Franchise Tag 50: Which Free Agents Need To Be Shielded the Most?

Ian Wharton@NFLFilmStudyContributor IFebruary 1, 2016

Franchise Tag 50: Which Free Agents Need To Be Shielded the Most?

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    The 2016 NFL offseason is nearly upon us. After Super Bowl 50, free agency and the NFL draft are the next two major milestones in the NFL calendar. Teams will be making franchise-altering decisions in the coming months. Each team's first big decision is regarding which free agents it should consider shielding from free agency by using the franchise tag.

    The franchise tag is an invaluable protection plan when a star is about to hit free agency. It takes away considerable leverage from players, while still providing them with a lucrative one-year deal. Oftentimes, this one-year deal provides the baseline salary for what the long-term deal will be structured from.

    While not every team has a franchise free agent, designating a free agent with the tag may allow teams to come back to that individual later while they deal with others about to hit the open market. We've identified 50 players who are valuable to their respective teams. Surely not all will be given the tag, but they deserve some level of consideration for it.

    From the free agents who need the franchise tag the least to the most, we've got you covered. Each player's 2016 salary has been estimated based on statistical comparisons and recent market trends. The most likely free-agent suitors are also given for each of the 50 listed free agents. These have been determined by need and available cap space.

50. Adrian Clayborn, DE, Atlanta Falcons

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Name: Adrian Clayborn

    Position: Defensive end

    2015 Team: Atlanta Falcons

    2015 Statistics: 15 tackles, three sacks

    2015 Salary: $2.06 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: The Atlanta Falcons picked up Adrian Clayborn on a low-risk contract in 2015, and it paid off reasonably well. Clayborn split time as a defensive end and tackle in nickel situations. He flashed the talent that was expected out of him when he was drafted in the first round back in 2011.

    Atlanta shouldn’t need to franchise-tag Clayborn to retain his services. Instead, another short-term contract that reflects his improvement would be of good value to the team and player. Contenders that need defensive line depth should also be interested in Clayborn.  

    Expected 2016 Salary: $3.5 million

    Potential Suitors: Atlanta Falcons, Buffalo Bills, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants

49. Haloti Ngata, DT, Detroit Lions

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    Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

    Name: Haloti Ngata

    Position: Defensive tackle

    2015 Team: Detroit Lions

    2015 Statistics: 25 tackles, 2.5 sacks and three passes defensed

    2015 Salary: $8.5 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: At 31 years old, Haloti Ngata is clearly on the decline. He is a part-time player, but he is still able to cause disruption. His size and strength has aged fairly well.

    The franchise tag is out of the question for Ngata. He is certainly roster-worthy despite his decline. The Lions should do their best to retain his services.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $4 million

    Potential Suitors: Detroit Lions, Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers, New York Giants

48. Rueben Randle, WR, New York Giants

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    Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

    Name: Rueben Randle

    Position: Wide receiver

    2015 Team: New York Giants

    2015 Statistics: 57 receptions, 797 yards and eight touchdowns in 16 games

    2015 Salary: $1.05 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: The New York Giants decided to hire Ben McAdoo as head coach, so continuity is clearly important. Retaining their offensive playmakers to help win right away would be a wise decision. Rueben Randle has been a solid receiver for the Giants, but he needs to be the third option in the offense.

    Randle is likely not a tag option, since his asking price should be tolerable. New York may need to invest in this position to help Randle have less of a load on his shoulders, but he is a talented player.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $4 million

    Potential Suitors: New York Giants, Cleveland Browns, Minnesota Vikings, San Francisco 49ers, New England Patriots

47. Rishard Matthews, WR, Miami Dolphins

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    Joel Auerbach/Associated Press

    Name: Rishard Matthews

    Position: Wide receiver

    2015 Team: Miami Dolphins

    2015 Statistics: 43 receptions, 662 yards and four touchdowns in 11 games

    2015 Salary: $672,403

    Why He Should Be Protected: The Miami Dolphins are strapped for cap, but can open up a significant amount of money with several cuts. Former seventh-round pick Rishard Matthews was a nice surprise in 2015 and is now a free agent.

    A new regime with no ties to Matthews could force him onto the market. He isn’t anything special or worth the franchise tag. If the Dolphins get desperate for his services, they should be able to offer an incentive-laden deal with a lower base salary.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $4 million

    Potential Suitors: Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers, Minnesota Vikings

46. Brandon Boykin, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Name: Brandon Boykin

    Position: Cornerback

    2015 Team: Pittsburgh Steelers

    2015 Statistics: 21 tackles, one interception and five passes defensed

    2015 Salary: $1.5 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: It is highly unlikely the Pittsburgh Steelers retain Brandon Boykin. The Steelers have played better as a secondary with him in the game, but the slot specialist has rarely seen the field. Why this team traded for Boykin is confounding since it hasn’t used him.

    Boykin should cash in elsewhere, though. He is a great slot cornerback. If the Steelers wanted to upgrade their secondary, they’d re-sign Boykin to either a long-term deal or the franchise tag and actually play him.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $6 million

    Potential Suitors: Chicago Bears, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New York Giants, San Diego Chargers, Cincinnati Bengals

45. Marvin Jones, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Norm Hall/Getty Images

    Name: Marvin Jones

    Position: Wide receiver

    2015 Team: Cincinnati Bengals

    2015 Statistics: 65 receptions, 816 yards, four touchdowns

    2015 Salary: $700,700

    Why He Should Be Protected: The Bengals have done a wonderful job of developing Marvin Jones. He figures to have a variety of suitors this offseason, so letting him hit the open market is dangerous. He can get more money and a bigger role elsewhere.

