NFL franchise tags coming, and this year's likeliest recipients
Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Redskins during NFL action in Landover, Md., on Dec. 28, 2014. (Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports/Files)
You know NFL free-agency season is right around the corner when discussion of franchise tags heats up.
Starting Monday, clubs have exactly two weeks to slap one of three single-season "tags" on one player only set to become a free agent on March 10.
The three options: an exclusive franchise tag, a non-exclusive franchise tag or a transition tag.
This year, big-name players such as Dallas wide receiver Dez Bryant, Denver wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and Kansas City edge rusher Justin Houston are seen as likely tag targets by their teams.
Tags are typically applied to players coming off their rookie contracts, meaning after four or five years in the league.
Sometimes a team applies the tag merely to buy more time to work out a long-term deal with the player. Such as with New Orleans and all-pro tight end Jimmy Graham last year. The Saints tagged him just before the early-March deadline, but the two parties soon agreed to a four-year, $40-million deal.
Players generally despise being tagged. To a man, they want the big-money, long-term deal they feel they've already earned.
Tag amounts vary.
A player slapped with an exclusive franchise tag earns the average of the top five salaries at his position for the coming season. In other words, big bucks.
With non-exclusive franchise tags and transition tags, a complicated formula each year determines set salary amounts, which are sequentially lower than those for exclusive franchise tags. But with each of these tags, if 120% of the player's previous-season salary is higher than the set amount, then that's what he earns.
Set amounts for 2015 tags have yet to be determined.
While all tag salaries are fully guaranteed, tagged players are out of luck long-term if they suffer a career-limiting or career-ending injury. Which is why most players hate being tagged.
The exclusive franchise tag locks up a player up for one year, as no other team can offer him a contract. It comes at a cost: the priciest salaries of the three tags.
But these tags are rarely applied.
Non-exclusive franchise tags offer virtually the same certainty of retention, at a lower salary. The only way a team can lose a player slapped with one of these tags is if another team a) is prepared to offer him a deal so lucrative his current team won't match it, and b) is prepared to give the player's former team two first-round draft picks as compensation.
No player that a team would ever expose in this manner would be worth so steep a price. Hasn't happened, won't happen.
Transition-tag salary amounts are yet lower, but the risk with this tag skyrockets: the player's current team gets no compensation should he sign with another team.
Got all that?
Last year four teams applied a franchise tag, all of the non-exclusive variety: by New Orleans to TE Graham, Carolina to DE Greg Hardy, New York Jets to PK Nick Folk and Washington to LB Brian Orakpo. Two transition tags were applied: by Cleveland to C Alex Mack and Pittsburgh to LB Jason Worilds.
Teams have much to consider when debating whether to tag a player, not the least of which is how much salary-cap room they have, as 100% of the tag salary counts toward the cap. And whereas tagging eats short-term cap space, long-term contracts don't.
A real-world example: Graham last year would have earned $7.053 million under his non-exclusive franchise tag but, thanks to back-loading, only $4 million of his eventual four-year, $40-million deal applied to the Saints' 2014 cap. That freed up more than $3 million.
Here are our Top 10 candidates to receive tags this year:
DEZ BRYANT, WR, Cowboys
DeMarco Murray, the league's leading rusher, is also a tag possibility. But Bryant is Big D's first priority. If Jerry Jones can't sign Bryant to a long-term deal, he'll tag him.
JUSTIN HOUSTON, OLB, Chiefs
According to reports, he and the Chiefs aren't anywhere close to agreeing on a long-term deal. He had 22 sacks last year and has 43 since 2012. Tag, you're it.
NDAMUKONG SUH, DT, Lions
Despite all his occasional idiocy, Suh remains a D-line force. Tagging him would give the Lions another year to mull whether they want him long-term.
DEMARYIUS THOMAS, WR, Broncos
Even if QB Peyton Manning chooses to retire, no NFL team can let such a talented, tall, speedy and prolific receiver bolt. He'll be back in orange, one way or another.
JULIUS THOMAS, TE, Broncos
If the Broncos ink the other Thomas to a long-term deal by March 2, Julius becomes a prime tagging candidate. He's practically as important.
JASON PIERRE-PAUL, DE, Giants
One of the NFL's indomitable pass rushers for a couple of seasons until his back surgery two years ago. Quietly regained his old form this past season.
RANDALL COBB, WR, Packers
He and Jordy Nelson formed one of the NFL's top receiving duos in 2014. Both caught 90+ passes for 1,200+ yards and 12+ TDs, but Cobb also returns kicks.
DEVIN McCOURTY, S, Patriots
By the end of the Super Bowl he might have been only the fourth best playmaker in the New England secondary. But he's solid and Bill Belichick likes him.
STEPHEN GOSTKOWSKI, PK, Patriots
If the Pats sign McCourty to a long-term deal, or let him test free agency, this nine-year vet was the NFL's second most accurate field-goal kicker in 2014. Too valuable to risk losing.
MIKE IUPATI, G, 49ers
Seems every club is looking to upgrade at guard. Can't just let a good one walk, a painful lesson the Bills have learned since letting Andy Levitre do so two years ago.
Non-exclusive franchise tag amounts, by position, last year compared to this year's projections (*from NFL Network's Albert Breer). Also, 2014 transition tag amounts:
POSITION - 2014 - 2015* - 2014 Transition tag
Quarterback $16.91M $18.51M $14.67M
Running back $9.54M $10.93M $8.03M
Wide receiver $12.13M $12.80M $10.18M
Tight end $7.05M $8.33M $6.12M
Offensive linemen $11.65M $12.92M $10.04M
Defensive end $13.12M $14.78M $10.63M
Defensive tackle $9.65M $11.17M $8.06M
Linebacker $11.46M $13.17M $9.75M
Cornerback $11.83M $13.05M $10.08M
Safety $8.43M $9.60M $7.25M
Kicker/punter $3.56M $4.12M $3.21M