2018 NFL Free Agency: Franchise-Tag Decisions That Will Change the Market

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistMarch 9, 2018

2018 NFL Free Agency: Franchise-Tag Decisions That Will Change the Market

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    The NFL is in the thick of a noticeable period of innovation, so it's only right that each team's franchise-tag decisions carry league-wide implications.  

    Funny enough, following the run up to Tuesday's deadline and its immediate aftermath, those not tagged are bigger talking points than those slapped with a one-year deal. 

    The Carolina Panthers, for instance, didn't choose to tag guard Andrew Norwell or even defensive lineman Star Lotulelei. Sheldon Richardson is free to pursue a big deal on the open market after one solid season with the Seattle Seahawks. The Minnesota Vikings, faced with a possible trio of options under center, didn't hit Case Keenum with a tag. The Los Angeles Rams, with multiple players worthy of a tag, made a decision that turned more than a few heads. One of the notable tags, Miami Dolphins wideout Jarvis Landry, didn't make a big splash given the sheer depth of the position in this 2018 free-agent class. 

    Those are simply surface-level talking points surrounding the tag decisions, too. With the NFL's big free-agency spending becoming a key to contention—just ask the Philadelphia Eagles and Jacksonville Jaguars—the who and why of the tag deadline is more important than ever. 

    The following tag decisions changed the market in irreversible ways.

Ezekiel Ansah, EDGE

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    Jose Juarez/Associated Press

    Decision: Tagged 

    The Detroit Lions weren't going to let Ezekiel Ansah get away. 

    An elite pass-rusher is a premium product and can help teams contend outright for championships, like Von Miller in Denver. For a team like the Lions, it's about ponying up the cash on the hopes Ansah can someday reach those same heights. 

    The fifth pick in 2013, Ansah has 44 sacks over 73 games. He'd probably already have an extension, but an injury limited him to 13 games and two sacks in 2016 before a bounce-back campaign in 2017 saw him post 12 over 14 appearances. The sacks came in bunches, like the six over two games to close the season, but the 35-sack Lions will pay on the hopes of more consistency as the unit around him improves. 

    Though great for the Lions as they assure retention of a top-three defender on their roster, the move decimates a miserable free-agent class of rushers. They robbed the market of a 28-year-old player who is solid against the run alongside his recent outburst of pressure and leaves those looking for help staring at a class of aging risks (Pernell McPhee) or odd gambles (Barkevious Mingo).

Demarcus Lawrence, EDGE

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Decision: Tagged 

    Notice a trend here? 

    Elite pass-rushing talent, even on a small sample size—is a valuable commodity teams won't let get away. 

    Case in point, the Dallas Cowboys with Demarcus Lawrence. The 2014 second-round pick posted 14.5 sacks in 2017, up from his career-high eight in 2015, leaving him at 23.5 over four years. After his 14.5, David Irving's seven were the next closest on a roster that recorded 38 total.

    So no, doling out about $17.1 million to see if a 25-year-old can do it again isn't a big price tag. And he sure seemed pleased with it, by the way. 

    But again, this is another young rusher who, while inconsistent, is worth an investment. We've touched on the poor free-agent class, but the list of 2018 draft prospects doesn't appear great either. After Bradley Chubb, it's a weaker-than-usual class where fit for a prospect might matter more than sheer ability. 

    For teams like the Lions and Cowboys, throwing down tags was an easy call. The rest of the teams on the market will have to keep looking. 

Lamarcus Joyner, S

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Decision: Tagged 

    Lamarcus Joyner became something of a household name in 2017 when he put the Los Angeles Rams on his back with 11 tackles in the playoff loss to the Atlanta Falcons. 

    He's a fun story, too. He didn't find much footing in 2014 out of the second round, only switching full-time to safety in 2017. But the Rams valued it and eventually tagged him, which speaks to the job done by new head coach Sean McVay and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips—but also to Joyner's sheer ability. 

    Bleacher Report's NFL1000 ranked Joyner's season as the fifth-best among strong safeties in 2017. The Rams are banking on that happening again now that he's much more than a slot corner while forming a strong tandem with quiet breakout rookie John Johnson. 

    It's the same story here when it comes to the free-agent market, too. Kurt Coleman is already off the market. Kenny Vaccaro is still out there but should come at a huge price and we don't know how a team will choose to play Eric Reid, positionally speaking. 

    Joyner's tag also means quite a bit for the market at wideout. 

Sammy Watkins, WR

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Decision: Not Tagged 

    While teams that need high-quality defenders to hit the open market are hurting, those in need of potent weapons are grinning ear-to-ear. 

    The Rams choosing to slap a tag on Joyner means Sammy Watkins is free to hit the open market and pursue a blockbuster deal, which he'll get. 

    Some might buy into the notion Watkins is a slight bust who isn't worth major cash. And while he's had his injury woes over the years, including an eight-game 2016 campaign, he's also a 24-year-old wideout already with 25 touchdowns to his name. 

