10 NFL Players Who Are Most Likely to Receive the Franchise Tag in 2021
NFL teams can use the franchise tag to keep high-end players off the free-agent market or to simply avoid long-term financial commitments.
In some cases, front-office executives want to see more out of a player before they sign him to a lucrative multiyear deal. Sometimes, teams just need more time between the official start of a new league year and training camp to finalize a lengthy extension.
Whatever the case, players prefer stable financial security over a fully guaranteed one-year deal because production fluctuates between campaigns, injuries happen and aging hurts market value.
The franchise tag amounts to a leaguewide calculation for each position based on the salary cap—which ESPN's Adam Schefter projects at about $180 million to $181 million in 2021—or 120 percent of the player's previous-year salary, whichever is of greater value.
Using Schefter's number, Jason Fitzgerald of Over the Cap projected the franchise-tag value of each position.
Clubs can also use an exclusive version of the tag at a higher cost, so that player cannot negotiate with other teams. Front offices use the non-exclusive tender most of the time.
We'll profile 10 players who should expect the tag during the February 23 to March 9 window. Keep in mind teams will have until July 15 to work out a long-term deal with these players. In addition to Fitzgerald's projections, we included figures from Spotrac's Michael Ginnitti for those players who are expected to earn more than the basic tag figure.
EDGE Haason Reddick, Arizona Cardinals
Projected tag: $14.6 million
The Arizona Cardinals didn't know it last May, but they cost themselves a few million with their decision to decline Haason Reddick's fifth-year option, which would've been about $10 million.
As an off-ball linebacker, Reddick lost his starting job after Week 6 of the 2019 season. With that in mind, the Cardinals made a seemingly good move to limit his contract to four years after an inconsistent stretch with multiple position changes.
In 2020, Reddick took advantage of his opportunities as a full-time edge-rusher. Chandler Jones tore his biceps during a Week 5 contest with the New York Jets. For the remainder of the campaign, Reddick had a starting role and finished with 12.5 sacks.
At a premium position, coming off his best season, Reddick could make north of $15 million. Although he may not match his sack performance from last year with Jones healthy, the Cardinals should tag him.
At 30 years old, going into a contract term, Jones could see his Arizona tenure end after the 2021 season. If Reddick flashes his pass-rushing prowess again, he could take over the starting role for the long term.
LB Matt Milano, Buffalo Bills
Projected tag: $14.6 million
After going 13-3, winning a division title and earning a trip to the AFC Championship Game, the Buffalo Bills should try to keep their core together.
General manager Brandon Beane had that objective in mind when he spoke to the media in late January.
"We'll do our best to retain him and as many guys as we can," Beane said. "We just don't even know the numbers yet and what it's going to be. There's going to be some tough decisions unfortunately for us, whether it's letting guys go on this roster or having to watch guys leave."
Per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, the Bills may offer quarterback Josh Allen an extension that would make him "one of the highest-paid" quarterbacks in the league.
As a result, a key defensive playmaker such as Matt Milano may hit the open market or wait to hear from the Bills about a new deal. At $322K over the salary cap, Buffalo could release defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson to save $6.5 million, tag Milano and work with his representatives until the July 15 deadline.
According to the Bills' official site's Jourdon LaBarber, who attended the team's end-of-season presser, "Beane did [not] rule out using the franchise tag on Milano."
In 2020, Milano battled hamstring and pectoral injuries and missed six games, but he's become a complete every-down linebacker through four seasons, logging 273 tackles, 30 for loss, six sacks, 21 pass breakups and five interceptions.
As Beane noted, he'll try to retain his guys. Milano should be a top priority. He and Tremaine Edmunds have formed a top linebacker tandem in the middle of the defense.
OT Taylor Moton, Carolina Panthers
Projected tag: $13.6 million
One can make a clear case that Taylor Moton has become the Carolina Panthers' top offensive lineman. He's started every game since 2018, lining up mostly at right tackle. The Western Michigan product allowed just three sacks and committed two penalties in 2020, per Pro Football Focus.
