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The Impending NFL Free Agents Who Have Set Themselves Up for Big Money

Plus: Which contract-year players have seen their stock fall? It’s never too early to begin looking ahead to the next offseason.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With just three weeks left in the 2019 regular season, the top players in this year’s upcoming free-agent class are face-to-face with their last few opportunities to showcase their talents, build up their statistical résumés, and create as much leverage as they can for offseason contract talks. Most soon-to-be free agents have already positioned themselves into one of a few broad categorical buckets: those set to cash in on their 2019 performances, those who’ve likely lost negotiating power, and those who land somewhere in the middle. With the stretch run of the season upon us, let’s take a look at a few upcoming agents to see who’s trending up and who’s trending down.

Trending Up

QB Dak Prescott and WR Amari Cooper, Cowboys

The Cowboys’ offense has cooled off after starting the season at a torrid pace, but both Prescott and Cooper have played their way into massive, potentially market-setting contracts this offseason. Let’s start with Prescott, whose stats this year will do some heavy lifting during contract talks: No matter how you slice it, Prescott has posted elite numbers. The fourth-year pro grades out as PFF’s sixth-ranked quarterback this year, ranking first in Football Outsiders DYAR metric (total value), second in DVOA (value per play), and third in ESPN’s QBR. He’s completing 65.5 percent of his passes this season at 8.3 yards per attempt, tallying a league-best 4,122 yards to go with 24 touchdowns and 11 picks. He’s also added 223 yards and three scores on the ground.

The Cowboys reportedly offered Prescott a long-term extension worth $30 million per year prior to the season, but instead of taking that deal, the quarterback decided to bet on himself. That gamble looks like it will pay off, as recent rumors put Prescott’s contract potential in the neighborhood of $40 million per season. Whatever number Prescott ultimately accepts, it’s clear he’s on track to become one of the highest-paid players in the league.

Prescott’s top target is set to cash in big as well. Cooper has racked up 70 catches for 1,054 yards (fifth) and eight touchdowns (tied for fourth) on the year, coming in through 14 weeks as PFF’s fourth-ranked receiver while ranking third in DYAR and second in DVOA. The 25-year-old has reestablished himself as one of the best receivers in the game and helped transform the Dallas passing attack. He’ll likely have his eye on something in the range of the five-year, $96.25 million extension Michael Thomas signed with the Saints back in July.

QB Ryan Tannehill and RB Derrick Henry, Titans

Tannehill has transformed the Titans’ offense since replacing Marcus Mariota in Week 7, and injected some much needed energy and big-play potential into a previously listless group. The 31-year-old quarterback has posted a 6-1 record as a starter, and since Week 7 he ranks second among all quarterbacks in passer rating (121.7), first in yards per attempt (9.89), is tied for third in touchdowns (15), and has thrown just four picks. Obviously, less than a half season of action is a small sample, but Tannehill’s steely, efficient performance has surely caught the attention of both the Titans front office and QB-needy teams around the league.

Both Tannehill and Tennessee should have some leverage in negotiations. Tannehill has played well enough to draw interest from other teams that could offer the veteran signal-caller bigger or longer-term deals. But the Titans have the franchise tag as a trump card, which gives them the power to retain the red-hot passer for 2020. As The Athletic’s Mike Sando recently wrote, a Jimmy Garappolo–type contract structure could be an option for both Tannehill and the team: It would give the player the potential to earn big money in a shorter, two- or three-year contract, and the team would be able to get out of it without major cap implications. Tennessee will have to pay up to retain Tannehill, but they likely won’t want to risk a Nick Foles–type debacle.

The Titans will have a major decision to make with Henry, too, who looks like another prime candidate for the team’s franchise tag this offseason. The 6-foot-3, 247-pound runaway-beer-truck back has been the foundation of the team’s offense this year, rushing for 1,243 yards and a league-high 13 touchdowns while adding 206 yards and two scores through the air.

The 25-year-old will likely be looking at the six-year, $90 million contract that Ezekiel Elliott just signed with the Cowboys as a starting point, but the team—which has reportedly not yet entered into discussions on an extension—could be reluctant to give out a massive contract at the running back spot. Recent big-money deals for Todd Gurley and David Johnson have aged poorly, and Henry’s upcoming free agent negotiations could be instructive for how the league—apart from maybe Jerry Jones—treats top tier running backs.

