With the deadline to extend long-term deals to franchise players finally almost upon us -- it's 4 p.m. ET on Friday -- it looks increasingly likely that most of those carrying the tag will go into the season on one-year deals.
There have been few signs of outward motivation to close the deal by the teams involved in most of these negotiations, and many of the agents involved have long carried a pointed intuition that these clubs have been more or less squatting on their clients for a year, using the tag more as a means of protecting an asset than as an actual trigger for a long-term deal.
There is a definite sense within the NFLPA that not all clubs have been operating within the true spirit of the collective bargaining agreement in regards to the franchise tag, and, by the time Friday's deadline arrives it just might be that Josh Norman ends up looking like the embodiment of this 2016 franchise cycle.
While Norman is certainly an anomaly in that his former club, the Panthers, essentially admitted they weren't going to come close to the corner's demands and thus yanked the tag and let him enter the open market, the reality is his case will probably end up being not that different than the others. There seems to be minimal interest in securing most of this group to the type of best-of-breed contracts required to induce them to sign on the dotted line, and through most of these negotiations there has been scant sense of urgency.
To this point only one player who got the tag -- Buffalo tackle Cordy Glenn -- has secured a deal with the team that tagged him, meaning there are more players have been stripped of a tag (Norman and Olivier Vernon, who was transitioned by Miami) than have been paid off of it in 2016.
Many of these players and their agents have felt like they have been getting strung along, doing a futile dance, exchanging a few parameters that are not even in the same ballpark and then doing it some more before the 4 p.m. ET deadline arrives on Friday, with little expectation that anything will actually get done. Yes, deadlines spur action. And yes, when these deals are done, it often doesn't happen until a few hours before that deadline. But teams and agents also generally have a decent sense of where things are going by now, and in most cases that appears to be nowhere at this point.
In the case of the two best players involved in this process -- Von Miller and Muhammad Wilkerson -- the tenor of talks has become decidedly edgy at times, frustrations have threatened to boil over, and should either or both of them actually get to the weekend without a new contract, the threat of a preseason absence (if not longer) is very real.
In the end, however, I expect only one of them to actually have to live that reality -- Wilkerson -- as the defending Super Bowl champs, facing question marks at quarterback, can't actually let Miller hang in the balance over a few million dollars in guarantees no matter how much success John Elway has had playing hardball in negotiations.
So, less than a week out from the deadline, here is a look at the remaining franchise players and their prospects for a deal, ranging from the most likely, to the least:
Von Miller (95 percent)
Despite the acrimony and the leaks in the press and the fact this negotiation has become strikingly public, the truth of the matter is that nothing was ever going to get done until this week, anyway, with a record contract on the line. Everyone in the NFL has known for months that it was going to take roughly $65 million guaranteed for injury and more or less, guaranteed overall, payable over the first three years to secure this deal.
Sure, Elway would try to draw some lines in the sand and create some faux deadlines in an attempt to get a deal for less than that, but in the end generational players like this don't hit the market and franchising him twice is silly. Going to war with him through the season doesn't make much sense, either.
Most execs and agents I speak to would be very surprised if this doesn't get done, and I'm with them. Jack up the injury guarantees by another $3million to $4million, guarantee the first three years by the end of year one (at around $65 million total) and close the remaining gap to secure the best pass rusher in the game for the totality of his prime. As much as agents blanch at Denver's tactics at times, the truth is Elway has proven to be a dealmaker and some ruffled feathers can't be enough to keep this from getting done.
Justin Tucker (75 percent)
He is coming off a down year by his elite kicking standards, and the Ravens are usually smart about not overbidding against themselves, but I still expect this to get done. Tucker has already made a host of super-clutch kicks in his young career, even the best kickers don't break the bank and he is motivated to try to get long-term security after being an absolute steal through this point in his career. The sides plan to engage actively again this week and this is a case where by Friday, I anticipate the player taking the bird in the hand rather than waiting nine months to see what's in the bush.
