NFL franchise tag candidates and 2021 predictions: Dak Prescott, Aaron Jones top list of 22 players

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones and Los Angeles Chargers tight end Hunter Henry are targets for the NFL franchise-tag designation entering the 2021 season.

Prior to NFL free agency starting March 17, each of the 32 teams must evaluate whether they will place a franchise tag on veteran players to keep them off the open market.

The franchise tag is a labor designation that restricts a player's potential movement in exchange for a high one-year salary. Each team can put the franchise tag on one pending free agent, a decision that is pricey but also provides leverage against losing a player, ensuring the team a large return if that player ultimately departs the club.

The franchise tag window begins Tuesday, and teams have until March 9 at 4 p.m. ET to place the tag on their most valuable player.

Different challenges will happen this year for both sides because the tags will pay less because of the lowered salary cap, which has a cap floor of $180 million. (The tag is calculated by taking the average of the top five players' cap percentage at the position for the 2020 season or 120% of the player's previous year salary -- whichever is greater.)

We asked our NFL Nation reporters to identify the players most likely to get tagged and make their predictions on what will happen over the next two weeks. By our count, 21 teams are contemplating using the franchise tag:

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Atlanta Falcons

Keanu Neal, safety

After missing nearly all of the 2018 and 2019 seasons because of injuries, Neal bounced back with 100 tackles and an interception in 2020 while playing on the fifth-year option. Neal thrived in his first two years too, so he's definitely an impact player when healthy. There might be a question of whether he fits into the new scheme, and that could be the reason the Falcons don't tag him, but having a consistent player in the secondary is not something to take for granted.

Prediction: Neal is a good, young safety and can be a key part of the defense, so the Falcons tag him. -- Michael DiRocco

Buffalo Bills

Matt Milano, linebacker

It's not a very likely scenario, but there is a world in which the Bills apply the franchise tag on Milano if they're unable to come to a long-term agreement. He is Buffalo's most valuable free agent -- and thus its most difficult to sign, likely commanding north of $13 million per year in an ordinary offseason. Bills general manager Brandon Beane gave Milano his blessing to seek the biggest payday elsewhere, making the franchise tag a reach; you just never know in this league, but don't hold your breath in this situation.

Prediction: The Bills won't use the franchise tag on Milano. -- Marcel Louis-Jacques

Baltimore Ravens

Matthew Judon or Yannick Ngakoue, outside linebackers

It's prohibitive for the Ravens to use the tag on either Judon or Ngakoue because it would take up nearly all of Baltimore's salary-cap space to do so, and you can make the argument that there isn't value to putting the tag on either of them. Judon totaled six sacks last season, and Ngakoue didn't seem to be a great fit. But the Ravens have to at least consider it. Without the tag, Judon and Ngakoue are likely getting more lucrative deals elsewhere. Given the cap restraints, the Ravens can address outside linebacker by re-signing Tyus Bowser and selecting a pass-rusher early in this year's draft.

Prediction: The Ravens won't use the tag this year, marking the fourth time in five years Baltimore won't tag a player. -- Jamison Hensley

Carolina Panthers

Taylor Moton, right tackle

Locking down 2017 second-round pick Moton for the upcoming season is a must for a Carolina team that has one starting offensive lineman (center Matt Paradis) under contract. Moton allowed three sacks last season and hasn't missed a start the past three seasons. If a long-term deal can't be reached, the Panthers would use the tag on him, which would cost an estimated $13.6 million. Releasing Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kawann Short gives the team cap room to make sure Moton doesn't get away.

Prediction: The Panthers will use the franchise tag on Moton if a long-term deal cannot be worked out before the new league year begins. -- David Newton

Cincinnati Bengals

Carl Lawson, defensive end

Lawson finished his rookie deal as the Bengals' most disruptive pass-rusher. However, he tallied 5.5 sacks, which could prevent the Bengals from paying the franchise tag worth an estimated $17.8 million, per Over The Cap. But Lawson is more disruptive than the raw numbers indicate. He created 10.5 sacks (via an ESPN metric powered by NFL Next Gen Stats), good for seventh in the league last season. As of now, it seems unlikely the Bengals use the tag on Lawson. That being said, don't be shocked if Lawson commands a high salary on the open market.

Prediction: The Bengals won't use the franchise tag on Lawson. -- Ben Baby

Chicago Bears

Allen Robinson II, wide receiver

The Bears' offense without Robinson, 27, looks pretty grim, which makes tagging the wide receiver, who caught 120 passes for 1,250 yards and six touchdowns last season, a strong possibility. Chicago is also prioritizing finding the quarterback who would be throwing Robinson passes and ultimately could determine whether the receiver would want to sign a long-term deal if tagged. The cost of tagging Robinson is $16.4 million. The Bears are already in a tight predicament with the salary cap, so they'll need to create space by restructuring contracts or releasing expensive veterans (e.g. Jimmy Graham). It's also wise not to rule out a tag-and-trade scenario for Robinson depending on how things play out for Chicago in free agency.

