Agent's Take: 12 players in contract years who are helping or hurting their stock
Here's what Demarcus Lawrence, Kelvin Benjamin, Clay Matthews and nine others can expect on the free-agent market
Contract-year performances can have significant economic consequences: Fortunes can be made and lost when a player is on an expiring contract.
Ryan Jensen and Michael Floyd are illustrations of this concept. Jensen capitalized on a strong performance last season as a full-time starter for the first time in his five-year NFL career. He left the Ravens in free agency to become the NFL's highest-paid center on a four year deal with the Buccaneers averaging $10.5 million per year, which contains $22 million fully guaranteed. Jensen has the most money fully guaranteed in a center contract.
Floyd was at the other end of the contract-year spectrum. The wide receiver was having the worst season of his five-year NFL career in 2016 when the Cardinals released him that December after a DUI arrest where his blood alcohol level was close to three times the legal limit. Although the Patriots claimed Floyd off waivers and he became a Super Bowl champion with them, he languished on the open market until a couple of weeks after the 2017 NFL Draft, when the Vikings signed him to a one-year, $1.41 million deal with additional $4.6 million in incentives. Floyd was later suspended under the NFL's Substance Abuse Policy for the first four games of 2017 season because of the DUI, which made earning any of the incentives an impossibility.
An injury in a contract year used to be the kiss of death financially. That's not necessarily the case anymore. The Bears gave wide receiver Allen Robinson a three-year, $42 million contract with $25.2 million in guarantees at the start of free agency this year despite him tearing the ACL in his left knee during the Jaguars' 2017 season opener. Robinson was coming off a subpar 2016 campaign, which could have been partially attributed to quarterback Blake Bortles' struggles. In 2015, Robinson became the first Jaguars player to top 1,000 receiving yards (1,400) since Jimmy Smith in 2005. He also led the NFL with 31 catches of 20 or more yards.
With the NFL season reaching the halfway mark, here are 12 players in a contract year who are either helping themselves, hurting their stock or holding steady. Performance during the second half of the season can help change a player's circumstances. Olivier Vernon came on like gangbusters during the second half of the 2015 season after fellow Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake tore his left Achilles: 57 of his 81 quarterback pressures (combined sacks, quarterback hurries and quarterback hits) came in 2015's final eight games, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). No other player had more than 49 quarterback pressures in the second of the 2015 season. Vernon parlayed his second-half turnaround into a five-year, $85 million contract containing $52.5 million in guarantees with the Giants. (A key contract benchmark and the probability of hitting that financial target -- ranging from one dollar sign for least likely to four dollars signs for most likely -- are listed for each player.)
Financial Benchmark: Von Miller ($19,083,333 avg./$70 million in guarantees)
Lawrence is proving his 2017 breakout season in which he was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time while tying for second in the NFL with 14.5 sacks isn't a fluke. He is on pace for a 14-sack season. Lawrence is putting himself in a position to capitalize on his great attitude about playing this season under a $17.143 million franchise tag. He views the tag as an opportunity to break the bank in 2019, since the mid-July deadline for franchise players to sign long-term deals passed without reaching an agreement with the Cowboys. Lawrence has been adamant about not playing under a tag two years in a row, although a second designation in 2019 will be $20,571,600 because of the CBA-mandated 20 percent increase from his current number. The five-year, $85 million contract with $52.5 million in guarantees the Giants gave Olivier Vernon during 2016 free agency after an adjustment to the 2019 salary cap environment could have significance because Lawrence is represented by David Canter, who negotiated the deal. Assuming the 2019 salary cap is in the $190 million neighborhood, a deal equivalent to Vernon's would average more than $20.75 million per year.
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Financial Benchmark: Justin Houston ($16,833,333 avg./$52.5 million in guarantees)
Ford is this year's Demarcus Lawrence: A pass rusher who is having a breakout season with an expiring contract following an injury-plagued year. His six sacks and four forced fumbles in five October games helped him garner AFC Defensive Player of the Month honors. Ford's 47 quarterback pressures are third in the NFL and first among edge rushers. Ford is a prime candidate for a franchise tag because his 2018 play is an outlier and because of the immense importance of players who can pressure opposing quarterbacks. The linebacker number is expected to be in the $16.325 million neighborhood next year, assuming the 2019 salary cap is in the $190 million range. Ford would be in such high demand if the Chiefs let him hit the open market because he is a highly-productive pass rusher in his prime that he would quickly join Rams interior defensive lineman Aaron Donald, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and Bears edge rusher Khalil Mack, who won the award in 2016, in the $20 million per year non-quarterback group.
Financial Benchmark: Kevin Zeitler ($12 million avg./$31.5 million in guarantees)
Saffold should reap the benefit of the explosion in offensive guard salaries over the last couple of years. He is PFF's highest rated offensive guard in run blocking and a member of their Midseason All-Pro team. An unrestricted free agent has set the guard market in each of the last three years, with Kelechi Osemele (2016), Kevin Zeitler (2017) and Andrew Norwell (2018). The streak will likely come to end because Saffold eclipsing the six-year, $84 million extension ($14 million per year average) containing $40 million in guarantees that Zack Martin received from the Cowboys in the offseason will be a tall order. Unlike Osemele, Zeitler, and Norwell, the 30-year-old Saffold wouldn't be hitting the open market for the first time.