Using PFF, Alaina Getzenberg of the Charlotte Observer took a deeper dive into Moton's pass-blocking numbers.
"Moton has given up four career quarterback hits and has been called for two penalties this year and 14 total in his career," Getzenberg wrote. "He has also allowed 12 pressures, which is tied for the second-fewest among offensive tackles who have played starting-level snaps this year."
The 6'5", 325-pounder also does a solid job with run blocking on the edge.
Although the Panthers have $20.1 million in cap space, they could tag Moton while they sniff around for a veteran quarterback.
According to the MMQB's Albert Breer, Carolina offered the eighth overall selection and "a later pick" to the Detroit Lions for Stafford. If the Panthers remain active on the quarterback trade market, they may use the franchise tag to keep Moton under team control while the front office chases an upgrade at the most important position.
Once the dust settles on Carolina's quarterback situation, likely after the draft, the team could then work on a long-term extension with Moton.
WR Allen Robinson II, Chicago Bears
Projected tag: $18 million
Allen Robinson II would play on an $18-million franchise tag because that's 120 percent of his 2020 cap hit ($15 million), which is greater than the projected tag value for wide receivers ($15.8 million).
Despite the costly numbers, the Chicago Bears will likely retain the top-flight receiver regardless of what happens with their quarterback situation.
According to NFL Network's Mike Garafolo, the Bears, Colts and other teams have inquired about Philadelphia Eagles signal-caller Carson Wentz.
Even if Chicago doesn't land Wentz, its quarterback needs a top-tier perimeter playmaker. Although rookie fifth-rounder Darnell Mooney had an impressive showing, hauling in 61 passes for 631 yards and four touchdowns, he's still a developing talent.
As an established Pro Bowl receiver, Robinson could help this offense make a significant leap if the Bears upgrade at quarterback. With general manager Ryan Pace headed into the final year of his contract, he's more likely to keep his best offensive weapon in a high-pressure season.
DE Carl Lawson, Cincinnati Bengals
Projected tag: $14.5 million
In 2017, as a rookie, Carl Lawson recorded 8.5 sacks, but he tore his ACL halfway through the 2018 campaign and had to rediscover his best form.
Over the last two seasons, Lawson has logged 10.5 sacks. He tied for fourth in quarterback pressures (44) in 2020.
As the best pass-rusher on the Bengals, Lawson will likely stay in Cincinnati.
Lawson doesn't have the big sack numbers, but he's worth an eight-figure deal with his recent production and potential. Although $14.5 million seems a bit steep for a player with 20 sacks through four seasons, Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports listed the Bengals pass-rusher as a "sure thing" to receive the franchise tag.
"Letting this pass-rusher go—who had a strong 2021 back to full health—after his quality second half of the season doesn't make sense, and I'm told the Bengals are prepared to tag him," La Canfora wrote. "Some believe corner William Jackson may be the Bengal who gets the tag, but I am hearing more buzz about Lawson."
With $37.8 million in cap space, the Bengals could afford to franchise-tag Lawson and eventually work out a long-term deal that averages a little less than the projected tag value for defensive ends.
QB Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
Projected tag: $37.7 million
Last offseason, the Dallas Cowboys franchise-tagged Dak Prescott. He played five games, throwing for 1,856 yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions before going down with a dislocated ankle and a compound fracture.
Prescott underwent two surgeries, one for the injury and a follow-up procedure to strengthen the deltoid ligament and clean out the ankle, per NFL Network's Rapoport and Tom Pelissero.
Despite the operations, the Cowboys will "make a push" to sign Prescott on a long-term deal, with a second franchise tag an alternative, per Rapoport and Pelissero.
Prescott's representatives could go through another drawn-out offseason of negotiations because of the cost of paying an ascending QB with two Pro Bowl seasons.
Although the Cowboys don't seem deterred by Prescott's significant ankle injury, we'll find out if they're truly motivated to nail down an extension with five months to agree on new terms. Expect Dallas to use the franchise tag and take its time ironing out the details on a crucial investment.
