NFL Contract-Year Players Who Could Break the Bank

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistNovember 21, 2018

NFL Contract-Year Players Who Could Break the Bank

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    For top NFL players who avoid one-year franchise and transition tags during free agency, it's Christmas in March. The cash doesn't come from a relative; front offices are willing to pay big dollars for production and upside.

    Typically, massive deals go to talents at premium positions, which include edge-rushers, cornerbacks, offensive tackles and quarterbacks on the rare occasion a solid one hits the open market, like Kirk Cousins last year. Beyond the star names, lesser-known impact players should garner leaguewide interest as well.

    Most media outlets will follow running back Le'Veon Bell's offseason moves, but rising talents will also sign contracts that may shock you. Market value or the need to address a weak area can favor the player in negotiations.

    Looking at a mix of standouts, we'll take a look at eight players who should become top earners among impending free agents at their positions.


RB Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Le'Veon Bell didn't report to the Pittsburgh Steelers on November 13, which rendered him ineligible to play for the 2018 campaign, per ESPN's Adam Schefter. In all likelihood, the team will move forward with James Conner as the lead ball-carrier, while the two-time All-Pro Bell can seek a long-term deal on the free-agent market in 2019.

    Bell has prepared himself for long-term financial security through football abstinence. In February, he'll turn 27 years old with a refreshed body, likely for a new team. When active, the dual-threat tailback can take on a heavy workload.

    In 2017, Bell led the league in touches (406) and finished with 1,946 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns. Because of his production, clubs will overlook two previous suspensions for violating the league's substance-abuse policy in back-to-back seasons (2015 and 2016). He's one of the rare players who could take a year off and break the bank.

    Barring an improbable third-year franchise tag worth a quarterback-level tender or a transition tag from the Steelers, expect a win-now club with a dire need at running back to acquire Bell. He'd also serve as a reliable option for a developing signal-caller who can benefit from a run-heavy ground attack.

WR Tyrell Williams, Los Angeles Chargers

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    We will likely hear Golden Tate as the hot name among wide receivers during free agency, but pay close attention to Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver Tyrell Williams. He's hauling in a career-high 66.7 percent of his targets and ranks second on the team in yards per catch with 18.5.

    Even though Tate has shown his worth over a longer period, he's nine years into his career, so Williams offers more upside going into his age-27 campaign next season. The fourth-year receiver stands at 6'4", 205 pounds, and he's posting solid numbers despite competing for targets with the likes of Pro Bowler Keenan Allen, 2017 No. 7 overall pick Mike Williams and two pass-catching running backs, Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler.

    As a clear-cut No. 2 option in an offense, Williams could see his most productive years in front of him as a consistent 1,000-yard receiver.

    Last year, wide receivers Paul Richardson, Marqise Lee and Albert Wilson all signed multiyear contracts for at least $8 million in yearly salaries without previously reaching 1,000 yards in a season. Williams has one such campaign under his belt.

    With Tate, Devin Funchess and John Brown as the main competitors at wide receiver for huge contracts, Williams should earn the big bucks following a significant markup in value at the position last offseason.

RG Rodger Saffold, Los Angeles Rams

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    When an entire offensive unit performs at an optimal level, the individual players benefit when they hit the open market. Right guard Rodger Saffold has started 106 games since coming into the league as the No. 33 overall pick in the 2010 draft.

    The Los Angeles Rams' offensive explosion comes at an opportune time for the 30-year-old, who's set to hit the free-agent market in March. He's blocking for arguably the top running back in the game, Todd Gurley, and the Rams' ground attack ranks second in the league.

    Clubs that want to elevate the play of an underperforming featured ball-carrier or establish a power run game would probably pay top dollar for a guard Saffold's age with experience in a top-notch rushing offense.

    In addition, Saffold has logged starts at four of the five positions across the offensive line, making him an attractive option for plug-and-play situations in case of injury.

DE Demarcus Lawrence, Dallas Cowboys

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    Defensive end Demarcus Lawrence has put the Dallas Cowboys pass rush on his back over the last two seasons, logging 22.5 sacks in that span. This year, he signed a $17.1 million franchise tag, but the 26-year-old doesn't plan to play on another one-year deal in 2019, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.

    "For Cowboys DE Demarcus Lawrence, his goal is to go out, play on the tag and earn a long-term deal in Dallas. Source said he will not play on a second consecutive tag in 2019," Rapoport tweeted.

    This puts the Cowboys on the clock to ink their star pass-rusher to a lucrative long-term deal or risk going through a potential offseason holdout. As the most dominant player on the team's defensive line, he has the production to either earn a massive contract in Dallas or leverage a trade similar to pass-rusher Khalil Mack last year.

