Tuesday is the first day NFL teams can designate the franchise tag to a player. As this window opens, it is important to note that teams are in the process of trying hard to re-sign their guys before settling on the tag. This list will change dramatically over the next two weeks as teams are successful with that. You do not want to put a tag on a player if you can potentially avoid it. It is provocative, can be damaging to the relationship with the player, and it makes it harder for you to plan your long-term roster. It also really hinders your ability to move around money in the short term, especially in a year in which the cap will be going down.
Here are some key Fracnhise Tag storylines from around the league that you should be following:
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
LB Shaq Barrett — $19M (20% increase over 2020 salary)
WR Chris Godwin — $15.81M (against a cap of $180.5M)
The Bucs have two potential franchise tag candidates in LB Shaq Barrett and WR Chris Godwin. Barrett was tagged in 2020, thus earning a 20% increase in salary if tagged again. Godwin is coming off his rookie contract and is set to earn over $15 million if tagged. Independent of the players, the smarter option would be to tag Godwin, with his price being artificially low with the 2021 cap. Meanwhile, Barrett has a cost that has a built-in increase of 20%, compared to last season.
If they are trying to re-sign both, and I think they are, the best outcome would be to get them both done before having to use the tag. I do think if they get stuck, Barrett is the more likely option. They have immense strength at the receiver position already and are likely to still be very successful without Godwin. I do not feel as confident about their pass rush without Barrett. I think they want to keep both, and the tag for Godwin makes more sense from a financial perspective, but if they have to decide between the two, I think it will end up being Barrett who gets tagged again.
New Orleans Saints
DE Trey Hendrickson — $15.89M
The Saints are about $70 million over the cap for 2021. They have really benefited from a strong 2017 draft class, but now have multiple free agents at key positions who need to be extended. The use of the tag, especially in a situation like this, is the least efficient use of cap dollars. It’s all cash and the cap number is the same as the tag amount. You are using up lots of guaranteed money and a large amount of available cash and getting no future years for it. It is hard to know how they will value some of those 2017 draft picks but they have a lot of work to do to keep as much as they can of their core together.
They need to figure out which guys they can most afford to lose and which guys they feel they need to bring back. Being in this position, the typical response from a coach is, “We can’t lose any of these guys.” That is inevitable for them. They have been all-in for the past three years, borrowing from the future trying to win another Super Bowl, and they are at the point where they have to pay for that.
New Orleans has always prioritized linemen, so I suspect they will continue to do that. They also might have to let some of their guys hit the market and hope they do not command as much because of the reduced cap. Trey Hendrickson is a really hard one for them because he played really well but only for one season. They really run the risk of him being a one-year wonder. They also have invested heavily in Cam Jordan and Marcus Davenport along the d-line.
The Wide Receiver Market
Kenny Golladay, Detroit — $15.81M
Allen Robinson, Chicago — $15.81M
Will Fuller, Houston — $14.88M (suspended the first game of 2021)
For Golladay, I think if Detroit is serious about rebuilding this team and doing so quickly, they need to pay what it requires to keep him, within reason. On the other hand, if they do not believe they can be good for three years, they should not put $16 million into a receiver for one season. In a normal situation, with a homegrown guy like that, you have to keep those guys or you are not moving forward, just replacing losses.
For Chicago, they have everything they need to win now, except maybe the quarterback. They are fairly tight to the cap next season and are going to have real challenges keeping everyone they want, while finding a solution at the quarterback position. I have always been a big fan of Robinson, but something has to give, and there is a reasonable chance it is him, and he hits the market.
With Fuller, you need to be very careful with guys that have a history of injury. That is manageable when he is only on a rookie contract, but that becomes very costly if he is earning a lot of money. That is a big risk.
New York Giants
DT Leonard Williams — $19.35M (20% increase over 2020 salary)
The Giants paid Williams a lot of money to keep him on the tag last year and did not get any future assurances. This is not the position you want to be in with your quality players when you are building a team. They just need to lock in a guy like this and move onto the next challenge. Tagging him this year will cost New York $19.35 million and means they would have paid him over $35 million in two seasons in fully guaranteed money with no long-term commitment. They will still have to give him a huge contract after this season with lots of guaranteed money to retain him. That would just not be a good use of cap management. If they like him as much as their actions seem to indicate, they need to get a long-term deal done. Now, tagging him is better than losing him, but unless he is being totally unreasonable, they are much better off signing him long-term. That avoids them having to give him more guarantees after this coming year to get that long-term deal.
Of all these guys, I think he is the guy that I would do everything possible to get something done, even if that means going beyond where I felt comfortable. It is not because I think he is a great player, but it is where they are with him as a team and the position he plays. He seems to be thriving in that scheme, and they need to do a better job of filling holes in key places. If all they are doing is tagging Williams and losing him next year, they are not making any progress in shoring up their offensive and defensive lines. They cannot keep having 5-6 of their offensive and defensive linemen in flux.
