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There’s Franchise-Tag Drama—Just Not From a Player You’d Expect

While there’s no Le’Veon Bell situation among this year’s tagged players, a placekicker could be 2019’s agent of chaos

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last year was the closest the franchise tag may ever get to Shakespearean drama. Then–Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell sat out the entire 2018 season rather than play on the tag for the second year in a row, forsaking $14.5 million to send a message that it was never about money. This year isn’t likely to deliver as much drama. Only six teams used the tag this year, and three of those situations have already been resolved.

  • The Kansas City Chiefs tagged pass rusher Dee Ford and traded him to San Francisco, where he signed a contract that pays him $35 million over the next two years.
  • The Seattle Seahawks tagged pass rusher Frank Clark and then traded him to Kansas City, where he signed a deal that will pay him roughly $64 million over the next three years to replace Ford.
  • The Dallas Cowboys tagged pass rusher Demarcus Lawrence and agreed to a deal paying him $65 million over the next three years.

That leaves three tagged players still negotiating up until Monday’s deadline:

  • Houston outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney
  • Atlanta defensive tackle Grady Jarrett
  • San Francisco kicker Robbie Gould

The deadline for these players to sign a long-term deal with their team is Monday, July 15, at 4 p.m. ET. If the two sides cannot agree on a deal by then, the only contract the player can sign is the one-year franchise tender, which is set at either an average of the top five salaries at the player’s position or 120 percent of his previous salary, whichever is greater. (Clowney would get $15.9 million, while Gould would get a shade under $5 million.) Most players sign the tender because it offers twice as much money as they’ve made in the previous four years combined. This was not the case for Bell, who had been tagged the previous year, giving him enough career earnings to take a stand. Similarly, Clowney and Gould have earned enough money that they have more leverage than players usually have in these situations. Neither Clowney, Jarrett, nor Gould are as famous as Bell or will cause fantasy football owners as much trauma, but one of them could create havoc for two playoff contenders—and it’s not the one you think. There won’t be as much franchise-tag drama as last year, but we could be in line for tragicomedy.

Jadeveon Clowney, Outside Linebacker, Houston Texans

Clowney was the no. 1 pick in 2014 and the most hyped pass rushing prospect this decade, but he hasn’t had more than 9.5 sacks in any of his five NFL seasons. His run defense, not his pass rushing skills, has separated him at the NFL level, and that makes him a tricky player to compare with edge rushers like Frank Clark and Demarcus Lawrence, who are known for getting to the quarterback. Aaron Wilson of The Houston Chronicle reported this week that the Texans are unlikely to agree on a deal with Clowney before Monday. The defender will likely play on the $15.9 million tag and miss a chunk of training camp but not miss any games.

Any chance of Clowney signing long term was likely doomed when the Texans front office became the strangest in the sport last month. Houston chairman and CEO Cal McNair fired general manager Brian Gaine in June but failed to hire his preferred replacement, New England’s Nick Caserio. Now the team is being run by a cavalcade of interim GM Chris Olsen, head coach Bill O’Brien, director of player personnel Matt Bazirgan, and executive vice president of team development slash team chaplain Jack Easterby, all of whom may have their eye on more front office decision-making power. Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio reported that O’Brien and Gaine disagreed on signing Clowney long term and O’Brien preferred having Clowney play on the tag. Trading Clowney for picks or offensive line help—perhaps Washington’s Trent Williams—may be the wiser choice, but the team is likely to take a safer route and keep him.

If Clowney does play on the tag this year, he may find himself in the same situation next year. Houston gave Clowney a $1 million bonus at the end of last season to resolve a dispute over his position, which is officially outside linebacker, not defensive end. On the field, the difference isn’t a huge deal. But on the franchise tag, it’s a big deal that compounds over time. The Texans can tag Clowney for $19.1 million in 2020, compared with $20.5 million if he were officially listed as a defensive end. No matter who is making decisions for the Texans next year, they may see that $1.4 million difference as a good reason to tag Clowney a second time in 2020.

