NFL Free Agency: An Early Look at Players Poised for Mega 2020 Paydays
As Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards said, you play to win the game, but veterans also want adequate compensation. Among players, there are two goals: victories and cash.
NFL players will use negotiating tactics and leverage to push for a pay raise. On a basic level, veterans must accrue three years of service before they're eligible for an extension. Beyond that, production and, in some cases, a threat to hold out will lead to a new deal. Running back Le'Veon Bell took his stance a step further and missed an entire season for long-term financial security.
Free agency rewards talents for their hard work and dedication to the game. This offseason, defensive end Trey Flowers signed a massive five-year, $90 million pact with the Detroit Lions. Safety Landon Collins inked a six-year, $84 million contract with the Washington Redskins. Quarterback Nick Foles raked in $50.1 million in guarantees from the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Who's primed for a mega payday in 2020?
We'll look at every position group and predict the top veterans likely to hit the open market. The list doesn't include players in active negotiations with their teams, those with the franchise tag since they're able to sign long-term contracts before the July 15 deadline, or 2016 first-rounders because of a fifth-year option that extends their rookie deals through the 2020 campaign.
Quarterback: Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Since he accepted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers head-coaching position, Bruce Arians has expressed confidence in Jameis Winston's talent, though he'd like to see better decisions made in the pocket, per ESPN.com's Jenna Laine.
"No pressure, no pressure whatsoever," Arians said. "I want him to relax and play the game. Talent is no issue. It's just becoming a little bit smarter."
Arians could stabilize Winston's production and help the 25-year-old earn a lucrative new deal. The No. 1 overall pick from the 2015 draft has shown flashes of his arm talent over the last four years, but he's been unable to sustain progress.
As the Arizona Cardinals' head coach from 2013 to 2017, Arians oversaw passing offenses ranked 15th or better in all five seasons—top-10 in two of them. As a play-caller, the 66-year-old orchestrated potent passing attacks with Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh and Andrew Luck in Indianapolis. He also worked with Carson Palmer at the tail end of his career.
Arians' proven track record provides optimism for Winston's future. Starting quarterbacks rarely hit the open market. The Buccaneers signal-caller is in the final year of his deal with extensive experience under center. If he shows moderate improvement, Tampa Bay would likely have to offer a deal commensurate with starting passers. On the market, a team may be willing to invest in his talented arm.
Contract Prediction: four years, $90 million
Running Back: Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers
Although Los Angeles Chargers general manager Tom Telesco made it known the team plans to extend running back Melvin Gordon, he says there's no timetable to open talks on a new deal, per the Los Angeles Times' Jeff Miller. "We've got [Gordon] and a number of other guys that we'll look at extending at some point," Telesco said. "I don't have a timetable on those guys."
Gordon is the top running back set to hit free agency. In today's league, tailbacks have to check three boxes to be considered top-notch contributors: ball-carrier, pass-catcher and pass-protector. Gordon can perform those duties adequately and give a little extra. He's logged double-digit total touchdowns in each of the last three seasons.
Gordon can handle the bulk of the carries and split out wide as a receiver. He's a mismatch against linebackers in the short passing game and moves well in space. Although the two-time Pro Bowler isn't on Todd Gurley's level in terms of workload and yards from scrimmage, his skill set is similar. As a result, expect him to sign a deal comparable to the Los Angeles Rams running back.
Contract Prediction: four years, $59 million
Wide Receiver: Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints
When you think about the New Orleans Saints, quarterback Drew Brees and head coach Sean Payton come to mind. The two joined forces in 2006, and the signal-caller has become the face of the franchise. Consequently, wideout Michael Thomas has flown under the radar.
Thomas almost seems underrated. He's logged 1,100-plus yards in three consecutive seasons and led the league in receptions (125) with an 85 percent catch rate last year. Soon, he'll garner the spotlight as one of the highest-paid at his position.
According to Over the Cap, the Saints have $8.8 million in cap space. The front office needs room to sign rookies and possible late offseason additions to fill roster gaps. Thomas will likely wait for his extension, but when it's time to strike a deal, he's going to break the bank.
Since Thomas entered the league in 2016, he lists fifth in receiving yards (3,787). Regardless of who's under center for the Saints in the 2020 campaign, the signal-caller will need a reliable threat able to line up inside and outside. Thomas fits the bill.
Contract Prediction: five years, $92 million
Tight End: Eric Ebron, Indianapolis Colts
It's amazing how a year of high production can change a player's career trajectory. Detroit selected Eric Ebron 10th overall in the 2014 draft, but he underachieved at his first stop in the NFL, logging just one touchdown reception in two of four seasons with the Lions.
Ebron signed a two-year, $13 million deal with the Colts in March 2018, and he eclipsed his career touchdown total of 11 in one year with his new squad (13). Over the course of a season, the fifth-year veteran became a Pro Bowler and scoring machine.
If quarterback Andrew Luck stays healthy, Ebron could provide an encore presentation. In that scenario, he would outperform his contract and earn recognition as one of the premier pass-catching tight ends in the league.
While it's a bit excessive to compare Ebron to Travis Kelce or Zach Ertz after one standout season, he'll certainly command top dollar from a pass-heavy club. The Colts ranked second in throwing attempts in 2018.
Because Hunter Henry missed the entire 2018 term, Ebron could have an edge on him for the biggest deal on the market among tight ends if he's impressive in 2019.
