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2022 NFL franchise tag primer: Ten most intriguing candidates

With the 2021 NFL season over and the COVID-19 pandemic receding, the NFL is about to begin its most normal offseason since 2019. Most important to players, it means that after a one-year dip in the salary cap because of the reduced revenue from the largely fan-less 2020 season, the salary cap -- and the franchise tag numbers -- are roaring back. After sitting at $182.5 million in 2021, the salary cap is expected to leap to $208.2 million in 2022, an improvement of nearly $26 million per team. The franchise tag numbers, which were also driven down, will bounce back, too. There is no quarterback who is likely to be tagged this year, but if there was, they would be tagged with a price tag of nearly $28.6 million, according to Over The Cap.

In 2021, with teams having to tighten their belts, just nine players received the franchise tag (in the 2020 offseason, 14 players were tagged). With much more money available this year, we could (are likely to) see more than nine players get the tag.

Free agency begins with the legal negotiating period on March 14, but teams have a two-week window, starting Tuesday and ending March 8, to designate the franchise or transition tags.

Just one week after the Los Angeles Rams had their Super Bowl parade, the work toward winning the next Super Bowl is beginning. Here's a look at 10 players who are among the most intriguing candidates to be tagged.

Davante Adams
Green Bay Packers · WR

Adams is the top free agent at any position this year, and he is coming off a career-high 1,553 receiving yards in 2021. Since 2018, he's led the NFL in receptions (432), receiving yards (5,310) and receiving touchdowns (47). So much about how the Packers approach everything this offseason hinges on Aaron Rodgers. If the quarterback decides he wants to return to the Packers, the team is likely to do whatever it must to keep its top players, especially Adams. And if Rodgers wants out, the Packers will either want to keep Adams to help Jordan Love, or get maximum return for Adams by tagging him and then trading him. Either way, Adams appears to be a prime target for the tag, because even if the two sides are far apart on a long-term deal, the one thing that can't happen is the Packers letting Adams hit free agency and losing him for little compensation. 

Jessie Bates
Cincinnati Bengals · FS

Taking care of Bates should rank just behind rebuilding the offensive line in offseason priorities for the AFC champions. He is third among all safeties with 406 tackles since he was drafted in 2018, and while his regular season did not live up to expectations, he returned to form in the playoffs, leading all players with six passes defensed and earning the highest Pro Football Focus grade (88.1) among safeties. Bates is just days from turning 25, and last week coach Zac Taylor said the team wants Bates. The Bengals are flush with cap space, so using the tag here would not be crippling before a long-term deal can get done.

Harold Landry
Tennessee Titans · OLB

Coming off a career-high 12-sack season, Landry will be in demand if he hits free agency. Complicating any negotiations for a long-term deal: the massive contract fellow pass rusher Bud Dupree got from Tennessee last year, and the fact that the Titans are cash-strapped. Landry has indicated he wants to be in Tennessee, so the franchise tag could be a placeholder to buy the Titans more time to work on a long-term deal.

J.C. Jackson
New England Patriots · CB

His 25 interceptions since 2018 lead the NFL, and he led the league in passes defensed in 2021 with 23. Despite a subpar performance in the playoff loss to the Bills (Jackson wasn't alone there), Jackson will have a big market if he hits free agency. The tag for Jackson would cost $17.295 million, but losing him would be a significant ding on the Patriots' defense. The Patriots have a mixed record on giving big deals to cornerbacks, so this will be one of the most interesting decisions to watch.

Mike Williams
Los Angeles Chargers · WR

He is coming off a career season, with 76 receptions for 1,146 yards; plus, five of his nine receiving touchdowns went for at least 20 yards. The Chargers have plenty of cap space, so tagging Williams would not handicap them in free agency, and surrounding Justin Herbert with as much talent as possible makes the tag for Williams a viable option.

Orlando Brown
Kansas City Chiefs · OT

The Chiefs traded a first-round pick, among other selections, to get Brown, and there is no way they can allow him to be a one-season rental as part of the overhauled line protecting Patrick Mahomes. If Brown is tagged, it will be as a placeholder to allow more time to get a long-term (and lucrative) deal done.

Carlton Davis
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · CB

The Bucs' No. 1 cornerback missed seven games this season because of a quadriceps injury, and the defense suffered for it. Davis still had 11 passes defensed, though, to bring his four-year total to 52. With Tom Brady's retirement, the Bucs are in transition but still believe they have a win-now roster. Among their decisions this offseason is how to handle the 10 players who started at least 10 games last season and are due to be free agents. A tag for Davis would allow the Bucs to work on a big-ticket deal for him in the 2023 offseason, when they are projected to be flush with cap space.

Dalton Schultz
Dallas Cowboys · TE

The Cowboys have a difficult cap situation and a lot of free agents to address. Schultz is coming of a breakout season, having caught 78 passes for 808 yards and eight touchdowns. Free agency will be a chance for the former fourth-round pick to get paid appropriately, and the Cowboys likely cannot pay Schultz's full value while addressing other free agents like Randy Gregory. The franchise tag number for tight ends is projected to be just under $11 million, which is likely less than Schultz could command on the open market, and is much less than the tag would be for a pass rusher like Gregory or a receiver like Michael Gallup, another free agent.

Marcus Williams
New Orleans Saints · FS

The Saints are in rough cap shape, but Williams, who was tagged last year, is a legitimate franchise tag possibility again. He is an important part of their secondary, played well on the tag in 2021 and can command more now in a long-term deal than he could have last offseason when the sides talked. Presumably the Saints did not tag him last year just to watch him leave a year later, so keep an eye on Williams during what will be a very busy time for this team. One note: Left tackle Terron Armstead's contract makes him ineligible for the tag, because he does not become a free agent until after the end of the 2021 league year on March 16.

Mike Gesicki
Miami Dolphins · TE

He had career highs in catches (73) and receiving yards (780) and was the team's second-leading receiver, behind Jaylon Waddle. The Dolphins are in great cap shape, and this offseason has to be about putting as many pieces around quarterback Tua Tagovailoa as possible, in terms of protection and targets. The franchise tag for tight ends is projected to be just under $11 million. One obvious caveat here: What does new coach Mike McDaniel think of Gesicki and how he would fit into his offense?

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter.

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