Squawka NFL

Tag! You’re it! 10 players likely to receive the NFL’s franchise tag

By Emile Avanessian

Published: 13:00, 10 March 2022

Super Bowl LVI is in the books. The focus now is on the offseason. First up are decisions regarding impending free agents. A look at the ten free-agents-to-be most likely to return to their current teams via the franchise tag.

Undoubtedly, members of the Rams will remain on Cloud 9 of some time to come. Conversely, the Cincinnati Bengals may need a moment or two to lick their wounds in the wake of that disappointment.

However, there’s no rest for the weary in the NFL. As the confetti was falling in SoFi Stadium for triumphant Rams, front offices had already shifted their gazes to offseason roster-building. As of now, teams have less than three weeks to negotiate with their impending free agents, to determine who get a contract extension, who’s gets to walk out the door, and who’s coming back, like it or not, under the franchise tag.

In short, the franchise tag is a mechanism in the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement, introduced in 1993, that allows teams to retain a players who are set to become unrestricted free agents, without allowing those players to enter into free agency, on a salary equal to the greater of 1) the average of the top five salaries at the player’s position or 2) 120% of the player’s previous year’s salary. (Check out our full NFL free agency explainer here)

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Last offseason, nine players received the franchise tag. With some intriguing and star-level players set to hit free agency after March 8, there’s a decent chance that this offseason’s tally hits double digits.

Let’s take a look at ten potential free agents who are likely in line for the franchise tag:

Davante Adams, WR, Green Bay Packers

This situation is pretty straightforward: Davante Adams is a top-three wide receiver in the league. In 2021, he turned in yet another phenomenal season, with 123 catches, for 1,553 yards and 11 touchdowns, and was named First Team All-Pro. No team, regardless of where it sits in its competitive cycle, allows this type of player to walk away for nothing.

Of course, for a second straight offseason, the Packers must sort out the issue of the man that throws Adams the ball. Aaron Rodgers has said that he will make public his desire to remain (or not) in Green Bay by March. Speculation suggests that Rodgers may opt to stick around, but you’d forgive the Packers for wanting to cover all of their bases. Thus, expect the team to opt for the non-exclusive franchise tag, which would pay Adam just over $19 million for 2022, while allowing the receiver to negotiate a multi-year deal with other teams that would pay him $25+ million per year.

Should he reach such a deal with another team, under the non-exclusive tag, that team would have to send two first-round picks to the Packers as compensation. Otherwise, the Pack get to retain an elite player at below market value, and punt on this particular big-money decision for a year. One issue, however, is that the Packers are currently $50m over the salary cap.

Update: Ahead of the March 8 deadline, the Packers used their franchise tag on Adams, who’ll earn a salary of $20.4 million for the 2022 season. The sides have until July 15 to reach an agreement on a long-term contract extension.

Darious Williams, CB, Los Angeles Rams

The 28-year-old cornerback, who just completed his third full season as a Ram, and fourth overall in the NFL (he split his rookie year between the Rams and the Baltimore Ravens), is one of the NFL’s top #2 corners, and a vital piece of the newly-crowned Super Bowl champs’ defense.

Williams turned in a star-quality 2020 season, in which he picked off four passes and graded out (according to Pro Football Focus) as superstar counterpart Jalen Ramsey’s equal. Though he had no interceptions in 2021 (due largely to an ankle injury that cost him most of October, and a late-season shoulder injury), Williams still allowed fewer touchdowns (three) than Ramsey, limited receivers on his side of the field to 40 yards or fewer seven times and, according to PFF, boasts a coverage grade (79.6) since 2019 – that ranks in the top-20 among corners.

Williams signed a one-year, $4.766 million contract in 2021. However his offseason plays out, he’s in line for a significant raise, as the franchise tag number for corners is estimated to be $17.5 million. The Rams are expected to tag Williams so that they can negotiate deals to keep Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jr. in town.

If, for some reason, the Rams opted to neither tag him nor sign him to a multi-year extension by the March 8 deadline, Williams would not lack suitors eager to give him a massive multi-year deal.

Update: The Rams elected not to use their franchise tag. Thus, Williams will become a free agent on March 16, and is expected to sign (for probably $12-$13 million per year) with another team.

Orlando Brown, LT, Kansas City Chiefs

After watching Patrick Mahomes spend all of Super Bowl LV running for his life, the Chiefs spared no expense in upgrading their offensive line in the 2021 offseason. In 2021, K.C.’s line ranked among the NFL’s best – Orlando Brown was a huge part of that.

