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FRISCO, TX — The time has arrived for the Dallas Cowboys to hone in on what will be one of the biggest decisions of their 2023 free agency. As the calendar turned to February 21, teams around the NFL officially have the opportunity to decide on which player will receive the franchise or transition tag for the coming season.
They won't have a lot of time to make the call, considering the deadline is March 7 (4 p.m. ET) and, needless to say, it'll be interesting to see what the front office in Dallas decides. There is nothing that forces a team to use either tag, but considering who the Cowboys would risk losing on the open market by sitting on it, it's safe to say they'll apply it to someone.
But who might that be?
Dalton Schultz is a leading candidate for the franchise tag, considering he is still absent a long-term deal after he and the Cowboys failed to come to terms on one last summer.
The problem is a clear-and-obvious one, though, in that Schultz would be operating under a second franchise tag and, as such, he'd be subject to a raise to the tune of roughly $13 million (120% of his 2022 payout) — having earned a fully-guaranteed $10.9 million last year.
The future tag salary on Schultz isn't necessarily what makes it challenging to envision it happening, though, but instead it's the fact Tony Pollard wrecked shop in what became a career-best season in every category that mattered after being fully unleashed in tandem with Ezekiel Elliott.
If Pollard is tagged, his salary would be less than what Schultz earned last season by $800,000 ($10.1 million salary), and it would not only allow the Cowboys until July 14 to negotiate a long-term deal, but the Pro Bowl running back also wouldn't be allowed to take calls from other teams — assuming it's an exclusive franchise tag.
A non-exclusive tag would still permit negotiations with other clubs, but Pollard would be unable to leave outright without the Cowboys having an option of matching the highest offer and, if they chose not to, they'd receive two first-round picks from the other team.
And then there's the aforementioned transition tag, which is similar to the non-exclusive tag in that the player can still negotiate with other teams and leave if the Cowboys don't match the highest offer, but Dallas would not receive any compensation if that occurs; though the transition tag is less expensive due to the increased risk of losing the player.
Only one tag can be used per team, per year, but they can also be rescinded after they're assigned if an organization sees fit.
Still with me on this? OK good, because Schultz and Pollard aren't the only players in this conversation, though they are the two frontrunners with Pollard being the one expected to land the tag.
There's also Leighton Vander Esch, who delivered a resurgent season reminiscent of his breakout rookie campaign, and who again enters free agency after having proven himself invaluable on a one-year deal signed last spring.
The issue here is cost, because with a franchise tag tabulated at a whopping $20.9 million for a linebacker ($17.5 million transition tag), the likelihood of the Cowboys making this move is virtually zero.
Seriously, it's not happening.
And what of Donovan Wilson, the breakout safety who helped lead the Cowboys defense as both a ballhawk and a teeth-rattling, blitz-ready missile? To not mention him in this conversation would be tantamount to occupational malpractice, considering what Wilson has evolved into from his days as a sixth-round pick in 2019; but there's a premium at his position as well, folks.
Tagging a safety in 2023 isn't as eye-popping as that of a linebacker, but it does come in at $14.5 million for next season ($11.9 million transition tag).
The more practical play would be to throw weight at trying to work out a long-term deal on Wilson, Vander Esch and/or possibly Schultz (though this one requires a more detailed discussion) but to first pull the trigger on buying yourself time to get things sorted out with Pollard; and that's likely what the Cowboys intend to do.
Tag, you're it.