Prediction: The Bears will use the franchise tag on Robinson. -- Courtney Cronin

Dallas Cowboys

Dak Prescott, quarterback

Without a long-term deal by March 9, the Cowboys will tag Prescott for the second straight year and it will cost $37.7 million against the cap. It would also set in motion the likelihood that 2021 could be Prescott's final season in Dallas. These talks are entering their third offseason, so maybe the two sides will be able to find a compromise. Is Prescott worth it? The Cowboys went 4-7 without him in 2020, and the offense scored one touchdown in the first three games Dallas played after he suffered his ankle injury.

Prediction: The Cowboys will use the franchise tag on Prescott. -- Todd Archer

Denver Broncos

Justin Simmons, safety

The Broncos keep saying they want to work something out with Simmons, and Simmons has said he would like to stay. But both sides also say it all has to come together on their side of the negotiating table, too. Ultimately, a long-term deal makes the most sense, and it likely would not help matters toward a long-term deal if the team used the franchise tag on the safety for the second consecutive year. Simmons is really the only player among the Broncos' potential unrestricted free agents worth discussing when it comes to the tag, and it would be a potential short-term solution -- again.

Prediction: The Broncos will use the franchise tag on Simmons only to give them more time to get a long-term deal done. -- Jeff Legwold

Detroit Lions

Kenny Golladay, wide receiver

The Lions have a decision to make with their Pro Bowl wide receiver who missed 11 games last season because of hamstring and hip injuries. Golladay, 27, appeared to be a candidate for a long-term deal under the previous regime, but that never materialized. Now that the Lions are in a rebuild under a new head coach/general manager combo in Dan Campbell and Brad Holmes, the franchise must decide whether to sign Golladay to a long-term extension, tag him, tag him with the potential intent to trade him or let him walk. Detroit, which needs wide receivers desperately, could do any of those things considering its multiyear plan to return to competitiveness.

Prediction: The Lions will use the franchise tag on Golladay. -- Michael Rothstein

Green Bay Packers

Aaron Jones, running back

The Packers weren't willing to guarantee a significant portion of the contract they offered Jones during the season, but they would clearly like him back. Tagging him might be their best option, securing his services for one more season at around $11 million. But there are two things to consider: the difficulty of fitting that tag under the salary cap and Jones' potential unwillingness to play for the tag.

Prediction: The Packers won't use the franchise tag on Jones. -- Rob Demovsky

Houston Texans

Will Fuller V, wide receiver

In 2020, Fuller was well on his way to proving he could stay healthy and be a No. 1 wide receiver before he was suspended for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances. Even after Fuller was suspended, quarterback Deshaun Watson said he wanted the receiver back in 2021. Could the Texans tag Fuller to try to make Watson change his mind about wanting a trade? Maybe. Houston saved $17.5 million by releasing J.J. Watt and have other players they could release or contracts they can restructure to make the $16.4 million franchise tag work.

Prediction: The Texans won't use the franchise tag on Fuller. -- Sarah Barshop

Los Angeles Chargers

Hunter Henry, tight end

Henry, 26, was franchised last season because of injury concerns. He played in all but the last two games of the season after being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list. If the Chargers franchise tag him for a second straight year, his 2021 salary will be $12.7 million. The 6-foot-5 tight end had a standout season with 60 receptions, 613 receiving yards and four touchdowns. The Chargers need a reliable target for quarterback Justin Herbert.

Prediction: The Chargers will use the franchise tag on Henry. -- Shelley Smith

Jacksonville Jaguars

Cam Robinson, left tackle

Robinson hasn't progressed significantly from his rookie season (2017). His best season was 2019 when he ranked 57th among tackles in pass block win rate, per ESPN Stats & Information research, and he ranked 59th in 2020. The franchise tag, which is estimated to be around $13.2 million, looks like a better option than signing Robinson to a long-term deal. Take one more year to see if and how much he improves. The Jaguars have the most salary-cap space available (approximately $74 million), so they definitely could afford Trent Williams, who might get $18 million to $20 million annually. Coach Urban Meyer recently said he likes the offensive line, so that might be an indication the Jaguars are willing to stick with Robinson at least one more year.

Prediction: Robinson hasn't made enough progress to warrant the franchise tag. The Jaguars won't tag him. -- Michael DiRocco

New England Patriots

Joe Thuney, left guard

This seems highly unlikely, but because Thuney was tagged last year, he at least falls into the category of possibilities this year. It would be a 120% increase from his $14.7 million tag in 2020, and it's hard to believe the Patriots would want to eat up $17.737 million in cap space with other pressing needs. The sides had all of 2019 and up to July 2020 to reach an extension, and there seemed to be little momentum to do so.

