Before NFL free agency, there’s some business that each of the 32 teams must address: whether they will place a franchise tag on veteran players to keep them off the open market.
The franchise tag is a labor designation that restricts a player’s potential movement in exchange for a high one-year salary. Each team can put the franchise tag on one pending free agent, a decision that is expensive but also provides massive leverage against losing a player, ensuring the team a hefty return if that player ultimately departs.
The franchise tag window was pushed back two days and will now begin Thursday, and teams have until March 12 at 4 p.m. ET to place the tag on their most valuable player.
There are some big names on the list of tag candidates for 2020, including four quarterbacks at different crossroads in their careers. We asked our NFL Nation reporters to identify the players most likely to get tagged and make their predictions on what will happen over the next two weeks. By our count, 21 teams are contemplating using the franchise tag:
ATL | BAL | CAR | CIN
DAL | DEN | HOU | JAX
KC | LAC | LAR | MIN
NE | NO | NYG | PIT | SF
SEA | TB | TEN | WSH
Tight end Austin Hooper
Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff said publicly that using the tag is an option, but realistically it’s unlikely to happen for Hooper at about $10.7 million. The Falcons, who are up against the salary cap, would be better off just working out a long-term deal with Hooper rather than taking that cap hit with the franchise tag. Since the tag is unlikely, the two-time Pro Bowl tight end might find a new home.
Prediction: The Falcons won’t use the franchise tag on Hooper. — Vaughn McClure
Outside linebacker Matthew Judon
The expected move is the Ravens will put the franchise tag on Judon, and the projected cost (whether it’s $17.8 million for a linebacker-defensive end or $16.3 million for a linebacker) will take up more than half of Baltimore’s salary-cap space. The Ravens would be limited in free agency by using the tag, but they just can’t let another young pass-rusher in his prime walk, as Za’Darius Smith did last year, especially after Baltimore ranked No. 21 in the NFL with 37 sacks. The ideal situation is the Ravens executing a tag-and-trade with Judon because the team can use additional draft picks and cap space from that move to add a couple of pass-rushers, which is what Baltimore needs to restock its front seven.
Prediction: The Ravens will use the franchise tag on Judon. — Jamison Hensley
Cornerback James Bradberry
He is the best candidate, but it’s highly unlikely. With an estimated tag amount of $16.5 million, it doesn’t make much sense for the Panthers to go that route on their 2016 second-round pick with so many other needs.
Prediction: The Panthers won’t use the franchise tag on Bradberry. — David Newton
Wide receiver A.J. Green
Tag speculation started to increase during the 2019 season as it became clear Green wasn’t going to play a snap because of ankle issues. Cincinnati could pay about $18.5 million to use the tag, but the Bengals have plenty of cap room. If the Bengals draft QB Joe Burrow, Green would help his transition into the NFL.
Prediction: The Bengals using the franchise tag on Green seems inevitable. — Ben Baby
Quarterback Dak Prescott
He remains the Cowboys’ top priority to sign to a long-term deal. It just doesn’t seem like it will happen before free agency begins. The cost will be pricey — either $27 million or $33 million — but there is no way the Cowboys are letting him see the market. The Cowboys have the cap room, but it would chew into their ability to either keep their own free agents or add players on the open market more than having Prescott signed long term.
Prediction: Book it: If the Cowboys don’t have a deal done with Prescott, they will use the franchise tag on him. There really is no question. But there’s a side part to the equation as well. If there is no extension of the collective bargaining agreement, then teams can use the franchise and transition tags. Look for the Cowboys to consider putting the transition tag on Amari Cooper to at least give them the right to match any offer made to the wide receiver. — Todd Archer
Keyshawn Johnson explains how Dak Prescott and the Cowboys could meet in the middle to get a new deal done.
Safety Justin Simmons
If a team is going to give lip service to “keeping its own” guys, it should start with Simmons. It will take top-shelf money, but Simmons is a homegrown player who also happens to be one of the most active players in the community as well as one of the Broncos’ best players. The Broncos want to keep him and he wants to stay. The bottom line is it will be expensive, as in something in the neighborhood of the top contracts in the league for safeties — the top four each agreed to deals in the past year and each averages between $14 million and $14.6 million per year. That’s the market. And if the totals for the franchise tag come in as expected, then he should command around $14 million for the 2020 season. So the incentive for both sides to get something done long term is plain to see.
