Projecting the Biggest Price Tags for This Year's NFL Free Agents

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystFebruary 1, 2019

Projecting the Biggest Price Tags for This Year's NFL Free Agents

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    NFL free agency continues to evolve since its inception 26 years ago. 

    The salary cap has risen at an astonishing rate. The status of being in salary-cap hell is basically nonexistent, and franchises are now well-prepared to provide short- and long-term financial flexibility while retaining most of their best talent. 

    But there is still plenty of money to spend.

    According to Spotrac, all 32 teams own a combined $1 billion in projected salary-cap space. The top five teams alone—the Indianapolis Colts, New York Jets, Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders—have approximately $436 million to spend. The league average sits at $35.9 million. 

    Elite performers rarely hit the open market, but that's OK. Everyone still benefits.

    Those top targets usually re-sign at market-changing prices. Those who do become available benefit once the market resets. 

    Defensive lines, in particular, are prepared to drastically shift in the coming months with multiple pass-rushers in their primes ready to cash in. 

    Only one thing hasn't really changed: Premium positions still make the most coin. 

    "It's about money," Detroit Lions cornerback Darius Slay said, per The Athletic's Tim Graham. "So offer the man the money he wants! This isn't college anymore. It's about taking care of your family."

          

10. LB C.J. Mosley

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    Rich Schultz/Associated Press

    Significant investments in off-the-ball linebackers have been a spotty proposition the last few years. 

    Jamie Collins, Luke Kuechly, Telvin Smith, Vontaze Burfict, Bobby Wagner and Alec Ogletree are the top six (in that order) highest-paid linebackers who aren't considered pass-rushers. Their contracts average between $10.9-12.5 million per season. 

    C.J. Mosley fits into the Kuechly-Smith-Wagner camp far more than the alternative. However, the Ravens are in a bit of a bind this offseason: Mosley, linebacker Terrell Suggs, team-leading receiver John Brown, top sack artist Za'Darius Smith, running back Alex Collins (restricted) and nose tackle Michael Pierce (restricted) are pending free agents.  

    "Yeah, you'd rather have C.J. back," head coach John Harbaugh said, per the Baltimore Sun's Jonas Shaffer. "There's always the give and take, of course. There are limitations with money, but C.J. wants to be back and we want him back."

    The 26-year-old defender registered 100 or more total tackles and made the Pro Bowl in four of his five seasons, and the Ravens have every intention of re-signing him if possible. 

    "I'm just not even going to entertain the possibility [of Mosley returning] right now that that wouldn't happen," Harbaugh continued. "I'll just assume that's going to happen. That's where I'm at."

    Price Tag: $12-13 million per year

9. LT Trent Brown

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    The New England Patriots took a chance when they acquired Trent Brown from the San Francisco 49ers during the 2018 offseason. A month earlier, the team's starting left tackle, Nate Solder, had signed with the New York Giants and became the game's highest-paid offensive lineman (at the time). 

    Brown, who stands 6'8", 380 pounds with 36-inch arms, had started at right tackle the previous three seasons, but the Patriots felt he could make a move to the left side. 

    "He's a very unique player with his skill set," head coach Bill Belichick said of Brown, per Forbes' Oliver Thomas. "His size is rare. His athleticism is good, but when you combine it with his size, that's rare, too. You don't see guys that big playing over there. He's very gifted."

    The massive blindside blocker hasn't allowed a single sack or quarterback hit through New England's two postseason contests, according to NBC Sports' Peter King (via Pro Football Focus). 

    At 25 years old, Brown will be the top available offensive tackle in free agency. The Patriots, meanwhile, need to worry about re-signing defensive end Trey Flowers. Plus, the team already has Brown's replacement in 2018 first-round pick Isaiah Wynn once he's healthy. 

    Price Tag: $12-14.5 million per year 

8. RB Le'Veon Bell

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Le'Veon Bell didn't sit out the entire 2018 campaign to sell himself short in free agency. 

    According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, the Pittsburgh Steelers offered two significant deals worth $12 million or more annually. The network's Aditi Kinkhabwala reported Bell and his representation sought a deal worth $17 million per season. The two sides never reached a compromise, and as a result, the running back never reported and bypassed the opportunity to earn $14.54 million under the franchise tag. 

