When the Ravens traded for Yannick Ngakoue in October, it wasn’t inconceivable that he would return to Baltimore in 2021 on the franchise tag. The defense was staring down an edge rusher exodus, and a tender to Ngakoue, a Pro Bowl defensive end, would cost less than a second tender for Pro Bowl outside linebacker Matthew Judon.
When the Ravens’ playoff run ended in January, with the lowest-rated game of quarterback Lamar Jackson’s season, it also wasn’t inconceivable that general manager Eric DeCosta would have a historic class of free-agent wide receivers to pursue. The NFL’s salary cap would be falling sharply, and not everyone would be able to keep their star wideouts.
Now, with Tuesday marking the start of the NFL’s franchise and transition tag window for pending free agents, the Ravens’ offseason options at two crucial positions have seemingly changed. Ngakoue’s impact and playing time were limited over his nine games with the Ravens, making a return unlikely. And with the NFL’s salary cap floor set at $180 million, teams appear less willing to part with their top receivers.
A clearer picture will emerge by March 9, when the window closes. Even then, there will be some uncertainty about who’s going where. Under the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement, franchise-tagged players receive a one-year tender worth either 120% of their previous year’s salary or an amount determined by leading player salaries and the salary cap, whichever is greater.
“Exclusive” franchise players, who cannot negotiate with other teams, must be offered a one-year tender worth either 120% of their 2020 salary or no less than the average of the top five salaries at the player’s position.
The more common “nonexclusive” franchise players receive either 120% of their 2020 salary or an amount tied to previous salary figures and the still-undetermined 2021 salary cap. (The number is calculated by adding the franchise tag costs from the five previous seasons at the position and dividing it by the sum of the salary caps in that period. That cap percentage is then multiplied by the salary cap for the upcoming league year.)
Nonexclusive players can negotiate with other teams, but if they sign an offer sheet from another team, the original team can match the terms. If the offer is not matched, the original team will receive two first-round draft picks as compensation from the signing team.
Tagged players can’t force their way into free agency by refusing a tag, but they can be traded, provided they’ve signed their tender. Exclusive and nonexclusive franchise players have until July 15 to reach a long-term deal; they’re otherwise prohibited from signing an extension until after the season.
Here’s a look at seven notable pending free agents and franchise tag candidates, including the Ravens’ pair of pass rushers. The players are ordered by the projected value of their tender, as determined by Pro Football Focus salary cap calculations.
OLB Matthew Judon
Projected cost: $20.2 million
Skinny: The Ravens think highly of Judon, and so do those around the NFL. The 28-year-old earned his second straight Pro Bowl honor last season despite posting just six sacks, his fewest since 2016.
While defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s blitz-heavy scheme makes comparing Ravens edge rushers to those in other schemes difficult, Judon actually had more quarterback pressures and hurries than he did in 2019, and in two fewer games, according to Pro-Football-Reference. Just as important is his versatility: Judon dropped into coverage on 17.1% of his defensive snaps, according to PFF, and missed just four tackles all season, according to PFR.
“He’s an all-around excellent, excellent football player,” coach John Harbaugh said last month. Still, with Judon signing a $16.8 million franchise tag tender last year, a second tag this offseason becomes prohibitively expensive. The Ravens don’t have the means to sign a pass rusher to a $20 million-plus deal.
WR Allen Robinson
Projected cost: $18 million
Skinny: The projected value of a nonexclusive franchise tag for a wide receiver is only $15.8 million, but Robinson made $15 million last year, so the Chicago Bears’ price tag would default to the 20% raise. That’s not a bad contract for a 27-year-old receiver with 2,397 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns since 2019. (His quarterbacks in that span? Mitchell Trubisky, Nick Foles and Chase Daniel.)
Robinson’s camp reportedly wants a contact worth at least $20 million annually, but CBS Sports reported last week that the Bears are prepared to tag him if they can’t agree to a long-term deal. Chicago is facing a salary cap headache, but using the franchise tag could give general manager Ryan Pace the time needed to make space for Robinson, sign him to a lucrative extension or find a willing trade partner for one of the NFL’s best receivers.
G Brandon Scherff
Projected cost: $18 million
Skinny: The Washington Football Team placed the franchise tag on him last year, then watched Scherff turn in a first-team All-Pro season. The Washington Post reported Sunday that while Washington could use the tag again this offseason, team officials appear more interested in signing the 29-year-old to a long-term deal.
G Joe Thuney
Projected cost: $17.7 million
Skinny: New England placed the franchise tag on Thuney after he earned second-team All-Pro honors in 2019, but the two sides haven’t agreed to a new deal in the nine months since. Even with the Patriots’ considerable salary cap space this offseason, they’re reportedly unlikely to give the 28-year-old the 20% raise in 2021 that a second tag would require.
DE Yannick Ngakoue
Projected cost: $15.9 million
Skinny: Ngakoue had eight sacks last season, but just three in eight games with the Ravens. The former Maryland standout never seemed to find the role that his credentials suggested he would. Ngakoue, 25, played over 70% of the Ravens’ defensive snaps in just two games and less than 50% in three games. A week after playing 21 snaps in a playoff win over a physical, run-heavy Tennessee Titans offense, Ngakoue got only 20 against a pass-happy Buffalo Bills attack.
Asked about Ngakoue last month, Harbaugh said he “love[s] the guy” and explained that he faced a “unique situation,” given the Ravens’ depth at the position. He added: “If he chooses and we work it out and he’s here [in 2021], it’ll be a little different. … He’ll be starting, and he’ll get a lot more snaps than he got this year. This year was kind of more of a [pass-rush] role, probably, at the end of the year. It was only the second half of the season, so I don’t think you can really judge it based on what you saw.”
Actions speak louder than words, though, and it’s hard to see the Ravens offering big money to an edge rusher they didn’t consider an every-down player.
WR Chris Godwin
Projected cost: $15.8 million
Skinny: The Super Bowl champion Buccaneers have a handful of talented pending free agents — edge rusher Shaquil Barrett, linebacker Lavonte David and tight end Rob Gronkwski — but Tampa Bay’s apparently unwilling to consider parting with Godwin. Still only 24, the Delaware native has averaged over 1,000 receiving yards per season since 2018, highlighted by a Pro Bowl-level 2019 (86 catches for 1,333 yards and nine touchdowns).
Even with wide receiver Mike Evans, a three-time Pro Bowl selection himself, signed through 2023, Godwin isn’t seen as expendable. The NFL Network reported Monday that the Buccaneers are working on a long-term deal with Godwin, and that they’re expected to tag him if they can’t agree on an extension.
WR Kenny Golladay
Projected cost: $15.8 million
Skinny: The Lions are rebuilding with a new coach, a new general manager and a new quarterback, but they probably won’t start over at wide receiver. The NFL Network reported Monday that Golladay is a “strong” franchise tag candidate if Detroit can’t sign him to an extension.
Injuries limited the 27-year-old to just five games last season, but he still finished with 20 catches for 338 yards and two touchdowns. Since entering the NFL in 2017, Golladay has averaged 16.8 yards per catch, second most among receivers with at least 100 catches in that span. He made the Pro Bowl in 2019 after leading the league in touchdown catches (11) and recording his second straight 1,000-yard season.