Ranking the Top NFL Free Agents in the 2019 Class

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistJanuary 21, 2019

Ranking the Top NFL Free Agents in the 2019 Class

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    Michael Wyke/Associated Press

    The 2019 NFL free-agent class is a top-heavy affair dominated by defenders. 

    And like the league's constantly evolving defenses, the class itself should only keep morphing in the coming months as teams dole out tags and players put ink to contracts. 

    But for now, the full-blown class is worth a raise of the eyebrow. A pair of potential Hall of Famers sits in the top three, while defenders who can apply pressure on passers from all angles and downs make up most of the top 10. 

    A combination of positional skill, importance to their units, age, injury history and estimated dollar amount if a bidding war erupts or a tag goes out factor into the equation. 

    These are the top 10 names (and a few runners-up) about to hit the market.

        

Honorable Mentions

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    C.J. Mosley, LB, Baltimore Ravens: Inside thumpers don't get the splashy headlines anymore. But Mosley could be the next great Baltimore Ravens linebacker. He's only 26, superb on the field and a vocal leader, making him one of the best in his class. 

    Tyrann Mathieu, S, Houston Texans: Fresh off delivering big on a one-year deal, Mathieu should cash in on a major pact. He is also just 26 years old and one of the league's better defensive backs. 

    Lamarcus Joyner, S, Los Angeles Rams: Joyner wasn't a major star in 2018, but his long history of versatility makes him an intriguing option. He has star potential in the right situation. 

    Golden Tate, WR, Philadelphia Eagles: One of the top wideouts in the class also happens to be one of the most underrated. Tate is reliable on the field, hardly misses time and has plenty left in the tank at 30 years old. 

    Teddy Bridgewater, QB, New Orleans Saints: Bridgewater is the headliner of a weak quarterback class. That isn't meant to discredit him—Bridgewater is still only 26 and seems well past his devastating 2016 knee injury, meaning he still has upside as a starter. 

    Nick Foles, QB, Philadelphia Eagles: Foles could be a free agent, but that hinges on the outcome of his mutual option with the Eagles. If he does become available, he'd be the top free-agent quarterback on the market. 

10. Landon Collins, S, New York Giants

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Scarcity of high-level safety play is one of the bigger reasons the New York Giants' Landon Collins sits in the top 10. 

    That isn't meant to knock Collins. While he has regressed slightly numberswise since 2016, when he posted 125 total tackles and five interceptions (both career highs), he is still only 25 years old and missed four games a season ago. 

    And though the draft has produced some superb safety prospects lately—with Derwin James and Jessie Bates leading the charge in 2018—guys who can patrol everywhere and keep up with today's passing attacks are still rare. 

    For his part, Collins wants to stick with the Giants—even if that means playing under the franchise tag.

    "Would I play on it? I got no choice but to play on it," Collins said, according to Tom Rock of Newsday. "But it's not a big concern of mine. I know what I'm capable of. Hopefully we can work something out before that, but if not, franchise it is. I'd just have to continue proving myself."

    If Collins does slip to the market, the long line of bidders and final numbers on the contract he inks will say it all. The combination of proven statistics and remaining upside at a critical position are too important to pass up. 

9. Dee Ford, LB, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    Kansas City Chiefs pass-rusher Dee Ford is a risky player with upside and is about to make boatloads of cash—and he won't be the last on this list to fit that description. 

    Pressure is king in the NFL, so the fact that Ford had 25 sacks over his last three seasons despite missing 11 games (mostly because of a back injury) will have teams kicking and elbowing to the front of the line. 

    After all, Ford is only 27 years old, and over those three years, he's hit double-digit sacks twice. And it's not like he's slowing down: according to NFL.com's Next Gen Stats, Ford's strip-sack in the divisional round against the Indianapolis Colts was his 11th turnover-creating pressure of the season. 

    Ford is a clear candidate for a franchise tag. That would let the Chiefs see if he can stay on the field for another full season before they agree to a long-term pact. 

    Should Ford enter the market fray, he would likely end up with one of the bigger contracts of the top 10, even though he's not a big name. Teams won't hold back in light of his upside and ability to change games.

