Free agency started by default earlier this week, as NFL teams can now decide on which player they want to use their franchise tag. There are two tags, an “exclusive rights” tag and a “non-exclusive” tag. An exclusive tag guarantees two things, (1) the player is ineligible to negotiate with other teams and (2) the player will make at least the average of the top-five paid players at the position (or 120% of the player’s prior salary, whichever is higher). The non-exclusive tag has the same financial ramifications, but the player can negotiate with another team and the player’s former team receives two first-round picks from the player’s new team. There’s also the transition tag that guarantees a player top-ten pay at their position (or 120%), and gives the tagging team the right to match any contract that player signs.
These three tags have been used twenty times over the last few off-seasons, or about seven a year (just under a quarter of the teams). Before that it was used much more frequently, but the current landscape leads to a more infrequent usage. The vast majority of teams won’t use their franchise tag this year, but we will explore the best candidate for the tag from each team. This list assumes that negotiations break down for every team and player. The Chiefs’ candidate, for example, is a shoo-in to get a contract, but is listed as a virtual lock for the tag.
Best Option: Reshad Johnson, Safety
Likelihood: Next to none
Johnson, 30, was a starter for the NFC West champs and a key cog to their defense, but the safety franchise tag is projected at nearly $11 million dollars. Given that Johnson is 30 and the team has depth on depth on depth, the time will likely pass on tagging any of their free agents this year.
Best Option: Literally nobody
Likelihood: Literally none
The Falcons have ten free agents of note according to NFL.com, and all, including kicker Shayne Graham (kickers are notorious for being tagged due to the low tag figure) are replacement level or worse.
Best Option: Justin Tucker, Kicker
Tucker is one of the best kickers in the NFL, but the Ravens are more likely to work out a long-term deal with the kicker than tag him. They may tag him as a fallback option in case negotiations break down. Kelechi Osemele (G) is their best free agent, but the entire offensive line is grouped together for franchise tag purposes, so he would essentially get the average of the top five Left Tackles in the league. No guard is worth that money.
Best Option: Cordy Glenn, OT
In the history of the franchise tag, the Bills have only used the designation on safety Jarius Byrd. With a free agent class that would make the Falcons blush, the Bills have really one option for the tag, LT Cordy Glenn. LT are the only OL position worth tagging, and Glenn is one of the best. With it looking increasingly likely that Mario Williams has played his last snap as a Bill, the $12.9 million cap savings would transfer almost entirely to Glenn. The only catch? The Bills are already over the projected cap.
Best Option: Josh Norman, CB
Likelihood: Virtually guaranteed
The Super Bowl runner ups would be insane to not tag their top CB. He burst onto the scene last season with a breakout effort. One season of great work does not a long-term contract make. A franchise tag pays Norman eight figures for one season and gives him the chance to leave in 2017 as opposed to being guaranteed to leave in 2016. In all likelihood, the Panthers will lock up Norman to a long-term deal, but slapping the tag on him is the first step to that end. They have nothing better to do with it this year.
Best Option: Alshon Jeffery, WR
Jeffery is clearly the top free agent WR this year, and the Bears would be insane to not tag him if they cannot work out a long-term deal. Jeffery is a top-ten free agent overall this year, and while the $14.5 million is an insanely elevated figure, Jeffery is an extremely elevated talent. He proved in 2014 that he was QB-proof, but it ultimately comes down to the franchise’s direction. If they’re 100% blowing it up, they’ll divest themselves from Jeffery, and would perhaps throw the non-exclusive tag on him, hoping a team will pay two first-round picks for his services.
Best Option: George Iloka, S
Likelihood: Next to none
Cincinnati has two free agent safeties with Iloka and Reggie Nelson. Nelson is the older of the two, so the prospect of paying him that asking price of over $10 million is crazy. The Bengals likely want to lock up Iloka long-term, but would likely be okay be a transition tag if he is tagged at all. The Bengals are notoriously cheap, so it’s unlikely they break the bank with any of their potential free agents via any of the franchise tags. WR Marvin Jones is also an option, but he is well behind A.J. Green but not at all worth the $14.5 million projected WR salary. Jones could become Hue Jackson’s new #1 up I-71 in 2016.
Best Option: Tashaun Gipson, S
Gipson is one of the bright spots on a Cleveland defense that was at the bottom of the league last season, and the Browns are in the top-ten in terms of cap space available. Gipson is a talented safety but like Iloka, the price tag is very high. Still, the Browns will likely pursue a long-term deal with Gipson before putting the tag on him.
Best Option: Rolando McClain, LB?
Likelihood: “Cowboys VP Stephen Jones: ‘We are not using the franchise or transition tag’”
The Cowboys have a ton of free agents but none of them come close to being worth the franchise tag. In addition, half a decade of mortgaging contracts to win now has put them into cap hell. They have nobody worth tagging, and no money with which they could do the tagging. They have just over $9 million in projected cap space, meaning at the moment they literally only have the space to tag a punter, kicker or tight end.