    Cincinnati certainly has bigger fish to worry about, but Jones is an important piece of its offense. Keeping him for even one more year would benefit Andy Dalton and the rest of this high-powered attack.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $5 million

    Potential Suitors: Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New York Giants, San Diego Chargers, Houston Texans

44. Chris Ivory, RB, New York Jets

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    Name: Chris Ivory

    Position: Running back

    2015 Team: New York Jets

    2015 Statistics: 247 carries, 1,070 yards, seven touchdowns; 30 receptions, 217 yards and one touchdown

    2015 Salary: $2.75 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: Chris Ivory was featured as the primary back and responded quite well. At 27 years old, he doesn’t have much wear on his tires. He may be able to play into his 30s.

    The Jets shouldn’t chance that on a long-term deal, though. Franchise-tagging Ivory allows the team to draft his future replacement while also keeping Ivory around to squeeze out any more production it can get.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $3 million

    Potential Suitors: New York Jets, Baltimore Ravens, Dallas Cowboys, Oakland Raiders

43. Vinny Curry, DL, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Name: Vinny Curry

    Position: Defensive line

    2015 Team: Philadelphia Eagles

    2015 Statistics: 12 tackles, 3.5 sacks

    2015 Salary: $1.07 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: In a very limited role, Vinny Curry was quite productive for the Philadelphia Eagles over the last three seasons. He’s ready for a bigger role, which the Eagles may not provide. The only way this team may be able to retain him is the franchise tag.

    Although the tag would be very expensive, it is an option for the Eagles’ new coaching staff. This defense has the talent to be a quality unit; losing a depth piece like Curry would hurt more than help.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $4.5 million

    Potential Suitors: Philadelphia Eagles, Indianapolis Colts, Arizona Cardinals, Chicago Bears

42. Patrick Robinson, CB, San Diego Chargers

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    Name: Patrick Robinson

    Position: Cornerback

    2015 Team: San Diego Chargers

    2015 Statistics: 49 tackles, one interception, eight passes defensed

    2015 Salary: $2 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: The San Diego Chargers helped Brandon Flowers reignite his career, and now they’ve assisted Patrick Robinson. The 28-year old signed a prove-it deal last offseason with San Diego and was reliable for the team. He’s not a ball hawk, but he is a decent second or third cornerback on the roster.

    The Chargers need as much talent as possible. Robinson is an asset to this defense and provides needed depth. The franchise tag would be a solid solution so the team doesn’t have to worry about this deal.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $6 million

    Potential Suitors: San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins, Cincinnati Bengals, New England Patriots

41. Derrick Shelby, DE, Miami Dolphins

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    Name: Derrick Shelby

    Position: Defensive end

    2015 Team: Miami Dolphins

    2015 Statistics: 37 tackles, 3.5 sacks

    2015 Salary: $2.35 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: Derrick Shelby is a versatile, run-stopping defensive lineman. He’s able to play defensive end or tackle on obvious passing downs. He improved his pass-rush ability in 2015, even if his numbers are modest.

    Shelby isn’t a viable starter, but rather a valuable rotation piece. He’s well worth a medium-sized investment for a defensive coordinator willing to move him around.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $4 million

    Potential Suitors: Miami Dolphins, Oakland Raiders, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals

40. Brock Osweiler, QB, Denver Broncos

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    Name: Brock Osweiler

    Position: Quarterback

    2015 Team: Denver Broncos

    2015 Statistics: 61 completion percentage, 1,967 yards, 10 touchdowns, six interceptions

    2015 Salary: $1.1 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: At 25 years old, quarterback Brock Osweiler was put in an impossible position. He was given reigns to a Super Bowl contender, with Peyton Manning relegated to the bench with an injury. Osweiler struggled in his first extended NFL action, but he was far from bad.

    As the Broncos figure out what Manning will want to do for 2016, Osweiler is their best option if he doesn’t return. They’ve invested four years into his development. Franchising Osweiler can ensure they don’t lose their heir-apparent.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $12 million

    Potential Suitors: Denver Broncos, Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles

39. Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB, New York Jets

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    Name: Ryan Fitzpatrick

    Position: Quarterback

    2015 Team: New York Jets

    2015 Statistics: 59.6 completion percentage, 3,905 yards, 31 touchdowns and 15 interceptions

    2015 Salary: $3.25 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: At 33 years old, Ryan Fitzpatrick had one of his best seasons of his career. New York Jets offensive coordinator Chan Gailey and a deep playmaker group proved to be a perfect cast for Fitzpatrick in 2015. He has more value for this team than any other in 2016.

    The Jets should not invest more than a year or two into Fitzpatrick, though. He is too limited to continue starting into the future. He’s a solid option to bridge the gap into the quarterback of the future, though.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $13 million

    Potential Suitors: New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles, Cleveland Browns, Los Angeles Rams

38. Danny Trevathan, LB, Denver Broncos

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    Name: Danny Trevathan

    Position: Linebacker

    2015 Team: Denver Broncos

    2015 Statistics: 109 tackles, two interceptions and three passes defensed

    2015 Salary: $1.57 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: Denver Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan is the best young inside linebacker on the market this offseason. He will be heavily recruited if he hits the free-agency market, if teams with need act aggressively. He is a solid athlete who proved himself as an above-average middle linebacker.

