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Von Miller, Josh Norman highlight list of players most likely to get franchise tag in 2016

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NFL teams can start using the franchise tag on Feb. 16.

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The 2015 season might have just ended, but there's no such thing as time off in the NFL. Before the free agency period and the NFL Combine begin, one key date is Feb. 16, the first day that teams can apply the franchise tag to players. They have until March 1 to do so.

For those in need of a quick refresher: the franchise tag is a one-year deal that pays an impending free agent either the average of the top player salaries from his position or 120 percent of his previous salary, depending on which is higher. The two sides can try to work out a long-term deal until July 15.

Putting all that into English: teams love the franchise tag because it allows them to keep stud players without having to make long-term commitments. Players despise franchise tags because they don't provide any sort of security, which is why tags often lead to holdouts.

Five players were given the non-exclusive franchise tag in 2015: Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Justin Houston, Stephen Gostkowski and Jason Pierre-Paul. Bryant, Thomas, Houston and Gostkowski eventually signed long-term deals, while Pierre-Paul's situation got really complicated when he lost a couple of fingers in a fireworks accident.

This year, there's an interesting batch of free agents hitting the market, many of whom could see themselves being tagged. Below, we have predictions for eight players who present their respective teams with big decisions.

Von Miller, OLB, Broncos

It would be hard for any player to enter free agency on a higher note than the Super Bowl MVP. Eleven sacks during the regular season is solid and 58 over five seasons is excellent. Five postseason sacks is a whole different story, though. Miller almost single-handedly led the Broncos to an AFC Championship win over Tom Brady's Patriots and a Super Bowl victory over Cam Newton's Panthers.

The question for the Broncos now is how many millions they should be forking over in order to lock up their 26-year-old pass-rushing beast. The answer will surely be something north of $100 million. But the two factors that matter most are the amount of guaranteed money and when Miller or the Broncos will be able to opt out of the deal (a good baseline: the Chiefs gave pass rusher Justin Houston a six-year, $101 million deal with $52.5 million guaranteed last offseason).

Those kinds of contracts can take a while to negotiate and the Broncos only have about $7 million in cap room. They'll have to do some maneuvering before anything can be officially worked out.

Prediction: Miller gets assigned the franchise tag -- which, according to Albert Breer of NFL Media, will come out to $14 million -- while he and Denver go back and forth on a long-term contract. Like the Broncos did a year ago with Demaryius Thomas, they will reach a new deal before the July 15 deadline.

Josh Norman, CB, Panthers

Norman went from relative anonymity to one of the league's best corners. He picked off four passes and allowed only 50.9 percent of passes thrown his way to be completed last season, according to Pro Football Focus. Not bad for a guy who was a fifth-round pick in 2012.

Now Norman enters free agency just a year after both Patrick Peterson and Darrelle Revis inked five-year, $70 million deals. The Panthers have plenty of cap space and you can be sure they'll use a large chunk of it on the 28-year-old Norman. As is the case with Miller, the only question is when the two sides come to terms on an extension. Considering that the Super Bowl just ended, it could be a few weeks. If that indeed is the case, slapping Norman with the exclusive franchise tag, which would be for $13.1 million, could be a prudent way to buy some more time.

Prediction: "I'm not afraid (of the franchise tag)," Panthers GM Dave Gettleman told reporters this week. That gives us a pretty good idea of where these contract negotiations are heading.

Kirk Cousins, QB, Washington

Cousins is perhaps the most interesting case among the group. He was fantastic last season, throwing for 4,166 yards and 29 touchdowns while leading the league in completion percentage (69.8 percent). He also helped Washington earn an NFC East title.

Cousins is just 27 years old. If he's the player he was in the second half of the season, Washington would be foolish not to lock him up. Of course, he might not be that player. Lots of quarterbacks have hot streaks -- does Washington want to bet its future on a player based on his last 10 games?

The smart move would be to franchise Cousins, which would cost the team around $19.6 million. That would protect Washington and allow the team to reassess next season. It would also provide Cousins with some financial security.

Washington GM Scot McCloughan has said the franchise tag is an option but has made it clear that he'd like to sign Cousins to a long-term deal. Cousins has said he'd like to return to Washington, too.

Prediction: The franchise tag is a strong possibility, but expect the two sides to agree on some sort of new deal that will pay Cousins around $18-20 million per year.

