NFL franchise tag candidates: What is each team's best option in 2024?

The window for NFL teams to apply the franchise tag (or transition tag) opened Tuesday. Clubs now have until 4 p.m. ET on March 5 to designate one of their pending free agents as such, generally meaning he will play next season on a lucrative one-year contract derived from the top salaries at his position – a deal that will provide a nice financial bump yet, conversely (and often more germanely) restricts the player from landing a massive payday or the ability to play elsewhere in the subsequent season.

Yet tags can also be a precursor to a trade or simply a placeholder that allow a player and his camp more time to hammer out a long-term arrangement (see Lamar Jackson, circa 2023). However when those outcomes don’t materialize, they can often lead to missed training camps, occasionally early season absences or – like in the infamous case of former Pittsburgh Steelers star Le’Veon Bell – sitting out an entire campaign and an entirely altered career arc. Consequently, buyers, most definitely beware – especially, as the Jackson case ostensibly proved, other teams are apparently completely unwilling to part with two first-round picks, the cost to lure away a franchised player.

As all 32 teams mull their tag options over the next two weeks, here’s a bit of advice for each (notes: salary cap projections courtesy Over The Cap; teams listed alphabetically):

Arizona Cardinals

No tag-appropriate option here, nor should second-year GM Monti Ossenfort be focused on anything but the long view … which his 2023 draft maneuverings suggest he is.

Atlanta Falcons

Their best free agent is 37-year-old DL Calais Campbell. Moving on.

Baltimore Ravens

The AFC’s No. 1 playoff seed in 2023, they’re set to lose a lot of big-name contributors: WR Odell Beckham Jr., RB Gus Edwards, DE/OLB Jadeveon Clowney, LB Patrick Queen and G Kevin Zeitler among them. But coming off his first Pro Bowl season (career-high 13 sacks, 33 quarterback hits), DT Justin Madubuike, 26, is clearly the guy to tag.

Buffalo Bills

Their defense is probably about to lose a substantial chunk of its depth, and WR2 Gabe Davis, 24, is also out of contract. But a capped-out team won’t be tagging defenders past their primes or an inconsistent pass catcher whose production can be replicated by tight ends.

Carolina Panthers

They’ve been very reluctant to part with two-time Pro Bowl OLB Brian Burns, 25, who’s averaged close to nine sacks and 30 pressures over his five-year career. New GM Dan Morgan may just be entering his current role, but he's been part of the front office since 2021 … and hard to imagine a former linebacker letting an excellent one, who’s also a three-time team captain, leave a roster that can hardly afford to relinquish talent and leadership.

Chicago Bears

GM Ryan Poles has already indicated he’s not letting Pro Bowl CB Jaylon Johnson, 24, out of the Windy City. No one else currently on this roster merits a tag.

Cincinnati Bengals

Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins (5) reacts after completing a catch in the fourth quarter during a Week 9 NFL football game between the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Nov. 5, 2023, at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati.
Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins (5) reacts after completing a catch in the fourth quarter during a Week 9 NFL football game between the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Nov. 5, 2023, at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati.

Despite missing five games last season, Tee Higgins, 25 – he’d be a No. 1 receiver for some teams – is the obvious choice, and Cincy has the cap space to absorb it.

Cleveland Browns

Much as they might want to franchise Comeback Player of the Year QB Joe Flacco – just in case – don’t expect them to use it on anyone here in the real world.

Dallas Cowboys

Good as he’s historically been, LT Tyron Smith is 33 and prone to injury. C Tyler Biadasz is solid but doesn’t warrant the left tackle money the offensive line tag confers. Given how much RB Tony Pollard’s value slipped as a franchised feature back in 2023, no reason to tag him again with better options available on the market. Better to get an overbudget cap in order and figure out the long-term plans for QB Dak Prescott, WR CeeDee Lamb and OLB Micah Parsons.

Denver Broncos

Their finances are already a mess, and they haven’t even eaten QB Russell Wilson’s contract yet.

Detroit Lions

The NFC North champions have more than $40 million available for upgrades but really no reason to make any balloon payments a tag would require.

Green Bay Packers

Nobody here who warrants a tag and – currently – inadequate cap space to use one.

Houston Texans

Given how relatively cheap it is to tag a tight end or kicker, Dalton Schultz or Ka'imi Fairbairn, respectively, are the most cost-effective options for the recently christened AFC South champions. But given his upward trajectory, popularity in the locker room and this defense’s reliance on a deep and effective pass rush, tagging DE Jonathan Greenard, 26, who had a career-best 12½ sacks last season, is probably the move.

