Like nothing we’ve seen in the history of the league
Money is going to fly around NFL free agency this coming offseason like nothing we’ve seen in the history of the league. The league set its projected cap at roughly $190 million for the 2019 season — an increase of 40 percent since 2014 and $13 million from this season.
This means a whole plethora of teams will be in the bidding for the best available free agents. Among those, about 10 are expected to have $60-plus million to dole out once March comes calling.
It’s in this that we check in on 10 pending NFL free agents and others set for extensions who will cash in big time because of this projected salary cap hike.
Le’Veon Bell, running back, Pittsburgh Steelers
Whether Bell’s decision to holdout for the duration of the 2018 season comes back to bite him in the back end remains to be seen. It’s possible teams will look go avoid giving him quarterback-type money. Instead, those in need at running back could look to the 2019 NFL Draft.
Even then, it’s hard to imagine running back-needy squads avoiding a sweepstakes for Bell. Prior to sitting out this season, the All-Pro back had put up 3,830 total yards and 20 touchdowns over the past two years. With the increase in next year’s cap, it would not be an absolute shock to see him earn $15-plus million annually in free agency. That would set the NFL record for running back pay around the league.
Jadeveon Clowney, EDGE, Houston Texans
As with most of the top free agents around the NFL, there’s a darn good chance Clowney will see the franchise tag thrown his direction should the two sides not come to an agreement on a long-term deal. But we’re fully expecting Houston to at least consider making him the highest-paid defender in the game.
The former No. 1 overall pick has racked up 16.5 sacks and 36 quarterback hits since the start of last season. He’s finally hitting his stride after an injury-plagued start to his career. Just 26 years old this coming March, any new contract would have to take into account projected cap increases years down the road. We certainly wouldn’t be surprised if Clowney bested the six-year, $141 million deal Khalil Mack signed with Chicago after he was acquired from Oakland back in September.
Teddy Bridgewater, quarterback, New Orleans Saints
Bridgewater has thrown exactly three regular season passes since suffering a devastating leg injury back in the summer of 2016. In no way does this mean teams won’t be searching him out in free agency come March. After all, New Orleans exhausted a valuable third-round pick to land Bridgewater from the Jets this past summer. There’s certainly some logic behind teams projecting into the future when it comes to the former first-round pick and Louisville standout.
In an NFL that has seen high-paid quarterbacks struggle to lead their teams to relevance this season, it would not be a shock if Bridgewater earned mid-tier starting quarterback money. Add in inflation, and that would be between $15-$20 million annually. Teams such as the Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Giants, Cincinnati Bengals and Washington Redskins come to mind first.
DeForest Buckner, defensive line, San Francisco 49ers
Lesser known than others in this article, Buckner has All-Pro and Defensive Player of the Year honors in his future. Thus far this season, the former top-10 pick has racked up 49 tackles, nine sacks and 16 quarterback hits from the interior of San Francisco’s defensive line.
We’ve seen just how important this type of pass rush has been with Aaron Donald in Los Angeles. It earned him a whopping new contract this past summer. While not yet at Donald’s level, it’s all about future projection here. Eligible for an extension after this season, we’re fully expecting the 49ers to hand out $100-plus million to Buckner on a long-term deal. The new cap projections magnify this even further.
Ezekiel Elliott, running back, Dallas Cowboys
Elliott is likely going to benefit more than any other young running back from the four-year, $56.5 million extension Todd Gurley signed with the Los Angeles Rams this past summer. The two are comparable in so many ways — bringing the NFL to a new era of dual-threat running backs and MVP candidates at this position.
Some might focus on Elliott’s off-field issues. That’s fine. Hopefully they were isolated. But when it comes to what this former NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year brings to the table, it’s absolutely ridiculous. He’s already gained a league-best 1,764 total yards this season. Eligible for an extension once the offseason comes calling and taking into account inflation, it would not be a shock to see Elliott paid to the tune of $70-plus million on a five-year extension.
