NFL free agency is almost underway, and players will be looking to secure major pay raises ahead of the 2020 season. Some of the big names looking to secure lucrative, long-term deals won’t get what they want though, as transition and franchise tags will be utilized to keep them in place. The NFL and NFLPA pushed the start day for franchise tagging from Wednesday to Thursday earlier this week, and here are some of the top candidates to receive tags.
Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
If Prescott doesn’t sign a blockbuster contract that makes him one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the NFL, he’ll almost certainly be franchise tagged. The signal caller rose to the occasion in 2019 and tallied career highs in passing yards (4,902) and passing touchdowns. He had one of the best seasons of any quarterback in the NFL last year and might just be entering his prime at 26 years of age. The one-year cost of franchise tag for a quarterback is expected to be around $27 million, which is $8 million shy of what Prescott is supposedly targeting. The Cowboys can retain their leader for a discounted price while figuring out a way to keep wideout Amari Cooper and others in check.
Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Winston led the NFL in passing yards (5,109) last season, but also threw a league-leading 30 interceptions. Finishing second in passing touchdowns (33) isn’t enough to overlook his troublesome decision making. He’s one of the more polarizing signal callers in the NFL because of his numbers, but has high upside. It’s also unclear if the Buccaneers will be able to attract a more desirable player to run the offense. If Tampa Bay can’t get a significant upgrade, expect to see Winston stay put.
Ryan Tannehill, Tennessee Titans
Tannehill isn’t as likely to be tagged as the previous two signal callers on this list, but he’s a candidate to say the least. The 2019 Comeback Player of the Year led the NFL in passer rating and was voted into the Pro Bowl after unseating Marcus Mariota from a starting spot under center. Tannehill only made $2 million last season and is clearly worth more than that, but there have been talks about Tennessee’s interest in extending him a long-term deal. Star running back Derrick Henry is also entering free agency fresh off his first rushing title. If he gets tagged instead, expect Tannehill to sign a bigger deal.
Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
Henry rushed for a career-high 1,540 yards and 16 touchdowns last season and is easily the top running back on the market. Unlike many of the backs getting the big bucks, Henry doesn’t have the versatility to contribute much as a pass catcher. Other players like Ezekiel Elliot, Todd Gurley, and Le’Veon Bell got paid because of their range. The Titans are built around the run though and don’t have much of a receiving corps, so they can’t afford to part with Henry. A $12.5 million franchise tag is just under the $13 million top running backs are earning. That option would allow Tennessee to see how Henry follows up a career year without making a long-term commitment.
The Cardinals bet on David Johnson by giving him a three-year, $39 million extension in 2018, but he’s failed to live up to the hype. The multifaceted back only rushed for 345 yards and two scores in 13 games last year and took a backseat to Drake midway through the season. Drake appears poised to be Arizona’s Week 1 feature back in 2020, and Johnson is too expensive to cut. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport says Drake is a candidate to be franchise tagged after notching career highs in rushing yards (817) and rushing touchdowns (8).
Amari Cooper, Dallas Cowboys
Cooper is the Cowboys’ top threat at wide receiver and has racked up 1,914 yards and 14 scores in 25 regular season games with the team. He isn’t quite as valuable to Dallas as Prescott, but is essential to keeping the team competitive with Randall Cobb approaching unrestricted free agency as well. Cooper is most likely to receive a transition tag in 2020, which is valued at around $16 million. That would place him in the top seven salary at his position.
A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals
Green was a Pro Bowl player in each of his first seven NFL seasons but has battled with injuries over the course of the last two seasons. He appeared in nine games in 2018 and missed all of 2019 with an ankle injury. The Bengals had the worst record in the league (2-14) last year and are expected to select LSU’s Joe Burrow with the top pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. An elite talent like Green could help the young signal caller ease into the pro game.
Hunter Henry, Los Angeles Chargers
Henry has been one of the NFL’s most promising tight ends since he entered the league in 2017. He’s accounted for 1,709 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns in three seasons. Despite playing in fewer games in each year, he’s continued to set career bests in receptions, targets, and receiving yards. Staying healthy is a concern with Henry, and an $11 million franchise tag would put him in the range of top tight ends like Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport says the door is open to make that move now that Philip Rivers is out of the door.
