Free agency is coming on March 14, but before that begins, NFL teams had another option to keep valued players from leaving. Starting on Feb. 20 until the March 6 deadline, teams could use the franchise tag.
The catch is that just one player can be tagged and if a long-term deal isn’t reached by July 16, the franchised player will receive a one-year contract with a salary that’s an average of the top five highest-paid players at that position.
Essentially it’s expensive and really only worth it if a player is among the league’s elite.
Last year, just seven players received the tag: Chandler Jones, Kawann Short, Melvin Ingram, Trumaine Johnson, Jason Pierre-Paul, Le’Veon Bell, and Kirk Cousins. This year, there were six: Bell again, Ezekiel Ansah, Lamarcus Joyner, Jarvis Landry, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Kyle Fuller (who received the transition tag).
Before the deadline, we tried to predict if and how each team would use its franchise tag. We nailed a couple and missed on a few more. These were our 2018 franchise tag predictions for all 32 teams:
Arizona Cardinals: nobody
A year ago, the Cardinals had to prevent Chandler Jones from reaching free agency. This year, they don’t have to worry about that as the team’s crop of impending free agents doesn’t include anyone worth franchise tag money.
Atlanta Falcons: nobody
The Falcons haven’t used the franchise tag since it was given to Brent Grimes in 2012, and there isn’t a reason to use it in 2018. The only candidates are Dontari Poe and Adrian Clayborn, but neither is worth the huge numbers for defensive linemen.
Baltimore Ravens: nobody
Nope, not this team either. Center Ryan Jensen is the top impending free agent for the Ravens, but the franchise tag doesn’t split up offensive tackles, guards, and centers. That makes the price of tagging a center an unreasonable way to keep Jensen around.
Buffalo Bills: nobody
Cornerback E.J. Gaines is likely the player from the Bills who would command the most on the open market. Buffalo will probably have a tough time getting him to re-sign, as Gaines already sounds eager to test the market. But the franchise tag would guarantee a cornerback around $15 million in 2018, and that’s just too much for Gaines.
Carolina Panthers: Andrew Norwell, G (Norwell did not receive the tag and will be a free agent)
This is a tough call. The Panthers could certainly elect not to tag Norwell, with the franchise numbers for offensive linemen set to be over $14 million. That would make him the highest-paid player at his position in 2018, but that may be worth it to keep a first-team All-Pro.
NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport thinks kicker Graham Gano is the likelier candidate, though.
Former first-round pick Kyle Fuller has a shot at receiving the tag after a bounce-back year at cornerback in 2017. It would still be a surprising move, considering how high the number is at the position, though. Just last year, the Bears declined the fifth-year option and that could cost them.
Cincinnati Bengals: Tyler Eifert, TE
Once a Pro Bowler, Eifert has been a nonfactor for the Bengals in the last two years due to injuries. Now he’s set to hit free agency, but the team will likely try to keep the 27-year-old tight end in Cincinnati. If a long-term deal can’t get done, the franchise tag could keep Eifert with the Bengals for one more season at a cost of about $10 million. That’s a decent chunk of change, but it’s more than manageable to keep him.
Cleveland Browns: nobody
The Browns have a grand total of four players set to hit free agency and none is worth the cost of a franchise tag. Isaiah Crowell is the only one close, but it won’t happen.
Lawrence’s 14.5-sack season was the first time a Cowboys player put up the numbers of a premier pass rusher since DeMarcus Ware left. A long-term contract is the top priority for Dallas, but since he still he doesn’t have one, the franchise tag is a solid option to give the Cowboys more time to make a deal happen.
Denver Broncos: nobody
The list of players scheduled to hit free agency for the Broncos doesn’t include many who are a high priority to bring back. It definitely doesn’t include anyone who warrants Denver using the franchise tag.
This one is a toss-up, but the Lions need to upgrade defensively this offseason and losing a player who finished the year with 12 sacks isn’t the best way to start. It’d be an expensive way to keep Ansah, but it may be the only way to stop him from walking.
Green Bay Packers: nobody
The top free agent for the Packers is Morgan Burnett, a versatile strong safety with coverage skills who shouldn’t have trouble finding a pay day this March. But it’d be a surprise if the Packers were ready to commit more than $11 million to keep him in 2018 — especially when they don’t have a ton of room to work with and an extension with Aaron Rodgers on the horizon.
Houston Texans: nobody
The Texans probably should’ve used the franchise tag to keep A.J. Bouye a year ago, but the only time they’ve ever used it was 2009 on Dunta Robinson. Houston doesn’t have a player this offseason who warrants busting it out for the first time in nine years. Punter Shane Lechler is perhaps the player who makes the most sense with a low-priced tag that would pay him around $5 million. But it shouldn’t be hard to get a deal cheaper than that if Houston wants him back.
Indianapolis Colts: nobody
Indianapolis has plenty of cap space to work with and should be able to negotiate long-term deals with the impending free agents the team hopes to keep. Among the top priorities for the Colts are cornerback Rashaan Melvin and offensive tackle Jack Mewhort, but it would be surprising if either got the franchise tag.
An ACL tear ended Robinson’s season on his first catch of the year, but before that he was emerging as one of the NFL’s most promising young receivers. The Jaguars will make adding offensive weapons a priority in the offseason, and losing Robinson isn’t something they want to happen. A long-term deal may be tough to negotiate after his injury, though. The franchise tag would allow the Jaguars to solve that problem in 2019.
Kansas City Chiefs: nobody
The Chiefs will have more cap space once the Alex Smith trade becomes official, but there’s still not much room to work with in Kansas City. They didn’t franchise Dontari Poe a year ago and likely won’t tag nose tackle Bennie Logan this year, either.
