- It's that time of year—NFL franchise tag watch! Teams can start tagging players on Feb. 20, so which players will likely be hit with the franchise tag?
The franchise tag is a wonderful subplot to the NFL offseason. Teams use it as leverage against players in long-term contract negotiations then act surprised when the valued employee doesn’t want to risk his long-term security by playing under an expensive one-year deal. In turn, players almost always float the idea through backchannels that they will sit out the entire season if tagged.
Arm in arm, they dance until kickoff on the 2018 season.
While we wait for this epic period of posturing (teams can officially start tagging next week), let us examine which NFLers could be the central players in the tag drama. Also, be sure to check out Andy Benoit’s 2018 free agent breakdown, which helped inform the piece.
Le’Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers: There’s always going to be a gap between Bell’s common-sense reasoning for his desired salary and Pittsburgh’s willingness to give it to him (or any guy who plays one of the most injury-prone positions in the NFL). Reports surfaced last summer that Bell wanted to be paid as the league’s best running back, plus the salary of a No. 2 wide receiver. He, again, reached that bar in 2017, finishing second to Antonio Brown in receiving (85 catches, 655 yards, two touchdowns) and third overall among all NFL running backs in rushing yards (1,291, nine touchdowns). Pittsburgh’s offense does not function properly without him, and his playing style has innumerable benefits for an aging quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger, who would prefer not to spend his remaining years continuously knocked on his backside. Last month at the Pro Bowl, Bell said he and the Steelers were much closer on compensation than they were at this time a year ago. We shall see.
Case Keenum, quarterback, Minnesota Vikings: Unfortunately for Keenum, who would have loved to capitalize on a career season in which he led the Vikings to the brink of a Super Bowl, this is the most pragmatic move for a Minnesota team that will probably also keep Teddy Bridgewater. As the St. Paul Pioneer Press recently noted, there could be a battle shaping up around Bridgewater’s contract and whether Minnesota can roll a salary from an injury-ravaged season over. Either way, having Keenum on a high-priced prove-it deal is a valuable commodity. The Vikings are holding on to Keenum’s quarterbacks coach, Kevin Stefanski, for dear life which signals a desire to maintain some kind of carryover from the 2017 season. Maybe that also signals an intent to at least keep Keenum in the mix for one more season. Salary cap site Over the Cap estimates that the Vikings will have about $50 million in space, so spending a little less than half of that on your starting quarterback or at the very least a high-profile insurance policy isn’t that prohibitive, especially when there aren’t too many big-time free agents fleeing Minneapolis this spring.
Jarvis Landry, wide receiver, Miami Dolphins: Landry is on just about everyone else’s franchise tag primer for this year, but I think this could get more complicated. He recently told the Miami Herald that “the offer process until this point was disrespectful.” He is litigating his case in the press and has a head coach in Adam Gase who has quickly earned a reputation as someone not keen on such things. Gase made a statement last year by trading Jay Ajayi to the Eagles at the deadline, and he could be looking to make a similar statement by passing on Landry and settling for the compensatory pick. Foolish? Yes. Unlikely? Probably. Landry’s only peer in terms of receptions is friend Odell Beckham Jr.—together, they eclipsed the NFL record for most catches in the first three years of a player’s career. Beckham is eyeing a contract above and beyond what any offensive skill position player has gotten in NFL history. If Landry is doing the same, the tag will unquestionably come into focus.
Sammy Watkins, WR, Los Angeles Rams: General manager Les Snead already seems to be heading down this path, according to ESPN. This is a big offseason for the Rams, who must take care of Aaron Donald before they set the stage for an even tenser standoff. With Watkins, they can bide their time and give Sean McVay a full offseason with a player once believed to be better than both Beckham and Mike Evans. Watkins had 39 catches for 593 yards and eight touchdowns last year, and he could be motivated as he hits what might be his final opportunity to prove to teams that he is a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver worth extraordinary money.
Jimmy Graham, TE, Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks finally figured out how to optimize Graham in the red zone this past season, and it was beautiful. Graham scored 10 touchdowns to just 520 receiving yards, but looked almost unstoppable inside the 10-yard line. We’re a ways removed from Graham battling to be a wide receiver in the eyes of the franchise tag, but at 31, he probably still has one more season as a dominant red-zone presence left. New England radio station WEEI is on the Graham-to-Patriots train, which is terrifying enough in my eyes to lock him up indefinitely.
DeMarcus Lawrence, EDGE, Dallas Cowboys: The first edge player on Benoit’s list, Lawrence exploded in 2017 with 14.5 sacks. The wild spike in production (his previous best was eight sacks in 2015), combined with Dallas’ sticky financials (Over the Cap has Dallas at about $19 million in space) make him a difficult player to sign right now. Muhammad Wilkerson and Olivier Vernon both cost $17 million or more on multi-year deals. J.J. Watt’s $16.667 million APY deal will also soon be ancient history. Former agent Joel Corry targeted Lawrence as an obvious tag candidate back in December for similar reasons. Should he replicate these numbers in 2018, look out world. Lawrence will still be in his prime for the cash waterfall.
Ezekiel Ansah, EDGE, Detroit Lions: Like Lawrence, Ansah is just difficult to figure out. His 12 sacks in 2017 were the second-best total of his career, but Ansah is going to be 29 in May. If you’re Matt Patricia, you might want to see this guy for a year up close before deciding if he can fit in what may be a drastically different scheme. The Lions, according to Over the Cap, have about $45 million in space which could allow them to carry the high price tag. For months now, Matt Patricia has been insisting to those comparing him to Bill Belichick that he’s a completely different guy. Hurling chunks of cash at a star player would certainly be one way to prove it.
And two players in the ‘maybe but unlikely’ category...
Allen Robinson, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars: Jacksonville is relatively tight on cap space (Over the Cap estimates about $20 million this offseason) but could almost double that number if they decide to part ways with quarterback Blake ;Bortles. In this scenario, is there enough of a cash flow to woo a top-tier quarterback on the open market and allow Robinson to count roughly $16 million against the books? Probably not. That being said, Robinson is certainly a point of pride. A 2015 Pro Bowler, he shined brightly for Jacksonville before the arrival of Leonard Fournette and the team’s formidable offensive line. As ESPN Jaguars beat man Mike DiRocco noted, a one-year deal for Robinson, who tore his ACL in September, would almost certainly come in below the tag number anyway.
Tyler Eifert, TE, Cincinnati Bengals: This feels similar to the Allen Robinson question, though Eifert’s injury issues have stretched across multiple seasons. The former first-round pick has played in just 10 games over the previous two seasons and potentially could be cheaper than a one-year $10 million deal (last year’s franchise tag number was $.9.780 million). The Cincinnati Enquirer was not bullish on his prospects to return at all, suggesting a 10% chance of return. Still, I go back to this Katherine Terrell piece from 2016, which links Eifert’s absence to the Bengals’ epic slowdown in the red zone. He’s prolific there, and the security he provides Andy Dalton might be worth the extra cash. Stranger things have happened with contracts in Cincinnati.