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Projecting long-term extensions for franchise-tagged players

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  • By Anthony Holzman-Escareno NFL.com
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Applying the franchise tag keeps a player off the open market, but it isn't supposed to be the end of the story.

Players who are hit with the tag have until 4 p.m. ET on July 15 to agree to a multi-year extension with their team. Should the two sides fail to do so by the deadline, they can only enter a one-year contract for the 2019 season.

Over the last five seasons, only 14 of 32 players to receive the franchise tag have signed a new contract before that deadline. However, deadlines spur action, and there is always the possibility that the tag will lead to a long-term deal for any of the players who were tagged this year.

What might those long-term deals look like? I've used comparable player contracts (illustrated in tables as part of each breakdown) to project what each of this year's tagged players might be able to earn on a multi-year extension. This is not to say that I think all of these players are likely to sign deals. Rather, I'm attempting to paint a picture of what we could expect in a potential deal.

NOTE: I did not include Dee Ford, who was tagged by the Kansas City Chiefs, because he was subsequently traded to the San Francisco 49ers for a second-round pick in 2020 and signed an $85 million deal to remain in San Francisco for the next five seasons (on paper). Ford received $33.35 million in guarantees, with $19.75 million guaranteed at signing.

For more information on the franchise tag, please visit the NFL Free Agency Glossary by clicking here.

DeMarcus Lawrence, DE, Dallas Cowboys: Six years, $132 million

Age at start of 2019 season: 27
Experience: Five NFL seasons
2018 stats: 10.5 sacks, 23 QB hits, 15 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, one interception
Franchise tag salary: $20.5716 million

Lawrence dealt with injuries and a suspension early in his career, but he's earned back-to-back Pro Bowl selections at one of the NFL's most important positions. In 2018, he posted double-digit sacks for the second consecutive season -- and he's as adept against the run as he is at rushing the passer. Over the past two seasons, Lawrence ranks in the top 10 in the NFL in sacks (25), QB hits (49), tackles for loss (29) and forced fumbles (six); only Aaron Donald, Chandler Jones and Ryan Kerrigan have more sacks than Lawrence in that span. In short, Lawrence is the most impactful defensive front presence the Cowboys have had since DeMarcus Ware was released after the 2013 season.

Dallas used the franchise tag on Lawrence for a second consecutive offseason, and it will cost the Cowboys at least $29.6 million to franchise him a third time in 2020, which is financially unfeasible. So, it's desperation time for a front office that surely wants to keep him in town.

In 2018, the Bears' Khalil Mack and the Rams' Aaron Donald became the first defensive players to average $20 million per season. Although he's not the same type of player, Lawrence's production can be viewed as comparable to that of Donald and Mack before they signed their deals.

Without a long-term commitment in place from the team, there's no reason for Lawrence to show up until (and if) he wants to. If a deal isn't done before the July 15 deadline, Lawrence will hit the open market in 2020 and likely end up in a different uniform.

PROJECTED CONTRACT DETAILS
Average annual value: $22 million
Signing bonus: $30 million
Guaranteed: $85 million
Guaranteed at signing: $55 million

Here's how Lawrence stacks up against comparable players:

Jadeveon Clowney, DE/OLB, Houston Texans: Six years, $138 million

Age at start of 2019 season: 26
Experience: Five NFL seasons
2018 stats: 47 tackles, nine sacks, 21 QB hits, 16 tackles for loss, one forced fumble, three fumble recoveries
Franchise tag salary: $15.967 million

Clowney is a tenacious athlete with speed, quickness, power and length -- a versatile chess piece who affects each aspect of an offense. He's a disruptive presence who lives in opponents' backfields and does his best work against the run; only Calais Campbell was given a better grade in run defense among edge defenders by Pro Football Focus. Clowney does rely heavily on his athleticism at times, but it's easier to do that when one possesses the kind of raw ability he does.

Clowney, Aaron Donald, Chandler Jones and Cameron Jordan are the only players with 20-plus sacks and 50-plus tackles for loss over the last three seasons. Elite sack production has been Clowney's lone knock. He ranks 22nd in sacks (24.5) and third in tackles for loss (53) since 2016.

Unfortunately for Clowney, the positional designations that determine franchise tag values do not yet account for the idea of an edge rusher. This could change when a new collective bargaining agreement replaces the current CBA, which is set to expire after the 2020 season, but for now, Clowney is stuck between being classified as a defensive end (which should be paid $17.128 million on the tag) and an outside linebacker ($15.443 million).

In 2008, Terrell Suggs filed a grievance against the Ravens, who had designated him as a linebacker when applying the franchise tag. Suggs argued that, because the Ravens played a base 3-4 defense, he was used like -- and thus, should have been designated as -- a defensive end, which received more under the tag than a linebacker. The Ravens and Suggs eventually agreed to a modified one-year contract that split the difference.

Last season, when he played under the fifth-year option of his rookie contract, the Texans gave Clowney an extra $1 million to bridge the financial gap between what he received on that option as a designated linebacker and what he would have received as a defensive end. This is also why Clowney will receive $15.967 million on the $15.443 million linebacker tag. Clowney will receive 120 percent of his prior year salary because it is greater than the franchise tag placed on him.