The Chiefs acquired Brown (plus a second-round pick in 2021 and sixth-rounder in 2022), who had one year remaining on his contract, via trade from the Ravens, in exchange for their first-, third- and fourth-rounders in 2021, and a 2022 fifth-round pick. In his first year at his preferred left tackle spot, Brown protected Mahomes’ blind side well enough to earn himself a third consecutive (the previous two as a RT) Pro Bowl selection.

As K.C. did not work out a long-term extension with Brown at the time of the trade, he’s poised to become a free agent. Both because of the compensation required to acquire him and his value to the offense, there’s no way the Chiefs allow that to happen. Look for Brown to get tagged (for roughly $16.5 million) for 2022, before inking (either this offseason or next) a long-term deal that pays him over $20 million per year.

Update: Ahead of the March 8 deadline, the Chiefs used their franchise tag on Brown, who’ll earn a salary of $16.7 million for the 2022 season. The sides have until July 15 to reach an agreement on a long-term contract extension.

J.C. Jackson, CB, New England Patriots

Like Williams, Jackson just completed his fourth season in NFL. In 2019 and 2020, Jackson turned in a pair of outstanding seasons as the Pats’ #2 corner opposite Stephon Gilmore. After Gilmore was traded to Carolina early in the 2021 season, Jackson was promoted to the primary cornerback spot. He delivered spectacularly, with eight interceptions (second in the NFL; he returned one for a TD), a league-high 23 passes defended, and 58 tackles. Jackson was named the AFC’s Defensive Player of the Month for November, Second Team All-Pro, and started the Pro Bowl.

This superstar-level performance has the 2018 undrafted free agent, who made $3.384 million in 2021, in line for a top-of-the-market payday. The expectation is that New England will place the non-exclusive tag on Jackson, allowing the team to either keep Jackson for $17.5 million in 2022 (or work out a long-term extension), or scoop up some hefty draft capital if another teams breaks the bank for his services.

Update: The Patriots elected not to use their franchise tag. Thus, Jackson will become a free agent on March 16, and is expected to sign a top-of-the-market ($17-$18 million per year) with another team.

Dalton Schultz, TE, Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys have an interesting crop of players – from pass rusher Randy Gregory fresh off of a career revival, to strong safety Jayron Kearse, to big-play #3 wide receiver Michael Gallup. Right there with that trio is tight end Dalton Schultz.

The 2018 fourth-round pick served as Blake Jarwin’s backup until 2020, when he was promoted to the starting spot after Jarwin suffered a season-ending injury. Schultz was up to that particular task, hauling in 63 catches for 615 yards and four touchdowns. He entered 2021 as the starter, and was even better, posting career highs in catches (78), receiving yards (808), touchdowns (8), yards per reception (10.4) and catch rate (75%). As one of Dak Prescott’s preferred and most trusted middle of the field targets, Schultz is now a vital, is still somewhat unsung element of the Cowboys’ attack.

Should the fifth-year-man-to-be from Stanford be allowed to hit the market, it’s estimated that he’d command in the neighborhood of $12 million per year. The cost to the Cowboys of bring him back on the franchise tag would be around $11 million. Based on his role in the offense and the relative bargain he represents, Schultz looks to be in line for the tag.

Update: Ahead of the March 8 deadline, the Cowboys used their franchise tag on Schultz, who’ll earn a salary of $10.9 million for the 2022 season. The sides have until July 15 to reach an agreement on a long-term contract extension.

Mike Gesicki, TE, Miami Dolphins

Though stylistically different and part of an inferior attack, Gesicki profiles very similarly to Schultz.

A solid tight end since 2019, Gesicki had his most productive NFL season in 2021, with career highs in receptions (73) and yards (780), and a catch rate (65.2%) above his career rate. That he only caught two touchdown passes is probably less a reflection on his skills than it is a referendum on the Dolphins’ offense in 2021.

As he lines up wide more frequently than many tight ends, there is speculation that Gesicki may try to argue that he is, in fact, a wide receiver, and in line for the larger $18.5 million figure under the tag. This gambit did not work for ex-Saints star Jimmy Graham. It’s unlikely that Gesicki’s case will be seen as more compelling.

As a result, it’s a safe bet that the ‘Phins will only need to pledge roughly $11 million to retain their excellent tight end. There’s talk that Gesicki is not an ideal fit for new head coach Mike McDaniel’s offense, as McDaniel prefers more blocking-inclined tight ends. However, Gesicki is a contributor that the playmaking-starved Dolphins simply cannot afford to lose. Expect them to tag Gesicki and use him as a receiver, and look to add a blocking-first tight end or two through the draft or on the cheap in free agency.

Update: Ahead of the March 8 deadline, the Dolphins used their franchise tag on Gesicki, who’ll earn a salary of $10.9 million for the 2022 season. The sides have until July 15 to reach an agreement on a long-term contract extension.

