JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Though the Jacksonville Jaguars are not going to use the franchise tag on receiver Allen Robinson, it doesn't necessarily mean the team is ready to move on from the player who set a franchise record with 14 touchdown catches in 2015. That decision also doesn't change the fact that the team needs him.
However, not using the franchise tag on Robinson does give a glimpse into how Jacksonville's upper management views the receiver. The Jaguars, thanks largely to quarterback Blake Bortles' new contract and 2018 cap number of $10 million, had plenty of space under the salary cap to pay Robinson the $15.982 million the franchise tag carries in 2018. Aside from a team always wanting to avoid paying the top price for non-quarterbacks, there might be some other reasons that executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin and general manager Dave Caldwell didn't want to use the franchise tag.
They either have reservations about how Robinson will perform in 2018 in his first season back from the torn ACL or they don’t believe he’s an elite receiver. If either -- or both -- of those is the case, then the Jaguars are correct in not using the tag. That would be grossly overpaying for a player who had one really good season and has dealt with foot and knee injuries since entering the league in 2014.
Robinson would have been tied with Miami’s Jarvis Landry, whom the Dolphins franchised last Month, for the third-highest base salary among receivers in the NFL in 2018. That would be more than Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans ($13.3 million), Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins ($12.5 million), Cincinnati’s A.J. Green ($10.6 million) and Atlanta’s Julio Jones ($10.5 million). Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown has an average annual salary of $17 million, and Hopkins is right behind him at $16.2 million. Robinson and Landry would have been tied for third.
That’s the kind of money teams shell out for an elite receiver, and so far Robinson, outside of one season, hasn’t shown he belongs in that conversation. Since he entered the league in 2014 he ranks 49th in receptions (202). Theo Riddick, Charles Clay, Jeremy Maclin and Pierre Garcon are among the players with more catches over the past four seasons. Robinson also has missed 21 games over the past four seasons with a stress fracture in his foot (six as a rookie) and a torn ACL (15 last season).
Robinson had one great season (80 catches for 1,400 yards and 14 TDs) in 2015 and struggled in 2016 (his per-catch average dropped by 5.4 yards on 73 catches).
However, not wanting to use the franchise tag on a player who hasn’t proved he belongs among the league’s elite receivers doesn’t mean the Jaguars don’t value Robinson as a player. They just want to be fiscally responsible and sign him to a deal that averages significantly less per season because, as Caldwell pointed out last week at the NFL combine, the team has some big-money deals coming up in the next several seasons to retain cornerback Jalen Ramsey, linebacker Myles Jack and defensive end Yannick Ngakoue.
Despite that, make no mistake: The Jaguars do need to bring Robinson back. Even with concerns about how he’ll perform coming off the ACL injury, Robinson is the Jaguars’ best downfield playmaker. He is the one receiver on the roster for which defenses had to account.
The Jaguars didn’t have him last season, and it was a significant loss. Defenses ganged up to stop the run game, single-covered the receivers and dared the Jaguars to beat them throwing the ball. They weren’t able to do that consistently (see the second half of the AFC Championship Game in New England). The Jaguars had the most carries in the NFL against eight-plus man boxes (145) and still managed to finish the season as the NFL’s top rushing team. How much better would the run game have been had defenses had to worry about a consistent downfield pass threat?
Robinson might not be an elite receiver -- yet -- but the Jaguars would be foolish to let him go. It’s not a good group of free-agent receivers, and it would be irresponsible to count on a rookie to be a consistent downfield playmaker. The Jaguars were encouraged by rookies Dede Westbrook (27 catches) and Keelan Cole (42 catches) in 2017, but is the team willing to gamble on them making significant strides and replacing Robinson?
The Jaguars might not want to pay Robinson $16 million, which is understandable, but they need to find a way to bring him back to give the offense the boost it desperately needs.