The exclusive negotiating rights NFL teams have had with their impending free agents ends on March 16. Beginning at noon ET on March 16 until 3:59:59 p.m. ET on March 18, teams are allowed to negotiate with the agents of prospective unrestricted free agents. Players can't sign deals with new clubs until the 2020 league year and free agency officially begin at 4 p.m. ET. A player's ability to re-sign with his current club is allowed during the period.
Agents and NFL teams have already gotten a sense of the 2020 free agent market. Meetings between agents of impending free agents and teams routinely occur at the recently concluded NFL combine, although these types of discussions are prohibited by NFL rules. If the past is any indication, agents and teams have already started exchanging detailed proposals for the most desirable players hitting the open market. Teams are rarely penalized for tampering with players from other teams when those players are scheduled to become free agents.
As is usually the case, a robust market is expected during the first wave of free agency, which typically is over after the first couple of days of the signing period. Teams will have over $1 billion in salary cap space at their disposal.
It was my responsibility while working on the agent side to create target or asking prices for the firm's clients headed toward free agency regardless of whether I was the lead agent. In that spirit, I have set target prices with total contract value, overall guarantees, amount fully guaranteed at signing and first three years compensation (when applicable) for 10 intriguing defensive players who will be unrestricted free agents or designated as a franchise or transition player.
Players don't necessarily sign for their target prices because free agency is a fluid process where adaptations must be made to changing market conditions. Some players are disappointed in free agency's outcome because their market never develops for a variety of reasons (age, unrealistic contract demands, supply at playing position, etc.).
Remember: The target or asking prices for these players may be on the high side and aren't necessarily what their actual deals will be.
- Contract package: $138 million for six years ($23 million per year)
- Overall guarantees: $85 million
- Fully guaranteed at signing: $55 million
- First three years: $75 million
Clowney has language in his contract that prohibits him for being given a franchise or transition tag. He should be the beneficiary of practically every productive young edge rusher being kept off the open market with some sort of tag.
Clowney could be the litmus test for just how much the ability to be a disruptive force on a defensive line is valued when a lot of sacks aren't generated. He only had three sacks last season while being hampered by a core muscle injury. According to ESPN, Clowney had the NFL's fifth best pass rush win rate (ability to beat a block within 2.5 seconds) in 2019 at 24.8 percent. Even when healthy, the three-time Pro Bowler doesn't put up big sack totals. He had a career high 9.5 sacks in 2017.
Likely franchise player
- Contract package: $88 million for four years ($22 million per year)
- Overall guarantees: $48 million
- Fully guaranteed at signing: $48 million
Ngakoue's relationship with the Jaguars soured during acrimonious negotiations for a contract extension last offseason. Ngakoue had a brief training camp holdout, which primarily came to an end because of the need to earn another accrued season (i.e., a year of service towards free agency). He wouldn't have earned a fourth one if he had waited until there were less than 30 days before the NFL's first 2019 regular season game to report to the Jaguars. Four accrued seasons are necessary to achieve unrestricted free agent status when a player's contract expires.
The Jaguars plan on franchising Ngakoue, although he has made it abundantly clear he has no interest in signing a long-term deal with the team. The defensive end number projects to $17.95 million with a $200 million salary cap.
The Jaguars or any other team will be hard pressed to sign Ngakoue to a multi-year contract that doesn't put him in the $20 million per year pass rusher club, which currently has four members (Khalil Mack at $23.5 million per year, Aaron Donald at $22.5 million per year, DeMarcus Lawrence at $21 million per year and Frank Clark at $20.8 million per year). Ngakoue's 37.5 sacks during his four NFL seasons are two more than Clark had at the same point in his career. Lawrence has 38 sacks when combining the four best seasons of his six-year NFL career. Since Ngakoue doesn't turn 25 until the end of March, he'll likely be looking for deal that would allow him to potentially hit the open market when he is in his late 20s.
DT Chris Jones
Likely franchise player
- Contract package: $105 million for five years ($21 million per year)
- Overall guarantees: $66 million
- Fully guaranteed at signing: $45 million
- First three years: $66 million
The Chiefs making a major investment in a pass rusher last offseason that had never done anything for the franchise probably didn't sit too well with Jones after the type of 2018 season he had. Jones set an NFL record by recording a sack in 11 straight games and was third in the league with 15.5 sacks. An encore performance in 2019 was always going to be a difficult task. Despite missing three games with a groin injury, Jones still had nine sacks. The Chiefs are hopeful about keeping Jones in Kansas City long term, although most teams don't have two high-priced pass rushers. It wouldn't be too surprising for Jones to be involved in a franchise tag and trade scenario like edge rusher Dee Ford was with the Chiefs last year. The 2020 defensive tackle number is expected to be $16.272 million with the projected $200 million salary cap.
OLB Shaq Barrett
- Contract package: $100 million for five years ($20 million per year)
- Overall guarantees: $60 million
- Fully guaranteed at signing: $42.5 million
- First three years: $64 million
Nobody could have foreseen Barrett having a league-leading 19.5 sacks in 2019. The 2014 undrafted free agent produced a total of 14 sacks in his previous four seasons with the Broncos. Barrett's bet on himself with a one-year, $4 million deal (worth up to $5 million in incentives) is going to pay big dividends.
