Tracking the NFL’s 2016 franchise tag decisions
Just before free agency opens every year, a small group of players are designated with the franchise tag by their teams. The tag ostensibly benefits both sides, giving the player a top-level salary for one season while giving the team one more year of control. However, most teams are then desperate to sign the players they’ve tagged to long-term deals in order to ease the one-year salary cap ramifications, and most players don’t appreciate the lack of contractual security inherent in one-year deals. This year, the tags came down fast and furious before Tuesday’s 4 p.m. deadline. A rundown of who’s been tagged and how each player and team is affected.
Von Miller, OLB, Broncos: The Broncos placed the exclusive rights tag on Miller, which means he’s off the market entirely. No other team can negotiate for his services as long as he’s under the one-year designation. No team has placed this tag on a player since the Saints did it with Drew Brees in 2012. It guarantees Miller approximately $14 million this season, unless a longer-term deal can be reached by July 15.
From a value perspective, it was an easy decision for the Broncos. Miller had a wonderful regular season with 17 sacks, 22 hits and 66 hurries, but he went absolutely thermonuclear in the playoffs, amassing six sacks, a hit and nine quarterback hurries. He was rightfully named the MVP in Denver’s 24–10 Super Bowl win over the Panthers. Miller turns 27 in March, and his best seasons may be ahead of him in Wade Phillips’s attacking defense. Now, the Broncos must turn their attention to quarterback Brock Osweiler, linebacker Danny Trevathan and end Malik Jackson, their three primary free agents. Oh, and there’s the small matter of the Peyton Manning situation, but that’s something else entirely.
Josh Norman, CB, Panthers: This is just as much of a no-brainer as the Miller tag, and it could be argued that Norman has been just as important to Carolina’s defense as Miller was to Denver’s last year. A fifth-round pick in 2012, Norman went through some difficulties to start his NFL career, even enduring a couple of benchings, but when the light came on, it really came on. Norman’s first big year came in ’14, when he allowed just 29 catches on 62 targets, with one touchdown, two interceptions and a 53.8 opponent passer rating allowed. To prove that he was no one-year wonder, Norman allowed 55 catches on 108 targets in ’15, with three touchdowns, four picks, and a 58.1 passer rating allowed. The franchise tag guarantees Norman $13.952 million this season unless a deal can be reached in the coming months. Now, fullback Mike Tolbert and receiver Jerricho Cotchery become Carolina’s most intriguing free agents when the new league year begins next week.
Muhammad Wilkerson, DE, Jets: Wilkerson is a mainstay on the Jets’ tremendous defensive line, which also includes Sheldon Richardson and vastly underrated nose tackle Damon Harrison (who is going to be a free agent next week). Wilkerson has been a stud since his rookie season of 2011, and he's one of the best and most versatile 3-4 ends in the NFL. In 2015 he set a career high with 12.5 sacks, while also amassing 23 hits, 45 hurries and 39 stops. Wilkerson gets $15.701 million under the defensive end tag. The Jets still have a lot of work to do with their impending free agents—Harrison, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and running back Chris Ivory are among those the team is considering re-signing.
Cordy Glenn, OT, Bills: Glenn isn’t a splashy name at all, but the Bills need him back, as he has become one of the best blind-side protectors in the NFL since his second-round selection in the 2012 draft. Last season, Glenn allowed just two sacks, two hits and 23 hurries in 556 passing snaps, and that was with a mobile quarterback in Tyrod Taylor who sometimes ran himself into trouble. Glenn is guaranteed $13.706 million under the offensive line tag, and to ease that burden, the Bills released guard Kraig Urbik, running back Boobie Dixon and defensive end Mario Williams. Williams will surely be a coveted free agent, as will guard Richie Incognito. The Bills’ offensive line could see some turnover this off-season, and Buffalo will have to find someone to replace Williams, but getting Glenn back was the biggest deal to be made.
