Predicting the Fates of Top Franchise-Tag Candidates in 2020 NFL Free Agency

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistFebruary 22, 2020

Predicting the Fates of Top Franchise-Tag Candidates in 2020 NFL Free Agency

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    The franchise tag is part of a complicated relationship in the NFL. Teams can keep a player on the books for an additional year, but the talent still has an uncertain long-term future. 

    Starting February 27 and lasting through March 12, teams can use the franchise tag, either exclusive or non-exclusive, which either allows or prevents the player from negotiating with other clubs while under the provision. To sign someone under the former designation, the pursuing team would have to give up two first-round picks.

    Usually, veterans coming off solid campaigns are prime candidates for the guaranteed one-year deal. This allows clubs to confirm consistency in production before making a long-term commitment, or gives the two sides extra time to work on a multiyear contract.

    In many cases, front offices will negotiate until the July 15 deadline to work out an extension for franchise-tagged players. 

    In 2019, we saw two notable franchise-tag-and-trade scenarios—both involving the Kansas City Chiefs. 

    The Chiefs tagged edge-rusher Dee Ford and then traded him to the San Francisco 49ers. A month later, Kansas City acquired Frank Clark from the Seattle Seahawks, with the defensive end signing the franchise tender to facilitate the transaction.

    We could see more sign-and-trades involving notable names if teams can recoup premium draft picks.

    Let's take a look at 10 probable franchise-tag candidates and project their offseason outlooks. Will they sign multiyear deals, play out the 2020 season on one-year contracts or suit up elsewhere following blockbuster trades?

           

QB Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys

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    Dak Prescott's contract negotiations with the Dallas Cowboys date back to last offseason. According to Clarence E. Hill Jr. of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the quarterback turned down a deal worth $33 million annually. He likely increased his market value with a strong 2019 campaign, throwing for 4,902 yards, 30 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. 

    Although Prescott doesn't have accolades comparable to those of Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who's the highest-paid player in the league, expect the Cowboys signal-caller to reset the market with a record-breaking deal.

    Despite potential veteran options in free agency, the Cowboys plan to sign Prescott to a long-term pact before the March 10 franchise-tag deadline, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.

    Prescott had been "disappointed" with the slow progress of negotiations, but the Cowboys seem eager to strike a new deal in the near future. The team's urgency with the fourth-year quarterback's contract makes sense with decisions for Amari Cooper, Randall Cobb, Byron Jones, Maliek Collins and Jason Witten still on the table for the offseason.

    The Cowboys will likely make Prescott the highest-paid player in the next week or two, avoiding the franchise tag and a messy offseason that could lead to a lengthy holdout.

    Verdict: Prescott signs four-year deal with the Cowboys

QB Ryan Tannehill, Tennessee Titans

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Starting in October, the Tennessee Titans had a strong run up to the AFC Championship Game with Ryan Tannehill under center. They probably wouldn't have clinched a playoff berth had head coach Mike Vrabel not benched Marcus Mariota in Week 7.

    After the 2019 season, the Titans discussed retaining Tannehill, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter on NFL Live, Tennessee hasn't moved off that idea. 

    Over the Cap projects the franchise tag for quarterbacks will cost $26.9 million. Spotrac lists Tannehill's market value at $30.5 million annually, which ranks sixth among quarterbacks. Based on those approximations, the Titans could save a few million using the franchise tender on their starting signal-caller.

    In 2019, Tannehill earned his first Pro Bowl invite and was named the AP Comeback Player of the Year. Is this his true progression or a one-off breakout season performance?

    In six years as a starter, Tannehill had never eclipsed a 94 quarterback rating. However, he led the league with a 117.5 rating this past season, which sounds a bit fluky.

    Furthermore, one can argue Tannehill's playoff success is tied to 2019 rushing champion Derrick Henry. The signal-caller completed 15 of 29 passes in the Titans' two playoff victories, while the running back racked up 377 yards in that same span.