Best Option: Super Bowl MVP Von Miller, LB
Likelihood: What’s higher than 100% certain?
With Peyton Manning’s massive contract coming off the books, it’s a lock the Broncos use their franchise tag on Von Miller if they can’t sign the best defensive player this side of J.J. Watt to a long-term deal. They need to tread lightly, however, as DeMarcus Ware is 33 this year and now that he has his ring, is a retirement threat. Not locking up Von Miller to a long-term deal could leave them without Ware and Miller next offseason, unless they want to tag Miller again and ensure he isn’t a Bronco in 2018. Of bigger concern for the Broncos is that there is a definite possibility they enter 2017 without Manning or Brock Osweiler, making their quarterback position literally unknown.
Best Option: Isa-Abdul Quddus, S
Likelihood: Like the Cowboys, but less so.
The Lions have breathing room for the first time in forever, with Ndomukong Suh coming off the books last season, and Calvin Johnson coming off the books this year. They have a ton of uninteresting free agents, and are suddenly in the market for a Hall of Fame caliber wide receiver. They need to add talent to the roster, not spend eight figures on someone who contributed to their 7-9 finish last year. Quddus is their best option by default, and he was a part-time starter by the end of the year.
Green Bay Packers
Best Option: Mason Crosby, K
Likelihood: Low, because Packers
The Packers just don’t tag people, but if they did, they would tag Crosby. He’s one of the better players on the team, and the fungible nature of the kicker/punter position keeps the salary low, which means that tagging a player as valuable as Crosby makes great sense. However, the Packers are simply too cap savvy to go around slapping tags on players. Instead, the stability of the organization that doesn’t sign free agents tells me they won’t bother tagging Crosby because they can easily re-sign him.
Best Option: Shane Lechler, P?
Likelihood: Lower than the number of times they gave up a TD to start a playoff game this year.
The Texans have no free agent worth a second look outside of Lechler and maybe Nick Novak. They won’t tag Lechler since the projected $4.5 million is $1 million more than he made over the last three years combined. He’s also coming off the worst season of his career, as well.
Best Option: Coby Fleener or Dwayne Allen, TE
Likelihood: Dark horse candidate (a few years ago)
What happens when a team is mostly old, useless or under contract? You get the Colts. They have a handful of free agents, but none of them are all that impressive. If the Gronks and Grahams of the world hadn’t inflated tight end franchise tag value, Allen or Fleener would make proper tight end options. Fleener has gotten more run due to his familiarity with Luck from Stanford, but Allen appears to be the greater talent. As it stands, don’t count on the Colts using their tag this season.
Best Option: Jaxon de Ville, M
Likelihood: 100% on Mr. de Ville
The Jags’ best options in free agency are a backup QB (Henne), a bust TE (Marcedes Lewis) and, uh.. Chris Clemons? The Jags are blessed with the most cap space in the NFL this offseason, and will likely use it more wisely than the franchise tag on the sub-optimal talent that makes up their free agent class. However, Jaxon de Ville needs to be locked up at any cost.
Kansas City Chiefs
Best Option: Eric Berry, S
Likelihood: Virtual lock
The Comeback Player of the Year and one of the best stories in the history of sports, Eric Berry played incredibly last season after missing 2015 to seek treatment for his lymphoma. Now cancer-free, Berry literally re-earned his starting role in Andy Reid’s defense less than a year after staring death in the face (death blinked). Berry is a great story, a great player and a fan favorite. He isn’t going anywhere, even if it costs the Chiefs a pretty penny to do so.
St. Louis Los Angeles Rams
Best Option: Janoris Jenkins, CB
Likelihood: Extremely low
The Rams are bereft of options, and Jenkins is their best candidate by default. If the Rams tag a player on their roster, they’ll be worse off financially than the St. Louis taxpayers, who are still on the hook for a now-vacant Edward Jones Dome. Jenkins is their best option by default, and an unlikely
Best Option: Olivier Vernon, DE
Ideally, the Dolphins would like to avoid tagging Vernon, given that they gave out massive contracts to Ryan Tannehill and Ndamukong Suh over the last couple of years and the fact that tagging Vernon will run them over $15 million. In addition, they’re projected to have minimal cap space, but that hasn’t stopped teams from pushing off their responsibilities for short term gain.
Best Option: Chad Greenway, LB
Greenway is the best of slim pickins. Not only will the Vikings not use the tag at all, I don’t see them re-signing anyone but Greenway, Michael Harris and maybe Audie Cole. Their free agents are mostly end-of-roster guys, who don’t come close to deserving the tag.
New England Patriots
Best Option: Akiem Hicks, DE
Hicks is the most coveted of all the Patriots free agents, but that’s a bleak crew. Much like Olivier Vernon and the Dolphins, the Patriots would love to retain his services but are unlikely to pony up the asking price for a tagged DE.
