NFL free agency will begin on March 17. Tomorrow, February 23, marks the day that teams can begin to designate potential free agents with the franchise tag.
As a refresher, a team can franchise-tag any potential unrestricted free agent on the roster and the player in question has to sign the franchise tag if he wants to play the following season. The franchise tag denotes that the player must be paid either 120 percent of what he was paid the previous season or the average of the top five salaries at his position, whichever number is bigger.
Teams used the franchise tag generously last season, as 14 players were franchise-tagged when the offseason began. Most of those players ended up playing the season on the franchise tag, although some (like Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones) used the tag as a foundation for contract negotiations and signed an extension before the offseason was finished. Each team will treat the franchise tag differently. All we know for sure is that a handful (at least) will use it.
With all that in mind, here are the five players most likely to be tagged this upcoming offseason.
Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys
Prescott was one of three players named by NFL Network's Ian Rapoport as expected franchise tags this offseason, and it makes sense. Even though the Cowboys will incur a bit of a financial penalty by tagging Prescott two seasons in a row (they have to pay 120 percent of his previous year's salary, which in this case was the aggregate salary of the top five quarterback contracts in the league), they don't really have a choice, even with Prescott coming off a season-ending injury.
Contract negotiations between Prescott and the Cowboys have been ongoing since 2019 and there's been no recent movement on that front. The holes on the team's roster were exposed when Prescott went down and the Cowboys finished 6-10. He was on fire before his injury and made it clear that the Cowboys can't do better than him via the draft or free agency. He'll get tagged as soon as tomorrow while he and the organization attempt to come to a long-term extension agreeable to both sides.
Chris Godwin, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The second of three players named by Rapoport, Godwin is hitting free agency for the first time in his career at a very young 24-years-old. The Bucs definitely want him back, and there's no real reason for him to want to leave after winning a Super Bowl in the first season of Tom Brady's two-year deal with the team. Godwin should want to get paid as soon as possible, but he could even sign a four-year deal at market value and get another chance for a massive contract in a few years, since he'll only be in his late 20s. Tampa will tag him if the team can't come to a long-term agreement by March 17, and after a 65-catch, 840-yard season that culminated in a Super Bowl win, the Bucs will do so happily.
Kenny Golladay, WR, Detroit Lions
Golladay is the third and final player whose name was brought up on NFL Network today as a likely franchise-tag candidate. He's nearly as talented as Godwin, but spent most of the 2020 season on the shelf while battling a number of injuries. Still, he's one of the best contested catch receivers in the league when he's healthy.
It would make sense for the Lions to tag him because, in acquiring Jared Goff along with draft picks for Matthew Stafford, they haven't committed to a full-on rebuild. They have incentive to retain talent rather than let a player of Golladay's caliber walk and be happy with a compensatory pick awarded next offseason. An extension of some type is definitely in the cards, but a franchise tag feels like the minimum.
Trent Williams, LT, San Francisco 49ers
The Niners traded a measly fifth-rounder for Williams last offseason and got themselves a year's worth of above-average blindside protection in return. They won't want Williams to leave. You can bet John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan have their eyes on the playoffs in 2021 after 2020 brought only pain as key players on both sides of the ball spent most of the year injured. Williams is likely looking for one last big payday as a 32-year-old lineman, but if San Francisco won't give him long-term security to go along with a sizable salary, a franchise tag feels like a very likely possibility.
Aaron Jones, RB, Green Bay Packers
This is a rather bold prediction, but just hear me out! A running back has not played a season on the franchise tag since Ray Rice (!) and Matt Forte (!!) both did so in 2012. In the last five years, only Le'Veon Bell and Derrick Henry have been tagged as running backs. We all know what happened with Bell and Henry signed a four-year deal before last season. There is virtually no precedent for a team tagging a running back in what we would consider the modern NFL, which is to say the NFL that does not value running backs highly at all.
But the Packers have several incentives that could lead them down this path. Aaron Rodgers put all rumors of his displeasure with the team to rest, but surely the organization heard all the noise that surrounded his season-ending press conference. The front office will want to keep its star quarterback happy, especially after driving him to the bottle by picking his replacement in the first round of last year's draft, a move the Packers were widely ridiculed for.
More than that, Jones can do everything in this offense and is a huge factor in Green Bay's success. He's equally as dangerous a runner as he is a receiver. A.J. Dillon, last year's second-round pick, is a tank running the ball but hasn't developed any pass-catching abilities yet. Jamal Williams, the back that Jones split snaps with over the last few years who is also a free agent, is primarily a receiving back with minimal impact on the ground. Jones can do both at a high level, a rare find in the league, and the Packers' balanced attack is what got them to the NFC Championship Game this year. They'll want to keep him around, and tagging him would be a good start towards that end.