There is an episode of Seinfeld when George tells his girlfriend Maura they are breaking up. “We’re not breaking up,” she tells him.
Maura later explains that a relationship is like a nuclear submarine: Both partners have to turn their keys at the same time to begin disengagement. George’s bewilderment turns to anger, and his pasty white skin turns as red as the tomatoes he eats like apples.
“Turn your key Maura! TURN YOUR KEY!”
This is how the NFL works. Players don’t get to pick where they work when they leave college (odd when you think about it). After four years (or five for some first-round picks), players reach free agency and can finally choose where they want to work—and get a large raise, signing bonus, and some multiyear security in the process. But when they go to break up with their team, the team can refuse to turn its key.
Each franchise can do this with only one player each year. The tag is a mandatory and non-negotiable one-year contract that each team can slap on one free-agent-to-be every year. Some players are happy to take the large one-year salary (the tag is roughly the average of the top five salaries at their position), and others get angry about their curtailed freedom. From there, the player and team negotiate on whether they want to sign a long-term contract by the July 15 deadline, or if they will just accept the one-year franchise tag. Whether or not the two parties agree to a long-term deal, the relationship ends when the team wants it to end.
The deadline for teams to use their franchise tag was Monday at noon. Here are the players whose teams refused to turn their key on Monday.
QB Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys
Tag price: $31.5 million
Dak Prescott played his cards well while the Cowboys drunkenly showed their hand to the entire table, and now Prescott is about to win big. The franchise tag is a useful tool for teams at just about every position, but tagging a quarterback is an absolute last resort because after a couple of years it becomes more expensive than just signing them to a contract. Getting to the tag stage means that something in the negotiations has gone wrong, and now they will have to pay for it somehow. The Cowboys thought they would approach free agency under the rules of the old CBA, which had a strange quirk granting them two tags—or two keys—for the 2020 season. Dallas reportedly planned on using these on Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper. But the new CBA was negotiated and ratified quicker than expected, and the Cowboys had just one key but two players they wanted to keep. They chose Prescott.
Prescott will make more than $30 million this year. Tagging him again in 2021 would cost Dallas closer to $40 million. That means if Dak plays on the tag two years in a row, he can earn an average of roughly $35 million in the next two years, or the same that Russell Wilson makes on average as the league’s highest-paid player. Tagging Dak a third year in a row would come at an even higher cost. The price will become so exorbitant that Dallas must get him signed to a long-term deal this offseason, but now the floor in the negotiation is making him the league’s highest-paid player by average annual salary (and therefore the highest-paid player in NFL history) until Patrick Mahomes signs his next deal. Not only will they have to pay Prescott a record amount, but now they will have to pony up for receiver Amari Cooper, who is also a free agent. Whether he stays or goes, it’s a lose-lose situation for the Cowboys. Either Dallas gives Dak Prescott a record contract but lets his best receiver leave, or Dallas signs both and ends up with the most expensive quarterback, most expensive running back, the most expensive offensive line, and possibly the most expensive wide receiver. Dallas fans will have nobody to blame but the Joneses who misplayed their cards.
RB Derrick Henry and the Tennessee Titans
Tag price: $10.3 million
This was a formality after the Titans worked out their contract with Ryan Tannehill on Sunday. Henry is the rare running back who can be the identity of an NFL offense. Last season, he led the league in carries and yards and tied for the lead in rushing touchdowns. He raised his game when it counted most by putting up three consecutive 180-plus-yard performances in Week 17, the wild-card round, and the divisional round (the first time in NFL history that a player had rushed for 180 or more yards in three consecutive games). Henry’s reward for these efforts is, well, uncertain. Running backs don’t like the franchise tag; they have as big a risk of injury as just about any position. If Henry gets injured and is forced to test free agency next year, he would likely get far less than what he is hoping to get now.
But the Titans may be wary of giving Henry a long-term deal. Todd Gurley’s deal for $45 million guaranteed with the Rams looks like it will end with him being released; on Monday, the Falcons released running back Devonta Freeman from his contract. The Titans would not be students of history if they just threw Henry the contract he wants, but Henry will justifiably be upset if the Titans lowball him in contract negotiations. This could easily lead to Henry holding out during training camp. Watch to see if Tennessee takes a running back in the draft to give them leverage in their negotiations with Henry.
WR A.J. Green and the Cincinnati Bengals
Tag Price: $17.9 million
Of all the players on this list who most want to break up with their team, Green is likely near the top. The Bengals have bungled a lot in the past two decades—just ask Carson Palmer—but the franchise landed the no. 1 pick in April’s draft, which gives them the chance to grab LSU quarterback Joe Burrow. That gives Green one big reason to not request a trade. Green did not play in 2019 after injuring his ankle, but he is a great target and locker-room leader to help transition to the Burrow era of Bengals football.
