Breaking the Bank: Which NFL Players Are Headed for Mega Paydays?

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystJanuary 8, 2018

Breaking the Bank: Which NFL Players Are Headed for Mega Paydays?

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    NFL players use football to make money, which is apparently shocking to some anonymous scouts. And there could be an unprecedented gushing waterfall of cash flowing throughout the 2018 offseason. 

    Something strange is happening. Quarterbacks with talent are impending free agents.

    Typically, the quarterback cupboard is bare in free agency and looks like your average bachelor pad kitchen shelves that only store some scattered Ninja Turtle plates and cups. But rising quarterback salaries meant eventually a franchise passer in his prime was going to hit the open market. During the 2018 free-agent period, that could be Kirk Cousins.

    Cousins is still a Washington Redskins employee for now. But since they bet against him twice with the franchise tag and lost, there's a good chance he'll be one of the most sought-after free agents in league history.

    One potential suitor fell off when the San Francisco 49ers traded for Jimmy Garoppolo. But the Jacksonville Jaguars and Buffalo Bills are two playoff teams desperate for a quarterback. Then there's the Denver Broncos and Arizona Cardinals, teams in need of a top-tier pivot to turn their fortunes around.

    Cousins is nearly a lock to become the highest-paid player in NFL history. Garoppolo, who's also set to become a free agent, won't be far behind him even with his inexperience, as the 49ers now know he's the centerpiece for their rebuild.

    Then there's the Saints' Drew Brees, who might be old, but he hasn't declined much yet. To keep him and avoid a step backward after winning the NFC South, the Saints will have to make Brees a lucrative offer as well.

    Quarterbacks will dominate the market and headlines in 2018. But there are plenty of other players set to bathe in their personal coin pools after steep raises as free agents. Here's a preview of which players are becoming free agents at the right time.

Honorable Mentions

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    Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

    A few who have a chance to take that money bath but didn't quite make the cut:

                

    Case Keenum, Quarterback

    Keenum will get a massive raise but likely not quite on the same level as Cousins and Brees or others at the top of the quarterback market. His payday could be limited due to a lack of long-term success.

    As great as his 22 touchdown passes and seven interceptions were in the 2017 regular season, along with a 67.6 completion percentage, there might be some hesitancy around Keenum's late-bloomer status. He's a soon-to-be 30-year-old who has logged only one full season as a starter.

              

    Allen Robinson, Wide Receiver

    There's no good time to tear apart your knee. But a contract year is especially bad timing, and Robinson's ACL tear that ended his 2017 season back in September will likely limit him to a one-year "prove it" deal.

    Robinson will have to show teams he's bounced back to full health. That stings because as a 24-year-old with a standout season in his recent past (1,400 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns in 2015), Robinson was well-positioned to be paid handsomely.

               

    Jimmy Graham, Tight End

    Graham could get one more nice paycheck in part because of his name value, with a tight end-thirsty team hoping he hasn't entered a decline phase quite yet. Maybe he hasn't, but it would be much wiser to lowball a 31-year-old who averaged only 9.1 yards per reception in 2017.

    However, he did record his fourth career double-digit touchdown season despite being criminally underused by the Seattle Seahawks.

                

    Weston Richburg, Center

    Richburg missed 12 games in 2017 with a concussion and became part of the New York Giants' long, dark and depressing injury report. But in 2016 he allowed only 11 pressures and one sack, and his pass-blocking efficiency ranked third among centers, according to Pro Football Focus.

                  

    Tahir Whitehead, Linebacker

    Whitehead is 27 and just entering his prime. He excelled after being moved to outside linebacker in 2017. He's put together back-to-back seasons with 100-plus tackles.

Kirk Cousins, Quarterback

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    Kirk Cousins is about to become the Monopoly man, Scrooge McDuck or any other vintage caricature of the fabulously wealthy.

    Any decent quarterback who enters the market gets showered in riches because the league is starved for talent at the position. The only evidence we need is when the Chicago Bears thought it was wise to give Mike Glennon a contract that guaranteed him $18.5 million. What did they get for that money in 2017? Just four starts, and that's all the time Glennon needed to throw five interceptions.

    Cousins may not be in the Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers tier, but he's not far below that and is far ahead of bottom feeders like Glennon. Combine that with his age when he'd be entering the market in March (only 29), and a young, rising quarterback is about to get paid the equivalent of a small island nation's GDP.

