Let’s play tag: A look at potential franchise tag candidates

Travis Kelce

The DFL’s official franchise tagging period is set to begin March 1. That kicks off a three-month stretch during which teams can apply up to three tags — only one of each type — to any three players who are out of contract and whose rights they own. Tags can be applied, rescinded, and shuffled around throughout this duration, but they become locked in on the first of June, when the new league year begins.

As a refresher course, the three tags are as follows:

Exclusive Franchise Tag (EFT)

  • Player receives a guaranteed 1-year contract.
  • Player’s salary is equal to the higher of the following: A) 120% of that player’s salary from the previous season, or B) the average of the top 5 salaries at that player’s position for the upcoming season.

Non-exclusive Franchise Tag (NFT)

  • There is no guaranteed contract.
  • The team who controls the player’s rights makes the opening bid at the Auction.
  • The opening bid is equal to the average of the top 5 salaries at that player’s position for the upcoming season.
  • If the controlling team elects not to match the highest offer to the player, the controlling team will be awarded draft pick compensation of a second-round pick or better from either this year’s draft or the next.

Transition Tag (TT)

  • There is no guaranteed contract.
  • The team who controls the player’s rights makes the opening bid at the Auction.
  • The opening bid is equal to the average of the top 10 salaries at that player’s position for the upcoming season.
  • No compensation is given if the controlling team elects not to match the highest offer to the player.

Current Tag Values

  • Quarterbacks: EFT/NFT: $6.3; TT: $4.2
  • Running Backs: EFT/NFT: $15.5; TT: $10.8
  • Wide Receivers: EFT/NFT: $18.2; TT: $13.7
  • Tight Ends: EFT/NFT: $6.9; TT: $4.3

Obviously, “to tag or not to tag” is one of the great mysteries of life, and no one can be completely sure how franchises will choose to deploy their tags. Thus, the following analysis is an exercise in judicial best guess in fiscal responsibility and optimal return on investment.

Australia Blue Heelers

Potential Candidates: Jonathan Taylor
The Rationale: Taylor was a one-year bust in 2022 and he could be one-and-done in Australia. His EFT price tag is obviously cost-prohibitive at $37.2 million, but the NFT and TT options are in play. Will Taylor rebound from a terrible, injury-riddled season? There’s no reason to think not, but will he be Top 5 or even Top 3? Placing the NFT on Taylor and receiving a second-round pick as compensation if they lose him to another team is definitely one option for the Blue Heelers if they feel spurned by Taylor’s costly contract.

Bolivia Llamas

Potential Candidates: Stefon Diggs, Derrick Henry, Justin Herbert, Darren Waller
The Rationale: The Llamas have a few options to debate when it comes to the use of their tags. They arguably have one player at each of the four core positions who, when healthy, are Top 5 in their respective position groups. Diggs has got to be the highest priority given that he’s the most likely to remain on top of his game. Waller is in a state of flux but at a premium position. Henry has been really good but is approaching breaking point. Herbert is a luxury given that the team already has Jalen Hurts on a better contract. The team might consider a tag-and-trade with Herbert, placing the affordable NFT tag on him. Diggs’ EFT price is exorbitant, though, so the NFT might make more sense for him. The TT can be used on any of the other three, giving Bolivia matching rights on the highest offer. Of all the teams, Bolivia might just have the toughest decisions to make this tagging period.

Colombia Capybaras

Potential Candidates: Joe Mixon, Tee Higgins
The Rationale: Joe Mixon was RB4 in 2021 and fell to RB10 last year. Beyond that, he hasn’t played consistently enough or stayed healthy long enough to be a consistent RB1 threat. He had some off-field trouble recently, making his tag situation even murkier. It’s probably not financially feasible to use a tag on him at the moment. Higgins is a helluva receiver who would probably have Top 10 potential if he were the No. 1 receiver in an offense and could play a full season. Thus, it might be tempting to tag him, but his salary would already push the threshold for ROI. If the Capybaras want to bring either player back, it’d probably be best to let them hit the open market to see what the interest level is on them and possibly get them for cheaper. 

Greece Trojans

Potential Candidates: Najee Harris
The Rationale: Harris was a major disappointment in his second season in the league and he ran up a costly bill. His EFT price tag is certainly not cost efficient, even if he has a major rebound in 2023. The NFT tag likely isn’t worth it either, as Harris finishing as a Top 5 back seems a bit of a stretch as well. The Trojans could place the TT on Harris if they think he can rebound sufficiently and then they can have matching rights on him. Given that there are a number of running backs hitting the open market who could draw a bigger salary than him, it could make the TT more palatable for the Trojans.

Ireland Shamrocks

Potential Candidates: Travis Kelce, Isiah Pacheco
The Rationale: Pacheco seems like a long shot to draw the Transition Tag. He flashed his talent at times this season but is he really ready to take on a full workload? The way the Chiefs backfield has operated since the woman-kicker broke out in his rookie season would seem to indicate otherwise. The Shamrocks will have to monitor the offseason moves during the three-month tagging window to see the direction in which KC goes. As for Kelce, the choice seems obvious. The EFT is pretty much off the table as his cost would be $30 million. Even for a player who has dominated his position for the better part of a decade, that’s a bit steep. The TT would only guarantee that Ireland has matching rights, but it wouldn’t give any other teams pause on how big a contract they offer Kelce. The NFT is the way to go for Ireland, as they’ll have matching rights plus other franchises would have to be willing to give a big contract plus a second-round pick for his services.