S Justin Simmons, Denver Broncos
Projected tag: $13.7 million
Justin Simmons would receive the franchise tag in consecutive years, though contract negotiations could advance to a multiyear deal this offseason.
According to La Canfora, the Denver Broncos will probably use the franchise tender as a precursor to an extension.
"The Broncos paid star safety Justin Simmons $11.4M a year ago on the franchise tag and, sources tell me, are quite likely to apply it again in 2021 as a means to trying to secure a long-term deal with the playmaker," La Canfora wrote.
Weeks ago, Simmons told CBS Denver's Michael Spencer that new Broncos general manager George Paton reached out to him to discuss his vision for the team.
Although they didn't speak about Simmons' contract situation, Paton likely wanted to keep one of his best defensive players in the loop, which suggests the safety is in the team's plans.
Simmons has certainly earned his spot. He's recorded 37 pass breakups and 16 interceptions through five seasons as a coverage blanket over the top.
WR Kenny Golladay, Detroit Lions
Projected tag: $15.8 million
Kenny Golladay made strides through his first three campaigns but experienced a rough stretch with hamstring and hip injuries this past season. He missed 11 games.
This offseason, the Detroit Lions hired general manager Brad Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell to take over for Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia, respectively. They have a new vision for the roster, which puts Golladay in an uncertain position.
Nonetheless, Golladay had a 2019 Pro Bowl season and recorded a league-leading 11 receiving touchdowns that year. Furthermore, the Lions only have four wide receivers, per Spotrac: Quintez Cephus, Geronimo Allison, Victor Bolden and Tom Kennedy.
If the Lions plan to give Goff a chance at success, they need to provide him with a solid supporting cast. Although the new regime didn't draft Golladay, he's too talented and productive to just let go in free agency.
Holmes and Campbell will likely evaluate Golladay with Goff for a year and make another decision on his future next offseason.
DL Leonard Williams, New York Giants
Projected tag: $19.4 million
Last offseason, the New York Giants franchise-tagged Leonard Williams, and he became Big Blue's top pass-rusher as a versatile 300-plus-pounder who can line up in multiple spots across the front.
In 2020, Williams recorded a career-high 11.5 sacks and 42 quarterback pressures, leading the team in both categories.
Before the 2019 trade deadline, general manager Dave Gettleman sent a 2020 third-rounder and a 2021 fifth-rounder to the New York Jets for Williams. The front-office executive will likely try to retain one of his best acquisitions.
On a second franchise tag, Williams would cost a lot for a team with a projected $1.3 million in cap space.
Of course, the Giants can cut multiple players for financial relief, but with extra time to work out a deal, they could sign the Pro Bowl defensive lineman to a multiyear contract worth between $16 million and $18 million annually rather than pay a little more than $19 million in 2021. If not, he's a potential tag-and-trade candidate.
WR Chris Godwin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Projected tag: $15.8 million
Because of age and production, Chris Godwin and edge-rusher Shaquil Barrett seem like the most likely franchise-tag candidates among the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' impending free agents. Ndamukong Suh (34), Antonio Brown (32) and Lavonte David (31) are high-level players but past their primes.
Last offseason, the Buccaneers tagged Barrett, so his number would reach around $18.9 million this year. Godwin would have a more manageable number on the one-year deal.
According to Rapoport, the Buccaneers will attempt to keep Godwin for the long term, with the franchise tag a possibility.
Nevertheless, Barrett, who told Sirius XM he wants to break the bank (h/t ProFootballTalk's Mike Florio), may rank atop the team's priority list after a strong finish to this past campaign. He recorded four sacks over the NFC title game and Super Bowl.
With the elevated cost of Barrett's franchise tag, economically, the Buccaneers would be better off signing him to a long-term deal and then trying to retain Godwin, their No. 2 wide receiver, while he's on a less costly tag.
Projected team salary cap courtesy of Over the Cap.