Analyzing Every AFC Team’s Top Franchise Tag Candidateby Andersen Pickard March 7, 2021 0 comments
Every March, teams and their impending free agents work ferociously to ink an extension. Some player-team combos agree to a deal, but many more fail to finalize terms. For teams, the franchise tag works as a useful tool to keep players under contract for one more year. Even if the player wants out, the team gets to retain them for a high salary.
How is this fair? Well, many argue it is not, and that remains up for debate. Nevertheless, the league and player’s union agreed to terms to set what each position’s franchise tag salary looks like. When the player is tagged for the first time, their salary is found by averaging the past five seasons’ tag values proportional to their salary caps, then multiplied to fit this year’s cap. If a player is tagged for a second time, they are owed 120 percent of the previous year’s franchise tag value. If they are tagged for a third time, their salary increases to 144 percent of the previous year’s value. Players cannot be tagged more than three times.
The following is a breakdown of the franchise tag values for each position in 2021. According to Over The Cap, these are “calculated by adding the respective tag numbers, divided by the sum of the salary caps, from the previous five seasons, and finally multiplied by the current season’s salary cap.”
Evidently, many players do not enjoy playing on the franchise tag due to the frequently undervalued salaries and lack of job security. For this reason, players often work hard to sign an extension with their team after hit with the tag. Occasionally, players will threaten to sit out the season if handed the tag. We saw this happen with Le’Veon Bell in 2018.
Now that you know exactly how the franchise tag works, it’s time to explore which players could receive the unique designation prior to this year’s March 9 at 4 p.m. deadline. We’ll run through the top candidate from all 16 AFC teams and rank the likelihood that they receive the tag.
Author’s note: All tag values are estimates from Over the Cap. Details may fluctuate from resource to resource.
Matt Milano, LB | Tag Value: $15,657,000
Likelihood: 8.5 out of 10
We open the list with a player who could realistically be tagged. Milano will be just 26 years old this season and has been a force on the defensive side of the football. Tagging him could be a foregone conclusion if not for his injuries, which general manager Brandon Beane noted as a source of frustration for Milano. The Boston College product appeared in just 10 games this past season, accumulating 3.5 sacks, 45 tackles, and one interception. He’ll likely land a deal worth roughly $14 million per year in free agency, so the tag could be overpaying him. However, it would give Buffalo exclusive rights to negotiating with him while they ensure that he spends at least one more year with the Bills.
Ted Karras, C | Tag Value: $14,507,000
Likelihood: 2 out of 10
The Dolphins aren’t going to use the tag this year, but let’s look at a candidate anyways. In a league that has gained respect for work done in the trenches, it seems likely that Karras could receive a deal upwards of $10 million per year this offseason. While he’s not worth the $14,507,000 that would be promised via the tag, he’s still on track to see a nice payday. It would come as no surprise to see Miami look to bring him back for future years.
David Andrews, C | Tag Value: $14,507,000
Likelihood: 4 out of 10
Another AFC East center as a tag candidate? Yup. Andrews is expected to cash in with a deal that could come close to $10 million per year. While this, too, falls short of the tag value, Bill Belichick is not shy when it comes to using the designation. He used the tag last year on Joe Thuney in a move that came somewhat out of nowhere, and a similar outcome can’t be ruled out for Andrews this year. Especially with the Patriots having plenty of cap space, handing out a generous contract to a reliable lineman is not out of the question. Tagging Thuney or kicker Nick Folk is not out of the question, either.
Marcus Maye, S | Tag Value: $11,196,000
Likelihood: 8.5 out of 10
It appears the Jets may be looking to tag a defensive weapon. It is widely expected that Maye will be handed the franchise tag this week, though this could merely be a placeholder to extend contract negotiations. No matter the reasoning, the Jets are expected to be aggressive this offseason, and their first order of business could be retaining a defensive weapon who should fit nicely in new head coach Robert Saleh’s scheme. After all, the contract analysts at Spotrac project Maye, 27, will receive a deal with an average annual value of $13.2 million.
Yannick Ngakoue, LB | Tag Value: $21,333,600
Likelihood: 1.5 out of 10
Ngakoue is a great player, but he isn’t quite deserving of a deal worth this much money. Baltimore does have roughly $18 million to spend this offseason, but they also need to focus on replacing fellow tag candidate Matt Judon and bolstering the receiving core. Still, the talented pass-rusher split 2020 between the Ravens and Minnesota Vikings, amassing eight sacks, 23 tackles, and four forced fumbles. Under a few scenarios, tagging Ngakoue a second time for north of $21 million could be a fair gamble, but it’s not a wise move here.
Carl Lawson, DE | Tag Value: $17,752,000
Likelihood: 7 out of 10
The Bengals present a fascinating scenario. They have not been linked to the franchise tag too much, yet they have a pair of appealing candidates. Both Lawson and cornerback William Jackson III are intriguing free agents who could be issued the designation. While Jackson would be cheaper, Lawson makes more sense. He’s younger and could realistically land a deal that pays him the tag value ($17,752,000) after incentives. Therefore, the Bengals would be wise to bring him back on the tag if they cannot extend him. At just 26 years old, Lawson is a talented pass rusher who is a key part of the Bengals’ defensive approach. We know he will garner big money this offseason. Now, only time will tell whether it’s Cincinnati or another teaming opening up its wallets.
Karl Joseph, S | Tag Value: $11,196,000
Likelihood: 1 out of 10
No, this isn’t happening. The Browns absolutely will not be placing the franchise tag on anybody this season. However, if they were required to use the designation on a player, Joseph would likely be the top candidate. With an $8.2 million market value from Spotrac, Joseph would be making just $3 million below the tag. Larry Ogunjobi also comes to mind as an impending free agent who the Browns would love to have back, but he isn’t worth the $14,178,000, either.
