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Making the right move with Dee Ford and the franchise tag

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It’s time for the Chiefs to make a big decision about their 2013 first-round pick

Philadelphia Eagles v Kansas City Chief Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

From Tuesday, February 19 until March 5 — about a week before teams can start sniffing around the free agents of other teams — NFL teams will be able to use the franchise tag on one of their players.

On the eve of the franchise tag period, the Interwebs are chock-full of NFL writers giving their lists of which players are most likely to have franchise tags placed on them during the next couple of weeks — and Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Dee Ford is on many of them.

In a segment for NFL Total Access, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport names Ford among four pass rushers likely to get the tag, saying the Chiefs have “been very open about not wanting to let him go.”

At The Ringer, Danny Heifetz amusingly explains the NFL franchise tag by referencing the Friends Season 4 episode The One With The ‘Cuffs, and then makes an argument that giving Ford the franchise tag is the most sensible move for the Chiefs.

There’s a fair argument that he and Kansas City’s other elite pass rusher, defensive tackle Chris Jones, were the main reasons the team’s defense wasn’t historically bad. Admittedly, Ford was in a dream pass-rushing scenario, playing for a team who put up points early and often, which allowed Ford to focus on rushing the passer as opposing offenses abandoned the run and were forced to throw the ball. Kansas City isn’t in a position to let Ford go, but it might be wise to tag him and see whether he can produce similar numbers in 2019.

At NFL.com, Gregg Rosenthal has Ford at number three on his list of “no-brainer” candidates for the franchise tag, behind Dallas Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence and Houston Texans defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

General manager Brett Veach already announced Ford will be back, with the franchise tag the most likely route to bringing the declaration to fruition. A one-year deal makes sense from the Chiefs’ perspective, considering how Ford’s contract-year explosion (13 sacks, seven forced fumbles) was a pleasant surprise, not unlike Lawrence’s breakout year. Ford staying probably means that Justin Houston is out the door.

Forbes writer Gary Phillips has Ford at the bottom of his list of seven players likely to get the franchise tag — one that includes Lawrence and Clowney along with names like Seattle Seahawks defensive end Frank Clark and Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett.

Ford broke out with 10 sacks in 2016, but a back injury limited him to just six games in 2017. He came back better than ever in 2018, setting career-highs in sacks (13), tackles (55), tackles for a loss (13), QB hits (29) and forced fumbles (7). Simply put, that’s one of heckuva season.

The Chiefs are expected to tag Ford as they try to make the leap to the Super Bowl. He’s the perfect candidate given his recent injury history, but he’s also the real deal. It would behoove Kansas City to lock Ford up for the long haul after he gets tagged.

These writers are all agreed: the Chiefs should — or will — give Ford the franchise tag.

But is that really the right move?

Putting Ford on the franchise tag for 2019 will cost the Chiefs around $18 million against the cap in the coming season. But we also know that the Chiefs currently have only about $25 million of cap space with which to work — a fact that may have escaped some of these national writers.

After all... some of these scribes often write articles about Chiefs games they clearly didn’t watch. Why should we expect them to keep track of those kinds of pesky details?

Los Angeles Chargers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

The difficulty with using the franchise tag on Ford is that it will force the team into a high salary cap hit for Ford in the coming year. If your team has more than $40 million in cap space — which is true for a dozen NFL teams — that’s not necessarily a big deal. But using the franchise tag on Ford in such a situation could force the Chiefs into decisions about two other players with whom they also want to make long-term deals — namely Tyreek Hill and Chris Jones — and those decisions could conceivably have long-term negative effects.

And in fairness, that could also be true of a longer-term deal for Ford — which is the only way the Chiefs could get any 2019 relief on that $18 million franchise tag cap hit for their leading pass rusher.

Many fans say that Ford should get the franchise tag as a prove it deal. “Show us,” they say. “Show us you can stay injury-free and produce at a high level in another season before we talk about a long-term contract.” But it seems to me that many such fans are also quick to point out that Ford’s best year to date took place in a contract year. Will these same fans balk at giving Ford a new contract in 2020 because he was on a prove-it deal in 2019?

To put it another way, if your most memorable Friends episodes were Season 1’s The One Where The Rookie Ran Away From the Ball or Season 5’s The One Where The Linebacker Lined Up In The Neutral Zone, it’s possible that your judgment about Ford might be a little... cloudy.

All of this is not to make an argument that Dee Ford shouldn’t have the franchise tag placed on him in 2019. Such a thing could very easily happen, and depending on what else the Chiefs do, it might be exactly the right move. Instead, it’s to remind us all that managing an NFL roster under the salary cap is an extremely complicated process with a large number of moving parts. There are no right or wrong ways to do it — except for the ones that end up improving the team now and over the long term.