The franchise tag was introduced to the NFL in 1993 to reduce the impact of free agency and extend negotiating time between the player and the franchise over a long-term contract. However, there have been plenty of times where it was used as more of a leverage tool than anything else. The Washington Redskins have kept Kirk Cousins away from free agency for two years with the use of the tag, only to then trade for Alex Smith.
The intent of the rule was to prevent key players and team icons from walking out the door, but teams have used it on relatively unimportant players, including kickers, to keep them on the roster for one more year.
Using the franchise tag isn’t cheap however. An “exclusive” franchise tag would pay a player no less than an average of the top five salaries at his position or 120% of his previous year’s salary, whichever is higher. As a result there are only around six to ten franchise tags used per year, and not all of them last the full season as teams negotiate deals to reduce the burden on the salary cap. With that in mind, who are the players that could potentially find themselves playing under the franchise tag in 2018?
Jarvis Landry, WR, Miami Dolphins
At just 25 years old and with four seasons in the NFL already under his belt, Jarvis Landry is one of the most attractive names in free agency this season. A master of the underneath routes and quickly defeating man coverages, Landry has amassed 400 catches and 4,038 yards in his time with the Dolphins, which is staggering given that Miami have had something of a rollercoaster offense during his time with the team.
While Landry’s stat sheet doesn’t pop off the page next to the Julio Jones’ and Antonio Brown’s of the NFL, his potential is sky-high, especially paired with a coordinator and quarterback who know how to best use his talents.
Miami are at something of a crossroads as they enter Adam Gase’s third season as head coach, and having invested in receiving talent recently with DeVante Parker and Kenny Stills they don’t necessarily have the long-term cap space to keep him. Their 2018 cap situation is fairly grim as well, which limits their options, but they could clear space by cutting or renegotiating with certain players, to make space for the projected $16.2 million the wide receiver tag will cost them.
Case Keenum, QB, Minnesota Vikings
The Minnesota Vikings had three viable quarterback options in 2017. Heading into 2018 none of these three are on their books. While they are expected to offer Teddy Bridgewater a short-term contract this offseason, the big question is if they have been won over by the impressive season Case Keenum put together.
New offensive coordinator John DeFilippo may be keen to bring Nick Foles over from Philadelphia, but that is likely to cost draft picks. The safe move is to spend a chunk of their $53 million in cap space on franchise tagging Case Keenum and seeing if he can recreate his career year. If he can then they can come to terms on a multi-year contract, and if not they haven’t locked themselves into a one-year-wonder that will cripple the team’s ability to compete.
Allen Robinson, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars
Robinson was comfortably the best thing about the Jaguars offense coming into the 2017 season, and then he tore his ACL in Week 1. The disappointment of his injury opened the door for others, and while Allen Hurns failed to impress, rookies Dede Westbrook and Keelan Cole made names for themselves during Jacksonville’s deep playoff run.
However, the appeal of Robinson is that he brings proven #1 production and still has room to grow as a player. At 24 he already has a remarkable 1,400 yard, 14-touchdown season under his belt and regardless of opponent he can win on routes consistently.
He is likely to be far more sought-after than Landry due to his ability to play well on the outside and stretch the field, making a long-term contract with the Jaguars a little harder to predict. The safest course for the Jaguars, who have a very reasonable $23 million is cap space, is to throw an exclusive tag on Robinson and get to work on a deal without all the outside noise that more cap-rich teams could create.
Ezekiel Ansah, DE, Detroit Lions
The new Detroit Lions head coach, Matt Patricia, is unlikely to be too keen on seeing a potential superstar leave the building just as he arrives.
Ansah, 28, has had an up-and-down career in the NFL, with 14.5- & 12-sack seasons under his belt but also registering just two in 13 games in 2016. He is a pure athlete with far less experience than your average player, making his lack of consistency even more worrying, but there is no doubt about his potential to be a game-wrecker in the right hands.
Pass rushers come at a premium in the NFL, with the likes of Von Miller and Justin Houston carrying $20+ million cap hits into 2018. The Lions are working with enough space this offseason ($47 million) to compete for his signature long-term, but it would add leverage to their side if they were to tag him. His inconsistency will make the bigger teams nervous of a long-term investment, leaving him with offers from some of the less desirable locations only. He may like the sound of $17.4 million guaranteed for 2018 or a place he knows in Detroit for his future.
Carlos Hyde, RB, San Francisco 49ers
Hyde isn’t quite the superstar-level player you would expect to get the franchise tag, and yet he has been one of San Francisco’s best players over the last few years.
With Jimmy Garoppolo’s contract signed the 49ers can turn their attention to the rest of the roster, and while there are a lot of holes to fill and improvements to be made, they have a known commodity in Hyde and would be foolish to let him walk given all the other places their assets need to be spent.
Even with Garoppolo’s monster $37 million cap hit this season they have $80 million to spend, and with the running back tag costing just $12 million, they have plenty of space to sign other players while they get to work on a deal with Hyde that will likely bring his cap hit down to the $6-7 million range.
With a relatively flat running back market, Hyde is likely to be receptive to a long-term deal that keeps him in San Francisco, and tagging him need only be the first step in coming to terms on a contract.
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