Broncos use franchise tag on Demaryius Thomas

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The Denver Broncos will ensure keeping Demaryius Thomas in blue and orange for at least one more year after they officially placed the franchise tag on the wide receiver. Thomas has more yards than any other receiver over the past three years, culminating in 2014 when he caught 111 passes for 1,619 yards and 11 touchdowns.

By tagging Thomas, the Broncos buy more time to work out a long-term contract. Last year, Thomas finished his rookie deal making $4.7 million. Denver has a litany of free agents to take care of, including Orlando Franklin, Julius Thomas, Terrance Knighton, Nate Irving and Brandon Marshall, meaning general manager John Elway has his work cut out for him.

Elway will try to keep Thomas around beyond this year, though. He released a statement saying, “This is another step in our efforts to extend Demaryius’ contract and ensure he remains a Denver Bronco. We will continue working toward a long-term agreement with Demaryius, who is a very important part of our team.”

The “nonexclusive” tag was used for Thomas, which means other teams will have the opportunity to negotiate with the receiver. However, any deal struck with the three-time Pro Bowler can be matched by the Broncos. If Denver decided not the match the offer, it would receive two first-round draft picks from the signing team as compensation.

Thomas, 27, will be vying to become one of the highest-paid receivers in the NFL. Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald earned the two largest contracts at the position, each getting $113 million with the average annual value at $16 million for both. The main difference in the two contracts is guaranteed money, with Johnson getting $48.75 million and Fitzgerald $27 million. Those deals are far and away the largest in league history at the position The next highest number is $67.8 million for Andre Johnson, who makes $9.68 million on average.

The cap number for receivers is expected to be about $12.8 million, meaning Thomas would play in 2015 under a one-year deal for that amount if a long-term contract isn’t agreed upon by the two sides.

Chiefs apply franchise tag to Justin Houston

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The Kansas City Chiefs have applied the franchise tag to outside linebacker Justin Houston, the team announced. Houston put together a season for the ages in 2014, recording a franchise-record 22 sacks. However, Houston is not expected to sign his franchise tag right away, per Ian Rapoport of NFL Network.

Houston is coming off his rookie deal which paid $1.598 million last season. The 26-year-old was a first-team All-Pro for the first time in 2014 and earned his second Pro Bowl appearance, giving him ample leverage with Kansas City while they discuss a long-term deal.

In a statement, general manager John Dorsey made it clear the team wants Houston to stick around for the long haul:

“Justin is a talented player and a key contributor to our defense. Today was the deadline to designate a franchise player, and it was in the best interest of the club to place the tag on Justin. We will continue to discuss long-term options with him and his agent. Our goal is to reach a deal that is mutually beneficial. We want to keep Justin in a Chiefs uniform for years to come.”

It was the nonexclusive tag for Houston, according to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, which means other teams can still negotiate with the pass rusher, although any deal struck with Houston can be matched by the Chiefs. Even if a team manages to pry Houston away from the Chiefs with a deal that isn’t matched, that team would have to send Kansas City two first-round picks as compensation.

Houston could be looking for a contract in the neighborhood of J.J. Watt, who received a $100 million contract last season. The highest-paid outside linebacker is Clay Matthews of the Green Bay Packers, with a contract value of $66 million and an annual average of $13.2 million.

For now though, Houston is reportedly debating if he should file a grievance over his position. Presumably, the Chiefs used the franchise tag on Houston as an outside linebacker which is projected to pay him $13.2 million for the 2015 season, but that’s less than the $14.8 million due to defensive ends. If Houston can argue that he is actually a defensive lineman, he would receive an addition $1.6 million guaranteed.

Patriots use franchise tag on Stephen Gostkowski

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The New England Patriots announced that they have placed their franchise tag on kicker Stephen Gostkowski. Gostkowski has been with the Patriots since the team drafted him in the fourth round in 2006, and is coming off a five-year contract signed in 2010.

That contract paid Gostkowski $15.8 million over five years, with an average salary of $3.15 million. By placing the franchise tag on Gostkowski, he’s guaranteed to return to the team for at least the 2015 season, and he’ll enjoy a modest pay raise of $4.56 million, according to Albert Breer of NFL Network. Gostkowski has also been given the nonexclusive tag, which means that he can negotiate with other teams, but the Patriots can match any offer. If another team signs Gostkowski, then it would have to give up two first-round picks, making it an unlikely scenario.

Using the franchise tag on a kicker or punter might sound crazy at face value, but it happens a lot given the reasonable cap number for the position. If a team can set aside any worry about a position at a reasonable cost, it’s usually a small price to pay. Kicker Nick Folk got the tag from the New York Jets in 2014, while punter Pat McAfee got the same treatment from the Indianapolis Colts in 2013.

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It’s worth noting that the Patriots can still negotiate a long-term deal with Gostkowski. They have until July 15 to get him signed to a long-term deal, though if they miss this deadline Gostkowski would be forced to play under the one-year tag. At 31 years old and coming off the best season of his career, a long-term deal shouldn’t be out of the question. In fact, the Patriots issued a statement that they would like to work out a deal with their kicker:

“Stephen has been extremely productive and a vital component to our success since joining our team in 2006. Utilizing the franchise designation allows both sides more time to try to reach an agreement, which is the goal.”

Gostkowski connected on 35 of 37 field goals last season, for a percentage of 94.6, making 12 of 13 from 40-49 yards out. Many thought that team would use the tag on safety Devin McCourty, who was one of the key pieces to New England’s defense and, accordingly, its Super Bowl run this past season.

Eagles sign LB Brad Jones

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The Philadelphia Eagles signed linebacker Brad Jones to a two-year contract on Monday, the team announced. The inside linebacker was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the seventh round of the 2009 NFL Draft. He spent six seasons with the Packers before the team released him two years into a three-year, $11.25 million contract he signed in 2013.