Bud Dupree, LB | Tag Value: $18,993,600
Likelihood: 2 out of 10
If Dupree were coming off a normal contract, tagging him would make plenty of sense. However, this would be his second straight tag, meaning he’d be owed nearly $19 million (rather than the $15,567,000 value for most linebackers). It’s quite possible that Dupree commands near this amount in free agency, but it won’t be from the Steelers, who have less than $3.6 million in cap space. JuJu Smith-Schuster is another intriguing name, but Pittsburgh doesn’t have the resources to pay him more than $16 million, either.
Will Fuller, WR | Tag Value: $16,430,000
Likelihood: 3 out of 10
It was recently reported that the Texans do not intend to bring back Fuller next season. While that is likely true, can this be blamed on the Texans’ lack of interest or Fuller’s frustration with the organization? If the latter is true (which would come as no surprise), the Texans could force him to return by tagging him. Furthermore, the promise of another year with Fuller could slightly decrease quarterback Deshaun Watson‘s frustration with the team. (After all, it is no secret that Watson thinks of Fuller as a franchise receiver.) This is all hypothetical and likely won’t happen. However, the NFL is an unpredictable league and the Texans are, well, the Texans.
Xavier Rhodes, CB | Tag Value: $15,266,000
Likelihood: 1.5 out of 10
The Colts would love to bring back Rhodes and their other impending free agents, but the franchise tag is out of the question. Indianapolis simply doesn’t have any one player who is worth the upwards of $15 million that the tag costs. If they had to tag someone, though, Rhodes would likely be the pick. The 30-year-old looked solid last season, playing in 95.7 percent of snaps while logging two interceptions and 42 tackles. Defensive end Justin Houston and wide receiver T.Y. Hilton would also be candidates.
Cam Robinson, LT | Tag Value: $14,507,000
Likelihood: 8 out of 10
Tagging Robinson seems like a no-brainer, so it’s baffling that there has been limited discussion surrounding the move. Nevertheless, let’s speak it into existence. At just 26 years old, Robinson should be a staple of the Jacksonville line for years to come. However, if they let him walk, he’ll likely sign a four-year deal worth at least $50 million in total. Of course, an extension would be the ideal scenario for the Jaguars, but they absolutely cannot let Robinson hit the open market. After all, they desperately need him to protect Trevor Lawrence’s blindside. The franchise tag is a perfect method to ensure the Alabama product stays in tow for at least one more season.
Jonnu Smith, TE | Tag Value: $10,167,000
Likelihood: 8.5 out of 10
Linebacker Jayon Brown is more deserving of the tag, but it seems likely that Smith gets it. The tight end’s youth and the fact that the tag costs just over $10 million are both factors here. Smith, 25, impressed in 2020 enough to warrant a sizable payday in free agency. He’d be a top target on the open market, but it’s hard to envision a scenario where the Titans let him get there. He caught 41 passes for 448 yards this year, but his true value came in the end zone. A top target of Ryan Tannehill, Smith hauled in eight touchdowns on the campaign. His threat for scoring points coupled with the impending loss of Corey Davis suggests Smith will be tagged this week.
Justin Simmons, S | Tag Value: $11,196,000
Likelihood: 10 out of 10
The Broncos have already tagged Simmons, becoming the first and only team so far to officially use the designation. Smith is a threat in the defensive backfield and a staple of Denver football. While the tag keeps him in tow for one year, the Broncos will surely be aggressive in their pursuit of signing him to a long-term extension in the next month or two.
Daniel Sorensen, S | Tag Value: $11,196,000
Likelihood: 2.5 out of 10
There’s no glaring candidate for the tag, but Sorensen is worth mentioning due to his impact on defense and the fairly cheap price for the safety tag. A seven-year veteran, Sorensen appeared in 15 games for the AFC champions this past season. He made 91 tackles and picked off three passes along the way. If the Chiefs, who have used the franchise tag more than any other team since 2011 (seven times), do tag Sorensen, it will only be a placeholder so they can wait a few more weeks to extend him.
Daniel Carlson, K | Tag Value: $4,792,000
Likelihood: 7.5 out of 10
Carlson looked like one of the better kickers in football this past season so it is somewhat surprising that his name has yet to be mentioned in franchise tag rumors. While the tag would make Carlson the second-highest-paid kicker, it wouldn’t be by too much of a margin. In fact, eight kickers will receive at least $4 million next year. Such a just makes too much sense as it allows the Raiders to turn their focus to defense and offense rather than a glaring hole on special teams. This is especially true at the kicking position. The crop of free agent kickers can dissipate quickly and a competitive team like Las Vegas will not want to be stuck with an unreliable journeyman handling kicking duties.
Hunter Henry, TE | Tag Value: $12,728,400
Likelihood: 6.5 out of 10
Henry, who spent 2020 playing under the franchise tag, had a quiet start to the year but came on strong in the second half. He finished the campaign with 60 catches for 613 yards and four scores. While these are not great numbers, Henry has proven himself in the NFL and should command a deal worth at least $10 million per year if the Chargers don’t retain him. Plus, tagging Henry means the Chargers won’t have to negotiate a contract with him, leaving them time and clarity to pursue other free agents. The toughest part about this move is that Henry was tagged last year, too, so he’d be owed more than $12.7 million (rather than the $10.167 million value for other tight ends). Still, expect Los Angeles to be aggressive as they look to bring Henry back for several more years alongside Justin Herbert.
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