The unique franchise tag rules for 2020 could complicate the lives of noteworthy potential free agents like Amari Cooper, Derrick Henry and Jameis Winston. In this final year of the current collective bargaining agreement, teams are allowed to use the franchise tag and transition tag in the same season for the first time.
That looms large in cities like Dallas, Tampa and Nashville, where there are multiple strong tag options. While using the franchise tag nearly guarantees a player staying put for at least one more season, the transition tag provides teams the ability to match any offer a player can find on the open market. The risk of losing someone on the transition tag is high, which will only put more pressure on these teams to work out long-term deals in the coming weeks with at least one star. In other words: If the Cowboys can’t get a deal done with Dak Prescott sooner than later, they may have to accept the real chance they will lose Prescott’s top target.
The differing rules — and the huge amounts of cap space available throughout the league — makes my annual list of tag projections larger than usual. Teams can first designate franchise or transition players on Feb. 25 and must do so by March 10 at 4 p.m. ET at the latest.
Now, before we get rolling, a quick definition of each tag:
Franchise tag: A one-year, guaranteed contract offer that prevents a player from hitting unrestricted free agency. The salary is based on the five-year average cap percentage for the tag at each position, stemming from the top five salaries at each position.
Transition tag: Also a one-year, guaranteed contract based on the five-year average cap percentage for the tag at each position, but the transition tag stems from the top 10 — not top five — salaries at each position, so it’s a bit cheaper. Most importantly, this tag allows players to sign offer sheets with other teams, but the original club has five days to match.
One last note: All cap figures and projected tag salaries cited below come from Over The Cap, unless otherwise noted.
OK, let’s go!
1) Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys: My top-ranked free agent would probably make more than $40 million per year if he actually hit the open market, something his agents are all too aware of. The Cowboys should have done this deal last offseason for far less money.
2) Ryan Tannehill, QB, Tennessee Titans: Whether Tannehill’s 2019 pace is sustainable is beside the point. In the Year 2020, you simply can’t let a quarterback leave after he just led the league in yards per attempt, QB rating and completion percentage over expected (CPOE). Finding out if Tannehill can back up his play is a perfect use of the tag.
3) Chris Jones, DT, Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs have some salary cap issues and a handful of needs that must be addressed on defense. Letting their best defensive player leave would only make matters worse, so general manager Brett Veach should look for savings elsewhere in order to keep Jones.
4) Justin Simmons, S, Denver Broncos: Simmons was a beautiful match for coach Vic Fangio’s defense. It’s a rebuilding unit, but retaining Simmons as a core piece to build around makes too much sense.
5) Shaq Barrett, OLB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Bruce Arians said that Barrett “ain’t going anywhere,” whereas the coach’s feelings for Jameis Winston are far more conflicted. If a long-term deal can’t be reached and the Bucs have to choose between the two, I think they’d take the risk of Winston walking the plank.
6) A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals: Green said he wouldn’t mind staying in Cincinnati on the franchise tag. The Bengals appear highly unlikely to let him walk, so a one-year contract is a perfect compromise for a player who didn’t suit up last year.
1) Bud Dupree, OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers: Dupree had a Dee Ford-like breakout in his contract year. That will make it particularly difficult for Pittsburgh to sign him to a long-term deal — and even tougher for Pittsburgh to let him leave. Dupree and T.J. Watt formed one the best edge tandems in football last year.
2) Hunter Henry, TE, Los Angeles Chargers: The franchise tag for tight ends is projected to be just over $11 million. That price seems more than fair for one of the most dynamic young pass-catching tight ends in football, even if Henry has struggled with durability at times.
3) Matthew Judon, OLB, Baltimore Ravens: GM Eric DeCosta has said that he’s tired of losing quality homegrown players. Even if Judon stays, the Ravens have a pass rush need. That makes retaining him a relatively easy choice.
4) Anthony Castonzo, OT, Indianapolis Colts: Castonzo is a tough player to project. He could either retire or be the top free-agent tackle available. The upward trajectory of the 31-year-old’s career, however, makes it nearly impossible to imagine the Colts allowing him to leave for another team.
