Free agency is seen by many fans as a get rich quick type scheme.
Instant impact players come up for grabs, sometimes coming off the best season of their careers. When this happens, they set off a bidding war for their services.
While one can’t fault the players, fans often feel as though spending big in free agency guarantees immediate on-field success. We always preach caution, but it is inevitable to see this occur every offseason.
With this in mind, we bring you ten players set to hit free agency in 2017 who have set themselves up for large paydays as a result of their on-field efforts. While not every player will pan out — many never live up to their large contracts — these players arer considered the cream of the crop for the 2017 free agent class.
Jamie Collins, outside linebacker, Cleveland Browns
Entering a contract year with the New England Patriots, outside linebacker Jamie Collins was considered by many to be one of the top players at his position.
When the Patriots traded stud pass rusher Chandler Jones to the Cardinals for a second round pick and guard Jonathan Cooper, Collins was expected to not only take over leadership of the defensive meeting rooms but was also in line for a major payday in the form of a contract extension.
Then contract talks broke down. Reports surfaced that Collins was asking for “Von Miller money,” and Bill Belichick showed us just how ruthless he is by trading Collins to the Cleveland Browns for a compensatory third round pick.
Belichick is notorious for not budging after he sets a value on a player. With young talent in the ranks, Belichick seemingly felt he could replicate Collins’ production with little issue.
Upon being traded to the NFL wastelands, Collins has played lights out in pursuit of what is looking to be a large contract in the offseason.
In 5 games since being acquired from the Patriots, Jamie Collins has 49 tackles, 2 sacks and a forced fumble.
— Ian Kenyon (@IanKenyonNFL) December 12, 2016
Collins entered the NFL Draft out of Southern Miss known more for his insane athleticism and multiple college position switches (safety to outside linebacker to defensive end) than he was for his pro outlook.
Thanks to a progression of fundamentals at outside linebacker, combined with his athleticism and fantastic coverage, Collins made his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro team in 2015 on the heels of a fantastic season in which he scored his first defensive touchdown.
At this point in the 2016 season, Collin has nabbed two interceptions, two forced fumbles, three sacks and 63 tackles while providing a major boost for a team needing leadership on the defensive side of the ball in Cleveland.
While the Browns are clearly not expected to make the playoffs this season, Collins should surpass 100 tackles on the year and be heavily courted as a free agent.
Expected Contract: Five years, $65 million
Kirk Cousins, quarterback, Washington Redskins
The forgotten player in a 2012 Redskin draft class that saw them net expected franchise star Robert Griffin III, Kirk Cousins was expected to provide a solid backup for the entirety of RGIII’s career, much like Jim Sorgi did in Indianapolis behind Peyton Manning.
Following a horrific knee injury that left Griffin a shell of his former self, Cousins took the reins of a potent Washington offense and hasn’t looked back since.
While some will argue he is a game manager, and an even rarer contingent calls for him to be replaced, Cousins has done everything asked of him and then some.
After being slapped with the franchise tag in the wake of failed contract negotiations, a solid 9-7 season and a playoff berth, Cousins has played the 2016 season on what is essentially a one-year, $20 million contract.
With Cousins directing the offense efficiently while posting wins, he puts the Redskins in a bit of a pickle. If for some reason they did want to upgrade on Cousins, his efficiency and ability to lead the team to wins has pushed the Redskins out of contention for a high draft pick.
Despite that, some would argue that Cousins will never grow as a player, leaving the Redskins as a perennial 9-7 team with a first round playoff loss.
Regardless, Cousins is the only starting quarterback slated to be available in the 2017 free agent class and will command a pretty penny if he isn’t locked up by the Redskins.
Expected contract: Five-years, $95 million
Eric Berry, safety, Kansas City Chiefs
What is there to be said about Chiefs safety Eric Berry that hasn’t already been discussed?
The former Tennessee Volunteer entered the 2010 NFL Draft as one of the most highly lauded defensive back prospects in recent memory. From his amazing Heisman Campaign videos to his multiple accolades, Berry was seen as the next great NFL safety.
While his career hasn’t been as game-changing as many expected, Berry has established himself as a top-tier safety in the league, and his comeback from Hodgkins Lymphoma is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
In a contract year with the Kansas City Chiefs, Berry single-handedly won the Atlanta Falcons game for them and has been instrumental as the heart and soul of a defense that has undergone some maj0r changes as of late.
#ArmyBowl alum Eric Berry.