WR Robby Anderson, Jets

Anderson is starting to look like one of the headliners of a thin free-agent receiver class this season. The fourth-year pro has reestablished himself as the Jets’ go-to deep threat in the past month by notching 19 catches for 309 yards and three touchdowns in his past four games. The 6-foot-3, 190-pound speedster was up and down for New York in four seasons―his best season was a 63-catch, 941-yard, and seven-touchdown campaign in 2017―but it wouldn’t surprise me if we’re talking about Anderson as a big breakout player in 2020. A change of scenery from the dysfunctional Jets could pay career dividends.

TE Austin Hooper, Falcons

Hooper has quietly established himself as one of the most reliable pass-catching tight ends in the game. He’s notched 58 catches (fifth at the position) for 640 yards (sixth) and six touchdowns (tied for third) despite playing in just 10 games this year. The former third-rounder has earned Matt Ryan’s trust and emerged as a focal point in Dirk Koetter’s scheme, and he’s capable of lining up all over the formation to create mismatches in the passing game. He’ll likely look for a contract somewhere in the neighborhood of $9 million per year.

DL Chris Jones, Chiefs

Jones’s 7.0 sacks this year doesn’t exactly jump off the page after he finished with 15.5 in 2018, but the versatile Chiefs defensive lineman was dominant in 10 games this season nonetheless. The 6-foot-6 310-pounder racked up 44 pressures this year—tied for sixth among all interior linemen, per Pro Football Focus—with four pass deflections and a forced fumble. He boasts length, speed, and power, and the former second-rounder should have plenty of suitors should he reach the open market—and he’ll command a pretty penny. Because of his versatility on both the edge and the interior, Jones will likely aim for edge-rusher money in the ballpark of $19 million per year.

DE Jadeveon Clowney, Seahawks

Like Jones, Clowney’s sack numbers are down this year as he’s transitioned to the Seahawks’ 4-3 defense and battled a debilitating sports hernia injury, but the former top overall pick has continued to be a highly disruptive force in both the run and pass game. The sixth-year pro has racked up 46 pressures and 20 stops this season, per PFF, and ranks in the top 10 in ESPN’s pass-rush win rate despite facing double-teams at a high rate. Clowney has an explosive first step and an otherworldly combination of size, speed, and power, and he is on track to get a big-money extension this offseason.

DE Shaquil Barrett, Buccaneers

Barrett has transformed into a bona fide star in Tampa Bay, racking up a league-best 15.0 sacks, six forced fumbles, 29 quarterback hits, 14 tackles for a loss, two pass deflections, and one interception in 13 games for the Buccaneers. Barrett needs just 1.5 more sacks in his final three games to match Warren Sapp’s single-season franchise record (16.5). The 27-year-old former undrafted free agent is set to cash in on his breakout season, and could fetch north of $18 million on the open market this spring―perhaps even somewhere in the neighborhood of the five-year, $90 million contract Trey Flowers signed with the Lions last offseason.

DE Matt Judon, Ravens

Judon has filled a giant Za’Darius Smith–sized hole in the Ravens’ pass rush this year, tallying career highs with 8.5 sacks, 28 QB hits, and three forced fumbles to go with 13 tackles for a loss in 13 games. The 6-foot-3, 261-pound pass rusher has come up big for the Ravens in their current nine-game win streak, and notched seven total pressures and two sacks in the team’s 24-17 win against the Bills last Sunday. Judon may struggle to fetch the type of money Smith got on the free agent market last year (a four-year, $66 million pact with the Packers) but he’s set to cash in on a strong year.

CB Marcus Peters, Ravens

Peters has found new life in Baltimore after a rough start to the season with the Rams. In the seven games he’s played for the Ravens, Peters has notched three picks (tied for second among all corners in that stretch)―taking two back for touchdowns―while surrendering a 65.0 opponent passer rating in coverage (11th best among qualifying corners). The fiery defensive back is a risk-taker, and he has given up a pair of touchdowns in coverage, but he’s also a takeaway machine with uncanny instincts and a nose for the ball. Peters will likely look for a long-term deal that averages more than $14 million per year.

Trending Down

QB Jameis Winston, Buccaneers

There’s no denying Winston’s ability to post eye-popping stats, and the fifth-year quarterback ranks top three in the NFL this year in both passing yards (4,185) and passing touchdowns (26). The only problem, of course, is that he also ranks top three in interceptions (25), sacks (43), and fumbles (12). Winston is as erratic and unpredictable as it comes at the quarterback position, and instead of cleaning up his turnover issues under the watchful eye of Bruce Arians, he’s somehow managed to get even worse in that area. His raw tools may intrigue some teams in free agency, but I can’t see anyone giving Winston a big-money contract with major guarantees. Instead of establishing himself as a long-term franchise quarterback in Tampa Bay, Winston seems destined for a gun-for-hire-type career, à la Ryan Fitzpatrick.