Jones joins an Eagles team that is very thin at the inside linebacker spot. Casey Matthews and Emmanuel Acho split starting duties this past season, with rookie Marcus Smith moving from outside to inside to provide depth. DeMeco Ryans tore his Achilles in November and has a cap hit of $6.9 million in 2015. He’s been listed as a potential cap casualty throughout this offseason.

Najee Goode, another backup for the Eagles, suffered a season-ending pectoral strain in 2014. Travis Long tore his ACL in the preseason finale, and he was fighting for one of the other backup spots. Obviously, there’s room for a player like Jones to earn a starting role.

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Jones was released by the Packers after a disappointing season in which he was benched after a single game. The team also released A.J. Hawk and are looking at a total makeover of the position. Jones has 258 tackles, 10 sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in six seasons in the NFL.

Dolphins place transition tag on TE Charles Clay

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The Miami Dolphins have placed their transition tag on tight end Charles Clay, the team announced Monday. The transition tag is a lot like the franchise tag, except it comes at a reduced rate and doesn’t give the team that uses it exclusivity. Clay’s one-year transition tag number will be worth $7.071 million, but he can sign an offer sheet with another team at any point.

Miami would then have the right to match any competing offer within five days of Clay signing the offer sheet. By using the transition tag, and provided Clay doesn’t sign an offer sheet with another team, the Dolphins save $1.276 million. This year’s franchise number for tight ends comes in at $8.347 million.

Clay has been with the Dolphins since they drafted him in the sixth round in 2011. He’s a capable blocker and a decent receiver, though his career highs of 69 receptions for 759 yards and six touchdowns in 2013 aren’t exactly world-beating. Clay played in 14 games in 2014, catching 58 passes for 605 yards and three touchdowns.

It’s not a strong free agent class when it comes to tight ends, and aside from the top guys like Maxx Williams of Minnesota and Clive Walford of Miami, the 2015 NFL Draft isn’t particularly loaded at the position either. Clay would likely have been one of the more coveted tight ends on the market just for lack of options out there. He still could be, but the Dolphins have given themselves some insurance with this tag.

Cowboys place franchise tag on Dez Bryant

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The Dallas Cowboys have officially placed the franchise tag on wide receiver Dez Bryant. Bryant was one of the top receivers in the league this past season and is likely looking for a big contract, but it’s unclear if the Cowboys will be able to give him what he’s after.

Given that Dallas broke a trend of disappointing seasons to take the NFC East and a spot in the playoffs this season, the Cowboys likely want to keep as much of the team together as possible. The franchise tag will keep Bryant with the Cowboys for one season, paying him the average of the top five salaries for players at his position for the season.

The franchise tag number for wide receivers was $12.41 million in 2014, and will go up slightly with an increase in the cap space this offseason. Bryant will want his long-term deal to place him among the top receivers when it comes to pay, which would put him near that $12 million mark regardless.

Calvin Johnson is the highest-paid receiver in the league at an average of just over $16 million per season, while someone like Mike Wallace currently makes $12 million per season. Bryant would be looking for Wallace-type money, especially after the numbers he put up this last season: 88 receptions for 1,320 yards and a career-high 16 touchdowns.

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Dallas will likely continue working on a long-term deal with Bryant. The one hang-up is the potential off-the-field issues, for which the Cowboys have a “genuine concern,” according to a report in November. That report was followed a week later by another saying that Dallas “won’t lose” Bryant under any circumstances.

The Cowboys will have until July 15 to get a long-term deal signed, otherwise Bryant will have to play the 2015-16 season on the tag. It’s a non-exclusive rights tag, which means Bryant can negotiate with other teams, but if he signs elsewhere, that team will have to give up two first-round picks.

Giants use the franchise tag on Jason Pierre-Paul

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The New York Giants used their franchise tag on defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, the team officially announced. Pierre-Paul is coming off an impressive season, but hasn’t yet received a big deal due to the inconsistencies over the course of his rookie contract. He’s had two really great years, separated by a few down seasons in which he was essentially invisible.

Unless the two sides work out a long-term deal before applying the tag or by the July deadline if they do tag Pierre-Paul, the tag ties him to the Giants for one season and a fully guaranteed salary. Said tag pays the player the average of the top five players at his position or 120 percent of his previous year’s salary, whichever is higher. The franchise tag for a defensive end is around $15 million.

That’s a hefty price tag for anybody, but is Pierre-Paul worth it? He finished the 2014 season with 12.5 sacks, and at 26 years old, his best football could certainly be ahead of him at this point. The problem is that there’s a lot of risk in giving him the kind of money that would likely need to come in a long-term contract.

Maybe the Giants would be overpaying him to some extent with this franchise tag, but it might pay off in the end if they get more time to evaluate him and learn that he is or is not worth that big contract.

After tagging JPP, the Giants will have until July 15 to get Pierre-Paul signed to a long-term contract if that is their ultimate goal this offseason. After that date, he’ll have to play under the franchise tag or not at all in 2015. The team can either use the exclusive rights franchise tag, which means he can’t negotiate with other teams, or the non-exclusive rights tag, which means he can negotiate with other teams, but that team would ultimately have to give up a pair of first-round draft picks to sign Pierre-Paul away.

If Pierre-Paul does sign a long-term deal, it’s unclear what kind of money he would be looking at. Mario Williams makes an average of $16 million per year, while Chris Long, Trent Cole and Charles Johnson are in the $12 million per year range. Pierre-Paul would likely be looking for something north of that, but whether he makes it to the next three — Greg Hardy ($13 million per year), Robert Quinn ($14 million per year) and Williams — is anybody’s guess.