Justin Rogers | The Detroit News
After navigating the top item on the franchise’s offseason check list — getting the best return package in exchange for quarterback Matthew Stafford — Detroit Lions rookie general manager Brad Holmes faces his next big decision starting Tuesday, figuring out what to do with impending free-agent wide receiver Kenny Golladay.
That’s when the league’s franchise tag window opens and Golladay is the team’s only logical candidate for the designation. But the logistics of going that route present some financial hurdles.
The non-exclusive franchise tag, the most commonly used version, is a one-year contract that pays the player the average of the top-five, highest-paid at their position or 120% more than their previous season’s salary, whichever is greater. In Golladay’s case, the projected cost would be more than $16 million.
And even though the league hasn’t yet set the salary cap for the 2021 season, it’s already clear the Lions won’t have that kind of space. Based on current projections, the team already is over budget following the Stafford trade, and will need to clear room via contract restructures, cuts or a combination of the two.
Finding another $16 million, which could represent nearly 9% of the total cap, won’t be easy. But, for Holmes, it might be easier than letting a premier talent walk away in free agency without compensation.
Golladay, who turns 28 in November, figures to be highly sought after on the open market despite his injury-plagued 2020 campaign. The franchise tag, at the very least, could give the Lions the leverage to trade him and bring back an asset, potentially as much as a Day 2 draft pick.
And while the Lions would need to clear the space to initially absorb Golladay’s franchise tag contract, it would immediately come off the books if he’s traded, providing future flexibility.
As part of any deal, Golladay would be able to sign a long-term extension with the team that acquires him. A recent example of this scenario happened in 2019, when the Seattle Seahawks sent franchised defensive end Frank Clark to the Kansas Chiefs in exchange for draft compensation, while he simultaneously agreed to a five-year, $105.5 million pact with the Chiefs.
By applying the franchise tag, the Lions would also reserve the right to continue to negotiate a long-term deal to retain Golladay, although that timeline doesn’t appear congruent with the rebuild the franchise is clearly starting this offseason.
Holmes doesn’t have to rush into the decision. He has until March 9 to utilize the franchise tag. Free-agency opens a week later on March 17.
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Golladay, a third-round pick in 2017, has established himself as one of the league’ best receivers in recent years. He topped the 1,000-yard mark in both the 2018 and 2019 seasons, while also leading the league in touchdown catches in 2019.
Injuries were a major issue last season, including a hip pointer that sidelined him the final nine games. In five appearances, he finished with 20 catches for 338 yards and two scores.
During the past two years, statistically comparable receivers have received long-term deals ranging between $16 million-20 million per season. Injury concerns, along with the reduction in the 2021 cap due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will likely keep him from offers at the high end of that range.
If Golladay isn’t tagged, and signs elsewhere, the Lions would be in line for a compensatory draft selection at the end of the third round in 2022.