The NFL window for teams to apply the franchise tag to pending free agents began today. Teams are permitted to use a franchise tag until March 8 and would have until July to work out a long-term deal with tagged players.
Just nine players received the franchise tag in 2021, compared to 14 the prior year. The New Orleans Saints used the tag on FS Marcus Williams last season. It was just the third time the Saints had used the franchise tag in their history. The other two times were on QB Drew Brees and TE Jimmy Graham. In both cases, New Orleans signed them to extensions before the start of the year.
The Saints weren't able to reach an extension with Williams before training camp last season. As a result, he'll be a free agent again. The projected salary cap for the 2022 NFL season is expected to be $208.2 million per team, a significant increase from 2021.
Here are the New Orleans players who could most likely receive the franchise tag.
JAMEIS WINSTON, QB (Age = 28)
Franchise Tag = $28.6 million
Winston showed great promise during his seven games as the Saints starter last year. Unfortunately, he suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 8 against the Buccaneers. Before the injury, Winston had thrown 14 touchdowns and only 3 interceptions, but averaged only 186 passing/game.
The first overall selection in the 2015 NFL Draft by Tampa Bay, Winston is a strong-armed and productive passer. However, he also exhibited a tendency for crippling turnovers during his five years with the Buccaneers. He showed much better efficiency with the Saints, whose offense seemed to be opening up before his injury.
Winston's rehab has gone very well, according to most reports. If he hits the open market, he's expected to garner heavy interest from several teams. Winston has experience in the Saints system and would benefit from a return to health of All-Pro WR Michael Thomas.
New Orleans could tag Winston if they aren't able to swing a trade for a big name like Seattle QB Russell Wilson. They may also see him as a better option than a potential first-round draft choice this season. The tag price of $28.6 million is a little steep, but New Orleans could also look to sign him to a more cap-friendly deal before training camp.
MARCUS WILLIAMS, FS (Age = 25)
Franchise Tag = $13.54 million
Williams was a second-round pick in the fruitful 2017 draft that also netted New Orleans CB Marshon Lattimore, RT Ryan Ramczyk, and RB Alvin Kamara. In five years with the Saints, Williams has 16 interceptions, 41 passes broken up, and 5 fumbles forced or recovered.
An athletic player with terrific anticipation, Williams has as much range as any safety in the league. His ball hawking presence is crucial for one of the league's best defenses and he's greatly improved his tackling.
Williams will be one of the top safeties available if he hits free agent. The Saints could tag him to avoid a bidding war. Additionally, fellow S Malcolm Jenkins, 34, is the oldest player on the team and may be a cap casualty. Locking up Williams would reduce the Saints need for a safety in the draft and maintain experience in the secondary.
If New Orleans franchises Williams for a second straight year, expect it to be with the intention of working out a long-term contract. The Saints have already locked up other young stars Thomas, Lattimore, Ramczyk, Kamara, and DT David Onyemata.
KWON ALEXANDER, LB (Age = 27)
Franchise Tag = $17.4 million
Alexander made a remarkable recovery from an Achilles injury late in the 2020 season just to be back on the field in Week 1. He’d suffer an elbow injury in the season opener that kept him out four weeks, but returned to play the best football of his career.
Alexander had an interception, 7 tackles for loss, and a career-high 3.5 sacks and 8 QB hits in 12 games. He’s lightening fast in open field pursuit and is a factor against the run, in coverage, and as a blitzer. Alexander teamed with All-Pro Demario Davis and rookie Pete Werner to give the Saints arguably their best crew of linebackers since the Dome Patrol.
Expect New Orleans to try to re-sign Alexander, but it would be shocking if they tagged him. Davis is one of the league's best defensive players and already pulls in a big salary. Werner was drafted with an eye on the future and the team had solid depth here with Kaden Elliss and Zack Baun.
Alexander also has an extensive injury history. He’s missed at least four games for five straight years and six times in his seven-year career. Alexander may be in New Orleans in 2022, but it won't be on the franchise tag.
TERRON ARMSTEAD, LT (Age = 30)
Franchise Tag = $16.7 million
*Armstead cannot be tagged in 2022
Because of voidable years added to Armstead's deal to provide salary cap relief over the last two years, his contract won't officially expire until March 16. That's after the franchise tag deadline, meaning that Armstead will likely hit the open market.
New Orleans may still try to re-sign Armstead before the official start of free agency on March 16. A three-time Pro Bowler, Armstead is one of the NFL's best at his position. He and Ramczyk form the league's best tandem of tackles, routinely shutting down pass rushers and paving the way for backs Kamara and Mark Ingram.
Armstead has been crucial to the Saints offensive success. However, it seems unlikely that he'll be back unless he's willing to take a discount to return. Armstead's projected contract number is expected to be an average of nearly $24 million per year according to Spotrac.com.
Ryan Ramczyk's contract extension in 2021 includes a hefty salary increase if he plays left tackle, Armstead's position. The team also has veteran T/G James Hurst, who is a proven starter at either tackle spot. Coaches were also encouraged at the progress of T Landon Young, a sixth-round draft choice last year.
Armstead has also been prone to injuries. He's missed 38 games over his eight-year career, including nine last season. With the inability to tag him even if they wanted to, it looks as if Armstead will be in another uniform in 2022.
If the Saints use the franchise tag, it seems probable that it will be on Marcus Williams. Tagging Winston would definitively answer a major quarterback question heading into the offseason. However, retaining Williams reduces a positional need for a Saints team that has several to address.