Contract Prediction: four years, $37 million
Center: Cody Whitehair, Chicago Bears
Even though Cody Whitehair earned Pro Bowl honors at center in 2018, Chicago Bears head coach Matt Nagy is open to flipping him and James Daniels on the interior. The latter would move to the pivot, per the Chicago Tribune's Brad Biggs.
"If the Bears switch the players' positions, they will do so early in the offseason—maybe right from the jump, because coach Matt Nagy believes in the quarterback and center working together," Biggs wrote. "They don't want to be switching back and forth."
Coaches value versatility at every position, and it's a coveted trait on the open market among interior offensive linemen. The ability to shift players to compensate for injuries or poor performances goes a long way toward solidifying the front line.
Whitehair lined up at multiple positions across the offensive line at Kansas State and then shifted to center with the Bears. He developed a strong bond with quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, which improved his play, per The Athletic's Kevin Fishbain.
"It takes time off the field to really get to know each other and feel each other out, if you will," Whitehair said. "Then when you get on the field, the trust is higher, and you can play at a higher level when you're on the same page all the time."
In three seasons, Whitehair has allowed just four sacks, and he committed only three penalties last year—down from eight in 2017, according to STATS (via the Washington Post). He's a talent on the rise who's adaptable and durable; the third-year pro has yet to miss a game in his pro career.
If Whitehair moves to guard, he'll likely see a bump in salary. The top five guards bank more than $11 million per year; Mitch Morse is the only center who earns that amount, per Spotrac.
Contract Prediction: five years, $62 million
Defensive End: Yannick Ngakoue, Jacksonville Jaguars
Yannick Ngakoue isn't the most reliable edge-setter, but he's a consistent disruptor near the pocket. He's logged 29.5 sacks in three seasons with the Jaguars. Since coming into the league in 2016, the Maryland product is tied for 10th in the category.
Sacks will always outweigh run defense in impact on the edge, especially at Ngakoue's production rate. He's a major part of the Jaguars' attack-style defense, but if the Pro Bowl pass-rusher prices himself out of Jacksonville, several suitors would line up to sign him to a long-term deal.
Over the last two seasons, Calais Campbell led the Jaguars defensive line in sacks, but the front office should do everything possible to keep Ngakoue under contract as his pass-rush partner goes into his age-33 term.
Typically, top edge-rushers don't hit the open market. If Ngakoue's sack rate remains steady, he's a candidate for the franchise tag with a shot at a long-term deal, pending the Jaguars' cap situation.
In March, Trey Flowers signed the biggest salary among non-franchise-tagged players in terms of total dollar amount at $90 million. Ngakoue could top that figure next year.
Contract Prediction: five years, $93 million
Linebacker: Myles Jack, Jacksonville Jaguars
Myles Jack, another Jaguars defender, will command high-end compensation on the open market. Initially, he lined up on the outside, but then he moved to the middle to replace Paul Posluszny, who retired after the 2017 campaign.
The UCLA product doesn't post big sack numbers or provide a major impact in pass defense like his teammate Telvin Smith on the weak side, but he can play all three linebacker positions. Myles is also capable of taking the field in any down-and-distance scenario; the third-year pro played 100 percent of the defensive snaps in 2018.
Off-ball linebackers aren't high earners compared to outside linebackers who rush the passer, but the Jaguars defense was a staple to their success in a run to the 2017 AFC Championship Game. Despite a disappointing 5-11 season in 2018, the unit still ranked fourth in points allowed. Team brass must keep the core of the group together.
Jacksonville could let a defender walk with Ngakoue and cornerback Jalen Ramsey eligible for extensions. Myles will garner a long-term offer from the Jaguars or another squad in need of a versatile second-level defender who covers the length of the field.
Contract Prediction: four years, $58 million
Cornerback: Byron Jones, Dallas Cowboys
In 2015, Byron Jones' career started at cornerback. He moved to safety during the 2016 and 2017 terms and then moved back to the perimeter in 2018 and earned Pro Bowl honors. The fourth-year defensive back doesn't force many turnovers ( two career interceptions), but he can blanket a pass-catcher on the outside.
Last season, Jones finished with a career-high 14 pass breakups. Although tackling is overlooked in favor of interceptions at the position, the Connecticut product isn't reluctant to help out in run defense.
Jones struggled with penalties last season, particularly pass interference and illegal use of hands, but position stability with a high-level coach in Kris Richard should help his growth. The 26-year-old could have his best year this coming season.
The Dallas Cowboys have a list of stars to pay this year, including quarterback Dak Prescott, wide receiver Amari Cooper and running back Ezekiel Elliott, who's eligible for an extension. Jones may cash in with another team flush with cap space in 2020.
Contract Prediction: five years, $70 million
Safety: Kevin Byard, Tennessee Titans
Over the last two years, safety Kevin Byard has flashed the ball-hawking skills that put him on the radar as a collegian. The Middle Tennessee State product tied Lions cornerback Darius Slay for the most interceptions (eight) during the 2017 campaign; he followed up with four picks last season.
Byard profiles as the ideal deep safety who's able to read and adjust to the quarterback. He's a major component of the Titans' stingy pass defense, which finished third in touchdowns allowed in 2018.
This year, teams rewarded safeties on the open market. Tyrann Mathieu and Landon Collins signed contracts worth $14 million annually. Earl Thomas missed 19 games over the last three seasons but still inked a four-year, $55 million deal going into his age-30 term.
In his prime, with strong ball-tracking skills, Byard should be able to command a top-figure salary that matches or surpasses Mathieu's and Collins' annual payouts. He has an All-Pro season on his resume and leads the league in interceptions since 2017.
Contract Prediction: four years, $58 million