The 2017 NFL offseason is here, which should hopefully spare us from the Super Bowl conspiracy theories for at least a little while. Feb. 15 marks the first day teams are able to designate franchise players. The deadline for teams to utilize the franchise tag, should they choose, is March 1.
With a salary cap that has been increasing on a yearly basis, teams have been more reluctant to use the tag in recent years. Sixteen players have been tagged with either the franchise tag or transition tag over the past two seasons, though there have been plenty of special circumstances surrounding each use.
Last year, the Carolina Panthers opted to rescind their franchise tag on cornerback Josh Norman, which made him a free agent. He soon signed with Washington. However, many other players, such as Super Bowl 50 MVP Von Miller, have signed long-term deals with their team in order to avoid playing the upcoming season under the tag.
With that, here are our franchise tag predictions.
1. Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers running back
One of the NFL’s best running backs would be the hottest player on the free agent market should he become available. Even considering his injury history, Bell is a generational talent who would be a must-sign for almost any team in the NFL, even those with good running backs.
With an impending Antonio Brown extension nearing, Pittsburgh will have a rare opportunity to lock up two elite players to long-term deals in the same offseason. If Bell wants to become the NFL’s highest-paid back, however, the Steelers would be forced to use the franchise tag.
That could be a reality, too. “I’m at the top, and if not, I’m the closest; I’ma need 15 a year, and they know this,” Bell (who goes by the name Juice) rapped in his single, “Focus,” suggesting he could want to get paid as much as $15 million per year, an astronomical amount for a running back in today’s NFL.
2. Kirk Cousins, Washington quarterback
Any time a quality quarterback hits the free agent market, he immediately becomes one of the best guys available. If not for Bell’s free agency, Cousins would be the most coveted player who could become available. The 49ers who are now coached by Cousins’ former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, are one team that could be targeting the quarterback in free agency. That alone should push Washington toward signing Cousins to a long-term deal.
Yet the Washington brass still seems indecisive about whether to lock up Cousins, which would cause his cap number for the upcoming season to take off even more, and with three of the most lethal weapons in Cousins’ arsenal (DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, and Vernon Davis) hitting free agency, Scot McCloughan and company need to make a decision sooner rather than later.
But again, if the two sides can’t get a deal done, the franchise tag will certainly be an option again for Washington, which used it last season on Cousins.
3. Chandler Jones, Arizona Cardinals linebacker
Head coach Bruce Arians already said the Cardinals will franchise Jones if a deal isn’t reached, so it’s hard to imagine Arizona would let the guy walk in free agency after sacrificing so much to get him in the first place.
General manager Steve Keim will need to get the deal with Jones done quickly, though. The Cardinals could have more than 20 players — many of whom are starters — hitting the free agent market in the upcoming offseason. If Jones and his agent feel they have leverage, the Cardinals’ hand could be forced here.
4. Kawann Short, Carolina Panthers defensive tackle
Despite selecting defensive tackle Vernon Butler in the first round of last year’s draft, the Panthers will make a strong push to re-sign one of the stalwarts on their defense. Coach Ron Rivera already acknowledged the franchise tag is the likeliest option if the two sides can’t agree to a long-term deal.
Carolina’s decision to rescind Norman’s franchise tag last year (which many believe was made in preparation of a Short extension, which never came) gives the team more flexibility in free agency this year. And considering Short — even coming off a down year — has totaled 17 sacks in the past two seasons from the defensive tackle position, he’s not a guy the Panthers want to lose.
5. Dont’a Hightower, New England Patriots linebacker
New England’s decision to trade Jones — and its later decision to shockingly trade Jamie Collins to the Browns — appeared to be a decision made in preparation for Hightower’s upcoming free agency. The stud linebacker, who has been an unsung hero in two Super Bowls, has earned a big pay day. But the Patriots will almost certainly slap him with the franchise tag if they can’t negotiate a new deal.
Update: Not tagged
6. Eric Berry, Kansas City Chiefs safety
Berry has made it clear already that he doesn’t want to be tagged for the second straight season, telling the Kansas City Star “I’ll sit the season out” if the Chiefs use it on him again.
