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2021 NFL franchise/transition tag primer: Who are the no-brainers? Debatable candidates?

The lowered salary cap will lead to more veteran cuts across the NFL, as I wrote about last week. It could also lead to fewer players on the franchise tag.

Fourteen players were retained using the franchise tag last year, while Cardinals running back Kenyan Drake received the transition tag. Look for that total to decrease this year, in part because there is less money to go around. If you need a primer on what the franchise tag and transition tag actually are, check out the handy glossary at the bottom of this article.

Teams can first designate franchise or transition tag players on Feb. 23 -- and must do so by March 9.

One last note: All cap figures and projected tag salaries cited below come from Over The Cap, unless otherwise noted.


Dak Prescott
Dallas Cowboys · QB

My No. 1 free agent and No. 1 no-brainer franchise tag choice remains the same from last offseason, despite an ugly ankle injury. If anything, the injury makes it trickier for the Cowboys to come up with a long-term deal Prescott will agree to before the March 9 tag deadline.

It is expected to cost Dallas $37.7 million to tag Prescott again, a 20 percent raise off his figure a year ago. The Cowboys aren't dumb enough to let Prescott walk, but they haven't been smart enough yet to commit to the 27-year-old quarterback, which would give them greater roster flexibility.

Allen Robinson
Chicago Bears · WR

Keep an eye on a potential tag-and-trade with Robinson. Either way, Chicago can't let its best offensive player leave for nothing, no matter how much he and Bears fans share frustration regarding the team's quarterback situation. Chicago general manager Ryan Pace has many difficult decisions to make on his veterans this year, but this shouldn't be one of them.

Chris Godwin
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · WR

I'm convinced -- from watching the games to looking at Godwin's playoff target totals -- that this is Tom Brady's favorite receiver to throw to. The Bucs are one of the few organizations with plenty of cap space, and they are the ultimate win-now team, so this decision should be easy. Tagging Godwin, by the way, would mean Shaquil Barrett and Lavonte David hit the market.

Taylor Moton
Carolina Panthers · OT

Moton has evolved into one of the better right tackles in football. A one-year deal for $13.6 million sounds like a bargain if the team can't complete a long-term pact.

Kenny Golladay
Detroit Lions · WR

Like Allen Robinson, this is a potential tag-and-trade scenario. It doesn't make a ton of sense for the rebuilding Lions to pay Golladay nearly $16 million for 2021, only to lose him next offseason. But it makes even less sense to see one of their few homegrown stars leave for nothing more than a potential compensatory draft pick. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport confirmed Golladay is expected to be tagged if Detroit can't sign him to a long-term deal, which makes sense because he's a young player worth building around.

Say yes!

Justin Simmons
Denver Broncos · S

Tagged last year for $11.44 million, Simmons would see his salary jump to $13.73 million in 2021. He has been excellent in both seasons under Broncos coach Vic Fangio, earning second-team All-Pro Football Focus honors in 2020. Like with Fangio, the Broncos may prefer to go year-to-year with Simmons, even if his play has warranted a bigger commitment.

Carl Lawson
Cincinnati Bengals · DE

Lawson's name being included here is not a surprise to anyone who watched him play in 2020. Ranking fourth among edge rushers in pressures last season -- above stars like Khalil Mack and Cameron Jordan, by PFF's count -- Lawson is too good to let go of when the Bengals have plenty of cap space.

Marcus Maye
New York Jets · S

The Jets may want to see Maye in new head coach Robert Saleh's scheme before handing him big, long-term money, but one of the benefits of building an incredible war chest of cap space is the ability to keep a quality homegrown player like this ascending safety without much trouble.

John Johnson
Los Angeles Rams · S

This projection will surprise some Rams fans who believe the team needs to slash and burn to get under the cap. But Johnson is a core piece to L.A.'s defense, and the Rams showed in the past with Trumaine Johnson and Lamarcus Joyner that they are happy to go year-to-year with defensive backs somewhere just below Pro Bowl quality.

Leonard Williams
New York Giants · DE

If nothing else, fans of the G-Men have to admit that general manager Dave Gettleman was right about Williams. Using the franchise tag on him a year ago, a much-criticized move, led to 11.5 sacks in a breakout season. Using the tag again -- with a raise that would put his one-year earnings near $20 million -- could still be tough to swallow. Don't be shocked if Williams gets a massive long-term contract before the tag happens.

