The best way to explain the NFL’s franchise tag is with a scene from Friends. In “The One With the ’Cuffs” from Season 4, Chandler tries to break up with his girlfriend (who is also Rachel’s boss), but he ends up handcuffed to a chair in the girlfriend’s office wearing nothing but a shirt. Rachel breaks into her boss’s office and frees Chandler, but then realizes her boss will find out, so Rachel tries to re-handcuff Chandler to the chair and pretend the whole thing never happened. Chandler won’t cooperate, so Rachel panics and handcuffs him to the filing cabinet instead. You can watch this begin to unfold at the 2:09 mark below.
This is the franchise tag, which, in a nutshell, allows teams to force a would-be free agent into a one-year contract. First, a star player’s contract expires (Chandler is freed from the chair). Then the team realizes that the player will leave in free agency, panics, and slaps the franchise tag onto the player to stop them from leaving (Rachel handcuffing Chandler to the filing cabinet). The tag doesn’t really solve the problem—in fact, it makes both sides pretty nervous—but it buys the team (Rachel) time to negotiate. The team offers a long-term contract for a lowball price (Rachel offers to clean Chandler’s bathroom for a month) and a series of disappointing counter-offers (foot rubs! A photo album!). The player scoffs and demands that they want to reach free agency (Chandler repeatedly demands freedom). Eventually the player gets frustrated by the lack of progress in the negotiations and begins tweeting about it (Chandler opening the door and screaming for help). Then the team’s final offer appeals to the allure of staying with the same team (“I can make you a legend”). More often than not, the player caves and signs a team-friendly long-term deal (Chandler agrees to be re-handcuffed to the chair). It’s hard to blame them when they aren’t wearing any pants.
NFL teams have from Tuesday, February 19, to Tuesday, March 5 to handcuff their best free agents to the proverbial filing cabinet. Once locked in, teams have until July 15 to work out a long-term deal with the player. If that deadline passes without a contract being signed, the player plays on a one-year deal worth the average of the top five salaries at their position or 120 percent of the player’s previous salary, whichever is greater (or, if you’re Le’Veon Bell, you don’t sign the tender and don’t show up). Below are the players most likely to be handcuffed to their team’s filing cabinets, along with some predictions for how the negotiations might play out.
Quarterback (Projected Tag Price: $25.6 Million)
Nick Foles, Philadelphia Eagles
Foles’s situation is unlike the rest. If the Eagles place the franchise tag on Foles, they almost certainly would not be doing so to keep him: They would tag him intending to trade him. If they don’t sense a big enough trade market for Foles, they may choose to let him leave as a free agent, which would likely give them a compensatory pick in 2020. If the Eagles do use the tag, however, they could send him to a team—Jacksonville?—that would sacrifice a draft pick to avoid bidding against another team on the open market.
Defensive End (Projected Tag Price: $18.7 Million)
Dee Ford, Kansas City Chiefs
Ford had 13 sacks last season, tied for seventh in the league, and led the league in forced fumbles (seven). He also led all edge defenders in pass rushing pressures last season (77) and was third among all pass rushers, after Aaron Donald and Fletcher Cox. There’s a fair argument that he and Kansas City’s other elite pass rusher, defensive tackle Chris Jones, were the main reasons the team’s defense wasn’t historically bad. Admittedly, Ford was in a dream pass-rushing scenario, playing for a team who put up points early and often, which allowed Ford to focus on rushing the passer as opposing offenses abandoned the run and were forced to throw the ball. Kansas City isn’t in a position to let Ford go, but it might be wise to tag him and see whether he can produce similar numbers in 2019.
Demarcus Lawrence, Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys tagged Lawrence last year for $17.1 million, and tagging him two years in a row would cost 120 percent of his 2018 salary, so he’s in line for $20.6 million in 2019 if he is tagged. Last summer, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that Lawrence wants a long-term deal and would not play two years in a row on the franchise tag (this is why Bell sat out last year). Lawrence likely wants to avoid the fate of Anthony Spencer, whom the Cowboys franchise tagged in 2012 and 2013 before deciding not to sign him to a long-term contract when his play declined. Yet Lawrence is more important to the Cowboys defense than Spencer was, Jerry Jones is obsessed with pass rushers, and Lawrence would likely be the most prized free agent on the market if he left Dallas, so it would be somewhat shocking if the Cowboys let him leave. Lawrence’s deal might be complicated by Dak Prescott, who also needs a contract extension this offseason, but odds are the Cowboys will lock up both players this summer.
Frank Clark, Seattle Seahawks
Clark has more quarterback hits (66) and sacks (32.0) since 2016 than any of the players above him on this list, and he logged a career-high 13 sacks in 2018. Safety Earl Thomas is unlikely to return to the Seahawks after his contract holdout ended with a broken leg in Week 4 against Arizona, leaving Clark as the lone real option for the tag on the roster.
