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NFL Free Agents 2017: How Much Are Top Players Worth in This Year's Market?

Chris SimmsNFL Lead AnalystFebruary 9, 2017

NFL Free Agents 2017: How Much Are Top Players Worth in This Year's Market?

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Much will be made about Bill Belichick's place in history now that the coach has secured his fifth Super Bowl with the Patriots.

    I'm here to tell you coaching is the second-best job he does. Because as amazing and meticulously prepared as he looks on the sidelines, he’s even better as the Patriots' de facto general manager. Trust me—I worked in his front office.

    A Belichick team is built ruthlessly. He watches more college tape than any coach I've known, all in the name of unearthing the next Julian Edelman or Tom Brady. And when those no-names blossom into bona fide stars, he erases their names from his vocabulary. Why? It only enhances their on-market value if he praises them publicly.

    Imagine that kind of antagonist sitting across from you at a negotiation table. Wes Welker had no chance when he asked for a new deal when I was there; Belichick had a price in his mind, and he wasn't going to overspend. That same strategy has sent countless other stars—the Randy Mosses and Richard Seymours and Asante Samuels of his dynasty—out the door.

    Belichick has no problem walking away from a fan favorite.

    He also has no problem walking away from freak athletes. Take Jamie Collins or Chandler Jones, two freak athletes the Patriots shipped off to other teams in 2016. Belichick made both calls; he can only tolerate so much freelancing away from his scheme before he breaks ties. In came cheaper bodies, like Kyle Van Noy and Chris Long. And in came another Lombardi Trophy.

    Like Belichick, I'll try to project honest-to-goodness valuations on some prized free-agent names. I guarantee you the football czar up in New England already has a salary in mind for all of them. The 31 other clubs can exceed that tag.

Le'Veon Bell

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    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    Prediction: Four years, $44 million ($21 million guaranteed)

    Ready to have your mind blown?

    Le'Veon Bell, an MVP-caliber player in the back half of this season, is only 24 years old. There’s a chance we haven’t seen his prime yet—and those kinds of talents don't come cheaply.

    Bell will look at names like Le'Sean McCoy and Adrian Peterson when he formulates his contract demands. I say Pittsburgh keeps him, but on a more short-term contract laced with guaranteed money. That will keep No. 26 happy—and keep him in the running for a final deal when he's 28 years old. It's a win-win.

Eric Berry

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Prediction: Five years, $50 million ($22.5 million guaranteed)

    Any sentimental fan has a tough time picturing Eric Berry in another team's uniform.

    But the NFL salary business isn't warm and fuzzy. Signing an All-Pro safety (who single-handedly won games for the Chiefs this season) takes cash and cap gymnastics. I’m not sure general manager John Dorsey is that flexible in his finances.

    If Berry signs with Kansas City, what does that mean for Marcus Peters down the line? What about Dee Ford? What about Justin Houston's big contract? Some other club may break the bank for No. 29 and elevate his salary past Tyrann Mathieu's ($12.5 million per year). I’m not sure that team will be Kansas City.

Kirk Cousins

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Prediction: Five years, $74 million ($45 million guaranteed)

    Kirk Cousins may command a $100 million contract on the open market. After all, the going rate on a quarterback who gets franchise-tagged a second time is nearly $24 million for one season.

    But Cousins in the Andrew Luck/Cam Newton-salary sphere? That might be a bit too rich for Washington’s new fiscally conservative plan. Both sides might have to get creative to complete a deal.

    A shorter-term contract would reward Cousins for betting on himself last offseason with boatloads of guaranteed money. Washington can spread the contract out over 4-5 years, and its quarterback gets paid. Who doesn't like that?

    One thing to remember: Cousins has a ton of leverage. If Washington balks at his terms, there's a team in Northern California that would love to reunite him with Kyle Shanahan.

Kawann Short

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    Prediction: Five years, $60 million ($18 guaranteed)

    Big, speedy, powerful defensive tackles don't usually wait long on the free-agent market.

    This could be an exception. No one doubts Kawann Short's potential as a run defender and pass-rusher. Figuring out which defensive tackle you're getting could take a little time and patience, however.

    Teams need to know if they're buying the 2015 Short or the 2016 one. The former led the Panthers pass rush to Super Bowl 50; the latter looked slow and disinterested for the first half of the season. That will raise some red flags.

    How Carolina approaches Short will be telling. He's probably a franchise-tag candidate based on early reports, but the Panthers have invested heavily in the interior line (Star Lotulelei, Vernon Butler). Could they reverse course and invest that money somewhere else?

Dont'a Hightower

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    Al Bello/Getty Images

    Prediction: Five years, $54 million ($20 million guaranteed)

    From all his time on the outside, Dont'a Hightower could ask to be paid like a pass-rusher instead of just an inside linebacker.

    But he won't play that card. From my time spent around him, Hightower impressed me with how well he knows the business of football. And the bottom line is he's New England's new Tedy Bruschi. He probably won’t chase dollar signs.

    With that said, Hightower is a rare breed. He deserves a deal that puts him alongside Bobby Wagner and NaVorro Bowman. After clearing out contracts for a full year, New England has the money to make him a career Patriot.

Chandler Jones

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    Prediction: Six years, $60 million ($25 million guaranteed)

    Chandler Jones isn't Von Miller. Nor is he Justin Houston.

    So salary-wise, he belongs in the next tier of edge-rushers. And that tier isn't a bad place to be for the former Patriots sack artist.

    New England was never going to dole out the funds necessary to make Jones happy. In Arizona, he's negotiating with a win-now club that desperately needs his quarterback-chasing skills. The Cards can worry about all the cap-maneuvering and deal-restructuring (see: Tyrann Mathieu, Patrick Peterson) later on.

T.J. Lang

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    Tom Dahlin/Getty Images

    Prediction: Four years, $32 million ($15 million guaranteed)

    Green Bay's front office almost always takes care of its own.

    With T.J. Lang, there's not much choice. Aaron Rodgers can't go into the 2017 season without at least one of his star guards (Josh Sitton joined the Bears in 2016). That bodes well for a Lang return.

    Lang is 29 years old, so this could be his last chance to cash in. Expect him to receive a deal that looks more like that of Jets guard Brian Winters ($29 million, $15 million guaranteed) than Eagles guard Brandon Brooks ($40 million, $17 million initially guaranteed). Call it a Lambeau discount.

Johnathan Hankins

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    Prediction: Five years, $40 million ($19 million guaranteed)

    Big Hank is about to get a big pay raise from Big Blue.

    He deserves it, too. The 24-year-old tackle forms one-half of the NFL's most insurmountable rushing wall. Just ask the Dallas Cowboys if Johnathan Hankins and Damon Harrison are tough on the interior.

    New York needs this guy back in 2017 more than it needs fellow free agent Jason Pierre-Paul. General manager Jerry Reese can give Hankins a deal that's similar to that one Harrison received last offseason (five years, $46 million, $20 million guaranteed at signing).

Terrelle Pryor

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Prediction: Four years, $38 million ($16 million guaranteed)

    Should the Browns double-down on a converted quarterback after one good year?

    Why the hell not?

    Terrelle Pryor represents the most exciting offensive player Cleveland has had since Josh Gordon, minus all the off-field issues. In fact, part of the reason the wide receiver should remain a Brown is that he's a model citizen. He doesn't take the bait on social media that other players might.

    Hue Jackson knows the man he's investing in. He also knows the player (1,007 receiving yards, four touchdowns). And he really knows his front office has cash to burn—approximately $100 million in cap space, per Over the Cap. Pryor will be back in Buckeye Country.

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