    The Broncos have numerous other priorities this offseason. Trevathan isn’t the most difficult to replace, but he could quickly be priced out of their range.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $7.5 million

    Potential Suitors: Denver Broncos, Arizona Cardinals, Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills, Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, Oakland Raiders, St. Louis Rams, Washington Redskins

37. Janoris Jenkins, CB, Los Angeles Rams

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    Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports

    Name: Janoris Jenkins

    Position: Cornerback

    2015 Team: Los Angeles Rams

    2015 Statistics: 64 tackles, three interceptions and 15 passes defensed

    2015 Salary: $1.59 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: At 27 years old, Janoris Jenkins remains one of the highest variance cornerbacks in the NFL. He has the fluidity and talent to cover anyone single receiver on a given play. But he lacks discipline and the technique to actually do it consistently.

    St. Louis must do their best to retain their starting cornerback combo. Trumaine Johnson is more deserving of the long-term investment, which might leave Jenkins with the franchise tag. It would make sense as the team invests in a younger player to start grooming to replace Jenkins.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $4.5 million

    Potential Suitors: St. Louis Rams, New England Patriots, Jacksonville Jaguars, Seattle Seahawks

36. Richie Incognito, OG, Buffalo Bills

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    Name: Richie Incognito

    Position: Left guard

    2015 Team: Buffalo Bills

    2015 Statistics: Two sacks and 12 quarterback hurries allowed, per Pro Football Focus

    2015 Salary: $1.1 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: Richie Incognito was out of the NFL for 18 months, but you couldn’t tell by watching him this past season. He had his best year maybe of his career, opening massive running lanes and providing quality pass protection for Buffalo. Its faith in him paid off.

    But Incognito is worth more to this team than anyone else. The Bills know his personality and can deal with it. The Bills should move to lock Incognito in quickly to help focus on other free agents.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $5 million

    Potential Suitors: Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles

35. Donald Penn, OT, Oakland Raiders

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    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    Name: Donald Penn

    Position: Left tackle

    2015 Team: Oakland Raiders

    2015 Statistics: Seven sacks, five hits and 20 quarterback hurries allowed, according to Pro Football Focus.

    2015 Salary: $5.4 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: The Oakland Raiders were one of the pleasant surprises in 2015, improving their quality of play and overall record to 7-9. This is a team trending upward with a league-leading $60 million in open cap room to improve their roster. Retaining key pieces is a must with those resources.

    Unless the Raiders can get their hands on a clear upgrade this offseason, bringing back Donald Penn is an easy decision. He’s a solid starting left tackle but his age in concerning. The Raiders shouldn’t invest into Penn for more than one season, making the franchise tag perfect.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $5.5 million

    Potential Suitors: Oakland Raiders

34. Derrick Johnson, LB, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Name: Derrick Johnson

    Position: Linebacker

    2015 Team: Kansas City Chiefs

    2015 Statistics: 116 tackles, four sacks and two interceptions

    2015 Salary: $4.5 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: At 33 years old, Derrick Johnson had a tremendous comeback season after tearing his Achilles tendon in 2014. While that injury can derail careers, Johnson looks capable of playing another few seasons. He’s still an effective run-stopping inside linebacker.

    It’s doubtful the Chiefs will need the tag for Johnson, as his age and status with the team should make this the easiest of the major free-agent deals for the Chiefs to get done. Anything past two years or his current salary would be surprising.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $4.5 million

    Potential Suitors: Kansas City Chiefs, Miami Dolphins, New York Giants, Green Bay Packers

33. Walter Thurmond. SAF, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Name: Walter Thurmond

    Position: Safety

    2015 Team: Philadelphia Eagles

    2015 Statistics: 71 tackles, three interceptions and seven passes defensed

    2015 Salary: $3.25 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: In his first year playing strong safety, Walter Thurmond proved to be a quality starter. The former cornerback brought toughness and efficiency to the safety position in Philadelphia. When paired with Malcom Jenkins, the Eagles boast a very good safety duo.

    Thurmond should receive several multi-year deals for his services this offseason. At just 28 years old, he has one big deal left on the table. The Eagles may not be able to beat those offers, so tagging him for one year makes sense.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $6 million

    Potential Suitors: Philadelphia Eagles, San Diego Chargers, Atlanta Falcons

32. George Iloka, SAF, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Frank Victores/Associated Press

    Name: George Iloka

    Position: Strong Safety

    2015 Team: Cincinnati Bengals

    2015 Statistics: 47 tackles, one interception and four passes defensed

    2015 Salary: $1.58 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: At just 25 years old, George Iloka is poised for his first big contract. The 6’4”, 225-pound safety played in a versatile secondary that allowed him to play in a variety of roles. He’s a capable free and strong safety in Cover 2 schemes with his size and coverage talent.

    Iloka doesn’t have great production, which is partially due to the talent around him. He’s effective and was a key cog in the Bengals secondary, though. He should receive plenty of interest in a long-term deal. The Bengals cannot afford to let him walk away.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $7 million

    Potential Suitors: Cincinnati Bengals, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Detroit Lions, Miami Dolphins

31. Matt Forte, RB, Chicago Bears

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    Name: Matt Forte

    Position: Running back

    2015 Team: Chicago Bears

    2015 Statistics: 218 carries, 898 yards and four touchdowns; 44 receptions, 389 yards and three touchdowns

    2015 Salary: $9.2 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: After spending eight years with the Chicago Bears, running back Matt Forte will be able to determine the next stop in his career. The 30-year-old running back missed three games last year due to injury, but he's still a quality starter. The Bears may want to keep him from leaving for a contender.