The Buccaneers have made it known that Barrett isn't going anywhere. Absent a long-term deal in the next couple of days, Barrett will be given a franchise or transition designation. The 2020 linebacker franchise and transition tags are expected to be $15.973 million and $13.862 million, respectively, with a $200 million salary cap. Barrett's breakout season should put him in position to at least get a long-term deal comparable to the five-year, $90 million contract ($18 million per year) with $56 million in guarantees Trey Flowers got from the Lions in free agency last March.
CB Byron Jones
- Contract package: $85 million for five years ($17 million per year)
- Overall guarantees: $52.5 million
- Fully guaranteed at signing: $40 million
- First three years: $55 million
The cornerback market is long overdue for a major reset in a similar manner as the inside linebacker market last year. Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard is currently the position's highest paid player at $15.05 million per year. The top of the market has grown a little over 5 percent since Nnamdi Asomugha signed a two year deal with the Raiders in 2009 averaging $14.296 million per year, which was considered a market anomaly at the time.
Jones proved in 2019 that his 2018 breakout season in which he earned his first Pro Bowl berth wasn't a fluke. Jones is excellent in coverage but doesn't pick off many passes. His last interception came during the middle of the 2017 season. That's partially because opposing quarterbacks don't target Jones that often. According to Pro Football Focus, the opposition completed 30 of 53 passes (56.6 percent) when he was targeted. By contrast, 2019 first team All-Pro cornerback Tre'Davious White was targeted 84 times last season. 56 percent of the passes thrown at him were completed.
- Contract package: $77.5 million for five years ($15.5 million per year)
- Overall guarantees: $42.5 million
- Fully guaranteed at signing: $35 million
- First three years: $49.5 million
Hargrave took advantage of an increased snap count in 2019 due to Stephon Tuitt's torn pectoral muscle. The top of the market for run stuffing interior defensive lineman is the $12.5 million per year Linval Joseph received from the Vikings in a four-year extension he signed in 2017 with $31.5 million of guarantees. Hargrave is more disruptive than the typical run stuffer. He has 10.5 sacks over the last two seasons.
Likely franchise tag
- Contract package: $60 million for four years ($15 million per year)
- Overall guarantees: $33.5 million
- Fully guaranteed at signing: $33.5 million
Simmons picked the right time to play his best football, when he was in a contract year. The 2016 third round pick thrived in first-year head coach Vic Fangio's defense last season. The Broncos intend to keep Simmons from hitting the open market with use of a franchise tag. The safety number projects to $11.545 million under a $200 million salary cap. Landon Collins and Tyrann Mathieu became the NFL's first $14 million per year safeties last year in free agency with their respective six- and three-year deals from the Redskins and Chiefs. Kevin Byard (Titans) and Eddie Jackson (Bears) have subsequently bettered this mark with their four-year extensions.
ILB Cory Littleton
- Contract package: $75 million for five years ($15 million per year)
- Overall guarantees: $40 million
- Fully guaranteed at signing: $33 million
- First three years: $48 million
Several off-ball linebackers have reaped the benefit of C.J. Mosley dramatically changing the marketplace in free agency last year with his $17 million per year deal from the Jets ($85 million over five years). During last preseason and training camp, Myles Jack and Deion Jones signed four-year extensions with the Jaguars and Falcons averaging $14.25 million per year containing nearly $35 million in guarantees. The most recent data point is the four-year, $53.8 million extension (worth up to $56.8 million with salary escalators) Shaq Thompson received from the Panthers last December. Since the beginning of the 2018 season, Littleton has developed into a three-down linebacker excelling in pass coverage, which could lead to a strong market for his services.
- Contract package: $43.5 million for three years ($14.5 million per year)
- Overall guarantees: $30 million
- Fully guaranteed at signing: $30 million
Curiously, the Giants gave up a 2020 third-round pick and a 2021 fifth-round pick for Williams as last season's trading deadline was approaching when there was a better shot at the first overall pick in this year's NFL Draft than securing a playoff berth. The fifth-round pick becomes a fourth round pick if Williams signs a contract extension before the 2020 league year starts on March 18. This dynamic gives Williams significant leverage with the Giants.
Williams, who is 25, has yet to live up to the potential that made him 2015's sixth overall pick. He may be better off opting for a shorter term contract or a fairly substantial one-year "prove it" deal since a market in the same ballpark as the $17 million per year Grady Jarrett got last year from the Falcons as a franchise player may not develop.
CB Chris Harris
- Contract package: $40 million for three years ($13.33 million per year)
- Overall guarantees: $27 million
- Fully guaranteed at signing: $24 million
The Broncos agreeing to send a 2020 fourth-round pick to the Jaguars for cornerback A.J. Bouye means Harris is unlikely return to Denver for a 10th season. Harris isn't entering free agency under optimal circumstances. He didn't quite perform up to his usual high standards in 2019 and will be 31 before the 2020 regular season starts. Harris has been one of the NFL's best cornerbacks at covering the slot over the last few years while also being able to play on the outside at a high level.