Welcome to the 2018 NFL season.
Free agency usually isn’t the National Football League’s soup du jour, but it’s coming nonetheless. Well before the NFL Draft commences on April 26, teams will have a chance to address their needs via free agency. And there are no shortage of players who should see their wages rise as a result. From Kirk Cousins — expected to sign the largest deal in NFL history — to more unknown stars like left guard Andrew Norwell, there are plenty of marquee players about to hit the open market. Here are 14 who will break the bank.
Kirk Cousins, quarterback
Cousins is in the same position Matthew Stafford was just a year ago: the best quarterback in a characteristically lackluster free agent class (not counting Drew Brees, who is sure to re-up with the New Orleans Saints) and ready to reap the rewards. The astronomical amount of money about to head Cousins’ way is more a product of that position than anything he’s done on the field.
Cousins is capable — he’s thrown for over 4,000 yards three straight years with a fairly low interception rate, though his adjusted net yards per attempt saw a significant drop between this year and last. But he’s no star, ranking middle of the pack in DVOA and DYAR. The fact remains: most NFL teams still need a quarterback of Cousins’ stature (at least) to compete for the playoffs. Most don’t have one. All are willing to blow their budget in order to get one, especially those who may not have their pick of top quarterbacks in the draft. Cousins is in position to grab the largest contract in NFL history as a result.
Case Keenum, quarterback
The only thing keeping Keenum from being in Cousins’ financial position is pedigree. By the eye test and stats alike, Keenum wasn’t just better than Cousins in 2017, the contest wasn’t especially close.
Keenum turned the ball over less (and at a lower rate), averaged more adjusted net yards per attempt, and had a higher passer rating. Though he threw for less yardage, Keenum led all quarterbacks in DVOA and ranked top-five in DYAR. Was he a product of Pat Shurmur’s system? Sure, but it would be fallacy to suggest Cousins wasn’t a product of Jay Gruden’s. The fact that Cousins has an extra two years of success will give him more money than Keenum, but it’s never a bad thing to be a good quarterback on the open market. Keenum should be handsomely rewarded.
Drew Brees, quarterback
Brees is 39 years old and technically not yet a free agent because the Saints need to decline a club option. Given that the option would hand Brees $44 million and create $18 million in dead cap, declining it feels like a safe enough bet to include him here.
Either way, it would be truly shocking to see Brees playing home games anywhere other than the Superdome next season. It would be equally shocking to see him without a humungous salary. This one is pretty simple. Brees led the league in yards per attempt last year while quarterbacking one of the best offenses in football. He’s the most recognizable person in Saints history, holds every club record that exists and probably a few more that don’t. He’s one of the best quarterbacks ever and gives the Saints a reasonable shot at title contention just by showing up. Brees will finish his career in New Orleans and be paid well to do it.
Le’Veon Bell, running back
Bell has an injury history and doesn’t shy away from controversy (at least by the NFL’s draconian standards). He’s also a top-five running back in football and will be 26 years old next season.
Bell had 1,946 yards from scrimmage in 2017 and it was considered a down year. Along with Alvin Kamara, he’s the best pass-catching running back in the league, an ability that can change a team’s entire offense. It looks like he’s open to suitors (other than the New York Jets) and there isn’t a team in football that would be made better by having him. Bell is one of the most unique talents out there. He’s going to get paid.
Dion Lewis, running back
The only thing Lewis had to do this year was stay healthy. He did, and more. Lewis averaged five yards per carry and was a dynamic receiving threat for the Patriots all year. The counting numbers don’t make your eyes pop because he shared a backfield, but Lewis is one of the most coldly efficient running backs in football. There are times where it’s almost impossible to tackle him behind the line of scrimmage, regardless of how poor the blocking might have been.
Lewis led all running backs in DYAR and ranked second in DVOA this season, notching successful runs on 56 percent of his carries. Compared to Bell or Saquon Barkley — slated to go high in the first round of the draft — Lewis will be a bargain-bin player, but that doesn’t mean he won’t get his money. Expect him to do just that — and be a star wherever he goes.
Jarvis Landry, wide receiver
Landry probably doesn’t deserve the money about to come his way. Though he led the league in receptions last season, Landry averaged just 8.8 yards per catch and struggles to do much outside of the screen game. He was nearly outside the top-60 of receivers in DVOA, a good reflection of his impact.
However, there’s a thin crop of receivers hitting free agency this season. Landry probably isn’t the best, but he’ll be regarded as such because of the perception that exists of him as a star. It only takes one team to talk themselves into Landry as a difference-maker and it’s an easy bet somebody will do just that.