    While Forte is older and Chicago isn’t too close to competing for the playoffs, he’s a valuable mentor and a productive player still. The franchise tag will allow the Bears to keep him around the building one more year before they re-evaluate his future.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $8 million

    Potential Suitors: Chicago Bears, New England Patriots, New York Giants, Indianapolis Colts

30. Sam Bradford, QB, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Name: Sam Bradford

    Position: Quarterback

    2015 Team: Philadelphia Eagles

    2015 Statistics: 65 completion percentage, 3,725 yards, 19 touchdowns and 14 interceptions

    2015 Salary: $12.98 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: Although Sam Bradford’s biggest fan, Chip Kelly, is now in San Francisco, the Philadelphia Eagles must consider bringing him back. They moved a second-round pick to acquire Bradford and have no clear replacement available. Bradford played better late in 2015, so he is worthy of starting again in 2016.

    However, Bradford's injury history is certainly alarming. He’s missed 26 games in the last three seasons and 32 total in six seasons. The franchise tag is the only offer the Eagles should consider for Bradford unless he’s willing to take a very team-friendly multi-year deal.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $18 million

    Potential Suitors: Philadelphia Eagles, Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers

29. Ian Williams, DT, San Francisco 49ers

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    Name: Ian Williams

    Position: Defensive tackle

    2015 Team: San Francisco 49ers

    2015 Statistics: 65 tackles and one sack

    2015 Salary: $1.495 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: Nose tackles are hard to find and even more difficult to develop. It can take several years to see improvement from these rare players, as their bodies must be conditioned for the brutality of the spot. When teams find one, they must hold onto them.

    The 49ers developed Ian Williams for the last five years to become a very good player. He had a breakout 2015 campaign and is now a free agent. The franchise tag would be perfect to buy the 49ers more time to hammer out a long-term deal with Williams.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $7 million

    Potential Suitors: San Francisco 49ers, San Diego Chargers, Tennessee Titans

28. Prince Amukamara, CB, New York Giants

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    Steven Ryan-USA TODAY Sports

    Name: Prince Amukamara

    Position: Cornerback

    2015 Team: New York Giants

    2015 Statistics: 63 tackles, one interception and 10 passes defensed

    2015 Salary: $6.98 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: The New York Giants are in a transitioning period as they try to field a competitive roster with a new head coach. The team needs as many impact players as it can find and is armed with significant cap space to execute its plans. Cornerback Prince Amukamara must figure into those plans.

    Even though Amukamara has missed 13 games over the last two seasons, he’s a very good cornerback when he's healthy. Teams will be interested in a buy-low contract with him in hopes of seeing him stay on the field. The Giants cannot allow him to leave if they want to win in 2016. The franchise tag accomplishes that goal.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $9 million

    Potential Suitors: New York Giants, Miami Dolphins, Oakland Raiders, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

27. Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

    Name: Doug Martin

    Position: Running back

    2015 Team: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    2015 Statistics: 288 carries, 1,402 yards, six touchdowns; 33 receptions, 271 yards and one touchdown

    2015 Salary: $2.15 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: Doug Martin's return to the NFL’s best running backs was somewhat surprising after he struggled in his sophomore and junior seasons. His explosive rookie form returned after his body healed from various injuries in 2015. He finished second in rushing yards with 1,402 this year.

    Martin is already 27, so his long-term market value won’t be too hot. This is good for the Buccaneers, who should try to keep Martin around for continuity. The trio of Jameis Winston, Martin and Mike Evans is good enough to help this team make a playoff push in 2016.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $7.5 million

    Potential Suitors: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New England Patriots, New York Giants, New York Jets

26. Kelvin Beachum, OT, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

    Name: Kelvin Beachum

    Position: Left tackle

    2015 Team: Pittsburgh Steelers

    2015 Statistics: Three sacks, one quarterback hit and three hurries allowed, according to Pro Football Focus.

    2015 Salary: $1.55 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: The Pittsburgh Steelers saw life without their 26-year-old left tackle, Kelvin Beachum, for 11 games in 2015. Although rookie Alejandro Villanueva stepped in admirably, the Steelers need better play from the position to be a Super Bowl threat. Beachum can be that guy.

    Coming off a torn ACL, Beachum’s ability to get a long-term offer in free agency is in jeopardy. The Steelers can’t afford to risk a multi-year deal on Beachum, either. A franchise tag keeps the talented tackle in the building while he heals and will ensure the team has a legitimate left tackle in 2016.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $8 million

    Potential Suitors: Pittsburgh Steelers, San Diego Chargers, Tennessee Titans, Detroit Lions, New York Jets

25. Bruce Irvin, LB, Seattle Seahawks

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    Name: Bruce Irvin

    Position: Linebacker

    2015 Team: Seattle Seahawks

    2015 Statistics: 38 tackles and 5.5 sacks

    2015 Salary: $2.895 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: One of the better athletes in the NFL, linebacker Bruce Irvin found his best position. Irvin played strong-side linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks after being moved all around in his first three seasons. The change worked and he is a solid off-ball linebacker now.