Italy Emperors

Potential Candidates: None
The Rationale: You watched 2022, right? Seriously, though, the premise behind the Emperors’ 2022 season was getting rid of one-year players who had no value to the team beyond the current season. The only legitimate candidates who come close to even the TT are tight ends Hunter Henry or Cade Otton. Henry has floated near Top 10 status in the past (he was TE10 in 2021) and Otton flashed his ability in his rookie season but now faces an uncertain quarterback situation. Both could be had for cheaper, though, and the Emperors already have enough money allocated to the position. 

Kazakhstan’s Very Nice Team

Potential Candidates: A.J. Brown, Austin Ekeler, Alvin Kamara
The Rationale: After a change in scenery, Brown had a terrific season finishing as WR6. Despite landing on the doorstep, he doesn’t seem likely to crack the Top 5 in 2023. One reason is that he has DeVonta Smith nipping at his heels. This, paired with the $18 million the Very Nice Team is already on the hook for for teammate Deebo Samuel makes it a less appealing option to use either the EFT or NFT on Brown. He does remain a good candidate for the TT, though. Kamara could have bigger problems. He slid down to RB16 last year and that could just be the start of his downfall on the football field. Off the field, he could still be facing legal trouble that affects his availability on the field. As for Ekeler, he’s getting older, but seems the most likely to receive a tag. The NFT would make sense for him as the opening bid is good and that second-round compensation is a nice fallback as well.

Papua New Guinea Pigs

Potential Candidates: D’Andre Swift, Davante Adams, Josh Allen
The Rationale: The Pigs got roasted by Swift’s bloated contract and deflated performance in 2022, thus the idea of placing a tag on him seems a long shot at best. The more likely candidates are Adams and Allen, with both deserving of big deals. Adams’ quarterback situation will change in 2023, but it also changed last year and that didn’t stop him from putting up a WR3 finish. The Pigs can use either the EFT or the NFT on Adams, depending on if they want a shot at re-signing him beyond the 2023 season. If they want to keep Allen, too, then it makes sense to use the EFT on Adams and the NFT on Allen because Allen’s EFT price is cost prohibitive. Instead of paying Allen an unsightly $20.4 million for one year, they can use the NFT on him, watch other possible offers roll in, and get him for a likely cheaper price at multiple years. 

Peru Gurus

Potential Candidates: Christian McCaffrey, CeeDee Lamb, Aaron Jones
The Rationale: McCaffrey seems the most likely of the trio to receive a tag. He returned healthy after two injury-plagued seasons and put up an RB2 finish. In a full season with his new team, he could be even better. His EFT price tag is obscene, so he’s a good candidate for the NFT. CeeDee Lamb was WR5 last year and has the capability to finish in that range again. But with the NFT likely going to McCaffrey, the TT is probably the best route to go with him. A $28.8 million EFT price tag is too high for Lamb. If the Gurus want to splurge on Aaron Jones at $16.4 million on the EFT, they could use all three tags on these guys. But one of these three guys might get phased out.

Saint Kitts & Nevis Shockers

Potential Candidates: Justin Jefferson, Mark Andrews
The Rationale: The Shockers spent three-quarters of their cap on three guys last offseason, so the likelihood of them having many options to tag this year was low. Despite having 14 unrestricted free agents, only Jefferson and Andrews seem worth tagging. As the second-highest paid player last year, Jefferson is not a good candidate for the EFT with a price tag of $34.9 million. He’s better suited for the NFT. He’ll likely get some action at $18.2 million, but this will assure Saint Kitts matching rights and a second-round pick if they choose not to retain him. Andrews, likewise, has too high an EFT cost at $25.3 million. But if the team uses the NFT on Jefferson then they’ll have to use the TT on Andrews. No matter which of those two tags the team uses on Andrews, his price is likely to skyrocket anyway as he is one of the best players at his position. 

Sint Maarten Savages

Potential Candidates: Patrick Mahomes
The Rationale: The only UFA that the Savages have that seems fiscally reasonable to tag is Patrick Mahomes. His EFT is exorbitant at $16.8 million, making him a great candidate for the NFT. I’m sure there are teams that would be willing to give a second-round pick for and a big contract to Mahomes, but whether that cost approaches his 2022 salary of $14 million remains to be seen. I’m betting no, likely making him a bargain for the Savages to retain.

South Africa Ballstrikers

Potential Candidates: Josh Jacobs, Evan Engram
The Rationale: Josh Jacobs had the best season of his career in 2022 and now he’s looking to get paid. But it would probably be a mistake to give him a Top 5 running back salary, as he only came close to that once in his short career. The Transition Tag is certainly reasonable if his situation doesn’t change too drastically this offseason. Evan Engram, like Jacobs, was another great prospect out of college that never quite lived up to his draft stock. But he, too, had the best season of his career, finishing as TE5. Is that sustainable or repeatable? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t consider giving him anything but the TT, either, so the Ballstrikers will have a decision on their hands if they’re interested in tagging either one.