Little has been normal about this N.F.L. off-season. Teams have to consider the possibility of playing a full season, an abbreviated one, or not playing at all. The absence of fans at games or a shortened season could lead to a hit to the 2021 salary cap, throwing long-term planning into uncertainty.
But the league’s deadlines still come and go, and decisions must be made. On Wednesday, it was time for players who have been assigned a franchise tag by their team to sign a long-term deal or accept a predetermined salary for next season.
Although the idea of being forced to stay with a team at a set salary may seem onerous for the best players in this situation, most of whom have labored for four years on comparatively stingy entry-level contracts, Year 5 is a big payday either way.
Here’s how it stands for some of the bigger names:
Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys
As a fourth-round draft pick in 2016, Dak Prescott was a bargain for the Cowboys. He signed for $3 million over four years and has been an elite starting quarterback for the team, earning Pro Bowl selections in two of them.
Now comes the time for Prescott cash in. Negotiations on a long-term deal were stalled over the length of the contract, according to multiple reports. Prescott wanted a shorter deal, so he could become a free agent sooner, while the team wanted to tie him down for longer.
With no deal, Prescott will have to accept the franchise tag. While that can sometimes be a bad thing for a player, in this case, it will pay him a base salary of $31.4 million for the 2020 season, dwarfing the $2 million career high he earned in the final season of his rookie contract. This year’s figure was determined by the average salary of the highest paid players at his position. Should he be tagged again for 2021, he would get a $6 million raise.
“I’m a Cowboy and couldn’t be happier,” Prescott told USA Today on Wednesday.
It is more than possible that Prescott will become a free agent in a year or two. If so, there are plenty of teams that will be interested in a quarterback upgrade, including possibly the Indianapolis Colts, who are currently planning to start 38-year-old Philip Rivers.
Looming over the negotiations between Prescott and the Cowboys was the whopper of a contract signed by Patrick Mahomes with the Kansas City Chiefs this month: Listed at half a billion dollars, it includes at least $140 million guaranteed. That sets the bar high for the rest of the league’s marquee quarterbacks, notably Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans, who will be in a position to negotiate next year after his fourth season.
Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans
The league’s top rusher last year with more than 100 yards a game and most rushing touchdowns (16), Derrick Henry worked out a deal with the Titans for a reported four-year, $50 million contract with $25.5 million guaranteed rather than be tagged and paid $10 million next season.
One reason the deal made sense for Henry is that there could be a host of good running backs on the free-agent market in 2021, including Alvin Kamara, Dalvin Cook, Leonard Fournette, Aaron Jones and Joe Mixon.
Chris Jones, DL, Kansas City Chiefs
Jones signed a four-year contract worth $85 million, with $60 million guaranteed, in preference to accepting a $16 million tag, according to reports. His entry level contract had paid him $6 million over four years. He has had four solid years with the team, culminating in a Pro Bowl selection last season, the team’s championship year.
Not every player worked out a deal to his and his team’s liking.
The Denver Broncos were reportedly eager to sign safety Justin Simmons, who is coming off a second-team All-Pro selection, but no deal was reached by the deadline. He will play now for a tag of $11 million after completing four years for a total of only a bit over $3 million.
Defensive tackle Leonard Williams was traded from the Jets to the Giants at midseason last year, a move that caused some fans to protest; nevertheless, he played well for the struggling team. He will now play next season for a $16 million tag.
A.J. Green of the Cincinnati Bengals had seven Pro Bowl appearances at receiver in his first seven years, but missed the 2019 season with an ankle injury. He will get $18 million next season to catch passes from the No. 1 overall draft pick, Joe Burrow, who takes over the team with the N.F.L.’s worst record (2-14) last season.
Not every player is happy to take a tag. Yannick Ngakoue, the Jacksonville Jaguars pass rusher, will get $18 million next season, but he has said he wants to leave the team. Trade talks are continuing.