Early Look at the Top Players in 2019 NFL Free Agency
As the 2018 NFL season winds down, impending free agents have to give the future some thought. Will they remain with their current teams or go elsewhere?
Barring the franchise tag, the most productive and decorated players will have several options during free agency. At times, front offices work to re-sign premier talents at the end of the season. In other scenarios, executives prefer to pivot in favor of assets on cheaper deals.
Is financial flexibility worth allowing a star pass-rusher to test free agency? Clubs have a couple of months to balance production and checkbooks before making major decisions.
We'll take a look at the situations that surround 10 of the most notable names, at various positions, primed to hit the open market in March.
QB Teddy Bridgewater, New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints can flip their quarterback insurance policy into a succession plan. On Aug. 29, the front office traded a 2019 third-round pick for a sixth-round selection and Teddy Bridgewater, who went through an offseason program with the New York Jets.
Following the trade, Bridgewater indicated he's willing to be patient in a backup role, per ESPN.com's Mike Triplett. "I don't mind waiting," he said. "I get to learn from one of the best players to ever play this game, get to be in the room with a great group of guys, get to learn from coach [Sean] Payton. So I look forward to that."
Bridgewater mentioned he studied the Saints offense during his collegiate years at Louisville, and Triplett noted there was excitement for his stay with the club.
The 26-year-old signal-caller restructured his deal in September, adding two voidable years to his existing contract, per the Advocate's Nick Underhill: "Two voidable years were added to spread the cap hit. It is automatically set to void 10 days prior to the start of the 2019 league year. The base salaries in 2019 and 2020, which void, are written at $22 million."
Assuming quarterback Drew Brees makes a quick decision on whether to play out the final year of his deal, New Orleans would have a window to contemplate a short- or long-term plan at quarterback. Bridgewater could chase opportunities elsewhere, but it's likely the Saints would have his ear first.
Still in the early stages of his career, with a Pro Bowl season and playoff experience on his resume, Bridgewater will generate interest on the open market as the hottest commodity at quarterback.
RB Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
Running back Le'Veon Bell may have broken his silence about his free-agent destination preference when he commented "just imagine" with multiple eye emojis under a statistical graphic of Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck on Instagram.
Former Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne joked about picking up Bell from the airport, presumably for a meeting between the player and organization during free agency.
Bell opted to sit out the 2018 campaign instead of signing his franchise tender worth $14.5 million from the Pittsburgh Steelers. That work relationship will likely come to an end given that Steelers running back James Conner is flourishing as a starter. Conner ranks fifth in rushing yards (909) through 13 weeks.
As for Bell and the Colts, general manager Chris Ballard selected running backs Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins in the fourth and fifth rounds, respectively, of this year's draft. Marlon Mack has suited up for every game since Week 6.
Bell is more likely to land with a team that's flushed with cash and looking to fill a major void in the backfield. The Colts will have the cap space, projecting at approximately $124 million in the offseason, but Indianapolis may not need him with three players under 25 years old at the position.
RB Jay Ajayi, Philadelphia Eagles
Running back Jay Ajayi hasn't been able to find stability as a lead ball-carrier. In his second season, he accumulated 260 carries for 1,272 rushing yards and eight touchdowns with the Miami Dolphins. A midseason trade during the 2017 term sent him to the Philadelphia Eagles where he averaged 10 rush attempts per contest at 5.8 yards per run.
LeGarrette Blount's decision to sign with the Detroit Lions opened the pathway for Ajayi to handle the majority of the carries for the Eagles this year, but he tore his ACL in Week 5.
Now headed to the open market, Ajayi has displayed the ability to lead a backfield, but he's never started more than 12 games in a season through four years. Youth works in his favor, though; at 25 years old, we could see his best performances ahead.
Clubs unsure about their starters at running back can pair Ajayi with a rookie or a developing backup. Keep in mind the Boise State product has averaged more than 15 carries per contest in just one of his four seasons. On the flip side, he's been a productive starter with two teams, so front offices may feel comfortable rostering him as the featured asset in the ground attack.
WR Golden Tate, Philadelphia Eagles
Before the October 30 deadline, the Lions traded wideout Golden Tate to the Eagles, avoiding a looming decision to re-sign or allow him to walk for nothing in March.