Frank Clark, defensive end, Seattle Seahawks
As with Elliott, there are some off-field concerns here. But as we’ve seen around the NFL, a lot of those issues are swept under the rug when a player is performing at a high level. A second-round pick of the Seahawks back in 2015, the 25-year-old Clark has dominated in the Pacific Northwest since the start of last season. He’s tallied 39 quarterback hits and 20 sacks during that span. To put this into perspective, Khalil Mack has 34 quarterback hits and 20.5 sacks since the start of last season.
Seattle has been very hesitant to offer up extensions prior to players hitting their contract years. With Clark, that’s not going to be an issue. He’s set to hit free agency in March and will be a highly sought-after commodity. Based on market dynamics and the new cap projections, a deal near what the Bears handed Mack could make sense. It’s all about supply and demand. Supply for edge pass rushers isn’t high in the NFL. Demand certainly is.
Jared Goff, quarterback, Los Angeles Rams
This is where we get into the nuts and bolts of the new cap projections. It starts and ends at the quarterback position. Sure Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott will be in line for new contracts when they become eligible with Goff this offseason. Even then, both have some concerns. Wentz is coming off a torn ACL. Meanwhile, Prescott has regressed since a stellar rookie season.
The same can’t be said for Goff. He’s remained healthy throughout his young NFL career and was playing the best football of his career until a four-interception performance against Chicago last week. Even then, the Rams will back up the Brinks truck for their former No. 1 overall pick come spring time. We’re looking at a Jimmy Garoppolo-type extension with more cash flow down the road. Based on how the quarterback market has reset itself multiple times over the past two years, something to the tune of five years and $160 million would sense for this young signal caller.
Demarcus Lawrence, defensive end, Dallas Cowboys
Talk about being a beast. Simply due to the star power in Big D, Lawrence doesn’t necessarily garner a ton of attention. In no way does this mean he’s not among the Cowboys’ top all-around talents. Playing under the franchise tag this season, the 26-year-old former Boise State star has racked up 19 quarterback hits and 9.5 sacks. Since the start of the 2017 season, he actually has more sacks than a player in Denver named Von Miller.
For the Cowboys, it’s going to be all about priorities this offseason. They can kick the Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott contract situations down the road. At the very least, one of those youngsters could enter 2019 in a contract season. It’s not as sustainable to have Lawrence play under the franchise tag for a second consecutive season. Look for him to nearly reset the defensive market as we know it.
Jalen Ramsey, cornerback, Jacksonville Jaguars
It might not be with the Jaguars, but we’re fully expecting Ramsey to become the highest-paid cornerback in NFL history this coming March. The boisterous cover man is among the best players at his position and has been since entering the league back in 2016. No amount of trash talk and drama is going to lead to other teams avoiding signing him to a huge contract should Jacksonville trade the youngster.
Ramsey, 24, has racked up 41 passes defended and nine interceptions in 45 career games. He’s played hurt at times and continues to come up big when it counts the most. Josh Norman reset the cornerback market with a five-year, $75 million deal in Washington well over two years ago. That’s going to be peanuts compared to what Ramsey receives. Look for $90 million over the same amount of time —creating a windfall for other cornerbacks set for extensions or free agent contracts down the road.
Michael Thomas, wide receiver, New Orleans Saints
Historically speaking, Thomas has had one of the best three-year stretches for a wide receiver to start his career in league history. He enters Week 15 having put up 102 receptions for 1,218 yards and eight touchdowns. The kid has also caught a ridiculous 86.4 percent of the passes thrown in his direction. Jerry Rice never caught higher than 74 percent of his targets in a single season.
At just 25 years old, Thomas likely has two more long-term contracts in his future. That’s going to start this coming offseason on a deal that will far surpass the five-year, $90 million extension Odell Beckham Jr. signed with the Giants. In fact, Thomas will likely become the NFL’s first $100-million receiver. The new cap projection pretty much guarantees this.