it will do, and the sides are trying to work something out long-term.
But after watching a slew of talent leave for better teams a year ago – in many cases making significant contributions to playoff clubs – and being ridiculously pound-foolish in their approach to free agency under rookie GM Sashi Brown, you’d tend to think they’ll be a little more willing to actually spend money this time around. And trust me, no quality players are being lured to Cleveland from other clubs these days off a one-win season and more turmoil, change and tumult in the coaching/front office ranks.
The Browns have no skill players on offense as it stands. They did get Jamie Collins signed to a long-term deal, and they’ll have some ‘splainin to do if they let go Pryor go while drafting a quarterback in the first round. The five pass catchers they drafted a year ago failed to distinguish themselves, and the Browns have more cap space than they could spend in five offseasons, much less one.
At a common-sense level, letting good young talent the Browns developed leave at a time the roster is bereft of playmakers is too counter-intuitive even for this numbers-absorbed front office, I have to imagine.
Chiefs S Eric Berry and DT Dontari Poe
Chances each are tagged: 50%
I still can’t see Berry being elsewhere in 2017, not given the kind of player, person, leader and galvanizing figure he has become for this franchise. And while the contract talks to this point have gone nowhere, I tend to think this is an instance where deadlines spur real actions.
Berry has said he won’t play on the tag, and the Chiefs are treading a fine line from a PR standpoint here with a star player who overcame cancer and spearheaded a surge near the top of the AFC in 2016. Avoiding tagging him again and a potentially tumultuous spring would be in their best interest, and while they have blanched at the idea of paying top-level safety money to this point, they’ve stepped up to keep their best guys in the past, and I can’t help but wonder if Wednesday becomes a big day in KC.
If the Chiefs can get something done with Berry, then the possibility of the franchise tag remains for Poe. Some close to the tackle anticipate he is in fact going to get tagged, but obviously the uncertainty with Berry’s situation clouds things a bit. In their perfect world, the Chiefs get one of these guys locked up now and can retain the other on the tag until a longer deal is complete.
Patriots LB Dont’a Hightower
Chances he’s tagged: 25%
Bill Belichick is always a wild card, dealing Jamie Collins in-season and once trading Richard Seymour as a franchise player. Hightower is a standout, but the Patriots have some other needs as well, and getting corner Malcolm Butler signed to a long-term deal would be tops among them.
The linebacker franchise tag is steep -- around $15 million -- and while the Pats have good salary cap flexibility, they are generally pretty judicious about using the tag on non-specialists (kickers/quarterbacks). The crop of linebackers in free agency is pretty strong, and they are usually plentiful in the draft.
Fewer teams are sinking big money into linebackers who are not standout pass-rushers. This is a position where Belichick has been acutely adept at finding a host of situational players who can do specific tasks for not much money and is constantly finding treasure in the “trash” of lesser teams.
Texans CB A.J. Bouye
Chances he’s tagged: 25%
Bouye was one of the best stories of the 2016 season, finally getting a chance to play regularly in the final year of his rookie deal and performing each day at a stellar level. It came out of nowhere and was a complete surprise.
But this is probably a luxury the Texans can’t afford. They have invested high picks and real money in the corner position (Kevin Johnson, Kareem Jackson, Jonathan Joseph), and with a menacing front seven, especially if/when J.J. Watt returns healthy, carrying Bouye at $14 million given the needs and strengths of their roster, and all the upgrades required on the offensive side of the ball -- especially at a time when they will at least explore trying to upgrade on $18M-a-year quarterback Brock Osweiler, whose contract is an albatross for another season at least.