— #ArmyBowl (@ArmyAllAmerican) December 4, 2016
With his multiple Pro Bowl appearances, as well as his ability to impact a game at any given moment, Berry is by far the biggest fish at defensive back in the next free agency pool.
While the Chiefs would love to extend him, making him a Chief for life, there are some key roadblocks in the way.
Chief among them, All-Pro nose tackle Dontari Poe, a fourth-year player out of Memphis who is also in a contract year (more on that later). Add in key restricted free agents such as cornerback Terrance Mitchell and you have the conundrum of who to pay and how to value them.
Regardless of whether he re-signs with the team or not (and he should), Berry will get paid big money by whichever team is signing his checks next season.
Expected Contract: Five years, $44 million
LeGarrette Blount, running back, New England Patriots
LeGarrette Blount has always been an interesting player in the NFL.
From a one-time potential top round draft pick to being suspended from his college team after one season for punching an opponent following a loss, Blount has been one of the most polarizing players around for some time.
Despite the distractions, the trades, the multitude of people who deride him, Blount has continually produced when given the chance.
Rushing at a career 4.5 yards per carry, Blount has never been a major breakaway back. That being said, he has continually been a bellcow for every offense he has been part of and has been a key part of the Patriots’ success this season.
While running backs have been devalued in this league as of late, there will always be a spot for bellcow players, especially for those as reliable as Blount.
While Blount has evolved his game since entering the league from Oregon, his endgame has, and always will be, to attack the defense on the ground and bring the game to them.
Expect him to re-sign with New England. His third-down ability has been key this year for a 39-year old Tom Brady, and we expect him to re-sign at a much more affordable price than perhaps he deserves.
Expected Contract: Three years, $17 million
Stephon Gilmore, cornerback, Buffalo Bills
When Stephon Gilmore entered the league in 2011, he was seen as a potentially elite cornerback prospect whose man-to-man skills were perfect for Buffalo to combat a Tom Brady-led Patriots offense.
Fast forward five seasons and Gilmore is considered a top-10 cornerback in the league, with Buffalo picking up his fifth-year option to give them more time to negotiate an extension.
While the on-field results have been very promising for Gilmore, he has begun to create a rift between himself and the Bills. With the emergence of rookie Kevon Seymour, Gilmore may have made himself expendable.
A result of that expendability? A major payday for the former South Carolina Gamecock star.
With a dearth of elite cornerbacks in the NFL, even average to above-average players at the position are getting paid. While Gilmore may command a pretty penny, it will be interesting to see if Buffalo drops the franchise tag on him as that could create a run at lesser cornerbacks, driving up Gilmore’s price tag.
That being said, every team in the league would be willing to pay a nice price for a top-tier 6-foot-1, 195-pound cornerback with high-end man coverage skills.
Expected contract: Four years, $47.5 million
Terrelle Pryor, wide receiver, Cleveland Browns
If there is any player who has had a more wild and twisting career than Pryor, I’ve yet to see him.
Drafted in the third-round out of Ohio State as a quarterback by the Oakland Raiders, Pryor was known as the last draft pick ever made by the late legendary owner Al Davis.
A physical specimen, Pryor is 6-foot-5, 235 pounds with 4.4 speed and a rocket arm.
Raw as one could ever be, Pryor spent most of his early career in Oakland on the bench, learning the nuances of quarterback. He finally got a chance to start and played admirably, but he never progressed as a passer and was eventually traded to the Seahawks for a seventh-round pick.
Fast forward a few years following stints in Seattle and New England, Pryor has successfully made the conversion to wide receiver leading the Browns in every major receiving category.
While it had been hoped that he would be the perfect complement to receiver Josh Gordon, with Gordon now indefinitely suspended from the league Pryor has put the team on his back and established himself as a potential No. 1 receiver in the NFL.
At only 27 years old, Pryor has just begun to hit his prime. With impending free agency looming, he must make a major choice — does he stick with a struggling Cleveland franchise or chase money and possibly a ring elsewhere?
While it is expected that he gets will get slapped with the franchise tag or extended before free agency starts, the Browns having to also potentially re-sign Jamie Collins makes this entire situation one that must be handled carefully.
That being said, Pryor has set himself up nicely for a fantastic payday, one that has been well earned.
Expected contract: Four years, $48 million
Dontari Poe, defensive tackle, Kansas City Chiefs
Dontari Poe is the best nose tackle in the NFL, when healthy. And while he has been the lynchpin of a nasty front seven group in Kansas City, the Chiefs need to make a major decision in regards to he and Eric Berry, both free agents this season.
