NFL Free Agency 2018: Predicting This Year's Biggest Contracts

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistMarch 12, 2018

NFL Free Agency 2018: Predicting This Year's Biggest Contracts

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    The 2018 edition of NFL free agency hasn't even arrived yet, and we've already seen a flurry of activity. Numerous trades have been agreed upon, including Alex Smith to the Washington Redskins, Tyrod Taylor to the Cleveland Browns and Marcus Peters to the Los Angeles Rams. 

    Though these moves cannot be made official until the start of the new league year, they are making the playoff picture a little more straightforward. We have a better idea of which teams still have big needs at certain positions and which will be moving on to fill other holes.

    Having some clarity going into free agency doesn't mean things aren't still going to be unpredictable, exciting and unfolding at a frenzied pace. When the market officially opens at 4 p.m. ET Wednesday, the signings are going to come quick, and the cash is going to flow like beer on a Gronk party cruise.

    With the salary cap set at $177.2 million—an all-time high—teams are going to have plenty of money to throw around. While we're used to seeing massive contracts in free agency, this year's big deals will be among the biggest ever.

    What will the largest deals look like? We're here to predict exactly that. We'll be making our projections for the biggest free-agent contracts on a per-year basis. We're not including quarterback Drew Brees as it feels extremely unlikely he'll end up anywhere but with the New Orleans Saints.

WR Allen Robinson

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    With the Browns also agreeing to acquire Jarvis Landry from the Miami Dolphins, Allen Robinson becomes one of the most attractive wideouts heading to market.

    While Robinson missed all but one game with the Jacksonville Jaguars last season with a torn ACL, he has shown in the past that he can be a No. 1 receiver, and he's only 24 years old.

    There's a ton of upside with the 6'3", 211-pound pass-catcher, but his injury and recovery time make him a bit of a risk. Therefore, medical evaluations will impact the kind of guaranteed money Robinson is able to get.

    Robinson does believe he'll be able to pass a physical, according to Ryan O'Halloran of the Florida Times-Union.

    What kind of money could Robinson be looking at? Well, probably not the kind Mike Evans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is seeing. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the Buccaneers and Evans have agreed on a new five-year, $82.5 million deal with $55 million guaranteed.

    Because of the injury, Robinson will probably have an incentive-laden deal that includes an early potential out for the team signing him. Expect him to get significantly less than the $16.5 million a year Evans is going to get but quite a bit more than the $6.7 million per year Marquise Goodwin recently got from the San Francisco 49ers. 

    Contract Prediction: Four years, $45 million with $20 million guaranteed

G Andrew Norwell

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    Offensive guards aren't always the flashiest players available in free agency; however, this doesn't mean that they aren't getting paid. Just look at the five-year, $60 million deal Kevin Zeitler inked last offseason.

    We can expect Carolina Panthers guard Andrew Norwell to receiver an even bigger deal this offseason for a couple of reasons. For one, the salary cap is bigger this year, so teams have more money to spend on the position. Secondly, Nowell is 26 years old and is coming off an All-Pro season, an accolade Zeitler has never received.

    If a few teams fall in love with Norwell, his new deal could be significantly bigger than Zeitler's. It appears the New York Giants are at least one such team.

    "Guards are a valuable commodity these days, and the Giants are committed to finding upgrades this offseason," Jordan Raanan of ESPN.com wrote. "[General manager Dave] Gettleman seems intent on improving the interior of the Giants offensive line."

    According to Draft Analyst's Tony Pauline, Norwell to the Giants is a "done deal." However, this can't possibly be the case if another team gets in on the bidding action.

    Zeitler's deal should be viewed as a floor for Norwell's new contract, and the ceiling could end up much, much higher.

    Contract Prediction: Five years, $64 million with $32 million guaranteed

OT Nate Solder

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    Offensive tackle Nate Solder may not be entering his prime the way Norwell is, but he does play the most important position on the offensive line. He's also been to two Super Bowls, and he'll be 30 at the start of the 2018 season, meaning he should still have some good years in front of him.

    Unless Solder agrees to take a team-friendly deal in order to return to the New England Patriots, he should be getting a hefty contract on the open market. According to Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald, New England cannot expect Solder to give a hometown discount.

    "It certainly wouldn't be a shock if Solder landed a four-year, $52 million offer, or even a two-year, $28 million proposal," Howe recently wrote. "And if that happens, the Patriots can't lowball Solder and expect to keep him. This will likely be Solder's best chance to earn the most lucrative contract of his career, and he wants to take advantage of the opportunity."

    Solder may not be one of the best left tackles in the game, but he's a starter, and teams like the Cincinnati Bengals and the Browns—if Joe Thomas decides to retire—should be more than interested in landing him and have cash to spend.

    Contract Projection: Four years, $50 million with $24 million guaranteed

CB Trumaine Johnson

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    The Rams have agreed to trades for cornerbacks Peters and Aqib Talib. Barring something completely unforeseen, this means cornerback Trumaine Johnson is headed to the open market. This is great news for Johnson, a 28-year-old who is one of the better cover corners in the league and will be coveted.

    As is the case with Norwell, we can look back to last offseason to find a baseline for Johnson. Stephon Gilmore, the top cornerback of 2017 free agency, landed a five-year, $65 million deal from the Patriots.

    While arguments can be made that Johnson isn't the best cornerback available this offseason—we'll touch on other corners shortly—he's definitely in the conversation. This is why the Rams paid him more than $30 million via the franchise tag over the last two seasons.

