As we head into the stretch run of the NFL season, this year’s upcoming free-agent class has the chance to finish strong, pad their stats, and build up as much leverage as possible for offseason contract negotiations. But with 12 weeks in the books, it’s already pretty clear which contract-year players should make—or lose—the most money based on their performances this season. Let’s take a look at a few soon-to-be free agents to see who’s trending up and who’s trending down.
DE DeMarcus Lawrence, Cowboys
Lawrence not only headlines a free-agent pass-rusher class for the ages, but may be the top overall player set to hit the open market. Playing on the franchise tag, the 26-year-old is having his second straight monster season. Prior to Thursday’s game against the Saints, Lawrence ranked 13th among all defensive linemen in quarterback pressures (45), was fourth in stops (with 33 tackles that constitute unsuccessful plays for the offense) according to Pro Football Focus, and racked up 8.5 sacks (13th) and 12 tackles for loss (tied for fourth).
The Athletic’s Bob Sturm framed it well this week when he wrote that Lawrence “is playing like peak DeMarcus Ware.” He’s a playmaking game-wrecker in his prime and should fetch top dollar when free agency hits.
OLB Dee Ford, Chiefs
After breaking out in 2016 with 10.0 sacks, Ford fizzled last season, playing in just six games before a back injury sent him to the injured reserve. This year, he’s back to rushing the passer with a vengeance: The fifth-year pro has already grabbed 9.0 sacks (10th leaguewide), 59 pressures (third), and 20 stops, according to PFF, adding five forced fumbles—tied for tops in the league with Khalil Mack and J.J. Watt. That potential to create turnovers is more valuable than ever for a defense in an era when passing is exploding.
Ford has injured his back a couple of times before (once last year, once in college), so the Chiefs may consider using the franchise tag to keep him around while avoiding giving him any long-term guarantees. If the 27-year-old edge rusher hit the open market, though, he’ll get plenty of suitors. Ford has proved he deserves to be mentioned among the league’s most disruptive defensive linemen.
DE Frank Clark, Seahawks
After trading Michael Bennett to the Eagles and releasing Cliff Avril (who’s now out of football due to a neck injury), the Seahawks turned to Clark to lead a suddenly paper-thin pass-rush group. The fourth-year pro responded by having the best season of his career. Clark’s already matched his career high in sacks (10.0, tied for seventh), and has racked up 40 pressures (21st), 17 stops, and three forced fumbles in 11 games. He’s big and versatile, capable of making his way inside to push the pocket and get after the quarterback from the interior. The Seahawks are likely going to make a strong push to sign their former second-round pick—and the franchise tag is certainly an option—but if he hits free agency, he’ll have his pick of a bevy of teams.
DE-OLB Jadeveon Clowney, Texans
Clowney hasn’t quite lived up to the almost mythical status he achieved as a high school and college prospect, but he’s been healthy, productive, and consistent over the past three seasons as an anchor on the Texans defensive line. The former no. 1 overall pick lives in the backfield. He was a Pro Bowler in 2016, notching six sacks, 49 pressures, and 16 tackles for a loss; he won Pro Bowl honors again in 2017 with 9.5 sacks, 64 pressures, and 21 tackles for a loss. This year, he’s grabbed seven sacks, 33 pressures, and 12 tackles for a loss. Assuming Houston doesn’t give him a long-term extension before the year is up or slap him with the franchise tag, Clowney’s going to be a hot free-agency target. He’s scheme-versatile and capable of rushing from a two- or three-point stance, and he can play anywhere on the line of scrimmage. He’s a game-changer against the run too. There just aren’t many players in the league that can match the athleticism of the 6-foot-5 270-pounder.
DT Grady Jarrett, Falcons
You might be sensing a pattern here: This is a defensive-line-centric free-agent class. Jarrett’s been a bright spot on the otherwise bad Falcons defense this season, tallying 3.0 sacks, 30 pressures, and 20 stops, according to PFF. The versatile 25-year-old lineman has proved throughout his career that he can create disruption from the inside of the Atlanta line, and plenty of teams are going to want to add that type of talent to their defensive front.
RB Tevin Coleman, Falcons
When Devonta Freeman went to the IR with foot and groin injuries, it looked like a perfect chance for Coleman to showcase his ability as the team’s every-down, feature back. That hasn’t materialized: Coleman hasn’t gotten a ton of help from the Falcons’ injury-riddled offensive line, but he’s averaged a middling 4.1 yards per carry—a notch below his career average—leads the league in the percentage of carries resulting in a loss (19.7), and ranks near the bottom of the league’s starters in both rushing success rate (40 percent, 27th) and DVOA (31st).