Prediction: If the Broncos and Simmons can’t get a long-term deal done, the team will use the tag. — Jeff Legwold
Nose tackle D.J. Reader
Even though the Texans have nearly $60 million in cap space and keeping Reader on the franchise tag would cost around $15.5 million, it is likely too pricey for Houston given the money needed to sign QB Deshaun Watson and LT Laremy Tunsil to long-term deals. Reader, a fifth-round pick in 2016, outplayed his contract last season and earned a big payday. They could use the transition tag (projected at $12 million) instead to keep him around at least one more season.
Prediction: The Texans won’t use the franchise tag on Reader. — Sarah Barshop
Defensive end Yannick Ngakoue
All he has done since the Jaguars took him in the third round in 2016 is rack up 37.5 sacks (second on the franchise’s all-time list) and 14 forced fumbles. The tag would be for approximately $19.3 million, which is doable because the Jaguars are expected to release several players in the coming weeks to clear about $35 million ($46 million if CB A.J. Bouye is released). Ngakoue wants a long-term deal and is seeking about $22 million annually. He also indicated late last season that he would be unlikely to show up until the Aug. 11 reporting deadline for players under contract if he had to play on the franchise tag.
Prediction: The Jaguars will use the franchise tag to buy themselves a little more time to soothe some hard feelings remaining from last year’s contentious negotiations. — Mike DiRocco
Defensive tackle Chris Jones
The Chiefs could protect Jones with the franchise tag at a cost of $15.5 million to $16 million. That’s a steep price because it might eat up the Chiefs’ remaining salary-cap space. But Jones is one of their top defensive playmakers and is worth the money, so he will get the tag. One possibility for Jones as the franchise player would be a trade to another team, as the Chiefs did with Dee Ford last year.
Prediction: The Chiefs will use the franchise tag on Jones. — Adam Teicher
Tight end Hunter Henry
The Arkansas product has been billed as the replacement for future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates, and on the field he has mostly lived up to those lofty expectations. Over the past four seasons, Henry’s 17 touchdown catches rank eighth in the league among tight ends. Henry has had trouble staying healthy, missing 22 games since the Chargers selected him in the second round of the 2016 draft. However, the Chargers love his work ethic, versatility and toughness, and they plan to keep him in the fold.
Prediction: The Chargers will use the franchise tag, projected at $11 million for tight ends, as a means to continue negotiations on a long-term deal. — Eric D. Williams
Outside linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. or inside linebacker Cory Littleton
Fowler and Littleton each played critical roles in the Rams’ defense last season and both will be unrestricted free agents. The Rams have limited space under the salary cap, so using the franchise tag (which is expected to be more than $15.4 million) might not be within their means. But Fowler, who produced a career-best 11.5 sacks last season, and Littleton, the Rams’ leading tackler the past two seasons, are tag candidates if the team decides to use it.
Prediction: The Rams will use the franchise tag on Fowler. — Lindsey Thiry
Safety Anthony Harris
He’s the only player who makes sense, but it’s still unlikely. The projected franchise tag tender for safeties is $12.735 million, according to Over The Cap. Minnesota can’t really afford to have two safeties (along with Harrison Smith at $10.75 million) tying up that much of the salary cap when there are so many other pressing needs. The Vikings haven’t used the franchise tag since 2012 and have never used the transition tag.
Prediction: The Vikings won’t use the franchise tag on Harris. — Courtney Cronin
Guard Joe Thuney
A 27-year-old who has started every possible game over four seasons since entering the NFL — and played at a high level — Thuney is primed for a big payday. Thuney had a 97% pass-block win rate, according to ESPN’s metric that uses NFL Next Gen Stats to determine which linemen can sustain their blocks for 2.5 seconds or longer, and that was second best among all guards (behind Baltimore’s Marshal Yanda at 98%). If the Patriots wanted to tag Thuney, it would come at a significant cost of approximately $15 million (franchise) or $13.5 million (transition). Given the team’s other needs, and not having the luxury of overflowing cap space, that seems unlikely.
Prediction: The Patriots won’t use the franchise tag on Thuney. — Mike Reiss
Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater
This is also highly unlikely, as the Saints can’t afford a $27 million salary-cap hit. But Bridgewater is worth mentioning here because he should be a popular free-agent target across the league. In a perfect world, the Saints could tag and trade him. Instead, they can hope for a top compensatory pick in 2021.
