Even with the world off its axis as the coronavirus continues to spread, the NFL’s free agent market hit high gear Monday.
Fourteen players, the most since the 2012 offseason, received the franchise tag – Tampa Buccaneers OLB Shaq Barrett, Pittsburgh Steelers OLB LB Bud Dupree, Cincinnati Bengals WR A.J. Green, Minnesota Vikings S Anthony Harris, Tennessee Titans RB Derrick Henry, Los Angeles Chargers TE Hunter Henry, Kansas City Chiefs DT Chris Jones, Baltimore Ravens OLB Matt Judon, Jacksonville Jaguars DE Yannick Ngakoue, Dallas Cowboys QB Dak Prescott, Washington Redskins G Brandon Scherff, Denver Broncos S Justin Simmons, New England Patriots G Joe Thuney and New York Giants DL Leonard Williams – prior to Monday’s 11:59 a.m. ET deadline.
The designation essentially restricts the chance any of them will switch teams, though the tag-and-trade strategy has become increasingly popular and has been mentioned in connection to the eventual fates of Judon, Ngakoue and Thuney, among others. Prescott, who received the “exclusive” franchise tag, cannot speak with potential outside suitors.
Arizona Cardinals RB Kenyan Drake was given the transition tag, meaning the Cards can match any offer sheet he signs but won’t receive compensation if they decline.
With the tag window now closed, all 32 of the league’s teams are eligible to negotiate with players who have expiring contracts, though signings and trades can’t be officially executed until 4 p.m. ET Wednesday, when the new league year is scheduled to begin.
More immediately, here’s a look at players who project as early winners and losers, relative to the ever-lucrative world of the NFL – which now includes a salary cap set at $198.2 million per team after ratification of the new collective bargaining agreement – with the tag window shut and the legal tampering period open:
NFL: Moving full steam ahead with free agency doesn’t feel right amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Sure, maybe it’s easy enough to play what amounts to fantasy football virtually … and maybe it’s a nice distraction for sports fans looking to consume any kind of news that doesn’t relate to the health and economic concerns of the real world. But it also smacks of tone deafness given the highly volatile environment we’re in – especially when you’re talking about players who might need physicals … when medical professionals are coping with far weightier matters. But here we are. It’s great that the league and NFL Players Association have avoided any kind of work stoppage for the next decade … but might have been nice if they could have agreed to a constructive pause in the near term. Yet, onward we go …
Cowboys: They’ve had a year to lock up Prescott. Hasn’t happened (yet). Now he’s saddled with the tag, which often brings ill will from recipients. At loggerheads this long, how much longer will it take America’s team to secure its most important player? And whither WR Amari Cooper, who now has the opportunity to peddle his services? As for CB Byron Jones – headed to Miami.
Prescott: Tough break, buddy … guess you haven’t done enough to convince Jerry Jones to give you the bag. Get ready to answer just a few more questions about your contractual situation … assuming you show up to the team facility any time soon.
Jameis Winston: The Bucs tagged Barrett, the league’s 2019 sack king, so fat chance Winston will reap anything close to Prescott money in 2020 – whether he ultimately lands a one-year or multi-year pact, in Tampa or elsewhere.
Derrick Henry: He’s still got four months to sign a long-term extension despite getting franchised. But the running back tag is worth $10.3 million, so don’t expect Henry to settle for that quietly given the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott, Rams’ Todd Gurley, Jets’ Le’Veon Bell and Houston Texans’ (you read that right) David Johnson all average at least $13 million on their current deals.
Bill O’Brien: Time will serve as the ultimate jury for the Houston head coach and recently designated general manager. But at first blush, it definitely feels like O’Brien paid too much for players like LT Laremy Tunsil and CB Bradley Roby and didn’t get enough in return for DE Jadeveon Clowney and, now, WR DeAndre Hopkins – who was stunningly sent to Arizona on Monday in a pending package that brought Johnson and a second-rounder to the Texans.
Deshaun Watson: Houston’s quarterback better get ready to spend a lot of time checking the ball down to Johnson while hoping de facto No. 1 WR Will Fuller can stay healthy … though O’Brien will certainly now target one of the draft’s elite wideouts next month.
Green: Sorry, dude, starting to look like you’re a Bengal for life. Get healthy, and maybe you’ll win a playoff game in Cincinnati … one day.
Ngakoue: He doesn’t want to be in Jacksonville, which tagged the pass rusher and then offloaded his Pro Bowl linemate, Calais Campbell, to Baltimore for a kicking tee. Ngakoue can only hope the Jags’ teardown eventually includes his own ticket out of town.
Jaguars: Coach Doug Marrone and GM Dave Caldwell must feel more secure about their future than the outside world seems to. Hard to see this team doing much in 2020 – other than becoming the first to play multiple games in London – after agreeing to deal Campbell, CB A.J. Bouye and CB Jalen Ramsey over the past six months.