Indianapolis Colts

GM Chris Ballard has never tagged a player during his seven seasons on the job. He’ll need to seriously consider it for WR Michael Pittman Jr., 26, in the aftermath of a career year (109 catches for 1,152 yards) – especially given the impact he can have on QB Anthony Richardson.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Pro Bowl OLB Josh Allen, 26, racked up a career-high 17½ sacks in 2023, tied for second in the league. The Jags have already indicated he won’t be leaving Duval County in 2024.

Kansas City Chiefs

Best-case scenario: All-Pro DT Chris Jones, 29, follows through on his hints and agrees to an extension soon, leaving the tag available for CB L'Jarius Sneed, 27. Otherwise, a major decision to be made.

Las Vegas Raiders

Much as new HC Antonio Pierce might like and value RB Josh Jacobs, hard to justify another franchise tag after his league-best production for rushing yards and yards from scrimmage in 2022 plummeted by roughly 50% last season.

Los Angeles Chargers

New HC Jim Harbaugh said RB Austin Ekeler is a “tremendous back, (who) we’d love to keep.” Sounds good in theory. Also, Ekeler will be 29 in May, is coming off an injury-depressed season and is set to be part of a saturated market for running backs. Given all the other cap decisions the Bolts face, probably best to keep the tag in their collective pocket.

Los Angeles Rams

G Kevin Dotson, 27, had an awakening during his first year in L.A. Doesn’t mean you pay him roughly $20 million in 2024.

Miami Dolphins

While free agency could deal a blow to their offensive line, C Connor Williams and G Robert Hunt both set to go free, the Fins probably have to tag DT Christian Wilkins, 28 … though, currently more than $50 million over the cap, that will force other significant financial decisions.

Minnesota Vikings

QB Kirk Cousins and OLB Danielle Hunter contractually can’t be franchised. So, end of discussion.

New England Patriots

Versatile DB Kyle Dugger, 27, seems like the most appropriate candidate, and the Pats – with nearly $70 million in cap space – can certainly afford a tag. It is worth wondering if Dugger would seek an arrangement somewhere in between safety and the more expensive cornerback tag salaries given he regularly plays both positions.

New Orleans Saints

A team that has to reapportion more than $80 million to become cap compliant has no business – or reason – to be trafficking in tags.

New York Giants

RB Saquon Barkley is an important piece to this puzzle, but 2023 was a reminder he can’t carry this offense alone. Now 27, probably better to let him test the market and determine his value rather than invite more bad blood with another tag – and, heck, maybe he even re-signs at the end of the day. Better to franchise ascending S Xavier McKinney, 24.

New York Jets

Be nice to keep OLB Bryce Huff, 25, who’s blossoming into an elite pass rusher in the wake of a season with a career-best 10 sacks and 33 pressures. But hard to justify such an expensive tag (approaching $23 million) for a role player on a deep unit who played fewer than half of the defensive snaps last year – and given the priority needs to be bolstering the supporting cast around QB Aaron Rodgers.

Philadelphia Eagles

They haven’t used a tag in 12 years, longer than any other team. No reason to expect that drought ends now.

Pittsburgh Steelers

No thanks … effective and efficient as QB Mason Rudolph, 28, was during his late-season promotion.

San Francisco 49ers

Be nice to perpetuate 24-year-old DE Chase Young’s career resurgence after trading a third-round pick for him, but not for $20 million or so.

Seattle Seahawks

New HC Mike Macdonald would surely like to retain versatile DL Leonard Williams, 29, but the ‘Hawks don’t presently have the salary flexibility to accommodate a tag for a player of his stature. Perennial Pro Bowl LB Bobby Wagner, 33, earned $7 million on an incentive-laden deal in 2023 and won’t be tagged. He intends to play in 2024, though it’s not clear if he’ll take another team-friendly contract.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Probably no club faces a bigger identity crisis than the three-time-defending NFC South champs, who face the prospect of losing QB Baker Mayfield, Pro Bowl WR Mike Evans and All-Pro FS Antoine Winfield Jr. Winfield’s age (25), breakout season and relatively tag friendly position make him the logical choice, especially since Mayfield and the team seem to have mutual interest in a reunion.

Tennessee Titans

Despite being awash in cap room, no reason for a rebooting organization to tag anyone, not even RB Derrick Henry, 30, given his age and odometer.

Washington Commanders

While DBs Kamren Curl and Kendall Fuller are solid, makes more sense for new GM Adam Peters and HC Dan Quinn to take the league’s worst defense down to the studs and spend their windfall of free agency funds more judiciously.


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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2024 NFL franchise tag candidates: Which players could be tagged?