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The Future for Franchise-Tagged Players

Who will secure a long-term deal before the July 15 deadline?

Getty/Ringer illustration
Getty/Ringer illustration

NFL players hit with the franchise tag have long hated the rule, but it’s a week like this one that has to make them seethe. Roster sizes and past labor negotiations with owners have created a scenario in which no football player will see the type of money that Kevin Durant gets in his new Golden State deal (two years, $54.3 million). The tag also ensures that no NFL star with an expiring deal — if his team is willing to pay up for one year — will ever get that kind of free-agent treatment, either.

Von Miller, still amid an offseason that he entered as a Super Bowl hero, won’t host a parade of front-office types at a mansion in the Hamptons. That’s because the only team that can sign him to a long-term deal is the Broncos. Denver applied a $14.1 million tag to Miller in March, and while benchmark deals like the one the Eagles just gave Fletcher Cox — a record $63.3 million guaranteed for a defender — provide a starting point to his side of the proceedings, they still don’t unlock Miller’s full negotiating power. I haven’t seen Jack Donaghy’s entire negotiations seminar, but I’m pretty sure having only one offer isn’t good for anyone looking to jack up his value.

For now, though, that’s the system in place. If Miller and the Broncos can’t strike a long-term agreement before the July 15 deadline for NFL teams to sign their franchise-tagged players, he’ll make $2 million less this season than Evan Turner will get with the Blazers.

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Getty Images

Last we heard about the talks between Miller and the Broncos, the sticking point had to do with the structure of the guarantees over the first three years of his deal. According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Denver was offering about $19.1 million annually over six years, with $58 million in guarantees — but only $39.8 million guaranteed within the first two years. Miller reportedly is seeking a deal that more closely resembles Cox’s, which has his entire 2018 base salary and a significant chunk of his 2019 salary become fully guaranteed next March.

Still, the gap between the two sides doesn’t feel wide enough to prevent them from reaching an agreement by next weekend. The Broncos will have some other contracts to figure out next year, including those for soon-to-be free agents Emmanuel Sanders and DeMarcus Ware, but Denver has only $103.85 million on the books for 2017. With a rise in the cap expected to take effect, with Peyton Manning and Malik Jackson gone, and with many of their other young stars already signed, the Broncos should have the flexibility to make Miller the highest-paid defensive player ever; with his value never more apparent, that’s probably what they will do.

The future is murkier for other franchise-tagged players this offseason, but that only makes their negotiations more fascinating. Here are my best guesses at what will happen in each case before next Friday’s deadline.

Muhammad Wilkerson, DE, Jets

Breakdown: The amount of free-agent money the Jets had to work with the past few years burned a hole through their collective pocket. Then it set fire to their entire house. After signing (approximately) 17 defensive backs last offseason and making a bevy of deals this year (a combined $11.5 million will go to newcomers Matt Forte, Ryan Clady, and Steve McLendon), New York has about $3.07 million in available cap space — with Wilkerson’s $15.7 million tag number on the books. Even if management were to give its standout defensive end a deal similar in structure to Justin Houston’s new contract in Kansas City (with a low first-year number to provide some quick cap relief), the bill looming in the future might prove too much for the franchise to stomach.

The Jets already have $23.6 million in cap dollars tied up in their 2017 defensive line. Assuming Wilkerson gets a yearly figure commensurate with the $17 million or so that Cox got from Philly and Olivier Vernon received from the Giants, that would leave the Jets on the hook for about $40.5 million owed to their defensive line. Only the Dolphins would be paying more. And that’s before the new deal Sheldon Richardson is going to want when his contract expires following next season.

Prediction: Sadly, the drafting of Leonard Williams sixth overall last spring probably signaled that Wilkerson’s days in New York were numbered. The only problem with accumulating a bunch of low-price, high-value players at one position is those prices don’t stay low for long.

The lack of long-term security inherent to a franchise tag can prompt a player in Wilkerson’s position to react in the way that he has. If he had been allowed to hit free agency in March, there’s no doubt he would have commanded the same type of deal Vernon got from the Giants. Now he’ll have to hope he can stay healthy and match his 2015 production, when he tallied a career-high 12 sacks, to get a deal near the top of the market. It just likely won’t come from the Jets.

Alshon Jeffery, WR, Bears

Breakdown: The circumstances preventing Jeffery from securing a long-term deal with the Bears aren’t nearly as complex as they are for some of the other players on this list. Even with Jeffery’s $14.6 million tag figure, the Bears still have more than $22 million in space and are set to have more than $44 million next season even if the cap doesn’t budge. Jeffery’s predicament is less about cap gymnastics than it is about his pesky hamstrings.

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Getty Images

When the 26-year-old receiver was on the field last year, he was a monster: Even hobbled by injury, Jeffery made 54 catches for 807 yards with four touchdowns, serving as the undoubted centerpiece of the Chicago offense. He finished in the top 10 in the league in average targets per game (10.4), behind only players such as Julio Jones, Antonio Brown, and DeAndre Hopkins.

The problem is that Jeffery hasn’t been on the field nearly as much as the Bears would like over the course of his career. He played in only 10 games as a rookie, and though he didn’t miss a start in 2014, nagging injuries hampered his production following a fantastic sophomore effort.

Prediction: The Bears have too much cash, too glaring a need at wide receiver, and too much tied up in visions of Jeffery doing ridiculous shit to let him walk. Last season’s July 15 deadline spurred several huge receiver deals (including for Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant), and this one should, too. Jeffery’s production has never quite reached the heights of, say, Bryant or Julio Jones (who got his extension last summer before his contract expired), but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him land a deal in the range of what they got: five years, in the ballpark of $70 million, with about $45 million guaranteed.

