Fifteen players were awarded the franchise or transition tag by mid-March in a much different country than the one we reside in now. Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones and Titans running back Derrick Henry were the only two to receive a contract extension from their teams before Wednesday's deadline to get a long-term deal done in 2020.
The Chiefs' contracts for Patrick Mahomes and Jones over the last two weeks proved that big business can be accomplished during the COVID-19 pandemic. They were also a flex. With Mahomes, Jones and the team's fan base talking dynasty and celebrating like they just won a playoff game, the Chiefs provided a welcome antidote to a league currently defined by stasis and uncertainty.
NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported that the first two years of Henry's four-year, $50 million contract are essentially guaranteed. That makes his contract sensible for both sides, with Henry getting a full extra year of high-paid security before the Titans potentially run him into the ground by 2022. It was smart for Henry to take what he could now instead of competing against a loaded prospective 2021 free agent class (Alvin Kamara, Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon) and another crop of rookies. The Titans are zigging while the rest of the league is zagging, building around a workhorse running back without great skills in the passing game.
That approach comes with risk, just like signing any big contract while most of the league sits and waits to see what comes next. There is no way to know how the pandemic will impact future contracts, much less the salary cap, television deals and the 2020 on-field product.
The distinguished quality of this tag class, to spin some optimism, should lead to a better group of free agents next year. For most of the 13 remaining tagged players, there is a strong chance this will be their final season in their current uniform. Assuming the season happens as planned, I decided to rank them based on who is most likely to still be with their team in 2021.
The most tiresome debate in sports television just got renewed for another season! The reasons given for the Cowboys not getting a long-term deal done are threadbare. They shouldn't need another year of evaluation for a top-10 quarterback who has been with them for four seasons. I also don't buy the notion that the impasse was based on the Cowboys preferring a five-year deal to the four-year pact the QB wanted, as if they wouldn't happily sign Prescott to a four-year deal if he were willing to take less money.
Using $31.4 million of the salary cap on Prescott this season without long-term security is foolish. Patrick Mahomes, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz's extensions gave their teams more cap flexibility in the short term, which is the opposite of what the Cowboys are doing here. It reminds me of Washington's indecisive handling of Kirk Cousins in the years leading up to his departure for the Vikings. The differences are Prescott's ceiling as a player and that the Cowboys actually want to keep Dak. I think.
Prescott is listed first here because top-10 quarterbacks entering their prime simply don't change teams barring a major injury. There's no reason to believe Prescott will fall off a cliff this season, which will probably force the Cowboys to give Prescott a far bigger contract down the road than the one they could have given him this year. Or better yet, last year.
It's a big drop from Prescott to everyone else on the list. Each seems to face a more uncertain future than the Cowboys' QB1. Simmons is ranked so high because Broncos general manager John Elway has publicly said the tag is a "placeholder" for Simmons. Unlike some of the teams listed below, the Broncos held good faith negotiations with their tag recipient this month, according to NFL Network's James Palmer.
Simmons fits coach Vic Fangio's defense like a glove. In a Broncos secondary with plenty of question marks, he emerged as one of the best safeties in football. His versatility allows Fangio to get more creative up front, and Elway would be crazy to break up the duo.
The Bucs' decision to use the tag on Barrett wasn't a surprise. His breakout 2019 season was such a step up in class that his market value became tricky to set and the team wanted him to back up his performance. Still just 27 years old in a perfect situation under coordinator Todd Bowles, Barrett is in prime position to make himself irreplaceable. Considering his age and premium position, the Bucs may even prioritize keeping Barrett a year from now ahead of franchise stalwart Lavonte David.
Scherff is one of the better Washington draft picks of the last decade, although his selection occurred a few decision-makers ago. The fact that he even was given the franchise tag despite failing to top 650 snaps the last two years shows his value when he's healthy.
General manager Dave Gettleman is in too deep. He gave up a third- and fifth-round pick for Williams, then paid him more this season ($16.1 million) than he ever would have seen in free agency.
For Gettleman, Williams represents the team's defensive way of life. Big Blue is a believer in Big Uglies, with Williams, Dexter Lawrence and Dalvin Tomlinson eating space while most teams get lighter up front. It hasn't worked for the team so far. I can envision Gettleman paying Williams big money again, valuing him more than the rest of the league does. However, that could require the Giants' defense improving enough for Gettleman to still be at the helm next year.
Once on track for Canton, Green is at a career crossroads after playing in nine games over the last two seasons. It's possible owner Mike Brown finds a way to keep Green beyond 2020, but the drafting of Tee Higgins as Green's potential replacement speaks louder than Brown's quiet track record of keeping his draft picks. Whether Green balls out or gets hurt again, this sure feels like his last season in Cincinnati.
There is some belief that the Jets' reported interest in Thuney helped inspire Bill Belichick to keep him off the market. It will be harder to do again in 2021, especially considering Belichick's history of not paying interior linemen top dollar. Thuney's tag-team partner at guard, Shaq Mason, signed a below-market deal in 2018, which could complicate any negotiations with Thuney. Like many Patriots over the years, Thuney will probably have to leave to max out his money.
The reporting about Harris this offseason was mixed. While Rapoport noted that the late bloomer was available for a potential trade before the draft, the Vikings also worked on a long-term deal as Wednesday's deadline approached. The Vikings may eventually have to choose between Harris and Harrison Smith.
When Henry is right, he ranks with the best pass-catching tight ends in football. His injury history and the Chargers' 2021 free agents could make a long-term deal complicated, though. Henry missed all of 2018 and then four games in 2019. With Joey Bosa, Keenan Allen, Melvin Ingram, Mike Pouncey and Henry all set to hit free agency next year, Henry could get lost in the shuffle.
Dupree's 2019 season came mostly out of nowhere after a star-crossed first four years with the Steelers. His breakout season reminds me of Dee Ford's 2018 campaign, and it could be tough for the Steelers to fully buy in after seeing all of Dupree's ups and downs. That's especially true with so many other big defensive contracts (Stephon Tuitt, Joe Haden, Steven Nelson) and likely future commitments (Cameron Heyward in 2021 and T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick further down the road) to consider.
I've always loved watching Drake run the ball and his performance after being traded from Miami to Arizona last season proved what he could do in the right system. The Cardinals' use of the $8.48 million transition tag on Drake was an incredible show of faith by coach Kliff Kingsbury, but I'm not sure that means he'll get a long-term deal. Drake still has to prove he can hold up over a full season with a heavy workload and there will be other options to plug into Kingsbury's system in the draft and free-agent class next year.
The Ravens tend to view edge rushers as replaceable, and who can blame them? The team's blitz-happy scheme reliably gets Ravens paid elsewhere before Baltimore reliably rolls out the next model in the pipeline. Judon is a high-effort player who stood out in the front seven last season, but the team's disinterest in a long-term deal and trade rumors indicate this is probably his final year in Charm City.
Ngakoue was vocal about wanting out of Jacksonville, but the Jaguars turned down multiple trade offers for him, including a deal that involved a Pro Bowl player, according to NFL Network's Tom Pelissero. A trade is still possible before or during this season, especially if another team loses a key pass rusher in training camp.