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Deal or No Deal? The 2020 NFL Franchise Tag Primer

Will Chris Jones show up? Will Matthew Judon and Bud Dupree get long-term deals? Did the Cowboys misplay their hand with Dak Prescott? Let’s break down each situation.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

As much of American life pauses, and unpauses, and then pauses again, the NFL calendar is still going as scheduled (for now). The franchise-tag deadline is Wednesday, July 15, and we will see big-time players either get big contract extensions before then or head into the most uncertain season in league history on one-year deals.

When an NFL player’s contract expires, they are supposed to hit free agency. But each NFL team can “tag” one free-agent-to-be, which forces the player into a non-negotiable one-year contract. The tag is essentially an invisible team option year tacked onto the end of the contract that gives the player a significant but predetermined raise and prevents them from negotiating with other teams. It’s essentially a well-paid one-year audition for a much larger contract. If players want to sign a multiyear contract extension rather than perform for that make-or-break audition, they have to do so by Wednesday at 4 p.m. EST. If no contract extension is agreed on by that deadline, the player must play on the one-year tag deal and try to get a long-term contract next year. The tag is the most effective way for teams to prevent star football players from leaving in free agency, so the players who get tagged hate it.

The tag puts players in a tough position in normal times, and these are not normal times. The COVID-19 pandemic that has disrupted American life has made teams reluctant to sign contracts. Just seven of the rookies drafted in the first round this year have signed contracts, compared to 27 by this point last year. Less than a quarter of the 255 draft picks in 2020 signed their contract by June 15, compared to nearly 90 percent by that point last year. We will see if this hesitancy among NFL decision-makers extends to signing their own veterans to long-term deals, but thus far none of the 15 players who were tagged have signed a long-term extension. Ahead of the deadline, let’s assess the situations of those 15 players who will either get deals or play on the tag in 2020—assuming football is played in 2020.

Literally Paying for Past Mistakes

These three teams have, against all odds, lost leverage to their players in negotiations.

Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys

Quarterback franchise tag price: $31 million

Prescott’s situation is completely different from everyone else on this list, and by far the most important situation to watch before Wednesday’s deadline. Dallas and Prescott seem to have reached an agreement on Prescott’s average salary, which will probably be slightly under $35 million annually. But the two sides disagree on the length of the deal. Dallas reportedly wants Prescott to sign a five-year contract, while Prescott reportedly wants a four-year contract. After Patrick Mahomes signed a 10-year contract extension earlier this week, it sounds funny for Prescott to be fighting for a shorter deal. But Prescott is betting that NFL revenue will keep growing, which will raise the salary cap and give teams bigger budgets. Recent history shows Prescott’s stance is wise. The salary cap has increased almost 40 percent in the past six seasons, from $143 million in 2015 to almost $200 million this year. At that rate, five years from now the salary cap will be $275 million. Prescott is betting that team budgets will grow every year and renegotiating as often as possible will be profitable, though the pandemic could affect this strategy.

The Cowboys have the opposite philosophy. They see NFL inflation and want long-term cost control. Of the 16 active NFL players with contracts of six years or longer, four of them are Dallas Cowboys. Dallas signs its players to long contracts that guarantee a lot of money (as well as celebrity status to America’s largest fan base) in exchange for unusually long deals that become team friendly over time. Usually the Cowboys get their way, but Prescott has the leverage here. Part of that is because Dak has Campbell’s soup money. But the bigger part is that quarterbacks rarely get tagged. They are so essential to their teams, and the cost of tagging the position is so high, that franchises usually sign their quarterback to an extension before they ever get to this point. The Cowboys did not do this, and now they are likely going to pay the price. The franchise tag has a penalty for repeat usage, so tagging Prescott three years in a row looks like this:

2020 tag price: $31 million

2021 tag price: $38 million

2022 tag price: $54 million

If the Cowboys tag Prescott three years in a row, he’ll make $123 million over the next three years. For perspective, Patrick Mahomes will make $63 million over the next three years. For any other position, the Cowboys would just replace the player, but they can’t let their quarterback leave. They’ll be in a precarious position if they don’t get a deal done by Wednesday, forced to pick between paying Prescott even more money next season or take a hard look at backup quarterback Andy Dalton. Owner Jerry Jones prefers paying Dak over praying for Dalton, so Prescott is the one with leverage. It’s quite the role reversal after Prescott made less than $5 million total in four years as the most important player for the most valuable sports franchise on earth. Now he is likely going to make more than Mahomes in the short term. Dak is the Champion of the Chunky Contract.

Brandon Scherff, G, Washington

Offensive line franchise tag price: $15 million

Washington blew its relationship with left tackle Trent Williams, one of the best offensive linemen of the past decade, in outrageous fashion and dealt him to San Francisco. Now its next best linemen, Scherff, might also be in his final year with the team. ESPN’s John Keim reported “There isn’t much optimism that a long-term deal will be struck” and that Scherff will play the season on the tag. Considering the market for offensive lineman, Scherff would be set for a massive contract in 2020 if he stays healthy. Washington quarterback Dwayne Haskins could lose his two best offensive linemen in his first two years as a starter.

