Predicting the Biggest Contracts in 2018 NFL Free Agency

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistFebruary 16, 2018

Predicting the Biggest Contracts in 2018 NFL Free Agency

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    Mark Tenally/Associated Press

    In less than a month, 453 NFL players are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents. Many will never play professional football again, while others will sign new contracts or get hit with the franchise tag before seeing the open market. Most will sign standard deals that are unremarkable by NFL standards.  

    But every March, about a dozen stars or potential stars get introduced to Brink's trucks. 

    Who'll be the big winners this winter and spring? And what kind of money should they expect? Keeping in mind that the salary cap is expected to rise from $167 million to somewhere between $174 and $178 million, per Mike Jones of USA Today, let's offer up some predictions. 

Kirk Cousins

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    Last June, Derek Carr became the highest-paid player in the NFL. But before Carr played a game with that distinction, Matthew Stafford signed a contract in August that made him the league's highest-paid player. Last week, Jimmy Garoppolo trumped both Carr and Stafford with an even more lucrative long-term deal. 

    Now, it's Kirk Cousins' turn. 

    With the salary cap increasing by upward of $10 million every year, and with the demand for franchise-caliber quarterbacks higher than ever, quarterback salaries should continue to skyrocket. Every time a starting quarterback's contract is expiring, he'll have a chance to set a new high-water mark. 

    Cousins' ceiling might not be as high as Garoppolo's, but he also has a much stronger resume. Garoppolo was able to fetch $137.5 million over five years based on only seven NFL starts. With a Pro Bowl appearance under his belt, a winning record and a 97.5 passer rating in three seasons as Washington's full-time starter, Cousins could push the $150 million mark. 

    Contract prediction: 5 years, $140 million ($80 million guaranteed)

Drew Brees

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    At the conclusion of the 2017 season, future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees stated he intends to stay with the New Orleans Saints "as long as they'll have me," per ESPN.com's Mike Triplett

    That likely means the Saints will have a chance to keep him at a reasonable rate, especially since no team should be eager to hand a long-term contract to a 39-year-old quarterback. 

    The Saints can't hit Brees with the franchise tag, and he's coming off one of the best seasons of his career. With the cap increasing, he deserves more than the $20 million he made in 2016 or even the $24.3 million he brought in last season. 

    Last time Brees signed an extension with the Saints, it was a five-year deal with three voidable seasons, per ESPN's Adam Schefter. With one year remaining on his five-year contract at the time, it was effectively a one-year, $24.3 million extension. Expect New Orleans to do something similar this time around, but with a slightly shorter and more realistic term. 

    Contract prediction: 3-year deal with $50 million guaranteed over the first two seasons and a voidable third year

Case Keenum

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Minnesota Vikings quarterback Case Keenum presents a far more complicated case heading into free agency. He has a far smaller sample size than Brees and Cousins, but it's larger than Garoppolo's. He's younger than Brees and older than Garoppolo, but he's the same age as Cousins. 

    Here's all his agent will say: Keenum won 11 of 14 regular-season starts as the NFL's seventh-highest-rated passer during a breakout season in which he helped the Vikings reach the NFC Championship Game. 

    Even if the Vikings decide to go back to Teddy Bridgewater or Sam Bradford, that alone should enable Keenum to fetch starter-level money with a quarterback-hungry team like the Browns, Jets, Broncos or Cardinals. 

    What does that mean? Well, the Chicago Bears essentially established the floor for a potential starter with a Keenum-level resume when they signed the even-less-accomplished Mike Glennon to a three-year, $45 million contract last offseason. While that signing might now serve as a cautionary tale, the supply-and-demand dynamics haven't changed. Keenum's momentum counts for something, as does cap inflation.  

    Contract prediction: 4 years, $80 million ($40 million guaranteed), unless he's tagged

Sam Bradford

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Meanwhile, Sam Bradford might be in the right place at the right time once again. The 30-year-old has rarely been able to stay healthy, has lost 11 more starts than he's won and has a career passer rating of just 85.1, but he's still managed to earn $114 million over the course of an eight-year NFL tenure. 

    At the age of 30, he's again slated to hit the free-agent market. And while he barely played after an early-season knee injury in 2017, he left a strong memory when he lit up the Saints in the season opener. Bradford is also just a year removed from the best season of his career. 

    That could be enough to convince the Vikings to guarantee him close to $24 million under the franchise tag. But even if the Vikes decide instead to stick with Keenum or Teddy Bridgewater, pursue somebody else entirely or negotiate with Bradford sans the tag, the 2010 No. 1 overall pick out of Oklahoma is likely to command starter-level money. 

