Kenny Golladay and the franchise tag: Detroit Lions have easy decision to make

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett | Detroit Free Press

So much has changed in the past 12 months. In the world, in football and with the Detroit Lions.

Including how the Lions should proceed with star receiver Kenny Golladay.

I have long advocated for the Lions to sign Golladay to a long-term contract that makes him one of the highest-paid receivers in football. Had they done so last summer, no one would have batted an eye.

Golladay was coming off a career-best 1,190-yard season at the time. He led the NFL in touchdowns and was a feature part of an offense that seemed tailormade for his skills. His greatest attribute as a receiver is his ability to overpower defensive backs and win contested-ball catches, and his quarterback, Matthew Stafford, was fearless throwing to him in those situations.

Golladay seemed happy and healthy then.

Seven months later, I’m not sure either of those adjectives applies.

Golladay remains one of the 10 or so best receivers in football, but he missed 11 games because of hip and hamstring injuries last season and he and the team spent the fall at odds over his lack of a contract extension. Golladay wanted a market-value deal based on what other top players at his position earned, while the Lions used the projected franchise tag of about $15.5 million (it should be a tick higher now, assuming the salary cap settles in at the $185 million or so some teams expect) to low-ball him into taking a discount.

Golladay had one dominant game last year against the Jacksonville Jaguars, went on social media to voice his displeasure with contract talks, then disappeared to barely play again.

I don’t doubt for one second that Golladay, who turns 28 this fall, will return to form as one of the NFL’s premier playmakers once he is back on the field.

But the reality of the Lions’ situation has changed, and that’s why the best decision the team can make is to use the franchise tag on Golladay when the two-week window to do so opens Tuesday.

By tagging Golladay, the Lions keep every option on the table with their star receiver and give themselves the flexibility they need as they enter what looks to be a long-term rebuild.

Golladay’s No. 1 priority in free agency is clear: make as much money as possible after playing out a rookie contract that he thoroughly outperformed. Given their tight salary cap situation and the many needs they have on their roster, the Lions likely would lose a bidding war if they choose not to franchise Golladay and let him hit the open market.

He is easily one of the top-10 free agents and top-three receivers available, and is No. 1 in the latter category, in my mind, ahead of the Chicago Bears’ Allen Robinson and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Chris Godwin.

But he also is coming off an injury-plagued season and, more importantly, the Lions are undergoing major change.

Stafford along with his strong arm and brazen approach to the deep ball are headed to Los Angeles next month, once the league year opens and his trade to the Rams becomes official, to be replaced by Jared Goff — who ranked near the bottom of the NFL in intended air yards per throw.

Goff, who will be the Lions’ starting quarterback in 2021, could benefit from having a player like Golladay by his side. And if the Lions choose to build around another quarterback in 2022 and beyond, their young passer certainly needs a difference-maker to throw to.

But part of the allure of staying in Detroit to Golladay was the chance to continue playing with Stafford, a quarterback he has praised effusively in the past. And part of keeping him in Detroit now, in a potentially less aggressive offense on a team that likely will not be competing for anything this fall, seems like a misallocation of resources.

The salary cap will be shooting north in the coming seasons and there are ways to massage any long-term contract, so this is not about the bottom-line number. A contract that pays $18 million-plus annually is perfectly palatable for a receiver of Golladay’s ilk.

Rather, the Lions need to approach Golladay’s future with the same logic they used in agreeing to Stafford’s trade demands: Golladay can and will be an asset to the team if they keep him around in 2021, but age, injuries and a number of other factors make it less likely that his peak performance years will line up with the Lions’ real window of opportunity on the field. 

That’s where the franchise tag comes in for the Lions, who need to extract maximum value out of Golladay — like they did Stafford — in order to ace this rebuild.

By tagging Golladay, they retain the right to trade him (once he signs his tender) for some package of draft picks greater and/or more immediate than the 2022 compensatory third-rounder they stand to gain if they let him walk in free agency (assuming their free-agent additions don’t offset Golladay’s loss, which could happen given the work they need to do on defense and at receiver).

Maybe that happens before April’s draft. Maybe it’s at the trade deadline come fall. Maybe they simply push the compensatory draft pick out a year and let him go as a free agent next spring. Or maybe the new regime spends the next few months getting to know Golladay, and vice versa, and the two sides find out they are compatible after all.

Golladay said in mid-December he hoped to avoid the franchise tag and sign a long-term deal to stay in Detroit. 

“But if the franchise tag would come,” he said, “I wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.”

The tag should come, and Golladay is right, there probably is not much he can do about it.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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