There is about a month remaining until free agency begins in the NFL, but this Tuesday is an important day in that process. February 21st is the opening of a 15-day window in which teams can place the franchise tag on any player.
The Dallas Cowboys have a handful of potential options for the tag this year and have shown in recent history that they are unafraid to use this particular contractual option on a player. Did you know that Dallas has placed the franchise tag on someone in five straight offseasons?
Time will tell whether or not the Cowboys do use it for a sixth year in a row, but if they do there are a few things and pieces of information that you need to know.
What is the franchise tag, anyway?
The franchise tag exists as a way for NFL teams to essentially keep a player who is about to see their contract with the club expire. If a team cannot come to terms on a new deal with a player they can place the tag on the player and guarantee them a contract of one year, a contract that ultimately has to be signed.
On the subject of the word ‘guaranteed’ it should be noted that the franchise tag is a fully guaranteed contract, although only for a single season. We have seen some players, including some Cowboys, embrace the tag in recent memory, but obviously the long-term stability that a longer contract offers is something that every player covets.
This handy primer on the franchise tag from SB Nation is a good encapsulation of the tiny details associated with it.
The franchise tag is more or less a last resort for teams trying to retain their best unrestricted free agents. It’s essentially a one-year deal that grants a window to negotiate a long-term contract. If no deal is struck before July 15, the player gets locked into his one-year deal. The price is based on the average of the top five salaries from the player’s position or 120 percent of his previous salary, whichever number is higher. Needless to say, teams will try to avoid tagging quarterbacks and pass rushers because those positions tend to be the most expensive.
There are two types of franchise tags: exclusive and non-exclusive. The exclusive tag is the one described earlier with only the original team allowed to negotiate with the player. The non-exclusive tag allows other teams to negotiate with the original team given the choice to match any offer. If the original team chooses not to match an offer, it receives two first-round picks as compensation. The transition tag is similar to non-exclusive, except the original team gets no compensation if it doesn’t match the offer.
Just because the window to be able to tag a player is opening this week does not mean that we will see the Cowboys use it right away. As noted, the window is 15 days long so they can use that time to work out a long-term deal with a player who they are considering tagging.
Speaking of players they could be considering tagging, who are some possibilities?
Dallas Cowboys players who could potentially be franchise tagged
The Cowboys have used the franchise tag for five years running, but only three players who have received it in that span. This is the case because both DeMarcus Lawrence and Dak Prescott (who each ultimately received long-term deals with the team in the offseason right after their second tags) were tagged twice.
When you tag a player for a second year in a row the value is 120% of the season prior so that obviously became a part of the negotiations with Lawrence and Prescott, and likely will with last year’s tag recipient as well.
Tag Option #1: TE Dalton Schultz
If we are being frank, then Dalton Schultz is not necessarily the player who makes the most sense for the Cowboys to tag, but given that he is the most recent recipient we will start with him. Since the Cowboys tagged Schultz they know that if they do so again for a second year in a row that it will cost them about $13.1M this year to do it. That is a lot.
Schultz has proven to be an important player for the Cowboys and had an impressive outing in the team’s Wild Card win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but he had some poor moments as the season ended a week later. That kind of money is reserved for the best tight ends in the NFL and it is difficult to argue that Schultz is in the top tier across the league as a whole.
When you consider that the Cowboys have second-year tight end options Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot, and the money involved, it makes it seem unlikely that they will tag Schultz.
Tag Option #2: RB Tony Pollard
The most likely recipient of the franchise tag among Cowboys players is easily running back Tony Pollard. It was obvious all season long that Pollard was among the more explosive players on the team so having him back in a season that is going to be very important would obviously be a good thing.
Unfortunately for Pollard, he suffered a fractured fibula in the playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers. While his 2023 season does not appear to be in any sort of jeopardy, it is difficult to commit to any player coming off of a serious injury. The tag value for running backs this offseason is $10.091M which is a lot of money to commit to the running back position, although this is the Cowboys we are talking about.
There is certainly an argument for tagging Pollard, but there is also one for letting him test free agency. Perhaps other teams are nervous about the injury as well and that works out financially for the Cowboys. We simply do not know what the future has in store. There is no result that can come from his situation that would feel devastating to the team, as talented of a player as he is.
Tag Option #3: LB Leighton Vander Esch
Ever since the Cowboys drafted Micah Parsons two years ago they have gotten some of the best play out of their previous first-round linebacker, Leighton Vander Esch. This past season particularly highlighted how important LVE is to the defense as a whole when he had to miss time down the stretch.
While Dallas did draft Vander Esch in the first round back in 2018, he is only one of two players since the fifth-year option became a thing with rookie contracts to not have it picked up (2012’s first-rounder Morris Claiborne is the other). Like Claiborne before him though, Vander Esch also signed a one-year deal with the Cowboys during what would have been his option year so there is clearly some sort of positivity between the player and club. Claiborne walked in free agency after that fifth year but he was not as important to the team then (the offseason of 2017) as Vander Esch is now.
The tag value for linebackers is $20.926M which would be a serious commitment to Vander Esch although, and this is obviously true with any player, the Cowboys could work out a long-team deal with him after initially giving him the tag. This option seems unlikely for Vander Esch, but he is one of the eligible players that you can at least make the case for.
Tag Option #4: S Donovan Wilson
Ultimately there are not a ton of possibilities for the Cowboys as far as the franchise tag is concerned, but if we are exploring all of the ones within the realm of possibility, then safety Donovan Wilson should at least be mentioned.
Wilson was a Day 3 pick of the Cowboys way back in 2019 and had arguably the best season of his career in 2022, so there are a lot of fans who want to see him stick around. Safety is not exactly a position where the Cowboys have invested a ton in recent memory which is why it was so shocking to see them retain Jayron Kearse and Malik Hooker an offseason ago.
It is worth mentioning that Kearse and Hooker each signed a two-year deal with the Cowboys last offseason so they are under contract through 2023. The Cowboys also have Israel Mukuamu who will be entering his third season, although we have seem them play him a lot at corner. Position really means very little to defensive coordinator Dan Quinn which is why he could still want to see Donovan Wilson return, but with the safety position having a $14.460M tag value it seems rather unlikely that Dallas would go this route here. Again, anything is possible though.