A year ago NFL safeties were the forgotten ones of free agency.
No one could get big money, teams peddled the same low-guarantee deals from one safety to the next and they were largely ignored from the early-spending period (a fact some in the agent community believed was due in large part to teams not wanting to look like they were colluding against Eric Reid). What a difference a year makes. Reid, who finally signed in-season with the Panthers, has already inked a lucrative extension with them, and safeties across the land are counting the hours until the start of the non-tampering window next week when they will cash in, big-time.
The Giants' decision not to franchise Landon Collins and the Ravens' release of Eric Weddle (assuming he wants to continue playing) only add to the options that abound. But coming out of the combine last week – when teams and agents began sorting out the potential price-points and values of free agents – there was already a strong buzz about the money these guys were going to make. Now, it has only deepened.
Sources said Earl Thomas is seeking $13M per year, or more, despite his recent injury history, and he is expected to get darn close to it, if not with the Cowboys then with someone else. The Texans badly want to keep Tyrann Mathieu, but the Bucs and Ravens have serious interest, I'm told, among others, and he could land $24M in the first two years of a deal. Collins will likely come in under that, and Adrian Amos of the Bears is well positioned to round out that top tier of safeties, with a market that could come in around $9M-$10M per year.
By the time the league year officially begins, all of these guys could be off the board. It's expected to happen very fast. Supply and demand and all.
One agent for a prominent safety told me he had a legit 20 meetings with teams at the combine; I'm not a math major, but that's more than half the league. And many of these teams seemed particularly motivated. The Colts, Raiders, Packers and Giants have also been closely monitoring this market. This is going to be one of the early storylines of free agency next week.
The rise of the slot receiver continues
It's a good time to be a slot receiver, as well. Teams covet that position like never before, they are essential cogs for young QBs (five QBs went in the first round a year ago, and at least three more will go this year) and there is a plethora of quality options on the market. There is a strong sense among teams and agents that entire divisions are seeking slot receivers (i.e.: the AFC East and AFC South), and there is going to be serious competition for this group.
Which teams, you ask, are making inquiries and doing significant work on free-agent slot receivers? Well, to start, the Bills, Jets, Dolphins, Patriots, Titans, Colts, Jags, Packers, Lions, Cowboys, Skins, Cardinals, Chiefs, Broncos and Raiders. That enough for you? Golden Tate is the most accomplished of the group – but is also on the wrong side of 30 – and he is seeking $13M plus a year, I'm told. Adam Humphries has priced himself out of Tampa and is poised to do very well, perhaps reaching the $10M a year mark. Cole Beasley will have the chance to get more volume somewhere besides Dallas, and he too should be in that $10M range. John Brown is seeking $8M-$9M a year, sources said. Oh, and Julian Edelman is very much in line for a contract extension. Jameson Crowder is coming off a down year, but he is going to do just fine in this market, as well.
I don't anticipate anyone coming close to what the Browns did a year ago – they paid Jarvis Landry more than $15M per year to man the slot for them – but that contract is moving the bar forward for others at that position, and for teams who expect these guys to catch 65-85 balls a year, it's for good reason. People around the league saw the impact on a young quarterback like Jared Goff when he lost slot security blanket Cooper Kupp, at the same time teams like the Chiefs and Steelers were overcoming the absence of their franchise running back for one reason or another.
The rise of the slot guy continues, and anytime you get so many teams from one bloodline in on the same position group (the Titans, Lions and Dolphins are all coached by Belichick disciples and tend to like similar players), it generally means money is about to flow.
Pass rushers in for big paydays
The other position group that will kill it next week are the pass rushers – or those still left after the franchise tags went around. Za'Darius Smith could land $15M a year, with teams like the Jets and Colts and Raiders all flush with cash and cap space and desperate to add bite to the rush. It wouldn't be a stretch to see a bidding ware develop between the Lions and Titans over Patriots edge presence Trey Flowers (the Belichick Effect). Ziggy Ansah's health is an issue but he could land a nice one-year prove-it deal, and Justin Houston will have no shortage of suitors once the Chiefs move on. Anthony Barr and Preston Smith, who are young and have flashed pass-rush ability, are in line for big paydays, as well.
It will trickle down to the older guys, too. Derek Morgan's veteran presence, leadership and situational pass rush has smart, contending teams coveting him (smells like a Belichick move, no?) and all of the same apply for Cam Wake. And ditto for Terrell Suggs. Arizona seems desperate to add someone to offset Chandler Jones – Suggs is an Arizona native, FWIW – and Baltimore would need someone to replace Suggs (Wake would make a lot of sense to me). Dudes in their mid-30s will get their cash; Brandon Graham re-signing with the Eagles for $13M a season only strengthened their cause.
Jags somewhat split on Foles
I continue to hear the Jags remain somewhat split on what to pay Nick Foles, and that Tom Coughlin remains very intrigued by some quarterbacks in this draft. Will Foles get the $20M he had in hand on the Eagles' team option (which he paid $2M to get out of)? Does anyone besides Jacksonville have even lukewarm interest in him as a starter? And could they get Case Keenum on the cheap once Denver cuts him? Not sure this is the slam dunk everyone seems to think. Teddy Bridgewater, still just 26, could have something to say about all of this in the end. Ultimately, I expect Foles does go to the Jags – on Coughlin's terms – and if the Cardinals take Kyler Murray as everyone expects and deal Josh Rosen to Washington, the Dolphins would be foolish not to strongly consider Bridgewater then. Question is, if I am Bridgewater, am I better off going back to New Orleans behind Drew Brees – who can't play forever – than I am possibly getting broken in half by a bad, rebuilding/tanking Fins team that may just want to take a QB at the top of the 2020 draft, anyway?
More insider notes
- Some of C.J. Mosley's Ravens teammates believe both he and Suggs could be headed to the Cardinals … Ex-Bronco Matt Paradis is going to get $11M or more a year on the open market, bank on it. Every team with a need at center is monitoring him, interior OL prices have spiked big-time, and he is a superior player and a lesser injury risk than other centers who got huge contracts the past two years … The Bills and Giants will be in pursuit of Panthers tackle Daryl Williams, I'm told, and his price has soared above where the Panthers are likely able to match. Rodger Saffold will do extremely, well, too, whether back with the Rams or elsewhere. You have to wonder if the Rams, who moved on from John Sullivan. who has his issues in the playoffs, make a move for Paradis … Tyrell Williams is the consensus best outside wide receiver on this market, and at just 26 with no warts and strong production and great size and metrics, his time has come. He was stuck behind some studs with the Chargers but will eclipse $12M a year, I reckon, with the Colts and Raiders in strong pursuit …
- Someone is going to hit a home run with Spencer Ware. He is being overlooked by the media, but is dynamic with the ball in his hands and catches everything thrown to him. His market will out-price the Chiefs … At this point I would be very surprised if the Chiefs moved on from Eric Berry. They haven't given any indications to that end, and the cap hit it would require after waiting for him to finally get healthy again on a team that is Super Bowl Now mode wouldn't make much sense (also, at a time with prices soaring on a loaded safety market) … A number of teams like Cordarrelle Patterson, who would make sense for the Steelers, among others (especially with Martavis Bryant and Antonio Brown about to be gone from Pittsburgh in successive years).