Prediction: The Saints won’t use the franchise tag on Bridgewater. — Mike Triplett
Adam Schefter breaks down the futures of Taysom Hill and Teddy Bridgewater now that Drew Brees has decided to return for another season.
Defensive lineman Leonard Williams
The Giants traded assets (multiple draft picks) for Williams and can’t allow him to walk, even if he produced just half a sack and two tackles for loss in eight games. The franchise tag, despite being an expensive tool at close to $16 million, is one way to make sure he remains with the team.
Prediction: The Giants won’t use the franchise tag on Williams. This is still an unlikely road to travel. There are better options. — Jordan Raanan
Outside linebacker Bud Dupree
A franchise tag for Dupree would run about $16.2 million — a seemingly tall ask for a team with less than $6 million in cap space. But Dupree is worth keeping around. A former first-round pick, Dupree had his best season in 2019 with 11.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. He and T.J. Watt form a fearsome edge-rushing tandem that is a cornerstone of the Steelers’ defense.
Prediction: The Steelers will use the franchise tag on Dupree, even if it means parting with some longtime contributors to free up the cap space. — Brooke Pryor
Defensive lineman Arik Armstead
The 49ers want to keep Armstead and the Sacramento native would like to stay. “I think everything is on the table,” GM John Lynch said. “We want to find a way to keep him and make him a part of the 49ers for a long time.” Sounds easy, right? Not necessarily. A tag for Armstead, who would be classified as a defensive end, would cost roughly $18 million to $19 million, with the transition tag at $15 million to $16 million. San Francisco doesn’t project to have much cap space and wants to sign tight end George Kittle and defensive tackle DeForest Buckner to big-money extensions.
Prediction: The 49ers won’t use the franchise tag on Armstead. A tag or a tag-and-trade can’t be ruled out, but the better bet is that the 49ers will attempt to sign him to a long-term contract with a lower cap number in 2020, which would enable them to take care of other players as well. — Nick Wagoner
Defensive tackle Jarran Reed
This felt like a much stronger possibility when Reed was coming off a 10.5-sack third season than it does now, after just two sacks in 2019. He missed the first six games with a suspension that stemmed from a 2017 incident in which he was accused of domestic violence. Reed probably won’t command the $15.5 million that OverTheCap.com projects for the franchise tender for defensive tackles to cost, and maybe not even the projected $12.32 million for the transition tag. Could the Seahawks use the transition tag ($14.67 million) on offensive lineman George Fant with an eye toward starting him at right tackle for now and eventually having him take over for Duane Brown at left tackle?
Prediction: The Seahawks won’t use the franchise tag on Reed. The guess here is that they will try to keep Reed and Fant on deals that pay them less than either tag would. — Brady Henderson
Quarterback Jameis Winston
The Bucs still don’t know what they have in Winston after his 30-interception performance last season. The franchise tag would cost $26.89 million and afford them one more year of evaluation in Bruce Arians’ offense without a long-term commitment. There is also the option of a transition tag for $24.37 million, which would allow both sides to see how much interest there is. A third option that the Bucs have considered, according to sources, is a two-year deal with a club option on the second year, with the first year guaranteed at the franchise tag rate.
Prediction: The Bucs will use the franchise tag on Winston. — Jenna Laine
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill
Tannehill helped spark the Titans’ late-season run to the AFC Championship Game. It would cost roughly $27 million to place the tag on Tannehill. However, if the Titans use the tag on him, it would serve to give them exclusive negotiating rights as they try to hammer out a three- or four-year deal.
Prediction: The Titans won’t use the franchise tag on Tannehill. — Turron Davenport
Guard Brandon Scherff
The Redskins tried to sign him during the season, offering him a deal worth a reported $13 million per year — though it’s uncertain how much was guaranteed or how it was structured. Though it’s a new regime, they still view Scherff as a cornerstone player even though he now has missed 13 games the past two seasons because of injuries. He remains a solid right guard who is excellent blocking in space. The other question remains whether Scherff wants to commit to the Redskins long term after five seasons. The tag would allow both sides to learn more — will Scherff stay healthy and is this regime worth committing to?
Prediction: The Redskins won’t use the franchise tag on Scherff. — John Keim