There are a few early-offseason trends I'll be tracking this month, with some agents and NFL execs smarter than me believing that we could see a few nuances emerge in this franchise tag period.
In particular, there is a growing notion that more teams are prepared to use a second tag to retain players, and, in general, a sense that more tag-and-trade scenarios are on the horizon. So much is unknown – and may still be unknown for weeks to come – about how this free agent market is shaping up, and what exactly the cap will be. It is difficult to get a feel for the price-point on many free agents, and there's a growing fear among clubs and players that it could be trickier that usual to get business done.
But with players on a franchise tag – and particularly those on a second tag with the baked-in 20 percent guarantee over last year's salary – you know what you are up against from the get-go. And if this free agent market is slow to get heated up, and if we don't learn of the true cap figure (I keep hearing $180M-ish for now, with a chance to go up based on TV contract negotiations) until the last second, then we may not see the normal wave of immediate action. The illegal tampering period – i.e. right now – is far more tepid than usual and fewer deals seem locked in than in past years.
With that in mind, might teams be more willing to carry a player on a hefty tag into the new league year next month – even counting so much against a flat cap – because they don't plan on making any immediate splurges, the other available talent at their franchise player's position group is middling and a trade would allow them to get 2021 draft picks for that player rather than the 2022 comp pick they will receive if they merely allow him to walk as a free agent. It's something to consider at the very least.
Could we see a few franchise player-for-franchise player swaps? Not out of the question.
Teams continue to be more progressive with how they think and operate, and I am getting the sense we could see a record number of players get the tag for the second consecutive year. Overall, these are the players I am hearing the most franchise tag buzz about, with the period to begin tagging players opening in less than two weeks:
This eventually became obvious the moment the Cowboys failed to get a long-term deal with their passer at last July's deadline to do so. Their season fell apart when Prescott got hurt. Jerry Jones still badly wants to keep him long-term, and that starts anew with the tag. Could that tag lead to a trade down the road? You never know, I suppose.
There is no doubt about this scenario as Moton has emerged into one of the better tackles in the game. He isn't going anywhere. He is getting the tag, sources said, and the Panthers want to secure his services well into the future, with the extension Ronnie Stanley did midseason with the Ravens a possible template.
The sides could not get a long-term deal worked out as they negotiated into the season, but sources said the Bears are prepared to tag him in an effort to continue that process. He is a vital cog on an offense that remains under great duress with coaching and management jobs on the line. Even with a murky QB situation, securing their best weapon in the pass game is imperative.
This franchise doesn't love the tag, but Lawson is one of the best players on a bad defense that already needs help all over. Letting this pass rusher go – who had a strong 2021 back to full health – after his quality second half of the season doesn't make sense, and I'm told the Bengals are prepared to tag him. Some believe corner William Jackson may be the Bengal who gets the tag but I am hearing more buzz about Lawson.
Many teams view him as the best WR option out there, but keeping him on the tag at around $16M, when the open market may bear around $19M, would make a lot of sense. Multiple league sources have told me Golladay will get the tag after his relationship with the prior regime in Detroit got rocky over prolonged extension negotiations. Could this be an eventual tag and trade? People around the league wouldn't rule that out with the Lions rebuilding and trying to amass picks.
More likely than not
Tampa's defense just won it a Super Bowl and that front four has the goods to do it again, if they keep it together. Yeah it would be another tag in a row for him, but I get the growing sense this is in the cards even it ends up costing them a little bit on offense (like Chris Godwin, for example). There is always a premium on pass rush and this is no one-year wonder.
They couldn't get a long-term deal done in the summer or fall, as the price of corners skyrocketed. Keeping him at around $15M for 2021 – as a perfect fit in their Cover 3 scheme – would be logical. I'm not hearing there has been much movement between the sides recently, which could portend a tag is coming.
They have a generational QB who isn't making any money, and have kept their top receiver already. It would be strange to let Henry walk with a rookie coach in place whose strength is the defensive side of the ball. Ownership has been spending lately, fans will be in that amazing stadium next year and a second tag for Henry (around $12M) is still less than most other position groups.
Playing a hunch
I'm throwing a dart here, but was hearing that a second tag for Bud Dupree, before he got hurt, was not out of the question for them despite their serious tag issues. Redoing Ben Roethlisberger's deal and cutting a few guys would allow them to carry JuJu into the league year as a means to dealing him for more than the third-round comp pick they might get in 2022. With a bunch of WRs possibly getting the tag, will they control the asset and deal him to a receiver-needy team with money to burn?
GM Dave Gettleman took a lot of heat for trading for Williams in the first place during a losing season, and then for franchising him in 2020. But Williams responded with a career year, getting to play more outside, and dominating at times. That versatility and production would bring a huge payday, and while the Giants aren't competing for a Super Bowl in 2021, Gettleman may want to see this through and pay Williams $20M in 2021 while trying to get an extension done. Demarcus Lawrence is making $21M a year in Dallas and Williams had the kind of season last year that got Lawrence paid in the first place. Their defense line, even with him, needs work. Without him you are starting all over in terms of pass rush.
Carrying him at over $20M seems extreme and a second tag would mean about $38M for just two years of service. But Baltimore's devoid of any edge talent right now with all hitting the market, the Yannick Ngakoue trade was a flop, and Judon remains one of the vital players to Wink Martindale's scheme. He may not be a $20M player overall, but for the Ravens right now, perhaps he is. They have some cap wiggle room, and it could also be the precursor to a trade as well, with coaches and execs on ready-to-spend teams around the NFL very high on Judon from having worked with him before (Jets, Jags, Texans, for starters). A few rival execs believe the Ravens are at least mulling this as an internal option. The money might ultimately rule this out, but it's worth considering.
I'm keeping an eye on
Paying big money to running backs has been a big problem for many a team. And the Packers just invested a high pick at this position a year ago, which many saw as insurance for this very day. But Aaron Rodgers has already put everyone in that organization on notice in his own way, and losing talent on offense isn't going to smooth things over with him. Might that sway them?
Brandon Scherff, G, WFT: He is a heck of a football player and a heart and soul guy on that team. And even with him there, Washington's offensive line needs a lot of work. Without him, it gets even bleaker. Still, paying $18M for a guard seems a little excessive. In the end it is probably too rich, but a second tag for him doesn't seem out of the question