Grading the NFL's Biggest Potential Franchise Tag Decisions

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistMarch 6, 2020

Grading the NFL's Biggest Potential Franchise Tag Decisions

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    Josie Lepe/Associated Press

    By 4 p.m. ET on March 12, teams considering the franchise tag will have to decide whether to pull the trigger. And this year, it looks as though the tag—which prevents a player from becoming an unrestricted free agent—will be about as popular as Billie Eilish. 

    While no tags have officiated been used yet, there are already indications that 10 or more big-name players will be tagged between now and next week's deadline, with tender salaries varying based on position and circumstance. 

    Here's how we would grade the 10 highest-profile tags should they come to pass. 

Dallas Cowboys QB Dak Prescott

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    Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

    Price: $27 million (or $32 million if it's exclusive)

    Grade: C (or D if it's exclusive)

    Per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, if the Dallas Cowboys can't work out a long-term deal with quarterback Dak Prescott by the March 12 tag deadline, they'll hit the two-time Pro Bowler with the exclusive tag. And while we're only talking about an extra $5 million or so, that's not a great approach. 

    The exclusive tag prevents Prescott from negotiating with other teams, which is good. But it also prevents other teams from potentially overpaying a good-not-great quarterback, thereby giving Dallas the opportunity to match or receive two first-round picks as compensation for Prescott. 

    If I'm the Cowboys, I at least want to know what Prescott's market is, and offer sheets would help shed light there. If what he gets from another team is outrageous, the Cowboys could decide to move on, pocket two first-rounders and use about $30 million in added salary-cap space to re-sign top receiver Amari Cooper, land a cheaper quarterback in free agency and swing the bat on a potential quarterback of the future in the draft. 

    And if by chance they still wind up with Prescott at a cost of $27 million, they'd at least have saved more than $5 million, which could go to Cooper or whoever else. 

    Regardless of the type of tag, the tag itself is far from ideal for the Cowboys.

    Prescott has already indicated he's willing to bet on himself, and he'll almost certainly hold out if tagged. That's an expensive can of worms, and again, he isn't a superstar. He hasn't consistently stood out since his remarkable rookie season in 2016, and despite receiving plenty of support, his rate-based numbers since 2017 are barely above the middle of the pack

Tennessee Titans RB Derrick Henry

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Price: $10.3 million

    Grade: A

    Running backs are almost never worth lucrative second contracts. Just look at Todd Gurley, Le'Veon Bell, David Johnson and Devonta Freeman, all of whom have failed miserably after receiving gaudy new deals in recent offseasons. 

    Eight backs are making more than an average of $6 million per year, but none of them participated in last year's playoffs. Each Super Bowl participant's top back was undrafted, and a team featuring the league's leading rusher hasn't won the Super Bowl since the 1990s. 

    Could Derrick Henry be an exception to all of that? It's easy to understand why the Tennessee Titans feel the need to find out. Henry is coming off a massive year in which he led the league in rushing and carried his team to the AFC Championship Game.  

    But there's also a chance that was an aberration for a hard-running 26-year-old at a position with famously short shelf lives, and that's why the tag might be perfect here. The Titans would almost certainly be out more short- and long-term money with a lengthy deal, and this would give them a chance to get another fully inspired year out of Henry at a reasonable rate. 

    A Titans source told ESPN's Matthew Berry at the combine that he expects the team to tag Henry and let quarterback Ryan Tannehill test the market, and that makes a lot of sense.

Cincinnati Bengals WR A.J. Green

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    Frank Victores/Associated Press

    Price: $18 million

    Grade: D-

    According to Peter King of NBC Sports, presumed top draft pick Joe Burrow wants the Cincinnati Bengals to keep veteran wide receiver A.J. Green. And it sure looks as though the team is going to break from character and open the coffers in order to satisfy Burrow this offseason. 

    But $18 million? For a soon-to-be 32-year-old who has missed 29 games the last four seasons and is coming off a major injury? When you're a rebuilding team that won just two games in 2019 and hasn't had a winning season since 2015? That's just ludicrous. 

    It would be one thing if the Bengals didn't have other options at wide receiver, but Tyler Boyd is coming off a 1,000-yard campaign, John Ross III showed signs of life when healthy and Auden Tate looks like he could be a key player for years to come. All three are 25 or younger. 

    Green is better off on a contender right now, and the Bengals, who rank in the middle of the pack in terms of cap space, would be better off using that $18 million elsewhere. 

Washington Redskins G Brandon Scherff

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    Mark Tenally/Associated Press

    Price: $14.8 million

    Grade: B-

    There's no way this merits a top grade simply because that's a lot of money for an interior offensive lineman who has missed 13 games the last two seasons. 

    That said, it's not worthy of a bad grade, either, because it's important that the Washington Redskins have experience and continuity along the offensive line as they attempt to groom a young quarterback (whether Dwayne Haskins or somebody new). And it's easy to understand why the Redskins aren't willing to go all the way with a long-term deal for Brandon Scherff considering his recent health. 

    This would essentially give the talented 28-year-old another shot at a prove-it season after elbow and shoulder injuries limited his impact and cost him five games in 2019 (a torn pectoral kept him out in 2018). 

    Plus, the Redskins are projected to enter the new league year with nearly $62 million in cap space, so they can afford this. But it'd still give Scherff a cap hit that would be the second-highest at his position, which has to hurt. 