    Tennessee may appreciate what Tannehill accomplished during the 2019-20 campaign, but it's best to keep him on the franchise tag next season. If he continues to trend in the right direction, the Titans can open up negotiations for a two- or three-year deal next offseason.

    Verdict: Tannehill plays out 2020 season with the franchise tag

QB Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    It's hard to tell if Jameis Winston extended his career in Tampa Bay or played himself out of the team's long-term plans with a high-production, mistake-prone 2019 campaign. He threw for 5,109 yards, 33 touchdowns and 30 interceptions.

    Head coach Bruce Arians hasn't publicly favored Winston as the front-runner to start next season. In fact, the Buccaneers' lead skipper prefers to keep his options open, per Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times.

    "What’s Door No. 2? You know? Can we make the one we have better? All those things you go through right now," Arians said about his quarterback options.

    The Buccaneers can assess the quarterback market before assigning the franchise tag to Winston. If Tom Brady isn't a realistic option, Arians may have to choose between Teddy Bridgewater, Philip Rivers or the incumbent.

    In that scenario, Winston seems like the best option for Arians' pass-heavy offense. Bridgewater has only played in 15 games since the 2015 season. Because of his scattered appearances under center, paying him a reported $30 million annually, per ESPN's Jeremy Fowler, would be a huge risk—dicier than $26.9 million for Winston, who's familiar with the offense.

    Winston underwent offseason LASIK surgery, so he may be able to cut down on miscues. The franchise tag will allow the Buccaneers to monitor him for another year in Arians' system before either making a long-term commitment or completely cutting ties.

    Verdict: Winston plays out 2020 season with the franchise tag

RB Kenyan Drake, Arizona Cardinals

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    The Arizona Cardinals traded a conditional sixth-round pick, which became a fifth-rounder, to the Miami Dolphins for Kenyan Drake and found their lead running back. 

    Drake outperformed David Johnson in the second half of the 2019 season, logging a team-leading 814 yards and eight touchdowns from scrimmage through eight games.

    During an interview with 98.7 Arizona Sports, general manager Steve Keim shot down the idea of releasing Johnson. The 2016 All-Pro running back has a hefty $16.2 million in dead money left on his contract for 2020, which makes it difficult for Arizona to move on from him. Barring a trade, the 28-year-old will probably spend another season with the Cardinals.

    Still, Arizona can work out a deal with Drake. According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, the team may use the franchise tag to keep him on the roster. Typically, average running backs have manageable salaries. The 26-year-old falls into that category with no Pro Bowl, All-Pro or 1,000-yard rushing seasons. He served as a backup for most of his career in Miami.

    The Cardinals don't have a starting quarterback on a second contract or multiple albatross deals on the books, so they won't have to worry about limited cap space. They will have room to keep Johnson and strike a three-year deal with Drake worth up to about $16-17 million. 

    Verdict: Cardinals sign Drake to a three-year deal

WR Amari Cooper, Dallas Cowboys

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    The Cowboys can't put the cart before the horse—or the wide receiver in front of the quarterback in contract negotiations. The front office will likely come to terms on a new deal with Prescott and then work with Amari Cooper's camp.

    In January, executive vice president Stephen Jones briefly discussed the Cowboys' free-agent priorities, per Nick Eatman of the team's official website.

    "Certainly, Dak and Amari are obvious ones, then after that, we have to make sure these guys fit systematically," Jones said. 

    As negotiations with Prescott gain traction, the Cowboys can use the franchise tag as a contract placeholder for Cooper. Dallas would have until July 15 to sign him to a long-term pact, which is more than enough time to lock up the four-time Pro Bowler. He's been Prescott's top pass-catching option over the last year-and-a-half.

    Cooper has some inconsistencies. He recorded fewer than 50 receiving yards in seven contests this past season, but he is still an ascending talent. The 25-year-old Alabama product logged career highs in receiving yards (1,189) and touchdowns (eight) in 2019.

    Don't doubt Jones' words. Prescott and Cooper will be Cowboys with new long-term deals, which bodes well for the offense with running back Ezekiel Elliott under team control through the 2026 campaign.