    At 28 years old, Irvin has a handful of prime years left, meaning this next long-term contract will be his big cash in. The Seahawks have the cap space to re-sign him, but they may not want to give him that big deal. They can retain Irvin for one more season with the franchise tag, and avoid any type of bidding war.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $6 million

    Potential Suitors: Seattle Seahawks, Atlanta Falcons, New York Giants, Miami Dolphins

24. Olivier Vernon, DE, Miami Dolphins

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    Name: Olivier Vernon

    Position: Defensive end

    2015 Team: Miami Dolphins

    2015 Statistics: 61 tackles and 7.5 sacks

    2015 Salary: $1.7 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: The Miami Dolphins imploded in 2015, due in large part to injuries and a poorly coached roster. This team is out of cap space until they start making cuts and contract adjustments, but they have several major free agents. Defensive end Olivier Vernon will be the hardest to retain.

    While Vernon is just 25 and has 29 career sacks, he struggled to develop into a primary pass-rusher without Cameron Wake. Miami may get priced out quickly if he hits the free-agent market because teams will look at his high sack total without the context to his numbers. A franchise tag keeps Vernon on a prove-it deal and helps fill a major need for Miami.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $10 million

    Potential Suitors: Miami Dolphins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Giants, San Diego Chargers

23. Alex Boone, G, San Francisco 49ers

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    Name: Alex Boone

    Position: Left guard

    2015 Team: San Francisco 49ers

    2015 Statistics: Three sacks, five hits and nine quarterback hurries allowed in 13 games, per ProFootballFocus.com.

    2015 Salary: $3.72 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: One of the best left guards in the league will fit free agency this offseason. The San Francisco 49ers are flush with cap space but are undergoing changes with new head coach Chip Kelly on board. One of his first orders of business is figuring out what to do with Alex Boone.

    Boone fits best as a power-blocking guard that works downhill. Depending on what new head coaches will want to implement, Boone could receive major free-agent attention. As Kelly learned with the Eagles, a high-end left guard is valuable. If the 49ers can’t agree to a long-term deal with Boone, the franchise tag must be used.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $8 million

    Potential Suitors: San Francisco 49ers, Miami Dolphins, Philadelphia Eagles

22. Tamba Hali, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

    Name: Tamba Hali

    Position: Outside linebacker

    2015 Team: Kansas City Chiefs

    2015 Statistics: 48 tackles and 6.5 sacks

    2015 Salary: $6 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: As a lifetime member of the Kansas City Chiefs, outside linebacker Tamba Hali just wouldn’t look right elsewhere. The Chiefs have a veteran-laden roster that is still performing very well. Retaining Hali while they develop younger talent behind him is the best scenario.

    To keep Hali, the Chiefs must be competitive. He’s a starter for most 3-4 teams even at 32 years old. The franchise tag shouldn’t be necessary but isn’t out of the question.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $6 million

    Potential Suitors: Kansas City Chiefs, Green Bay Packers

21. Casey Hayward, CB, Green Bay Packers

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    Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

    Name: Casey Hayward

    Position: Cornerback

    2015 Team: Green Bay Packers

    2015 Statistics: 63 tackles, zero interceptions and six passes defensed

    2015 Salary: $1.05 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: Another major free agent for the Packers, this time their best coverage cornerback may hit the market. Casey Hayward has been excellent for the Packers defense despite losing teammate Tramon Williams last season. At just 26 years old, he’s another legitimate top cornerback on the free-agent market in his prime.

    Although the Packers have other major free agents, Hayward may be tagged because of the Packers’ depth at the position. Rookie Damarious Randall had a stellar rookie season, and maybe his talent will affect Hayward’s long-term status with the team. It is more likely the Packers will tag as Hayward waits to see what the market gives to Norman and Smith.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $9 million

    Potential Suitors: Green Bay Packers, Oakland Raiders, Chicago Bears, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cincinnati Bengals

20. Russell Okung, OT, Seattle Seahawks

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    Name: Russell Okung

    Position: Left tackle

    2015 Team: Seattle Seahawks

    2015 Statistics: Four sacks, four hits and 21 quarterback hurries allowed in 13 games, according to ProFootballFocus.com.

    2015 Salary: $7.28 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: The Seattle Seahawks made a strong playoff push once again in 2015, and they must continue to stay well-stocked with talent moving forward. This roster is ready to win now. Losing out on even average or better starters is out of the question when possible.

    The 28-year old Russell Okung has been their best offensive lineman since being drafted. He must be rewarded with a fair contract. While the Seahawks have ample cap room, they have others to pay as well. Giving Okung the tag will allow the team to see if he can stay healthy in 2016 before looking into a long-term deal.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $10 million

    Potential Suitors: Seattle Seahawks, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Detroit Lions

19. Malik Jackson, DE, Denver Broncos

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    Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

    Name: Malik Jackson

    Position: Defensive end

    2015 Team: Denver Broncos

    2015 Statistics: 46 tackles, 5.5 sacks

    2015 Salary: $1.595 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: One of numerous excellent defenders on the Denver Broncos, Malik Jackson has been a key cog for this defense. He provides versatility for the Broncos’ front, with the ability to move around and still be effective. At 26 years old, he’s now hitting his prime.

    A rich deal awaits Jackson in free agency. Denver has several other free agents to worry about, so tagging Jackson to make sure he doesn’t slip through the cracks would make sense. Financially, it would be tough, though.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $10 million

    Potential Suitors: Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders, Chicago Bears, San Francisco 49ers, Houston Texans

18. Greg Hardy, DE, Dallas Cowboys

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    Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

    Name: Greg Hardy

    Position: Defensive end

    2015 Team: Dallas Cowboys

    2015 Statistics: 35 tackles and six sacks

    2015 Salary: $11.3 million (prorated over 12 games)

    Why He Should Be Protected: In terms of on-field impact and overall talent, signing Greg Hardy to a long-term deal would be perfectly fine. He has 40 sacks in 75 career games played, including two seasons of 11 or more sacks. But production isn’t the issue for Hardy.

