NFL teams may use the franchise tag on one of their unrestricted free agents until March 9th. The league salary cap for 2021 is projected to be between $181 and $183 million for each team. The New Orleans Saints are currently well over that number. New Orleans has already trimmed their cap deficit by nearly $30 million when they restructured Drew Brees and released Nick Easton last week. Several other moves are expected, with most of them coming in the way of contract restructures rather than player releases.
The Saints also have several talented players on both sides of the ball who are entering free agency. Many of these players are expected to attract heavy interest on the open market, thus difficult for the cap-strapped Saints to afford. Starters Marcus Williams, Alex Anzalone, Sheldon Rankins, Trey Hendrickson, and Jared Cook are all headed to free agency, as is quarterback Jameis Winston and key role players P. J. Williams, D. J. Swearinger, Justin Hardee, Craig Robertson, James Hurst, Michael Burton, Ty Montgomery, and Dwayne Washington.
The Saints have used the franchise tag only twice in franchise history. They used in on Drew Brees in 2012 and again on TE Jimmy Graham in 2014. In both instances, the tag was used to keep the players off the open market until a long-term deal was ultimately reached.
Given historical precedence and an already hard job of juggling salary cap figures, it seems highly unlikely that the team will use the franchise tag this year. If they the Saints break trend, here are the three most likely candidates to be tagged.
MARCUS WILLIAMS, FREE SAFETY
Williams is arguably the top safety available in free agency, along with Marcus Maye of the Jets and John Johnson of the Rams. He’s started 67 of 71 games since New Orleans selected him in the 2nd round of the 2017 draft. Williams has 14 career interceptions and has excellent range and athleticism, on par with any safety in the league.
Spotrac.com set Williams’ market value at approximately $13.5 million per year for his next contract. Safety will be the most affordable defensive position to franchise tag this season. It would cost New Orleans around $10.7 million to tag Williams in 2021.
PREDICTION: Slim chance. Probably won't be tagged.
Despite his talent and importance to the New Orleans secondary, Williams will probably be allowed to test the market if a team-friendly extension cannot be reached before free agency begins. There are other safeties available, including Swearinger and P. J. Williams, that are cheaper alternatives for a team struggling to stay under the cap. The Saints could also place a higher priority on this position in the draft if they lose Williams, with several talented prospects that will be available late in the 1st round or on Day 2.
TREY HENDRICKSON, DEFENSIVE END
Hendrickson, a 3rd round pick in the 2017 draft, had a breakout season at the perfect time. He led the Saints with 13.5 sacks, 33 QB pressures, and 12 tackles for loss in 2020. It was not only the best of his four NFL seasons, but surpassed his career totals in all categories. Hendrickson was the most productive member of a deep and disruptive New Orleans defensive line, outshining more celebrated teammates Cam Jordan and Marcus Davenport at defensive end.
Hendrickson's market value will be around $10.3 million/year for his next contract, according to Spotrac.com. Only the quarterback position will carry a higher franchise tag figure this season. It would cost New Orleans approximately $16.2 million to apply the tag to Hendrickson.
PREDICTION: Will not be tagged.
Unless the Saints release DE Cameron Jordan for salary cap reasons (they are more likely to restructure his existing deal), then keeping Hendrickson is not a huge priority. New Orleans has nice depth here with Jordan, Davenport, another potential breakout star in Carl Granderson, and could use second-year LB Zack Baun as a pass rusher. They may also bring in a second-tier free agent for depth or add a defensive end in a later round of the draft.
SHELDON RANKINS, DEFENSIVE TACKLE
Rankins had a quiet year by his standards but was still a key part of a deep defensive tackle rotation for the Saints. The 12th overall pick in the 2016 draft, Rankins had just 2.5 sacks in 13 games, but 16 pressures and 3 tackles for loss. He is one of the league's most disruptive defensive tackles when healthy, but has missed 11 games in the last two seasons since recovering from a torn Achilles two years ago.
Spotrac.com projects Rankins to earn around $11.3 million annually from his next contract. The franchise tag for defensive tackles is also hefty, projected to be around $14 million.
PREDICTION: Will not be tagged.
The defensive tackles have been an underrated key to the team's defensive success, but New Orleans has a deep rotation here. They already have a big decision to make with DT Malcom Brown, who carries a $6.4 million cap hit into 2021 and may be released if he isn't restructured. The Saints also re-signed DT David Onyemata to a lucrative extension last year, and former undrafted tackles Shy Tuttle and Malcolm Roach have shown exciting promise.
New Orleans could make a firm push to re-sign Rankins to a back-loaded deal before the start of free agency, especially if they move on from Malcom Brown. The Saints have also been linked to a few defensive tackles expected to come off the board in the first two days of the draft.