The NFL’s franchise tag window, allowing teams to retain one pending free agent on a fully guaranteed one-year deal, opens on Tuesday, Feb. 21 and runs through March 7. For some clubs, the decision to use the franchise tender is clear; for others, the expensive price tag associated with the tag will force some difficult conversations. Let’s run through the top franchise tag candidates in 2023 and identify the most likely players to receive the tender in the coming weeks.
2023 Franchise Tag Candidates
The non-exclusive franchise tag allows the player in question to negotiate contracts with rival teams. If his original team chooses not to match an offer sheet, that club will receive two first-round picks. The price of the non-exclusive tender is calculated by averaging the top five cap hits at the position over the previous five years, then adjusting that figure based on the current salary cap.
Meanwhile, players assigned the exclusive franchise tag are not allowed to speak with other teams. As a trade-off, the exclusive tender is more expensive than its non-exclusive cousin. It’s calculated by averaging the top five cap numbers at the player’s position after the free agent period ends.
The exclusive franchise tag is rarely deployed, and when it is, it’s almost always used on a pending free agent quarterback. This offseason, there’s only one realistic candidate for the exclusive tender — a certain former MVP in Baltimore.
Baltimore Ravens | QB Lamar Jackson
If the Ravens fail to work out an extension with Lamar Jackson, they can probably have one of their division rivals to thank for the lack of progress. After the Browns gave Deshaun Watson a fully guaranteed $230 million extension upon acquiring him from the Texans, Jackson wants the same type of contract — and it’s hard to argue he shouldn’t receive it, given his leverage.
Injuries have limited Jackson to 12 games in each of the past two seasons, but he’s a dynamic 26-year-old quarterback with an MVP award on his résumé. If he hit the open market with no strings attached, he’d almost surely surpass Watson’s deal with Cleveland.
Baltimore hasn’t shown a willingness to give Jackson a fully guaranteed extension, so the franchise tag remains the most likely outcome. Thus far, we’ve seen conflicting reports on whether the Ravens will use the exclusive tag.
The non-exclusive tender ($32.416 million) would give Jackson the opportunity to meet with other teams and discuss a contract offer. Baltimore could conceivably let Jackson take those meetings and allow another club to essentially negotiate for them. Once Jackson comes back to the Ravens with an offer sheet in hand, general manager Eric DeCosta would have the option to match.
Of course, a team with interest in Jackson could offer him the fully guaranteed contract that Baltimore has refused to put forth. In that case, the Ravens could allow Jackson to leave and start fresh with two new first-round picks in hand.
Whether two first-round selections represent enough compensation for a quarterback of Jackson’s caliber is an open question. If Baltimore wants more, it could use the exclusive franchise tag, dangle Jackson in trade talks, and hope a QB-desperate club puts a Godfather offer on the table.
Buffalo Bills | LB Tremaine Edmunds, S Jordan Poyer
The Bills have two candidates for the franchise tag, and both are on the defensive side of the ball. Buffalo is currently $16 million over the cap, but they can restructure enough contracts to give themselves financial breathing room.
Tremaine Edmunds has developed into the three-down linebacker the Bills envisioned when they selected him with the 16th overall pick in the 2018 draft. He’s become one of the NFL’s best coverage linebackers, forming a second-level pass-defending wall with fellow linebacker Matt Milano.
The only problem? The franchise tag value for linebackers includes salary averages for off-ball linebackers like Edmunds and edge rushers, who typically earn far more than your everyday ‘backers. As such, a franchise tender for Edmunds would cost Buffalo nearly $21 million, an untenable price.
Keeping Jordan Poyer is more palatable, as the safety franchise tag is worth just under $14.5 million, which would rank eighth at the position on an annual basis. However, Poyer will be 32 years old at the start of next season and missed five games with injuries in 2022. If the Bills want to pair Poyer with Micah Hyde for another season or two, a short-term contract makes more sense than the franchise tag.
Cincinnati Bengals | S Jessie Bates III
Jessie Bates III was franchise-tagged in 2022, and he wasn’t happy about it. The 25-year-old sat out of the Bengals’ offseason until late August, when he officially signed his tender and reported to training camp.
Cincinnati could franchise Bates again in 2023, but because it would be his second consecutive tag, he’d be entitled to 120% of his salary from last season. That would work out to $15.4943 million, making him the fifth-highest-paid safety in the NFL.
The Bengals drafted Bates’ replacement in 2022 when they selected Michigan safety Dax Hill at the end of the first round. While Cincinnati could theoretically franchise Bates and pair him with Hill in their secondary, their more likely course of action is to let Bates walk and re-sign Vonn Bell to play alongside Hill.
Dallas Cowboys | RB Tony Pollard, TE Dalton Schultz
The Cowboys already seem to have decided their course of action, as Pro Football Network’s Tony Pauline recently reported Dallas plans to use the franchise tag on Tony Pollard. The 25-year-old was the Cowboys’ most dynamic offensive player, and the franchise tag for running backs only costs a shade over $10 million.
