The 2017 offseason is off and running. Veterans have already started to get pink slips, and Wednesday marks the first day that teams can place the franchise tag on key free agents.
Below are predictions for what all 32 teams will do with the tag over the next few weeks. Teams have until March 1 to designate a franchise player or transition player. Ten players were tagged last season, the most since 21 were tagged back in 2012. I project nine players will get tagged this year, including many of the top free agents available.
(Before we get rolling: The franchise tag is a one-year, guaranteed contract offer that prevents a player from hitting unrestricted free agency. The salary is based on the five-year average cap percentage for the tag at each position. Let's do this.)
1) Eric Berry, S, Kansas City Chiefs: Berry told NFL Network's
Colleen Wolfe in Houston that he won't play on the franchise tag again this season. That won't stop the Chiefs from placing the tag on Berry again, though, if the two sides can't work out a long-term deal. This negotiation has the potential to get acrimonious, and it's worth remembering Berry did not report to camp last season until August 28.
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3) Le'Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers: Antonio Brown's long-term contract appears to be first on Pittsburgh's offseason to-do list (well, after humoring Ben Roethlisberger's retirement flirtation). Considering Bell's history of injuries and suspension, a one-year deal sounds about right. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported back in January that a tag was on the way for Bell. It should top $12 million, according to MMQB's Albert Breer.
4) Kawann Short, DT, Carolina Panthers: Like Arians, Panthers coach Ron Rivera was probably more honest with the press than his front office wished. Rivera told ESPN that the Panthers would "probably" place the franchise tag on Short, which complicates negotiations in the meantime. Rivera walked the comment back somewhat, but he was just declaring the obvious regarding his best defensive lineman. Being able to keep Short is one reason why the Panthers didn't want to pay Josh Norman long-term.
5) Kirk Cousins, QB, Washington Redskins: The question here is whether the Redskins place the higher-priced "exclusive" franchise tag on Cousins or not. If the Redskins choose not to, a team like the 49ers could theoretically try to sign Cousins away in exchange for two first-round draft picks. That sounds far-fetched, as does any scenario where Cousins leaves Washington. Cousins earned almost $20 million on the tag last season and will make close to $24 million if he's tagged again this season. Insert
"You like that"
"How you like me now?" joke here.
We have the facts, and we're voting 'yes'
6) Terrelle Pryor, WR, Cleveland Browns: The Browns have too much cap room and not enough talent to let promising young players walk away. Paying Pryor more than $15 million via the tag sounds odd when he was available for any team to sign not so long ago, but everything about Pryor's career arc is odd. With Pryor still so new to the receiver position, there's reason to believe he can get even better.
7) A.J. Bouye, CB, Houston Texans: Some team is going to pay the fast-rising Bouye BIG this season. Why not the team that knows him best? Retaining Bouye via the tag rather than a long-term deal mitigates the risk that Bouye is a one-year wonder.
8) Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants: After waiting two extra years for a long-term deal following his fireworks accident, JPP is still only 28 years old. He says he's done with one-year contracts, but he might not have a choice. The defensive end tag will cost $17 million, so this would not be an easy decision for the Giants. Letting him walk away in free agency, with defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins also up, would be even tougher.
9) Melvin Ingram, OLB, Los Angeles Chargers: Above-average edge rushers normally don't make it to free agency unless there are extenuating circumstances. There aren't any here, unless you count new coordinator Gus Bradley. It makes no sense for the Chargers to develop Ingram into such a high-quality starter only to watch another team enjoy his prime.
Coin flips that land on 'no tag'
1) Dont'a Hightower, LB, New England Patriots: Listen to the "Sound FX" episode from Super Bowl LI and gain an appreciation for Hightower's leadership on the New England defense. In theory, the Patriots dealt away Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins in part so they could pay Hightower. Bill Belichick has never hidden his appreciation for Hightower, although the coach never hesitates to banish trusted Patriots from the inner circle if their price tag gets too high.
2) Brandon Williams, DT, Baltimore Ravens: It's obvious, based on their comments, that the Ravens value Williams' run-stopping ability and view him as a core piece. There aren't many humans alive built like him, and Damon "Snacks" Harrison set the market last year for defensive linemen who don't rush the passer. In the end, the Ravens seem more likely to strike a long-term deal with Williams than give him $13.5 million for one season.
3) Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago Bears: On one hand, Jeffery has missed 11 games the last two seasons because of injuries and suspension. He'll cost $17.5 million if the Bears tag him for a second consecutive year. On the other hand, this Bears regime is coming off a three-win season with few top-shelf players and more cap room than it knows what to do with. General manager Ryan Pace is stuck in a difficult spot, but I'd ultimately guess Jeffery strikes it rich elsewhere.
4) Stephon Gilmore, CB, Buffalo Bills: Gilmore fell out of favor in Buffalo last season, and now there's a new coaching staff. Bills head man Sean McDermott made his name in Carolina by coaching up spare parts in the secondary, not paying big bucks to up-and-down talent.
5) Trumaine Johnson, CB, Los Angeles Rams: There has been local speculation that Johnson could get tagged for the second straight year for the price of $16.74 million. Paying mid-level starters like superstars is how you get stuck in that 7-9 bull----. Safety T.J. McDonald would make more sense than Johnson.
6) Nick Perry, OLB, Green Bay Packers: General manager Ted Thompson retained Perry on a one-year, $5 million contract last season. Perry will cost a lot more this time after a breakout season, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see Perry re-signed before free agency starts. Thompson has a knack for getting his players to sign reasonable deals.
7) Kevin Zeitler, OG, Cincinnati Bengals: Zeitler made my top-25 free agents list and would make for a logical tag candidate. But the Bengals don't like to pay guards and are reportedly more worried about retaining 35-year-old tackle Andrew Whitworth.
8) Riley Reiff/Larry Warford, OL, Detroit Lions: Both players can start in the NFL, but they were drafted by the previous regime and fall short of tag-worthy status.
9) Barry Church/Morris Claiborne, DB, Dallas Cowboys: The Joneses face a tricky offseason. They have a host of good-not-great contributors set to hit free agency, wanting to be rewarded for a season that ended in a No. 1 seed. As long as the Cowboys remember those 13 wins didn't have that much to do with their defense, they should be fine. Box safeties like Church don't make that much in free agency.
Teams without realistic candidates
Indianapolis Colts: New general manager Chris Ballard will be unloading a lot of Ryan Grigson's players, not trying to keep them.
New York Jets: General manager Mike Maccagnan already re-signed the team's most useful pending free agent, guard Brian Winters.
San Francisco 49ers: Even if this entire roster was about to hit free agency, the team might not have a player to use the franchise tag on.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Vincent Jackson once was given the franchise tag in San Diego. That won't happen again in Tampa.