    CBS Sports' Joel Corry, a former sports agent, cites Denver Broncos edge-rusher Von Miller's six-year, $114.5 million contract, which included $70 million in guarantees, as a benchmark for Lawrence. Corry also points out the Cowboys defensive end shares representation with New York Giants pass-rusher Olivier Vernon, who in 2016 netted a salary that averages $17 million per year.

    When factoring in a rise in the salary cap, Lawrence is certainly worth at least $20 million annually.

DT Grady Jarrett, Atlanta Falcons

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    The Atlanta Falcons extended several players last offseason, including quarterback Matt Ryan, safety Ricardo Allen, offensive tackle Jake Matthews and kicker Matt Bryant. Wideout Julio Jones also received a pay raise. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett is still on his rookie deal, and his big payday will likely come in the offseason.

    The 2015 fifth-rounder has exceeded expectations to become a high-end starter in the middle of the Falcons defense. At 6'0", 305 pounds, he's a squatty run-stopper who's flashed his pass-rushing ability with 10 sacks over the last three terms.

    Clubs have broken out of the mold of applying pressure exclusively on the edges and plugging one-dimensional run defenders in the middle. Defensive tackles such as Sheldon Rankins, Jarran Reed and Kenny Clark have emerged as interior pass-rushers, and Jarrett belongs in that young crop on the rise.

    As a defensive tackle capable of staying on the field in passing situations to collapse the pocket, Jarrett should see a boost among his peers in pay scale, especially at 25 years old.

EDGE Jadeveon Clowney, Houston Texans

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    There's an intriguing situation brewing pertaining to edge-rusher Jadeveon Clowney's free-agency bid. According to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle, the Houston Texans may be hesitant to commit to him long-term:

    "I may be wrong, but I don't think the Texans will sign Clowney to an extension. He missed the on-field part of the offseason program to rehab a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery in January. Until he shows them he's healthy, able to consistently stay on the field and play as well or better than last season, I don't see them committing long-term to him."

    Clowney has missed 18 games in five seasons with the Texans, 12 during his rookie term because of a torn meniscus, which required two surgeries. Back and elbow injuries forced him to sit out Week 2 against the Tennessee Titans. It's worth noting he's put together a strong campaign, logging 6.5 sacks and 24 solo tackles in nine contests.

    A history of injuries without eye-popping numbers may cause some teams to pause on doling out large sums of cash for Clowney, but he would hit the open market as one of the bigger names at a premium position. The South Carolina product has recorded 26.5 sacks in four-plus seasons and turns 26 years old in February.

    If the Texans decide to let him walk, another club with a void to fill and cash to spend will aggressively pursue Clowney in March.

ILB C.J. Mosley, Baltimore Ravens

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    Among off-ball linebackers, C.J. Mosley should emerge as the big winner in contract negotiations. He's put together three Pro Bowl campaigns as the quarterback of the Baltimore Ravens defense. Since the 2014 season, the 26-year-old ranks third in combined tackles (558) and fifth in solo tackles (370), covering extensive ground on the field.

    Mosley also brings the all-in-one feature to the field at middle linebacker. He can stop the run, drop into coverage or pressure the quarterback in blitz packages. With 33 pass breakups, eight interceptions and eight sacks, the Ravens defender profiles as the complete package at his position.

    Missing only three career games, Mosley checks off the durability aspect as well. He told reporters in January that he'd prefer to stay in Baltimore, but changes in the front office as assistant general manager Eric DeCosta takes over for Ozzie Newsome in the offseason could result in roster turnover or a sharp shift in vision.

S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Washington Redskins

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    Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix saw the writing on the wall in Green Bay and knew he wouldn't play for the team beyond this season.

    "Right now, I'm playing each and every game like it's my last. I don't think I'm going to be here next year," Clinton-Dix said after Week 5, per the Wisconsin State Journal's Jason Wilde.

    The Packers proved Clinton-Dix's inclinations correct, trading him to the Washington Redskins before the deadline.

    The Redskins may opt to re-sign the 25-year-old, but he's going into an offseason as arguably the best and most complete safety on the market, capable of tackling in the open field and covering in space.

    In five seasons, Clinton-Dix has 331 solo tackles, 26 pass breakups and 14 interceptions. Furthermore, he's not coming off a season cut short because of an injury, as is the case with Earl Thomas, or a disappointing year in terms of production like Landon Collins. He's primed to make a fortune as a versatile, young Pro Bowl safety.