The franchise tag period begins February 19th, when teams can officially start placing the tag on players they don’t want to lose in free agency. Each team is allowed one franchise tag, which locks a player in on a one-year deal worth the average of the top-5 cap hits at that players’ position, assuming that player doesn’t choose to sit out the season like Le’Veon Bell did in 2018. Not including players who would only be tagged to be traded (Bell, Earl Thomas, and Nick Foles) and kickers (Stephen Gostkowski and Robbie Gould), there are 9 serious candidates for the franchise tag this season.
DE Trey Flowers (New England)
In addition to Gostkowski, the Patriots also have left tackle Trent Brown set to hit free agency, but with 2018 1st round pick Isaiah Wynn expected to return from injury and compete for the left tackle job, Brown seems unlikely to be tagged at a one-year rate of 15.3 million. Instead, it would either be Gostkowski or Flowers if the Patriots decide to use the franchise tag. They may not choose either, but there’s a case to be made that Flowers is worth about 18.7 million annually, which is around where the defensive end franchise tag number is expected to be.
Flowers’ sack total doesn’t jump off the page (21 in 45 career games), but he’s added another 39 hits and 97 hurries on the quarterback and Bill Belichick knows the value of guys who can consistently disrupt the quarterback, even if they aren’t always getting the sack, and he knows the value of guys who can line up in different spots on the defensive line, which Flowers does. Flowers is also really their only consistent pass rusher and he plays at a high level against the run as well. The transition tag (projected at 15.7 million) is another option, but Flowers’ pass rush productivity isn’t a secret around the league and he’d probably get offers ranging in the 16-18 million annual range that they’d have to match. Either way, he’s going to get paid this off-season.
MLB CJ Mosley (Baltimore)
Mosley seems likely to end up back in Baltimore one way or another, but the franchise tag doesn’t seem like a great option for him. Because the linebacker tag value includes pass rush linebackers in its calculation, the projected franchise tag value for linebackers is 15.8 million, which would put Mosley far above the top non-rush linebacker in the league in terms of average annual salary, which is Luke Kuechly at 12.4 million. Mosley could still top that number on a long-term deal, even if issues in coverage suggest he’s not that caliber of a player, but the Ravens might not want to risk that much of their cap being tied up in a player who isn’t a huge factor in coverage or rushing the quarterback. Perhaps the transition tag (projected 13.6 million) is a better option.
OT Donovan Smith (Tampa Bay)
A 2nd round pick in 2015, Smith made all 64 starts at left tackle for the Buccaneers in 4 seasons on his rookie deal, but he was one of the worst left tackles in the league for the first 3 seasons, before improving in 2018. From 2015-2017, he allowed 34 quarterback hits, most among offensive tackles, and committed 33 penalties, second most among offensive tackles. Those numbers dropped to 9 and 7 in 2018 and evidently the Buccaneers expect him to continue improving, as they are reportedly considering the franchise tag to keep him for 2019. That be a smarter move than giving Smith a big long-term contract, but 15.3 million is a big cap number for a player of Smith’s caliber and it wouldn’t be that hard to find a comparable player for less. Perhaps the transition tag (projected 13.7 million) is a better option here as well.
DT Grady Jarrett (Atlanta)
The Falcons’ defense should be better when healthier in 2019, but they can’t afford to lose Grady Jarrett. Their defense was horrible in 2018, but they were even worse in the 2 games Jarrett missed. First and foremost a strong run stuffer on the interior, Jarrett also has 13 sacks and 28 quarterback hits from the defensive tackle spot over the past 3 seasons. The 15.6 million dollar franchise tag is around what he’d get annually on a long-term extension, so I’d expect this to happen in the absence of a long-term deal.
S Landon Collins (NY Giants)
Safeties have one of the cheaper franchise tags at around 12 million annually. While the Giants don’t have a ton of cap space and have other needs, they can’t afford to lose one of their few truly good players. Injuries have ended his last two seasons, but he’s missed just 5 games in 4 seasons in the league and has been one of the best safeties in the league for each of the past 3 seasons, so he’s fairly low risk and could keep getting better, only going into his age 25 season. Given that, it probably makes more sense for the Giants to extend Collins long-term and lower his 2019 cap hit. He could push to be the highest paid safety in the league, upwards of 13 million annually, but the Giants could still structure that in a way that allows them to still address their many other needs.
DE DeMarcus Lawrence (Dallas)
Lawrence was already franchise tagged by the Cowboys once, playing the 2018 season on a one-year, 17.143 million dollar deal. It was a smart decision by the Cowboys at the time, as Lawrence was a one-year wonder with an early career history of back problems, but now that Lawrence is coming off of another strong season, the Cowboys are in a tough position. They obviously don’t want to lose him, but tagging a player for the 2nd year in a row requires a 20% increase in salary, meaning the franchise tag would cost them about 20.57 million this time around.
That’s a huge number to commit to a non-quarterback, especially with players like Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, and Ezekiel Elliott also due pay raises soon, but Lawrence has 25 sacks and 23 quarterback hits over the past two seasons, while playing at a high level against the run, so he could command close to 20 million annually on a long-term deal anyway. At the very least, he’ll be looking to top the 5-year, 85 million dollar deal Olivier Vernon got two off-seasons ago.
DE Frank Clark (Seattle)
For many players, the franchise tag amount is more than they’d likely get on the open market in average annual salary. Teams pay a premium for the benefit of being able to go year-to-year without big signing bonuses and large chunks of guaranteed money. That’s not the case with Frank Clark, even at the 18.7 million dollar defensive end rate. Players with 33 sacks and 27 quarterback hits in 3-year stretch before their 26 season tend to get paid. He figures to get around 20 million annually on a long-term extension and the Seahawks have the cap space to make sure he doesn’t go anywhere.
OLB Jadeveon Clowney (Houston)
Clowney seems like a perfect fit for the franchise tag. Not only do the Texans get a slight discount because he’s listed as a linebacker in the Texans 3-4, rather than a defensive end (18.7 million vs. 15.8 million), but it also perfectly fits where he is in his development. Clowney hasn’t quite lived up to expectations as the #1 pick in the 2014 NFL Draft and the Texans may be hesitant to give him a huge long-term contract, but he’s also shown flashes of dominance and could keep getting better, still only going into his age 26 season, so they don’t want to lose him either. I wouldn’t expect him to sign a long-term deal this off-season, but I don’t expect him to go anywhere else.
OLB Dee Ford (Kansas City)
The franchise tag is also a perfect fit for Dee Ford and the Chiefs, who will also benefit from Ford being classified as a linebacker in their 3-4 system. Ford’s 13 sacks and 17 quarterback hits in 2018 suggest a player worth big money, but the 2 sacks he had in 6 games in 2017 before back surgery suggest maybe he’s someone you should make prove it again before giving him a big long-term contract.