Winners and Losers of the 2021 NFL Franchise-Tag Deadline

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistMarch 10, 2021

Winners and Losers of the 2021 NFL Franchise-Tag Deadline

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    Daniel Kucin Jr./Associated Press

    The deadline for NFL teams to hand out franchise tags came and went on Tuesday, and nine players were essentially removed from next week's free-agent sweepstakes as tag recipients. 

    Those nine fallen dominoes make a huge impact on the dynamics surrounding free agency and the offseason in general, as do some of the moves that weren't made during the franchise-tag window. 

    Here are the winners and losers coming out of the process. 

Winners: Teams in Need of Pass-Rushing Help

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    Terrance Williams/Associated Press

    Oftentimes, the tag window waters down the pass-rushing market because teams value edge defenders so much that they're willing to pay premiums to keep them around. But that wasn't the case this year. 

    Leonard Williams of the New York Giants was the only front-seven defender hit with the tag, which means all of the top edge-rushers scheduled to hit the open market remain on track to do so next week. 

    That means that edge-needy teams like the Tennessee Titans, Houston Texans, Cleveland Browns, New York Jets, Las Vegas Raiders, Buffalo Bills and Atlanta Falcons could be in play for high-profile impending free-agent pass-rushers.

    On the menu for now? Super Bowl hero Shaquil Barrett, young playmaker Yannick Ngakoue, three-time Pro Bowler Jadeveon Clowney, 2020 Baltimore Ravens tag recipient Matt Judon, promising Pittsburgh Steelers edge Bud Dupree, the immensely underrated Carl Lawson and 2020 breakout stars Trey Hendrickson and Haason Reddick.

Losers: Teams in Need of Safety Help

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    Peter Joneleit/Associated Press

    Instead, 33 percent of the tags were used on safeties Marcus Maye, Justin Simmons and Marcus Williams, who were slapped by the New York Jets, Denver Broncos and New Orleans Saints, respectively. 

    That's not necessarily great news for any of those players because the safety tag isn't a relatively huge payday, but the two Marcuses still cashed in despite a combined zero Pro Bowl nods and Simmons is at least on for extra dough because it's his second tag. 

    Instead, the real losers are the teams looking to bolster the safety position this offseason. 

    The market for Anthony Harris of the Minnesota Vikings and John Johnson III of the Los Angeles Rams likely just became a lot more competitive. Harris is a potential one-hit wonder who came back to earth last year after a breakout 2019 campaign and is on the verge of his age-30 season, and Johnson hasn't fully lived up to an incredibly strong sophomore season in 2018. 

    That's bad news for safety-hungry teams like the Browns, Raiders, Jacksonville Jaguars and Dallas Cowboys.

Winner: Aaron Jones

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    Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press

    According to Over The Cap, the Green Bay Packers could have paid star running back Aaron Jones about $11.1 million to return under the franchise tag and about $8.9 million with the transition tag. But it looks as though cap-strapped Green Bay has decided to instead let Jones hit the open market. 

    It makes sense considering that Jamaal Williams will likely come cheaper and they used a second-round draft pick on AJ Dillon last offseason, but it's also probably good news for Jones.

    Running back shelf lives are often very short, and backs can fall off cliffs in this league. Many great ones have peaked well before they experience free agency. But Jones was gently used in his first two seasons, so teams seeking help on the ground could be fired up about a 26-year-old who should have plenty of tread on his tires coming off a Pro Bowl season. 

    The 2017 fifth-round pick has scored 30 touchdowns the last two seasons, and in 2020 he ranked fifth among qualified backs with a 5.5 yards-per-attempt average. 

    A cap-rich team with a void in the backfield like the Jets or Miami Dolphins will likely make Jones very rich next week. 

Loser: The Buccaneers Defense

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    Steve Luciano/Associated Press

    The defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers entered the offseason with four particularly pivotal impending free agents, three of whom are defensive standouts (Barrett, Lavonte David and Ndamukong Suh) and only one of whom plays offense (wide receiver Chris Godwin). 

    But despite the presence of Mike Evans, Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson on the receiver depth chart and despite the fact veteran pass-catchers Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski would probably cost less than Godwin's tag, the Bucs gave Godwin the designation. 

    Now Tom Brady's receiving corps looks as though it'll be awesome again, but it's fair to wonder if the Bucs can avoid taking a significant hit on defense. They're currently still above the projected salary cap, according to Spotrac, and while ESPN's Jenna Laine reports they have a deal in place for David, Barrett in particular will probably be very expensive after his standout play during Tampa Bay's Super Bowl run. 

    It's extremely difficult to successfully defend a title in this league, especially if you lose a centerpiece like that. Tampa could still find a way to bring everybody back, but it would help if the front office could iron out a long-term deal with Godwin to reduce his projected 2021 cap hit from $16.4 million.