    Hardy’s off-field concerns run as deep as anyone in the NFL. Knowing this, the Cowboys may be one of very few teams even willing to sign Hardy to a short-term deal. A franchise tag makes sense if the team feels the numerous teams needing a pass rusher will offer him an attractive opportunity.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $8 million

    Potential Suitors: Dallas Cowboys

17. Travis Benjamin, WR, Cleveland Browns

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    Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

    Name: Travis Benjamin

    Position: Wide Receiver

    2015 Team: Cleveland Browns

    2015 Statistics: 68 receptions, 966 yards and five touchdowns

    2015 Salary: $779,250

    Why He Should Be Protected: At 26 years old, Travis Benjamin had a breakout season for the Cleveland Browns. The No. 100 overall pick in the 2012 draft has developed into a solid route-runner and explosive weapon on offense and special teams. His improvement has him set for an impressive payday in free agency.

    Benjamin will surely receive impressive multi-year offers this offseason. He is a better overall receiver than Torrey Smith was before he signed an $8 million-a-year deal with San Francisco last year. The Browns should make sure he doesn’t get away and see his best years spent elsewhere while this team could have used his talents.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $8.5 million

    Potential Suitors: Cleveland Browns, Chicago Bears, Los Angeles Rams, New York Giants

16. Lamar Miller, RB, Miami Dolphins

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    Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

    Name: Lamar Miller

    Position: Running back

    2015 Team: Miami Dolphins

    2015 Statistics: 194 carries, 872 yards, eight touchdowns; 47 receptions, 397 yards and two touchdowns

    2015 Salary: $1.66 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: Despite being underutilized with the Miami Dolphins, the development of Lamar Miller into an elite running back has greatly increased his value. At 24 years old, he’s a terrific zone running back and has become a solid receiver and blocker. Miami never allowed him to flourish under the previous regime and now Miller could be looking for a bigger role.

    While Miami can sell Miller on a new coaching staff that may maximize his potential, Miller may want a fresh start elsewhere. Even with Jay Ajayi in the fold, Miller is worth keeping because of his immense talent level. Franchising him keeps the long-term investment at the position low without losing a key piece on offense.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $8 million

    Potential Suitors: Miami Dolphins, Dallas Cowboys, New England Patriots, New York Giants

15. Jaye Howard, DE, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

    Name: Jaye Howard

    Position: Defensive end

    2015 Team: Kansas City Chiefs

    2015 Statistics: 57 tackles, 5.5 sacks

    2015 Salary: $660,000

    Why He Should Be Protected: Jaye Howard rewarded the Kansas City Chiefs for investing two years into his development. His third year with the team was by far his most productive as he moved into a starting role.

    Howard’s only 27 years old and is hitting his prime years. A multi-year deal with a 3-4 defense is certainly in the fold if he hits the market. The Chiefs may not be able to use the tag on Howard because of their other free agents, but he is a worthy player of it, if need be.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $7.5 million

    Potential Suitors: Kansas City Chiefs, Chicago Bears, San Diego Chargers

14. Tashaun Gipson, SAF, Cleveland Browns

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Name: Tashaun Gipson

    Position: Free safety

    2015 Team: Cleveland Browns

    2015 Statistics: 60 tackles, two interceptions and two passes defensed

    2015 Salary: $2.35 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: At 25 years old, Tashaun Gipson already has 14 career interceptions and a Pro Bowl to his resume. The playmaking free safety didn’t have a great 2015 campaign after his return from a torn MCL in 2014. He and numerous other Cleveland Browns defenders failed to live up to the standard of play they had previously established in past years.

    Even in a down year, Gipson was still an above average safety. His arrow is pointing upward, and his youth is something to bank on. If the Browns cannot come to a long-term agreement, they cannot afford to lose him to free agency. The franchise tag would be a no-brainer to retain his services.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $8.5 million

    Potential Suitors: Cleveland Browns, Oakland Raiders, Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Giants, Indianapolis Colts

13. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants

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    Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

    Name: Jason Pierre-Paul

    Position: Defensive end

    2015 Team: New York Giants

    2015 Statistics: 26 tackles, one sack, six passes defensed in eight games

    2015 Salary: $8.71 million (prorated due to injury)

    Why He Should Be Protected: After a bizarre hand injury due to an incident with fireworks last July, defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul struggled to make a major impact in his return. He played just eight games and registered one sack. But his missing fingers didn’t seem to be the reason he didn’t produce.

    With a full offseason to train, Pierre-Paul may return to his status as an elite pass-rusher. That risk is well worth the franchise tag for the New York Giants, who desperately need an impact pass-rusher. This fit is perfect for both the team and Pierre-Paul, and the embattled defensive end can position himself for a bigger payday for 2017 with a strong season in 2016.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $8 million

    Potential Suitors: New York Giants, Chicago Bears, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jacksonville Jaguars

12. Kelechi Osemele, OG, Baltimore Ravens

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    Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

    Name: Kelechi Osemele

    Position: Left guard

    2015 Team: Baltimore Ravens

    2015 Statistics: One sack, two hits and 10 hurries allowed at left guard, according to ProFootballFocus.com.

    2015 Salary: $1.06 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: The Baltimore Ravens have prioritized building up the trenches on both sides of the ball for the better part of two decades. Their physical style wears down opponents and has led to much success. Their biggest free agent this season embodies that.