    For perspective, the Lions' Matthew Stafford just reset the quarterback market prior to the 2017 season with his five-year extension worth $135 million, $92 million of which is guaranteed. That made him the league's highest-paid player, quickly knocking the Raiders' Derek Carr off his perch.

    Stafford is the same age as Cousins, and at the time he was coming off a 2016 season with 24 touchdown passes, 10 interceptions, a per-attempt average of 7.3 yards and a 93.3 passer rating. Cousins was similarly effective in 2017, finishing with 27 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, a 7.6 yards-per-attempt average and a 93.9 passer rating.

    A quarterback-needy playoff team like Jaguars could throw a lot of money at Cousins. The Cardinals will also surely be a strong suitor after the retirement of Carson Palmer. The Washington Redskins, meanwhile, will make their attempt to keep him, but negotiations with them would start at $34.5 million for 2018, the value of placing the franchise tag on Cousins for the third straight year.

    The Redskins would have to latch themselves to a massive salary-cap anchor. For the first time in a long time, a premier quarterback will probably hit the open market.

Jimmy Garoppolo, Quarterback

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    The basic supply and demand principles taught in a high school economics class are what will escalate Jimmy Garoppolo's value. Well, that and talent, along with how clear it is that he's the quarterback solution the San Francisco 49ers have been searching for since Colin Kaepernick fizzled out.

    The 49ers acquired Garoppolo from the New England Patriots in a trade that's already starting to look like robbery in broad daylight. The 49ers sent a second-round pick to the Patriots and then won five straight games to end the season after inserting Garoppolo as their starting quarterback.

    During those starts, the 26-year-old shined while averaging 8.8 yards per pass attempt and 308.4 yards per game. He also completed 67.4 percent of his throws for the 49ers and finished 2017 with a passer rating of 96.2. San Francisco averaged 17 points per game before acquiring Garoppolo and then 28.8 with him under center.

    He had a dream beginning and gave a 49ers fanbase something it hasn't felt since Jim Harbaugh left town: hope. That is why the franchise now needs to secure the quarterback it so desperately needed.

    That will happen soon, and general manager John Lynch knows it.

    "We're going to work hard to try to keep him as a 49er for a long, long time," Lynch told Josh Dubow of the Associated Press after the season. "We're really happy with the way he played. We think he's got some abilities that are unique, and we want him here."

    It's just a matter of how soon Garoppolo gets that contract.

    As brilliant as he was in 2017, Garoppolo has still made just seven career starts. That's why there could be some lingering hesitancy to lock him up long term now. Instead, Garoppolo could be asked to prove himself over a full season in 2018 while playing under a franchise tag valued at $25 million.

Drew Brees, Quarterback

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    Drew Brees doesn't have a talent problem or a production problem. No, he has an age problem.

    Unlike Cousins and Garoppolo, age isn't on Brees' side as the New Orleans Saints quarterback and future Hall of Famer reaches the end of his current contract. Brees turns 39 years old later in January, and although he hasn't slowed down much yet, playing football is always a year-to-year decision as the age of 40 nears.

    But don't tell that to Brees. Back in November, ESPN.com's Dan Graziano cited people close to Brees while reporting the veteran has no interest in playing anywhere else. Brees also doesn't think his career is nearing an end yet.

    It's not hard to see why. Brees may have seen his yardage total fall off in 2017 as the Saints transitioned into a run-oriented offense after drafting running back Alvin Kamara. He went from 5,208 passing yards in 2016 to 4,334 yards in 2017. But he still threw 23 touchdown passes with only eight interceptions while completing 72.0 percent of his throws and averaging 8.1 yards per attempt.

    If he's taken a step down from the mountaintop, it was only a small one. And with the tandem of Kamara and Mark Ingram, along with an improved defense, the Saints don't need him to be the hero every week now.

    But they do need him to stay, because there's no plan for a successor in place. Brees might not make Stafford or Cousins money on a short-term deal because of his age. He won't be far off, though.

    As always, the franchise tag will serve as a starting point, though Brees has a unique trump card since his current contract prevents the Saints from actually using the tag on him.

Le'Veon Bell, Running Back

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    The Le'Veon Bell contract standoff could reshape the running back market and set a new precedent for how the hybrid player is treated.