    His season-long absence shouldn't hamper his free-agency options, though. The worry about the remaining tread on a running back's tires is real, but Bell will be fully healthy after avoiding another 400-touch campaign.

    The three-time Pro Bowl selection is a dual-threat. The 26-year-old back ran for 1,200 or more yards and caught at least 75 passes for 600 yards in three of his five seasons.

    Bell's endgame remains the same: He wants a long-term deal commensurate to his overall worth. The numbers may not reach what he reportedly seeks, but some franchise will almost certainly be willing to pay a steep price for an elite running back still in his prime. 

    Price Tag: $13-15 million per year

7. LB Dee Ford

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    David Eulitt/Getty Images

    Dee Ford can forget about the offsides penalty from the AFC Championship Game and instead concentrate on his future.

    "I've been through a lot worse things," Ford said, per ESPN.com's Jenna Laine. "I'm not trying to downplay that [offside penalty], but I've been through a lot worse things."

    NFL teams aren't going to change their entire business model based on one poor play. However, Ford's suitors may suffer some trepidation regarding his career arc. 

    An old sports adage tells everyone to be careful of individuals who perform at their very best during contract years. Ford set career highs in 2018 with 55 total tackles, 13 sacks and seven forced fumbles. He even led the league with 69 pressures, per NFL Next Gen Stats. The 2014 first-round pick's overall season grade rose 24 points above his previous best, according to Pro Football Focus

    Ford's slow development also makes him older than other available options; he turns 28 in March.

    A top pass-rusher's value has never been higher, and Ford certainly proved his value this season. How much he earns will depend on how teams view his long-term growth potential. 

    Price Tag: $14-18 million per year

6. DE Trey Flowers

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    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    Not only do the New England Patriots have to contend with the possibility of losing their starting left tackle, but the team's best pass-rusher, Trey Flowers, will also demand a significant investment, if it's even possible to retain his services. 

    "All my brothers, my teammates and things, we put in a long season, we put in a lot of work, lot of hard work, lot of meetings," Flowers told reporters during his Super Bowl availability. "So all the other things as far as whatever happens after this season, that’s going to take care of itself."

    A Patriots Super Bowl victory has the potential to clarify matters. With another championship under his belt, Flowers can put himself ahead of the team since New England isn't in a position to use the franchise tag.

    So, the 25-year-old defensive lineman will be able to entertain the highest bidders. 

    Flowers isn't a traditional edge-rusher or overpowering bull-rusher. He's a technician and provides scheme flexibility by playing multiple positions along the defensive front. His worth continues to rise with each postseason contest since he leads all edge defenders with 10 total pressures, per Pro Football Focus

    Price Tag: $15-19 million per year

5. DT Grady Jarrett

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    Steve Dykes/Getty Images

    So much attention will be placed on the edge-rushers in this year's free-agent class, yet Grady Jarrett is the real unicorn. 

    As the game evolves, the importance of an interior pass rush increases. It's not about simply applying pressure; disruptive defensive tackles have the ability to reset the pocket's depth and make life uncomfortable for opposing quarterbacks. 

    Jarrett's 10 sacks over the last two seasons may not stack up with the production seen from the Los Angeles Rams' Aaron Donald or Cincinnati Bengals' Geno Atkins, yet the 25-year-old defensive tackle is among the league's best in applying pressure. According to Pro Football Focus, the 2015 fifth-round pick finished top six among interior defenders in pass-rush win percentage, pressure percentage and third-down win percentage. 

    Those numbers place the 6'0", 305-pound defender among the league's elite.

    According to the Falcons' in-house color analyst, Dave Archer, the two sides "are not in the same ballpark" regarding Jarrett's value, per 92.9 The Game's Dukes & Bell. Archer added, "Grady's agent is asking for Aaron Donald money." 

    Jarrett likely won't receive a Donald-sized contract, but he should be the most sought-after free agent because of his rare skill set. 

    Price Tag: $16.5-19 million per year

4. DE Frank Clark

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    Norm Hall/Getty Images

    The Seattle Seahawks won't even entertain the thought of defensive end Frank Clark testing free agency and leaving the team. 

    "He ain't going anywhere," head coach Pete Carroll said in a December interview on 710 ESPN Seattle (via ESPN.com's Brady Henderson). "We're not losing him. We want to keep him around."