Dalton Schultz was Dallas’ franchise player last season, but he couldn’t match his production from the 2021 campaign. In Jake Ferguson, Peyton Hendershot, and Sean McKeon, the Cowboys have three young tight ends ready to fill Schultz’s void when he likely departs via the free agent market.
Jacksonville Jaguars | TE Evan Engram
The Jaguars secured one of the steals of the 2022 free agent period by landing Evan Engram. The former first-round pick collected just under $9 million while finishing third among tight ends in receptions (73) and fourth in yardage (766).
Although Jacksonville is projected to be well over the cap next season, they shouldn’t have any trouble becoming compliant by cutting some players and restructuring others.
Engram was a crucial part of the Jaguars’ offense and a safety blanket for Trevor Lawrence, and it makes sense for Jacksonville to retain him as they build out the rest of their pass-catching unit. If the two sides can’t agree to a long-term contract, an $11.345 million franchise tag is workable.
Kansas City Chiefs | OT Orlando Brown
The Chiefs gave up a haul to acquire Orlando Brown from the Ravens before the 2021 campaign, but he didn’t hold any contractual leverage after his first season in Kansas City. Although there were rumblings that Brown wanted to become the NFL’s highest-paid offensive tackle, he eventually accepted the franchise tag.
After another above-average season with the Chiefs, Brown is likely staring at another tag. ESPN reported earlier this month that executives around the league expect Kansas City to assign Brown the franchise tender for a second consecutive year.
Las Vegas Raiders | RB Josh Jacobs
Josh Jacobs couldn’t have picked a better time to post his breakout season. He’s set to become a free agent after leading the NFL in rushing yards (1,653) and rushing first downs (93) while finishing fifth in rushing scores (12).
Whether or not Jacobs actually reaches the market is an open question. The RB franchise tag ($10.091 million) is worth less than any position’s tender except for kickers and punters. The Raiders have the third-most cap space in the league, so a $10 million price tag to keep a reigning first-team All-Pro isn’t more than a drop in the bucket.
Jacobs recently said he’ll be willing to accept the franchise tag if the Raiders load up on offensive talent around him, but the reality is he won’t have much of a choice unless he plans to sit out the 2023 campaign.
New York Giants | QB Daniel Jones, RB Saquon Barkley
With their starting quarterback and running back both scheduled to hit free agency in March, the Giants may face the most complex decision tree of any team in the league. Given that each club only has one franchise tag at its disposal, New York will have to decide whether Daniel Jones at $32.416 million or Saquon Barkley at $10.091 million represents a better value.
As general manager Joe Schoen ponders his options, he might do well to look back at the 2020 Titans, who faced the exact situation the Giants now find themselves in. Tennessee signed pending free agent QB Ryan Tannehill to a four-year extension and gave Derrick Henry the franchise tag. Henry and the Titans later agreed to a long-term deal just before that summer’s franchise tag deadline.
Jones is reportedly searching for $35 million per year, but it sounds like the Giants will tag him if they can’t work out an extension. Meanwhile, Barkley is likely looking for $14 million annually, but the franchise tag for running backs is worth just over $10 million.
Seattle Seahawks | QB Geno Smith
After Geno Smith posted the best season of his career in 2022, the Seahawks could consider franchise-tagging him — but the better option might be the rarely-used transition tag.
On the plus side, the transition tag would allow Seattle to save roughly $3 million over the franchise tag value. The franchise tender is based on the top five salaries at a position, while the transition tag is an average of the top 10 salaries, so the latter is always cheaper.
The transition tag gives the original team the chance to match any offer sheet, but the Seahawks wouldn’t acquire any compensation if they declined to match a proposal Smith received from another team.
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However, I’m not sure how much of an issue that would present for Seattle. Smith is 32 years old, and his numbers fell off significantly down the stretch. Is there any other team that would be willing to hand him a significant multi-year contract?
Deploying the transition tag would reward Smith for last year’s performance while also allowing the Seahawks to stay away from a protracted agreement. Seattle holds the fifth pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, so they might select a young QB who could be ready to step in by 2024 when Smith’s transition tag would expire.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers | CB Jamel Dean
As much as the Buccaneers would like to retain Jamel Dean, their salary cap situation probably won’t allow it. Tampa Bay is roughly $55 million over the cap. While they can clear space by finagling Tom Brady’s contract and restructuring other deals, the Bucs are unlikely to be major players in the free agent market.
Dean was excellent for most of 2022, but Tampa Bay oddly played him on only six defensive snaps in their Wild Card loss to the Cowboys. Given that they’re already paying fellow cornerback Carlton Davis $15 million per season, I think they’ll let Dean walk and attempt to bring back Sean Murphy-Bunting as a more cost-effective replacement.
Washington Commanders | DT Daron Payne
The Commanders have made their defensive line a priority, spending first-round picks on Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne, Chase Young, and Montez Sweat in an effort to remain stout up front. Having already signed Allen to a four-year deal in July 2021, can Washington afford to franchise tag Payne at nearly $19 million?
Given that they’ll have plenty of cap space after releasing Carson Wentz, the Commanders should use the franchise tender on Payne. They could still work out an extension with the 25-year-old defensive tackle, and even if they can’t, Payne’s 12-sack season should generate trade interest around the league.