Coleman’s proved he’s an excellent complementary pass-catching playmaker. But this season, he’s on track to finish with a relatively underwhelming line of 736 rushing yards and 390 receiving yards, so hasn’t shown recently that he’s the type of foundational back on which teams will spend the big bucks.
WR Golden Tate, Eagles
Tate started off the season with a bang, catching 28 passes for 389 yards and three scores in the Lions’ first four games. But his production has tapered off since. He saw his role reduced over the next month in Detroit before being traded to the Eagles just before the deadline, forcing him to learn a new playbook and work his way into a new offense in the middle of the season. It hasn’t gone smoothly: The 30-year-old veteran has caught just 11 passes for 97 yards in three games, averaging a paltry 8.8 yards per reception without a touchdown. Tate’s an excellent player and one of the best open-field tackle-breakers at the receiver position, but so far, the trade to Philadelphia hasn’t helped his free-agency cause.
DE Ezekiel Ansah, Lions
Injuries have limited Ansah’s production this year as he plays on the $17.1 million franchise tag in Detroit. The veteran pass rusher has a pair of double-digit sack seasons on his résumé (including 12 in 2017), but has played in just five games this year after suffering a shoulder injury against Minnesota in Week 1. He’s now often playing in a rotational, part-time role as he works back to full health (his 29 snaps last week—50-percent of the defense’s overall plays—represented a season high). He’s notched 4.0 sacks in limited action, but Ansah hasn’t been the game-wrecking force he’s needed to be to maximize his next contract in free agency.
DT David Irving, Cowboys
Irving’s a talented pass rusher, but he can’t seem to stay on the field. The 25-year-old has played in just two games this year, grabbing three tackles and a sack. He missed the first four weeks of the year to suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy and has been sidelined the past four games with a high ankle sprain (he’s also been away from the team the past few weeks dealing with personal off-field issues). Instead of building on a promising 2017 campaign (7.0 sacks), Irvin’s only clouded his future in the league. The last five weeks of the season are crucial for his free-agency hopes.
WR Devin Funchess, Panthers
After posting 63 catches for 840 yards and eight touchdowns in 2017, many expected Funchess to make a big leap this season. Injuries, and the emergence of a few other promising players in Carolina’s offense, though, have stifled his rise. The 24-year-old pass catcher has collected just 41 receptions for 516 yards and three scores in 10 games this year, and as of late he’s been overshadowed by breakout performances from rookie D.J. Moore and second-year pro Curtis Samuel.
Somewhere in the Middle
RB Le’Veon Bell, Steelers
The Bell situation is complex, and it’s likely that every team will look at him a little bit differently heading into next year’s free agency (assuming the Steelers don’t use the transition tag and drag this thing out even further). On the one hand, some may view his year-long holdout as a blessing in disguise, an opportunity for the high-volume running back to get healthy and start 2019 with fresh legs. On the other hand, some may question Bell’s commitment to football and wonder whether he’s too big of a risk to hand out the major guarantees he’s going to be chasing. In a free-agency class largely devoid of star offensive players, though, it seems likely that someone’s going to pay up.
DE Brandon Graham, Eagles
Graham’s low sack total so far (3.0) isn’t going to help him in contract negotiations. He’s 30 years old and on pace to finish with a five-year low in that metric. But sacks don’t always tell the whole story: The ninth-year vet has quietly been highly disruptive, racking up 46 pressures on the year—10th-most among defensive linemen—to go with six tackles for loss and a pass deflection. He’s still got time to boost his asking price with a flurry of moneymaking sacks down the stretch (he finished with 9.5 last season), but his potential earnings may have taken a hit this year. Graham’s agent will have to highlight his ability to disrupt the pocket in order to get his client that big payday.
S Landon Collins, Giants
Collins has two Pro Bowls on his résumé and won first-team All Pro honors in 2016, a season in which he excelled against the pass, grabbing five interceptions, knocking down 13 more, and racking up four sacks. His production in coverage has steadily fallen since: Last season he notched two interceptions and six passes defensed; this season, he has zero picks, zero sacks, and just four pass breakups. Collins spends most of his time in the box as a de facto linebacker—he’s lined up as a free safety on just 93 snaps this season, according to PFF—and teams don’t place as much value on players who primarily defend the run. Collins has performed well this season, but he has to convince potential suitors that he can return to the roaming coverage role he played in 2016, when he lined up all over the field—including 438 snaps at free safety.