The Safety Market
Justin Simmons, Denver — $13.73M (20% increase over 2020 salary)
Keanu Neal, Atlanta — $10.5M
John Johnson II, L.A. Rams — $10.5M
Marcus Maye, N.Y. Jets — $10.5M
Denver has to be careful not to alienate Simmons if they give him a second tag – though by accepting that tag, Simmons can earn slightly under $14 million in 2021. If they were willing to pay him $14 million on a $185 million cap, what is his worth in the open market on a $215 million cap next season? That is a conversation Denver could have with Simmons and almost mutually agree with him on the tag this year. They can tell him they will continue to work on getting something done long-term but if not, they will give him the tag and work on getting something done long-term next offseason when things will not be as tight. You can have that conversation with the right player that wants to be there.
With Neal, Atlanta just moved on from Ricardo Allen. This is a guy I would be surprised if they cannot get signed, and they should. If not, I would lean towards tagging him. I am conflicted because I do not know their evaluation of him, but they should be a rebuilding team, which means you cannot lose your good, young players. The goal should be a long-term deal, but if they can’t, at least the tag will buy them some time. Atlanta is a desirable place to play and with an owner that really wants to win. If they tag him and convince him they are committed to both the player and to winning, that could be a good outcome for both parties. I do think they get a deal done, but the tag will buy them time if needed.
For Johnson, Los Angeles is in a very tough position. The teams that have these challenges with the cap are really going to try and avoid the tag and do long-term deals. If his tag is $10.5-$11 million, they could probably give him $20 million at signing and control his rights for a few seasons. They are going to try very hard to re-sign him, while doing the deal in a structure that keeps a fairly low cap number in year one.
The Rams are currently $30 million over, which gives Johnson tremendous leverage because he knows there is no chance for a tag. He can either accept a great deal or hold out to hit the open market. Teams like the Falcons, Rams, Saints and Eagles are in a challenging position because agents know they need to do a deal with a low year one cap number.
Maye did an excellent job helping replace the production lost from the Jamal Adams trade. If the Jets are serious about their rebuild, they cannot keep letting productive players leave via trade or free agency. Maye is young, so I think they should be focused on getting a long-term deal done to help set their foundation for the future.
RT Taylor Moton — $13.6M
Carolina really needs to find a way to sign Moton long-term. They already created significant cap room, so that is not an excuse. Tagging him for a year is just a short-term solution and an inefficient use of cap dollars. They really need to get that offensive line set with guys that are going to be there for the next 4-5 years as quickly as possible. He is a quality player and high character at a place they absolutely need to get stabilized. They should do everything they can to get a deal done, so they can check a box as a building block. At a minimum, they tag him. They can’t lose him.
LB Bud Dupree — $19M (20% increase over 2020 salary)
I think the cap situation for Pittsburgh will make it very hard, if not impossible, for him to re-sign there. They re-signed Cameron Heyward and they have T.J. Watt on the fifth-year option in 2021. They might be at a point where they need to decide which guy they are moving on from, and I think Dupree might be that guy. They also had Alex Highsmith, their rookie out of Charlotte, really come on by the end of the year. I think Dupree will be gone. Before his injury, he was having his best season to date, and it is rare for a young edge player of his caliber to hit the market, but he has been up and down so far in his career. To me, the best signings are really good players coming off a bad year. The worst signings are okay or good players coming off a great year. My philosophy was that unless a guy was a consistent top-tier player, I was not taking the risk and putting massive money into him.
For some of these teams, like Pittsburgh, they are hoping they are able to sign some of their guys on shorter, one-term deals. The market is going to run out of money faster than it normally does. I think agents are going to have a massive impact this offseason. There will be guys that are offered okay long-term deals or better, shorter deals. Guys are going to have to bet on themselves, but the right decision will be made on a case-by-case basis.
Washington Football Team
RG Brandon Scherff — $18.04M (20% increase over 2020 salary)
This one is really hard for me, because I see a good player, while everyone else sees a great player. I assume he is going to get $15-16 million from somebody as a guard. This is tough because I do not want to lose a young, quality guard, but I think he is a replaceable, quality player. With a tag over $18 million, I just could not do that. I would try to re-sign him in the $13-14 million range, but he is going to want to be the highest-paid guard. I would have trouble with that from what I have seen of his tape.
DE Yannick Ngakoue — $15.89M
DE/ LB Matt Judon — $20.17M (20% increase over 2020 salary)
I think they are going to try to sign one of these guys, and it might come down to who they feel they can get a more reasonable deal with and let the other go. If they cannot get either done, I imagine they would use the tag on one, but it is hard to tell which one.
LB Haason Reddick — $14.63M
This is the kind of guy that scares you. You don’t know if he is emerging as a player, or he just had a career year when he needed to. I would try to stay away from big money based on one season. This is interesting because they had the ability to extend his fifth-year option and declined it before this past season. This is the last year the fifth-year option is not fully guaranteed, so they were really only giving him the option against an injury. Until the rule actually changed, it was very rare that exercising the option did not make sense to control the player’s rights. This is a great example of why that always made sense in the past. Now, the option is much more neutralized and pro-player, with the full guarantee.
QB Dak Prescott — $37.69M (20% increase over 2020 salary)
My view is that they really missed their window of opportunity the first time they had a chance to sign him. They should have jumped in aggressively and gotten it done, but the truth is, this is completely consistent with their history. Dallas needs to do everything in their power to sign Prescott long-term.