Skip to main content

2024 NFL franchise tag primer: Candidates to watch while window is open

How fast does the NFL turn the page to the next season? The confetti was still wafting through the Allegiant Stadium air in celebration of the Kansas City Chiefs' Super Bowl LVIII victory when the Chicago Bears reminded everybody on social media that they were already on the draft clock. A few minutes after that, the New York Jets teased the release of new uniforms for the 2024 season.

The first significant action of the NFL offseason begins today, Feb. 20, with the opening of the 15-day window to apply the franchise tag to impending free agents.

The tag is a powerful tool for team management to keep the top potential free agents from hitting the open market. In the best case scenario, applying the tag is a precursor to the team and player striking a long-term deal. That's what happened with Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, who received the non-exclusive franchise tag last offseason, signed a blockbuster contract with the Ravens and was the league's 2023 Most Valuable Player. Less ideal is the case of New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley, who was tagged after he and the team failed to reach an agreement on a long-term deal. He played on an adjusted tag in 2023, missed three games due to a high ankle sprain and, along with the rest of the Giants' offense, was significantly less productive than he was in 2022. Unless Big Blue tags him again or the sides come to an agreement in the coming weeks, Barkley will be a free agent this offseason.

Jackson and Barkley were two of the six players who were tagged last offseason. One big-name free agent-to-be who won't get tagged this offseason: quarterback Kirk Cousins. During his career, he has used the franchise tag to his advantage better than any other player, and the structure of his current contract means the Minnesota Vikings cannot give him the tag now. The 35-year-old is set to hit the open market in an offseason in which numerous teams will be seeking a starting quarterback.

Here's a look at some of the players who could receive the tag beginning Tuesday, listed alphabetically.

Josh Allen
Jacksonville Jaguars · OLB

Jacksonville general manager Trent Baalke said recently that Allen would be a Jaguar next year, and the edge rusher has repeatedly said he wants to remain with the team that drafted him seventh overall in 2019. Playing on his fifth-year option in 2023, Allen had a career season with 17.5 sacks, which tied for second in the NFL. Making him play out the 2024 season on the franchise tag -- essentially forcing him to play two straight prove-it seasons -- would likely make Allen very unhappy. The Jaguars have had few cornerstone pieces who play on second contracts -- a reflection of their draft struggles through the years -- but Allen should be one. If Allen gets the tag, it will almost certainly just be a placeholder while Jacksonville works to get a long-term deal done. There is a potential domino effect here, too. Receiver Calvin Ridley is also due to hit free agency, so swiftly getting a contract done with Allen would free up the tag in case the Jags want to use it on Ridley. 

Saquon Barkley
New York Giants · RB

There’s no question the Giants are better with Barkley, but will they want to go through the franchise tag process with him again? He is 27 years old, just missed three games to injury, and his statistics were less impressive last season than in 2022. Barkley will have a market if he becomes a free agent, but first the RB's representatives and the Giants are expected to talk during the 2024 NFL Scouting Combine. With the offense struggling so badly last season, can the G-Men afford to let their best playmaker go? 

Brian Burns
Carolina Panthers · OLB

The Panthers reportedly rebuffed a blockbuster trade offer for Burns during the 2022 season, so it’s hard to imagine they’d let him just walk out the door. A new long-term contract does not appear imminent, though, so the franchise tag looks likely. The only question then is if the Panthers still believe a multi-year deal is within reach or if they tag Burns and then trade him. 

Kyle Dugger
New England Patriots · S

This is an interesting decision -- not just because of Dugger, who played 98 percent of the defensive snaps last season, but because of what we might learn about the new direction of the Patriots. When Bill Belichick made the final decisions on personnel, New England generally skipped using the franchise tag. With Eliot Wolf now taking the lead, we’ll find out if the Pats are more open to using the tag. It will also tell us something about what head coach Jerod Mayo and defensive coordinator DeMarcus Covington have in mind for their D. 