Clowney has limited leverage this offseason because of the franchise tag. To me, it seems likely that the Texans will let Clowney play out 2019 on the tag, swayed by his injury history (especially early in his career) and his less-impressive sack totals. However, the longer the Texans play the tag game with the Clowney, the more they'll have to pay on the back end if they want to retain his services long term.

It would cost Houston $35 million to franchise-tag him for the next two seasons, so his absolute floor starts there. Considering he's one of the NFL's most disruptive presences, regardless of his sack totals, Clowney would almost certainly become the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL if he ever hit the open market.

PROJECTED CONTRACT DETAILS
Average annual value: $23 million
Signing bonus: $15 million ($15 million roster bonus in Year 1)
Guaranteed: $85 million
Guaranteed at signing: $65 million

Here's how Clowney stacks up against comparable players:

Frank Clark, DE, Seattle Seahawks: Four years, $75 million

Age at start of 2019 season: 26
Experience: Four NFL seasons
2018 stats: 41 tackles, 13 sacks, 27 QB hits, 10 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, one interception
Franchise tag salary: $17.128 million

Clark has remained a consistent presence in the Seahawks' defense since 2016. And he showed he can be one of the NFL's top pass rushers with a big performance in 2018, setting career highs in sacks (13.0), QB hits (27) and forced fumbles (three).

Only seven current players have nine-plus sacks in each of the last three seasons, and Clark is one of them. His 32.0 sacks over that span rank ninth in the NFL. Clark's consistency can also be measured on a game-by-game basis; in 2018, only J.J. Watt and Chris Jones had more games with at least one sack (11) than Clark (10).

Clark is the last piece remaining from the dominant pass-rushing trio (Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril) that was featured on the 2016 Seahawks. The defense has been drained of talent over the years, so retaining Clark has to be a major priority for the team. Clark has already stated his willingness to miss training camp if Seattle doesn't give him the long-term deal he seeks. It's Clark's only move to "force" the Seahawks' hand.

If Clark plays out the tag and duplicates his 2018 output, the sticker price will be much higher next offseason. The Lions' five-year, $90 million deal with Trey Flowers did the Seahawks no favors, given that Clark has a much more proven resume than Flowers.

PROJECTED CONTRACT DETAILS
Average annual value: $18.75 million
Signing bonus: $16 million
Guaranteed: $49 million
Guaranteed at signing: $35 million

Here's how Clark stacks up against comparable players:

Grady Jarrett, DT, Atlanta Falcons: Five years, $83.5 million

Age at start of 2019 season: 26
Experience: Four NFL seasons
2018 stats: 52 tackles, six sacks, 16 QB hits, eight tackles for loss, three forced fumbles
Franchise tag salary: $15.209 million

In his first two seasons, Jarrett had four sacks, 11 QB hits and eight tackles for loss combined. He more than doubled each of those numbers over his last two seasons: 10 sacks, 29 QB hits and 21 tackles for loss. He has increased his pass-rushing production (sacks, QB hits) in every year of his career. According to Next Gen Stats, Jarrett pressured the quarterback on 9.6 percent of his pass rushes in 2018 -- among interior defensive linemen with at least 350 rushes, only Aaron Donald (14.1), Fletcher Cox (11.4) and Chris Jones (10.2) did so at a higher rate.

Size concerns likely pushed Jarrett (6-foot, 305 pounds) to the fifth round of the 2015 NFL Draft, but he uses his athleticism to win in the run game and rush the passer. The Falcons probably aren't in a hurry to sign Jarrett, especially considering the tag is close to fair value for him.

The Falcons have an argument against paying Jarrett more than Cox ($17.1M AAV). However, Jarrett has an argument that Cox's deal is outdated; it lands at $20.7 million when adjusted for the 2019 salary cap.

PROJECTED CONTRACT DETAILS
Average annual value: $16.7 million
Signing bonus: $16 million
Guaranteed: $50 million
Guaranteed at signing: $38 million

Here's how Jarrett stacks up against comparable players:

Robbie Gould, K, San Francisco 49ers: Three years, $12 million

Age at start of 2019 season: 36
Experience: 14 NFL seasons
2018 stats: 33 of 34 field goals (97.1 pct), 27 of 29 on PATs (93.1 pct)
Franchise tag salary: $4.971 million

Not only are kickers people, but they're also designated franchise players. This is the one market that is rarely evaluated. At age 36, Gould is older than most of the league's kickers, but the 49ers' willingness to tag him indicates his value. Gould probably plays 2019 on the tag, but should sign a deal near the top of the market if he lands something long-term.

PROJECTED CONTRACT DETAILS
Average annual value: $4 million
Guaranteed at signing: $6 million

Player comparables: Detroit's Matt Prater, Green Bay's Mason Crosby, Pittsburgh's Chris Boswell
Salary range: $3 million-$4 million per season (AAV)

Follow Anthony Holzman-Escareno on Twitter @FrontOfficeNFL.

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