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Tuesday represents the first opportunity for the Green Bay Packers to use the franchise or transition tag on players with expiring contracts. General manager Brian Gutekunst has until March 9 to determine whether either tag makes sense for the Packers, a team that hasn’t used a tag since 2010.
Running back Aaron Jones looks like the only viable candidate for either tag.
According to Over the Cap, the franchise tag for running backs will likely cost around $8 million on the salary cap in 2021, opening up the possibility for the Packers to keep Jones for one more year at a reasonable cost, given his production and value.
The transition tag would cost even less, although it would provide less protection. Whereas the franchise tag takes the player out of free agency on a guaranteed one-year deal based on the top five salaries at the player’s position, the transition tag allows the player to sign offer sheets with other teams and is only worth the average of the top 10 salaries at the position.
The Packers are strapped by the salary cap but could feasibly carve out enough cap space to do either tag for Jones, a dynamic playmaker who is fifth in the NFL in yards from scrimmage (3,017) and tied for second in total touchdowns (30) over the last two seasons.
The Packers have reportedly offered Jones competitive contract extensions but have lacked the guaranteed money necessary to complete the deal. If the team is highly motivated to keep Jones without the long-term guaranteed money involved, using the franchise or transition tag could be attractive. Both would limit the financial risk over many years, while the franchise tag would ensure he’s in Green Bay in 2021.
The Packers would need to clear cap space first. There are many avenues for Gutekunst to find more room, including cutting Preston Smith, contract restructures for players like Aaron Rodgers and Za’Darius Smith, and a contract extension for Davante Adams. But adding another $8 million or so to the tally would complicate the process for the Packers, especially if they want to offer a deal to J.J. Watt or be competitive with veteran free agents next month.
As of Tuesday, the Packers still need to clear around $12 million in salary to get under the cap floor of $180 million. That number would rise to $20 million with the franchise tag for Jones.
The guess here is that the Packers do not use either tag. While reasonable cost for a dynamic player, $8 million is also a big chunk of cap space for a team already fighting the cap before the start of the new league year. The transition tag might make sense, but it could be a waste of time if the Packers know Jones is going to get competitive multi-year offers in free agency in March.
Also, the Packers drafted A.J. Dillon in the second round last year, providing a cheap starting option at running back, and if Jones departs Green Bay on a big deal, they’d receive a decent compensatory pick in the 2022 draft.
The Packers just don’t have the financial wiggle room to commit millions in salary cap space to the running back position.