For all the consternation about the franchise tag in the NFL, it has been a decreasingly used tool for teams to shackle players in recent years. After a whopping 21 players were given the franchise tag in 2012, only 37 have been tagged in the five years since — an average of just more than seven per offseason.
That’s about what we expect in 2018, give or take a player or two. Expect no more than 10 franchise candidate this offseason. Two key free agents — Drew Brees and Nate Solder — cannot be tagged by the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots, respectively, based on language in their contracts. But most other standout players are eligible for the designation, which would guarantee a high one-year tender at the very least.
Here’s a look at the players who most likely will be limited in their options, either by the franchise tag (exclusive or non-exclusive) or the seldom-used transition tag, starting Tuesday up through the March 6 deadline.
Pittsburgh Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell
We admit that we predicted the possibility of Bell playing elsewhere in 2018 based on the Steelers’ heavy usage of him, Bell’s strange and notably late arrival prior to the playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars and the unwieldy cost of what it might take to sign Bell long term for a player who might have a Larry Johnson-esque career arc.
But all signs point to the Steelers wanting to get a deal done. Look no further than GM Kevin Colbert’s strong, proactive statement to NFL Network that the team wants to keep Bell for the remainder of his career.
Still, that’s no guarantee they can make something happen in time. The Steelers must protect themselves by tagging Bell, even with his January threats to consider sitting out the season if tagged for a second straight year. They can’t afford to let him go and can use the leverage (or the threat of tagging him) to spur negotiations.
We predict he’ll sign prior to March 6. But short of that, it’s the tag again.
Washington QB Kirk Cousins
In the end, we don’t think it happens. Yes, the team has let it be known they could tag Cousins for a third straight year (incurring a tender of a whopping $34.5 million) in an effort to trade him. However, Cousins’ camp easily could file a grievance that the tag, which was designed to be a tool to re-sign players long term, was not applied in good faith — especially after Washington reportedly agreed to trade for Alex Smith, Cousins’ would-be replacement.
Washington almost certainly would lose that battle in front of an arbiter. It made its own bed on this one. The team might be forced to watch Cousins sign elsewhere, and it will settle for eventually receiving a third-round compensatory pick in 2019 for that.
Dallas Cowboys DE DeMarcus Lawrence
The Cowboys have no choice. Lawrence put together his best season to date, with a career-best 14.5 sacks and his first Pro Bowl honor in 2017, in a contract season. Solid timing. The Cowboys have to build the defense, not let quality pieces get away, and everyone knows this.
Health is a bit of an issue following multiple back surgeries, but Lawrence is still young (he turns 26 in April) and should have a bright future notwithstanding. This scheme is reliant on front-four pressure, and Lawrence is a crucial cog.
The question here is whether the Cowboys are satisfied with having Lawrence sign his one-year tender (at a cost of $17.5 million or more), which would swallow up more of the roughly $20 million in cap space they currently have. Other key players, such as Zach Martin, must be signed long-term, too. Would they consider cutting Dez Bryant? That’s a tough call.
We get the feeling that getting a long-term deal done with Lawrence prior to free agency isn’t super likely. The Cowboys once more must perform some cap acrobatics to make the roster work.
Detroit Lions DE Ezekiel Ansah
Short of working out a long-term deal, the Lions might have no choice but to tag Ansah. After a slow start last season, he finished strong and the Lions have few other reliable pass-rush sources for new head coach Matt Patricia to work with. Ansah’s health concerns are notable, and his age (a reported 29 as of May) has been questioned following conflicting reports from his native Ghana.
We feel a one-year tag and tender makes the most sense. The Lions can incur the pricy hit of roughly $17.5 million because they have more than $40 million in cap space and easily can create more with a few cuts. They almost have to keep the occasionally brilliant but sometimes frustrating talent this way in order to protect themselves and perhaps coax a career season out of Ansah in 2018.
Chicago Bears CB Kyle Fuller
A few vague reports circulated that Fuller would be playing elsewhere, but what they didn’t consider was the Bears’ ability to significantly prevent that. Tagging Fuller might not be ideal, but he did have a strong rebound season in 2017 (after the Bears previously declined his fifth-year option), and it would be tough in a shorthanded secondary to see him walk.
