Today marks the first day NFL teams could designate a player with the franchise tag on their roster. Between then and March 7 teams will have the opportunity to retain at least one of their key free agents without them hitting the open market.
A franchise tag is a one-year contract with a salary calculated from the average of the top-5 paid players at the respective position. The franchise tag is non-negotiable for players. It gives teams the opportunity to negotiate a long-term deal with the player or keep them in the building for one more year.
There are plenty of premier free agents that could get franchise tagged before the deadline. The free agent will be majorly impacted by which players are franchise tagged. The entire offseasons for teams can change as the priority free agents available could change how they address needs on their roster. Here are the defensive free agents who could be franchise tagged by their respective teams before March 7th.
James Bradberry, CB, Philadelphia Eagles
It wasn’t until after the draft that the New York Giants let go of James Bradberry allowing him to hit the market as a free agent. Philadelphia signed Bradberry at an incredible bargain signing him to only a one-year $7.25 million deal. Bradberry took advantage of his prove-it deal and was one of the best cornerbacks in football this past season. PFF gave Bradberry a 74.1 grade for his play this past year.
Even though Bradberry was outstanding this past year this is a conversation for the Eagles for a few reasons. Philadelphia has a ton of impactful free agents expected to hit the market. They may prioritize other positions when it comes to spending especially since Darius Slay’s contract isn’t cheap. The Eagles may ponder the idea of pairing Slay with a younger cornerback taken in the NFL Draft who could be their top cornerback once Slay regresses or retires.
Bradberry may seem like he should without a doubt receive the franchise tag from the NFC Champion Philadelphia Eagles. However, Howie Roseman may view him as a luxury and look for cheaper alternatives to fill his role while he retools this roster. That being said if the Eagles were to franchise tag Bradberry it should come as no surprise.
Byron Murphy, CB, Arizona Cardinals
The Arizona Cardinals appear to be beginning a major rebuild under new general manager Monti Ossenfort and head coach Jonathan Gannon. Despite beginning a rebuild there are a few free agents from the roster that the new regime should consider bringing back. One of the free agents Arizona should look to retain for next year is cornerback Byron Murphy.
Murphy was drafted in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft by Arizona and has been a foundational piece for a consistently rebuilding defense. Since Arizona let Cardinals legend Patrick Peterson walk in free agency a few years ago, Murphy has stepped up as the team’s best cornerback. Due to his size, Murphy’s primary role began as a cornerback who would play in the nickel. However, due to necessity, Murphy has lined up on the outside for the Cardinals.
Gannon may pound the table for a guy like Murphy because his specialty before becoming a defensive coordinator was coaching defensive backs. He could look at Murphy as a player that he could coach up to a Pro Bowl level if he was to stay in the building. If Murphy was the leave the Cardinals the team would have a gaping hole at the position considering they are in need of more depth at cornerback as the team is currently constructed.
Da’Ron Payne, DT, Washington Commanders
Out of all four first-round pick defensive linemen on the Washington Commaners, Da’Ron Payne is likely the most underrated. The reason why Payne does not receive the same national attention as Jonathan Allen, Montez Sweat, or Chase Young is that he didn’t put up the flashy sack numbers the other three produced. However this past year Payne led the team in sacks making himself a household name.
It appears to this point that Payne could be the odd man out of the four Washington Commanders’ former first-round picks to remain with the team long-term. His price tag raised after this past year when he more than doubled his career high in sacks with 11.5 and was named to his first Pro Bowl. Washington may have made their decision already about Payne when they took Phidarian Mathis in the second round of the 2022 NFL Draft. Similar to Payne, Mathis is a run-stuffing defensive tackle from the University of Alabama.
Payne is a run-stuffing defensive tackle that has the ability to get after the quarterback. There are not many interior defensive linemen with the ability to plug the run at an elite level and put up high sack totals. After the season he just had Washington should try to retain Payne for at least another year. But if they let Payne walk it would be understandable because they have a lot of needs on their roster and have to worry about long-term deals for Montez Sweat and Chase Young.
Zach Allen, DL, Arizona Cardinals
Another Day 2 draft pick from the Arizona Cardinals draft in 2019 that could receive the franchise tag is defensive end Zach Allen. The former Boston College defensive lineman emerged as one of the best defensive linemen and overall defensive players for the Cardinals last season. He could be another player that the new regime views as a long-term foundational piece for their rebuilding defense.
The first question that comes to mind when it comes to Allen remaining in Arizona is where is he going to lineup. If Jonathan Gannon runs a base 4-3 defense as he did in Philadephia, Allen will have to adapt to the scheme. Allen lined up as a 3-4 defensive end the past few seasons in Arizona because he is a tweener. His measurables puts him between the ideal sizes for a 4-3 defensive end and 4-3 defensive tackle. There is some risk involved with putting Allen in a new scheme where he could struggle to transition. But there is a chance this new regime believes they could get similar if not better production by finding him a home along a 4-3 defensive front.
