It’s a tradition that truly is unlike any other. Whether it’s a good tradition or a bad tradition is in the eye of the tradition beholder.
Every year, we take a look at the players who may end up being tagged in advance of free agency. The two-week window for the franchise or transition tag (each team can do one or the other) opens Tuesday.
So here’s the 2019 version of our list. And it’s no list that any player should want to make, because it means that the player is being kept from maximizing his contract value on the open market.
Dolphins: Two years ago, the Dolphins had to decide whether to exercise the fifth-year option on former first-round tackle Ja'Wuan James. Last year, the Dolphins had to decide whether to cut James before the fifth-year option payment became fully guaranteed. This year, they have to decide whether to apply the franchise or transition tag to him. Tagging him won’t be cheap, but letting him leave will require the Dolphins to find a new right tackle. Which won’t be easy to do.
Bills: Linebacker Lorenzo Alexander has signed a one-year extension, not that he would have been a candidate to be tagged. Defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, a former second-round pick of the Dolphins who arrived via waivers in October 2018, has said he’s in negotiations with the team; with Kyle Williams retiring, need may supersede whether Phillips is worth the eight-figure investment. Right tackle Jordan Mills has started 48 of 48 regular-season games, but that likely won’t be enough to get him tagged.
Jets: Plenty of Jets players are due to become unrestricted free agents, from quarterback Josh McCown to running back Bilal Powell to receiver Jermaine Kearse to cornerback Morris Claiborne. They’ve already re-signed receiver Quincy Enunwa, and none of the other names of potential free agents would justify spending cash that they’ve likely earmarked for guys who will be hitting the market in other cities.
Patriots: The kicker position in New England has been like the coaching position in Pittsburgh. While the Patriots won’t have only three kickers in 50 years, they’ve had only two in 23: Adam Vinatieri and Stephen Gostkowski. Gostkowski is due to become a free agent this year, and the franchise tag would seem to be a move that his current skill level doesn’t merit. He missed a field goal in the Super Bowl, and he nearly missed two others. Tackle Trent Brown, who thrived when thrust into the starting lineup in 2018, is due to hit the market. If the Pats didn’t use the tag on Nate Solder last year, they likely won’t use it on Brown. Ditto for defensive end Trey Flowers; if the Patriots wanted to keep him beyond 2018, they would have already signed him to a new deal.
Steelers: Multiple reports have indicated that the Steelers plan to use the transition tag on running back Le'Veon Bell, apparently in the hopes of trading him. If so, things could get even uglier, with a fight over the amount of the tag and a determined lack of cooperation from Bell, who would need to go along with the plan in order for the plan to work the way the Steelers would like it to.
Bengals: The Bengals previously extended the likes of Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap. Tight end Tyler Eifert and cornerback Darqueze Dennard are due to become free agents, but neither should prompt the Bengals to do something they haven’t done in six years — apply the franchise tag.
Browns: The Browns have a growing nucleus of great players. For now, none that are due to become free agents should compel the Browns to break out the tag.
Ravens: The first big personnel move for new G.M. Eric DeCosta was trading Joe Flacco. The second will be deciding whether to tag linebacker C.J. Mosley. If a long-term deal isn’t negotiated before the window for tagging Mosley closes, DeCosta could be forced to use the franchise tag in his first year on the job.
Texans: Linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, the first overall pick in the 2014 draft, is due to hit the market. The Texans will have to decide whether to sign him to a long-term deal, tag him, or let him walk away. Tagging Clowney could spark a Terrell Suggs-style fight as to whether Clowney is an outside linebacker or a defensive end, since the latter designation carries a bigger one-year tender. However it plays out, Clowney has every reason to be upset with the Texans for taking full advantage of the rookie wage scale in order to avoid paying him big money right out of the gates — and to resist giving him the long-term deal he has earned.
Colts: G.M. Chris Ballard faces no dilemmas when it comes to whether to tag any of Indy’s pending free agents; the real question is whether Ballard will carve off some of his gigantic cap stash to make a big splash in the early days of free agency. He’s inclined to resist, but that could be easier said than done — especially with no viable in-house candidates for the tag.
Titans: Linebacker Derrick Morgan headlines Tennessee’s free-agent class. A 30-year-old with 0.5 sacks in 13 games won’t have to worry about being tagged.
Jaguars: Kicker Josh Lambo has a new long-term deal. He’s the only guy who would have merited any consideration under the rules of the tag.