    Carroll doubled down on that assertion earlier this month. 

    "I'm counting on it. Counting on it," he said of Clark's possible return, per 247Sports' Derek Lewis

    According to the Seattle Times' Bob Condotta, the two sides already met to start negotiations. Clark, who finished tied for seventh in the league with 13 sacks, has developed into the focal point of the Seahawks defense. 

    Like Michael Bennett before him, the 25-year-old Clark is an inside-outside threat with his ability to crash the end or exploit mismatches along the interior. 

    The Seahawks have two options: Pay Clark an exorbitant price since he doesn't seem willing to accept a hometown discount, or slap the franchise tag on him. 

    "Frank and I are not scared of the franchise tag," said his agent, Erik Burkhardt, per Henderson

    Either way, Clark will become one of the league's highest-paid defenders. 

    Price Tag: $18-19 million per year

3. LB Jadeveon Clowney

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    The Houston Texans have made re-signing Jadeveon Clowney a priority. 

    "I think very highly of him," head coach Bill O'Brien said, per the Houston Chronicle's Aaron Wilson. "I think he's a disruptive player.

    "Jadeveon is a big part of what we've done here," he continued. "When he feels good, health-wise, and he's ready to rock-and-roll, he's hard to handle. So, we're going to work hard to try to get something done, but we'll see how it goes."

    Houston has more than $60 million in projected salary-cap space, even with J.J. Watt's $100 million and DeAndre Hopkins' $81 million. Clowney is only part of the equation, though. Safety Tyrann Mathieu and cornerback Kareem Jackson are also free agents. Furthermore, the Texans are one year away from the window opening to extend quarterback Deshaun Watson. 

    Clowney is coming off his best season, and as a result, the 2014 No. 1 overall pick earned his third straight Pro Bowl bid. At 25 years old, he's an ideal target for a max deal. 

    The Texans may not be in a position to hand out another $100 million contract, but other organizations are. 

    Price Tag: $17-20 million per year

2. DE DeMarcus Lawrence

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    Andy Jacobsohn/Associated Press

    DeMarcus Lawrence knows he's negotiating from a position of strength. 

    The Dallas Cowboys used the franchise tag on the defensive end last season, and he earned $17.1 million while tallying 10.5 sacks on his way to a second straight Pro Bowl berth. 

    At 26 years old with 25 total sacks the last two seasons, Lawrence is about to reset the defensive end market even in a loaded free-agent class. 

    But his primary goal is to remain in Dallas. 

    "I'm trying to do that long-term deal, too," Lawrence said, per NFL.com's Herbie Teope. "Just tell Stephen [Jones] to hit me up when he's ready, man. I mean, he already knows what's up with me."

    The Los Angeles Rams' Aaron Donald and Chicago Bears' Khalil Mack are the league's two highest-paid defenders after signing contract extensions last year. Lawrence should become the highest-paid pure defensive end. 

    "The Cowboys already know what it is," Lawrence said, per the Dallas Morning News' Jon Machota. "They know where I want to be. I got big goals, not just for me, but for us as a team and as an organization. So I feel freely to tell the organization, I love being a Cowboy." 

    Price Tag: $17.5-21 million per year

1. QB Nick Foles

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Technically, quarterback Nick Foles isn't a free agent. Not yet, anyhow. But he'll be treated as such for three reasons. 

    First, a $20.6 million mutual option exists on his current contract. Second, the Eagles aren't expected to pick up said option, according to Cecil Lammey of Denver's 104.3 The Fan. Third, Foles is an easy sell for quarterback-starved teams in need of an established starter.  

    Teams such as the Jacksonville Jaguars, Denver Broncos and Washington Redskins, who are built to win now, may forgo the option of drafting a first-round quarterback in favor of Foles, who will be courted as a franchise signal-caller. After all, he is the reigning Super Bowl MVP. 

    At 30 years old, he's also in his prime. 

    As such, his recent performances demand a much steeper price than the alternatives. Teddy Bridgewater, Tyrod Taylor and Joe Flacco (once released) won't garner nearly the same attention. Other organizations might attempt to make a trade for Jacoby Brissett or Nick Mullens. 

    Otherwise, Foles is the only available option a franchise can truly build around without sacrificing years of development time. Once signed, he becomes the main man. 

    Price Tag: $18-22 million per year

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