While both Berry and Poe are key cogs in one of the best defenses in the NFL, one can argue that with the depth on defensive line in Kansas City, Poe is easier to let walk than Berry.
That being said, it’s not every day an All-Pro nose tackle hits the market.
As such, Poe is definitely going to command more money than players such as Oakland Raiders lineman Dan Williams and New York Giants lineman Damon Harrison, two top-tier nose tackles to have recently hit free agency.
That being said, neither player is on Poe’s level in regards to talent and athleticism. While Harrison is a top-five player at the position, he doesn’t have the athleticism Poe does — to be quite frank, no one does.
With his combination of freakish athleticism, brute strength and ability at one of the toughest positions in the NFL, if Poe were to walk one could be talking about Malik Jackson-type money, roughly $85 million dollars over the life of his contract.
While there are some concerns with Poe in regards to his back, when he is on the field he is an absolute game changer.
With players of his skillset an exceedingly rare commodity, Poe can have his pick of teams to play for in this league, and at the price of his choosing.
Expected contract: Six years, $70 million
Le’Veon Bell, running back, Pittsburgh Steelers
Le’Veon Bell is by far the best running back in the league, bar none.
What he has been able to do this season, following a three-game suspension while also coming off a torn ACL/PCL, is nothing short of remarkable.
With his combination of vision, burst and power, Bell has quickly become the premier player at his position in the NFL. Combined with his receiving skills, as well as pass blocking ability, and there is no more complete back in the league.
All this adds up to a massive payday for the former second-round draft pick out of Michigan State.
While the running back has begun to get devalued in the NFL, the league hasn’t seen a player with Bell’s all-around ability since prime Adrian Peterson — and Peterson wasn’t half the receiver Bell was.
Bell is unique in many ways, and thus he represents a major conundrum in regards to how much you’re willing to invest in a player that takes such a beating every week.
The devaluation of the running back position has come for obvious reasons. With the skillset of a complete back becoming increasingly rare, and with teams willing to rotate backs to limit wear and tear, they just aren’t paying big money to the position anymore.
Regardless, Bell is an extremely special case, and he will truly command big money — think top at his position big.
Younger and more well rounded than LeSean McCoy, who fetched a five-year $40 million contract, Bell should become the highest paid running back in the NFL since Adrian Peterson signed an $86 million contract, and for good reason.
Expected contract: Five years, $55 million
Chandler Jones, outside linebacker, Arizona Cardinals
When Bill Belichick traded Pro Bowl defensive end Chandler Jones to the Arizona Cardinals before the season, many minds were boggled. It seemingly made no sense.
Bill Belichick has always been known to get the maximum amount of talent out of his players — and to get rid of them before it’s too late. Very rarely does a Belichick trade backfire.
This may be one of those cases, as Jones has been having a fantastic season in Arizona with eight sacks on the year following a position change from end to linebacker.
With his position versatility, as well as his ability to both rush the passer and defend the run, Jones is a rare player to hit the free agency pool. Arguably a better player than Olivier Vernon, who fetched $85 million last offseason, Jones has done everything possible since entering the league to establish himself as a top-tier defensive player.
While he has had some small off-field issues he must work past, Jones is one of the rare players to hit free agency that has the ability to impact a game on any down.
Expect him to be paid as such.
Expected contract: Six years, $72 million
Kenny Stills, wide receiver, Miami Dolphins
Call it the curious case of Kenny Stills, as this receiver has become a bit of an oddity through the course of his career.
A deep threat in New Orleans, his speed and breakaway ability have translated to the Dolphins offense as well.
While many can argue he may never be a complete receiver, as he has been known purely for his deep threat ability, Still has made himself into a valuable part of the Miami offense.
With a skill set comparable to a prime Mike Wallace, Stills aims to be the game breaker many teams starve for in the passing game. Possessing speed and a nuance for the deep route that not many match, Stills has been incredibly productive and consistently able to make big plays down the field.
With Jarvis Landry working the underneath routes and Devante Parker developing his intermediate and red zone game, Stills has become Ryan Tannehill’s go-to breakout receiver as the season has progressed.
Only 24 years old, Stills has incredible upside and could conceivably be on his third contract by the time he turns 30.
His age, combined with his rare skill set, make him a candidate to net a nice payday this offseason.
Expected contract: Five years, $42 million