Which NFL Players Are Headed for Mega Paydays?
NFL teams will be spending top dollar on players who can provide pressure in the 2019 free-agent class.
As usual, the biggest figures will go to quarterbacks and positions like cornerback. But pressure is more valuable than ever in today's NFL, especially with the constricting rules on defensive backs and the emerging class of the next great passers, including Patrick Mahomes.
Granted, it is never cut-and-dry. It isn't easy to foresee some of the silliness that bidding wars on the open market can produce, such as the $48 million the Kansas City Chiefs gave Sammy Watkins or the $40 million the Arizona Cardinals threw at Sam Bradford.
Predicting those numbers is a fool's errand most of the time, though the quality of the top-tier free agents this year makes it clear which players will be getting mega paydays.
This list won't include extension candidates—guys like Ezekiel Elliott, A.J. Green and Russell Wilson. It's too volatile to project whether their extensions will happen this offseason, next year or the following offseason.
But the following players are guaranteed to pick up massive contracts in 2019 through free agency or the franchise tag.
Le'Veon Bell, RB
It's difficult to imagine a scenario in which Le'Veon Bell doesn't land a monster contract this offseason.
This isn't someone like 33-year-old Adrian Peterson, who got picked up by Washington after rookie Derrius Guice tore his ACL in August. Peterson did run for over 1,000 yards, which hurts the outlook for the position as a whole, sure—just not necessarily Bell's status. Interestingly, Bell's replacement in Pittsburgh, James Conner, ran for 973 yards and 12 touchdowns over 13 games.
But teams looking at Bell on the market are desperate for a versatile player who can work even without a solid line in front of them or a Ben Roethlisberger commanding the attention of the defense. The 26-year-old running back just took a season off and should come back fresh after carrying the ball at least 244 times in four of his first five campaigns.
Not only is Bell fresh, but he's also the prototype: He has 1,200-plus yards in three of his past four campaigns, and he'd be a perfect 4-of-4 if he hadn't missed 10 games in 2015. He's rushed for 35 touchdowns over 62 games, averaged 4.3 yards per carry and caught 312 passes for another 2,660 yards and seven touchdowns.
If a desperate team was willing to hand $30 million to Jerick McKinnon one offseason ago, think of the figure a back like Bell will get. He's an offensive centerpiece in the middle of his prime and can drive a bidding war before picking among the offers. And those will all be massive.
Demarcus Lawrence, DE
One way or another, Demarcus Lawrence is getting paid.
Lawrence proved himself in 2018 while playing under the Dallas Cowboys' franchise tag, recording 10.5 more sacks after a 14.5-sack showing the year prior. While he regressed slightly, good luck convincing NFL teams that will continue.
After all, we are talking about a 26-year-old pass-rusher with eight or more sacks in three of his past four seasons. Those three campaigns were the ones in which he played all 16 games.
NFL teams won't stop doling out massive amounts of cash for players who can bring pressure. And squads are rarely letting guys like Lawrence get to free agency in the first place, which is why he and others played on franchise tags last year.
Meanwhile, the Buffalo Bills scooped up one of the best available options, Trent Murphy, and paid him $22.5 million over three years for four sacks.
This offseason? The sky is the limit for Lawrence's next deal, as he's looking at a $20 million-plus tag or more if a bidding war starts, especially if Murphy's pact is any sign.
Ezekiel Ansah, DE
Ezekiel Ansah was another guy playing under the tag in 2018.
The Detroit Lions had a much better reason for slapping the tag on the 2013 top-five pick, though. Over the past four years, Ansah has had double-digit-sack numbers when healthy, but he hasn't been able to stay on the field.
Ansah recorded 14.5 sacks in 2015 and 12 sacks in 2017. But he played in 14 or more games in each of those campaigns. In 2016, Ansah only appeared in 13 games and registered two sacks. This past year, under the tag ($17.1 million), he could only muster seven games and earned four sacks.
At 29 years old, Ansah is in his prime, and he has a minimum 7.5 in four of six seasons. His floor is nice, and his ceiling is even better. But a team that coughs up premium dollar for his services has to understand the medical risk.
And if the Lions want to keep rolling the dice, the next tag will cost them north of $20 million. Even with the defensive end's concerns, upside pressure equals big dollars in today's NFL.
Trey Flowers, LB
Trey Flowers is quietly a big part of the reason this year's free-agent class boasts so many options for teams in need of pressure.
Flowers has been going about his job in the New England Patriots way over the last four seasons. Only 25 years old, Flowers has 6.5 or more sacks in three consecutive seasons since earning the chance to consistently get on the field.
But Flowers' true value lies elsewhere. He is receiving playing time in a Bill Belichick defense for a reason: his versatility. The University of Arkansas product is a scheme-free player who can rush from the edge and kick inside on passing downs when asked. He's also great at setting the edge against the run.
"Yeah, Trey's given us great play all year," Belichick said after the Patriots' regular-season finale against the New York Jets, per Tom Keegan of the Boston Herald. "He's a tough matchup guy. He played left end, and he also played inside today, as he does most games. He can match up on the tackles. He can match up on the guards and centers, and that gives us some flexibility with some other players as well."
