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2023 NFL franchise tag primer: Candidates to watch while window is open

The Kansas City Chiefs' victory parade has barely pulled to a stop, but the NFL is already on to the 2023 season. The next important event on the calendar: the franchise-tag window, which opens Tuesday and closes March 7. Any unrestricted free agent not tagged in that period will be able to sign with any suitor when free agency opens March 15. (The negotiating period, when teams can reach out to agents of potential free agents to start talks, begins March 13.)

Eight players were tagged last year. Four wound up signing long-term extensions, including receiver Davante Adams, who was first traded from the Packers to the Raiders. But the other four -- Bengals safety Jessie Bates III, Cowboys tight end Dalton Schultz, Chiefs offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki -- played the 2022 season on the tag.

Barring any surprises, the free-agent class does not appear to be as flush right now as it has been in some recent years. With the salary cap soaring to $224.8 million, teams will have plenty of money to spend to keep their own players, which could thin the free-agent pool further.

Last year featured some very obvious candidates for the tag. This year? Not so much. Here are some possibilities to keep an eye on, some more likely than others -- leading off with the biggest name of all.

Lamar Jackson
Baltimore Ravens · QB

The Ravens have been adamant that the former league MVP will remain in Baltimore. But with contract negotiations apparently stalled -- complicated by the fully guaranteed deal Deshaun Watson received from the Browns last year -- and the bit of a chill that seems to have developed between the sides, the franchise tag appears to be a foregone conclusion. What comes after that is the bigger question.

It seems likely Jackson will receive the exclusive tag, which is set to be worth around $45 million. That would prevent other teams from negotiating with and signing Jackson to an offer sheet. The non-exclusive tag would pay Jackson about $32.4 million and would guarantee the Ravens receive two first-round draft picks in return if Jackson goes elsewhere. That is usually enough of a deterrent to keep other teams away, but there would likely be a few franchises that would at least consider pursuing a deal for Jackson if he were to receive the non-exclusive tender. The Ravens would almost certainly want more in return if they decide to move on from their franchise quarterback, and the exclusive tag would allow them to control Jackson's trade value. Other than Aaron Rodgers' decision on whether to return to Green Bay, seek a trade or retire, there is no more fascinating situation this offseason than Jackson's fate. 

Daniel Jones
New York Giants · QB
Saquon Barkley
New York Giants · RB

Jones' dramatic improvement in Year 1 under Brian Daboll creates a situation that seemed unlikely last April, when the team declined the fifth-year option on Jones' rookie contract: The Giants want Jones back. In fact, they want Jones and Barkley back, but only one can get the franchise tag, and therein lies the decision. The Giants tried to get a deal done with Barkley during the season, but even the team admitted the two sides were not close then. Big Blue would presumably prefer to sign Jones to a multi-year deal; that would free up the tag to be used on Barkley, if necessary. If the G-Men and Jones can't reach an agreement on a long-term deal, though, New York would have to tag him for $32 million (the value of a non-exclusive tag for a quarterback). That is not a bad price in the current climate, but tagging Jones would also eat up a chunk of the Giants' salary-cap space that they would surely rather use to shore up other areas of the roster. 

Jordan Poyer
Buffalo Bills · S

The Bills' Super Bowl window is open right now, so keeping their top players has to be a priority. Poyer falls into that category, and retaining him on a multi-year pact would be ideal, considering the glut of top quarterbacks in the AFC that Buffalo would have to beat to finally be in position to win the Lombardi Trophy. But a franchise-tag decision could be tricky. Poyer is about to turn 32. Meanwhile, linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, who will soon turn 25, is similarly integral to the Bills' defense and is also a pending free agent. After an earlier-than-expected exit from the postseason, Buffalo's decisions about how to allot its resources will be interesting.

Evan Engram
Jacksonville Jaguars · TE

All of Engram's potential finally flowered with Trevor Lawrence, as the former Giant just enjoyed a career year in Jacksonville (73 catches, 766 receiving yards, four receiving touchdowns). The tag number for a tight end, $11.345 million, would be an increase in pay of less than $2.5 million relative to what he signed for in 2022. The Jaguars would likely prefer to keep as many weapons in place as possible as Lawrence ascends -- and Engram is interested in staying, as well.

Daron Payne
Washington Commanders · DT

Payne just posted career-best production with 11.5 sacks and 20 quarterback hits in 2022, and it's hard to imagine the Commanders, who have built an impressive defensive line, would let an interior defender this disruptive leave the building. Washington has to consider the future of edge rushers Chase Young (who can be kept in town through 2024 on his rookie deal) and Montez Sweat (who has one more season remaining on his), but for a franchise that could be facing massive transition in the coming months -- the team could be sold, and a new owner would likely eventually bring in new leadership -- Payne could be a rock-solid pillar going forward.

Josh Jacobs
Las Vegas Raiders · RB

Obviously, the Raiders' biggest offseason decision is at quarterback, with Derek Carr now out of the picture, but Jacobs -- 2022's NFL rushing champion -- was one of the bright spots of Josh McDaniels' first season in Vegas. No matter which quarterback winds up here, Jacobs, at $10 million, could be a nice companion. 

Orlando Brown
Kansas City Chiefs · OT

During the week before the Super Bowl, Brown indicated he wants to remain with the Chiefs. Brown received the tag last year, and he could be on track to be tagged again. Brown turned down a long-term deal last year, and negotiations this offseason should be fascinating. In the meantime, there is no expectation that the Chiefs would allow him to hit the open market. Tagging him at about $20 million -- and locking in the left tackle of the line that did not allow a sack by the league's top pass-rushing team in the Super Bowl -- seems like a bargain. 

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter.

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