NFL teams can now use franchise tag but should the Ravens?

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Matthew Stevens
·6 min read
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The window for using the franchise and transition tags is finally open as of today. Starting February 23 and running through March 9, NFL teams can designate a franchise or transition tag player. But that now begs the question . . . Should the Baltimore Ravens use the franchise tag this year?

While the Ravens have quite a few pending free agents this offseason, Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue are the only two that would make any sense as franchise-tag options. Both players are considered to be among the top free agents this offseason, making them attractive options for plenty of teams if they were to hit free agency. But between the cost of the franchise tag, the available options in free agency, and both players’ production in 2020, there’s reason to take a closer look at all sides before making any decision.

What's the difference between the franchise tag and transition tag?

AP Photo/Terrance Williams

Franchise tag: The franchise tag is the most common because of the security it brings teams. Once the franchise tag is applied, that player is prevented from hitting free agency. Doing so is expensive, however, as it's based on the five-year average cap percentage of the top-five highest-paid players at that position. Transition tag: The transition tag is also a one-year, fully-guaranteed contract. However, instead of basing the cost on the top-five players at that position, it expands to the top-10 players, making it a little cheaper. That comes with a different cost though, as other teams can still negotiate with the transition-tagged player and sign them to offer sheets, which the original team has just five days to match.

Price:

Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

With so much uncertainty with the 2021 NFL salary cap, the cost for the franchise and transition tags are just as muddy. Over The Cap is estimating the franchise tag for defensive end Yannick Ngakoue will run about $17.75 million. Having already used the franchise tag on outside linebacker Matthew Judon last season, doing it again is expected to cost around $20 million. This is truly the first problem with Baltimore even looking at the franchise tag this offseason. With the salary cap expected to drop for the first time in over a decade, the Ravens don't have a ton of money to spend this offseason. Using the bulk of their cap space on the franchise tag would severely limit the team's ability to address other needs. With no definitive salary cap or franchise tag numbers announced yet, planning beyond using the tag is near impossible right now.

Production:

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The franchise tag gives a team more time and leverage to work on a long-term contract extension. It can also be a way for a team to tag and trade a player they want to get more in return for. But that flexibility comes at a very high price, making it only for the elite players. In Baltimore's case, neither Ngakoue nor Judon truly produced at an elite level in 2020. While there are some reasons for the lackluster production and the Ravens might want to take a more long-term approach to using the franchise tag, the stat sheet doesn't lie. Judon's production dripped dramatically last year, going from 9.5 sacks in 2019 to just six in 2020. Ngakoue accounted for just three sacks over nine games with Baltimore, and when combined with his six games with the Minnesota Vikings, Ngakoue put up just eight total sacks in 2020. However, the league as a whole saw sack numbers go down as offenses began getting the ball out faster to counter blitzes and elite pass rushers. Beyond the league-wide issue, both Judon and Ngakoue have individual reasons for their lackluster production as well as some positives beyond what they did in 2020. Judon is a versatile player who can line up all over the field and is vital to what the defense does beyond just sacking the quarterback. He's great at setting the edge, is a capable run defender, and even drops back into coverage at times. Judon is a weapon defensive coordinator Don Martindale can use to create mismatches and free up other players to do other things. Ngakoue was traded midway through the season, which undoubtedly had an impact on his play. But when he was on -- as he was against his former team, the Jacksonville Jaguars -- Ngakoue was a force to be reckoned with. His limited role in the Ravens' defense didn't do him any favors either and it's easy to see how a full offseason with a team could see him return to form. Unfortunately, sacks are very much the measurement of an EDGE defender's success in the NFL. Judon has yet to hit double-digit sacks in his career and Ngakoue is three seasons removed from his only year putting up that type of production. While both Judon and Ngakoue should be considered very good EDGE defenders, there are rightfully some questions about whether they can hit that elite level worthy of the franchise tag or a massive contract extension.

Other options:

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Ravens would probably have an easier time making this decision if there weren't so many great options available in free agency. While other teams could use the franchise tag to lock up some of these guys from hitting free agency, there's still a wealth of talent available. As of right now, free agency will have guys like Shaquil Barrett, J.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Carl Lawson, Jadeveon Clowney, Melvin Ingram, and Leonard Floyd. Some of those names have a history of putting up consistently higher production than both Ngakoue and Judon while others are middling options just like Baltimore's pair of free agents. Regardless, that's a lot of available talent which typically means the value of the position will be lowered. Even if it isn't, there are enough options out there that the Ravens don't have to necessarily break to the bank to get similar production.

Should the Ravens use the franchise tag in 2021?

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When you factor in the cost of the franchise tag, the uncertainty around the salary cap, both players' production, and what other options are set to be available in free agency; the answer is pretty clear. It just doesn't make much sense for the Ravens to invest most of their available cap space on one player they don't even seem desperate to bring back. Allowing Ngakoue and Judon to test free agency could see their actual value plummet if teams are cautious about them, which could set up a return to Baltimore on long-term contract extensions at a much more reasonable cap hit. The worst-case scenario is that teams are just as desperate for pass-rush help as any other year and don't care about the salary cap issues, paying top dollar for players. But even at that point, the Ravens could just sign one of the available free agents to a long-term contract that has a lower 2021 cap hit, giving them the funds to still attack free agency or find trades if they wished. Baltimore needs to just sit back and let things come to them. The Ravens are a championship-caliber team and should attract plenty of attention themselves. There's a chance for far better value and even a bump in production to be found as long as Baltimore doesn't let desperation push their decision making.

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