Winner: Kenny Golladay

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    Tony Ding/Associated Press

    Both Godwin and Allen Robinson II of the Chicago Bears were tagged, arguably leaving Detroit Lions wideout Kenny Golladay as the best pass-catcher slated to hit the open market. That alone is promising if you're Golladay, but the reality is he should have been particularly fearful of the tag anyway. 

    After all, with his age-28 season looming, Golladay is quite old for a first-time free agent. Plus, he's missed large portions of two of his first four seasons and is coming off a campaign that was derailed by hamstring and hip injuries. 

    Another season like that under the tag could have doomed the 2017 third-round pick, but now he'll arrive as the belle of a ball that will not contain Godwin and Robinson. Everybody else scheduled to become available—Will Fuller V, JuJu Smith-Schuster, T.Y. Hilton, to name a few—has warts. And Golladay's size and athleticism might entice a receiver-desperate team with cap space to give him way more guaranteed cash than he would have made under the tag as a Lion. 

    Watch the Jaguars, Jets, Dolphins, New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts or Washington Football Team to make that happen. 

Loser: Jared Goff

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    Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

    Golladay's potential departure is awful news for new Lions quarterback Jared Goff, who could immediately be without the team's most talented receiver.

    To boot, a shallow receiver market in general could make it hard for Detroit to retain starter Marvin Jones Jr., who fell just short of 1,000 yards in 2020. 

    Is Goff walking into a rebuild? At the very least, he won't be as well-supported in Detroit as he was in Los Angeles, which could make it difficult for him to prove to the Lions and the rest of the football world that he's worth the $104 million owed to him over the course of the next four years. 

    New Lions general manager Brad Holmes has a prior relationship with Goff, but he won't rule out drafting a quarterback. This could be a make-or-break season for the 2016 No. 1 overall pick, and the team's decision not to tag Golladay does not represent an ideal start.

Winner: Cam Robinson

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Jaguars offensive tackle Cam Robinson makes the winner's circle mainly because he was the most surprising franchise-tag recipient this offseason. 

    The 2017 second-round pick might have landed a decent contract somewhere anyway just because he plays a premium position, but he still would have potentially been competing with star Trent Williams for consideration and he's never graded well at Pro Football Focus despite coming into the league with plenty of hype.

    He's also missed 17 games in four years and has battled issues with penalties at left tackle in Jacksonville. But now he'll get another shot at about $14.5 million, which is pretty sweet considering his lack of accomplishments as an NFL tackle. 

    On top of that, the Jags will likely want to give expected new quarterback Trevor Lawrence as much consistency and continuity as possible, which means that Robinson will probably stick around beyond Lawrence's rookie campaign unless he completely bombs under the tag in 2021. 

Loser: Allen Robinson II

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    Tyler Kaufman/Associated Press

    The other former Jaguars second-round pick named Robinson to be tagged on Tuesday isn't likely as thrilled. That's because Allen Robinson II remains stuck in a Chicago Bears offense that ranked in the bottom 10 in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) at Football Outsiders in each of the last two seasons. 

    The three-time 1,000-yard receiver put up strong numbers in both of those campaigns in Chicago, but it's fair to wonder how much more productive he could have been in a half-decent offense. He'll make a solid $16.4 million for one season under the tag, but it could be hard for him to increase his value ahead of next offseason, at which point he'll be an eight-year veteran approaching 30. 

    Robinson can hope that the desperate Bears find him a better quarterback this offseason, but only three teams are in worse salary-cap shape at Spotrac and they lack primo draft capital after sneaking into the playoffs in 2020.

    It's not promising. 

Winner: Dak Prescott

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Technically, 10 tags were handed out ahead of Tuesday's deadline. The 10th belongs to Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, who was tagged in a procedural move associated with the four-year, $160 million contract he agreed to on Monday. 

    It basically just means Prescott is highly unlikely to be tagged again in the future. 

    By "avoiding" a $37.7 million tag to make an average annual salary of $40 million as part of a deal that will almost certainly pay him a minimum of $126 million over the course of the next three years, the 27-year-old made out like a bandit.

Loser: The Saints in About 2023

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Somewhat unbelievably, a Saints team that is still projected to be more than $55 million over the salary cap slapped a key player with the tag on Tuesday. And while it's great that underrated safety Marcus Williams will remain on the roster, that $11.2 million price tag isn't cheap and Williams wouldn't likely save them much cash on a long-term deal. 

    It just means New Orleans will have even more work to do to squeeze under this year's cap, which reminds me a lot of Lloyd Braun's "serenity now, insanity later" mantra. Soon, guys like Michael Thomas, Andrus Peat, Alvin Kamara, Demario Davis, Cameron Jordan and Malcolm Jenkins are going to become comically expensive, especially if they keep pushing money backward on their deals. 

    Who cares, right? The cap is going to explode when the new television deals kick in! But that might just leave the Saints paying wild bills for the status quo while the rest of the league feasts on free agents to gain ground or pull away from a New Orleans team stuck in neutral. 

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