With COVID-19 uncertainties, just nine NFL players received the franchise tag in 2021, down from 14 the year before. No, all 32 certainly won’t pull the trigger this year – but which the salary cap projected to jump, a lot more stars could be playing on high-ticket, one year deals.
This squad of unrestricted free agents has the best chance to see it happen.
Arizona Cardinals: Zach Ertz, TE
Playing at a position lacking many difference-makers, Ertz could cash in this spring in free agency if he gets the chance. Even entering his age-32 season, a one-year $10.8 million deal is a smart move.
Atlanta Falcons: Cordarrelle Patterson, RB/WR
Raise your hand if you saw this one coming a year ago. Always a special teams threat, Patterson became a do-it-all playmaker in 2021, rushing for 618 yards, adding nearly 55 on the ground and finding the end zone 11 times.
Atlanta is $6.6 million over the cap – but would be losing its most dangerous weapon if they let him walk.
Baltimore Ravens: DeShon Elliott, Safety
This one’s a bit of a reach. Elliott missed most of the year but he’s logged 3 1/2 sacks, 6 PD’s and generally locked down his spot on the field when it comes to pass coverage (58% completion rate in 2020)
Buffalo Bills: Harrison Phillips, DT
If stout and steady – but unspectacular – earned players franchise tag deals, Phillips would be in the running. The big man had six hits, 8 pressures and four tackles for a loss in his 8 starts. Oh, and he reportedly played with a torn PCL.
Phillips wants to return but time will tell if the Bills will sign him to another deal.
Carolina Panthers: Haasan Reddick, OLB
Reddick cooled off a bit after a red-hot start (6 1/2 sacks in five games) but he proved to be a bargain for the Panthers in 2021 (One year, $8 million deal).
Now, he’ll get his chance to cash in.
At 27 years old (and coming off an 11 sack, 42 pressure campaign), he’s going to get a nice pay raise in 2022 – from the Panthers or elsewhere.
Chicago Bears: Anyone but Allen Robinson, WR
This isn’t a knock on Robinson, so to speak. But he showed the league – and the Bears – what he thought of playing on the franchise tag in 2021.
Just 36 catches and 410 yards. Robinson has made bad QB’s look good for years and it’s pretty clear that he’s tired of it.
Let the guy go.
Cincinnati Bengals, Jessie Bates, safety
Just get it done. Bates has become one of the NFL’s safeties on a defense that needs him to stick around. Still just 25, he’s a tackling machine who also has 10 interceptions in his four-year career.
Cleveland Browns: Jadeveon Clowney, DE
It’s not enough to deserve the $18 million his franchise tag would cost but Clowney did have a career year playing opposite game-wrecker Miles Garrett.
Clowney logged 50 pressures and nine sacks, and as usual, he’s a top level run-stopper.
But can you count on him to repeat the performance for another full season?
Dallas Cowboys: Randy Gregory, DE
Gregory would cost big bucks and the longtime Cowboy may also end up being transition tagged this spring – a projected $4 million savings. He had 29 pressures and six sacks in just 11 starts.
Denver Broncos: Kareem Jackson, safety
Another reach. Jackson is well into his 30’s and will likely be available for a price under the nearly $13 million tagging him would cost. There’s always a deep pool of safeties on the market during free agency.
Detroit Lions: Tracy Walker, safety
But here’s a safety who’ll deserve that payday. Still just 27, Walker allowed a 72.9 passer rating and just 2 tds all season.
He also had more than 100 tackles and a pick.
Green Bay Packers: Davante Adams, WR
The Packers have a bit of a dilemma here. Actually, a $50.7 million one.
With that level of cap pain, Adams seems destined to land elsewhere.
But the 29-year-old gave them plenty of reasons to try to find a way to keep him in Green Bay after he had 1,553 yards and another 11 touchdowns in 2021.
Houston Texans: Justin Reid, safety
Facing an uncertain situation with their All-Pro Quarterback, the Texans are starting at a major rebuild and Reid would be a bit pricey to keep for a year that will likely be a lost one.
But if we’re playing along, the guy did have 2 ints, four passes defended and a forced fumble last year during what may have been his most solid campaign.
Indianapolis Colts: Peyton Manning
GM Chris Ballard has never used the franchise tag and given the lack of value options on their current roster, it might as well be their old general.
Eric Fisher stands to earn a nice payday at left tackle but not $16 million.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Cam Robinson, Tackle
Could they run it back with Robinson in 2022 after a one-year deal last year?
Robinson was a steady force, allowing just 2 sacks and 24 hurries despite blocking for a young QB who held onto the ball longer than most.
Kansas City Chiefs: The Badger
Tyrann Mathieu is too valuable to let walk as their shiftable jack-of-all trades. The Pro Bowler had 3 ints, 76 tackles and six PD’s last year.