    No team is likely to give him more than two years' worth of guaranteed money, but his body of work is larger than Keenum's and he was looking strong before his knee injury. At his age, that may be enough to fetch a $20 million average salary over a multiyear term.  

    Contract prediction: 3 years, $60 million ($35 million guaranteed), unless he's tagged

Teddy Bridgewater

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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    Rounding out the Vikings' free-agent trio of quarterbacks is Teddy Bridgewater. The 25-year-old has more potential than both Keenum and Bradford, but he's also two years removed from his last NFL start.

    Nobody knows what Bridgewater's future holds as he tries to get his career back on track following a long recovery from a devastating knee injury. That means a team may be able to sign him to a short-term deal. 

    Vikings general manager Rick Spielman might try to do exactly that while also keeping either Keenum or Bradford or bringing in an outside veteran like Cousins, Tyrod Taylor, Nick Foles or AJ McCarron. Such an offer may be Bridgewater's best available option. 

    Contract prediction: 1 year, $12 million (all guaranteed with multiple incentives)*

    *This is admittedly not one of the "biggest contracts" of the offseason, but it didn't feel right to leave Bridgewater out. 

Le'Veon Bell

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    There's a strong chance the Pittsburgh Steelers once again use the franchise tag on All-Pro running back Le'Veon Bell, who likely would make a fuss before eventually playing under the tag. Still, let's speculate about a potential long-term deal, either with Pittsburgh or somebody else. 

    Bell is just about to turn 26, and he has more combined scrimmage yards (3,830) than anyone else in the NFL by a 525-yard margin over the last two seasons. The notion that he deserves to be paid like both a back and receiver is silly since most backs make an impact in the passing game these days, but Bell deserves to become the league's highest-paid running back. 

    Devonta Freeman of the Atlanta Falcons signed a five-year deal last year that pays him a league-high $41.3 million, with $22 million guaranteed. Freeman is nowhere near the kind of player Bell is, and they're the same age. 

    Taking that, cap inflation and the leverage associated with a second franchise tagit'd cost about $14.5 million to keep him in Pittsburgh that wayinto account, Bell is likely looking at about $12 million per year over a five-year contract, with most of it guaranteed. 

    He presumably wouldn't go for anything less, especially since he has spoken about the importance he placed on the guaranteed total. 

    "50 guaranteed? Absolutely," Bell said when asked about that hypothetical earlier this month, per NFL.com's Kevin Patra, who added that "Bell then paused when asked about $30 million guaranteed."

    Let's split the difference. 

    Contract prediction: 5 years, $60 million ($40 million guaranteed), unless he's tagged

Jarvis Landry

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Pro Bowl wide receiver Jarvis Landry caught more passes than any other player in league history through the first four years of their career, which is why the salary cap-strapped Miami Dolphins may struggle to keep him. 

    The 25-year-old has made it clear he won't give the Dolphins a discount. As a pre-prime No. 1 receiver coming off a nine-touchdown season, that should put him in line for a big payday. 

    Landry still might not set a new standard at that position, because he's a catch machine who still has only 22 career touchdowns and just seven 40-yard receptions in four seasons. In 2017, he became the first wide receiver in NFL history to catch 100-plus passes while racking up fewer than 1,000 yards. 

    That'll make it hard for him to earn as much as Texans wideout DeAndre Hopkins, who became the highest-paid receiver in the game when he signed a five-year, $81 million deal in August. 

    Still, he'll likely fetch as much as Julio Jones, Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant, all of whom signed now-outdated five-year contracts worth about $14 million a year when they were around Landry's age in 2015. 

    Contract prediction: 5 years, $70 million ($32 million guaranteed)

Jimmy Graham

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    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    Tight end Jimmy Graham might not have as many years ahead of him as Landry, but the league's other high-profile impending free-agent pass-catcher is undoubtedly a playmaker. The 31-year-old was one of just three players with 10-plus receiving touchdowns in 2017, giving him 16 the last two seasons (more than any tight end in football). 

    A year ago, a 34-year-old Jason Witten was coming off a less productive season when he signed a four-year, $29.6 million extension with the Dallas Cowboys. Look for Graham to sign a deal with a significantly larger average salary but limited guarantees because of his age.  

    Contract prediction: 4 years, $36 million ($16 million guaranteed) 

Sheldon Richardson

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Considering that the Seattle Seahawks traded away a second-round pick and a starting wide receiver in exchange for Sheldon Richardson five months ago, there's a decent chance they use the franchise tag to ensure he doesn't hit the market in March. 

    But if that doesn't happen or Seattle instead gets a deal done with the 27-year-old, he'll strike long-term gold.