Tate hasn't provided a major spark to the Eagles offense. He caught 11 passes for 97 yards in his first three games. In Week 13, though, the 30-year-old provided a solid boost, hauling in all seven of his targets for 85 yards and a touchdown. Quarterback Carson Wentz also connected with him on a two-point conversion.
The Eagles have four games left to play; Tate's production must continue to trend upward to increase his value on the open market. Because he's recorded 90-plus receptions in each of the last four terms, the ninth-year veteran will garner some interest in the offseason.
Barring an injury or an abysmal four-game stretch, Tate's new deal should land in the same neighborhood as the top two earners at the position from last offseason, Sammy Watkins ($16 million per year) and Allen Robinson ($14 million per year).
DT Ndamukong Suh, Los Angeles Rams
Going into his age-32 campaign, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh will hit the free-agent market after signing a one-year, $14 million deal with the Los Angeles Rams.
At this point, Suh's name and past record elevate his profile, but he's still an effective force in run and pass situations in the middle of the defensive line. Furthermore, the 6'4", 313-pounder's presence has seemingly aided Aaron Donald's sack production.
Lining up alongside each other, Donald and Suh have a combined 20 sacks; the former leads the league with a career-high 16.5. The latter's pass-rushing numbers don't look as gaudy, but he could land elsewhere as a partner to another penetrating defensive tackle if the Rams opt to let him walk.
Suh would still demand attention as a game-changer in the trenches. He's recorded 26 solo tackles and ranks second on the Rams in quarterback hits (13). The three-time All-Pro's production will likely warrant a top-dollar short-term salary relative to his position.
DE Demarcus Lawrence, Dallas Cowboys
Dallas Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Lawrence broke out during the 2017 campaign with 14.5 sacks, and he's putting together an encore presentation that should make him a wealthier man next year.
Lawrence leads the team in quarterback hits (18) and tackles resulting in a loss of yardage (13) with 9.5 sacks through 12 games. The 26-year-old pass-rusher is playing on a $17.1 million franchise tag, and his contract talks will come up at an opportune time.
According to the NFL's collective bargaining agreement, the Cowboys have to reach a spending floor by 2020, per CBS Sports' Joel Corry:
"The NFL collective bargaining agreement (CBA) requires each team to spend 89 percent of the salary cap in cash over the four-year period of 2017 through 2020. The Cowboys rank 31st in the NFL in spending during the 2017 and 2018 league years at just under $293.5 million according to NFLPA data. The $293.5 million has Dallas below the 89 percent threshold."
NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported in July that Lawrence plans to secure a long-term contract next year, which makes him an immediate priority. Quarterback Dak Prescott and wide receiver Amari Cooper, though important to the team's success, still have another year left on their deals.
The Cowboys defense limited a red-hot Saints offense to 10 points in Week 13. The Dallas front office should do everything in its power to keep one of its premier defenders on the roster, especially with a quarterback on a rookie contract.
Since 2017, Lawrence ranks third in sacks (24) behind Chandler Jones, who led the category last year, and Aaron Donald, who leads the tally this season. Most teams will covet the Pro Bowl defensive end if he hits the open market.
DE Frank Clark, Seattle Seahwks
Among pass-rushers, Seattle Seahawks defensive end Frank Clark should list behind Demarcus Lawrence in potential earnings on a new deal. In fact, he's logged more sacks (29) over the last three years than the Cowboys defensive end, who missed seven games during the 2016 campaign because of a suspension for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs, as well as a back injury.
Teams should have Clark atop their wish lists if he doesn't re-sign with the Seahawks. He's shown consistency as a pass-rusher, logging at least nine sacks in each of the last three campaigns.
Clark and his agent, Erik Burkhardt, have a different view of the franchise tag than Lawrence, per ESPN.com's Brady Henderson. "Frank and I are not scared of the franchise tag," Burkhardt said in October. "That's going to come in at about $18 million next year for a D-end on a one-year, fully guaranteed deal. It's what [Ezekiel] Ansah and Lawrence have done. They get that top-of-the-market value for one year, and 12 months later will get their long-term deal as well. That's winning."
