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Franchise tag candidates: DeMarcus Lawrence tops no-brainers

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There's no excuse for the Cowboys to lose DeMarcus Lawrence. There's no good reason for the Texans to say so long to Jadeveon Clowney, at least not yet. The ever-expanding salary cap makes it too easy for teams to use the franchise tag. If you can't find room for your best players, it's a sign of bad management.

Six of my preliminary top-10 free agents are virtual locks to be tagged, in part because their current teams can make space for a large one-year commitment.

Below is my preview of franchise tag season, which officially starts on February 19, when teams can first apply the tag. The deadline to use the tag is 4 p.m. ET on March 5, and I'm currently projecting 10 players to be tagged by then. There's a chance I won't get everything right below, but only a slight one.

(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. All cap figures and projected tag salaries cited below come from Over The Cap, unless otherwise noted. Let's go.)

No-brainers

1) DeMarcus Lawrence, DE, Dallas Cowboys: I spoke with Lawrence last March after the Cowboys used the tag on him the first time. He didn't mind the huge single-season salary one bit, but noted that his price would only go up if a long-term deal wasn't worked out by the deadline. After another standout campaign, he's been proven absolutely right.

2) Jadeveon Clowney, LB/DE, Houston Texans: Lawrence sounds more likely to get a long-term extension than Clowney, who has more injury questions hanging over him. The Texans might also want to kick the can down the road a year before deciding whether they can afford to pay J.J. Watt and Clowney top-10-defender money at the same time.

3) Dee Ford, OLB/DE, Kansas City Chiefs: General manager Brett Veach already announced Ford will be back, with the franchise tag the most likely route to bringing the declaration to fruition. A one-year deal makes sense from the Chiefs' perspective, considering how Ford's contract-year explosion (13 sacks, seven forced fumbles) was a pleasant surprise, not unlike Lawrence's breakout year. Ford staying probably means that Justin Houston is out the door.

4) Frank Clark, DE, Seattle Seahawks: Few edge rushers have provided steadier pressure over the last two seasons. Coach Pete Carroll confirmed the team is "counting on" Clark coming back. His age (turning 26 in June) makes him a far stronger candidate for the tag than Earl Thomas, who cemented his divorce with the Seahawks with a one-finger salute.

5) Grady Jarrett, DT, Atlanta Falcons: General manager Thomas Dimitroff has spent so much time looking for D-line disruptors that he can't possibly let his best player up front get away.

6) Landon Collins, S, New York Giants: This is going to be a complicated offseason for Giants GM Dave Gettleman, who is juggling the futures of Eli Manning, Olivier Vernon, Janoris Jenkins and possibly even Odell Beckham Jr. Using the tag on Collins, a homegrown difference-maker, should be one of Gettleman's easier decisions.

Say Yes

These players are by no means guaranteed to receive the tag, but I'm leaning that, yes, they will.

1) Nick Foles, QB, Philadelphia Eagles: Foles bought back his freedom for the cool price of $2 million and now the Eagles are expected to place the franchise tag on him as a precursor to a potential trade. There are legitimate questions whether this should even be allowed, setting up a complicated end to Foles' time in Philadelphia.

UPDATED: Eagles GM Howie Roseman announced the Eagles would not apply the franchise tag to Foles, meaning the quarterback will become a free agent at the start of the league year in March.

2) Donovan Smith, OT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs act publicly like they drafted the second coming of Jason Peters. Pro Football Focus, on the other hand, has consistently graded Smith as one of the league's worst tackles, and the eyeball test is closer to PFF's analysis. With so few options available in free agency, it appears the Bucs will continue to love the one they're with.

3) C.J. Mosley, LB, Baltimore Ravens: In what is set up to be an exceptionally tricky first offseason as Ravens general manager, Eric DeCosta has made keeping Mosley a priority. That may have to include using the franchise tag despite the pricey $14 million sticker shock for an inside linebacker. The Ravens and Mosley might be the most likely pair on this entire list to strike a deal before the tag is even necessary because it should ultimately save Baltimore cap room.

4) Trey Flowers, DE, New England Patriots: Bill Belichick is loath to use the franchise tag, but Flowers could (and should) represent an exception. He has been the Patriots' best defensive player on balance over the last three seasons, all of which have wound up in the Super Bowl. He's exceptionally versatile, intelligent and team-oriented. He perfectly fits New England's leadership mold in the tradition of teammates Devin McCourty and Dont'a Hightower, except he's a better player and he's younger. If push comes to shove, it makes more sense to say goodbye to one of them instead.

No Projected Tag

1) Ja'Wuan James, OT, Miami Dolphins: This was the hardest call on this list. James has proven to be an above-average starting tackle just entering his prime. He's exactly the type of solid starter who will get paid like a superstar, a player with a first-round pedigree that is one of the best available at a thin position.

2) Rodger Saffold and Lamarcus Joyner, OG and S, Los Angeles Rams: Don't be shocked if Saffold becomes one of the highest-paid guards in football. The Rams have used the tag on defensive backs the last three years (on Trumaine Johnson in 2016 and '17, Joyner in '18), but I anticipate they will save the space this year to address different areas.

3) Anthony Barr, LB, Minnesota Vikings: Coach Mike Zimmer and the Vikings' front office have prioritized contracts for other defensive players over the last few years ahead of Barr. There's a sense they believe they can live without him, an ambivalence that will wind up making Barr even richer when he hits the open market.

4) Ezekiel Ansah, DE, Detroit Lions: GM Bob Quinn probably regrets paying $17.1 million for four sacks in another injury-plagued year for the former No. 5 overall pick. The Lions won't make that mistake again, and Ansah will enter the market as one of the biggest boom-or-bust players available.

5) Bryce Callahan, CB, Chicago Bears: It's unlikely the Bears would seriously consider paying Callahan more than $15 million, but I include him here because it's not that crazy and he's a candidate to get a sneaky-huge contract in free agency. Slot cornerback is now a starting position, and Callahan is coming off an excellent year.

6) Preston Smith, OLB, Washington Redskins: Smith is quietly an effective edge rusher despite his low sack totals, with 38 hurries and nine QB hits in 2018. He's also strong against the run, but the Redskins' quarterback situation could make him too expensive to keep.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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