The Bengals were always unlikely to let A.J. Green hit free agency, but tagging him doesn’t mean they will keep him for multiple years if he does not want to stay. The Bengals could trade Green, or they could simply let him walk next year. How the Bengals do with Burrow, and how Green feels about this rebuild, could shape whether Green is in Cincy for the short or long term.
TE Hunter Henry and the Los Angeles Chargers
Tag Price: $10.6 million
Henry has been injury prone, playing just 41 games in four seasons, including the 2018 campaign, which he missed with a torn ACL. In 2019, Henry managed 487 yards and three touchdowns in his first seven games (which were spread across 11 weeks due to injury) but then just 165 yards and two scores in his final five games. The Chargers will likely want to see Henry perform well and stay healthy for an entire season before making a serious long-term commitment.
DT Chris Jones and the Kansas City Chiefs
Tag Price: $16.1 million
This one was a no-brainer. Jones was the secret MVP of Super Bowl LIV, disrupting Jimmy Garoppolo throughout the game. Jones might be the most effective interior pass rusher in football not named Aaron Donald. Jones turns 26 in July, so he is just entering his prime. Even with a Mahomes mega-deal on the horizon, the Chiefs should be setting money aside to give Jones a long-term deal.
DT Leonard Williams and the New York Giants
Tag Price: $16.1 million
The Giants tagged Williams on Monday, but they likely made their mind up about that decision months ago. In October, the Giants parted with a third- and fifth-round pick for the Jets defensive end in a rare Jets-Giants trade. On the surface, it made sense. Giants general manager Dave Gettleman loves big linemen, and Williams was a heralded prospect out of USC in the 2015 draft and is still just 25 years old. But last season, Williams played eight games for the Giants and registered just half a sack.
If the Giants can tap into Williams’s potential, the deal and the contract will be worth it. But the Giants will likely have to pay Williams for a level of production he has yet to display, and if he doesn’t do it, it’ll be the latest in a line of questionable moves from the Giants GM.
OLB Shaq Barrett and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tag Price: $15.8 million
This deal is not a surprise. Last season, Barrett led the league with 19.5 sacks. Barrett will be earning nearly $16 million this year and could possibly be signing a long-term deal with Tampa Bay. The Bucs have publicly said they believe in his potential, but privately they must be wondering how Barrett will be able to keep up his production if their defensive line loses Ndamukong Suh and Carl Nassib in free agency (though the team re-signed Jason Pierre-Paul to a two-year, $27 million deal on Monday). Barrett will inevitably get more attention from opposing offensive linemen in 2020, and it would not be shocking if his sack total dropped.
The real story here is the Bucs are letting Jameis Winston hit free agency. He could still end up back in Tampa Bay, but the team appears to be comfortable with letting the 2015 no. 1 pick negotiate with other teams. That shows the Bucs are far more concerned about Winston’s 30 interceptions in 2019 than they are excited about him leading the league in passing yards.
S Anthony Harris and the Minnesota Vikings
Tag Price: $11.4 million
This was one of the few surprises of the day. The past two Vikings players to get franchise tagged were Chad Greenway in 2011 and Jim Kleinsasser in 2003. Harris was considered the league’s top safety entering free agency, but the Vikings had a tight budget heading into the offseason, and it was assumed that Minnesota would let Harris walk. Now, with fellow Vikings safety Harrison Smith earning $10.3 million this year, the Vikings will have two of the league’s 12 most expensive safeties in 2020. Yet they may be worth the investment. Among safeties who played at least 100 snaps in 2019, Harris and Smith (not to be confused with Vikings safety named Harrison Smith) were the second- and third-highest graded safeties on Pro Football Focus.
Anthony Harris is the only starting safety who hasn't allowed a single TD in coverage over the last 2 years— Nick Olson (@NickOlsonNFL) December 18, 2019
He had the fewest missed tackles of any starting safety in 2018
He's tied for the fewest missed tackles in 2019
And he's currently tied for most INTs by a safety in 2019
Minnesota’s defense is one of the most complex in the league, and losing Harris may have made everyone else’s job harder. The Vikings funded this in part by cutting cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who declined sharply from his All-Pro play a few years ago.
The move comes the same day the Vikings extended quarterback Kirk Cousins for two more years, which brings his remaining contract to three years and $96 million. They also extended fullback C.J. Ham, Cousins’s favorite checkdown target, for a deal offering a maximum of $12 million across four years.
S Justin Simmons and the Denver Broncos
Tag Price: $11.4 million
Harris and Smith were the second- and third-highest graded safeties by PFF last year. Simmons was no. 1. In Vic Fangio’s defense, the Broncos safety blossomed into the type of all-around playmaker teams need to succeed in this passing era. Simmons can cover, tackle, and plug the run, and that is why Denver boss John Elway never pretended the Broncos would let him go. Expect them to work out a long-term deal to keep Simmons in Denver.
