As the Cowboys try to put together their roster for 2022, the franchise tag is one possible tool they have to retain free agent talent. Who are some of Dallas' potential free agents that could be reasonable candidates to get tagged this offseason?
While it's been around since 1993, the franchise tag has only been used by the Cowboys nine times on six different players. In fact, over half of those came in recent years with Dak Prescott (2020, 2021), DeMarcus Lawrence (2018, 2019), and Dez Bryant (2015).
Sometimes the tag is a formality; a placeholder to keep the player from negotiating with other teams while working out a long-term deal. We saw that with Prescott last year, Lawrence in 2019, and Bryant in 2015.
One reason it hasn't been used often is that significant immediate hit to the salary cap. The franchise tag gives the player a huge single-season cost against the cap and can be prohibitive to other offseason moves. Having historically struggled with the cap, Dallas has had to be judicious in utilizing this option.
Currently $13 million over the 2022 salary cap, the Cowboys will again have to be very conscientious about potentially tagging on of this year's free agents. They have over 20 potential free agents this offseason and some of them starters like WR Michael Gallup, G Connor Williams, DE Randy Gregory, TE Dalton Schultz, S Jayron Kearse, and P Bryan Anger.
While any of these players could be tagged some make more sense than others. Today we're going to look at the four guys who I think could potentially get the franchise tag in 2022.
The specific amounts for franchise tag tenders this year have not yet been released by the NFL. However, we have solid projections from Over The Cap and Spotrac which we'll use throughout this article.
TE Dalton Schultz
After becoming the starter in 2020 following Blake Jarwin's injury in Week 1, Schultz is now one of the NFL's most-productive tight ends and an attractive free agent. If the Cowboys are concerned enough about losing one of Dak Prescott's security blankets, especially with Michael Gallup likely leaving, they could try to secure Dalton for next year with the tag.
The problem here is how much Schultz's compensation would skyrocket from last year to now if tagged. In 2021, the last year of his rookie deal, Dalton counted just $2.3 million against the salary cap. The projected TE franchise tender for 2022 is around $11 million; a major increase.
Even if Dallas released Blake Jarwin for cap relief they're only getting about $4-$5 million back. That's less than half of what they'd owe a franchise-tagged Schultz.
With Jarwin only counting about $5.8 million against the cap himself in 2022, there's a strong possibility that the Cowboys will let Schultz find a new team and turn back to Blake as their starter. But given what he's done the last two seasons, and the high turnover expected at WR, Dallas may be desperate to keep Dalton and preserve stability on offense.
DE Randy Gregory
There probably isn't a free agent that the Cowboys are more anxious to keep than Randy Gregory. He made huge plays this year and finally rewarded Dallas for its faith and loyalty shown during his troubled early career. He's still just 29 and should have great years left with low relative NFL mileage.
But unfortunately, Randy plays the most expensive position in football after quarterback. Defensive ends are projected to get anywhere from $17-$20 million on the franchise tag and that Gregory only counted about $1 million against Dallas' cap last year. That would be a massive swing in cost for a single player.
Still, it's not impossible. The Cowboys have moves to make by restructuring contracts on Dak Prescott, Zack Martin, and others or even releasing some of the more cap-unfriendly talent. They can free up the space to franchise Gregory if they want it enough.
Hopefully, Dallas' loyalty to Randy will be rewarded again with his own desire to remain here. While he will get a significant raise in any scenario, Gregory could agree to a multi-year deal that gives the Cowboys way more flexibility in the first season.
Losing Gregory, plus fellow free agent Dorance Armstrong, would leave Dallas with a big hole at defensive end. They still have DeMarcus Lawrence but need an effective pass rusher on the other side to share the load with Tank and Micah Parsons.
With nothing guaranteed in the draft or free agency, keeping Randy Gregory is Dallas' safest way to secure that role for 2022. Unfortunately, doing it through the franchise tag would come at heavy cost.
S Jayron Kearse
After going into training camp as an afterthought compared to Malik Hooker, Damontae Kazee, and Donovan Wilson, Kearse rose above them all to best Dallas' best safety and a team leader in 2021. He stands to do much better than the $1.1 million he made last season.
With the franchise tender for safeties projected around $13 million this would be no small move for the Cowboys. And given that Kearse and Donovan Wilson play similar roles, Dallas may not feel they want to sacrifice that much cap space for Jayron based on just one strong season.
Still, the Cowboys are facing massive turnover at other defensive positions. We already mentioned Gregory and then you have Hooker and Kazee also hitting free agency from the safety spot. Linebackers Keanu Neal and Leighton Vander Esch will be joining them, plus CB Anthony Brown is a probably cap casualty.
With so much potential change across the defense, Dallas may want to keep Kearse for stability and his leadership role. It won\'t be cheap, and probably not something they'd want to do with the franchise tag, but it's a last resort they value him enough.
P Bryan Anger
What? The punter?
Yes, the punter! Bryan Anger made the Pro Bowl and gave the Cowboys some of the best play at the position that they've seen since the Mat McBriar days. And unlike his teammates on offense and defense, Anger's franchise tag wouldn't be so rough at only about $5 million.
That would still be a big raise from the little over $1 million that Bryan got in his 2021 contract. And with Hunter Niswander already on the roster and much cheaper, Dallas might be okay letting the 33-year-old Anger go get his payday from another team.
Still, given it's only $5 million, this is one way that the Cowboys could secure Anger for 2022 and not have to make a long-term commitment. While 33 isn't as scary for a punter as it is for other positions, it's still an age when any player's performance can take a sudden nosedive.
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So why aren't Michael Gallup or Connor Williams on this list? That's because I can't fathom a scenario where either, despite being key players the last few years, would get the franchise tag.
With Gallup, Dallas is already paying big bucks to Amari Cooper and has CeeDee Lamb. The franchise tender for receivers is $18-$19 million in 2022 and the Cowboys just can't afford to dump that much cap space in one position, especially with the starters already in place.
Even if Dallas was desperate to keep the Cooper-Lamb-Gallup trio in place, the ACL injury that Gallup suffered in Week 17 makes it even less attractive to give him such a massive one-year deal.
For Williams it's more about merit. Dallas isn't giving Connor $16 million after being one of the league's most-penalized linemen and temporarily losing his job halfway through the year. The Cowboys can find a better left guard for less money than it would cost to franchise Williams. It just wouldn't make sense.
In truth, I would be surprised if the cap-strapped Cowboys used the franchise tag at all this year. It would likely make any of these players too expensive and restrict other roster moves that Dallas has to make to complete the 2022 roster.
But if the Dallas Cowboys do use the franchise tag this offseason, it should be on one of these four players.