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Winners and losers from NFL franchise tag deadline: Russell Wilson or the Broncos? Saquon Barkley or the Giants?

As the NFL new year awaits just over a week away, nine teams opted by the Tuesday deadline to designate a player with either a franchise or transition tag.

The move gives the Baltimore Ravens, Carolina Panthers, Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers control over a player’s 2024 rights each would like to keep regardless of whether they reach a long-term deal by the July deadline.

How did the 2024 deadline compare to recent tag trends?

Eight franchise tags and one transition tag (Patriots safety Kyle Dugger) was within range of the 7.2 tags allocated on average from 2014-2023, according to a Yahoo Sports analysis of data collected by OverTheCap’s Brad Spielberger.

Exactly 36 offensive and 36 defensive players received tags during that decade-long stretch, though annual trends were less consistent. This is the first season since 2019 that more defenders (six) were tagged than offensive players (two). The last stretch of defensive-leaning tag years introduced a four-year run (and a fifth tied) of primarily defensive tags. Could this season be the beginning of the next run?

Thirty of 72 (41.6%) players tagged from 2014-2023 reached a long-term deal with their team before the July tag deadline.

With that context in mind on how 2024 compares to recent years, here are Yahoo Sports’ tag deadline winners and losers.

Winners

The Taggers

The Ravens, Panthers, Bears, Bengals, Colts, Jaguars, Chiefs, Patriots and Buccaneers may have wondered last month: Will tagging our star risk a prohibitive 2024 salary-cap hit if we can’t reach a long-term deal?

The tag benefits teams by giving them a year of control that not all sports leagues offer, but there is a cost: absorbing the entirety of the cost’s cap hit in a single year. When the NFL’s 2024 salary cap came in at $255 million compared to teams’ projected $245 million-$250 million, tagging players became easier to swallow. An NFC executive had predicted to Yahoo Sports that the cap bump wouldn’t impact which players team considered tagging but would push some over the fence. The nine tags suggest that happened.

HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 31: Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud (7) throws to Houston Texans tight end Dalton Schultz (86) in the flat during second half action during the football game between the Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans at NRG Stadium on December 31, 2023 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

C.J. Stroud

This deadline annually spurs deals beyond tags. Tuesday, the Houston Texans locked up tight end Dalton Schultz for two more years. That’s a win for Stroud, who will now return his entire top receiving trifecta of Nico Collins, Tank Dell and Schultz.

Schultz caught 59 passes for 635 yards and five touchdowns during Stroud’s rookie regular season. The duo connected for another 80 yards and a touchdown in the playoffs. Tight ends are often young quarterbacks’ friends on the field. They’re reliable security blankets, routinely break-glass-in-case-of-emergency options. Keeping a reliable vet in-house will help the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year as teams game plan for him with an offseason to study his pro tendencies.

There was reason to expect the Chiefs wouldn’t tag their star defensive tackle. His second career franchise tag would have cost $32.16 million against the salary cap, a third tag in 2024 crossing $46 million and thus setting up negotiations to start at a well-above-market $39 million per year. Instead, Jones hits the market with all sorts of leverage. He should still have a path back to Kansas City if he wants it, with a choice on whether to accept the Chiefs’ offer as sufficiently competitive. But he can also command top dollar with a new suitor who’s searching for a heart of the defense fresh off consecutive All-Pro campaigns and consecutive game-changing Super Bowl performances. The cards are in Jones’ hands.

Buccaneers fans

It’s not often that a receiver races to 1,000 receiving yards 10 straight NFL seasons. In fact, it’s happened only once: with Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans. Randy Moss’ six straight seasons over 1,000 is the closest his predecessors and contemporaries have come. So the Bucs wisely extended a receiver to a deal reportedly worth $52 million across his age 31 and 32 seasons. Locking up a top pass-catcher is a good step for an offense still in need of a quarterback answer. Will this bargaining tool help incentivize Baker Mayfield to return? Mayfield and Evans connected for 1,255 yards and 13 touchdowns in Mayfield’s first Tampa season, a full nine more touchdowns than any other teammate caught. Securing Evans is a step in the right direction toward Mayfield staying put.

The Minnesota Vikings didn’t tag Cousins. They couldn’t. Previous restructures led to voidable years beyond 2023 that eliminated the franchise tag option. That means Cousins, despite his Achilles tear recovery and looming 36th birthday, has a healthy amount of control.

