Power Ranking the 2016 NFL Franchise- and Transition-Tag Players
By Tuesday, it had been made official.
Eight players received the non-exclusive franchise tag. One Super Bowl MVP was given the exclusive franchise tag, and a defensive end who works in the state of Florida was given the lesser-used transition tag.
We will take a closer look at all 10 players. Our power rankings are not based on finances but rather the quality of the player, taking into account both his performance in 2015 as well as his career to date. We will also use his impact on his team and unit as part of our evaluation process.
While it’s safe to say that most will assume who’s first on our list, perhaps the order of the other nine names will be a surprise.
10. QB Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins
Franchise Tender: $19.953 million
In a quarterback-driven league, some may be surprised to see Washington Redskins field general Kirk Cousins at the top, uh…bottom of this list.
But of the players who received either the franchise or transition tag, he is arguably the least accomplished to date. Still, the four-year pro and the Redskins organization were unable to come to terms on a deal, so general manager Scot McCloughan and company opted to give Cousins the designation.
“They really didn’t have a choice,” said one-time Redskins and Houston Texans general manager Charley Casserly to Mike Jones of the Washington Post. “From the Redskins’ point of view, what’s your option? You don’t have any other quarterback, and there’s no guarantee you’re going to get one.
“He did play well for you at the end of the year, and in fact, he did play well for most of the year, and especially the end of the year, and you’ve got invested time in him.”
Cousins did indeed play well, totaling 23 touchdown passes and three interceptions in his last 10 games after a start that saw him throw for six scores and eight picks in his first six outings. In four of those games, Cousins was picked off twice. But the 2012 fourth-round pick did lead the league in completion percentage, connecting on 69.8 percent of his passes, and helped the Redskins win a division title.
Washington is banking that the young quarterback it saw in the latter stages of the season is the one it is investing in.
9. WR Alshon Jeffery, Chicago Bears
Franchise Tender: $14.599 million
Perhaps there is one telling statistic when it comes to the Chicago Bears’ decision to give wide receiver Alshon Jeffery the franchise tag.
While injuries limited the 2013 Pro Bowler to nine games this past season, he still managed to lead the team in both catches (54) and receiving yards (807), while his four scoring receptions were second on the club to tight end Zach Miller.
“I think he’s had good production over his career,” said Bears head coach John Fox to Jeff Dickerson of ESPN.com. “I don’t think it’s fair just to take one segment of it and try to define him by that, whether that’s good or bad, regardless of what player I’m talking about. But we’ve seen enough of him, albeit that we’d like to have seen him more, but that’s part of football and we’re willing to take that risk.
“When he’s been healthy we’ve liked his production and what he brings to our team,” added Fox.
Over the course of the previous two seasons (2013 to 2014), the former South Carolina product brought plenty—totaling 174 receptions for 2,554 yards and 17 scores in 32 games.
That’s the Jeffery the Bears are hoping to get in 2016, one who could be back in Pro Bowl form if 2015 first-round pick Kevin White (who missed all of his rookie season with an injury) can develop quickly.
8. PK Justin Tucker, Baltimore Ravens
Franchise Tender: $4.572 million
There always seems to be a little giggle in the room when a team gives a kicker the franchise tag.
Fair or unfair, kicker and franchise player just don’t seem to go together. Of course, this is football, where you need a reliable foot.
And that’s what the Baltimore Ravens have gotten in four years with Justin Tucker. He’s been one of the most reliable kickers in the league since the team signed the former University of Texas star in 2012.
Tucker has connected on all 139 point-after attempts and has hit on 130 of 148 field-goal attempts, an impressive 87.8 percentage that ranks 13th in the league over that span. However, a closer look at the latter number shows that among performers who attempted at least 100 field goals over that stretch, Tucker ranks seventh in the NFL in field-goal percentage.
Dating back to 2012, only New England’s Stephen Gostkowski (149) has attempted more field goals than Tucker. He's an essential part for head coach John Harbaugh, who knows a little something about the importance of special teams.