Broncos: At one point, cornerback Bradley Roby looked to be headed for a 2019 tag. But after Denver traded Aqib Talib and made Roby the top corner across from Chris Harris, Jr., Roby didn’t play well enough to force Denver’s hand during the period for applying tags.
Chiefs: Pass-rusher Dee Ford becomes the first in what could be a long line of young players to force the Chiefs to make tough decisions. If tagged this year, Ford could force the Chiefs to move on from the likes of linebacker Justin Houston and safety Eric Berry. If not signed to a long-term deal this year, Ford could force the Chiefs into a mess of a situation next year, when both receiver Tyreek Hill and defensive lineman Chris Jones are due to become free agents. Looming over every decision made by the Chief is the eventual mega-deal that will be given to quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Back to Ford, tagging him could spark a squabble over whether Ford is a linebacker or a defensive end, the same kind of fight that’s looming between the Texans and Jadeveon Clowney.
Chargers: Cornerback Jason Verrett may have been headed for the tag, but a torn Achilles tendon wiped out his contract year. Receiver Tyrell Williams is due to hit the market; he’s simply not tag-worthy.
Raiders: Two years ago, tight end Jared Cook parlayed a catch for the ages in a playoff game between the Packers and Cowboys into a big contract with the Raiders. Coach Jon Gruden has repeatedly gushed about Cook, and hopes to keep him. Whether that happens via the franchise tag remains to be seen.
Cowboys: Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence (pictured) is on track for a second straight tag. Last year, he pounced on $17.1 million. This year, the tender spikes to $20.52 million. Which would make a long-term deal ridiculously expensive, and which would guarantee that Lawrence will hit the market in 2020, since his tag for 2020 would shoot to $29.52 million.
Washington: For the first time in a long time, Washington won’t be at the epicenter of franchise tag talk. The team sent a fourth-round pick to Green Bay for safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix; the franchise tag would seem to be a bit too much to spend to ensure keeping him around. Once-promising receiver Jamison Crowder has never fulfilled his potential, and he missed too many games last year.
Giants: Safety Landon Collins stands out as the one player on the roster worthy of tag consideration; barring an extension, it quite possibly will happen.
Eagles: The team reportedly is considering the use of the franchise tag on Nick Foles, with an eye toward trading him. Although this approach would violate the CBA, Foles seems to be OK with it — possibly because his agents already know that he wouldn’t get on the open market a long-term contract worth more per year than the franchise tag will pay.
Vikings: The team has locked up every key young player on the roster except linebacker Anthony Barr, who has completed his rookie deal. The Kirk Cousins contract could make it difficult to tag Barr; the best bet for keeping him could be to let him shop himself during the legal tampering period, at which time he may realize the grass won’t be greener with a new team. Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, who signed a one-year deal last March, is a long-shot candidate to be tagged.
Packers: Green Bay hasn’t used the franchise tag for eight years and counting. Not long ago, it would have been a no-brainer to tag linebacker Clay Matthews. That won’t happen. Ditto for receiver Randall Cobb, whose four-year, $40 million contract is expiring.
Lions: Last year, the Lions tagged defensive end Ziggy Ansah with the goal of giving new coach Matt Patricia a year to evaluate Ansah. Seven games and four sacks later, Ansah won’t be tagged again.
Bears: There’s no one due to become a free agent who would or should merit serious tag consideration.
Panthers: See the Bears.
Buccaneers: Absent an extension, tackle Donovan Smith is expected to be franchise tagged. And for good reason. The 2015 second-round pick has started all 64 games of his career.
Falcons: A breakout star in Super Bowl LI, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett finally is poised for the open market. The Falcons likely won’t let him get there.
Saints: Running back Mark Ingram is heading to the open market. Regardless of whether the Saints hope to keep him for a ninth season, it won’t happen via the franchise tag.
49ers: After 11 seasons with the Bears and one with the Giants, Robbie Gould has found a home in San Francisco over the past two years. The 49ers could choose to keep Gould around via the franchise tag.
Cardinals: An emerging star in 2016, when he racked up 12.5 sacks, pass rusher Markus Golden surely won’t be tagged. The same applies to linebacker Deone Bucannon, who undoubtedly will hit the market.
Rams: Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was a so-so performer in the regular season. He elevated his game in the playoffs, but likely not enough to be tagged. Pass rusher Dante Fowler Jr. likewise say a spike in his performance in the playoffs, but also not enough to be tagged. Using the franchise tag for a second straight year on safety Lamarcus Joyner would cost $13.5 million.