    Richardson is coming off a strong season and can be dominant, but he doesn't make a lot of game-changing plays and hasn't been a Pro Bowler since 2014. That could prevent him from landing a long-term contract with a total value in excess of $90 million (like those belonging to fellow defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh, Fletcher Cox, Gerald McCoy and Marcell Dareus), but he's arguably as valuable as Kawann Short or Jurrell Casey, both of whom signed contracts last offseason that pay them more than $15 million a year. 

    The defensive tackle market is all over the place, but it'd be surprising if Richardson didn't fetch a deal worth more than the four-year, $50.4 million pact Linval Joseph signed with the Vikings in 2017. Throw in salary-cap growth and you get something like this... 

    Contract prediction: 4 years, $60 million ($26 million guaranteed), unless he's tagged

DeMarcus Lawrence

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    The Dallas Cowboys have basically admitted defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence isn't going anywhere. 

    "To me, the only reason you use a franchise tag is to hopefully protect yourself if you can't get a long-term deal signed that you like," executive vice president Stephen Jones said in January, per Brandon George of the Dallas Morning News. "That's normally the route we like to go. Certainly, we're going to roll up our sleeves and see if we can do something with DeMarcus without having a franchise tag."

    What might a long-term deal look like for a 25-year-old Pro Bowl pass-rusher coming off a season in which he was the only player in the league with 13-plus sacks and four-plus forced fumbles? 

    Lawrence's agent should look to start with the five-year, $85 million deal Olivier Vernon signed with the New York Giants two offseasons ago. That was a huge contract to give a defensive end who had 29 sacks and no Pro Bowl nods in his first four seasons, but it set the market for players not named Von Miller, J.J. Watt or Justin Houston. 

    Chandler Jones and Melvin Ingram signed similar deals last offseason (albeit with less guaranteed cash, and with a four-year term instead of five in Ingram's case ). But cap inflation, age and momentum could get Lawrence beyond the $17 million mark this offseason, unless the Cowboys decide to take their chances and give him that amount for only one year via the franchise tag. 

    Contract prediction: 5 years, $88 million ($40 million guaranteed), unless he's tagged

Ezekiel Ansah

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    Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

    Please scroll back up and read the DeMarcus Lawrence blurb, but substitute Ezekiel Ansah's name for Lawrence's. 

    The Detroit Lions may also consider tagging Ansah after a 12-sack campaign, especially considering that the 2013 No. 5 overall pick now has two 12-plus-sack seasons in his last three (he wasn't himself while dealing with nagging injuries in 2016). He also put up six sacks in the final two games of the 2017 season alone. 

    That last impression is hard to ignore. While the 28-year-old is more weathered than Lawrence, he should have plenty of big seasons ahead of him if he can stay healthy. 

    At the very least, he should command a contract similar to the four-year, $62 million deal Jason Pierre-Paul inked with the New York Giants last offseason. But if he isn't tagged, he'll likely do better than that.  

    Contract prediction: 4 years, $65 million ($22 million guaranteed), unless he's tagged

Nate Solder

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Veteran New England Patriots left tackle Nate Solder has a clause in his contract that prevents him from receiving the franchise tag. That puts a lot of pressure on an aging team trying to protect its 40-year-old quarterback. 

    Solder missed most of the 2015 season due to injury, but the Pats have made the Super Bowl during each of his last three healthy seasons. He isn't a Pro Bowler and he'll be on the wrong side of 30 next season, but the Patriots would suffer if he got away. And the limited supply of good offensive tackles has put players like Solder in high demand in recent offseasons. 

    Solder might not command Trent Williams money ($68 million over five years) or an eight-year term like Tyron Smith, but if Russell Okung can land a four-year, $53 million deal at the same age Solder is now, he's likely looking at something in excess of that. 

    Contract prediction: 4 years, $55 million ($27 million guaranteed) 

Andrew Norwell

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Because franchise-tag rates are the same for all offensive line positions and tackles usually command more money than interior offensive linemen, the Carolina Panthers likely won't hit guard Andrew Norwell with it. That doesn't mean the 26-year-old won't cash in, though. 

    Coming off an All-Pro season in which he was Pro Football Focus' third-highest-graded guard, age, momentum and cap inflation should put Norwell on track to become the highest-paid interior offensive lineman in NFL history. 

    That distinction currently belongs to Kevin Zeitler, who signed a five-year, $60 million deal with the Cleveland Browns last offseason. Zeitler was Norwell's age, but he had an extra season under his belt and had never made a Pro Bowl. 

    With that in mind, perhaps a $14.3 million franchise tag isn't far-fetched, because Norwell is likely to receive more than $12 million per year on a five-year deal. 

    Contract prediction: 5 years, $65 million ($28 million guaranteed), unless he's tagged

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