The NFL’s franchise tag and how teams choose to use it has been evolving over the last several years. In 2018, Jarvis Landry was surrounded by trade and holdout rumors prior to signing his franchise tag with the Miami Dolphins, but ultimately reversed course and signed his tag by the deadline ... only so that he could be traded to the Cleveland Browns, a team that was willing to pay him what he wanted.
In exchange for temporarily hanging onto his services before dealing him to the Browns, the Dolphins received fourth and seventh round draft picks.
There had been a belief prior to then that if a player was given the franchise tag, that the player’s original team would receive two first round picks if he ended up elsewhere. But since that is too high of a price to pay for almost any player these days, teams negotiate reasonable exchanges when it becomes obvious that a divorce is inevitable. When trade agreements can’t be reached, players can even be released from the franchise tag, as we saw with Josh Norman in 2016.
Other times, like with Le’Veon Bell and the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2018, the player refuses to sign and misses a year of his career. All sides — player, team, and especially the NFL — would like to avoid this happening again in the future.
The tagged teams often hold little leverage, though in rare cases outgoing free agents can be worth first or second round picks if the circumstances are just right. Landry was the first player moved in this fashion — he didn’t want to play for the Dolphins on the franchise tag, the Browns were willing to give Landry a $75 million contract, Miami secured a package that was roughly equal to the compensatory formula that would have given them a 2019 third round pick.
The year after Landry, several teams saw an opportunity to tag-and-trade an outgoing player, and in all cases these were pass rushers.
Of the six players tagged in 2019, five were defensive linemen or edge rushers (Jadeveon Clowney, Dee Ford, Frank Clark, Demarcus Lawrence, Grady Jarrett) and two of those players signed long-term extensions with their original team. But the Seahawks traded Clark for a first and second round pick and the Chiefs traded Ford for one second rounder. Eventually Seattle would trade a third rounder and two players for Clowney.
Ultimately, the 49ers gave up a second round to get Ford; the Chiefs gave up a first rounder to get Clark; the Seahawks added a first and a second but gave up a third rounder to get Clowney.
Ford and Clark signed long-term extensions, like Landry, but Clowney presented a new type of tag-and-trade case. He was a player who refused to play for the Houston Texans and was in danger of becoming the next Bell. Instead of wasting a year of his career in his prime, the Texans relented and put Clowney on a team that he would be willing to play for without a contract extension. That team was Seattle.
Whether it is unrelated to the previous two years or somehow tied to the coronavirus pandemic offseason, 16 players were tagged (either non-exclusive franchise, exclusive franchise, or transition) in 2020 and they all avoided having to sit out the season. This was not to just buy time before handing out extensions either: 14 of those players are set to be free agents again this year.
However, only one player was traded on the tag and the results had to be somewhat underwhelming for at least some general managers and onlookers. Though pass rushers like Shaq Barrett, Leonard Williams, Matt Judon, and Bud Dupree were tagged, they all played out their one-year deals with their team. Only Yannick Ngakoue was moved and he fell much more into the “Clowney” category than the Frank Clark or Dee Ford group.
The Jacksonville Jaguars received a second and conditional fifth rounder from the Minnesota Vikings for Ngakoue and he agreed to take a paycut — going from $17 million to $12 million — just to get out of Jacksonville. By October, Ngakoue had been traded again, this time going to the Baltimore Ravens in exchange for a third and a conditional fifth.
Did the GMs who tagged players like Justin Simmons, Anthony Harris, Joe Thuney, Brandon Scherff, Derrick Henry, Hunter Henry, or Kenyan Drake perhaps expect to get valuable draft picks just in case? There seems to be little downside to tagging your best outgoing free agent, so long as you can afford it.
Given that the 2021 salary cap is expected to go down from last season, we may not see as many teams who are able to afford it. Will this in any way involve the Los Angeles Rams?
The Rams’ top outgoing free agent is safety John Johnson, but the team may not have much leverage to work with in this instance. As noted, both Harris and Simmons were tagged last year and are more likely to become free agents in March because of how costly it is to tag a player in successive years: Simmons and Harris would get $13.7 million in 2021, making them the fourth-highest paid safeties in the league next year.
Two other safeties, Marcus Williams and Marcus Maye, are being discussed as franchise tag possibilities for the Saints and Jets, respectively. If all four of these players are available next month, whether it is in trade or free agency, Johnson just becomes one of five excellent starting safety options on the market.
And by tagging Johnson, the Rams might only be bluffing that they can pay him the $11.1 million he’d be owed in 2021 if an extension wasn’t reached before the deadline. That would at least be a lot more likely than the idea that the Rams could pay Leonard Floyd the $15.6 million he’d be owed on the 2021 franchise tag.
Floyd represents LA’s only viable edge rushing option to hit the market (I like Morgan Fox but he doesn’t qualify for inclusion anywhere on this article) and while 2020 would seem to suggest that tagging him is possible, I wouldn’t agree that it is probable. The Rams don’t have $16 million to give to Floyd and teams are not likely to give up draft picks for a linebacker who was available for anyone to sign a year ago and who had half of his sacks come against one team.
Much like with Dante Fowler a year ago, the Rams would be best served to let Floyd hit the market and hope that a team overpays enough for LA to receive a third or fourth round compensatory pick in 2022. The same goes for Johnson, who I believe at least has a more viable shot of receiving a new contract before tags or free agency come into play.
Some tagged players could get dealt in 2021, but I doubt the Rams will be able to be on the giving or receiving end of any of those moves.