To tag or not to tag—that is the question.
Deadline day is upon us as teams have until Wednesday to assign the franchise tag. Nine teams used the tag last season and we can expect a similar number this year. Teams employ the franchise tag in hope of retaining their best players on long-term contracts, but it doesn’t always work out that seamlessly. In fact, only four of the nine players franchised in 2016 were able to reach long-term deals with their respective teams—Cordy Glenn (Buffalo), Von Miller (Denver), Justin Tucker (Baltimore) and Muhammad Wilkerson (New York Jets).
Last year we even saw one team rescind their offer as the Panthers dumped Josh Norman seven weeks after tagging him. Since the franchise tag was introduced that’s only happened one other time. That came in 2009 when the Seahawks franchise-tagged linebacker Leroy Hill only to rescind the tag two months later. Four days after losing the tag, Hill returned to Seattle on a six-year deal.
Cardinals linebacker Chandler Jones and Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short were the first players to get tagged this year. There was zero chance the Cardinals were letting Jones walk after recording 11 sacks and finishing fifth in PFF’s 3-4 outside linebacker grades last season. Short had a similar breakout in 2016, matching a career-high with 55 tackles while earning PFF’s third-highest grade among defensive tackles.
Neither player came cheap. Short’s one-year deal is worth $14.77 million while Jones will net $14.64 million from the linebacker tag. This buys both teams a few more months to hammer out long-term deals. The Cardinals seem to be making progress as GM Steve Keim said he’s had a “great dialogue” with Jones and is confident a long-term deal will be reached. There’s not as much optimism in Carolina but the Panthers still have until July 15 to work something out with Short.
Jones and Short aren’t going anywhere and neither is Le’Veon Bell. The Steelers went straight for the top shelf and gave Bell the exclusive tag, which prohibits him from negotiating with other teams. That’s different than the non-exclusive tag, which is used more frequently. Of the nine players tagged in 2016, only Denver’s Von Miller received the exclusive tag. Other teams can negotiate with players under the non-exclusive tag but most are reluctant because they would have to forfeit a pair of first-round picks in order to sign them.
Bell has had a few off-field hiccups but remains a dynamic offensive weapon and arguably the league’s best running back. The 25-year-old is getting a well-deserved raise after earning a $966,900 base salary in the final year of his rookie deal. The salary figure for running backs under the franchise tag is expected to exceed $12 million, which would make Bell the second highest-paid player at his position behind Adrian Peterson. When the Vikings inevitably release Peterson, Bell will rise to the top spot.
Running back is among the most punishing positions in football, which is why teams are often hesitant to commit to them long-term. Even under the franchise tag, which is just a one-year deal, it’s rare for teams to shell out big money to running backs. Bell, a generational talent who could probably be one of the league’s best wide receivers if he wanted to, is an obvious exception. He’s the first running back to receive the franchise tag since 2012 when Matt Forte and Ray Rice were both tagged.
Mere hours after locking up Bell, the Steelers rewarded Antonio Brown with a four-year, $68 million extension, making him the league’s highest-paid receiver. Other wideouts have eclipsed Brown’s $68 million in total earnings (Dez Bryant, A.J. Green, Calvin Johnson, Julio Jones and Demaryius Thomas to name a few), but no receiver has topped Brown’s $17 million annual salary and deservedly so. Brown has reached double-digit touchdowns in three straight seasons while going over 1,000 yards in four of his last five. The 28-year-old ruffled some feathers last month with his Facebook Live debacle, but that’s water under the bridge now.
Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul is receiving the franchise tag for the second time in three seasons. Pierre-Paul’s first tag should probably come with an asterisk. The Giants pulled their offer in 2015 after JPP lost his finger in a Fourth of July fireworks accident. He later re-signed with the Giants and was having a resurgent 2016 before a hernia operation abruptly ended his season. Pierre-Paul can buy plenty of Roman candles (let’s hope he sticks to sparklers) with the $17 million he’ll earn under the franchise tag.
Even for the cash-strapped Chargers, tagging linebacker Melvin Ingram was a no-brainer. The Chargers don’t have a ton going for them right now—they bottomed out at 5-11 last year and no one is thrilled with the team’s move to L.A. But with Ingram and Defensive Rookie of the Year Joey Bosa, the Bolts at least boast one of the better pass rushing duos in football. Ingram battled injuries early in his career but hasn’t missed a game over his last two seasons. Predictably, Ingram has ascended to elite status during that stretch, including last season when he nabbed PFF’s fourth-highest 3-4 outside linebacker grade.
