There is a surplus of NFL salary-cap space and a dearth of quality free agents for teams to spend their money on this offseason. Could that impact how teams use the franchise tag in the next few weeks?
While players like Panthers guard Andrew Norwell and Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller don't immediately leap off the page as "franchise" talents, a compelling case can be made to keep them around on ultra-expensive one-year contracts. With no long-term risk and enough cap space to handle big dollars, allowing any above-average starter to hit free agency feels foolish.
Teams can begin to use the franchise or transition tags on February 20, and must make their designations by March 6. I see eight players receiving the franchise tag this year, with a few wild cards in the mix.
(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 come from Overthecap.com, unless otherwise noted. Giddy up.)
1) Le'Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers: General manager Kevin Colbert's comments to NFL Network's Aditi Kinkhabwala made the team's intentions clear: The Steelers expect to reach a long-term deal with Bell, although the most likely route to that goal would be to use the franchise tag in the meantime.
2) Demarcus Lawrence, DE, Dallas Cowboys: Lawrence had one of the most complete and surprising breakouts in a contract year in many moons. Considering Lawrence's rocky first three seasons, full of injuries and a suspension, the Cowboys might prefer a one-year deal for their former second-rounder. (Even if it costs a projected $17.5 million, according to OvertheCap.com.)
These players are by no means guaranteed to get tagged, but I'm leaning yes that they will.
3) Allen Robinson, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars: The torn ACL that Robinson suffered in Week 1 complicates any attempt at a long-term deal. His down year in 2016 doesn't help, either. Still, it would be strange for the free-spending Jaguars to allow one of their best offensive draft picks of the decade to leave with nothing coming back in return. It will be difficult to keep both Robinson and fellow free-agent receiver Marqise Lee, so look for the Jaguars to make Robinson the priority.
4) Sammy Watkins, WR, Los Angeles Rams: The Rams are one of the few teams with more than one quality franchise-tag candidate. I personally would prioritize keeping versatile safety Lamarcus Joyner over Watkins, but ESPN Rams reporter Alden Gonzalez expects the Rams to tag Watkins. The Rams invested a lot in their trade for the former first-round wideout, giving up a second-round pick and veteran cornerback E.J. Gaines. They want more in return than the 593 yards Watkins produced last season. One team source told me earlier this season that he expects quarterback Jared Goff to do a better job getting to Watkins in his progression as the quarterback continues to develop. The receiver tag is projected at $16.2 million, a hefty number for the team's fourth-leading receiver last season.
5) Kyle Fuller, CB, Chicago Bears: Fuller is the Doug Martin of cornerbacks, mixing in an eye-opening season every three years. Luckily for Fuller, his great years came as a rookie and in a contract season. A long-term deal here would be preferable, but it makes no sense for GM Ryan Pace to allow a young starter coming off an excellent campaign to leave, further weakening a position of need. Pace's decision not to use the fifth-year option in Fuller's rookie contract last May has come back to haunt the franchise, like a lot of Pace's decisions.
6) Andrew Norwell, OG, Carolina Panthers: The Panthers paid tackle Matt Kalil $25 million guaranteed last season. His older brother, Ryan, who will be 33 when the 2018 campaign kicks off, has a $9.5 million cap figure, is coming off an injury-plagued year and plans to retire after the upcoming season. It would be incongruous to pay all that money and then allow a 26-year-old second-team All-Pro to leave for nothing. The tag number is steep here, but the Panthers could use the tag as a bridge to a long-term contract with the former undrafted free-agent signee.
7) Ezekiel Ansah, DE, Detroit Lions: After two injury-plagued seasons with sporadic bouts of brilliant play, Ansah isn't quite the free-agent jewel he was expected to be. He might not make it to free agency anyhow. The Lions have more than $40 million in cap space, with room to clear the decks for more. Ansah, who turns 29 in May, closed out the 2017 season strong and provides a physical presence with a high ceiling. Keeping the former first-rounder would come at a monster price (roughly $17.5 million), but it's not like the Lions can easily find a better option.
8) Sheldon Richardson, DT, Seattle Seahawks: Like the Rams with Sammy Watkins, the Seahawks could use the franchise tag to help justify a previous trade. Seattle gave up a second-round pick and receiver Jermaine Kearse to get 654 solid -- if unspectacular -- snaps out of Richardson. It's been three full seasons since Richardson has played his best, but coach Pete Carroll is already on the record about trying to keep him. The tag is the easiest way to accomplish that.
Big names, no projected tag
1) Jarvis Landry, WR, Miami Dolphins: Landry is the toughest player to predict on this list. His production and talent are worthy of beaucoup bucks, but the Dolphins' repeated public ambivalence about their slot receiver looms larger. Landry was reportedly dangled in a potential trade by Miami last offseason, a move that the Dolphins may now wish they had made.
UPDATE:* The Dolphins haven't always shown Landry love publicly, but they are prepared to pay him more than $16 million after placing the non-exclusive franchise tag on him Tuesday. It remains possible the Dolphins could still trade the talented slot receiver after reportedly dangling him last offseason. *
2) Case Keenum, QB, Minnesota Vikings: Coach Mike Zimmer has never expressed public belief that Keenum could be the team's long-term answer at quarterback. A deal between the two sides is still possible, but it doesn't make sense to tag Keenum before potentially going after free agent Kirk Cousins. Re-signing Teddy Bridgewater (who may not actually hit free agency if his contract is tolled for 2018) is a more likely scenario than reaching a new deal with Keenum.
No tag allowed
Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints and Nate Solder, OT, New England Patriots: Both players would be prime candidates for the franchise tag, but clauses in their respective contracts prevent it from happening. Brees has said all the right things publicly, but he holds a lot of leverage with the Saints in a negotiation that could get thornier than most expect.
Solder has a chance to strike it rich. Even after two up-and-down seasons, he's the best tackle available in a thin market. The 29-year-old, who has said he wants to keep playing, already took one below-market deal to stay in New England.