A CB tag would cost just short of $15 million, which might give the Bears pause, even with more than $40 million in projected cap room. The Bears opted not to tag Alshon Jeffery last offseason, and they watched him star for the Super Bowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles. It would be hard to let another homegrown standout player leave without much in return. That said, getting a long-term deal done would be the best-case scenario for both sides.
Los Angeles Rams WR Sammy Watkins
There’s an argument to be made that the Rams would be better served tagging safety Lamarcus Joyner (or CB Trumaine Johnson, again). But the Rams paid a lofty price to land Watkins — CB E.J. Gaines and a 2018 second-round pick — and would like better return on their investment.
Watkins caught only 39 passes for 593 yards, although he did have eight touchdowns and remained healthy, which both were good signs. When you consider that Jared Goff had limited time to develop a chemistry on the fly with Watkins following the August trade, it’s easy to project better production with another full year together. A Watkins-Robert Woods-Cooper Kupp trio could be huge for Goff the next few seasons.
The Rams figure to have about $40 million in salary-cap space, and they can create more by cutting Robert Quinn and others. Locking up Watkins on a one-year tender at more than $16 million would not be the worst move in another prove-it season.
Jacksonville Jaguars WR Allen Robinson
This is a little tougher call, but the bottom line is that the Jaguars need all the playmakers possible — even those who are coming off a torn ACL, such as Robinson. We can’t see them offering him a long-term, heavily guaranteed deal, not with so many unknowns coming off a so-so 2016 season and last year’s injury, but they also can’t let him walk either.
Like Watkins, Robinson could be shackled on an expensive one-year tender.
Seattle Seahawks DT Sheldon Richardson
Like the Rams with Watkins, the Seahawks paid a steep price to land Richardson. It cost them WR Jermaine Kearse and a second-round pick, and the Seahawks know that Richardson would command a steep salary from a number of other teams — including, perhaps, his former New York Jets club.
The problem: They’re likely not currently able to do so without a few adjustments. The Seahawks are projected to have just more than $14 million in cap space prior to any cuts, reworked deals or extensions with other players. The DT franchise figure is expected to be about $14.5 million.
The 27-year-old Richardson is by far their biggest free agent, but his limited production (one sack, one forced fumble) makes it hard to justify a franchise tender or a long-term deal. Could he be a rare transition-tag candidate (at roughly $11.7 million)? That would only allow the Seahawks the chance to match any long-term contract offered to him by another team.
Carolina Panthers OG Andrew Norwell
The New York Giants would be among a number of teams lined up at the chance to sign the former undrafted 26-year-old All Pro guard, but the Panthers can prevent that by franchising Norwell. With center Ryan Kalil a year from retirement (and his brother, left tackle Matt Kalil, appearing to be a poor investment), the Panthers can’t afford to let Norwell go.
Star Lotulelei is another possibility, but we just don’t see it. They can let him sign for bigger money elsewhere and replace him with Victor Butler, a 2016 first-rounder. Norwell makes far more sense.
Miami Dolphins WR Jarvis Landry
Would you pay $16 million-plus for a good (but perhaps not great) possession receiver who has had a few head-butting incidents with the team? That’s a tough call. There will be teams eager to overpay Landry at an average at or near $14 million per season, which we feel is just too much for his skill set.
The Dolphins can let Landry go and find a lesser but somewhat comparable talent for far less coin. It would be a tough swallow at first but the smarter long-term decision — even with a lack of clearly defined targets in Adam Gase’s passing game.
New York Giants OL Justin Pugh
Another tough call for a team with a clear need at the position. Do you guarantee a one-year tender approaching $15 million for a good player but one who missed half the season with a back injury? On the one hand, the Giants must keep what few reliable blockers they have, and Pugh might be considered one of the two or three best on the free-agent market if he’s allowed to be free.
But on the other, the team would be in far better shape if it could get a long-term deal done with Pugh — especially given that the team currently has a little less than $22 million in cap space. Don’t forget, Odell Beckham Jr. wants a new deal as soon as possible. A big, big deal to be sure.