Eric Berry (50 percent)
Many assumed that this would have been completed before the tag was even applied, given what a unique situation it is. Berry is a heart-and-soul player who was a very high pick who overcame cancer to make a triumphant return to the team this season and shatter all expectations by returning to the highest levels of safety play.
And, the Chiefs have been very willing to reward their own under the Andy Reid/John Dorsey regime, setting new standards of pay at various positions the past few years. Which is why, even though that has dragged out this far, I'd never say never. Berry has expressed his surprise that things have in fact played out the way they have, but he also added recently "a lot can change for whenever the deadline is."
A year ago the Chiefs got a record deal done with Justin Houston hours before his franchise tag deadline; perhaps history repeats.
Trumaine Johnson(10 percent)
The good news is the sides have exchanged numbers and ideas and maintained a dialogue of sorts and everything has been cordial and pleasant. All of that said, there remains a significant gap to bridge and it would take much work -- and budging -- to actually overcome it in the next few days.
There is always the chance someone blinks, big time, at the last moment. But with the corner market robust and Johnson in position to be the top corner on a good Rams defense, it would be a definite long shot to project these sides consummating a deal by Friday afternoon. If they make some major headway in the next 24 hours things could shift, but that's highly unlikely.
Alshon Jeffrey (5 percent)
These sides have never been close to being on the same page. Heck, they've never been on the same chapter. Maybe not even on the same book.
Young GM Ryan Pace didn't draft this player and is hopeful the first player he did draft in Chicago, receiver Kevin White, actually takes the field and blossoms this season. There has already been a purge of pre-existing skill guys and Jeffrey's injury history and the fact that he's truly being asked to be a No. 1 guy now has loomed large in these discussions.
It would take one of these sides totally caving now for this to actually get done, and the philosophical differences seem to be too embedded to expect that to happen. This is essentially tabled until next January. If Jeffrey balls out the Bears know they have to pay big, given the exodus of Marshall, Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett in the past year already.
Muhammad Wilkerson (3 percent)
Far less has been made about some of the bad blood percolating throughout this situation -- and Wilkerson's attempts to get anything close to a fair-market deal now span two years and two front office regimes -- but trust me, it is there.
If things don't take a dramatic change this week in terms of what kind of a deal is on the table, then I'd bet my mortgage Wilkerson does not show for all of the preseason and quite likely at least some of the regular season as well.
Defensive linemen of a lesser caliber are now securing deals worth more than $60 million guaranteed for injury, and I get the sense Wilkerson is stuck in and won't waver should there not be a long-term deal this week. And based on the last two years of talks, it's exceedingly difficult to project a long-term deal absent a total reversal from how things have progressed (or not progressed, to be more accurate).
The Jets, to their credit, seem convinced they could afford to franchise Wilkerson again in 2017 and not handcuff the team's cash or cap situation, but if things devolve between the sides I'm not sure how palatable that will seem a year from now. The sides have never been remotely close to a deal -- even before the D-line market exploded after years of stagnation -- and this situation, coupled with the lingering battle with un-signed starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, could make for one of the more interesting starts of camp around the league.
Kirk Cousins (1 percent)
So if Norman isn't the poster boy for this franchise tag year, then maybe it's Cousins.
These two sides have never really gotten anywhere on a long-term deal before he was tagged, or after he was tagged, and this has always been a play-it-out situation for both parties. Redskins ownership has been wary to commit long-term in the deep end of an ever-growing quarterback pool, and, given the fact he's already making $20 million this season, there is no reason for Cousins not to gamble on himself.
If he plays like he did last year in his first real shot in an extended starting role, then he's going to blow away the $38 million guaranteed Brock Osweiler got this offseason, for starters (add that to the $20 million guaranteed for this season, for instance, and you're talking huge money). From the moment Washington applied the tag, and Cousins almost instantly signed it, it was clear he was going to be playing 2016 on the tag, and nothing that's transpired since has diverted from that course at all.
And barring something totally shocking (i.e., owner Dan Snyder doing a 180 on Friday afternoon), nothing will occur to alter that path.