Los Angeles Chargers: nobody
Antonio Gates will probably draw the headlines, but safety Tre Boston is the free agent the Chargers will have to really open up the pocketbooks for to keep in L.A. The franchise tag would be overkill to make sure he stays, though. An extension shouldn’t be that difficult or as expensive as the tag.
In an explosive year for the Rams offense, Watkins didn’t do much. He finished the season with just 39 receptions for 593 yards, although he did lead the team with eight touchdown receptions. The toughest part is that L.A gave up a second-round pick and cornerback E.J. Gaines to acquire a player it thought would be a No. 1 receiver. Giving Watkins the franchise tag would give the Rams a chance to find out if he can be that receiver after all.
The Dolphins did hit Landry with the tag on the first day teams were allowed to apply it. Negotiations haven’t gone great so far between Landry and the Dolphins, and it sounds like a long-term deal could be tough to agree to before the July 16 deadline. But letting Landry walk after three consecutive Pro Bowls and 400 receptions in the last four years would have been a tough pill to swallow for an offense that can’t afford to slow down more than it already has.
Minnesota Vikings: Case Keenum, QB (Keenum was not tagged and will be a free agent)
There are three quarterbacks in Minnesota — Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater, and Sam Bradford — all set to hit free agency. The Vikings will presumably make an effort to keep at least one. Keenum had an excellent year and looks like the favorite right now to be the starter in 2018. Bridgewater is likely another quarterback the Vikings want back next year, but keeping both could be tough.
New England Patriots: nobody
Offensive tackle Nate Solder can’t receive the franchise tag due to a stipulation in his contract, and cornerback Malcolm Butler doesn’t appear to have a place in the Patriots’ future. The other top New England free agents to bring back are running backs Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead, but committing that much money to a position that the Patriots take a committee approach with wouldn’t be prudent.
New Orleans Saints: nobody
Like Solder with the Patriots, it’s written in the contract of quarterback Drew Brees that he can’t receive the franchise tag. Other impending free agents like safety Kenny Vaccaro, defensive end Alex Okafor and guard Senio Kelemete aren’t worth the price tag that comes with it.
New York Giants: nobody
The Giants handled the franchise tag perfectly last year — using it to give themselves more time for contract negotiations with Jason Pierre-Paul to eventually agree to a long-term deal. But it probably won’t be necessary in 2018. The offensive line is the biggest question mark — with Justin Pugh, Weston Richburg, and D.J. Fluker all headed into free agency — but none should get close to the $14-15 million that the franchise tag will pay in 2018.
New York Jets: nobody
Three low-priced rolls of the dice — Demario Davis, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and Morris Claiborne — all outplayed their expectations, but none justifies the high cost of a franchise tag. This should be an easy decision for the Jets.
Oakland Raiders: nobody
Maybe next year — after Khalil Mack has played out the fifth-year option on his rookie contract — the franchise tag will make sense for the Raiders. For now, the highest-priority free agent to bring back is NaVorro Bowman, a player who was released by the 49ers in October. It wouldn’t make sense for Oakland to commit more than $15 million to bring him back.
Philadelphia Eagles: nobody
Linebacker Nigel Bradham is probably the impending free agent who will be toughest for Philadelphia to hold on to, but that’s because: A) the Eagles don’t have much cap space; and B) the return of Jordan Hicks would push Bradham back to outside linebacker. The franchise tag would only exacerbate both of those problems.
Bell received the franchise tag last year and is threatening to retire if he gets it again this time around. Maybe it’ll come to that, but if he chooses to return, Bell will be due to receive $14.5 million — a gigantic salary for a running back. He’s more than just a runner for the Steelers, though, finishing the 2017 season with 85 receptions as well as 1,291 rushing yards. Pittsburgh can’t let him go, and Bell wants a ton of money. The tag may end up being the only option to bridge that gap once again, no matter how messy it makes things.
San Francisco 49ers: nobody
Jimmy Garoppolo would’ve made sense to tag if a long-term deal couldn’t get reached in time. The 49ers got that done with plenty of time to spare, dishing out a record-breaking five-year, $137.5 million deal in early February. It frees up the tag to be used on running back Carlos Hyde or safety Eric Reid. The problem for both is that the emergence of younger players like Matt Breida and Jaquiski Tartt could make the 49ers hesitant to commit that much to Hyde or Reid.
Seattle Seahawks: nobody
It will be difficult for the Seahawks to retain the services of tight end Jimmy Graham, but the franchise tag isn’t a viable way to make that happen. Graham is already one of the highest-paid players in the league at his position so the tag would result in him getting 120 percent of his 2017 salary, which would mean a $12 million cap hit in 2018. The other possibility is Sheldon Richardson, but the tag for defensive linemen is even more expensive and the Seahawks just don’t have that much cap room to work with. It’s likely the exit door for both Graham and Richardson in Seattle.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: nobody
Cornerback Brent Grimes is the interesting free agent decision looming for the Buccaneers after the 34-year old played out his two-year, $16 million contract and is headed to free agency. But Grimes is getting close to retirement and the franchise tag would be overkill to bring back an aging cornerback. There’s no reason for the Buccaneers to use the tag this year.
Tennessee Titans: nobody
There are a few free agents the Titans will want to bring back, but the only real candidate to receive the franchise tag is kicker Ryan Succop. He’s spent four seasons as Tennessee’s kicker and has been relatively reliable the whole time. It’d be easier to just extend Succop, but the franchise tag isn’t expensive for kickers so it could make sense if no deal is in place by the time March rolls around.
Team president Bruce Allen has reportedly floated the idea of using the tag on Kirk Cousins to facilitate a trade. That’s a wild idea but also a risky one that could — and probably would — blow up in Washington’s face. If the team is able to recognize that, it’ll steer clear.