    "A lot of people are just starting to see how good of a corner he is," Rams analyst Kirk Morrison said during an appearance with 95.7 The Game (h/t Cam Inman of the Mercury News). "He has a good mix of the man-coverage skills but he's also a guy, he'll match your No. 1 guy but he'll also knock the ball out. It's not necessarily getting interceptions. If you catch it, he can put a hit on you." 

    Johnson isn't going to get the $15-plus million a season he's grown accustomed to, but his agent will almost certainly push for a deal worth $13 million a year like the one Gilmore received last year. 

    Contract Prediction: Four years, $52 million with $34 million guaranteed

CB Malcolm Butler

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    Inconsistent play and the mysterious Super Bowl benching may prevent cornerback Malcolm Butler from earning the kind of money the Patriots gave to Gilmore instead of him last season. These things may even prevent him from earning the kind of deal Johnson gets this offseason.

    However, teams aren't going to forget that Butler has been one of the best and most consistent man corners in the league over the last few seasons. He's going to have to explain last season and the Super Bowl to teams, but Butler is still going to get paid.

    "Logan Ryan's three-year, $30 million pact with the Titans as an unrestricted free agent in 2017 might be more timely from an analysis perspective," Mike Reiss of ESPN.com wrote.

    Ryan's contract is relevant because he is a corner who came out of the Patriots system. However, let's not forget that Butler was the No. 1 cornerback and Ryan was the No. 2 when the duo played together. Butler should command more than the $10 million per year Ryan got.

    The three-year time frame, however, does make sense, especially if it includes an option for the team to get out after two. Butler will be 30 in two years, and he will need to prove that last year's intermittent struggles won't continue.

    Contract Prediction: Three years, $34 million with $18 million guaranteed

DT Sheldon Richardson

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    Defensive linemen who aren't primarily pass-rushers don't always get the fan attention they deserve. Teams, however, know exactly how valuable disruptive linemen can be. This is precisely why the Seattle Seahawks were willing to trade away Jermaine Kearse and a second-round pick last season to get Sheldon Richardson in the first place.

    Richardson's versatility only adds to his value on the open market.

    "Shoot, 3-technique, he can play several positions. He's a talented guy," Seahawks general manager John Schneider said, per Gregg Bell of the News Tribune.

    In addition to being talented and versatile (and a former first-round pick), Richardson has youth on his side. He'll be just 27 years old at the start of the 2018 season.

    Expect Richardson to get a deal that pays him a little more than the $10.5 million per season Brandon Williams got from the Baltimore Ravens last season.

    Contract Prediction: Four years, $45 million with $27 million guaranteed

QB Kirk Cousins

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    It's not often that a starting-caliber quarterback in his prime reaches the open market. This is exactly what we'll have, though, when Kirk Cousins officially becomes available and quarterback-needy teams will be lining up to throw cash at him.

    The Browns are likely out of the chase for Cousins now that they've acquired Taylor, but teams like the Broncos, Jets, Cardinals and Vikings are still in the hunt. According to Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News, Cousins hasn't ruled any of them out.

    Team quality will likely play a part in Cousins' decision. He's made it known that he'd prefer to win sooner than later.

    "It is about winning, and that's what I want more than anything," Cousins said during an appearance with PFT Live.

    Money is going be part of the equation too as that's simply the nature of the position. Almost every single time a top-15 quarterback is up for a new contract, he becomes the league's highest-paid signal-caller. Therefore, we can expect Cousins to get a deal that's bigger on a per-year basis than the five-year, $137.5 million deal signed by Jimmy Garoppolo—unless he takes a huge discount in order to chase a ring.

    Contract Prediction: Four years, $120 million with $75 million guaranteed

QB Case Keenum

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    For the teams that don't land Cousins, quarterbacks like Case Keenum, AJ McCarron, Teddy Bridgewater, Josh McCown and Sam Bradford will become options. Of this group, Keenum will probably end up with the most lucrative deal.

    McCown played well last season, but he's purely a short-term bridge option at this point in his career. Bridgewater hasn't started a game in two years, Bradford is as injury-prone as quarterbacks get, and McCarron owns a limited body of work. Keenum, on the other hand, had a lengthy audition last season—and a good one.

    In the regular season, Keenum completed 67.6 percent of his passes, tossed 22 touchdowns and had just seven interceptions. He also posted an impressive 98.3 passer rating. In the postseason, he helped lead Minnesota to a comeback win over the Saints and to the NFC title game.

    "If the Broncos don't get Kirk Cousins, their first choice, they probably must overpay option B, whether that's Keenum or AJ McCarron or Josh McCown," Mike Klis of 9 News Denver wrote

    Klis also reported that the Broncos are interested in Keenum, though he may not necessarily be their top option after Cousins.

    "The Broncos are interested in Keenum," he wrote. "I'm not sure he's Plan B. He might be, but from what I understand, the Broncos had not settled on Plan B as of a few days ago."

    If Denver's Plan B included Taylor, it's now out the window. If this is the case and the Broncos miss out on Cousins, this may well leave Keenum as Denver's top option. Other teams will be in on the chase for him, and Keenum is likely to end up with a sizable payday as a result.

    Contract Prediction: Three years, $63 million with $21 million guaranteed

           

    All contract information via Spotrac unless otherwise indicated.