Allen has been rock solid as a player for Arizona but definitely raises questions onto how he would fit with this team going forward. The biggest risk with letting him walk would be that this team would have to completely rebuild their defensive line from scratch. Outside of Allen there aren’t many defensive linemen on this roster that had long-term futures with the team prior to the new regime coming in.
Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Buffalo Bills
One of the more intriguing free agents that could hit the market is Buffalo Bills linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. He is a very high-profile player for one of the best defenses in the league over the past few seasons. Buffalo traded up in the first round to take Edmunds 16th overall in 2018. Since then Edmunds has been named a team captain and has been voted to the Pro Bowl twice.
Despite being a two-time Pro Bowler during his time in Buffalo it feels like Edmunds has been a tad disappointing. He has shown that he is an extremely talented player but is firmly not in the conversation for the best linebacker in the league. But the fact that he is only 24 years old and is playing at the level he is right now means that there is still room to grow for Edmonds.
Two years ago the Bills paid All-Pro linebacker Matt Milano to an extension. It would be ill-advised to the Bills to pay Edmunds as well as designate close to $30 million next year in their core of linebackers considering the league is leaning towards using nickel-backs and using safeties as sub-linebackers. But if Buffalo believes retaining Edmonds could earn them an opportunity at a Super Bowl next year they need to keep him in the building.
Jessie Bates III, S, Cincinnati Bengals
Last offseason the Cincinnati Bengals franchise tagged former Second Team All-Pro safety Jessie Bates III. The Bengals were unable to come to an agreement on what an extension for Bates should look like so he played on the tag. One year later Bates could hit free agency again or could earn 120% of his franchise tag from a season ago which is worth about $15.5 million next season.
This year Cincinnati has a huge decision to make at safety because both Bates III and other starting safety Vonn Bell are free agents. The Bengals did prepare for this by taking versatile defensive back Daxton Hill in the first round of last year’s draft. However now Cincinnati must decide if they want to pay for Bates or Bell to return. Bates is the better player but is much more expensive than Bell.
Since the Bengals have huge financial decisions to make in the near future pertaining to Joe Burrow, Tee Higgins, and Logan Wilson, they may choose to let Bates III walk and try to retain the Bell. The relationship between Bates III and the Bengals front office is already strained from last offseason. It may be best for both sides if Bates III walks and Hill fills his role in the defensive backfield.
C.J. Gardner-Johnson, S, Philadelphia Eagles
An underrated trade that occurred during the summer was the one where the Philadelphia Eagles acquired C.J. Gardner-Johnson from the New Orleans Saints. New Orleans realized they were extremely unlikely to retain Gardner-Johnson so they moved him with a year left on his contract. They traded Gardner-Johnson and a 2025 seventh-round pick for Philadelphia’s 2023 fifth-round pick and worse of their two 2024 sixth-round picks.
Gardner-Johnson did not disappoint in his lone season in Philadelphia. He tied the league lead in interceptions with six. He was the finishing touch to a defense that had added a ton of Pro Bowl-caliber talent this past offseason. Many felt Gardner-Johnson deserved to be recognized as a Pro Bowler for his play this past season.
Early reports indicate that Gardner-Johnson may be the player Philadelphia could prioritize with the franchise tag in the coming weeks. This is high validation considering the Eagles have multiple Pro Bowl players expected to hit the market. However, the Eagles have the draft capital to address plenty of those positions in the early rounds. Philadelphia may feel that Gardner-Johnson is the most irreplaceable piece to this defense they need back next year.
Jordan Poyer, S, Buffalo Bills
Buffalo’s defensive backfield of Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer has dominated the league for the past seven seasons. But it appears the tandem could be headed towards a split due to Poyer’s upcoming free agency and the opportunity to add a large amount of salary cap space if Hyde was cut. The duo was limited to two games this past year after Hyde suffered a season-ending neck injury. Since both Hyde and Poyer are over the age of 30 years old Buffalo may look to get younger at the position.
The past two seasons were two of Poyer’s best in his career. Last season Poyer was named First Team All-Pro. While this past year Poyer was shockingly named to his first Pro Bowl. It is puzzling to believe that prior to this season Poyer had not been invited to the Pro Bowl. PFF gave him a 75.4 grade for this past season.
If the Bills believe that Poyer has enough left in the tank to have one more great season in Buffalo the franchise tag may be a perfect option for them. They don’t have to commit to a 31-year-old safety long-term but keep a team leader and extremely talented veteran in the building.