Berry backed a Comeback Player of the Year season in 2015 with an even better 2016, so there’s no reason for Kansas City not to meet Berry’s requests. Still, there’s a good chance the Chiefs will tag Berry again — and get a long-term deal worked out with him before the July 15 deadline this year.
Update: Chiefs signed Berry to a six-year, $78 million deal
7. Melvin Ingram, Los Angeles Chargers linebacker
Ingram was the last first-round pick of the A.J. Smith era, which in theory could mean general manager Tom Telesco might not be as inclined to pay big money for Ingram.
Considering the improvements in the Chargers’ pass rush from 2015 to 2016, however, the team will have to think long and hard about whether it can afford to lose the 2012 first-round pick. Ingram teamed with Joey Bosa to form one of the best edge rushing pairs in all of football. Being able to retain the linebacker and keep one of the league’s strongest front sevens intact would be huge for the Chargers, new head coach Anthony Lynn and his defensive coordinator Gus Bradley.
8. Jason Pierre-Paul, New York Giants defensive end
In a perfect world, the Giants would sign Pierre-Paul to a long-term deal and maintain one of the league’s best defenses.
Unfortunately for New York, things are more complicated than that. Both JPP and breakout defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins are hitting free agency, and the Giants — who don’t have a ton of remaining cap space after spending big last offseason — will likely lose one or both of the two talented defensive linemen this summer.
So the question must be asked: who do the Giants value more? Hankins, the young, talented defensive tackle? Or Pierre-Paul, a talented (albeit 28-year-old) edge rusher whose hand will never have the full functionality it once had before his fireworks accident? Look for the Giants to tag Pierre-Paul if a long-term deal doesn’t get done.
9. Nick Perry, Green Bay Packers linebacker
A year ago, Perry hit the free agent market after the Packers declined to pick up his fifth-year option. He ended up signing a one-year, $5 million prove-it deal in Green Bay, and, boy, did he deliver. Leading the team in sacks (11) and pressures is impressive for any player, let alone someone who is playing alongside Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers.
Now one of four Green Bay outside linebackers hitting free agency, Perry becomes a major priority. The Packers will be looking to lock up several players, including T.J. Lang, Eddie Lacy, and Jared Cook. With his 2016 numbers, first-round pedigree and age (he’s only 26 years old), Perry is a player the Packers could justify using the tag on.
10. Terrelle Pryor, Cleveland Browns wide receiver
The Browns spent four picks on wide receivers, including a first-rounder, in last year’s draft, but there’s a strong argument to make that they should franchise the converted quarterback, especially after giving Jamie Collins a new contract. The Browns didn’t have many bright spots in 2016, but Pryor was one of them. In his first full season at receiver, Pryor led the team in targets, catches, receiving yards, and touchdown receptions.
Cleveland has more than $100 million in cap space, so there’s really so such thing as overspending here.
11. A.J. Bouye, Houston Texans cornerback
This past season, the Texans boasted the NFL’s best defense even without two-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt. Houston’s pass rush still got to opposing quarterbacks and, as a result, the team’s defensive backs overachieved in a big way, including Bouye.
Houston, already a young team, would like to stay that way on defense, given the team’s struggles at the quarterback position. Extending guys like the 25-year-old Bouye to long-term deals will keep Houston’s Super Bowl window open long enough for the team to continue its search for a franchise quarterback.
Houston has perhaps the deepest cornerback group in the NFL. But Bouye is the best of the bunch, which means the team will be looking to keep him around if possible. With plenty of cap room to work with and not very many holes to fill, tagging Bouye could be in play if the Texans believe another team is trying to pull him away.
12. Calais Campbell, Arizona Cardinals defensive end
With Jones already looking like the priority in Arizona, Campbell could potentially find a new home for the 2017 season. The 6’7 monster is one of the best interior linemen in the NFL, and at age 30, he’s got plenty left in the tank.
It’s possible Arizona changes its mind and decides to tag Campbell, who has been a cornerstone of the roster over the past nine years.
Update: Cardinals used their franchise tag on Chandler Jones
13. Martellus Bennett, New England Patriots tight end
The Patriots have a slew of talented players hitting the free agent market this offseason. Bennett, traded from the Bears to the Patriots last offseason, is one of those guys.