He could consider staying with head coach Kevin O’Connell, a bright offensive mind who believes in Cousins, and arguably the best receiver in the league in Justin Jefferson. But more likely, Cousins and agent Mike McCartney will have the chance to negotiate as the best prospect on the market. Cousins’ eight healthy games last season were sharp: 18 touchdowns, five interceptions, 69.5% completion rate and a 103.8 passer rating. He was uncannily healthy in eight starting seasons prior to 2023, and he was moving well in a video he tweeted last week. Cousins should have a chance to start and earn well in 2024. The question is not if but where.

Losers

Running backs

Running backs are on a two-tag deadline streak of losing. Last year, three of them were tagged: the New York Giants’ Saquon Barkley, the Las Vegas Raiders’ Josh Jacobs and the Dallas Cowboys’ Tony Pollard. The result was a market depression that frustrated the position group, who organized a Zoom call to commiserate but ultimately found no significant recourse options. A year later, none of the three previously tagged backs have a long-term deal — or any deal.

Despite the tag price jumping only incrementally to $11.95 million, all of their teams were comfortable letting them hit free agency. League sources don’t expect the position group to fare better on the market due to the healthy supply of serviceable running backs and teams’ increasing belief that scheme and offensive line propel running games at least as much as the backs carrying the ball.

A year ago, Miles Sanders commanded just $6.35 million per year from the Carolina Panthers coming off a 13-touchdown season with the Philadelphia Eagles. Will that become this year’s new floor?

The Giants

Yes, I know that I just explained why the Giants’ decision not to pay Saquon Barkley made sense. Even so, the Giants’ offensive stable is scarily empty. Quarterback Daniel Jones is coming off season-ending ACL surgery and recurring neck issues. Barkley is out at running back, leaving no running backs who gained more than 151 yards or one touchdown in 17 games last season. Tight end Darren Waller, whom the Giants traded for last offseason, has both mulled retirement and could be released after just one touchdown himself in another injury-riddled season. Need we go on?

Barkley may be averse to re-signing with the Giants, whom he felt spurned him last year with the tag and even more now as they let him walk. But with a cupboard this bare, Giants fans should be glad if they can re-sign Barkley for 2024. The sixth overall pick of this year’s draft won’t be enough to fill all the Giants’ holes.

Three-peat dreamers

All hope is not yet lost for the defending Super Bowl champions to become the first team in NFL history to win back-to-back-to-back. But if the Chiefs lose defensive tackle Chris Jones, their prospects unquestionably flicker. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes has proven more than capable of elevating subpar offensive pieces after losing teammates like receiver Tyreek Hill. But Mahomes’ theatrics don’t extend to defense, and the Chiefs relied heavily on coordinator Steve Spagnolo’s unit last season as they worked through offensive kinks.

In the glow of the Super Bowl, players and head coach Andy Reid alike talked about Mahomes, tight end Travis Kelce and Jones as the core of this team. Jones posted 10.5 sacks and 29 quarterback hits in the regular season, another half-sack and six hits in the playoffs. Will Kansas City lose a key anchor?

Let’s be honest: Did anyone win as the Denver Broncos released their quarterback two years after he arrived and before his lucrative extension even began? Head coach Sean Payton may think he’s happier without Wilson, whom he soured on quickly, but how long will it take for Payton to find a quarterback even close to as capable? Keep in mind the $85 million dead cap hit lingering in Denver.

Wilson may be glad to find a team that wants him more, and make top dollar regardless of performance …but competitors like him don’t celebrate getting paid to do nothing for nobody. The trade was a disaster, Wilson’s marriage to Nathaniel Hackett in Year 1 and Payton in Year 2 both unraveled, and none of the parties involved enter 2024 looking good. But hey, as longtime Eagles center Jason Kelce said in his retirement speech Monday, hungry dogs run faster. Let’s see how fast Wilson and Payton each run this year.

Ravens, Browns and Steelers defensive backs

Imagine being a Ravens, Browns or Steelers defender from 2007-2020. Games against the Bengals were something to look forward to, the team fronting seven offenses in the bottom-11 compared to just three in the top-11 during that stretch. Then quarterback Joe Burrow arrived, teaming up with receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. The Bengals were now liable to light up the division at any moment, Chase surpassing 1,000 yards each of his three NFL years while Higgins has hit 900 in all of those seasons. Higgins’ impending free agency this year offered a glimmer of hope at the end of that dark AFC North tunnel, the chance that Burrow and Chase’s contracts would push a famously cheap franchise to leave Higgins out to dry. No such luck for AFC North opponents. With Higgins tagged, and Burrow hoping to return healthy, expect the Bengals to be right back in the mix as an AFC contender.

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