Austin Hooper, Atlanta Falcons
Hooper will probably be the most sought after tight end on the market this offseason and could become the highest-paid at his position this year. He’s been a Pro Bowl player for the last two seasons and set career highs in receiving yards (787) and touchdowns (6) in 2019. The Falcons have less than $5 million in cap space though and would have to take a cap hit to franchise tag him. Whether Atlanta thinks he’s worth that remains to be seen.
Chris Jones, DT, Kansas City Chiefs
Kansas City is short on cap space following its first championship in 50 years and can’t afford to let the face of its defensive front walk away. He’s tallied 24.5 sacks in his last two seasons with the Chiefs and might be the most sought after defensive player on the market if he isn’t retained. A franchise tag would eat up Kansas City’s cap space, but he’s worth the price for a team looking to win a second straight title. According to Over the Cap, the Chiefs have $16.5 in cap space. A franchise tag for Jones is projected to cost $15.5 million.
Yannick Ngakoue, DE, Jacksonville Jaguars
Ngakoue’s (37.5) career sacks are good for third on the Jaguars’ all-time list. He reached that mark in only four seasons and managed to force 14 fumbles along the way as well. Ngakoue has already indicated that he wants a long-term deal in the $22 million range. Only DeMarcus Lawrence, Frank Clark, and Aaron Donald are slotted to make more than $20 million in 2020. A franchise tag for Ngakoue would cost a little more than $19 million.
Jordan Phillips, DT, Buffalo Bills
Phillips is coming off a career year in which he tallied 9.5 sacks. He’s not an elite offensive lineman, but CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora thinks Buffalo will make the move to avoid shelling out long-term money to him. The $15.5 million franchise tag would satisfy Phillips for a season and leave the Bills free to sign more important players in 2021. Phillips wouldn’t command anywhere near this much somewhere else, so it’s a win-win situation.
Leonard Williams, DT, New York Giants
The Giants sent the New York Jets a third and fifth-round pick for Williams last season, and he only recorded half a sack in eight games. Not keeping him would be wasteful given the assets New York forked up to bring him in. The Giants should at least give him one more season to prove his worth before parting ways with the 2015 first-round pick.
Dante Fowler Jr., Los Angeles Rams
Fowler signed a one-year, $12 million contract with Los Angeles ahead of 2019 and recorded a career-high 11.5 sacks. He’s at a place where he can demand more than that now and is a critical part of the Rams’ pass rush alongside Aaron Donald and Clay Matthews. Fowler would be paid $16 million on a franchise tag, but he could want more money over time, rather than another single-season run.
Bud Dupree, Pittsburgh Steelers
Dupree was a bright spot for Pittsburgh in a gloomy season riddled with misfortune. The 27-year-old reached career highs in tackles (68) and sacks (11.5) in 2019. Franchise tagging him could allow the Steelers to evaluate his worth while T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick gear up for unrestricted free agency after the 2020 season.
Matthew Judon, Baltimore Ravens
CBS Sports projects that Judon won’t get a chance to hit the free-agent market because of Baltimore’s plans to franchise tag him if a long-term deal doesn’t come to fruition. The fifth-year linebacker led the Ravens with 9.5 sacks in 2019. Baltimore dropped from 11th to 21st on the NFL’s team sack rankings after letting Za’Darius Smith go following the 2018 season, and likely won’t make that mistake again.
Justin Simmons, Safety, Denver Broncos
Simmons does it all for the Broncos. He’s eclipsed 90 tackles in his last two seasons and has led Denver in interceptions in back-to-back years. A franchise tag would cost a little less than $13 million and would put Simmons just outside the top five salaries for safeties. The Broncos are reportedly interested in working out a long-term deal before they resort to tagging him though.
James Bradberry, Cornerback, Carolina Panthers
Bradberry is easily the Panthers’ best defensive back and is entering free agency for the first time since he was drafted in 2016. This situation isn’t unfamiliar for Carolina, as it rescinded a franchise tag offer made to Josh Norman ahead of the 2016 season before fielding one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL. Several defensive backs are entering free agency in 2020, and Bradberry has said he’s open to playing under a $16.5 million franchise tag. The Panthers have a ton of other needs in places other than their secondary though.
Brandon Scherff, Guard, Washington
Scherff refused to sign a deal worth $13 million annually last season, which is shy of the $16 million he’d get with a franchise tag. Washington struggled on the offensive line last year when Trent Williams refused to play because of his disappointment with how the team’s medical staff mishandled a health problem he had. It could be in even worse shape without Schreff in 2020. Washington’s shaky quarterback situation makes consistency on the offensive line a priority.