OLB Bud Dupree and the Pittsburgh Steelers
Tag Price: $15.8 million
The Steelers are paying for a career year. The 2015 no. 22 pick had 20 sacks across his first four seasons without ever logging more than six in a single campaign, but then in 2019, he set a career high with 11.5 sacks and 17 quarterback hits. The Steelers must be hoping that Dupree’s play is sustainable alongside star pass rusher T.J. Watt, who was one of the best edge rushers in football last year. Edge rushers rarely leave their teams and are overpaid when they do, so Pittsburgh is probably calculating that Dupree would be hard to replace. The Steelers released his backup, linebacker Anthony Chickillo, to create $5 million in cap room. Pittsburgh quietly has the most sacks in the league in the past four years (200) and is a good bet to be near the top of the league again in 2020.
OLB Matt Judon and the Baltimore Ravens
Tag Price: $15.8 million
Last year, the Ravens let pass rushers Za’Darius Smith and Terrell Suggs and inside linebacker C.J. Mosley leave in free agency with no proven replacements. Judon stepped up. The 2016 fifth-rounder registered 62 quarterback pressures according to Pro Football Focus, 16th most among edge defenders but by far the most for any edge defender who dropped into pass coverage at least 100 times.
Judon’s versatility made him a key piece for Baltimore’s defense, and now he will be flanked by defensive end Calais Campbell, who Baltimore snagged from Jacksonville for just a fifth-round pick. The Ravens were the fourth-most efficient defense in football last year, behind only the Patriots, 49ers, and Steelers. That was with major question marks at pass rusher and big injuries to their deep secondary. They’ll enter the 2020 season with far fewer questions on defense.
DE Yannick Ngakoue and the Jacksonville Jaguars
Tag Price: $17.8 million
This one could get contentious. The Jaguars tagged Ngakoue, but he has made it clear he doesn’t want to sign a long-term deal with the Jaguars.
The Jaguars are aware I no longer have interest in signing a long term contract in Jacksonville. Duval, I love you and gave you guys everything I got. I’m thankful for the journey and look forward to continuing my career elsewhere. -91— Yannick Ngakoue (@YannickNgakoue) March 2, 2020
Considering the value of pass rushers and Ngakoue’s production (37.5 sacks and 14 forced fumbles in four years), Jacksonville might be wiser to trade him away. That would fit in with a pattern: The Jaguars have jettisoned most of their key defensive players. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey is a Ram, cornerback A.J. Bouye is a Bronco, and defensive end Calais Campbell is a Raven. This isn’t an accident: Former head of football operations Tom Coughlin struggled in his transition to a non-coaching role. Coughlin tried to act like an authoritative coach from the front office and it didn’t work. In fact, his leadership led to such an awful relationship between the front office and the players that the NFLPA sent a formal notice to players advising them to think twice before signing with Jacksonville. Owner Shad Khan fired Coughlin this offseason but held onto head coach Doug Marrone and GM Dave Caldwell (who worked under Coughlin), but that hasn’t fixed the team rapport. Jacksonville’s only hope may be starting over entirely.
G Brandon Scherff and Washington
Tag Price: $14.8 million
Washington is holding onto the no. 5 pick in the 2015 draft. While Scherff is above average, he has not been the dominant player that some imagined he would be out of college. He has played just 19 games in the past two years, which is concerning, but Washington is not in the position to be losing linemen. The franchise has already botched its relationship with left tackle Trent Williams, who is actively seeking a trade after a large dispute between him and the organization over a medical situation. With a young quarterback like Dwayne Haskins learning on the job (or another young player replacing him), Washington needs every decent lineman it can get.
G Joe Thuney and the New England Patriots
Tag Price: $14.8 million
This move is as much about Tom Brady as it is about Joe Thuney. The Patriots have already dipped into their cap space by bringing back both Devin and Jason McCourty at safety and cornerback, respectively, and special teams ace Matthew Slater. Now the team has tagged Thuney at the lofty price (by Patriots standards) of nearly $15 million. Add that to the $9 million the Patriots are already paying to right guard Shaq Mason, and that would mean the Patriots are paying nearly $24 million to the two positions many teams feel they can skimp on. Perhaps the Patriots simply saw Thuney’s value and decided they could trade him for a better pick than they would receive in the compensatory process (which would likely have given them a third- or fourth-rounder in 2021). But if they keep Thuney, this eats a lot of cap space that otherwise would have been paid to Tom Brady. As the spots where the three-time MVP could wind up shrink—Tennessee is out, and the Bears may be too if they end up signing Teddy Bridgewater or trading for Nick Foles or Andy Dalton—Brady may see the Patriots as the only team left, and the Patriots may flip their pockets inside out and say they have only so much to give.