Muhammad Wilkerson, DE, New York Jets

Wilkerson is another intriguing franchise tag candidate, primarily due to the broken leg he suffered in the Jets' Week 17 game against the Bills. Wilkerson, 26, is one of the best interior linemen in the league. He led the team with 12 sacks this past season and is one of the NFL's top run defenders. The Jets could have signed him to a long-term deal last year, but instead they drafted Leonard Williams No. 6 overall and allowed Wilkerson to play out the season without any security.

Because of the depth on their defensive line, it appeared as if the Jets were headed for a difficult offseason in relation to Wilkerson's contract situation. The injury, while disruptive to Wilkerson, does make the situation easier.

Prediction: The Jets have already hinted that the franchise tag could be the route they go in and it seems like the most likely solution. That would give Wilkerson a one-year deal worth around $15.4 million and would allow the two sides to return to the table next offseason.

Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago Bears

Jeffery is a monster on the outside and has as much raw talent as almost any receiver in the league. The problem is that he's coming off a season in which various leg injuries kept him out of six games. The Bears are thin at wide receiver and have plenty of cap room this offseason, which makes it unlikely they let Jeffery walk. GM Ryan Pace tipped his hand a bit at the end of the season by telling reporters, "Normally, it's in the best interest of the club and the player to come to a longer-term agreement."

However, these negotiations could take a while. Jeffery will surely be seeking a deal similar to the ones that Julio Jones, Bryant and Thomas signed last year (all in the five-year, $70 million range). The Bears, meanwhile, will likely be wary of committing so much money to a player coming off an injury-plagued season.

Prediction: The bet here is that the exclusive franchise tag is used and the two sides spend the next few months sending offers back and forth.

Eric Berry, S, Kansas City Chiefs

Berry authored one of the most inspiring and remarkable stories in the NFL this season. After being diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in December 2014, he beat the cancer in time to suit up for the 2015 campaign and quickly re-established himself as one of the league's top safeties.

Playing in all 16 regular season games for the Chiefs, Berry earned Comeback Player of the Year honors after racking up 61 tackles, two interceptions and 10 passes defended. He capped off this incredible campaign with his fourth Pro Bowl nod and his second first-team All-Pro selection.

Berry also emerged as the club's emotional leader on the field and in the locker room. He was a galvanizing force for a Chiefs team that put together one of the most improbable in-season turnarounds in NFL history by rebounding from a 1-5 start to finish 11-5 and make the playoffs.

Prediction: The 27-year-old would be a near lock to get tagged, but Chiefs team chairman Clark Hunt publicly stated last week that the team is going to "do everything [it] can to try to bring him back." Contract extension talks have reportedly escalated between the two sides, meaning the best bet is for the Chiefs to sign him to a new contract before the franchise tag deadline.

Sean Smith, CB, Kansas City Chiefs

Obviously the Chiefs can't use the tag on two players. Berry is arguably the more valuable player -- both on and off the field -- but the team doesn't have a clear replacement for Smith on the roster. His situation is tricky because he missed the first three games of the season while serving a suspension, but he was very productive when he finally returned to the lineup.

Smith finished the 2015 season with 45 tackles, two interceptions and 12 passes defended. He's probably not an elite shutdown cover guy, but his size (6'2, 215 pounds) makes him indispensable as a talented press coverage cornerback.

Prediction: The Chiefs are in a tough spot here as they try to retain the services of two integral pieces of their top-10 defense. Ideally, Kansas City would love to keep both Berry and Smith, but if Berry gets the franchise tag, Smith will find a new team in free agency. So in one of the more surprising moves, look for the Chiefs to sign Berry to a long-term deal and slap Smith with the franchise tag.

Oliver Vernon, DE, Dolphins

Re-signing the 25-year-old Vernon, who had 7.5 sacks last season, is no doubt an offseason priority for the Dolphins. The problem is finding the cap room given how much Cameron Wake and Ndamukong Suh are being paid. However, Miami seems to be on the path to creating the space to get a deal done.

That would lower Wake's cap number and, likely, allow the Dolphins to hit Vernon with the franchise tag, which would be for around $15 million.

Prediction: The Dolphins restructure Wake's deal, franchise Vernon and spend the next few months working out a long-term deal.