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Should the Jaguars use the franchise or transition tag?

The Jaguars will have a decision to make ahead of free agency, whether to franchise or transition tag one of its key players.

Indianapolis Colts v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

It’s officially the NFL offseason and that means there are no longer games to be watched, but rather deadlines to circle. On Feb. 22, the official window giving teams the ability to franchise or transition tag one player on the team opened.

Teams will now have until March 8 to make a decision on whether to keep a player for just a little while longer, or allow those player to hit free agency as unrestricted free agents.

Last year, the Jacksonville Jaguars utilized the franchise tag on left tackle Cam Robinson, locking him into a rather cheap deal given the state of the NFL’s salary cap last season at $13.4 million for one season. Robinson would go on to play 14 games on the year, missing the final two games of the season and a game against the Buffalo Bills at the last second.

Now, Robinson, and other UFAs in Jacksonville are set to hit the open market yet again. However, the Jaguars can still retain the 26-year-old left tackle by slapping the tag on him for a second-straight year, rendering him incapable of seeking out a long-term deal with any other franchise.

Along with Robinson, there are currently 18 players in Jacksonville set to hit unrestricted free agency. Three others are set to be restricted free agents and two more are set to be exclusive rights free agents. RFA and ERFA players can be tendered or signed to one-year deals without much risk of the team losing the player, which is especially true for ERFAs.

For that reason, typically a team will place a franchise tag — a one-year fully-guaranteed deal that locks the player to the original team unless another franchise gives up two first-round picks to sign them — or transition tag — a one-year fully guaranteed deal that is worth less than the franchise tag — on unrestricted free agents.

A key difference between the franchise and transition tags, aside from the value of each deal, is that an outside team may still negotiate with that player as if they are unrestricted free agents, however, the original team will have the right of first refusal — an ability to match the contract.

Barring long-term deals, the Jaguars might want to franchise or transition tag a player this offseason. Since Robinson was already franchise tagged, he is one likely candidate to be tagged again.

The other player the Jaguars may want to consider for a tag is wide receiver DJ Chark Jr., who missed 13 games last season due to a broken ankle.

But, should Jacksonville seriously consider either player and if so, what tag is appropriate?

Let’s break it down:

The case for Cam Robinson:

Background:

Originally drafted in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft, Robinson quickly became one of the team’s best offensive linemen, starting 18 games, including the postseason, during his rookie year. Though he struggled at times, he showed plenty of promise to be a franchise tackle right away, defending a quarterback’s blindside.

Robinson’s prowess in the run game was another added bonus as he led the way, allowing former Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette to rush for over 1,000 yards during his rookie season, along with nine rushing touchdowns.

In 2018, however, Robinson would tear his ACL just two games into the year, costing him valuable experience and an ability to build off of his stellar rookie year. That would carry over into 2019 where Robinson saw his play drop off, in part due to continued recovery from his knee injury.

According to Pro Football Focus, Robinson allowed 37 total true pass-set pressures in 2019, along with eight sacks. In 2020, he improved to 30 total true pass-set pressures allowed and five sacks.

In 2021, however, Robinson’s play would improve drastically, thanks in part to being fully healthy for the first time since 2017, and also due to having Trevor Lawrence in the backfield with him. He would allow just 25 total pressures and one sack, by far the best pass-blocker on the team.

Robinson’s play was praised within the Jaguars organization in 2021, and for good reason. Even through adversity, it appeared he would become one of the more consistent offensive players on the team. This continued even with the team selecting a tackle in the second round of last year’s draft, presumably to push Robinson or to potentially replace him.

What they should do:

For a left tackle this year, the Jaguars would owe Robinson ~$16,698,000, according to OverTheCap.com. That is more than 20% over his franchise tag tender of $13,754,000 in 2021, due to the NFL’s salary cap being hampered because of the coronavirus pandemic and lost revenue in 2020.

Typically, tagging a player a second time would warrant a 20% increase over their previous year's salary, but it’s already set to be higher this year.

Though Robinson would be a solid left tackle for Jacksonville moving forward, he hasn’t demonstrated all of the traits one would like to see in a dominant, potentially All-Pro left tackle that warrants top-tier money.

However, he is good enough to be given a reasonable long-term contract if the Jaguars would want to do so.

Still, allocating those assets, even with a high salary cap in Jacksonville this year, for one season might not be worth it. There will be other options to upgrade the position this offseason, in both the draft in free agency. The team also has Walker Little in the fold as a likely replacement.

Little performed admirably in three starts last season, especially his games against the Buffalo Bills and the New England Patriots. Though he has plenty to learn, the drop-off in talent from Robinson to Little didn’t appear to be significant last season.

Given that Jacksonville holds the No. 1 overall pick, that’s another avenue the team could explore. Though they are unlikely to move Little to right tackle, the team has the ability to kill two birds with one stone by taking a tackle such as Alabama’s Evan Neal, replacing Jawaan Taylor on the right side of the line.