With Rob Gronkowski’s durability concerns and the Patriots’ year-by-year success operating out of two tight end sets, Bennett is a guy the Patriots wouldn’t want to lose. If Hightower agrees to a long-term deal and Bennett expresses interest in chasing a big deal, the Patriots would be wise to tag the tight end.
14. Dre Kirkpatrick, Cincinnati Bengals cornerback
Kirkpatrick is one of two Bengals in this category. With concerns surrounding fellow corner Adam Jones’ future with the Bengals, Kirkpatrick, becomes a priority this offseason. Coming off the best year in his career, he has earned the hefty contract he’ll be paid, whether in Cincinnati or elsewhere.
But the Bengals, despite appearing deep at the position on paper, don’t have much experience behind the two starters — something they value much more than most other teams in the league. Franchising Kirkpatrick could be a last-resort move the Bengals make to ensure their talented press corner remains a fixture in the team’s ascending secondary.
15. Kevin Zeitler, Cincinnati Bengals offensive guard
Zeitler might just be the most desirable offensive lineman on the market, which speaks to the weakness of this year’s free agent crop. That’s not a shot at Zeitler — he’s done a great job in his five-year Bengals career. Rather, it’s an indictment of the 2013 NFL Draft class.
The Bengals’ decision-making process this offseason will be difficult, given the team is one of the league’s most hesitant when it comes to spending money in free agency. Locking up the best member of the Bengals’ interior line will be imperative if they plan on keeping Andy Dalton upright, something the team couldn’t do last year.
However, the price tag that comes with being a franchise offensive lineman probably isn’t justified for a guard — even one of Zeitler’s pedigree.
16. Stephon Gilmore, Buffalo Bills cornerback
This might be an unpopular opinion, but tagging Gilmore just doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense for Buffalo. The team’s new head coach, Sean McDermott, has traditionally built his defenses inside-out, meaning he places a high value on members of the front seven and doesn’t put as much emphasis on having talent in the secondary.
During McDermott’s tenure as defensive coordinator of the Panthers, eight of the their 10 defensive selections in the first three rounds of the draft were players in the front seven. In fact, the only two defensive backs selected in the first three rounds came last year, when the team was already set at the linebacker and defensive line positions.
The Bills already have limited cap space, so using the tag on a cornerback seems against McDermott’s nature. I could be totally wrong on this, but based on everything we’ve seen from McDermott to this point, I would guess Gilmore will be playing for a new team next season. If true, rumors that the corner is looking for top-five money all but guarantee Gilmore will leave Buffalo.
17. Alshon Jeffery, Chicago Bears wide receiver
Jeffery’s durability concerns and late-season suspension make it hard to believe the Bears tag the receiver for a second consecutive year. Jeffery has no direct ties to general manager Ryan Pace or head coach John Fox, and the Bears’ supporting cast essentially rendered him useless by stepping up throughout the season both when he was on the field and when he wasn’t.
Update: Not expected to be tagged
18. Trumaine Johnson, Los Angeles Rams cornerback
In hindsight, the Rams probably wish they would’ve tagged Janoris Jenkins instead of Johnson last season. After registering seven interceptions in 2015, Johnson only picked off one pass last year. With new leadership taking over in Los Angeles, it’s likely Johnson isn’t even in the Rams’ long-term plans. A reunion between Johnson and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (now with the Browns, who have plenty of money to spend after cutting corner Tramon Williams) seems like a sensible move for both parties.
19. Andrew Whitworth, Cincinnati Bengals offensive tackle
The third member of the Bengals’ free agency trifecta, Whitworth is one of the best on the market in terms of current skill set. The left tackle has been a perennial superstar, earning Pro Bowl honors in each of the past two seasons.
What differentiates Whitworth from his teammates, however, is his age. The 35-year-old, who can also play guard, will be a highly coveted player in free agency, but his decision-making process might not be as financially based as those of the younger players on the market. If Whitworth decides he wants to leave Cincinnati, it’s hard to imagine the Bengals would tag the 11-year veteran considering the circumstances and the team’s younger players hitting the market.
20. Kickers and punters
There are a couple of interesting names on the market — Steven Hauschka (Seahawks), Greg Zuerlein (Rams), and even 42-year-old Phil Dawson (49ers) could be in play — but it doesn’t appear as though any special teamers will be tagged this year, barring an NFC West bidding war.