    Kelechi Osemele played both left guard and left tackle in 2015, and was very good at each. He is a high-end guard and will command significant money in free agency if he gets there. The Ravens cannot afford to lose him, so tagging him while they work something out long term would be a smart route.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $8 million

    Potential Suitors: Baltimore Ravens, San Diego Chargers, Seattle Seahawks, Miami Dolphins

11. Mitchell Schwartz, OT, Cleveland Browns

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    Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

    Name: Mitchell Schwartz

    Position: Right tackle

    2015 Team: Cleveland Browns

    2015 Statistics: Three sacks, eight hits and 32 quarterback hurries allowed, according to ProFootballFocus.com.

    2015 Salary: $1.64 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: He is one of the premier right tackles in the league. Schwartz is a great pass protector and solid run-blocker, and he has benefited from playing with future Hall of Famer Joe Thomas. He is a big-time free agent that can greatly impact an offense’s performance.

    The Browns cannot allow Schwartz to hit free agency. He is a quality bookend tackle in the prime of his career. Expect him to receive one of the biggest contracts in the NFL for right tackles, if not the biggest. The franchise tag will prevent that from happening.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $8 million

    Potential Suitors: Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens, Detroit Lions, New York Jets, San Diego Chargers

10. Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago Bears

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Name: Alshon Jeffery

    Position: Wide receiver

    2015 Team: Chicago Bears

    2015 Statistics: 54 receptions, 807 yards, four touchdowns

    2015 Salary: $1.44 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: The 26-year old receiver battled injuries in 2015, but his on-field play was still as good as expected. Jeffery is the only legitimate veteran receiver on the Bears roster, and he would fit next to Kevin White wonderfully if he stays in Chicago. With Jeffery’s cap hit likely to soar, the Bears might want to see if he can stay healthy in 2016 before rewarding him.

    Considering the 2016 NFL draft seems fairly weak in terms of instant receiving impact, the bidding for Jeffery could scare the Bears. But losing him for nothing would be equally as painful. A franchise tag allows for either a trade, an extension to strike a long-term contract or to play out 2016.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $11 million

    Potential Suitors: Chicago Bears, San Francisco 49ers, Los Angeles Rams, New York Giants, San Diego Chargers

9. Eric Weddle, SAF, San Diego Chargers

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    Jim Steve-USA TODAY Sports

    Name: Eric Weddle

    Position: Safety

    2015 Team: San Diego Chargers

    2015 Statistics: 76 tackles, zero interceptions, six passes defensed

    2015 Salary: $10.1 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: The most talented pure free safety available this offseason is Eric Weddle. Weddle’s been terrific in his time with San Diego, but he is also 31 years old now. His potential suitors should not invest more than a few years into him. That’s also why the Chargers may prefer to tag Weddle.

    The safety franchise tag could prove to be slightly more expensive than Weddle’s per-year average, but the lack of guaranteed money over the course of three years is more enticing for teams. If Weddle hits free agency, we can likely count out any chance of a reunion with the Chargers next season.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $10 million

    Potential Suitors: Oakland Raiders, Chicago Bears, Miami Dolphins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New York Giants

8. Trumaine Johnson, CB, St. Louis Rams

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    Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

    Name: Trumaine Johnson

    Position: Cornerback

    2015 Team: Los Angeles Rams

    2015 Statistics: 71 tackles, seven interceptions and 17 passes defensed

    2015 Salary: $1.7 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: There are a lot of things to like about Trumaine Johnson. At 26 years old, Johnson had a terrific breakout season in 2015, logging seven interceptions. He’s also long and able to play man coverage without much help.

    His 6’1”, 205-pound frame will endear him to many. While he doesn’t have a long track record of success like the other cornerbacks ahead of him, he is a player that can force turnovers. The Rams must keep him in-house, and the tag shouldn’t be out of the question.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $10 million

    Potential Suitors: Los Angeles Rams, Oakland Raiders, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

7. Kirk Cousins, QB, Washington Redskins

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    Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

    Name: Kirk Cousins

    Position: Quarterback

    2015 Team: Washington Redskins

    2015 Statistics: 69.8 completion percentage, 4,166 yards, 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions

    2015 Salary: $778,172

    Why He Should Be Protected: The Washington Redskins gave Kirk Cousins the chance to play in 2015, and he helped the team win the NFC East and earn a playoff berth. Cousins fits what head coach Jay Gruden wants to run offensively nicely and played high quality football when they needed him most. Although there should be concerns for his long-term viability, the Redskins can’t let him walk.

    Simply put, the Redskins won’t find a better quarterback for 2016. While Cousins is physically limited, he is tough, smart and allowed his deep rotation of playmakers to excel. Washington should franchise Cousins to see how 2017 plays out before committing massive long-term money to him.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $19 million

    Potential Suitors: Washington Redskins, Cleveland Browns, Philadelphia Eagles

6. Sean Smith, CB, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

    Name: Sean Smith

    Position: Cornerback

    2015 Team: Kansas City Chiefs

    2015 Statistics: 45 tackles, two interceptions, 12 passes defensed

    2015 Salary: $7 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: It’s incredibly difficult to find No. 1 cornerbacks in the NFL. When you have one, you should hold on for dear life, because they allow defensive coordinators to rest easier every week. Sean Smith may be under the radar for some, but his tape the last two years has been excellent.

