Tuesday is the first day teams are permitted to use the franchise or transition tag on a player. The deadline is March 1 (4 p.m. ET), creating a two-week window in which to negotiate a long-term contract.
There might be some drama with other teams, but not the New York Jets, who plan to use the franchise tag on defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson. It has been moving in this direction for more than a year, as the two sides haven't come close to a new contract.
What makes the Wilkerson situation interesting is what could happen after he receives the tag -- i.e. a possible trade. Our job is to explain it all to you.
Q: Why tag Wilkerson?
A: Let's speak the language of general manager Mike Maccagnan, who was an economics major in college. Wilkerson is a valuable asset, and the organization must protect that asset by making it almost impossible for Wilkerson to sign elsewhere. He'd draw more interest on the open market than the Jets' other top free agents, and they simply can't allow another team to sign him away.
Q: How much will it cost?
A: The amount still hasn't been announced by the league, but the projection for a defensive end is $15.5 million, based on a $154 million salary cap. That's assuming he receives the "non-exclusive" tag, which allows the player to negotiate with other teams. If the player signs an offer sheet with another team, the tagging team has five days to match. If it declines, it receives two first-round draft picks as compensation. In the unlikely event he gets the "exclusive" tag, which costs a little more, he wouldn't be permitted to talk to other teams.
Q: Can the Jets afford the franchise tag?
A: Well, not exactly. Right now, they figure to be approximately $14 million under the cap, so they'll have to create additional room by releasing a player (or players) and/or re-working a contract or two. But, remember, there's a two-week window, so there's no sense of urgency to dump salary.
Q: When was the last time the Jets used the franchise tag?
A: It was only two years ago. What, you already forgot about Nick Folk? The veteran kicker was coming off a terrific year, and the Jets didn't want to risk losing him. The strategy worked. A couple of weeks later, they locked him up with a four-year, $12 million contract.
Q: Could the Wilkerson situation be wrapped up that quickly?
A: Don't bet on it. The two sides have been talking on and off since 2014, when John Idzik was the GM, but it doesn't seem like they've made much progress. Wilkerson, 26, is one of the top defensive linemen in the league, and he wants a contract that puts him near the top of the salary structure. From all indications, he's looking for something in the Marcell Dareus neighborhood -- six years, $95 million. That contract included $42.9 million guaranteed at signing and a total of $60 million in guarantees.
Q: Is a tag-and-trade a possibility?
A: League insiders believe the Jets will be willing to listen to offers for Wilkerson, which shouldn't come as a surprise. Don't forget, they shopped him during last year's draft. A tag-and-trade is hard to pull off because it requires a team willing to meet the player's contract demands and surrender significant compensation to the tagging team. It'll be particularly tough this year because the draft is deep with defensive linemen. The Oakland Raiders, who have a ton of cap room, might be willing to talk trade, CBS Sports has reported. They own the 14th pick, which could tempt the Jets.
Q: Is it a good idea to trade Wilkerson?
A: No, it's not. The Jets should be collecting good players, not pushing them out the door. Yes, they have a lot of money tied up in the defensive line -- the number will grow if they re-sign Damon Harrison -- but Wilkerson was their best defensive player. The current narrative that last year's pass rush wasn't good enough, and that Wilkerson should be dealt for a pass-rushing linebacker, is a bunch of hooey. The Jets' four-man rush was fourth in pressure percentage and sixth in sack percentage, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The objective should be to sign their leading pass-rusher, not get rid of him.
Q: How will this drama play out?
A: By rule, the sides have until July 15 to hammer out a long-term agreement. If they don't, Wilkerson will play the 2016 season for the amount of the franchise tag -- which is our prediction. Five players got the franchise tag last year -- Dez Bryant, Stephen Gostkowski, Justin Houston, Jason Pierre-Paul and Demaryius Thomas. JPP was the only one who didn't land a long-term deal.