Currently, among 4-3 base defensive ends, the Arizona Cardinals' Chandler Jones cashes in the most annually at $16.5 million, per Spotrac.
Seattle could take a one-year, $18 million hit before inking Clark to a long-term deal, which allows time for further proof of consistency. Then again, with a projected $58 million in cap space for 2019, we shouldn't rule out an extension for the team's leading pass-rusher.
EDGE Jadeveon Clowney, Houston Texans
Defensive end J.J. Watt has captured headlines, returning to Defensive Player of the Year form with 11.5 sacks this year. Fortunately for the Houston Texans, he's under team control through the 2021 campaign. On the other hand, the front office will have a pressing decision to make on Jadeveon Clowney's contract.
Clowney lists as the team's second-leading pass-rusher in sacks. Though he's not garnering as much attention as Watt, the 25-year-old will become the focus of attention in the offseason. For the most part, he's been healthy this year, only missing one contest because of back and elbow ailments.
On pace to come to close to last year's 9.5-sack total, Clowney would have plenty of suitors on the open market. Now showing his durability to go along with the production, he's a prime candidate for a massive deal. The fifth-year pro may have to wait to cash in, though, if Houston uses the franchise tag on him.
As well, there could be some discussion about his position (and amount) classification, per CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora: "The Texans intend to apply the tag; Clowney will argue that he should receive the amount for defensive ends (projected to be worth more than $17 million), while the team will contend that he should be tagged as a linebacker (roughly $15 million)."
Obviously, if Clowney plays with the franchise tag, he'd probably want to optimize his earnings without long-term financial security. Based on La Canfora's report, if there's a break-off in talks or change in plans, the edge-rusher would appeal to 4-3 and 3-4 base defenses alike.
S Landon Collins, New York Giants
The New York Giants traded two starters midseason, sending cornerback Eli Apple and nose tackle Damon Harrison to the Saints and Lions, respectively, which signaled more change for play-caller James Bettcher's defense. It's not a surprise the front office took a wait-and-see approach with Landon Collins, who can stop the run and rush the passer; he's also flashed improvement in coverage skills over the years.
Though potential contract talks between Collins and the front office have been mute publicly, the 24-year-old expressed a clear stance about the franchise tag in an interview with SNY's Ralph Vacchiano:
"Honestly, I don't want it. I know what type of player I am. I'm going to bring forth hard work, talent, playmaking abilities to the game each and every week. Why would I want to play under a one-year deal? If something happens, I'm not guaranteed. And even though I'm guaranteed that for a year, I'm still not guaranteed."
In Week 13, Collins suffered a shoulder injury that requires surgery, ending a down season in terms of pass coverage (four pass breakups and zero interceptions), but the Alabama product wouldn't be easy to replace long-term. The All-Pro safety has patrolled the length of the field, logging 90-plus combined tackles every term with a high level of respect in the locker room. He served as a team captain this season.
S Tyrann Mathieu, Houston Texans
The Texans have more than one impending in-house decision to ponder in the winter. The front office signed safety Tyrann Mathieu to a one-year, $7 million deal with $6.5 million guaranteed after the Cardinals released him in March. It's a modest contract for a defensive back who can play both safety spots and slot cornerback.
Last week, Mathieu tweeted, "I'm NEVER leaving!!!" But it's not clear if he was referring to Houston. It's likely the Texans would have to ink him to a multiyear deal and increase his yearly pay rate. The All-Pro defensive back has logged 60 solo tackles, three sacks, two interceptions and six pass breakups in 12 starts.
The 26-year-old's versatility and his constant presence around the football provide his agent with strong negotiating tools during contract talks.
Defensive back Kareem Jackson, who has played cornerback and safety this season, will also hit the open market. As a career-long Texan who will enter his age-31 season, his outlook with the team could affect the decision on Mathieu. Keep in mind rookie safety Justin Reid has been a solid starter for most of the year.
The Texans have options, which means Mathieu isn't a lock to re-sign in Houston. Additionally, it's possible he could make more money signing with a team that has to fill a dire need at the position.
Player contract details courtesy of Spotrac.