Las Vegas Raiders: Casey Hayward, CB
Hayward will probably end up returning on a much friendlier deal. At 32, he’s still a solid corner who showed he’s worth more than the $4 million he earned in 2021. Just not $13 million more.
Los Angeles Chargers: Mike Williams, WR
Williams grabbed 1,146 yards on 76 passes last year along with his career-high 9 touchdowns. If he goes free, he’ll earn a big payday.
His rapport with Justin Herbert make the franchise tag – and better yet, a long-term deal – a worthy move.
Los Angeles Rams: Von Miller, EDGE
Miller returned to form on a new team and picked up nine sacks (regular season and playoffs) as well as a pile of TFL’s last year. Seemingly improving as the season went on, he won’t see the tag given the Rams cap struggles but a deal is possible.
Miami Dolphins: Mike Gesicki, TE
Gesick’s 780 yards put him in the top 5 tight end conversation last year but the question is would new coach Mike McDaniel want to keep a limited player (Gesicki’s not exactly known for his blocking) at a price like that. He’ll probably be attacking the slot elsewhere in 2022.
Minnesota Vikings: Anthony Barr, LB
It’s actually not too likely that Barr will get another big windfall like this one. Not yet 30, Barr is still solid (70 tackles, 4 sacks in 2021) but the team is $15 million over the cap and there’s better ways to use that cash.
New England Patriots, J.C. Jackson, cornerback
If you’ve listened to Jackson, it doesn’t sound like this is going to happen.
But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t. Star corners aren’t easy to find and Jackson has been an absolute ballhawk in Foxboro. He added eight last year to go with 23 passes defended.
If he’s able to test the market, there’ll be a bidding war.
New Orleans Saints: Marcus Williams, safety
Let’s get this out of the way first. The Saints are practically an entire salary cap over the cap. $76 million big ones.
Otherwise, they’d gladly sink some money into keeping Williams, a standout
Among targets flying his way, Williams allowed a 37.5 passer rating.
That’s rare stuff.
New York GIants: Evan Engram, TE
The Giants pass-catcher posted a career low in yards in 2021 but under new coach Brian Daboll, he could be in a line for a big turn-around.
The Giants would be wise to sit this year out. At $10 million, Engram might be a solid tag option if the Giants find a way to trim tens of millions from their cap.
New York Jets: Foley Fatusaki, DT
Fatusaki is by far the Jets run defender and had five tackles for a loss last year but the locker room leader only logged 47% of the team’s snaps last year and appears to be looking for more opportunities. The Jets could keep him for $8 million, per the rumor train, but they may let him go.
Philadelphia Eagles: Steven Nelson, CB
No, Nelson isn’t worth that whopping $17.3 million he’d receive under the tag but he showed the team last year he’s worth keeping around in 2022.
He had seven passes defended and one INT during his 16 starts.
Their 2017 class’ big name rookie – Derek Barnett – had a career low 2 sacks last year and will be looking for a job elsewhere.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Not kicking the can down the road anymore
The Steelers should have kept Nelson. Instead, they are looking at a real secondary rebuild with almost 33-year-old Joe Haden at a crossroads.
The Steelers managed to have $31 million in space, which is surprising after so many years of “win-now” moves alongside Ben Roethlisberger. But it’s gotten to the point they need every dime of that money to fill holes.
JuJu Smith Schuster could return for another team-friendly deal after a rough 2021 but the smart money sees him moving on.
San Francisco 49ers: Laken Tomlinson, Tackle
Tomlinson looked like one of the league’s best guards during a season that saw San Frank make a playoff run. He’s also been reliable, missing just one game in five seasons.
The team is currently over the cap but that won’t last long once their QB, Jimmy G, heads elsewhere.Seattle Seahawks: Rashad Penny, RB
File this one under “2021 surprises” too. To be honest, Penny isn’t a deserving tag candidate based on one steller second half surge this year. But his 6.3 ypc during an often dismal Seahawks season was eye-opening.
Of note: Penny had 671 yards in five games.
Also of note: He never came close to that in any FULL season prior to 2021.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Chris Godwin, WR
This should be a slam dunk. Godwin logged another 1,000 yard season in just 14 games before a rough injury just before the playoffs.
He’s set to earn a big payday either way.
Tennessee Titans: Harold Landry, Edge
Landry was one of the best pass-rushers in the game, at times, this season, collecting 12 sacks, 22 hits and his first Pro Bowl nod.
Nice timing too, given the market free agent edge rushers see.
But for Tennessee, they’ll have to cut space – and talent – to make room for him.
Washington Commanders: Brandon Scherff, guard
Will he get the hat trick? “Let’s go, Bran … um, nevermind.”
Scherff has been tagged twice already meaning his hit would climb to approx $25 million.
The Commanders have the space, sorta, but they also have a bounty of needs.