Prediction: The Patriots won't use the franchise tag on Thuney. -- Mike Reiss

New Orleans Saints

Marcus Williams, safety

The Saints have severe salary-cap restraints on them this year, so it's unlikely they will use the franchise tag on anyone. But safety is the most affordable position in the league when it comes to the franchise tag ($11.4 million last year). It's not out of the question the Saints would consider using it to secure one of their most important young defensive playmakers. The free safety has been a starter ever since he was drafted in the second round in 2017 and arguably had his best season in 2020. Williams has 14 career interceptions, including the playoffs.

Prediction: The Saints won't use the franchise tag on Williams. -- Mike Triplett

New York Giants

Leonard Williams, defensive lineman

This would be more as a short-term placeholder than anything else. This isn't the year to put a $19.4 million cap charge on the books. The Giants franchised Williams last year, and now it would be 120% of that $16.1 million salary for 2021. The goal is to sign Williams to a long-term deal. But the franchise tag could buy the two sides some more time, if necessary. Williams is going to get paid. He was worth $16 million off a half-sack season. What's he worth now off a career-best 11.5 sacks? A lot.

Prediction: Williams signs a long-term deal with the Giants before the franchise tag deadline at just under $20 million per season. -- Jordan Raanan

New York Jets

Marcus Maye, safety

The projected tag amount at safety ($11.2 million) isn't ridiculous, so the Jets could utilize the tag for the first time since 2016 (Muhammad Wilkerson). The goal is to sign Maye, who was voted by teammates as the Jets' MVP in 2020, to a long-term contract. The tag would buy more time if they can't get it done by March 9. A year ago, general manager Joe Douglas admittedly miscalculated the market and lost wide receiver Robby Anderson in free agency. He doesn't want that to happen with Maye, who is likely to land a deal that pays him in the neighborhood of $10 million to $12 million per year.

Prediction: The Jets and Maye will reach a long-term agreement, avoiding New York from having to use the franchise tag. -- Rich Cimini

Seattle Seahawks

Shaquill Griffin, cornerback

Griffin likely wants to be paid like a top-five cornerback, which might be too steep for the Seahawks as they look to extend Jamal Adams on what could be a record contract for a safety. That would bring the tag into play at an estimated cost of $15.266 million, per Over The Cap. If the Seahawks aren't confident they can get a deal done with Griffin and anticipate a strong market for the 25-year-old Pro Bowler, they'd have to consider tagging and trading him like they did two years ago with Frank Clark.

Prediction: The Seahawks won't use the franchise tag on Griffin. -- Brady Henderson

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Chris Godwin, wide receiver

There's no way the Bucs will allow Godwin to leave if at all possible. But if they can't work out a long-term deal, Godwin will be their top franchise tag candidate and it would cost Tampa Bay roughly $16.5 million. Sure, they could franchise-tag outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett again instead, but it would cost them 120% more than what they tagged him with last year, which would be roughly $19 million this year -- not exactly cap friendly when the team has a projected $30 million in space available for 2021.

Prediction: The Buccaneers will use the franchise tag on Godwin with the hopes of making a long-term extension happen. -- Jenna Laine

Tennessee Titans

Jonnu Smith, tight end

The Titans are well aware of Smith's value as a pass-catcher, especially in the red zone where he hauled in eight touchdowns last season. Smith has become a preferred target for quarterback Ryan Tannehill. There was a dip in Smith's involvement once left tackle Taylor Lewan was placed on injured reserve in November. The Titans utilized Smith's blocking ability to help Lewan's backups. The franchise tag will cost $10.2 million, but it will give Tennessee time to negotiate a long-term deal with Smith, who is only 25 years old.

Prediction: The Titans will place the franchise tag on Smith and work on a long-term deal to keep him in Tennessee for a while. -- Turron Davenport

Washington Football Team

Brandon Scherff, right guard

Coach Ron Rivera has said he wants to build strong lines on both sides of the ball. Scherff was a first-team All-Pro last season -- the first by any player here since 1996. He's also a four-time Pro Bowler. Durability has been a concern as Scherff hasn't played a full season since 2016 and his 13 games played this past season were his most since 2017. There's no doubt about his impact when he plays, with his ability to win at the line and on the move. However, because of his stature, he would command around $15 million per year -- the highest for a guard. Washington used the franchise tag on him last year at a cost of $15.03 million. If tagged again, he would receive a 20% bump, so there's not much incentive on his end to get a deal done knowing he could make $18 million on a one-year deal.

Prediction: Washington will use the franchise tag on Scherff, but it will be with the idea of continuing to negotiate and, ultimately, reach a deal. It might just take a while to get there. -- John Keim