Olivier Vernon, DE, Dolphins: For the Dolphins, getting Vernon back was a big deal ... but apparently not a do-or-die one. Miami placed the transition tag on Vernon instead of the franchise tag. Doing this allows the Dolphins to be on the hook for less money—Vernon would earn $12.734 million in ’16 as opposed to $15.701 million—but it also opens the door for another team to outbid the Dolphins for Vernon’s services. The Dolphins should know this very well, since they tried to keep tight end Charles Clay with the transition tag last year and were outbid by the Bills.
Would another team go after Vernon? Well, let’s see: Vernon won’t turn 25 until October, and among 4–3 defensive ends, only Seattle’s Michael Bennett had more total pressures than Vernon’s 81 (10 sacks, 30 hits, 41 hurries) last season. Vernon also had more total stops than any other 4–3 end in the league (35), and it wasn’t even close—the Rams’ William Hayes and William Gholston of the Bucs tied for second with 26. Basically, Miami is playing chicken with a homegrown franchise player who could very well be the best at his position in the next few years, all to save a couple million bucks. Not the way I’d go, but there it is.
Alshon Jeffery, WR, Bears: Lost in the shuffle of the scouting combine was the news that the Bears had placed the tag on Jeffery, who caught 54 passes for 807 yards and four touchdowns in just nine games last season—he missed the other seven games due to hamstring and calf injuries. When healthy, Jeffery is as good as it gets, and the Bears are hoping to finally see what their passing game can look like when Jeffery is on the field with 2015 first-round pick Kevin White, who missed his entire rookie season with a stress fracture in his shin.
Kirk Cousins, QB, Redskins: Washington’s decision to tag Cousins seemed a certainty, given the success of his 2015 season and his status as coach Jay Gruden’s definitive preference at the position. The non-exclusive tag guarantees Cousins $19.95 million this season until and unless there’s a longer-term deal; another team would have to meet Washington’s price and surrender two first-round picks to acquire Cousins.
In 2015, his first full season as a starter, Cousins completed 379 of 543 passes for 4,166 yards, 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He was particularly effective in the second half of the season, with 20 of his touchdowns and three picks coming from Weeks 9 to 17. Cousins has athletic limitations, especially with his arm strength, and there are times when his mechanics regress, but the Redskins couldn’t afford to let him go.
Eric Berry, S, Chiefs: Kansas City’s decision to place the franchise tag on Berry is yet another step in one of the most remarkable comebacks in NFL history. Berry was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in December 2014 and returned to the team eight months later after treatment. Any result would have been a feel-good story, but Berry had one of his best seasons in 2015, with 55 solo tackles, two interceptions and 10 passes defensed. He was tasked to shut down opposing receivers all over the field, and did so with the same aplomb he’s shown since he first came into the league in 2010. Berry will earn $10.806 million guaranteed under his tag, and it’s likely he’ll have a long-term deal sooner than later to continue his remarkable story.
Trumaine Johnson, CB, Rams: This is the most under-the-radar of the tags (people who didn’t watch the Rams last season are probably thinking, “Trumaine WHO?”), but it’s a great call by the Los Angeles front office to retain the guy who may be the team’s second-best defensive player behind Aaron Donald. Janoris Jenkins, Johnson’s counterpart in the secondary who is also hitting free agency, is the splashier player, but Johnson was far, far more consistent last season, and consistency is the most important asset for a cornerback to have. Last season, Johnson allowed 57 catches on 93 targets with one touchdown and seven interceptions, holding opponents to a 55.0 passer rating. Only Josh Norman had a lower opponent passer rating allowed among starting cornerbacks last year.
Jenkins, on the other hand, allowed 67 catches on 99 targets with five touchdowns, three picks and an opponent passer rating of 93.8. Even if Jenkins was covering the opponent’s No. 1 receiver more often (and it’s not entirely clear that this was the case enough to make up for the statistical difference), Johnson is the better long-term bet. Perhaps the Rams lose Jenkins by doing this, but they needed at least one of their cornerbacks to return for 2016, and they picked the right one.