The Washington Commanders placed the nonexclusive franchise tag on defensive tackle Daron Payne, potentially keeping him around for at least another year, if not longer. The tag, which the team announced Tuesday, is worth $18.937 million for one season and becomes fully guaranteed once signed.
But it’s not guaranteed Payne will play on it.
Washington hopes it can reach a long-term agreement to keep Payne and keep its defensive line intact for the foreseeable future.
“I’m very optimistic about it,” Coach Ron Rivera said ahead of Super Bowl LVII in Phoenix.
The Commanders have more leeway to make a splashier move this offseason after releasing quarterback Carson Wentz and defensive back Bobby McCain on Monday. The moves cleared more than $28 million in salary-cap space, giving Washington more than $35 million to retool the roster this offseason, according to Overthecap.com.
Washington has until July 15 to sign Payne to a new deal. In the meantime, he can negotiate with other teams, but the Commanders have the right to match. If he signs elsewhere, Washington will receive two first-round draft picks in exchange — all but ensuring he will stay for at least a little while.
Should talks on a longer-term deal peter out, Washington would still have another option at its disposal: a trade. Payne is only 25 and plays a premium position as a pass rusher.
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Washington’s recent track record with franchise tags has worked against the team. Quarterback Kirk Cousins played on consecutive tags, in 2016 and 2017, before signing with the Minnesota Vikings in free agency in 2018. He earned a total of $44 million with those two tags.
Right guard Brandon Scherff followed suit, playing on franchise tags in 2020 and 2021 to become the highest paid guard in the league. In 2021, he earned a salary of nearly $18.04 million. The following year he signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars as a free agent.
Washington has invested heavily in its defensive line, which boasts four first-round draft picks among its starters. After drafting Chase Young with the second pick in 2020, it re-signed defensive tackle Jonathan Allen to a four-year, $72 million deal in 2021, exercised Montez Sweat’s fifth-year contract option in 2022 and now could significantly raise Payne’s pay.
The Commanders also have to decide by May 1 whether to exercise Young’s fifth-year option, which is worth $17.452 million for the 2024 season.
Rivera indicated earlier this month that Payne’s deal will have no bearing on Young’s, thanks largely to the increase in the salary cap and Washington’s cushion. Rivera cited Payne’s contract history as a potential example for how the team may handle Young.
In 2021, Washington exercised Payne’s fifth-year option instead of signing him to new deal. In 2022, a contract season, he performed his best, collecting a career- and a team-high 11.5 sacks.
“It cost us,” Rivera said of the team not re-signing Payne to a long-term deal earlier. “But it cost us in a good way, because the young man played, he did things the right way. … Now we’re in that position where we have to find a way to say, ‘Thank you, you’ve earned it.’”
The cost of that “thank you” could be close to $19 million a year, topping Allen’s $18 million-per-year average.
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Spotrac.com estimates Payne’s market value to be $19.4 million a year, which would make him the fifth-highest-paid interior defensive lineman in terms of average value.
“He fits the formula of what we want to do and how we want to play, and he’s got the skill set that you would like to have,” Rivera said in January. “We think his presence on the football field was outstanding this season, and he did a lot of good things for us, and it is most certainly something that we have to talk about and make sure we can figure it out as we go forward.”