Tee Higgins
Cincinnati Bengals · WR

Tagging Higgins would give the Bengals, the only consistent threat to the Chiefs, another chance to win the Super Bowl, keeping the powerhouse trio of Higgins, Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase intact. Higgins would be a No. 1 receiver on many other teams, but he is WR2 in Cincinnati. Injuries limited him to just 12 games in 2023, but he had more than 1,000 receiving yards in each of the two seasons before that. His projected guaranteed salary would be about $20.7 million on the tag, per Over The Cap. Higgins might be the rare player who benefits from waiting to hit free agency. With other top receivers -- including Chase and Justin Jefferson, among others -- in line for new multi-year deals, the WR market might be reset by the time Higgins hits the open market if he is tagged this season and becomes a free agent in 2025. 

EDITOR'S UPDATE: The Bengals announced Monday that they have officially applied the franchise tag on Higgins. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport initially reported Cincinnati was expected to apply the tag to Higgins on Feb. 23.

Jaylon Johnson
Chicago Bears · CB

Johnson was given permission to seek a trade just before the deadline last season, when he and the Bears were unable to reach agreement on an extension. That the Bears did not receive an offer they thought was acceptable should tell us something about how highly they regard Johnson. The cornerback snagged a career-high four interceptions in 2023 and is clearly a good fit in Matt Eberflus’ defense. It’s hard to imagine Chicago letting Johnson walk for nothing after not trading him back in October, so he might be one of the players most likely to be tagged. 

Chris Jones
Kansas City Chiefs · DT

Last seen getting the pressure on Brock Purdy that forced San Francisco to settle for an overtime field goal in the Super Bowl, Jones is a critical piece for Kansas City's defense, which was the backbone of the team's championship run. Jones is coming off his second straight first-team All-Pro season. At the Chiefs’ Super Bowl parade, he declared, before hundreds of thousands of witnesses, that he “ain't going nowhere, baby.” Using the tag on him could be tricky, though. Because of franchise tag rules, Jones’ tag would reportedly project to be worth $32 million due to his 2023 cap number, rather than $20.7 million, the projected tag price for his position (per Over The Cap). That’s not entirely prohibitive if the Chiefs want to re-do other contracts to make it work, but it certainly makes it much less likely that Jones will get tagged. More realistically, the clock is ticking to see if Jones and the Chiefs can finally reach a long-term deal. If Jones is not tagged, the Chiefs could instead use the tag on star cornerback L’Jarius Sneed, who forms perhaps the best cornerback tandem in the NFL with Trent McDuffie

Justin Madubuike
Baltimore Ravens · DT

The sack leader of one of the league’s best defenses, Madubuike is coming off a breakout season, establishing himself as one of the NFL's best interior defensive linemen. The Ravens have a plethora of defensive players in need of new contracts (Patrick Queen and Jadeveon Clowney among others) and are tight against the salary cap this offseason, but they can’t afford to lose Madubuike. If there is no long-term contract in the offing in the coming weeks, the tag would seem nearly certain. 

Christian Wilkins
Miami Dolphins · DT

Fresh off a nine-sack season, Wilkins has played his way into a contract that should be in the range of what some of his fellow 2019 first-round interior linemen have already received -- like the $22.5 million per year received by the Giants’ Dexter Lawrence. The Dolphins' salary cap situation is more than tight this offseason, though, so the franchise tag would give them time to again try to get a long-term deal done with Wilkins or to find a trade partner. 

Antoine Winfield Jr.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · S

Winfield is one of the best safeties in the game, and he is one of three big potential Buccaneers free agents, along with Mike Evans and Baker Mayfield. Winfield is just 25, and Tampa Bay wants to lock him into a long-term deal. Bucs general manager Jason Licht hasn’t been shy about using the tag in recent years -- tagging Shaq Barrett in 2020, and Chris Godwin in 2021 and 2022. Both players ended up signing long-term contracts with the team. With so much else to work on, the tag -- and it’s $16 million-plus guaranteed for 2024 -- could be in play for Winfield. 

Related Content