Financial Benchmark: Olivier Vernon ($17 million avg./$52.5 million in guarantees)
Making left tackle Duane Brown and wide receiver Tyler Lockett contract extension priorities over Clark could prove to be costly for Seattle. Clark is currently tied for ninth in the NFL with 7.5 sacks. He is on pace for 15 sacks, which would be most for a Seahawks player since 1998, when Michael Sinclair set the franchise record with 16.5. Clark's 26.5 sacks since the start of the 2016 season are tied with Khalil Mack for the seventh most in the NFL although he didn't become a starter until Cliff Avril's neck injury early last season that ultimately ended his career. Erik Burkhardt, Clark's agent, recognizes the value of pass rushers and wouldn't be opposed to a franchise tag if he and Seahawks can't get on the same page financially. The 2019 defensive end number is expected to be in the $17.5 million neighborhood.
Financial Benchmark: Tyler Lockett ($10.25 million avg./$20 million in guarantees/additional $6 million in incentives/salary escalators)
Brown appears to be winning the bet he made on himself with the one-year, $5 million deal (worth up to $6.5 million through incentives). He has established himself as one of the NFL's most dangerous deep threats during his short time in Baltimore. Brown's 17.7 yards per catch is eighth in the NFL. He is tied for third in the league with four receptions of 40 yards or more. Brown is on pace for career high of 1,068 receiving yards and seven touchdown receptions in a bounce-back year. Assorted ailments, including a cyst on Brown's spine and a sickle cell trait diagnosis, slowed him over the last two seasons.
Financial Benchmark: Eric Berry ($13 million avg./$40 million in guarantees)
Thomas hit the ground running when he ended his holdout a few days before the regular season started because his "pay me or trade me" ultimatum to the Seahawks fell on deaf ears. He had emerged as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate before fracturing his left leg, the same one he broke two years ago, in Week 4 against the Cardinals. Thomas was tied for the NFL lead with three interceptions when he got hurt. The break is expected close the chapter on the Seahawks portion of the five-time All-Pro's career. Thomas, who turns 30 in May, should have a clean bill of health or close to it when free agency starts next March. His next contract may be affected more structurally than financially despite his age, with teams beginning to take a more enlightened approach toward injured free agents. Topping Berry's $40 million in overall guarantees seems less likely than his $13 million average yearly salary.
Financial Benchmark: Gostkowski ($4.3 million avg./$10.1 million in guarantees)
Gostkowksi is on track to convert at least 90 percent of his field goal attempts for the fifth time in the last six seasons. He is perfect on his 30 extra point attempts this season. The deal Gostkowski signed in 2015 still sets the kicker market. Gostkowski, who is the second-most-accurate kicker in NFL history, could have his sights set on becoming the league's first $5 million-per-year kicker. It will cost $5.98 million to designate Gostkowski as a franchise player in 2019.
Financial Benchmark: Reshad Jones ($12 million avg./$33 million in guarantees)
Collins established himself as one of the game's best safeties during a 2016 campaign in which he earned first team All-Pro honors. He hasn't done anything to dispel that notion since then. Collins' 394 tackles are best among safeties since he entered the NFL in 2015. The Giants rebuffing inquires about Collins as the Oct. 30 trading deadline approached was a good indication that his future is in New York, although negotiations for a new contract haven't started. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the Giants intend on franchising Collins if a long-term deal isn't signed by the end of the tag designation period in early March. The safety franchise tag is currently $11.287 million. It is expected to be about same in 2019 if the salary cap increases to the $190 million neighborhood next year.
Financial Benchmark: Ryan Jensen ($10.5 million avg./$22 million in guarantees)
The negotiations on a new deal that reportedly had taken place prior to the start of the season apparently had stalled before Paradis broke his right fibula in Sunday's loss to the Texans. Paradis hadn't missed an offensive snap in his 57 career games, which date back to the start of the 2015 season. The 2014 sixth-round pick really came into his own in 2016. Paradis, who was given a $2.914 million second-round free agent tender in the offseason, followed up his 2016 campaign with a 2017 season in which he didn't allow a sack. He was having a Pro Bowl caliber season. Paradis has at least been the equal of Jaguars center Brandon Linder and Seahawks center Justin Britt, who signed extensions averaging $10.34 million and $9 million per year respectively during the 2017 preseason.
Financial Benchmark: Marqise Lee ($8.5 million avg./$16.5 million in guarantees/additional $4 million in incentives)
Benjamin curiously blamed Panthers quarterback Cam Newton during the preseason for Benjamin not being as productive as Odell Beckham, Jr., Brandin Cooks and Mike Evans -- who were also taken in the first round of the 2014 draft -- during his three and half seasons in Carolina. The 28th overall pick in 2014 hasn't set the world on fire since being traded to the Bills in the middle of last season. Benjamin has caught 36 passes for 517 yards with two touchdowns in 15 games with Buffalo. Fortunately for Benjamin, there isn't going to be a particularly strong group of wide receivers available in the 2019 draft, so the explosion of salaries for pass catchers in free agency this offseason could carry over to next year.
Financial Benchmark: Mario Williams ($8.5 million avg./$11.985 million in guarantees)
Matthews has received his most notoriety this season for untimely roughing-the-passer penalties. In fairness, at least one of the calls was questionable. Matthews is a far cry from the player the Packers made the NFL's highest-paid linebacker in 2013 with a five-year extension averaging $13.2 million per year. He only has nine quarterback pressures in eight games this season. By contrast, Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller had 10 pressures in an October game against the Cardinals. Free agency hasn't been kind to aging pass rushers with declining production. Matthews will be 33 in May.
Financial Benchmark: Eric Kendricks ($10 million avg./$22,938,080 in guarantees)
Barr was the odd man out with the Vikings in terms of contract extensions. Wide receiver Stefon Diggs, defensive end Danielle Hunter and inside linebacker Eric Kendricks all received offseason extensions. Barr struggled in coverage early in the season. He had started to bounce back before being sidelined with a hamstring injury a couple of weeks ago. Barr displaying his 2015 form when he was one of the NFL's most complete and versatile linebackers upon his return would be a huge step in the right direction financially.
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