They haven’t yet, but Chiefs safety Eric Berry, Redskins QB Kirk Cousins and Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson are also expected to draw the tag. If those names sound familiar to you, it’s because Berry, Cousins and Johnson were all tagged last season.
The franchise tag is just a placeholder, which is frustrating for players who would prefer the security of a long-term contract with significant guarantees. Berry certainly belongs to this school of thought. The All-Pro safety staged a lengthy holdout after he was tagged last offseason. He eventually caved but not before missing all of OTAs and most of training camp. Berry threatens to do the same if he’s tagged again this year, though the sides are making progress and could have an agreement in place by Wednesday’s deadline. If a deal comes to fruition, there’s a good chance Berry will become the league’s highest-paid safety. That honor currently belongs to Arizona’s Tyrann Mathieu.
Two players who are not expected to receive the franchise tag are wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Terrelle Pryor. The reasoning is simple: the price for receivers under the tag is $17.5 million. Jeffery and Pryor are plenty talented and should earn big paydays this offseason, but neither is worth Antonio Brown money.
Pryor seems committed to Cleveland’s rebuilding movement (which is going on two decades) and the Browns have enough cash to make it worth his while ($106.5 million in cap room). Pryor turns 28 in June but doesn’t have the mileage of other wideouts his age after beginning his career at quarterback. There’s a reasonable chance he hasn’t hit his ceiling yet.
While Pryor is likely to stay in Cleveland, Jeffery and the Bears seem destined for a divorce. Rebuilding teams don’t usually splurge on injury-prone 27-year-olds. Plus Jeffery could use a change of scenery after an underwhelming 2016 season that included a four-game PED suspension.
That’s not to say Jeffery won’t attract interest elsewhere. The Buccaneers, Eagles and Rams are all expected to address receiver this offseason and could be willing to pay top dollar. Tennessee would also be a strong fit for Jeffery. Despite a down year in 2016, Jeffery remains a solid bounce-back candidate and figures to be the most coveted receiver in a free agent class that includes Pryor, Kenny Britt, Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson and Kenny Stills.
Quick Hits: The Panthers re-signed Mario Addison to a three-year, $22.5 million contract on Sunday, keeping him in Carolina through his age-32 season. Addison led the Panthers with a career-high 9.5 sacks in 2016 … Remember Marc Trestman? The former Bears coach is headed to the CFL where he’ll take over as head coach of the Toronto Argonauts. This will be Trestman’s second go-round in the CFL after a previous five-year stint with Montreal … Kenny Stills is expected to command at least $12 million annually in free agency. That’s a significant increase from the $1.67 million he earned in Miami last season … According to the Dallas Morning News, the Cowboys are expected to release Tony Romo within the next two weeks. I discussed this possibility in last week’s Bump and Run (shameless self promotion) … The Andrew Hawkins Era is over in Cleveland (it’s gonna’ be okay, guys). Hawkins led the Browns with 824 receiving yards in 2014 but fell flat over his next two seasons. He’ll turn 31 next month … Dwight Freeney, the pride of Bloomfield, Connecticut, will return for his 16th season in 2017. The 37-year-old free agent is 18th on the NFL’s all-time sack list … Chiefs CEO Clark Hunt confirmed Alex Smith will open next season as the Chiefs’ starting quarterback. The former first overall pick is entering his fifth year with Kansas City … The Chiefs agreed to a five-year, $41.25 million extension with right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif on Monday. The 26-year-old from Canada has started 27 games over his last two seasons … Free agent Geno Smith is hoping he’ll have a chance to start next season but said he’d be willing to accept a backup job. Smith hasn’t ruled out a return to the Jets … Josh McCown has reportedly drawn interest from eight teams including the Cowboys. The 15-year veteran was released by Cleveland earlier this month … C.J. Anderson is expected to gain medical clearance within the next two weeks. Anderson sat out the last nine games of 2016 with a torn meniscus. He ceded backfield work to rookie Devontae Booker during his absence … Colts NT David Parry was arrested in Scottsdale over the weekend. He’s facing charges for suspicion of driving under the influence, auto theft, robbery, criminal damage and resisting arrest. Parry has started all 32 games in his two seasons with Indianapolis … Per Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports, there’s “no shortage” of teams interested in free agent Russell Okung. The Broncos declined his option for 2017 following an underwhelming first (and only) season in Denver … ESPN’s Rich Cimini believes the Jets will “almost certainly” look to trade Sheldon Richardson over the next two weeks. Richardson’s $8.069 million salary for next season becomes guaranteed on March 9.