    We call Bell a running back because it's tidy and easy to fit players into one position title. But he's one of the league's most versatile offensive weapons after just recording his second straight season with 1,200-plus rushing yards and 600-plus receiving yards.

    Bell finished 2017 with 1,946 yards from scrimmage, the league's second-highest total. He ended 2016 third in that category with 1,884 total yards over only 12 games.

    He's uniquely lethal and deserves to be paid accordingly after playing 2017 under the franchise tag, pocketing $12.1 million. That gave him a base salary nearly double what any other running back made.

    That was great, and it made for a beefy bank account. But Bell still hasn't been signed to a deal that gives him any long-term security yet. When that happens, he wants to be treated like a dual-threat star and paid on par with the top wide receivers.

    Bell is seeking $15 million annually, according to a report from Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in late August. Only two wide receivers haul in more than that on an annual basis: DeAndre Hopkins and Antonio Brown.

    They're tremendously talented wideouts, but even Hopkins and Brown don't generate as much offense as Bell (Brown finished 2017 with 1,533 yards from scrimmage, while Hopkins was further back at 1,378 yards).

    Bell has a strong argument to be paid like a receiver. If the 25-year-old gets what he wants, then down the road other young multidimensional running backs like the Rams' Todd Gurley will chase after similar dollars. 

Jarvis Landry, Wide Receiver

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    25-year-old wide receiver Jarvis Landry has abrupt change-of-direction ability and overall impressive athleticism.

    Those two check marks alone will get him a nice chunk of cash if he reaches the open market. His youth clearly helps too, as do the two 1,100-plus-yard receiving seasons on his career resume. Nine touchdown catches for the Miami Dolphins in 2017 while playing in an inept offense run by quarterback Jay Cutler wasn't a bad return, either.

    But although he'll do just fine for himself and have a new contract with many zeros, there may still be a limit on how much teams are willing to throw his way. There's a ceiling on Landry's skill set because he typically runs the majority of his routes from the slot.

    For example, his career-best per-catch average is 12.1 yards in 2016. He did that while running 72.7 percent of his routes from the slot, per PFF. In the same season, the Seahawks' Doug Baldwin ran 73.6 percent of his routes inside on his way to 1,128 yards, according to PFF (h/t Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post). He then signed a four-year extension worth $46 million, with $12 million guaranteed.

    Landry could pocket a little more than Baldwin because he's three years younger. But with the Baldwin deal serving as the most recent benchmark, his next contract will likely be in the same area.

DeMarcus Lawrence, Defensive End

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    There was a lot of wishing and dreaming tied to defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence before the 2017 season. He was followed by two simple but career-defining questions in the early stages of his NFL existence.

    Usually, they went in this order: What would happen if he could clear up his off-field issues? And what if he could stay healthy for a full season?

    Injuries have followed him throughout his career, starting with a fractured foot during Lawrence's first training camp that limited him to only seven games as a rookie. He's also needed back surgeries in two straight offseasons. Then in 2016 he missed four games because of a failed drug test, and back issues sidelined him for three more games while limiting his effectiveness in others.

    Lawrence had a lot of unfulfilled promise, with his career going through a cycle of accelerating and then stalling. Meanwhile, eight sacks in 2015 left us with a combination of disappointment and hope.

    In 2017, Lawrence picked the perfect time to be healthy and productive. It's as if he was motivated by something like money during a contract year.

    Lawrence finished with career highs in sacks (14.5) and tackles (58), finally showcasing his edge-bending speed on a regular basis. His sack total placed him behind only the Arizona Cardinals' Chandler Jones and has Lawrence in line for a significant pay hike.

    Lawrence and the Cowboys have a mutual desire to reach an agreement, with the 25-year-old telling ESPN.com's Todd Archer he wants to stay. But Lawrence also surely wants to get paid what he's worth. That means what the New York Giants paid Olivier Vernon in 2016 could serve as the baseline.

    Like Lawrence, Vernon was 25 years old and coming off a standout season when he signed a deal worth $85 million over five years and an average of $17 million annually in 2016. With the rising salary cap, Lawrence will surely become the highest-paid pass-rusher if he hits the open market.

Ezekiel Ansah, Defensive End

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    Ezekiel Ansah isn't as young as Lawrence. But he's not old either, and the defensive end should still have three-to-four prime years left after turning 29 before the 2018 season.

