The Jacksonville Jaguars are set to have 18 unrestricted free agents — who will be free to negotiate and sign with any of the 32 teams in the NFL — entering the 2022 offseason. One of the tools in place for clubs to retain their own unrestricted free agents is the franchise tag.
The most commonly used tag is the non-exclusive franchise tag. For example, the Jaguars used the NEFT on starting left tackle Cam Robinson in 2021. The NEFT allows players to negotiate a new contract with any team they choose and gives the original team the right to match any offer. If the original team elects not to match the offer, they're entitled to two first-round picks as compensation for the player. If no other offers are made, the player reverts to the original team on a one-year tender worth the average of the top five highest-paid players at their position over the last five years or 120 percent of the players' previous salary, whichever is greater.
Teams can also use the exclusive franchise tag. They rarely do, however, because it costs more. This tag doesn't allow players to negotiate with other teams but pays the player the average of the top five highest-paid players at their position for the current year, which is always a more considerable amount than the non-exclusive franchise tag.
Then there is the transition tag, which allows players to negotiate with other clubs. The one-year tender is cheaper with the TT, as it pays the average of the top-ten highest-paid players at the position over the last season. The original team has the right to match any offer made by another team, but does not receive any draft pick compensation if they choose not to match.
The tagging window for the 2022 offseason opened today, February 22, and extends to March 8 at 4 pm EST. Players tagged have to either sign the one-year tender or negotiate a new contract before the mid-July deadline. Teams can also rescind a tag at any time before that deadline.
With the tagging window officially open, should the Jaguars use any of their tags on in-house free agents?
Let's take a look.
It's important to note that teams can only use one tag during a given season. For example, the Jaguars cannot tag Cam Robinson and DJ Chark this year. They'd had to choose just one player to apply a tag.
The Jaguars only have a few legitimate options for any of the tags in 2022. Starting left tackle Cam Robinson, wide receiver DJ Chark, and left guard Andrew Norwell, are the only players even worth mentioning in this conversation.
And I'll go ahead and eliminate Andrew Norwell, who is now on the wrong side of 30. He's coming off a down year and likely isn't a scheme fit for the Jaguars' new offense, which will feature a zone-heavy rushing attack that relies on athleticism and movements skills from the O-Line. Norwell is a much better fit for a gap or power rushing team. The bottom line is he's not worth what it would cost to keep him under any of the tags.
DJ Chark is an intriguing study. During his four seasons in the NFL, Chark has only had one truly impressive campaign. Inexperience and injury marred his rookie season. In year two, Chark broke out in a big way, consistently making splash plays down the field with his speed and catch radius. He tallied 73 catches for 1,008 yards and eight scores. But in his third season, a multitude of factors — including nagging injuries and poor QB play — held Chark to just 53 catches for 706 yards and five touchdowns. And he missed all but four games in 2021 with a fractured ankle. There's no questioning Chark's talent and field-stretching ability, but he's missed almost 33% of the games in his young career.
What should the Jaguars do about DJ Chark?
If they choose to use the non-exclusive franchise tag on Chark, they're basically renting him for a year at just over $19M (per Over the Cap). That's a hefty price tag for someone who hasn't produced like a quality starting receiver since 2019. The exclusive franchise tag would cost even more and isn't a viable option. That leaves Jacksonville with three options: applying the transition tag, signing him to a new contract before the start of free agency, or allowing Chark to test the waters as an unrestricted free agent.
The transition tag is a somewhat appealing option. It would enable Chark to negotiate with other teams but would give the Jaguars the right to match any offer. If no other teams offered Chark a deal — which seems unlikely given that he's bursting at the seams with explosive potential and is still just 25-years-old — the Jaguars would be on the hook for $16.74M in 2022. Of course, that is if they couldn't come to terms on a new contract before the deadline.
Another situation worthy of debate is Cam Robinson. The 26-year-old left tackle has had his fair share of ups and downs as a pro, and had his development stunted early on by a torn ACL suffered in the third game of his sophomore season. Robinson played under the franchise tag in 2021 and got off to a rocky start over the first eight games. But from weeks 10 to 16, he was one of the most consistent pass protectors in the NFL. I view Robinson as a slightly above average starting left tackle in the NFL. I don't think he's worth the franchise tag, which, in 2022, is estimated to cost the Jaguars just under $17M. To me, placing the franchise tag on Cam Robinson would be an extremely conservative move with limited upside given his resume and projection moving forward. It would be a safe play, one that would ensure the Jaguars would have at least an average starting tackle in 2022. But when you factor in the talent, pedigree, and late-season improvement of 2021 second-round pick Walker Little, who also plays left tackle, Robinson becomes more expendable. Of course, Jawaan Taylor has struggled for the Jaguars at right tackle, and should likely be replaced in the starting lineup. But with the third-most salary cap space in football and the number one overall pick, the Jaguars would be wise to take a calculated risk, and let Cam Robinson test free agency. There's a decent chance the Jaguars could upgrade the tackle position in free agency by adding LT Terron Armstead. If they failed to land Armstead, the Jaguars could target Evan Neal or another top offensive tackle in the draft. Several paths forward could see Jacksonville upgrade both tackle spots in a big way. None include retaining Cam Robinson.
To recap, there are only three players for the Jaguars that could even enter the tag conversation. Andrew Norwell is a resounding no for a variety of reasons. Cam Robinson, who is a decent starter set to enter the prime of his career, has some appeal. But with more upside potentially available in free agency and the draft, and Walker Little waiting in the wings, I'd move on from Robinson. But I keep coming back to DJ Chark. He's young, talented, and provides a ton of upside. He'll be cheaper than he would be if he were coming off of a healthy season. I'd attempt to work out a team-friendly extension before free agency — that would in no way limit me from signing multiple higher-priced free agents — and use the transition tag as a fallback plan. Keeping Chark around gives you a field-stretching outside receiver. My plan would be to sign another proven starting receiver AND draft a talented wideout in the second or third round of the draft. Allowing Chark to play second or third fiddle in the passing game should help maximize his talent and efficiency.
What will general manager Trent Baalke, head coach Doug Pederson, and whoever else is involved with the Jaguars' roster construction decide to do? That's a multi-million dollar question that no one has the answer to.
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