If the team were to bring Robinson back, they might be stable at left tackle, but Little’s ability to play right tackle hasn’t been fully born out, and he has never played guard, nor appears likely to succeed there.

Letting Robinson walk would probably be the best move for Jacksonville given the number of avenues the team could explore in upgrading him.

What they are likely to do:

It wouldn’t come as much of a surprise to see the Jaguars tag Robinson given that they already did so a year ago, and general manager Trent Baalke is a fan of the young tackle and feels he’s improved over the past two years. However, given the position the team is in, in both free agency and the draft, it’s likely they allow him to explore the open market.

The case for DJ Chark:

Background:

Similar to Robinson, Chark was selected in the second round of the NFL Draft, but was taken with the No. 29 pick in round two of the 2018 NFL Draft. Since being drafted, Chark has seen his career reach plenty of highs and lows. His rookie season would be a disappointment, as is typically the case with many rookie receivers.

In 2018, Chark would haul in just 14 receptions for 174 yards and zero touchdowns. He would play in just 11 games due to various injuries, unable to make much of an impact with a team that just came off of an AFC Championship game season.

However, with a season under his belt, a new offensive system installed to go along with a new quarterback in Gardner Minshew II, Chark would explode during his second season. He accounted for 73 receptions for 1,008 yards and eight touchdowns.

His 13.8 yards per reception in 2019 would rank 36th in the NFL behind players such as Adam Thielen (13.9) and Brandin Cooks (13.9), though neither player posted stellar seasons that year either due to injuries or otherwise.

Still, Chark’s growth was recognized throughout the league, voted in as an alternate for the Pro Bowl that season. It was expected his growth would only continue.

In 2020, however, Chark — along with the rest of the Jaguars’ franchise — didn’t live up to lofty expectations. Failures on offense continued, and Chark’s production would drop as a result, hauling in only 53 receptions for 706 yards and five touchdowns.

He would lead the team in receiving yards that season even while missing three games.

This past season, Chark’s contract year, he appeared to be growing a nice rapport with Lawrence throughout camp and into the first four games. Although he’d only haul in seven passes in four games for 154 yards, Chark accounted for two touchdowns and posted 22 YPR.

Chark’s injury history and lack of consistency will certainly play a role in whether or not the team will re-sign him long or short term.

What they should do:

Chark is an intriguing player to watch. It’s clear his talents are there, and he appeared poised to post his best season as the team’s clear top receiver throughout camp and otherwise. He was able to gain some weight in order to become more explosive, too.

His rapport with Lawrence was obvious from the start of the offseason, and there’s no reason to question why that couldn’t return if he’s brought back to Jacksonville.

Still, it is a tough sell to franchise tag the young wide receiver. Currently, the franchise tag for a receiver is set at $19,127,000, the third-highest tag in the NFL behind the defensive end and quarterback position.

There’s plenty of reason to push back on giving Chark that amount of money, which would make him the sixth-highest paid receiver in the league.

Given how much the salary cap his ballooned over the year, it does make sense, though that the tag would rise with it. The transition tag, however, would cost the Jaguars $16,740,000 this season, more reasonable, but still rather pricy.

The kicker for the transition tag comes in his mechanics, though, having the ability to allow the receiver to “enter free agency” by letting other teams negotiate a contract for him. If they give Chark an offer sheet, the Jaguars have the ability to match the sheet, signing him to whatever deal the other team wanted to give him.

If Chark doesn’t sign any offer sheet, he will be able to simply play on a large sum of money this season, betting on himself. It would appear to be a win-win situation for a cap-flush team and a player searching for his first major payday in the league.

Given the Jaguars’ lack of wide receiver depth this year, and the talent surrounding Chark, it might behoove them to consider re-signing him, or at least applying the transition tag to buy time to do so. While the team could upgrade in free agency, there isn’t a sure-fire receiver that is certain to hit the market.

Green Bay Packers receiver Davante Adams certainly isn’t expected to. And others, such as Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Chirs Godwin and Dallas Cowboys receiver Michael Gallup are coming off of late-season ACL tears.

The NFL Draft is flush with receivers, but none are immediate difference-makers, not at where the team is likely to be at the top of the second round. Still, tagging or re-signing Chark wouldn’t stop Jacksonville from getting more talent, in fact, they ought to still go through both phases of the offseason with that as a priority, Chark is an added bonus.

What they are likely to do:

It would be a surprise to see the Jaguars use either tag — especially the franchise tag— on Chark. His injury history is certainly something to consider, and though the team might like him, it is unclear how the new coaching staff feels about his abilities.

New Jaguars head coach Doug Pederson has also seemingly undervalued the wide receiver position at times, making it even more unlikely they’d value Chark enough to tag him. It wouldn’t, however, be surprising to see the receiver brought back on a short-term deal if the price is right for both sides.