Leonard Williams, DT, New York Giants

Defensive tackle franchise tag price: $16 million

There seems to be a theme here with NFC East teams making mistakes. The Giants traded a 2020 third-round pick and a 2021 conditional fifth-rounder to the Jets for Williams at the trade deadline in October, which was a steep price for a player set to be a free agent. The trade was a bet on Williams’s talent after his excellent career at the University of Southern California led to the Jets drafting him no. 6 in 2015. But Williams managed just half a sack in his half-season with the Giants. He gets to the quarterback often, but rarely produces sacks. Since 2015, Williams ranks 12th among defenders in quarterback hits (101) but is tied for 81st in sacks (17.5). Williams wants a top-tier contract, but the Giants may prefer to see him convert that pressure into sack production first.

Run It Back

Matthew Judon, OLB, Baltimore

Linebacker franchise tag price: $17 million

When the Ravens lost linebackers Terrell Suggs, Za’Darius Smith, and C.J. Mosley last offseason, they needed someone in the front seven to step up. Judon became that person. He led the team in sacks (9.5), tackles for loss (14), and quarterback hits (33), with the latter being more than three times higher than Baltimore’s next-closest defender. Judon earned Pro Bowl honors for a defense that was one of the best in football last year. But the Ravens may be perfectly happy getting one more year from Judon for a Super Bowl run, letting him leave in free agency, and getting a compensatory draft pick in 2022. Judon got his opportunity because Baltimore refused to pay their proven pass rushers, and now that Judon has proved himself, he may see the other end of that cycle.

Bud Dupree, OLB, Pittsburgh

Linebacker franchise tag price: $16 million

It wouldn’t be an AFC North arms race if Pittsburgh didn’t match what Baltimore did. Dupree may not have been franchise-tagged at all if not for a career year in 2019 in which he had 11.5 sacks—the same amount he had in his previous two seasons combined. Pittsburgh has led or tied for the lead in sacks each of the past three seasons, but more important players to that defense also need to get paid. Defensive end Cam Heyward is in a contract year and will likely get an extension before Dupree does. Pittsburgh also eventually has to give a contract extension to budding superstar T.J. Watt, who has three more sacks than Dupree in 23 fewer games. The Steelers also have to extend defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, a midseason acquisition who was an All-Pro last year and was the key to their defensive resurgence that nearly brought Pittsburgh to the playoffs without Ben Roethlisberger. Dupree isn’t nearly as crucial as those three guys, so while it makes sense for Pittsburgh to keep Dupree around for 2020, they’ll likely let him go next year.

Justin Simmons, FS, Denver

Safety franchise tag price: $11 million

Simmons was one of the NFL’s best safeties in 2019, flourishing in head coach Vic Fangio’s defensive scheme. Simmons ranked as the highest-graded safety on PFF last year, and Denver needs him this year after losing cornerback Chris Harris Jr. to the Chargers in free agency. Denver has a lot of young (and therefore cheap) talent on offense with quarterback Drew Lock, receivers Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton, and tight end Noah Fant. The team can use those savings to give Simmons a big extension.

Anthony Harris, S, Minnesota

Safety franchise tag price: $11 million

Minnesota keeping Harris was one of the few surprises among the tags this year. Harris is one of the NFL’s most underrated safeties, but the Vikings have committed so much cap room to so many defensive veterans that it was assumed they couldn’t squeeze Harris into their cap. But Vikings GM Rick Spielman let veterans like cornerback Xavier Rhodes and defensive end Everson Griffen go and retained Harris, who was one of the top-graded safeties by PFF last year and has been a versatile player for defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer’s scheme. But considering running back Dalvin Cook is reportedly planning to hold out, the Vikings may have to pick which player they want for multiple years and which they let go in 2021.

We Like You, But Can You Do That Again?

Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee

Running back franchise tag price: $10 million

Henry signed his franchise tender, so there won’t be a Le’Veon Bell situation here. The only question is whether Henry will sign a long-term extension with Tennessee or go into a contract year, which is a tricky proposition for running backs. Henry certainly wants a big extension after leading the league in rush attempts (303), rushing yards (1,540), and rushing touchdowns (16) last season, not to mention 446 yards in three postseason games. But the recent history of running back extensions is disastrous and discourages some teams from pouring money into a role increasingly seen as replaceable. Tennessee letting Henry play on the one-year tag and then letting him leave at 27 years old is the cold but well-calculated business move. Giving Henry an extension would be betting that he won’t follow Todd Gurley or David Johnson’s quick descent and rewarding someone who broke the NFL record for rushing yards in an eight-game stretch (including playoffs).

Shaq Barrett, OLB, Tampa Bay

Linebacker franchise tag price: $16 million

Shaq Barrett took a $4 million prove-it deal with Tampa Bay last year and then led the NFL with 19.5 sacks, breaking the franchise record set by Warren Sapp. Whether Barrett is back for one year or multiple years, it will be good for Tom Brady. Assuming Barrett doesn’t sit out or get traded, Tampa Bay will return all 11 defensive starters from 2019, when that unit was top five by efficiency, according to Football Outsiders. The defensive front of Barrett, former first-rounders Ndamukong Suh and Vita Vea, and defensive end Carl Nassib was a key reason that defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’s group was so strong.