    The recent report from ESPN's Jenna Laine that the 2015 No. 5 overall pick will be slapped with the tag didn't cause much surprise, and this grade is a reflection of that. 

Jacksonville Jaguars Edge Yannick Ngakoue

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    James Gilbert/Getty Images

    Price: $17.8 million

    Grade: A

    Star pass-rusher Yannick Ngakoue says he's no longer interested in signing a long-term contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars, but ESPN's Adam Schefter reports that the team intends to use its franchise tag on him anyway. 

    And although questionable choices have led to Jacksonville finding itself in that predicament, the Jags would still be making the right choice with a tag. 

    After all, the 2017 Pro Bowler is still only 24 years old, and he's recorded at least eight sacks in each of his first four pro seasons. He's also forced 14 fumbles in 63 career games, which is the fourth-highest total in the NFL during that span. 

    In other words, he's a damn good player at an ideal age and a premium position. He must be worth more on the open market than Trey Flowers, who landed a deal worth $18 million per season last year despite having an inferior resume as an edge-rusher.

    Somebody will gladly pay the Jags in order to take Ngakoue off their hands. Thus, the organization would be silly to let him walk for nothing. 

Baltimore Ravens Edge Matt Judon

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Price: $15.8 million

    Grade: B+

    A similar logic applies to top Baltimore Ravens pass-rusher Matt Judon, who could encounter the same fate as Ngakoue. NFL Network's Tom Pelissero suggested recently that Judon is a tag-and-trade candidate following a breakout 2019 season. 

    A $15.8 million cap hit isn't the end of the world, and that tag would at least keep a strong young player on the roster if indeed the team opts to explore the trade market—something that's becoming a trend after three defensive players were tagged and then traded in 2019. 

    The Ravens also can't afford to lose Judon for nothing after letting Za'Darius Smith get away in 2019. 

    But this expected move actually gets a slightly lower grade than Jacksonville's because, to the best of our knowledge, Judon isn't disgruntled like Ngakoue.

    He has quietly posted at least seven sacks in three consecutive seasons, and he forced four fumbles in a Pro Bowl 2019 campaign. The 27-year-old seems like a pretty sure thing, so the Ravens lose some points here for not simply signing him to a long-term contract. 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers Edge Shaquil Barrett

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    Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press

    Price: $15.8 million

    Grade: A

    It's totally understandable if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers want to make sure Shaquil Barrett is the real deal. His sack-filled 2019 campaign might have been frequently described as a successful prove-it year, but the edge-rusher was really just trying to prove he's a starting-caliber player on a one-year contract. 

    Now, considering that he's coming off a 19.5-sack campaign in which he also forced six fumbles, Barrett will inevitably command a deal with an average annual salary in the $20 million range if he hits the open market. 

    The Bucs are the only team in the league that can have him at a cost of just $15.8 million, and that's with no strings attached beyond 2020. 

    Although they'll be taking the risk that he'll cost even more and be even harder to keep if he excels again this coming season, the cap-rich Buccaneers can easily afford to lose some 2020 financial flexibility in order to see what Barrett can do during a walk-year-inspired encore. 

Pittsburgh Steelers Edge Bud Dupree

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Price: $15.8 million

    Grade: B

    In a perfect Pittsburgh sports world, the cap-strapped Steelers would find a way to keep rising edge-rusher Bud Dupree on a long-term contract that would give them more immediate financial flexibility. But the Steelers are right in that they can't afford to let Dupree get away, which is why this earns a decent grade despite its adverse financial implications. 

    The 27-year-old 2015 first-round pick suffered some growing pains in his first few seasons, but he was one of just four players with more than 10 sacks and more than three forced fumbles in 2019. He's got a star-level ceiling, and he and T.J. Watt look like they could be one of the league's best pass-rushing duos for years to come. 

    Most critically, the Steelers are trying to win now while the championship window remains slightly open. Ben Roethlisberger is 38, his team has a much better chance with Dupree in the fold, and it would essentially be taking advantage of a discount with the tag value at his position.

    It's a no-brainer, though a long-term deal would still be preferable.

Kansas City Chiefs DT Chris Jones

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    Steve Luciano/Associated Press

    Price: $16.1 million

    Grade: C

    Pelissero also mentioned Chris Jones of the Kansas City Chiefs as a tag-and-trade candidate, which seems odd considering the monumental impact the Pro Bowl defensive tackle had on Kansas City's Super Bowl run. 

    Maybe the Chiefs are emboldened by the success they experienced after tagging and trading edge-rusher Dee Ford in 2019, but Jones might be even more difficult to replace because he's such a uniquely disruptive inside presence. 

    And so this grade is complicated.

    Kudos to the Chiefs for at least not letting their best defensive player walk away as a free agent, but they should be working out a long-term deal with Jones. In fact, that should be their top priority because it's pretty clear he's not a one-year wonder. Without him, they probably wouldn't have won their first Super Bowl in 50 years. 

    That they've failed to secure him long-term and could even consider trading him costs the Chiefs some credit here.

Denver Broncos S Justin Simmons

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    Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

    By 4 p.m. ET on March 12, teams considering the franchise tag will have to decide whether to pull the trigger. And this year, it looks as though the tag will be about as popular as Billie Eilish. 

    While no tags have officiated been used yet, there are already indications that 10 or more big-name players will be tagged between now and next week's deadline. 

    Here's how we would grade the 10 highest-profile tags should they come to pass.