NFL Free Agency 2021: Top Candidates to Receive the Franchise Tag Next Offseason

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistJuly 15, 2020

NFL Free Agency 2021: Top Candidates to Receive the Franchise Tag Next Offseason

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    After 4 p.m. ET Wednesday, NFL teams will no longer be able to sign franchise-tagged players to long-term extensions. Those players will either play on the tag in 2020 or won't play at all.

    With that deadline looming, this feels like a perfect time to look ahead to next offseason and the pending free agents who are most likely to get tagged.

    Here, you'll find a look at key players scheduled to hit the open market in 2021 and whose contract situations could make the use of the tag sensible. Factors like a potentially high market demand, possible prove-it scenarios and other pending free agents will be considered.

    In 2020, 15 players were given the franchise or transition tag. Here, we'll run down the top 10 situations that could warrant the tag in 2021 (in no particular order).

Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Teams rarely give players the franchise tag in back-to-back seasons because the second tag comes with a 20 percent raise over the standard tag value. However, the Dallas Cowboys may choose to tag quarterback Dak Prescott again if they can't agree to a long-term deal.

    On Tuesday, both ESPN's Jeremy Fowler and NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported the two sides aren't likely to reach an agreement by this year's deadline. According to ESPN's Todd Archer, the "biggest hang-up in the negotiations has been the length of the contract," as the Cowboys want to sign Prescott to a five-year deal, whereas Prescott wants a four-year extension.

    According to Calvin Watkins of the Dallas Morning News, Prescott stands to make $31.4 million on the tag in 2020. That would put his 2021 tag value at roughly $38 million, which would make him the NFL's third-highest-paid quarterback next season.

    Dallas would undoubtedly like to sign Prescott to a long-term deal to avoid a Kirk Cousins situation, but keeping him from hitting the open market will be a priority either way. Paying Prescott $38 million in 2021 isn't a terrible fallback option, either.

Philip Rivers, QB, Indianapolis Colts

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Like the Cowboys, the Indianapolis Colts might use the franchise tag next offseason to keep their starting quarterback off the free-agent market.

    That will largely depend on how Philip Rivers perform in his first season with the Colts, and if he provides enough of an offensive boost to get them into the postseason. Last season, he threw for 4,615 yards and 23 touchdowns with 20 interceptions on the Los Angeles Chargers.

    The 38-year-old Rivers signed a one-year deal with the Colts this past offseason, and he's planning on retiring after the 2021 season at the latest.

    "I can say for certain that if I'm playing, it's a two-year maximum," Rivers said in February, per Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times.

    Rivers would get a sizable raise over his current $25 million deal if the Colts tag him in 2021, but it would ensure he sticks around for at least one more run while removing lengthy negotiations from the equation.

Justin Houston, Edge, and T.Y. Hilton, WR, Indianapolis Colts

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    Rivers isn't the Colts' only tag candidate in 2021. If they move on at quarterback or sign Rivers to a more traditional deal, pass-rusher Justin Houston and wideout T.Y. Hilton will emerge as their top tag options.

    Houston will likely take priority over Hilton since he's a top-tier pass-rusher, even at the age of 31. He had 11.0 sacks last season, and defensive line coach Brian Baker told Andrew Walker of that he's also well-respected within the organization.

    "He's a very efficient football player. I mean, he's a guy—and I've known about Justin because I've actually used Justin as an example of an efficient pass rusher; he takes really precise what I call rush angles, meaning his path to the quarterback, and his timing and feel for blockers and his awareness of the quarterback in the pocket."

    If the Colts re-sign Houston without tagging him, they could instead use their tag on Hilton, their No. 1 wideout. 

    It would also make some sense for Indianapolis to use its tag on its No, 1 receiver, T.Y. Hilton. While the 30-year-old is coming off a disappointing 501-yard season, he's one of the game's most explosive wideouts when healthy, and he'd help provide stability for whoever suits up under center next season.

Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, Edge, Los Angeles Chargers

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    Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Chargers are in a tricky situation because both of their top pass-rushers, Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, are slated to be free agents in 2021. No. 1 wideout Keenan Allen, center Mike Pouncey and tight end Hunter Henry are as well.

    With so many key players scheduled to reach the market, Los Angeles is likely to use the tag on at least one of them.

    Since pass-rushers are always in demand, Bosa and Ingram should both be near the top of the list of tag candidates. However, it wouldn't be a total shock to see Allen or Pouncey get the tag instead.

    Keeping the 25-year-old Bosa should be more of a priority than the retaining the 31-year-old Ingram, so the Ohio State product should be atop the tag pecking order. However, Ingram could be a tag option if the Chargers are able to work out an extension with Bosa before the start of free agency. Keeping at least one of the two sack artists is a near-must.

    Perhaps the biggest surprise will be if the Chargers don't use the franchise tag at all.

Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona Cardinals

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    To justify the franchise tag in 2021, eight-time Pro Bowler Patrick Peterson will have to rebound from a down season in 2019. He started the year with a six-game suspension for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy and then struggled to perform at his usually elite level in Vance Joseph's defense.

    "Whenever I ask cornerbacks or receivers to name the truly elite cover men in the game, Peterson's name routinely comes up,"'s Adam Schein wrote. "A Pro Bowler in each of his first eight NFL seasons, Pat Pete's built up an immense level of respect among his peers. But last year was an absolute mess."