Trumaine Johnson, CB, Rams

Breakdown: Following last season, the Rams had plenty of decisions to make about their future at cornerback. Both of their top corners — Janoris Jenkins and Johnson — became free agents, but L.A. had enough cap room that, with some creativity, it might have been able to retain both. Instead, the Rams let Jenkins walk and franchise-tagged Johnson for $13.95 million.

This set off a series of negotiating points that should work in Johnson’s favor. By keeping him while letting Jenkins go, the Rams made it clear that they value Johnson more between the two. Given that Jenkins then inked a deal with the Giants for five years and $62.5 million, with $28.8 million in practical guarantees, that should mean Johnson is deserving of an even better deal. If he gets one, it would make the 26-year-old the third-highest-paid corner in football.

Prediction: So many factors involved in this mess point to the two sides coming to an agreement. The Rams have the available cap space, and even with Michael Brockers’s team-friendly deal expiring after this season, the finances seem manageable: L.A. already has locked up Mark Barron and Robert Quinn with long-term contracts, and it won’t have to pay out the few billion dollars Aaron Donald deserves until most of the guarantees in Johnson’s deal have been realized.

Still, all of those factors were just as true four months ago as they are now. By letting Jenkins walk, the Rams showed they weren’t willing to hand out what they saw as undeserved money to cornerbacks. Johnson was excellent in 2015, picking off seven passes, but his track record is shorter than even Josh Norman’s was at the end of last season. The Panthers balked at making Norman football’s highest-paid cornerback and eventually released him from the tag earlier this spring, when Washington was more than happy to break the bank for him. Like Carolina, the Rams have shown that defensive line remains their priority, and even if it looks like they can afford Johnson now, guaranteeing their ability to hold onto Donald may take precedence.

Kirk Cousins, QB, Washington

Breakdown: Cousins — who was tagged for $19.95 million — is fighting his own limited history of success in his quest for a long-term deal, but his stalemate with Washington could work out by the end of the 2016 campaign. All offseason, the front office ensured that Cousins would be surrounded by shiny toys, giving pass-catching robot Jordan Reed $22 million guaranteed and taking Mr. Fantastic clone Josh Doctson in the first round of the draft. Pierre Garçon may not stick in D.C. past this year, but the offense’s receiving corps includes him, DeSean Jackson, Jamison Crowder, Reed, and Doctson. It’s a glut of weapons, and it puts Cousins in prime position to prove that what happened down the stretch last season — 73.6 percent completion rate with 2,212 passing yards, 19 touchdowns, and two interceptions — is his new normal.

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Getty Images

Prediction: The chances of Cousins and Washington striking a deal this offseason feel more remote than they do for any player on this list besides Wilkerson because in this case both sides have good reason to wait and see. Washington wants further evidence that Cousins is a viable long-term starter. Cousins wants to prove that he deserves to be paid like the top quarterbacks in the league. If he can string together another season like last year’s breakout effort, he just might. Given the extension that the Colts just gave to Andrew Luck ($140 million over six years, with $87 million guaranteed), any leap a QB can make from one tier of his peers to another is significant come contract time.

Eric Berry, S, Chiefs

Breakdown: Most of us are familiar with Berry’s story by now, but here’s a quick recap: After being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2014, Berry returned to the Chiefs last season and became a vital part of both a playoff run and a defense that finished sixth in the league in DVOA. It’s remarkable that Berry was even able to play football at all — if you haven’t read Kevin Clark’s story on how Berry managed it, I highly recommend you do so — but what’s even crazier is that Berry didn’t simply return to the field; he might have turned in the best season of his career. He was “rewarded” with the nonexclusive franchise tag (for safeties it sits at $10.8 million), which in practice is pretty damn exclusive.

Berry’s draft status — fifth overall in 2010 and part of a top five that included Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy, and Trent Williams — and tough-to-evaluate position has meant his production hasn’t always matched his reputation over the course of his career. But last season, things might have swung in the other direction. Already a solid run defender, Berry showcased an ability to cover tight ends while lining up near the line of scrimmage that has made his value skyrocket, particularly in the Age of Gronk.

Similar to the cases involving Miller and Wilkerson, Berry’s camp can point to a recent deal at his position as he and Kansas City attempt to find common ground. Harrison Smith’s new contract with the Vikings set the market for safeties in annual average ($10.3 million) and practical guarantees ($28.6 million, just edging out the Patriots’ Devin McCourty), and Berry will likely look for numbers in that range. With the way he’s played lately, he should.

Prediction: What’s happening in Kansas City this summer resembles what happened there last year. In 2015, by giving Justin Houston a deal with a relatively small cap figure in the first year, the cash-strapped Chiefs managed to appease Houston while helping themselves in the short term (and likely causing cap problems in the long term). It makes sense to think that the same scenario would play out this year. Kansas City has less than $2 million in available space, and Berry’s play warrants the same top-of-the-market deal that Houston landed a year ago.

Justin Tucker, K, Ravens

Breakdown: Tucker, who Baltimore hit with a $4.5 million franchise tag this offseason, is on this list for the sake of thoroughness. The Ravens’ (damn good) kicker told the Baltimore Sun last month that it’s “a matter of when, not if” he re-ups.

Prediction: With a solid amount of cap space (more than $13 million) this year, the Ravens should get this deal done at some point. No kicker’s contract, aside from Tucker’s tag, has an average annual salary of $4.3 million, and only the Patriots’ Stephen Gostkowski has a deal with more than $10 million in guarantees. But there are looming cap questions that Baltimore’s front office must consider. Several Ravens — Jimmy Smith, Marshal Yanda, Mike Wallace, and Dennis Pitta — are set to see an increase in their cap hit next season, and even if Wallace and Pitta are cut, Baltimore will still owe about $6.5 million more in dead money.