    Verdict: Cowboys sign Cooper to a four-year deal

DT Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs

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    The Kansas City Chiefs' decision to re-sign defensive tackle Chris Jones may come down to quarterback Patrick Mahomes' contract situation. The All-Pro, Super Bowl-winning signal-caller, who earned 2018 season MVP honors, will be eligible to sign an extension when the new league year begins in March.

    He could earn $40 million annually or more because of his accomplishments—the 24-year-old became the youngest quarterback to claim a Super Bowl MVP. 

    Right now, the Chiefs have $16.47 million in cap space. They can release wide receiver Sammy Watkins to recoup $14 million, per Over the Cap.

    Nevertheless, defensive end Frank Clark, wide receiver Tyreek Hill, safety Tyrann Mathieu and left tackle Eric Fisher have 2020 cap hits that eclipse $14.9 million. They account for slightly more than 32 percent of the team's cap percentage. 

    With Mahomes due for a massive raise within the next two years and multiple players already locked into lucrative deals, there's little room for Jones, who could earn $19.2 million annually, per Spotrac

    Jones may want to be a "Chief for life," but the NFL is still a business. Once the Super Bowl high wears off, the front office must do what's best financially.

    Despite his pass-rushing ability, Jones plays a non-premium position. If the Chiefs don't have the cap space to pay up, they could do the 25-year-old a favor and ship him to a suitor of his interest in a tag-and-trade scenario. 

    The Indianapolis Colts have plenty of cap room ($86.14 million) to absorb a big contract. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will also go into the 2020 offseason with cap-space flexibility ($84.99 million). Jones could be an ideal replacement for defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh on the latter team.

    Verdict: Chiefs franchise-tag Jones and trade him to the Buccaneers

EDGE Shaquil Barrett, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Shaquil Barrett and the Buccaneers may have smooth contract negotiations, though that's not a given with a large amount of money on the table.

    Yet head coach Bruce Arians didn't offer a vague perspective of Barrett's outlook like he did with Winston, per ESPN's Jenna Laine.

    "He ain't going anywhere," Arians said about Barrett's future with the team.

    Barrett had a breakout 2019 campaign and finished as the NFL leader with 19.5 sacks. Beyond bringing pocket pressure, he's a complete edge defender who contributes to the run defense. The 27-year-old led the team with 19 tackles for loss. 

    During an interview with Sirius XM Mad Dog Radio (h/t JoeBucsFan.com), Barrett expressed his desire to stay in Tampa Bay—even at a slightly lower salary than he'd make elsewhere.

    "I'm not going to take drastically less but I am open to doing what I think is best for my career, and I think that would be staying in Tampa," he said.

    According to ESPN's Jeremy Fowler, Barrett could command $20 million annually on the open market. The Buccaneers can franchise-tag him for $16.27 million as an outside linebacker, per Over the Cap.

    Perhaps Tampa Bay and Barrett's representatives will come to an agreement on a figure between those numbers at around $18 million per year. That's a win for both sides if the edge-rusher wants to stay with the team and avoid the franchise tender.

    Barrett served as a backup through five seasons with the Denver Broncos, but his well-rounded production during the 2019 season and the Buccaneers' plentiful cap space should encourage general manager Jason Licht to invest in the six-year pro.

    If you're keeping score at home, Chris Jones plus Barrett would give the Tampa Bay defense a major boost. With Winston on the franchise tag, the Buccaneers could field a competitive team without completely depleting their cap space beyond next season.

    Verdict: Buccaneers sign Barrett to a four-year deal

EDGE Yannick Ngakoue, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Yannick Ngakoue came into the NFL as a 2016 third-rounder and blossomed into one of the league's most consistent pass-rushers. He's logged at least eight sacks in each of his four campaigns. 

    Last offseason, Ngakoue held out for a new deal but reported to training camp in August. This year, a financial impasse may lead to a longer holdout in the summer. 