Mike Garafolo: One of my favorite former colleagues spilled coffee all over himself on NFL Network’s air trying to make a joke while disseminating insider info.
Patriots: Six-time Super Bowl winning QB Tom Brady can now talk to other teams for the first time in his 20-year career. Brady’s deal stipulated the Pats couldn’t tag him, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t have re-signed him already. Tick-tock for a team on the verge of an unprecedented reboot since Bill Belichick’s arrival in 2000.
Patriots: The Titans’ decision to re-sign QB Ryan Tannehill removed what appeared to be at least one viable obstacle to keeping Brady. Keeping Thuney is a quietly underrated move that should appeal to TB12 … assuming New England does indeed retain its now-franchised guard.
Prescott: An approximate salary of $33 million for 2020 isn’t the worst consolation prize in the world, right?
Cooper: The NFL draft is loaded with receiver talent. The NFL free agent market, not so much. A Pro Bowler in four of his five seasons, Cooper could really cash in now that the Cowboys have exposed the clear-cut No. 1 receiver with an expiring deal.
Arik Armstead: The former first-rounder had a breakthrough in 2019 for the NFC champion San Francisco 49ers, his 10 sacks exceeding his career total from the previous four seasons. He avoided a tag, instead collecting a five-year, $85 million reward for leveraging his contract year.
49ers: After re-upping Armstead, they acquired the 13th pick of the draft from the Indianapolis Colts for Pro Bowl DT DeForest Buckner – whose presence was one reason Armstead flourished. Easy to argue the Colts got the better player in Buckner, who agreed to a lucrative extension with Indy, but the Niners needed to expand what projects as a thin draft class. Though they now own two first-rounders, they still don’t own a selection in Round 2, 3 or 4, so expect more maneuvering from GM John Lynch.
Tannehill: Unceremoniously jettisoned by the Miami Dolphins a year ago, he’s the new beneficiary of a four-year, $118 million contract ($62 million guaranteed) to remain in Nashville. And with Henry tagged, a band that reached the AFC title game following the 2019 season could be coming back largely intact.
Drake: A third-round pick of Miami’s in 2016, he now stands to make a mint since the Cardinals, who traded for him in October, are basically allowing him to set his own market with the transition tag.
Johnson: Arizona’s commitment to Drake was the precursor of a departure for Johnson, dealt to Houston with a 2020 second-round pick and 2021 fourth-rounder, for Hopkins and a 2020 Round 4 selection.
Cardinals: The Air Raid suddenly looks pretty lethal with Drake (probably), Hopkins and offensive rookie of the year Kyler Murray.
Hopkins: An all-pro the past three seasons, the 27-year-old could post some truly sublime numbers playing with Drake, Murray and fellow WRs Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk.
Safeties: Harris and Simmons, the top two players at their position in 2019 (according to Pro Football Focus), stand a good chance to reset the safety pay scale elevated by Landon Collins a year ago. Harris is more a center fielder type, tying for the league lead with six INTs last year, while Simmons thrives playing at all levels of the field.
Garafolo’s viewers: For the rest of us, TV gold, Mike. Well done. Be well. Nice job on the swift change of suits.
Scherff: The three-time Pro Bowler hasn’t played a full season since 2016 and has missed 13 games over the past two years. Still, looking at a veritable jackpot in Washington with at least a $14.8 million tag normally reserved for left tackles.
Cornerbacks: Byron Jones landed a five-year, $82.5 million windfall from the Dolphins, making him the league’s best-compensated corner. Former Panther James Bradberry did well for himself, too, garnering a three-year, $45 million pact from the Giants. Those two have combined for one Pro Bowl nod, indicative of the premium placed on their position.
Campbell: The five-time Pro Bowler and reigning Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year gets a two-year, $27 million extension, per reports, and likely concludes his impressive career with a contending team.
Ravens: The top-seeded playoff team in 2019, they only appeared a player or two away from being prohibitive favorites in 2020. But now, maybe they’ve closed the gap with Kansas City given Campbell is about to come aboard for the bargain-basement price of a fifth-round pick while fellow DL Michael Brockers is also headed to Charm City on a three-year, $30 million deal. After running roughshod on Baltimore in the playoffs, Derrick Henry will be challenged to gash this revamped front next time.
Philip Rivers: Indianapolis’ appeal continues to grow after the Colts re-signed LT Anthony Castonzo, fortifying the O-line Rivers really needs at this point in his career. Of course, Tampa Bay doesn’t look too bad, either – Winston now set free, and the Buccaneers playing closer to Rivers’ new Florida home. The world is your oyster, Phil … except in SoCal that is.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis
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