When the NFL business season opened more than five months ago, seven players were prevented from entering the open market because their team placed the franchise tag on them.
Four have since signed long-term contracts, but with Monday's deadline of 4 p.m. ET looming, drama grows over the fate of the remaining three. Amid a crescendo of conversation and controversy, let's cut through the intrigue with a reality check on the whole situation.
Most offseason scrutiny has focused on Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins, who was franchised for the second consecutive year. Los Angeles Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson was also franchised for a second straight year and Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell was slapped with the exclusive franchise tag that prevented him from negotiating with another team.
Cousins ($23.94 million) and Johnson ($16.74 million) signed their one-year tenders, but Bell has not. After Monday, if no long-term contract is reached, Bell will have no choice but to sign his $12.12 million tender.
The four other players are Arizona Cardinals outside linebacker Chandler Jones, Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short, Los Angeles Chargers defensive end Melvin Ingram and New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul.
Before evaluating the unlikely result that Cousins, Bell and Johnson will sign by Monday afternoon, let's examine the deals signed by the fortunate foursome.
--Jones: Tendered at $14.55 million; signed a five-year, $82.5 million contract with a $15 million signing bonus, $51 million guaranteed and $31 million fully guaranteed at signing.
--Short: Tendered at $13.39 million; signed a five-year, $80.5 million contract with a $20 million signing bonus and $35 million fully guaranteed.
--Ingram: Tendered at $14.55 million; signed four-year, $66 million contract with a $10.5 million signing bonus, $42 million guaranteed and $34 million fully guaranteed at signing.
--Pierre-Paul: Tendered at $16.93 million; signed a four-year, $62 million contract with a $20 million signing bonus, $40 million guaranteed and $29 million fully guaranteed at signing.
Following is a capsule look at the remaining three players:
Age: 29 on August 19
2016 salary: $19.95 million (franchise tag)
Highest-paid NFL quarterback: Derek Carr, Raiders; $25 million average, $70.2 million guaranteed with $40 million fully guaranteed at signing.
Where things stand: Cousins appears fine betting on himself and playing another season on the franchise tag. By the end of the season, he will have been paid $43.89 million for 2016 and 2017. He denied speculation that he won't sign a long-term deal because of the presence of club president Bruce Allen, but the Redskins apparently were not inclined to commit to a deal that would pay him over $25 million a season with significant guarantees. Because of franchise tag rules, Cousins knows he will be in for another big, one-year payday in 2018 or will become an unrestricted free agent. Which brings us to ...
What the future holds: The franchise tag for 2018 on Cousins would be $34.7 million. The Redskins could place a $28.7 million transition tag on him, but that would allow another team (the San Francisco 49ers?) to make an enormous offer that the Redskins must at least match to qualify for some draft-choice compensation to somewhat offset the loss of their starting quarterback. Thus, it would be no shock to see the Redskins avoid that future dilemma by closing a deal by Monday. Another option would see the Redskins try to trade him after the season while threatening to franchise him again. In that scenario, Cousins' three-year average salary on the tags would be just over $26 million.
Age: Turned 25 in February
2016 salary: $853,147 in final year of original four-year contract with $1.2 million salary-cap hit.
Highest-paid NFL running back: LeSean McCoy, Bills; $8 million average, $29 million guaranteed with $18.25 million fully guaranteed at signing.
Where things stand: The running-back market is not a huge one in the NFL, thanks to the wear and tear on the position. Bell has had his share of injuries in recent seasons, as well as a suspension, and the Steelers are normally not a team that goes significantly over the value they place on players. The reality is that Bell's franchise tag is $4 million more than the average of McCoy's deal and Bell's tender is just $6.25 million less than the full guarantees in McCoy's contract.
What the future holds: Depending on durability and production, the Steelers could franchise Bell again in 2018 for about $14.54 million. That appears unlikely, so unless the Steelers up the ante, Bell will probably play it out and accept the franchise tag next February, or become an unrestricted free agent.
Age: Turned 27 in January
2016 salary: $13.95 million (franchise tag)
Highest-paid NFL cornerback: Josh Norman, Redskins; $15 million average; $50 million guaranteed with $36.5 million fully guaranteed at signing.
Where things stand: Johnson has signed his $16.74 million tender, which inexplicably has guaranteed him $30.69 million over the last two seasons, not demonstrably less than Norman's full guarantee. Plus, that total is slightly more than the average of Norman's entire deal. With decisions like that, it's no wonder why the Rams usually suffer. Consider that they could have franchised cornerback Janoris Jenkins instead of Johnson last year.
What the future holds: It appears certain Johnson will be with another team in 2018. To retain him on another franchise tag would cost the Rams $24.1 million, a move even they would not make.