New Orleans Saints
Best Option: Kai Forbath, K
Likelihood: Extremely low, but not impossible
Forbath made his way to New Orleans after washing out in Washington. He was unimpressive in New Orleans, but the use of a franchise tag on a kicker is the universal sign of, “hey, we have nothing better to use this on, and the kicker tag is cheap.” That having been said, kickers are fungible and Forbath has been Just A Guy since his great rookie year.
New York Jets
Best Option: Muhammad Wilkerson, DE
Likelihood: Slam dunk
Wilkerson is not only one of the best DEs in the game, he is one of the best players on the defensive side of the ball. The Jets have only $13 million in projected cap space, but they would be insane to not figure out some way to keep Wilkerson around, at least for one more ride. In all likelihood, they work something out with him, but no matter what happens, you can bank on Wilkerson being a part of Gang Green in 2016.
New York Giants
Best Option: Prince Amukamara, CB
Likelihood: Very low
Amukamara is one of five key free agents the Giants need to keep, alongside Josh Brown, Jason Pierre-Paul, Rueben Randle and Robert Ayers. The Giants have the fourth-most cap space going into 2016, but also twenty free agents. They need to spend every bit of their cap space, and be smart with it. While most teams with as much space as the Giants would tag a player, they need to fill over one-third of their roster. Tagging a player would be a waste of money.
Best Option: Marquette King, P
The Raiders have gobs of money. Tons of it. Over $70 million in cap room. Seventy million! While locking up one of the best punters in the game on a franchise tag would be a good idea, a better one would be locking him up long term. The Raiders are unlikely to use their franchise tag on King only because they’re likely to reach a multi-year deal with King.
Best Option: Sam Bradford, QB
Likelihood: Worst case scenario
With Philadelphia getting off Mr. Kelly’s Wild Ride and the 49ers getting onto it, Doug Pederson will look to retool the Eagles in his image. As such, the Eagles are tied to another former Chief in Chase Daniel. The organization spent a lot to get Bradford, but that was under his disastrous tenure as GM of the Eagles. Bradford is a proven starter in the NFL, and if Daniel doesn’t leave his cushy backup gig, a one-year tag to bridge to whatever QB they inevitably draft. This scenario is unlikely, but weirder things have happened.
Best Option: Nobody
Wow, I promised myself I wouldn’t choose “nobody” as an option but the Steelers have just that among their free agent crop. They have nothing in free agency outside of role players. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t give anyone on that free agent list more than a few million bucks.
San Diego Chargers
Best Option: Eric Weddle, S
Ironic that the player the Chargers famously mistreated and refused to work with, and a player who wanted to stay a Charger but will be elsewhere, is their best option to tag. Weddle is going to command a lot of money this offseason, and the Chargers inexplicably don’t want anything to do with him.
San Francisco 49ers
Best Option: Alex Boone, G/T
Likelihood: Little, but possible
Boone is one of two players on the 49ers offensive line that hasn’t been an absolute abject failure over the last two years, and the 49ers have the fifth-most money this season. Boone has been a money-first player for a while, holding out and complaining about his contract that he signed when he was a little-known practice squad player & backup. The 49ers want to keep him, but a season of Boone complaining about the franchise tag likely won’t worth it. That having been said, the Niners are trying to reform their line and Boone is insanely versatile, capable of playing any spot on the line.
Best Option: Bruce Irvin, LB
If he could stay healthy, it would be LT Russell Okung. He’s one of the best LTs in the game, but is constantly injured. In fact, Okung is literally hurt right now after going under the knife for a dislocated shoulder. Irvin, for his part, offered the Seahawks a hometown discount, but they literally had the ability to have him under contract and chose to not exercise that option. Irvin is their best option, but they’ve made it clear they don’t plan to use it on him.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Best Option: Doug Martin, RB
With Charles Sims and Martin making a devastating one-two combo, Martin should definitely get the franchise tag from the Bucs to see if his 2015 bounce back is for real. With Martin likely wanting the higher security of a multi-year deal, the Bucs would be smart to invest more in one year to see if Martin can duplicate his last campaign. The Bucs don’t want to tag Martin, but they will if they have to.
Best Option: None
Likelihood: Zip. Zilch. Zero. Nada
No free agent on the Titans is worth a sniff by most of the league outside of maybe Al Woods? None of the Tennessee free agents are even close to being worth half of their positions’ respective franchise tag number.
Best Option: Kirk Cousins, QB
Washington and their signal caller apparently broke off negotiations earlier this week. With impending quarterback vacancies in numerous cities, he would be crazy to not pursue his options. With RGIII on his way out the door, Dan Snyder & Co. are likely to slam down the franchise tag on Cousins, asking him: “YOU LIKE THAT?!”