The NFL franchise tag isn’t used by every team each year, but it can be a convenient way to retain star players who front offices can’t work out a long-term contract with.
On an expensive, one-year price tag, the player and team can buy some time while the player still gets paid top dollar and the team retains a valuable contributor to their 2021 roster.
Since Tuesday kicks off the NFL franchise tag designation window, here’s a look at the five most valuable and likely tag candidates who teams must find a way to retain either through the tag or a long-term deal this offseason.
Dak Prescott, quarterback, Dallas Cowboys
Rumors have floated around of late that the Cowboys could select Prescott’s replacement with the 10th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Given the other areas of need on the team and the high-end production Dak Prescott provides at the most vital position on the field, it’d make little sense to take a flier on a rookie over him.
It’d be one thing if Dallas had a roster in place ready to compete for championships. That’s not the case. The defense needs a big boost, and Prescott is worth the investment at quarterback. He’d be unlikely to return in 2022 if he plays under the franchise tag for a second straight year, so it’d be wise for owner Jerry Jones and Co. to get a long-term deal fleshed out.
Prior to getting injured last season, Prescott was averaging over 370 yards passing per game and graded out as Pro Football Focus‘ ninth-best QB and was top-10 the full season before that.
Related: Top 50 NFL free agents of 2021.
As long as the Cowboys can get healthy on the offensive line and bolster that unit, they should be able to have success with Prescott throwing to a loaded cast of receivers. Plus, if tailback Ezekiel Elliott can get back on track to balance out the offense, Prescott should have Dallas in annual contention for the NFC East crown.
But America’s Team is showing internal incompetence by not extending Prescott already. It stands to reason he’ll play out this next year on the franchise tag, and probably walk away if an extension can’t be agreed upon shortly thereafter.
Chris Godwin, wide receiver, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Shaquil Barrett almost made this list over Godwin, but since he played under the tag in 2020 and figures to be the Bucs’ No. 1 priority for a long-term extension, Godwin gets the nod here instead.
Unlike the other top receivers who could be NFL franchise tag candidates, Godwin is actually going to stay with his incumbent team, as opposed to the tag-and-trade scenarios bandied about for Chicago Bears star Allen Robinson and Detroit Lions wideout Kenny Golladay.
Godwin was PFF’s No. 1-graded receiver in 2019 before taking on a slightly diminished role as the Bucs brought in tons of skill position talent and won Super Bowl LV in quarterback Tom Brady‘s first season with the team.
Whatever it takes to run it back and make a push for back-to-back championships, Godwin is probably willing to do it. However, he’s going to want what he’s worth in the meantime. Given the numerous free agents Tampa Bay has, it’d make the most sense to knock Godwin out first so the focus can move to securing longer-term defensive pieces.
Brady made it work in New England for two decades with all kinds of unheralded pass-catchers, yet Godwin should return to the Bucs at least for 2021 to see how much he and TB12 can really achieve together. He led Tampa Bay in postseason targets, and hauled in a highly efficient 65 of 84 passes from Brady during the regular season.
Taylor Moton, offensive tackle, Carolina Panthers
If you take a glimpse at the Panthers’ depth chart on Ourlads, well, it’s pretty bleak when it comes to the offensive line. Four of their five incumbent starters, save for center Matt Paradis, are free agents.
There’s no question the interior of Carolina’s offensive line must be upgraded. Where the Panthers really shined last season was on the edges, as Moton actually outplayed Russell Okung overall. Moton is the right tackle and is just as good in pass protection as he is in run blocking.
With excellent length, play strength and a stout 325-pound frame, right tackles like Moton don’t come around very often. Part of the reason the Panthers’ offense struggled to a degree in 2020 was the nearly season-long injury to All-Pro back Christian McCaffrey and the lackluster play from Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback.
Even if the Panthers manage to upgrade from Bridgewater under center and get McCaffrey fully healthy for 2021, they must bolster their group up front to ensure everything operates smoothly.
While Carolina will probably resort to players outside the building to address the inside, it’s essential Moton stays put either as a franchise tag player or through long-term contract.
Carl Lawson, EDGE, Cincinnati Bengals
Pass-rushers are among the most expensive positions in football, and for the most part, Lawson is a one-year wonder. The 2020 campaign was the first time since his rookie year (2017) that he made it through all 16 games, and he has an extensive injury history.
Taking all that into account, talent has never been the question with Lawson. He’s always been a blue-chip player in that respect, and he played like it this past year.
Although the sack numbers (5.5) won’t jump off the page, it’s worth noting that he was Cincinnati’s only real pass-rushing threat. Geno Atkins was phased out of the rotation, Carlos Dunlap demanded a trade and got it, and Lawson was left essentially alone in the trenches.
PFF had Lawson with the eighth-best pass-rushing grade among edge defenders. He was ahead of the likes of Za’Darius Smith, Bradley Chubb, Shaquil Barrett, Montez Sweat and J.J. Watt among others.
Lawson is finally starting to put it all together it seems. With D.J. Reader returning from injury to clog up the inside and the Bengals having plenty of cap space to spend on upgrading other parts of the defense, it’s a no-brainer to tag Lawson instead of letting him hit the open market.
K.J. Wright, linebacker, Seattle Seahawks
The reason Wright is a little further down this list is the position he plays. Seattle already has a perennial All-Pro linebacker in Bobby Wagner, who’s frankly going to be a Hall of Famer. But because of Wagner’s greatness, Wright is often overlooked for all he does on the gridiron.
A big reason for the Seahawks’ second-half resurgence on defense in 2020, Wright was PFF’s No. 7-graded ‘backer overall.
Where the 31-year-old really shines is in pass coverage. Wright has racked up ridiculous ball production over the past two seasons, with 21 pass breakups and four interceptions. Those instincts are extremely uncommon and allow Seattle to attack from so many different angles.
With a uniquely skilled, pass-rushing specialist at safety in Jamal Adams, Wagner patrolling the middle of the field and Wright able to hold his own in the passing game while Adams roams free, the Seahawks’ back seven must stay intact for the team to have any hope at Super Bowl contention next season.
Cornerback depth is still a concern and Shaquill Griffin should be a priority too, but only after Wright’s services are secured with a lucrative payday — either just for 2021 or on a multi-year deal.