Marcus Williams, FS, New Orleans Saints

It came a something of a surprise when the Saints tagged Williams (for $10.6 million) a year ago. This time around, however, Williams, who’s coming off of a fourth straight solid-to-very-good season, is the clear choice. That’s because the manner in which offensive tackle Terron Armstead contract is structured doesn’t allow for him to be franchised, while the next-best candidates, right tackle Ryan Ramczyk and cornerback Marshon Lattimore, each received top-of-the-market contract extensions.

Thus, in all likelihood, New Orleans will try to find a second franchise tag for Williams. However, given the cap situation the Saints find themselves in – they are currently $76m over the cap – there is a very high chance that Williams does make it to free agency, and he will have a lot of suitors on the open market.

Update: The Saints elected not to use their franchise tag. Thus, Williams will become a free agent on March 16, and is expected to sign a top-of-the-market ($16-$18 million per year) with another team.

Jessie Bates, FS, Cincinnati Bengals

A second-round pick in the 2018 draft, Bates has developed into one of the best safeties in the NFL. Through his first four seasons, Bates has missed just two regular season games, registered at least 100 tackles three times (he had 88 in 2021, when he missed those two games), intercepted 10 passes (plus an impressive one in the end zone in the Super Bowl), defended an average of nearly 10 passes per season, and recovered two fumbles. Bates, who named Second Team All-Pro in 2020, has meshed well with veteran strong safety Vonn Bell and cornerback Chidobe Awuzie. Together the trio is the bedrock of what is potentially one of the NFL’s best secondaries.

Plus, the Bengals have a ton of cap space (about $55 million, fourth-most in the league), which should facilitate bringing Bates back, either with a new extension or on the $12.9 million tag for safeties, with plenty left over to shore up the offensive line in free agency.

Update: Ahead of the March 8 deadline, the Bengals used their franchise tag on Bates, who’ll earn a salary of $12.9 million for the 2022 season. The sides have until July 15 to reach an agreement on a long-term contract extension.

Carlton Davis, CB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tom Brady may be gone, and more than a few significant pieces – most notably Rob Gronkowski, WR Chris Godwin (who’s rehabbing an ACL injury), pass rusher Jason Pierre-Paul, center Ryan Jensen, D-lineman Ndamukong Suh and William Gholston, running backs Leonard Fournette, Ronald Jones II and Giovani Bernard, among others – are about to become free agents, but don’t look for the Bucs to completely clear the decks and start rebuilding.

There’s a case to made that, even amid all of those big names, 25-year-old cornerback Carlton Davis is the most important player (along with Godwin, barring a decision by Brady to come back) for the team to retain. Though Tampa does have a good, young cornerback duo outside of Davis in Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting, Davis is the best individual player of the three – this was evident in the seven games he missed with a quadriceps injury. Plus, this kind of trio – one good enough to neutralize just about any opposing receiving corps – is well worth keeping together.

As we already said with Darious Williams and J.C. Jackson above, should the Bucs somehow arrive at the conclusion that Davis is not worth the $17.5 million that accompanies the franchise tag, teams will be lining up to snap up the in-his-prime coverage ace.

Update: The Buccaneers elected to use their franchise tag on wide receiver Chris Godwin. Thus, Davis will become a free agent on March 16, and is expected to sign a top-of-the-market ($16-$18 million per year) with another team.

Harold Landry, OLB, Tennessee Titans

Landry in an excellent candidate for a long-term extension. He’s young (turns 26 in June), exceedingly durable (zero games missed over the past three seasons) and awfully productive.

After a pair of solid seasons in 2019 and 2020, in which he combined for 14.5 sacks, 22 tackles for loss, 30 QB hits, 137 tackles, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries, Landry broke out in 2021. His team-high 12 sacks, 75 tackles, 14 TFL and 22 QB hits – all of which earned him his first trip to the Pro Bowl – were crucial in helping the Titans to both the AFC South title and the conference’s #1 seed in the playoffs. And though Tennessee’s postseason run ended after just one game, Landry did his part to help the Titans advance, with six tackles, 1.5 sacks and a pair of QB hits. Not a bad way to wind down one’s rookie contract!

Again, the Titans will almost certainly be working to lock up Landry’s services long-term. Should the sides fails to reach an agreement before March 8, look for Landry to get the tag, and the approximately $18 million salary that comes with it.

Update: The Titans elected not to use their franchise tag. HOWEVER…

The team did reach an agreement with Landry on March 8, on a whopping five-year, $87.5 million deal, of which $52.5 million is guaranteed.

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