Trey Flowers, New England Patriots
Last season, the five highest-graded edge defenders according to PFF were, in order, Calais Campbell, J.J. Watt, Trey Flowers, Khalil Mack, and Von Miller. It is not hyperbole to say that Flowers might be the most underrated defender in football. He was made for the Patriots’ defense, but that may mean he’s not long for it. Flowers was the fulcrum of New England’s Super Bowl defense that held the Chiefs and the Rams offenses scoreless in the first half of the AFC championship game and the Super Bowl, respectively. Whether Bill Belichick chooses to invest in a homegrown defender rather than let him leave town will be, by Belichick standards, fascinating. There is one interesting wrinkle in these negotiations worth watching: Flowers’s agent, Neil Cornrich, also represents Bill Belichick. That relationship may be the key to Flowers staying with the Pats.
Linebacker (Projected Tag Price: $15.8 Million)
Jadeveon Clowney, Houston Texans
Clowney was such a dominant college player that the main debate around him wasn’t whether he should go no. 1 overall in the 2014 draft, but whether he should sit out his final season at South Carolina. As a professional, he’s been … fine. He’s never had double-digit sacks in a season, never finished in the top 12 of pass pressures by PFF, and never posted elite numbers in quarterback hits (over the last three seasons combined, he’s tied for 19th in the category). In 2018, finally playing alongside a healthy J.J. Watt, the theory was he would realize his potential. In practice, he basically re-created his 2017 statistical season. Clowney has been a consistently top-20 outside pass rusher, but he’s rarely looked like he belongs in the top five, which is likely the kind of money he’ll be seeking on a long-term extension. The Texans have a good amount of cap space and would be one of the handful of teams that could afford a massive Clowney deal even if he hit the open market. He’s likely to stay in Houston, but the price and whether Clowney will reach his potential are the real questions.
C.J. Mosley, Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens’ stalwart inside linebacker is not Ray Lewis, but he’s perhaps been Baltimore’s most important defender since he was drafted 17th overall out of Alabama in 2014. The Ravens were famously stingy with big-money extensions under longtime GM Ozzie Newsome, who preferred to let players leave in free agency and collect compensatory draft picks. Newsome is retired now, but his successor Eric DeCosta is likely to follow a similar mold. Yet Mosley might be too talented and important to let go. If he does leave, his final regular-season play for Baltimore will be his interception of Baker Mayfield in Week 17 that sealed the Ravens win and AFC North title last season.
Defensive Tackle (Projected Tag Price: $15.6 Million)
Grady Jarrett, Atlanta Falcons
Jarrett is not the most famous player on the Falcons, but he might be the most important after Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. He was one of six team captains, a group that included Jones and Ryan. His pass-rushing prowess in Super Bowl LI has been largely forgotten, but he tied the Super Bowl record with three sacks. Last season, he was the fifth-highest-graded interior defender in football and tied for the sixth-best pressure rate among interior defensive linemen who saw at least 300 snaps on pass plays. He’s one of the best all-around defensive linemen in football and the reason Atlanta’s defensive line isn’t one of the worst in the NFL. GM Thomas Dimitroff has called signing Jarrett a priority. If the Falcons do tag him, it may make more sense to sign him this summer than let him play on the tag in 2019. That contract will likely be the basis for how the team handles the rest of its All-Pro-caliber defensive stars whose contracts are soon to expire, including Deion Jones, De’Vondre Campbell, and Keanu Neal.
Safety (Projected Tag Price: $12 Million)
Landon Collins, New York Giants
As ESPN’s Bill Barnwell noted last week, the Giants have two players left from their drafts in between 2011 and 2015: Odell Beckham Jr. and Landon Collins. Beckham is signed, but the Giants defense would take a huge hit if the team let go of Collins, the Alabama safety who was a dark horse candidate for 2016 Defensive Player of the Year and a team captain in the Giants’ first year under Pat Shurmur in 2018. It would be especially unwise to let Collins go considering his price. The team can franchise-tag him at safety for $12 million despite the fact that in 804 defensive snaps last season, he lined up in the box 478 times, along the defensive line 71 times, as a slot corner 115 times, and as a true free safety just 109 times, according to PFF. If Collins successfully claimed he should be classified as an inside linebacker, he would be tagged at nearly $16 million. The team tagging Collins for 75 percent of that figure should be a no-brainer, but there are no guarantees from general manager Dave Gettleman, who rescinded Josh Norman’s franchise tag as GM of the Panthers in 2016 in the move that led Norman to sign with Washington.
Running Back (Projected Tag Price: $12 Million)
Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers (?!)
On Super Bowl Sunday, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the Steelers were considering using the transition tag on Bell. The transition tag is sort of a hybrid of the franchise tag and restricted free agency that would allow Bell to negotiate with other teams for a contract, but the Steelers would have the right to match any deal that he signs. The main sticking point here is the two sides won’t even be able to agree on how much Bell’s transition tag price is worth. His side will argue $14.5 million, the amount he missed last season, and the Steelers will argue $9.5 million because of the games he sat out. This situation would be unprecedented, so it’s unclear who would prevail.
The prevailing wisdom in November was that the Steelers would not pursue this route because if they wanted to get rid of him, regular free agency could net them a compensatory third-round pick in 2020, while Bell leaving on the transition tag would get them nothing. But perhaps the most shocking part of the Bell saga, after he sat out all of 2018 to reach free agency, would be the Steelers bringing him back in 2019. Even after the tensest franchise-tag negotiation ever last season, it would be nice to see they can still be friends.