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Franchise tag window opens this week – should Bills consider using it?

Brandon Beane will have a little longer to make his first meaningful decision of the Buffalo Bills’ offseason.

The start of when teams can use the franchise or transition tag on their own impending free agents has been extended from Tuesday to Thursday, according to a report from ESPN’s Adam Schefter. Similarly, the deadline for when those tags must be applied has been pushed back two days, from March 10 to March 12.

In Beane’s case, that means more time for the Bills’ general manager to consider whether using either one of the tags makes sense this offseason. Buffalo is scheduled to have 11 unrestricted free agents when the new league year starts next month. They are running backs Frank Gore and Senorise Perry, offensive linemen Quinton Spain and LaAdrian Waddle, defensive end Shaq Lawson, defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, linebackers Maurice Alexander and Julian Stanford, cornerback Kevin Johnson and safeties Dean Marlowe and Kurt Coleman.

We can safely assume the Bills wouldn’t consider using the tag on Gore, Perry, Waddle, Alexander, Stanford, Marlowe or Coleman given their spots on the depth chart.

That leaves Spain, Johnson, Lawson and Phillips left to consider.

First, a reminder: The franchise tag provides players with a one-year, fully guaranteed contract that pays the average of the top five contracts at that position from a year ago. Teams have the option to designate whether the franchise tag is exclusive, which means the player can not negotiate with other teams, or nonexclusive. In that case, a tagged player could sign with another team, but that new team would owe the player’s original team two first-round draft picks in exchange.

A transition tag pays a player the average of the top 10 salaries at his position on a one-year deal. It allows his original team the right of first refusal if he signs an offer sheet with another team, but does not provide any compensation should his original team decide not to match that contract within a five-day window.

The cost for franchise and transition tags for the 2020 season is expected within a week or two. For now, here is a look at the costs from 2019 for the four positions of the players mentioned above, which provides a frame of reference on what to expect:

  • Offensive lineman: $14.967 million (franchise), $12.866 million (transition)
  • Defensive end: $17.128 million (franchise), $14.36 million (transition)
  • Defensive tackle: $15.209 million (franchise), $12.378 million (transition)
  • Cornerback: $16.022 million (franchise), $13.703 million (transition)

So, would applying a tag make sense for the Bills? With about $82 million in projected space under the salary cap, the team has the room to do so if Beane desires. Here is a closer look at each situation:

Phillips: A report from Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports a couple weeks back raised some eyebrows when it was reported that teams around the league figured Phillips would “get tagged for sure.” That goes against the conventional thinking here in Buffalo. It’s been assumed since the season ended that Phillips would ultimately reach free agency. Beane hinted as much at his end-of-season press conference, saying the defensive tackle “has earned the right to see what his value is on the market” and that the Bills “just have to see where that goes.”

On Monday, La Canfora reported that Phillips “will be the object of several team’s affection” at this week’s NFL scouting combine and that “the sense around the league is that he will hit the open market.”

For a player claimed off waivers by the Bills in 2018, Phillips deserves credit for playing himself into a position to earn a life-changing contract. Likewise, the Bills’ personnel department deserves credit for identifying him as a difference-maker after he was cut by the Miami Dolphins.

Phillips, who is coming off a 9.5-sack season, seemed to hint at his impending free agency status in an Instagram post Sunday, one in which several of his teammates, including Lawson, commented on with words of encouragement to pursue a contract in line with his production.

Although the Bills have the room to tag Phillips, there is one big reason the team might decide not to so: Ed Oliver. The ninth overall draft pick last year, Oliver is in line to take over as the primary three-technique defensive tackle. Even though coach Sean McDermott likes to rotate heavily along the defensive line, it’s hard to see the Bills paying Phillips top-five defensive tackle money to work with Oliver. Just because the Bills have ample cap space doesn’t mean Beane is obligated to use it. Unused cap space can be carried over from year to year, and the Bills will need it soon for second contracts for linebacker Matt Milano, cornerback Tre’Davious White, left tackle Dion Dawkins and, eventually, linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and quarterback Josh Allen (making the assumption Allen earns such a deal over the next two years).

If Phillips is pursued as hard as La Canfora suggests he will be, chances are he’s gone. If he gets to the open market, though, and finds a lukewarm reception, a return to the Bills figures to be more of a possibility.

Lawson: The cost for a defensive end will go up after new deals were signed last year by Dallas’ DeMarcus Lawrence, Kansas City’s Frank Clark, Detroit’s Trey Flowers and Kansas City’s Dee Ford. Those deals figure to push the cost of using the franchise tag for Lawson to nearly $19 million. That’s more than the Bills should spend. Lawson is coming off the best season of his career and led all defensive ends with 6.5 sacks, but he’s never had the type of production that calls for nearly a $20 million salary. The Bills would be better served trying to work out a long-term extension with Lawson that would come with a much lower cap hit.

Spain: The Bills got Spain on the cheap last year, signing him to a one-year deal worth just a shade over $2 million. In return, he took every offensive snap and did not allow a sack. Spain rightfully will feel like he’s due for a raise, but one of 700% is excessive for the Bills. With rare exceptions, interior offensive line is simply not a spot teams usually hand out eight-digit contracts. Like with Lawson, the Bills could work out a multiyear contract with Spain that significantly lowers his cap hit if they prioritize bringing him back.

Johnson: A former first-round pick, Johnson provided the Bills valuable depth at outside cornerback. The Bills may very well have an interest in bringing him back, but he’s a spot starter at best – not a player worthy of the franchise (or transition) tag.

Bottom line: It would be a very big surprise if Beane used either of the tags available to him on any of the Bills’ impending free agents. It's much more likely he attempts to re-sign any or all of them before the start of free agency. Short of that, perhaps they test the market before seeing what the Bills would offer.

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