Andrew Norwell, left guard
Norwell is the best offensive lineman to hit free agency this offseason and it isn’t close. The 26-year old earned his first All-Pro nod this past season, though he had been playing at that level for quite a while. Norwell has been one of the most consistent elements of a Carolina line that also includes stars in Ryan Kalil and Trai Turner on the interior.
At age 26, with virtually no injury history since coming into the league, Norwell will fetch a hefty price. It’s rare that guards sign huge deals — those are normally reserved for tackles. But Norwell is one of few at the position that truly deserves a big contract. It would be surprising to see anything else..
Ziggy Ansah, defensive end
It’s worth being somewhat skeptical of Ansah’s 12 sacks this season when he only had 21.5 pressures, per Football Outsiders. He’s not a great run defender and, though his pass rushing numbers are good, they are far from great.
However, Ansah is in his prime — next season will be his age-29 year — and plays what is arguably the most valuable position in the league other than quarterback. Spotrac calculates his market value at $13.2 million annually, which is on small sum of money. Given that the Lions have a need to keep him — Detroit has no pass rush at all without Ansah — he’ll probably see that green.
Demarcus Lawrence, defensive end
Lawrence was the NFL’s breakout star on defense this season and now he gets to reap the reward, and maybe even roll around in it Scrooge McDuck-style if he so chooses. After putting up 14.5 sacks and a league-leading 57 pressures, per Football Outsiders, Lawrence hits the open market prior to turning age 26, a chunk of his prime still up for grabs. He not only plays a valued position, but does so in a year where there aren’t many star edge rushers available in free agency.
Whether it’s the Cowboys or another team, somebody will put an essentially blank check in front of Lawrence and he probably deserves it. It’s hard to come up with another edge rusher who undisputedly outplayed Lawrence as a pass rusher last season. He’ll be paid accordingly.
Nigel Bradham, linebacker
Bradham isn’t a superstar, but the 28-year old is a distinguished veteran who started on a Super Bowl-winning defense last season. He can play middle or outside linebacker and play both positions well, functioning as a solid player in coverage who can play decent run defense when asked.
Bradham won’t be paid in the same ballpark as some of the other members of this list. But 61 tackles and eight passes defensed last season is nothing to sneeze at in terms of statistical output. He will provide an instant boost to whatever defense he plays for next season. Likely, he’ll do so after earning a raise.
Preston Brown, linebacker
Brown is another middle linebacker who just makes his team better. He’s a ruthlessly efficient tackler, having only seven of them broken last season, per Football Outsiders, while notching 84 tackles in total. Brown can also play sideline-to-sideline in pass defense — watch any Bills game from the last handful of seasons and you’ll notice him consistently near the action.
Like Bradham, Brownn’s new contract won’t break the bank. That’s the reality of being a non-All Pro at linebacker. But he should see a nice uptick from the $1.7 million Buffalo paid him last season.
Trumaine Johnson, cornerback
Johnson might be the only player on this list whose salary will decline next season. He was franchise tagged by the Rams last offseason and earned an astronomical $16.7 million this season, a valuation unlikely to hold. Johnson had a good, but not great season, but won’t be worth tagging again.
That being said, he’s still a reliable corner on what was a great defense last season. Johnson is only 28 and still has time left as a top-end player. There’s no reason he shouldn’t sign a longer-term deal this offseason. If he does, Johnson’s contract will still be for quite a large amount of money even after the pay cut.
Kyle Fuller, cornerback
Fuller turning into a star after a debacle of a rookie season in 2014 and an injury that forced him to miss the entirety of 2016 is truly incredible. The former first-round pick had a 64 percent success rate and allowed just 5.8 yards per pass on 110 targets this season, per Football Outsiders, superstar numbers.
Given Fuller’s injury history, it would be surprising to see anything massive, at least over the long term. However, he should get paid eight figures next season. There’s no way around that. Fuller is a strong franchise tag candidate right now, which is a pretty good place to be. A similar season in 2018 will put him firmly at the top of the salary chart for the long term.
Patrick Robinson, cornerback
Robinson’s over-30 status makes him a tough sell on a long-term deal. However, a one or two-year contract could net him more money than he’s been paid in a long time. Robinson had a 61 percent success rate last season, per Football Outsiders, and played a key role on a Super Bowl winning defense. That’s a pretty good sales pitch.
Spotrac pegs Robinson’s market value at $6.7 million per year, but that number could rise if he’s willing to take a shorter-term deal. Robinson doesn’t have a long history, but his play from last season will speak for itself.