5) Jameis Winston, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (transition tag): The further away we get from the regular season, the more it appears that the Bucs are considering their options. The two sides are in wait-and-see mode, but I suspect they both realize they are better off together. Winston has more value to Tampa Bay than any other team, something that a transition tag could prove if the Bucs need the franchise tag for Shaq Barrett. I have my doubts Winston would inspire a huge market on the transition tag.
6) Amari Cooper, WR, Dallas Cowboys (transition tag): If the Cowboys truly want to keep Cooper, they should try everything possible to get him signed to a long-term deal by March 10. That would preserve the franchise tag for Dak Prescott. If Cooper hits the open market, there’s a good chance Dallas will be out-bid.
7) Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans (transition tag): The transition tag for running backs is projected to be $10.2 million. That sounds like a fair number for the league’s leading rusher, while saving the Titans from paying huge long-term guarantees to a back like the Cardinals, Rams and Cowboys have in recent years. Considering Henry’s huge workload and lack of chops in the passing game, I’m not certain he would get an attractive long-term offer from another team to lure him away.
8) James Bradberry, CB, Carolina Panthers: I didn’t have Bradberry on my original list and a person smarter than myself felt he was definitely getting tagged. Perhaps the Panthers just don’t want to serve up Bradberry to his former boss, now in Washington.
9) Bryan Bulaga, OT, Green Bay Packers: Bulaga enjoyed a strong bounce-back season in 2019. I’ve gone back and forth on this one, but it just doesn’t make sense to allow a quality right tackle to leave when the team has the cap space to afford him.
NO PROJECTED TAG
1) Brandon Scherff, OG, Washington Redskins: Washington struggles to develop quality players, so it wouldn’t be a shock if the ‘Skins tagged one of the best draft picks they made last decade. But Scherff has missed 13 games over the last two seasons, the franchise tag for OL is projected to cost more than $16 million and the new regime in town didn’t draft him. A new contract or ultimately a tag still wouldn’t be a surprise, but I’m leaning no here.
2-3) Dante Fowler Jr. and Cory Littleton, OLB and ILB, Los Angeles Rams: The Rams signed Fowler to a prove-it deal last year and he proved it. Littleton has evolved into a difference-maker, as well, now one of the premier coverage linebackers in football. If the Rams had more cap room, I’d be more optimistic about using the tag on one of these quality starters.
4) D.J. Reader, NT, Houston Texans: One of the top true nose tackles in football, Reader had his best season at just the right time. At age 25, he should hope for no tag, so he can cash in on the open market. But that’s certainly no guarantee.
5) Anthony Harris, S, Minnesota Vikings: I love Harris. I think Minnesota should tag him rather than continue to pay some bigger-name Vikings defenders, but it just doesn’t appear this roster has the cap flexibility to do so. A few big moves — or trades — could change that.
UNLIKELY TO BE TAGGED
1-2) Devin McCourty and Joe Thuney, S and OG, New England Patriots: The Patriots didn’t tag McCourty back in 2015 at the height of McCourty’s powers, so it doesn’t sound like a Bill Belichick type of move now. Thuney is one of the better guards in football, but the Pats are already paying Shaq Mason big bucks. New England usually believes in developing linemen on the cheap.
3) Vonn Bell, S, New Orleans Saints: The safety market bounced back in free agency last season, so Bell should do very well if he’s allowed to hit the market. The Saints‘ somewhat-stretched cap dollars figure to be spent elsewhere.
5) Jack Conklin, OT, Tennessee Titans: General manager Jon Robinson’s decision to not assign the fifth-year option to Conklin’s rookie contract is shaping up to be an unforced error that could seriously hurt the Titans‘ offense.
6) Byron Jones, CB, Dallas Cowboys: Like Conklin in Tennessee, Jones has two higher-profile teammates who appear likely to box him out for a potential tag. This is a great thing for Jones’ bank account.
Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.