8. Ezekiel Ansah, DE, Detroit Lions

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Ezekiel Ansah is another massive risk. 

    After Ansah's 12-sack campaign in 2017, the Detroit Lions hit the 2013 top-five pick with a franchise tag and only got four sacks over seven games. 

    Not that this was any surprise to Detroit. Though flashing almost unlimited upside, Ansah had ankle and shoulder issues in 2016 and knee and back issues in 2017. The aforementioned 12 sacks don't look as great when you consider nine of those came over just three games. 

    And yet, we are talking about a top-five pick who doesn't turn 30 years old until May. If he can get his body right, Ansah could get back to being the guy who once recorded 14.5 sacks in a season, which also happens to be the last time he played in a full 16 games (2015). 

    Maybe Ansah will never be that guy again. But his ability in a key area will have teams opening the checkbooks once some of the names ranked above him sign.

7. Trey Flowers, DE, New England Patriots

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Trey Flowers might be the least recognizable name on the list, which is fitting given his workmanlike duties with the New England Patriots under Bill Belichick

    Flowers, 25, is a nice fourth-round success story who sets the edge well against the run, plays multiple spots and can get after quarterbacks. Not only has Flowers recorded 21 sacks over the last three seasons—with no fewer than 6.5 during a campaign—he also notched 65 total pressures over the last two years, per Pro Football Focus

    It's unclear how much the market will pay for his services. His numbers are good, and the roles he plays are even better, but sometimes the speed-rushers who do little else get the bigger contracts. 

    Maybe that will cause Flowers to remain with the Patriots. Maybe not. But he's a budding and a cornerstone, which will be true no matter where he ends up.

6. Frank Clark, DE, Seattle Seahawks

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Speaking of 25-year-old quarterback-nightmares personified, Frank Clark is on his way to market if the Seattle Seahawks don't do something about it. 

    Clark posted a career-high 13 sacks in 2018, meaning he has 35 over four seasons and, throwing out his rookie year, a stellar 32 over three seasons. That's consistency few can claim—both on this list and among pass-rushers overall. 

    To make it all the more impressive, Clark says elbow issues meant he only played at 60 percent this past season, per Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times. That same report says the Seahawks and their star end have been talking about a new contract, too. 

    Clark's financial outlook is fantastic regardless of his elbows. Presumably, he'll regress. But given how his last three seasons have unfolded—never mind the fact that Seattle lost most of the big names around him while he exploded—the regression should be tiny.

5. Jadeveon Clowney, LB, Houston Texans

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    Michael Wyke/Associated Press

    Jadeveon Clowney at one point looked like a risky investment. 

    The pass-rusher had microfracture surgery on his right knee in December 2014. He followed it up with a knee operation last offseason, and both procedures made his outlook regarding a second NFL contract cloudy

    Yet here we are 15 games and nine sacks later. 

    Clowney has 29 sacks over 62 contests and will turn 26 years old in February. The 2014 No. 1 overall pick looks like a prime franchise tag candidate for the Houston Texans, yet the front office has plenty of other contracts to worry about this offseason and only so much cap space

    Open market or otherwise, Clowney's strong attendance rate over the past four seasons combined with his productivity means he will land one of the bigger pass-rusher contracts in league history. Teams won't hesitate to throw something like three years plus an option for a fourth on the table, carrying him into another chance at a major payday around age 30. 

    And deservedly so, as few can match his game-changing upside.

4. Demarcus Lawrence, DE, Dallas Cowboys

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Demarcus Lawrence played well under the franchise tag, regressing slightly to 10.5 sacks from 14.5 in 2017. But it isn't enough of a dip for teams to care much, and it's only one stat. 

    The 26-year-old provides game-altering pressure, and the market will likely prioritize Lawrence over any other pass-rusher because of his lack of a serious injury history, budding consistency and remaining upside. For context, he's pressured quarterbacks 142 times over the last two seasons, per PFF

    The Dallas Cowboys might let him get away if they don't slap another tag on him. With long-term contract concerns such as quarterback Dak Prescott and wide receiver Amari Cooper on the table, the team could consider saving cash and spending a draft asset on a committee approach to replace Lawrence's production. 