If that sounds like something Belichick won't want to lose on the open market, it's true. But a franchise tag will be costly (roughly $17 million), and the market will drive Flowers' price to similar levels. Look for a monster deal if the latter happens, which will put him nicely in range to cash in again before he turns 30.
Frank Clark, DE
It is hard to imagine the Seattle Seahawks will let Frank Clark get away.
In fact, Clark is prime tag material (like Ansah and Lawrence were an offseason ago). According to an estimation from cap expert and former sports agent Joel Corry at CBS Sports, Clark's tag will check in at $17.3 million.
Clark will be worth every penny. He has only missed two games over his four seasons in the league while posting nine or more sacks three times in a row. While everyone was busy focusing on whether the Seahawks were doomed because notable names left the defense, Clark was spurring the defense toward its usual consistency while posting a career-high 13 sacks.
Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll kept it simple when asked if he wants Clark back, according to 247Sports' Derek Lewis: "I'm counting on it. Counting on it."
Should the unexpected happen, the 25-year-old defensive end who perhaps has yet to even hit his ceiling could go to market and land one of the biggest deals of the offseason.
Grady Jarrett, DT
Grady Jarrett is one of the NFL's most overlooked players.
Funnily enough, the Atlanta Falcons passed over Jarrett last offseason while the front office wrapped up long-term extensions for guys like quarterback Matt Ryan, offensive tackle Jake Matthews and safety Ricardo Allen.
It could cost the Falcons dearly.
Jarrett is one of the NFL's best interior disruptors even if he doesn't get the attention a Geno Atkins or Aaron Donald does. He's only 25 years old yet has 10 sacks over the past two seasons as he continues to improve, bucking the expectations of a 2015 fifth-round pick.
If the Falcons panic, Jarrett is looking at a tag of $15.4 million, per Corry. If he slips to the open market while the Falcons look at extensions for other guys, such as Robert Alford, his per-year price could flirt with the $20 million mark as teams bid for the services of a defensive centerpiece who could keep improving.
Jadeveon Clowney, LB
Clowney went on to appear in 15 games last year and made 16 starts the season before that. But it is understandable if the Texans were skittish to commit to a player with his injury history, which includes microfracture surgery on his right knee. That is a scary procedure for someone who relies so much on his explosiveness off the snap.
Reasons for his lack of an extension aside, Clowney will receive a massive payday. If the Texans use the franchise tag on Clowney, they may have to negotiate with his representatives about his classification. There is a noticeable financial difference in tag money between defensive ends (projected $17.3 million) and linebackers ($15.6 million).
Either way, Clowney has had good health over the last two seasons and recorded nine or more sacks in each of those campaigns. Most any team will want to give him a look. And it will cost premium dollars and then some if he makes it to the open market.
Dee Ford, LB
Thought we were done with top-tier pass-rushers?
Not with Dee Ford on the final year of his deal. The Kansas City Chiefs linebacker was a star in 2018, registering 13 sacks, which looks quite nice considering the fact that he had 10 in 2016.
But 2017 is the problem. Ford would probably have a long-term deal right now if he hadn't ended that season on injured reserve after only appearing in six games. That likely created some caution about a long-term commitment from the Chiefs.
Given recent franchise-tag trends with guys like Lawrence and Ansah, it seems like a safe bet the Chiefs will tag Ford and make him prove he can stay on the field. Production isn't the question—health is.
The Chiefs are also in an interesting position because they gave Justin Houston a six-year, $101 million contract in 2015 (an average of $16.8 million per year). It was outrageous then, and it's outdated now. That pact came after Houston's 22-sack campaign in 2014.
Whether the Chiefs want to inject so much cash into linebackers is a question worth asking, though it helps that second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes is on a rookie deal. If Ford goes to the open market, a bidding war will likely push his contract past Houston's numbers.
Earl Thomas, S
Earl Thomas is likely well on his way to being the highest-paid safety in NFL history, at least until the next star player comes along and needs a contract.
The Seahawks, barring something unexpected, aren't going to franchise-tag Thomas given how the relationship deteriorated between the two parties over the last year or so. A simple look at his gesture while he was riding a cart off the field after suffering a broken leg makes that clear.
The Seahawks haven't done much to dispel that notion.
"Uh...we will see what happens," Carroll said, according to Gregg Bell of the News Tribune. "I don't know. Yeah, I'd love... Earl's a great player. I don't know what that means for contact and all that stuff, but it's one of the issues. We've got a bunch of them."
The price tags on the league's best safeties are massive thanks to Eric Berry and the Chiefs, who inked their star to a $78 million extension in 2017. Berry is proof teams don't mind throwing boatloads of cash at a talented player at the position, nor do they mind keeping him around if he has health concerns. Berry has played just three games over the past two seasons.
While Thomas hasn't played 16 games since 2015, he missed only seven games over the two seasons prior to 2018. He's 29 and still the NFL's best. He's going to set a new benchmark for the safety market without a problem.