The NFL franchise tag has been adding interesting wrinkles to teams' offseasons since 1993. The Dallas Cowboys, despite a bevy of 2017 free agents, almost surely won't be using the franchise tag this year.
While the Cowboys do have close to 20 players with expiring contracts, only a few even merit a conversation about the franchise tag. Upon closer examination, we'll see that none of them would justify that high salary and cap hit that would come with the tag.
Before we get to those 2017 free agents, though, let's briefly look at the Cowboys' recent history with the franchise tag.
Cowboys Franchise Tag History
The Cowboys have only franchised players four times over the last ten seasons. Two of those times were just as a placeholder while a long-term deal was negotiated that same offseason; safety Ken Hamlin in 2008 and receiver Dez Bryant in 2015.
Pass-rusher Anthony Spencer is the only Cowboy to actually play under the franchise tag in the last decade. He did it twice in 2012 and 2013. Spencer once admitted that he didn't give max effort when he wasn't facing free agency, so the Cowboys left him in a perpetual “contract year” state for three seasons.
The Cowboys have generally not had problems re-signing the players they want. This isn't Cleveland; Dallas doesn't have to worry about players being desperate to flee for better cities or organizations. Jerry Jones also has a history of taking care of his players, sometimes even to a fault. That's why you haven't seen Dallas use the franchise tag much.
2017 Franchise Tag Options
As already stated, I don't think there's any player Dallas would use the franchise tag on this year. Here are the few players who I'd even have the discussion about, along with last year's franchise tag amount for their position. The amounts in 2017 are not yet decided but should be roughly the same.
Barry Church, S ($10.8 million)
While a solid player and tackling machine, Church has never performed to the level of the NFL's great safeties. He counted just $4.75 million against the salary cap in 2016, so the franchise tag would more than double his cost.
If the Cowboys were flushed with cap space this year then you might consider it. They could retain Church on a one-year deal while working on finding an eventual replacement, perhaps allowing Kavon Frazier to develop and show what he could offer.
Morris Claiborne, CB ($13.9 million)
If Claiborne had played all of 2016 at the level he was showing in September, Dallas just might have considered this move. Unfortunately for Mo, yet another injury cost him nine games and robbed him of the chance to dramatically increase his market value.
For an injury-prone player like Claiborne, getting the franchise tag would be a godsend. He could get an immediate payday that might exceed anything he could get with a long-term deal. Claiborne might not even want to negotiate, knowing his history makes guaranteed money hard to come by.
There's no denying that the Cowboys need cornerback help and Claiborne is one of the most talented guys out there. Still, there's no way Dallas would lock up so much cap space in a guy who might not play half the season.
Ronald Leary, G ($13.7 million)
Last year Dallas kept Leary using a second-round Restricted Free Agent tender of about $2.6 million. It proved to be a bargain; Ronald started 12 games after La'el Collins was lost to a foot injury. The offensive line didn't miss a step with Leary and some have argued he was even more effective than the young, albeit talented, Collins.
Now an unrestricted free agent, Ronald Leary is justifiably looking to get paid. He has been a starting left guard for two of the last three NFL rushing leaders. However, the franchise tag rules make it highly disadvantageous to use it on a guard or center.
The franchise tag amount applies to all offensive linemen regardless of position. That means the bloated salaries of left tackles, who get paid like wide receivers and cornerbacks, bump the number up for everyone.
Even the best guards in the NFL only make about $10-12 million per year. With La'el Collins ready to resume starting duties in 2017, there's no chance that they would pay Ronald Leary $13 million to stick around. Even if there is a drop-off going back to Collins, it's not enough to justify the expense.
Terrell McClain, DT ($13.7 million)
After two injury-plagued seasons, McClain finally emerged as a standout for the Cowboys defensive line. Early in 2016 he was arguably their best player up front. However, the emergence of younger players later in the year has made McClain expendable.
Maliek Collins and David Irving both blossomed as the season went along and figure to have major roles going forward. Dallas also still has veterans Tyrone Crawford and Cedric Thornton under contract and counting a combined $14.6 million against the salary cap. With those guys already getting overpaid, there's no way Dallas could afford to pay Terrell McClain the franchise tag.