QB Marcus Mariota, Titans

Tannehill’s shocking play in the past seven games has not only made the Dolphins and former Miami head coach Adam Gase look bad for not getting more out of the former first-rounder, but it’s also highlighted just how bad Mariota has been for most of his career. The former second overall pick never looked comfortable to start this season, completing just 59.1 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and two picks before being benched for Tannehill. Mariota enters career rehabilitation mode from here on out and looks destined for a backup job in 2020. A change of scenery could help, but Mariota has a lot of work to do if he’s hoping for a Tannehill-esque career comeback.

WR Nelson Agholor, Eagles

Agholor has struggled to build on his 62-catch, eight-touchdown breakthrough campaign in 2017, regressing slightly in 2018 before falling almost completely off the map for the Eagles this season. The former first-rounder has caught just 39 passes for 363 yards and three scores in 11 games, failing to step up and take on a bigger role when a rash of injuries decimated the receiver position for Philly. Now dealing with a knee injury himself, Agholor won’t command much on the open market.

TE Eric Ebron, Colts

Ebron finally lived up to his top-10 billing in 2018, reeling in a 13 touchdowns, a league-high among tight ends, for the Colts. But the 26-year-old tight end failed to build on that breakout performance this season, reverting to the drops-plagued pass-catcher we saw for most of his time in Detroit, catching just 31 passes for 375 yards and three scores before hitting the injured reserve after Week 12 with an ankle injury. Ebron’s time with the Colts may be up after a disagreement over the handling of that injury, and his double-digit touchdown campaign from last season just doesn’t carry as much weight after another down year.

T Germain Ifedi, Seahawks

The Seahawks’ decision to decline Ifedi’s fifth-year option in 2020 looks like prescient. The former first-rounder has struggled again for Seattle this year, ranking 54th out of 63 qualifying tackles in PFF’s pass blocking grade while grading out 44th on that list as a run blocker. Ifedi has given up five sacks, three hits, and a league-high 37 hurries in 13 games for Seattle this season, and he’s also been called for nine penalties (tied for 11th most at the position).

Somewhere in the Middle

QB Philip Rivers, RB Melvin Gordon, TE Hunter Henry, Chargers

Rivers has bounced back from a rough midseason slump (which spawned rumors that he could be benched) with a couple of strong performances the past two weeks, but the 38-year-old hasn’t exactly made himself a ton of money this season. Rivers, who’s thrown 20 touchdowns to 15 picks (third most among all NFL passers), has been erratic with his accuracy and decision-making, and, like Winston, has hurt his team in too many key moments.

That said, the longtime veteran would certainly represent an upgrade at quarterback for a few franchises and should draw interest in free agency as a bridge to the future. He’s most likely to stick with the Chargers on a short-term, mostly guaranteed contract, but it’d be interesting to see if a team like the Dolphins, Bengals, Colts, Titans, or Buccaneers (among a few others) come calling.

Gordon, meanwhile, has slowly settled into a groove since returning from a two-month-long holdout to begin the season, but should fall a big tier below Derrick Henry in the running back free agent hierarchy. Gordon has rushed for 523 yards and five touchdowns in nine games, adding 25 catches for 152 yards and a score through the air—but he hasn’t done enough to earn a big-money contract from the team that drafted him and isn’t likely to fetch top dollar on the open market.

Then there’s Henry: When healthy, the 6-foot-5, 250-pound playmaker is one of the most versatile tight ends in the NFL, boasting plenty of athleticism and soft hands to create mismatches downfield. The fourth-year pro has notched 43 catches for 536 yards and four touchdowns in nine games this year. But his free agent value depends much on how teams view his history of knee injuries―including a tibial plateau fracture to his left knee, which kept him out for five weeks early in the year, and an ACL tear in his right knee, which cost him the entire 2018 season. Like Hooper, Henry will likely be looking for around $8 million or $9 million per year, but his injury history may narrow his market and force him to take a contract well below market-setting levels.

WR A.J. Green, Bengals

Like Henry, injuries cloud Green’s market value. The 31-year-old has missed all of this season with an ankle injury, sat out of seven games in 2018 to a toe injury, and missed six games in 2016 with a hamstring tear. When healthy, Green is one of the league’s most dynamic receivers―but the soon-to-be former Bengal could struggle to fetch top dollar on the open market because of questions around his durability.