Aaron Jones
Green Bay Packers · RB

I had Jones listed a category below before a little birdie noted how low the tag number is for running backs (about $8 million) and that Jones could be a candidate for the transition tag, like Kenyan Drake was a year ago.

Leaning no

Shaquill Griffin
Seattle Seahawks · CB

I would use the tag on Griffin if I were Seattle GM John Schneider. The Seahawks' defense needs good players in the secondary to survive, and Griffin is the best cornerback they've drafted since the "Legion of Boom." Based on the Seahawks' cap situation and track record, however, my guess is, they let Griffin walk. This call is as close to 50-50 as any on this list.

Matt Milano
Buffalo Bills · LB

The Associated Press reports that Milano will test free agency, and who am I to argue with such a monolith? I had Milano in this category before that report because the cap number for linebackers is so high ($14.6 million), and Milano is not a pass rusher. Even the top of the off-ball linebacker market, which Milano figures to hit, will be lower. The Bills still may value him more than the market, and they could re-sign him in mid-March.

Joe Thuney
New England Patriots · OG
David Andrews
New England Patriots · C

Bill Belichick surprisingly paid Thuney nearly $15 million on the tag last season. Even though the left guard played well again, it'd be a bigger surprise, although not impossible, if Belichick were to pay $17.7 million to do it a second time. The Patriots have the cap space to avoid losing two of their core linemen, but a long-term deal is more likely than the tag here.

Curtis Samuel
Carolina Panthers · WR

Samuel should thank Panthers coach Matt Rhule for boosting his value and showing all he could do in a 1,000-yard season from scrimmage before hitting the free-agent market.

Jonnu Smith
Tennessee Titans · TE

A bigger part of the Titans' offense than he was given credit for, Smith still is unlikely to be tagged after failing to top 500 receiving yards in any of his four seasons.

Bud Dupree
Pittsburgh Steelers · OLB

If the Steelers had more cap room and Dupree wasn't coming off a torn ACL, he'd be far more likely to be tagged a second time in a row. Despite those major obstacles, I still wouldn't completely rule it out. (JuJu Smith-Schuster being tagged, however, I would completely rule out.)

Trey Hendrickson
New Orleans Saints · DE
Marcus Williams
New Orleans Saints · S

Both players will be near the top of the free-agent pile at their respective positions, but the Saints' cap issues make using the tag unlikely. Williams would be the likelier choice, because he'd be cheaper.

Haason Reddick
Arizona Cardinals · OLB

Reddick racked up six forced fumbles and 12.5 sacks in a breakout 2020 season. But the team chose not to pick up his fifth-year option last year, and I can't imagine the organization is ready to admit it was that wrong in its evaluation of Reddick.

Hunter Henry
Los Angeles Chargers · TE

Henry was the third-highest-paid tight end in football on the franchise tag last season. He'd be No. 2 behind Travis Kelce if the Chargers tagged him again, so a long-term deal appears more likely.

Unlikely to be tagged

Matt Judon
Baltimore Ravens · OLB
Yannick Ngakoue
Baltimore Ravens · DE

Judon is a quality player, but not a "get tagged in back-to-back years" quality player. Ngakoue underwhelmed in Minnesota and Baltimore last year, hurting his free agency value.

Larry Ogunjobi
Cleveland Browns · DT

A splashy player who made a lot of noise in 2018, Ogunjobi hasn't been consistent enough to be tagged.

Anthony Harris
Minnesota Vikings · S

The Vikings can't keep Harris and Harrison Smith long term, so Harris is likely to be set free this offseason.

Difference between franchise and transition tags?

Franchise tag: A one-year, guaranteed contract offer that prevents a player from hitting unrestricted free agency. The salary is based on the five-year average cap percentage for the tag at each position, stemming from the top five salaries at each position.

Transition tag: Also a one-year, guaranteed contract based on the five-year average cap percentage for the tag at each position, but the transition tag stems from the top 10 -- not top five -- salaries at each position, so it's a bit cheaper. Most importantly, this tag allows players to sign offer sheets with other teams, but the original club has five days to match.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter.

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