    General manager David Caldwell acknowledged negotiations with Ngakoue could linger, but he seemed confident the team could retain him.

    "It's a deal that we feel like could take a little bit of time but should be done hopefully relatively easily," Caldwell said, per John Oehser of the Jaguars' official website

    Jacksonville selected edge-rusher Josh Allen with the seventh overall pick in last year's draft, but fellow defensive end Calais Campbell is headed into a contract year. The defense needs Ngakoue's pass-rushing production beyond the 2020 campaign.

    The Jaguars are in the red (minus-$1.46 million in cap room), but the front office can decline to exercise defensive tackle Marcell Dareus' 2020 club option to recoup $20 million.

    Oehser expects the Jaguars to release a few notable names in addition to Dareus.

    "I do believe there is a better chance of Jaguars left guard Andrew Norwell returning next season than players such as wide receiver Marqise Lee, linebacker Jake Ryan, defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, cornerback A.J. Bouye, etc," he wrote. "I expect the latter four to be released for salary-cap reasons."

    Cutting Bouye, Ryan and Lee would clear an additional $22.69 million, per Over the Cap. If Jacksonville releases those four players, recouping nearly $43 million, Caldwell shouldn't lose Ngakoue because of cap restrictions or risk going through an extended holdout with a hardline approach at the negotiating table.

    Verdict: Jaguars sign Ngakoue to a five-year deal

EDGE Matt Judon, Baltimore Ravens

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    ESPN's Adam Schefter reported the possibility of a tag-and-trade scenario involving Matt Judon, which doesn't make sense for the Baltimore Ravens.

    General manager Eric DeCosta must understand that in-his-prime Terrell Suggs won't walk through the door to inject new life into the pass rush. Za'Darius Smith isn't coming back to Baltimore. He's wreaking havoc in Green Bay alongside Preston Smith.

    The Ravens don't have an edge defender performing at a high level other than Judon. In 2019, he led the team in sacks (9.5), tackles for loss (14) and quarterback pressures (31) by a significant margin.

    Pernell McPhee has an expiring contract. 2017 second-rounder Tyus Bowser has underwhelmed with just 8.5 sacks through three seasons in a backup role. Jaylon Ferguson flashed as a rookie in 2019, but he has a lot of room for growth. 

    After releasing safety Tony Jefferson, the Ravens have a projected $35.85 million in cap space. Though it would be a tight squeeze, the front office can retain Judon at around $16-17 million.

    Since the Ravens extended Marcus Peters and Tavon Young has $9.5 million in dead cap for 2020, team brass can decline to exercise cornerback Brandon Carr's club option, saving $6 million to set aside money for Judon.

    Verdict: Ravens sign Judon to a four-year deal

CB James Bradberry, Carolina Panthers

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    Under new head coach Matt Rhule, the Carolina Panthers roster will go through significant changes. The team already parted ways with tight end Greg Olsen. Quarterback Cam Newton's future remains in question. Linebacker Luke Kuechly retired.

    Carolina has $32.06 million in cap space and the No. 7 overall pick in April. Rhule could hit the reset button and go full rebuild mode. However, Carolina should at least try to stay competitive. Who knows? Maybe this club could compete for a postseason berth in 2020 or 2021.

    For that reason, the Panthers will likely hold on to cornerback James Bradberry—a bona fide starter and component to a decent pass defense that ranked eighth in touchdowns allowed in 2019. 

    Bradberry is 12th in pass breakups (47), registering at least 10 each year, since he entered the league in 2016. It's difficult to let go of high-level production and consistency—even in a rebuilding stage. 

    According to Max Henson of the Panthers' official website, Bradberry is "open to any and all possibilities" concerning his contract situation, which would certainly include the franchise tag.

    The Panthers should retain Bradberry for a year to evaluate wif he fits in the team's new direction. They can reassess their plans next offseason for a more definitive decision on a solid player and potential building block for the future.

    Verdict: Bradberry plays out 2020 season with the franchise tag    

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