Grady Jarrett, Defensive Tackle, Atlanta Falcons

Jarrett is one of the more underrated interior pass rushers in football, but even by franchise-tag standards, his situation is sleepy. Jarrett already signed the one-year franchise tender for $15.2 million, but he can still sign a long-term contract with the team by Monday. It’s unlikely there will be any rancor from Jarrett, one of the Falcons’ two defensive captains last year. Atlanta handles contract negotiations as peacefully as any team in the NFL. Both Jarrett and receiver Julio Jones are seeking new deals, but instead of holding out, both have showed up to Atlanta’s offseason activities as a sign of good faith for Falcons owner Arthur Blank.

“At the end of the day, his word is gold,” Jones said of Blank to D. Orlando Ledbetter of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “He said they are going to get something done between them and my agency. As far as me, I just hold up my end and stay ready.”

When Jones, perhaps the most respected player in Atlanta’s locker room, handles his business so amicably, the players lower on the pecking order are more likely to follow suit.

Robbie Gould, Kicker, San Francisco 49ers

Meet your 2019 Agent of Chaos. The second-most accurate kicker in NFL history may become the first kicker to ever headline the list of training camp holdouts.

Gould spent the first 11 years of his career in Chicago, where his wife and three sons live. But his family stayed in Chicago while Gould spent 2016 with the Giants and the last two seasons with San Francisco, and now Gould wants to move back home. When the 49ers franchise-tagged Gould to prevent him from leaving, then reportedly inquired about signing Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski, Gould turned into the kicker version of Liam Neeson from Taken. He told ESPN’s Adam Schefter the week before the draft that the earliest he will show up is the 49ers’ Week 1 matchup on September 8—if he shows up at all.

“The bottom line is, I’m unsure if I want to play there anymore,” Gould said. “At this point, I have to do what’s best for me and my family back home.”

Gould seemingly wants to be dealt to the Bears, but the 49ers are ill-equipped to trade him. The only other kicker on San Francisco’s roster is Jonathan Brown, a 26-year-old who kicked at Louisville but has never played in the NFL beyond preseason games. Meanwhile, Gould is the second-most accurate kicker in league history by career field goal percentage (87.7 percent), and he’s only getting better with age. Gould leads all kickers in field goals made (72 makes in 75 attempts) and field goal percentage (96) over the past two seasons. He’s done this while kicking in the Bay Area, which doesn’t get as cold as Chicago but is nearly as windy.

“Robbie’s going to be a part of us this coming year, I know that,” 49ers general manager John Lynch told Schefter before the draft. Not to undercut John Lynch, but he probably does not know that. If Gould refuses to show up out of principle, it could be enough to derail the 49ers kicking game—and perhaps their season. And if Lynch doesn’t trade him, it could also doom the Bears.

Chicago has an epic kicking mess on their hands. The team cut ties with kicker Cody Parkey after his season-ending double doink in the wild-card round of the playoffs and subsequent morning-show apology tour that wasn’t cleared with the team. But replacing Parkey has proved to be harder than Chicago thought, even after hiring a kicking consultant. The Bears brought in eight kickers this offseason, but after six of them missed a kick from the same distance Parkey doinked against the Eagles, the Bears traded for one of Oakland’s kickers to be the ninth member of the competition. Not great. Chicago could have the worst kicking situation in the NFL in 2019, but upgrading to Gould could make it one of the best. Gould missed three field goal attempts in the last two years, while Parkey doinked four kicks into the uprights in a single game against the Lions last year.

Gould’s holdout could affect the playoff landscape more than Bell’s ever did. If Gould doesn’t show for the beginning of the season, it could be enough to sink the 49ers’ playoff hopes in a competitive NFC West. And if Bears kickers continue to blow wins while Robbie Gould watches with his family on TV just miles away, Chicago fans will be apoplectic that the team hasn’t made San Francisco a strong enough offer. A man must pick between his family and his duty, and either way an entire city could be mad at him. Maybe the franchise tag will be dramatic this year after all.