It’s Band-Aid season in the NFL because isn’t that what the franchise tag really is? Sure, it will run you a bit more than the generic brands on the shelves at Walgreens, but it serves the same purpose. Because finding common ground in contract negotiations is like trying to pry a tennis ball loose from a Rottweiler’s jaws, teams often put that chore off to the last possible minute. The franchise tag is a temporary fix used to tide over would-be free agents until the next deadline, usually in mid-July.
Think of it like swapping out a flat tire for a donut—you can’t travel the 50 states with it, but it will at least get you to Pep Boys in one piece. Of course, not everyone takes kindly to being tagged. While some players see it as a compromise and a stepping stone for future talks, others, perhaps fueled by pushy, dollar-hungry agents, take it as an insult and freeze out teams until their contract demands are met. Most teams treat holdouts as an idle threat but after seeing Le’Veon Bell shockingly punt the entire 2018 season, players may be more apt to hold their ground in future negotiations. The franchise tag presents a tricky balancing act for teams hoping to retain difference-making stars, but not at the expense of their precious salary cap space.
With the March 5 deadline only a hop, skip and a jump away, let’s check in on this year’s crop of franchise tag candidates.
Frank Clark, DE, Seattle Seahawks (*Projected 2019 salary: $18.7 million)
If Frank Clark wasn’t a household name before 2018, he sure is now. Playing on a $943,941 salary, the monumentally underpaid 25-year-old flexed his pass-rushing muscles by totaling a career-best 14 sacks last season. That figure ranked sixth in the NFL, putting him in the vicinity of perennial havoc-wreakers like Von Miller (14.5 sacks) and J.J. Watt (16). Clark has long been a disruptor—he’s logged nine or more sacks in three of his four seasons—but 2018 undoubtedly stands as his crowning achievement. It’s the year the former Michigan Wolverine made the leap from merely useful to elite. There’s a life-changing payday waiting for the 25-year-old at the end of the rainbow and it could very well come from the Seahawks, who would be wise to build their Post-Legion-of-Boom defense around Clark and stud linebacker Bobby Wagner. It could be an exaggeration but Clark claimed he was only 60 percent healthy last year. If that was him at 60 percent, just imagine the carnage he’ll inflict at full strength.
Jadeveon Clowney, OLB, Houston Texans ($15.8 million)
Touted as a generational talent coming out of college (he nearly beheaded Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl), Jadeveon Clowney’s early career with Houston was an injury-marred headache. Luckily those days are behind him as the former first overall pick has developed into one of the league’s premier pass-rushers, earning Pro Bowl nods in each of his last three seasons. Playing Robin to J.J. Watt’s Batman, Clowney pillaged his way to nine sacks and three fumble recoveries (tied for second-most in the league) while also garnering PFF’s top run-stopping and overall grades among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2018. Still just 26, the South Carolina product should have plenty of good football ahead of him. Perhaps the sides will break bread on a long-term deal at some point (our own Peter King suggests the Texans have some reservations about his work ethic), but in the short-term, the franchise tag remains the most likely outcome for Clowney.
Dee Ford, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs ($15.8 million)
Dee Ford’s NFL journey hasn’t been a cakewalk, but after a turbulent first four years in the league, the former Auburn Tiger finally saw the light in 2018. The 27-year-old made sure to live up to his first-round billing last season, massacring opposing quarterbacks for a career-best 13 sacks while also generating a league-high seven forced fumbles. Ford’s breakthrough came in the nick of time with free agency awaiting him in 2019. Though his year ended on a sour note with a crucial penalty in the AFC title game, Ford’s slip-up against the Patriots will be long forgotten by the time he puts his John Hancock on a new contract. The linebacker has indicated he’s amenable to the tag, so don’t expect Ford to pull a Le’Veon when the Chiefs inevitably franchise him.
Grady Jarrett, DT, Atlanta Falcons ($15.6 million)
Injuries turned Atlanta’s once-promising defense into a weekly punching bag last season, but Grady Jarrett held up his end of the bargain, registering career-bests in both sacks (six) and forced fumbles (three) while also emerging as one of the league’s top run-stuffers (he was PFF’s ninth-rated run-defender among DTs). Atlanta’s defense should fare better with Pro Bowlers Keanu Neal and Deion Jones returning in 2019, but that’s not a reason to let Jarrett walk. The Falcons need all the help they can get defensively after yielding the league’s fifth-most yards and eighth-most points last season. GM Thomas Dimitroff said after the season that re-signing Jarrett, a native of nearby Conyers, Georgia, would be a “top priority.” A deal has yet to materialize, though the Falcons can buy themselves another four months of negotiating by dishing out the franchise tag, a measure they haven’t resorted to since 2012 with cornerback Brent Grimes.
