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Should the Bills consider using the franchise tag?

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Are any of their pending free agents worth it?

New York Jets v Buffalo Bills Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

The franchise tag is a tool that armchair general managers begin day-dreaming about using a lot between the Super Bowl and the start of free agency. Since we are in the heart of that time now, it warrants a review as to whether or not real-life general manager Brandon Beane of the Buffalo Bills should use that tool on any of the team’s soon-to-be free agents.

First, let’s review what the franchise tag is.

What is the franchise tag?

The franchise tag is a contractual tool that allows a team to give a soon-to-be free agent a tender (a 1-year contract) that obligates the team to pay that player the average of the top five contracts for players at that position as of last season. In layman’s terms, if you were the player, you’d get paid a one-year deal that averages what the highest-paid five people who do your job are making. Teams can tag players in 2020 from February 25th to March 10th.

There are different types of franchise tags, one in which the player cannot negotiate with any other teams (exclusive) and one where the player can negotiate with other teams (non-exclusive). If a non-exclusive tagged player signs with another team, the new team must give the previous team two first-round picks(!!) as compensation. Needless to say, that doesn’t happen often.

Upcoming Bills free agents

The following players are set to become unrestricted free agents unless signed to new deals with the Bills by March 18th at 4 pm EST:

  • RB Frank Gore
  • RB Senorise Perry
  • LG Quinton Spain
  • T LaAdrian Waddle
  • DE Shaq Lawson
  • DT Jordan Phillips
  • LB Maurice Alexander
  • LB Julian Stanford
  • S Kurt Coleman
  • CB Kevin Johnson
  • DB Dean Marlowe

Considering that Frank Gore, Senorise Perry, LaAdrian Waddle, Maurice Alexander, Julian Stanford, Kurt Coleman, and Dean Marlowe were all reserve players this past season it is safe to assume that they are not candidates for the franchise tag.

That leaves four players who are consistent or at least part-time starters to consider: Quinton Spain, Shaq Lawson, Jordan Phillips, and Kevin Johnson.

Quinton Spain

Approximate tag figure $13,765,430

Quinton Spain played every offensive snap in 2019 and did not allow a sack; a fact he has readily shared with everyone on social media.

Spain’s current deal that just ended paid him a little over $2 million for the season and landed him at about 1% of the team’s salary cap. Tagging him would bump him to the third-highest paid guard in the league as of last year’s contracts and would bump him to accounting for 6.8% of the teams salary cap.

As well as Spain played for the team last year, this kind of a pay bump seems like a bad allocation of assets considering he could probably be signed to a longer more reasonable deal if the Bills were inclined to bring him back. Complicating things further is what the team plans to do with Cody Ford who had some struggles at tackle in his rookie season and has been suggested by many to be a better fit at guard moving forward.

Considering this information, Spain does not seem to be a good fit for the franchise tag.

Shaq Lawson

Approximate tag figure $19,830,600

Shaq Lawson has steadily improved since his initial rookie season playing hurt and out-of-position in Rex Ryan’s defense. The 2019 season was the best of his career and since the Bills elected not to pick up his fifth-year option prior to the season, it may wind up costing them extra to retain his services if they desire to do so.

The Bills’ defensive end room leaves a bit to be desired as far as having known commodities on the depth chart. Jerry Hughes played most of 2019 with torn ligaments in his wrist, so the hopes of a resurgence in production from him may have some merit. Behind Hughes, the team is left with Trent Murphy, Darryl Johnson, and Mike Love. Since joining the team, most fans consider Murphy’s production to be lackluster, and neither Johnson nor Love provide much security if given heavy responsibility in the rotation. These factors bump up the potential motivation to find a way to keep Lawson with the club.

Pass rushers are notoriously expensive. If Lawson were to be tagged, that would bump his pay to be on par with players like Kawann Short or Calais Campbell and push him close to 10% of the team’s total salary cap. The Bills can likely re-sign Lawson to a longer and far more reasonable deal than what tagging him would do. Additionally, with Murphy still being a rosterable albeit not flashy player, the Bills could choose to add via the draft and maintain a suitable end rotation.

Considering this information, Lawson does not seem to be a good fit for the franchise tag.

Jordan Phillips

Approximate tag figure $19,981,400

Phillips has been the hottest topic of conversation this offseason as far as the Bills’ free agents are concerned. Perhaps by his own doing when commenting on Bruce Nolan’s column where he laid out why resigning Phillips to a deal on the open market would not be wise. His exact words were “hot [garbage can emoji].”

Phillips had a stellar year for the Bills in 2019; few fans even debate whether or not they would like to have him back on the team next year. In Phillips’s case, the team’s potential commitment to him continues to be complicated by two factors: Ed Oliver and cost.

With the Bills having spent the ninth overall pick on Phillips’s positional peer Ed Oliver in 2019, it’s difficult to reconcile dedicating both high draft capital AND 10% of your cap dollars to the 3-technique (aka penetration & pass rushing) defensive tackle position. Phillips claims himself as a top three defensive tackle in the league, and that is right about what his tag figure would land him at. He would be the fourth-highest-paid defensive tackle in the league behind Marcell Dareus and ahead of DeForest Buckner.

Perhaps Phillips will find a team who offers him money somewhere in this stratosphere but the Bills should not consider being that team, The best-case scenario for the Bills to resign Jordan Phillips is to allow him to test the open market, potentially realize the market value for his services is lower and more reasonable than he initially thought, and strike a deal around that number.

Considering this information, Phillips does not seem to be a good fit for the franchise tag.

Kevin Johnson

Approximate tag figure $15,851,666

The Bills are notoriously underpaying at the corner position. Despite the depth and talent the Bills boasted in 2019, they were the fifth-lowest-spending team in the league at the position. That might suggest they have the money to spend to shore up the position across from Tre’Davious White. Enter pending free agent Kevin Johnson.

Johnson is a high-ceiling athlete. He was originally drafted 16th overall by the Houston Texans before injuries derailed his ability to contribute and he was released. In 2019, he eventually stole starting reps away from Levi Wallace and while Wallace was down with injury, finished the season as CB2 across from Tre White.

There is little discussion that would merit Johnson worth the cap number that the tag would place on him. His deal that just came to an end paid him $3 million and there is no argument to be made that he will command that sort of money on the open market nor that a replacement could not be found via the draft or free agency that would be significantly less costly to the Bills.

Considering this information, Johnson does not seem to be a good fit for the franchise tag.


You can follow me on Twitter @NickBat and look for episodes of “The Nick & Nolan Show” podcast on the Buffalo Rumblings podcast network.