    The Chiefs have invested heavily into cornerback the last two drafts, but Smith is still highly valuable. He and Marcus Peters may be the best cornerback duo in the NFL in 2016 if they’re together. A franchise tag keeps Smith around through his 29th birthday, and keeps a major asset around one more season.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $11 million

    Potential Suitors: Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, Jacksonville Jaguars, New England Patriots

5. Cordy Glenn, OT, Buffalo Bills

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    Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

    Name: Cordy Glenn

    Position: Left tackle

    2015 Team: Buffalo Bills

    2015 Statistics: Two sacks, two quarterback hits and 24 hurries allowed, according to ProFootballFocus.com.

    2015 Salary: $1.58 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: It’s going to be difficult for the Buffalo Bills to afford Cordy Glenn without ravaging their roster. With so many other cap obligations and sizeable contracts, Glenn may be the odd man out. But Buffalo must prioritize Glenn.

    If the Bills restructure a few contracts and cut a couple of veterans, Glenn’s franchise tag hit will fit. This may be more attractive since restructuring contracts will continue to push cap restrictions into the next year, but a one-year deal with Glenn for now at least retains his great services. If Glenn hits free agency, he will get paid elsewhere, and the Bills will be far worse off.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $11 million

    Potential Suitors: Buffalo Bills, Oakland Raiders, Seattle Seahawks, Tennessee Titans

4. Muhammad Wilkerson, DE, New York Jets

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    William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

    Name: Muhammad Wilkerson

    Position: Defensive end

    2015 Team: New York Jets

    2015 Statistics: 64 tackles, 12 sacks and seven passes defensed

    2015 Salary: $6.96 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: Another elite player at his position hitting free agency is Muhammad Wilkerson. The dangerous 5-technique has been incredibly productive in his first five seasons, amassing more than 30 sacks and providing great run support. To lose this caliber of player for nothing in return can set a franchise back.

    Whether Wilkerson is in the Jets’ long-term plans or not, they should retain his services to at least gather assets via trade. He is one of the best 3-4 defensive ends on the market this year, so expect him to receive massive offers if he hits the unrestricted market. Teams that miss on Mike Daniels and Jaye Howard should happily trade draft picks to acquire Wilkerson.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $15 million

    Potential Suitors: New York Jets, Chicago Bears, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers, Green Bay Packers

3. Eric Berry, SAF, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

    Name: Eric Berry

    Position: Safety

    2015 Team: Kansas City Chiefs

    2015 Statistics: 61 tackles, two interceptions and 10 passes defensed

    2015 Salary: $8.35

    Why He Should Be Protected: Eric Berry and the Kansas City Chiefs have overcome quite a bit together, and it is extremely difficult to imagine Berry wearing another uniform. Not only is he one of the key cogs of their defense, but what he means to the team and fanbase is significant. Plus, it’s not like replacing one of the better safeties in the NFL is a feasible task.

    The Chiefs have several major free agents this offseason, but Berry is probably the most valuable for them to retain. Positional value, franchise status and lack of replacement options all factor in. Tagging Berry allows the Chiefs to worry about their other guys, then come back to Berry.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $10 million

    Potential Suitors: Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Giants

2. Josh Norman, CB, Carolina Panthers

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Name: Josh Norman

    Position: Cornerback

    2015 Team: Carolina Panthers

    2015 Statistics: 56 tackles, four interceptions and 18 passes defensed

    2015 Salary: $1.59 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: Last year, we saw Darrelle Revis hit the unrestricted free-agent market and cash in for a huge deal. Revis was older than Norman by two years and showed signs of slowing in 2014, meaning that Norman should receive as much interest, if not more, this offseason. The Carolina Panthers must commit a massive contract to keep their star cornerback.

    Norman’s emergence as a shutdown corner changed the Panthers’ defensive identity in 2015. Expect suitors to be lined up with offers that could make Norman the highest-paid cornerback in the league. Carolina doesn’t have much cap space entering the offseason, so limiting its long-term commitment to Norman can give some flexibility and prevent the team from paying Norman past his prime.  

    Expected 2016 Salary: $14 million

    Potential Suitors: Carolina Panthers, Oakland Raiders, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jacksonville Jaguars

1. Von Miller, LB, Denver Broncos

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    Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

    Name: Von Miller

    Position: Outside linebacker

    2015 Team: Denver Broncos

    2015 Statistics: 35 tackles, 11 sacks, four forced fumbles

    2015 Salary: $9.75 million

    Why He Should Be Protected: Von Miller is the rare unicorn of the 2016 free-agency class. He’ll be just 27 when the upcoming season begins, and he’s a premier player at a crucial position. Miller’s transition from a 4-3 outside linebacker to a 3-4 rush 'backer was seamless in 2015, only boosting his value that much more.

    The Broncos cannot afford to lose a player of Miller’s talent, but giving him a long-term contract with massive guarantees can bog their cap down as well. If the team and Miller cannot come to an agreement before free agency, then the franchise tag is a must. It will buy Denver some time to strike a deal with their best player.

    Expected 2016 Salary: $17 million

    Potential Suitors: Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders, Chicago Bears, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jacksonville Jaguars

    All stats used are from sports-reference.com. All salary and cap information is courtesy of spotrac.com.

    Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.

    Follow @NFLFilmStudy