We Like You, But Can You Stay Healthy?

A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati

Wide receiver franchise tag price: $18 million

In theory, Green is a great figure to help LSU quarterback Joe Burrow transition to the NFL on the field and become the face of the Bengals franchise off of it. But Green didn’t play last season following an ankle injury, has missed 29 games over the past four years, and turns 32 later this month. Cincinnati may let Green play on the tag in 2020 and see whether he can stay healthy before giving him an extension.

Hunter Henry, TE, Los Angeles Chargers

Tight end franchise tag price: $11 million

Henry is a classic franchise tag candidate. His injury history is so prohibitive—just 35 starts in four seasons—that giving him a long-term extension with a lot of guaranteed money would be irresponsible. But the talent he has flashed when he’s been on the field is tantalizing enough that L.A. can’t just let him go. If Henry puts together a healthy campaign, where he’d presumably destroy his career highs in most receiving categories, the Chargers might consider a long-term deal for him next season. But if Henry gets hurt again, the Chargers would be smart to let him leave.

You’re Plan A and We Don’t Have a Plan B

Joe Thuney, G, New England

Offensive Line franchise tag price: $15 million

The Patriots didn’t have a lot of cap space entering this offseason, especially with a heavy dead cap hit looming if Tom Brady left, so it was a surprise the team franchise-tagged Thuney. Thuney seemed surprised too, based on how quickly he signed it so that New England could not rescind it. New England already has a hefty $9 million invested in guard Shaq Mason, so tagging Thuney means the Patriots are currently spending more than 13 percent of their salary cap on guards, more than twice the league average. But head coach Bill Belichick may value pass protection and run blocking more in a post–Tom Brady world, and he may also have less faith in developing Thuney’s replacement after legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia retired this offseason. New England doesn’t have much cap space left and is unlikely to sign Thuney long-term by the deadline, but Cam Newton (or Jarrett Stidham) might have the best pass protection of his career.

Kenyan Drake, RB, Arizona

Running back transition tag price: $8 million

Technically Drake was not franchise-tagged, but rather transition tagged, a different designation that would allow another team to sign Drake if they sent the Cardinals two first-round picks. But that isn’t happening, so he is Arizona’s starting running back for 2020. He got that job after a midseason trade from Miami, after which Drake quickly usurped incumbent running back David Johnson and scored eight touchdowns in his final eight games. Johnson was traded to Houston for DeAndre Hopkins in March, giving Drake the starting job to himself. But there appears to be little chance he’s signing a long-term deal in Arizona after Johnson’s deal went so poorly.

No, Really, I Won’t Show Up

Yannick Ngakoue, DE, Jacksonville

Defensive end franchise tag price: $18 million

Who among us has not publicly @ed your company owner’s son on Twitter demanding a trade?

Ngakoue is a good defender, and good defenders haven’t lasted long in Jacksonville. Cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye and defensive end Calais Campbell have all been traded in the past year. Ngakoue seems determined to be next.

The only leverage Ngakoue has over Jacksonville is he has not signed his franchise tender yet, so he could sit out and until he’s dealt. But that would also carry the risk that Jacksonville calls his bluff and lets him sit out without earning any money for the 2020 season. This looks like it will be a tough fence to mend.

Chris Jones, DT, Kansas City

Defensive tackle franchise tag price: $16 million

You might think Mahomes’s half-billion-dollar extension would mean the Chiefs can’t pay other players this offseason. In truth, Mahomes’s deal added just $30,000 to Kansas City’s cap in 2020 (reminder: the salary cap is easily manipulated). Kansas City is coming off of a Super Bowl victory where Jones could have reasonably won Super Bowl MVP for his constant harassment of 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. As the Chiefs try to repeat, they are returning head coach Andy Reid, all three offensive coordinators, 22 of 23 assistant coaches, and 19 of 22 starters. Assuming Jones does not hold out or get traded, that would be 20 of 22 starters. But Jones tweeted last week that if Kansas City doesn’t offer him $20 million annually, he might sit out the season like Le’Veon Bell did in 2018.

Jones has not signed his franchise tender yet, and if he does not sign it he won’t be entitled to the $16 million he’d make for 2020, but the Chiefs would also not be able to fine or trade him since he’d technically not be under contract. We’ll see if Jones is truly willing to follow through on his holdout, but first Kansas City has to decide what he’s worth. The Chiefs had a higher pass-pressure rate and better run defense when Jones was off the field in 2019, but he was also dealing with a calf injury. When healthy, Jones is among the few interior pass rushers capable of doing an Aaron Donald impersonation (Jones was the second-highest graded linemen on third and fourth down last year, per Pro Football Focus). The Chiefs backloaded $300 million of Mahomes’s contract for 2026 and beyond precisely to keep players like Jones around on a long-term deal. If they keep him on the tag and then let him go next year, the Mahomes contract will be the scapegoat. But the real answer is Kansas City didn’t want to invest in a defensive tackle in his late 20s.