    The former Buffalo Bill played something of a decoy role in 2017 after coming over via trade before the season yet still posted an average of 15.2 yards per catch and eight touchdowns, one shy of his single-season high (2015). 

    We've seen the wideout market get strange in recent years, with teams giving guys like Alshon Jeffery and Terrelle Pryor one-year deals. Watkins, at worst a good, young blocker and elite red-zone option, is going to rake in the cash and likely be the first domino to fall.

Allen Robinson, WR

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    Rob Foldy/Getty Images

    Decision: Not Tagged 

    Allen Robinson should be the second major domino to fall on the wideout market. 

    It came as a bit of surprise the Jacksonville Jaguars told Robinson they wouldn't tag him, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. The front office had just inked Blake Bortles to a new extension, and no matter how you feel about him, keeping aboard a weapon of Robinson's caliber would make sense. 

    Instead, the Jaguars will turn to a cast featuring names such as Keelan Cole, Allen Hurns and perhaps Marqise Lee. Robinson will turn to a market already missing the Dolphins' Landry, which for some is a good thing because it means they avoid deciding if it's worth doling out huge cash to a player who often emulates the running game via short passes instead of making big plays down the field. 

    Speaking of big plays, Robinson boasts 22 touchdowns over 43 games and a career average of 14.1 yards per catch, including a 14-touchdown Pro Bowl season in 2015. Other teams will gladly cough up a big number on the chance he can regain that form after playing one game in 2017 because injury. 

    It will be interesting to see which team takes the dive, though, because this isn't a top-heavy class. Landry is out, but quality depth remains like Mike Wallace, Paul Richardson, Jordan Matthews, John Brown, Taylor Gabriel and more. What Robinson does, though, is give the class another heavyweight capable of inciting a bidding war. 

Le'Veon Bell, RB

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    Decision: Tagged 

    It should go without saying that the Pittsburgh Steelers' decision to hit Le'Veon Bell with a tag is a huge ordeal. 

    The Steelers win big in absorbing a cap hit of only about $14.5 million, while the countdown for Bell's long-term deal once again resumes (the deadline to extend a tagged player is July 16).

    Bell wants a long-term contract, and things got interesting Wednesday when wideout Antonio Brown restructured his deal so the team could simply afford the tag, according to NFL reporter Dov Kleiman, who shared a video of Brown and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus.

    Pittsburgh would be foolish to not find a way to make it work, of course, considering Bell has consecutive 1,200-yard rushing and 600-yard receiving seasons and at least seven rushing scores in four of his five years. 

    The tag that seemed obvious but wasn't until it happened leaves the free-agent market hurting. Change-of-pace players like Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead are out there, as are more blunt weapons such as Isaiah Crowell, Carlos Hyde and Jeremy Hill.

    But there isn't a dynamic every-down back like Bell, meaning those searching for free-agent answers will have to seriously lean on or add to an existing committee to compensate for what Bell could do on his lonesome.

Kirk Cousins, QB

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    Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

    Decision: Not Tagged 

    Say hello to the biggest name on the market at quarterback, provided something downright impossible-seeming happens with New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees

    Kirk Cousins has served as the headline act for the tag window over the past two offseasons, receiving two tags in a row from the Washington Redskins and a fat lump of cash in the process. Now he's heading to the open market at the age of 29 with a chance to become the league's highest-paid player. 

    That's how you play the tag game in the NFL. 

    Opinions vary on Cousins, a career 65.5 percent passer with 99 touchdowns and 55 interceptions. He remained somewhat steady last year despite the front office's failure to replace departing talent, but it wasn't enough—the Redskins sought out a trade with the Kansas City Chiefs for Alex Smith. According to the Washington Post's Kimberley A. Martin, Cousins and his camp had made it clear after the trade for Smith they'd file a grievance if he received a tag anyway. 

    So to the market Cousins goes. The Denver Broncos want a piece of him, according to 9News' Mike Klis. According to Bleacher Report's Matt Miller, the Minnesota Vikings and New York Jets are in the running. Feel free to add the Arizona Cardinals to the mix as well, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter

    So to summarize, any team with a gaping hole at quarterback is willing to throw down a monster deal for Cousins. Why not? Brees won't hit the market. Jimmy Garoppolo got his extension. Sam Bradford is an injury risk. Case Keenum might be a product of incredible coaching. AJ McCarron is an unproven risk. Teddy Bridgewater is a gamble. Josh McCown is a one-hit wonder and will be 39. Jay Cutler is still himself. It goes on and on. 

    Teams that end up missing on Cousins will likely attempt to grab one of the mentioned guys and pair him with a rookie. But Washington's decision to roll with Smith over Cousins and not tag the latter has created sheer chaos on the market—chaos that happens to be quite entertaining. 

         

    Stats courtesy of NFL.com. Contract information courtesy of Spotrac

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