    That's where the differences between the two end, though. There are just as many injury red flags on Ansah and just as many reasons to believe he can be a defensive anchor going forward if healthy.

    On the pessimistic side, he's not far removed from landing with a thud in 2016. A high-ankle sprain cost him three games. As that injury often does, it lingered further into the season and zapped Ansah of his explosiveness. As a result, he recorded only two sacks that year for the Detroit Lions in a sharp decline from his breakout 14.5-sack 2015 season.

    Injuries plagued Ansah throughout the 2017 season as well, leading to two missed games and limiting his effectiveness when on the field.

    But on the optimistic side, he still fought through those issues to record 12 sacks, including eight over the final six games of the season. Ansah got back to his normal pocket-collapsing self as his health improved.

    Although it'll surely fall short of Lawrence's pay day, Ansah is still likely to receive a money dump of some notable size if he hits the open market.

    He has two double-digit-sack seasons over the past three years, and the 2013 fifth overall pick still hasn't hit 30. Any pass-rusher with that description is usually a hot commodity.

Malcolm Butler, Cornerback

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    If he had it his way, Malcolm Butler wouldn't have even played for the New England Patriots in 2017. He would have been rewarded for his shutdown play in 2016 with a contract extension from the New Orleans Saints after a trade.

    Butler really, really wanted that deal to happen, as Comcast Sportsnet New England's Mike Giardi reported. That may partly explain the step back he took in 2017.

    Too often we forget athletes are actual humans with real thoughts and stress that may distract them from daily and weekly goals. They're not just football robots, and perhaps Butler took his eye off his short-term responsibilities.

    He recorded just 12 passes defensed in 2017, and was often picked on in coverage by opposing offenses. His decline contributed to the poor overall season from the Patriots secondary, which ranked 30th after allowing 251.2 passing yards per game.

    But age is still in Butler's favor. He'll enter free agency as a 28-year-old, and the premium placed on young lockdown corners makes it likely Butler will find a team eager to give him a sizable raise.

Lamarcus Joyner, Safety

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    Prior to 2017, Lamarcus Joyner was an underused slot cornerback. Then new Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips came up with a wild idea: moving him to safety.

    "We came in, we watched the film from the year before and we said, 'This guy's one of our best players and he only played half the time—what should we do?'" Phillips told ESPN.com's Alden Gonzalez. "We said, 'Well, let's play him all the time then.' It sounds simple, but he's too good a player not to be on the field, in my opinion."

    It should surprise no one that Phillips has a good eye for talent. Joyner became a key part of the Rams' defensive turnaround, finishing the season with 12 passes defensed (tied for 10th among safeties) and three interceptions. Pro Football Focus named him a second-team All Pro while giving Joyner a grade of 90.1, which was third among safeties.

    He's also solid against the run and didn't miss a tackle through the Rams' first 13 games of 2017, as Gonzalez noted. At 27 years old, Joyner could be hitting the market at the right time due to both his age and stellar play during a contract year.

    The Ravens' Tony Jefferson cashed in after becoming a free agent during similar circumstances in 2016, earning a top-10 average annual salary at his position. Joyner will likely set his price tag in that territory.

Dion Lewis, Running Back

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    Running backs not named Le'Veon Bell usually struggle in free agency. Especially running backs whose medical reports seem longer than the naughty/nice list Santa Claus is already working on for Christmas 2018.

    But Dion Lewis could be the exception, because high-end production eventually forces teams to overlook other flaws.

    Yes, it's true that Lewis has suffered severe injuries, including a fractured fibula in 2013 and a torn ACL in 2015 that required two surgeries and forced him to start 2016 on the physically unable to perform list. Due to physical punishment and awful luck, the 2017 season, his fifth in the NFL, was Lewis' first full campaign as a running back (he played 15 games in 2011 for the Philadelphia Eagles, but was given only 23 carries while used primarily as a kick returner).

    He capitalized on his health by ascending an initially crowded New England Patriots depth chart and making all those injury issues a distant memory.

    Lewis finished the 2017 regular season with 1,110 yards from scrimmage. That output gets even more impressive when you remember he played only 35.6 percent of the Patriots' offensive snaps. His role and production grew as the season went along, resulting in Lewis averaging 97.6 total yards per game over the final seven weeks.

    He's still only 27 years old, and if Lewis has put his injury issues behind him, the 2011 fifth-round pick could easily have three-to-four more productive years left.

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