7. LT Cordy Glenn, Buffalo Bills
Franchise Tender: $13.706 million
Unfortunately for the Buffalo Bills, general manager Doug Whaley and the front office couldn’t get a deal done with left tackle Cordy Glenn, so they opted to give him the franchise tag.
That decision was made somewhat easier when you consider that Buffalo gained some much-needed cap room with the release of defensive end Mario Williams on the same day, as the team announced. Via Spotrac, the move opened up $12.9 million in cap room for the club.
In terms of reliability, Glenn fits the profile. He’s started 57 consecutive games and all 61 of the contests that he’s appeared in over his four seasons. With left guard Richie Incognito poised to possibly test free agency, the team obviously wasn’t willing to take a chance of losing its entire left side of the offensive line. It was a unit that helped pave the way for the NFL’s top-ranked running game. Then again, the Bills also allowed 42 sacks.
While Glenn has been a steady player as the numbers indicate, he’s also played just four seasons and has yet to make the Pro Bowl.
6. DE Olivier Vernon, Miami Dolphins
Transition Tender: $12.734 million
It was important for the Miami Dolphins to keep their starting front four intact, which is why they gave defensive end Olivier Vernon the transition tag. Of course, that also means a team can sign Vernon to an offer sheet, and if Miami fails to match the price, he can without the Dolphins receiving compensation.
Such was the case a year ago when Miami gave tight end Charles Clay the transition tag and wound up losing him to the Buffalo Bills.
This past season, Vernon led the team with 7.5 sacks and was tied for sixth on the club with 61 tackles. But one noticeable absence on his 2015 resume was the lack of impact plays. Vernon was not credited with a forced fumble, fumble recovery or a pass deflection, which is odd for a player who was bringing heat from the outside.
Of course, this was a defense that ranked 25th overall in 2015 and totaled just 31 sacks—20.5 of those by the trio of Vernon, Cameron Wake (seven) and Ndamukong Suh (six). Wake missed the final nine games of the season with an Achilles injury and is currently on the mend, and the Dolphins are certainly hoping that keeping these three players (along with defensive tackle Earl Mitchell) would be a positive.
They are also banking on Vernon to look like the player he did down the stretch, totaling 5.5 of his seven sacks in the final seven games of the season, as well as the performer who has amassed 29.5 sacks in four seasons.
5. CB Trumaine Johnson, Los Angeles Rams
Franchise Tender: $13.952 million
A one-year wonder? One has to wonder when it comes to Los Angeles Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson.
While the third-round pick in 2012 graded out as the Rams’ best cornerback this season, his overall ranking was 20th in the league, not too far ahead of teammate Janoris Jenkins (24th), who is seeking a new contract as well.
This past season, Johnson enjoyed a big year, finishing tied for second in the league with seven interceptions while ranking fifth on his team with 71 tackles. His 17 passes defensed also led the club, and he managed a fumble recovery. All told, Johnson wound up with eight of the team’s 26 takeaways.
But perhaps Johnson is less a 2015 sensation and more of a rising player. He totaled two interceptions as a rookie in 2012 and three interceptions in each of his next two seasons—which means he’s picked off a respectable 15 passes in four seasons. That kind of steady progress earns you some benefit of the doubt and validates the Rams’ decision.
4. CB Josh Norman, Carolina Panthers
Franchise Tender: $13.952 million
Here’s another great case of timing is everything.
This past season, Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman enjoyed a career year in which he started all 16 games for the first time. The 2012 fifth-round pick from Coastal Carolina finished with 56 tackles, tied for the team lead with four interceptions (two returned for touchdowns) and accounted for three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and a club-high 18 passes defensed. He was named to his first Pro Bowl and also earned First-Team All-Pro honors.
Not bad for a player who picked off a combined three passes in his first three seasons in the league.