    Wherever he lands, Lawrence seems the safest bet on this list to keep consistently hitting double-digit sack production, which would justify a steep asking price.

3. Le'Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Phelan M Ebenhack/Associated Press

    It isn't often a potential Hall of Famer makes it to the open market in the middle of his prime, but nothing about Le'Veon Bell's situation is normal. 

    Bell's refusal to report to the Pittsburgh Steelers in a season-long holdout is about as unique as his running style. Many have tried to emulate it since he entered the league in 2013, yet few can match his skills.

    NFL.com's Chris Wesseling explained it best: "Bell succeeds with a sixth sense, bypassing vanishing holes in favor of ones that have yet to open. He harbors implicit trust in his offensive line, believing that a potential crease will materialize even as unexpected flashes of color threaten to shut it down."

    The proof is there. Bell has had a trio of 1,200-plus rushing-yard seasons, and he's scored eight or more rushing touchdowns in three of his five campaigns. Keep in mind he only appeared in six games in 2015. He's rushed for 291 first downs on 1,229 attempts and averaged 4.3 yards per carry. 

    While we're at it, he's also tallied 2,660 yards as a receiver on 312 catches and averaged a superb 8.5 yards per grab. 

    Keep in mind Bell has had a year away to heal and will only turn 27 in February. While plenty of running backs can run well, few can change an offense the way he does. In fact, the only thing stopping him from ranking No. 1 outright is the state of his position. 

2. Grady Jarrett, DT, Atlanta Falcons

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Edge pressure is great. 

    Interior pressure is even better. 

    And Grady Jarrett could be a household name by the end of free agency. He has improved every year since he entered the NFL via the fifth round in 2015, registering 10 of his 14 career sacks over the past two seasons with the Atlanta Falcons. He created 135 pressures last year alone, per PFF. 

    Talent like Grady's, who's set in the Aaron Donald mold, is still rare, and it changes the complexion of an entire defense. As opposed to coaches needing to send extra guys on the blitz, such a player leaves more bodies to defend against the pass. And that unorthodox pressure up the middle isn't something quarterbacks have to deal with often.

    Not only is it hard to throw over the head of a backpedaling offensive lineman, but getting flushed left or right into the waiting arms of defensive ends stings just as much. 

    In short, Jarrett is a rare commodity and does his job better than most. He is only 25 years old, and there's a chance he hasn't reached his ceiling yet, so teams will pay for both his remaining potential alongside the unique productivity. 

1. Earl Thomas, S, Seattle Seahawks

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Remember the scarcity chat regarding Collins? Apply it to surefire Hall of Famer Earl Thomas

    Thomas has spent most of his career as the NFL's premier safety, and it would be easier to list what he doesn't do well than what he does. But mostly, his brilliant ability to diagnose what an offense is doing and use elite range to create turnovers is Ed Reed-esque.

    Traditional stats don't tell the whole story regarding Thomas, whose sheer skill at a position that isn't as highly valued as others is unique. But his 664 tackles, 10 forced fumbles and 28 interceptions since he joined the league in 2010 don't hurt. 

    Neither did a deep dive from ForbesMatt Ufford, who illustrated how many high-level safeties haven't suffered ill effects after turning 30: 

    From age 28 to age 34, Ed Reed posted seven consecutive seasons with an AV of at least 11, leading the league in picks at age 30 and 32. Starting at age 31, Brian Dawkins finished with an AV of 10 or more in five of the next six seasons. John Lynch finished a Hall of Fame career with the Bucs by age 32, then signed with the Broncos and made four straight Pro Bowls. Even [Troy] Polamalu, whose career declined more quickly than many of these all-time greats, posted an AV of nine in his penultimate season, at age 32.

    NFL teams have this data and more, so Thomas' standing as the top free agent isn't in dispute. He'll turn 30 in May, and while he missed seven games over the two seasons before he broke his leg in 2018, past data points at the position and Thomas' skill make him a player every team should covet.

                

    Free-agent data and contract info courtesy of Spotrac. Stats courtesy of ESPN.