DeMarcus Lawrence, DE, Dallas Cowboys ($20.5 million)
Dallas has plenty to ponder this offseason with Amari Cooper entering his walk year, Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott both due for extensions and perennial trade target Earl Thomas finally available after a messy divorce from the Seahawks. The Cowboys’ offseason to-do list is as long as anyone’s but of all the elaborate plots being hatched, the only scheme that matters is the one that keeps DeMarcus Lawrence in Dallas. The two-time Pro Bowler maintained his role as the Cowboys’ defensive anchor last season, leading the team with 10.5 sacks while appearing in every game for the second straight year. Making quarterbacks sweat has always been his calling card but Lawrence proved equally adept at stopping the run in 2018, grading out as PFF’s No. 4 run defender among 4-3 defensive ends. Lawrence reportedly has no intention of signing his tender if the Cowboys tag him for a second straight year, though deadlines tend to spur action. Once he’s tagged, the two sides will have until July 15 to flesh out a long-term deal.
Landon Collins, S, New York Giants ($12.0 million)
While the players I mentioned above are almost certain to be tagged ahead of next week’s deadline, Collins’ standing with New York is much more fluid. The sides have essentially made zero progress in long-term talks and Collins reportedly cleaned out his locker at the Giants’ facility, a sign the three-time Pro Bowler is ready to turn the page. With Odell Beckham continuing to ruffle feathers and Eli Manning refusing to go quietly, it’s easy to see why Collins would want a fresh start elsewhere (according to reports, the Colts will be ready to pounce if he hits the market). But the 25-year-old won’t have much choice if New York tags him. In East Rutherford, where football is secondary to baffling decisions, angry WFAN callers and locker room upheaval, Collins has been a welcome bright spot for the Giants.
Nick Foles, QB, Philadelphia Eagles ($25.6 million)
You’ll never get me to sign off on franchise-tagging a backup quarterback, even if said quarterback is a football magician whose hobbies include performing playoff miracles and besting Tom Brady in the Super Bowl. While tagging Nick Foles still seems entirely too daring for this risk-averse fantasy writer, I see why the Eagles would at least workshop such an idea. With a good handful of teams seeking an upgrade at quarterback (the Dolphins, Giants, Jaguars and Redskins are among them), Foles is sure to be a hot commodity when and if he reaches the open market. And because of that demand, the Eagles may be tempted to franchise Foles and trade him to the highest bidder. But if teams call their bluff, the Eagles could get low-balled or even worse, saddled with the most expensive clipboard-holder in league history. Then again, the Dolphins employed a similar approach last year by tagging Jarvis Landry, a player they had no intention of keeping, and were able to flip him for a pair of draft picks. It’s hard to imagine Philadelphia tagging Foles without already having a trade in place, but in the chaotic world of NFL free agency, anything is possible.
Stephen Gostkowski, K, New England Patriots ($5.2 million)
Hulking left tackle Trent Brown and edge-wrecker Trey Flowers have both been mentioned as possible tag candidates, but if the cost-conscious Pats franchise anyone this offseason, it will likely be long-time kicker Stephen Gostkowski, he of 1,743 career points. If you’re getting a Groundhog Day vibe that’s probably because you’ve seen this dog and pony show before. Stevie G was actually franchised four years ago which, coincidentally, was the last time New England felt compelled to tag anyone. The 35-year-old has been uncharacteristically jittery in the postseason of late (three misses and a botched PAT the last two years), but he’s still an all-timer with ice in his veins. Whether it’s on the tag, a long-term deal or both (in that order), Gostkowski’s future is undoubtedly in Foxboro.
C.J. Mosley, ILB, Baltimore Ravens ($15.8 million)
Mosley has his heart set on becoming the league’s highest-paid inside linebacker, a badge of honor currently worn by Panthers mainstay Luke Kuechly. Putting Mosley in the same class as Kuechly, a run-clogging superhero who traded in his cape for a chin strap and shoulder pads, might be a tad ambitious. But it’s his turn to get paid and who are the Ravens to deny his impressive credentials? A four-time All-Pro selection and the Ravens’ leading tackler the past two seasons, Mosley is primed for a well-deserved raise in 2019. Whether his asking price aligns with Baltimore’s financial interests remains to be seen but if the Ravens want to extend their negotiating window, it wouldn’t hurt to tag Mosley and lay down the groundwork for a new deal later over a few cold ones at Greene Turtle.
*All salary estimates are from Overthecap.com