    If Peterson does rebound and return to Pro Bowl form, he will be a top tag candidate for the Cardinals.

    Though the former LSU standout will turn 31 next July, lockdown cornerbacks are hard to find. The Cardinals will want to keep theirs as they continue building around young quarterback Kyler Murray.

    If Peterson hits the open market, other teams will likely make significant offers for him. To prevent that, Arizona may need to use the franchise tag on him next offseason.

David Bakhtiari, OT, Green Bay Packers

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    Duane Burleson/Associated Press

    Top-tier left tackles rarely hit free agency in their prime. The Green Bay Packers have a two-time Pro Bowler in David Bakhtiari who's currently set to d so at age 29. 

    Regardless of when the Packers plan to transition from Aaron Rodgers to Jordan Love at quarterback, they should keep Bakhtiari in the fold. He can help Green Bay maximize the final years of the Rodgers era and would ease the transition to Love.

    Originally drafted in the fourth round in 2013, Bakhtiari has been an anchor along the Packers line ever since. Allowing him to leave before he turns 30 could be downright disastrous, especially after longtime starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga departed this offseason.

    Ideally, the Packers will sign Bakhtiari to a long-term deal before the start of the 2021 offseason. If not, Green Bay may have no choice but to tag him and continue negotiating from there.

Kareem Hunt, RB, Cleveland Browns

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    Cleveland Browns running back Kareem Hunt could be a candidate for a "prove-it" tag next offseason.

    The Browns have an elite runner in Nick Chubb, so they don't necessarily need to lock up Hunt. But if he continues proving valuable as a complementary piece in Kevin Stefanski's offense, he could get the tag.

    Before committing to Hung long-term, the Browns will want to see him stay out of trouble off the field. The Kansas City Chiefs released him in November 2018 and the league suspended him after video emerged of him shoving and kicking a woman in a hotel in February 2018. He was also pulled over in January and found to have marijuana and an open container of vodka in his car.

    "What he did was not acceptable," owner Jimmy Haslam said in reference to the January traffic stop, per ESPN's Jake Trotter. "He's got to do better."

    Cleveland believed in Hunt enough to give him a second-round tender as a restricted free agent this offseason. Giving him another year to prove himself on the tag would be sensible since he would likely earn starting tailback money on the open market.

Cameron Hayward, DT, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Cameron Heyward might be one of the NFL's most underrated players. Although he isn't a household name by any means, his versatility and ability to both create pressure and stop the run gives the Steelers a lot of flexibility up front.

    "So technically sound that he can handle anything," one unnamed NFL coach said of Heyward, per ESPN's Jeremy Fowler. "When he's on his technique, he can't be stopped. 

    Last season, Heyward racked up 83 tackles, 9.0 sacks and 23 quarterback hits. Although he will turn 32 in May, it would behoove the Steelers to keep him around for the foreseeable future. 

    The franchise tag may be the best way to do that. If Heyward reaches the open market, he may work his way out of the Steelers' price range.

    "I was told that Heyward could fetch as much as Aaron Donald money in the open market because he can play inside and outside," The Athletic's Mark Kaboly recently wrote.

    If the Steelers don't work out a long-term deal with Heyward before next offseason, expect them to tag him to prevent a bidding war.

John Ross III, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Bryan Woolston/Associated Press

    Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver John Ross III has only 716 receiving yards through three seasons, so he doesn't appear to be a prime tag candidate at first blush. However, Ross finally began to show promise in 2019—he racked up 506 yards and three touchdowns in eight games—and could potentially explode with talented rookie Joe Burrow under center.

    If Ross finds the sort of chemistry with Burrow that he didn't have with Andy Dalton, his 4.22 speed could allow him to become one of the most dangerous weapons in the league. He would also have to stay healthy, however, as injuries have limited him thus far in his career.

    If Ross plays close to a full 16-game season and becomes the sort of consistent burner the Bengals thought they were drafting ninth overall in 2017, he will become a serious candidate for the tag.

    Cincinnati likely won't commit to Ross long-term based on one year alone. It would make sense to use the tag on Ross so he can prove his 2020 season wasn't a fluke.

    The Bengals aren't afraid to use the tag on a wide receiver—they tagged A.J. Green this offseason—and they could do so for the second consecutive year in 2021.

Russell Okung and Taylor Moton, OT, Carolina Panthers

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    When the Carolina Panthers traded Pro Bowl guard Trai Turner to the Chargers for left tackle Russell Okung, they likely envisioned Okung as more than a one-year rental. The two-time Pro Bowler is a quality tackle who can protect Teddy Bridgewater's blindside for the foreseeable future. 

    But if Okung thrives during his first season with the Panthers, he could be in high demand next offseason.

    Carolina starting right tackle Taylor Moton is also eligible for free agency in 2021, which complicates matters. The Western Michigan product is a tag candidate, and it would be a major surprise if the Panthers allowed both tackles to test the open market.

    The Panthers should be interested in signing the 25-year-old Moton to a long-term deal. Working out an extension with him and giving the 32-year-old Okung the franchise tag would make the most sense, although swapping those situations shouldn't be out of the question.

    All contract and free-agency info via Spotrac.