Early in the season, Norman was in the discussion for NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors, and his ball-hawking skills (six takeaways) were one reason the Panthers forced a league-high 39 turnovers. And only five players were rated ahead of the heady defender in terms of cornerback play in 2015, per Pro Football Focus.
Our only hesitancy here in terms of a higher ranking is his overall track record. Off a magnificent showing that helped catapult his team to an appearance in Super Bowl 50, can Norman build on his 2015 performance? We sense he will only get better.
3. FS Eric Berry, Kansas City Chiefs
Franchise Tender: $10.806 million
This past season, Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry was named to his fourth Pro Bowl in six years in the league.
The 2015 NFL Comeback Player of the Year once again proved to be the one of the leaders of a Kansas City defense that made significant strides in numerous areas from a year ago, when he was limited to just six games due to being diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma.
This past season, Berry played in all 16 games, made 15 starts, finished third on the team with 61 tackles, totaled 10 passes defensed and added two interceptions. The Chiefs finished seventh in the league in total defense for the second consecutive year but had more than twice as many takeaways (29) as they did the previous season (14).
Kansas City also improved from 28th in rushing defense in 2014 to eighth in the same category this past season. Only three safeties in the league graded out higher than Berry, who earned solid marks for his play against the run.
Just as was the case back in 2012 when he bounced back from an injury-shortened year (he was injured in the first game of 2011), Berry rebounded in a big way and remains one of the premier players at his position, as well as one of the best overall defensive players in the league.
2. DE Muhammad Wilkerson, New York Jets
Franchise Tender: $15.701 million
He’s been one of the most consistent defensive linemen in the league over the past five seasons and in some ways perhaps the most underappreciated.
How underappreciated? Despite the fact that the New York Jets just slapped the franchise tag on defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News reports that the team is still willing to part ways with the reliable performer.
The 30th overall pick in the 2011 draft, the Temple University product has missed only three games (all in 2014) and has made 75 starts. Wilkerson has amassed 36.5 sacks, 10 forced fumbles and 21 pass deflections. He comes off a season in which he totaled a career-best 12 sacks and was named to his first Pro Bowl, but in the last game of this past season he suffered a broken leg.
Yes, the Jets appear loaded on the defensive front with the likes of Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, promising 2015 rookie Leonard Williams and nose tackle Damon Harrison (who is eligible for free agency).
It’s also important not to simply deal away someone who may be your top defensive player, as well as one of the best defensive linemen in the league, unless it's an offer you simply can't refuse.
1. OLB Von Miller, Denver Broncos
Franchise Tender: To Be Determined
We don’t know yet just how much an exclusive franchise tender will add up to for an outside linebacker.
We do know that Denver Broncos defender Von Miller stands to make an awful lot of money.
Talk about timing? In a postseason in which he totaled 13 tackles, five sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception in three games and was named the MVP of Super Bowl 50, it appears to be Miller’s time.
In his five seasons with the Broncos, the second overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft has totaled 60 sacks and 17 forced fumbles in 72 regular-season games. But it was his overall play in the 2015 playoffs that elevated Miller to a different level. There was no way the Broncos were going to give him a chance to go elsewhere, hence the exclusive franchise tag that prevents another team from making a contract offer.
As far as the parameters when it comes to determining the tender for an exclusive franchise player, the NFL has this to say:
An “exclusive” franchise player – not free to sign with another club – is offered the greater of (i) the average of the top five salaries at the player's position for the current year as of the end of the restricted free agent signing period on April 22; or (ii) the amount of the required tender for a “non-exclusive” franchise player…
As to what it will take to get Miller under contract, Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports has the latest on what the five-year pro is looking for. And as far as we’re concerned, there’s no more productive performer on this list than Miller, who appears to have come of age and emerged as a major force when his team needed him most during its playoff run.
All free-agent and salary-cap information, as well as 2016 transactions, are courtesy of Spotrac. Team salary-cap figures change on a daily basis. Non-exclusive franchise and transition tender information is courtesy of NFL Communications.