Agent's Take: The contracts key defenders should seek, including Demarcus Lawrence

This is Part 3 of our Agent's Take series covering sensible target contracts for this year's top available players. You can get a primer on the series and read about three key quarterbacks here, and check out six offensive stars, including Le'Veon Bell, here.

The exclusive negotiating rights teams have had with their impending free agents ends on March 12. NFL teams are allowed to negotiate with the agents of prospective unrestricted free agents during a two-day period ending at 3:59:59 p.m. ET on March 14. Players can't sign deals with new clubs until the 2018 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.

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.

DE Demarcus Lawrence (franchise tag)

  • Target contract package: five years, $97.5 million
  • Overall guarantees: $60 million
  • Fully guaranteed at signing: $45.5 million
  • First three years: $63.75 million

Lawrence's timing couldn't have been any better. Having a career year in a contract year led to the Cowboys placing a $17.143 million franchise tag on Lawrence, which he quickly signed. Tallying 6.5 sacks in the first three games of the season resulted in Lawrence being named NFC Defensive Player of the Month for September. He was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time while tying for second in the NFL with 14.5 sacks.

Lawrence has a great attitude about the franchise tag. He views playing on the tag as an opportunity to break the bank in 2019 if a long-term deal isn't reached. The franchise tag can be used as a guide for a multi-year contract. A second franchise in 2019 at a 20 percent increase would be approximately $20.5 million. Potentially being franchised in consecutive years could be used as justification for a long-term deal averaging just under $19 million per year.

The five-year, $85.5 million contract with $52.5 million in guarantees the Giants gave Olivier Vernon during 2016 free agency when the salary cap was $155.27 million will have particular relevance to Lawrence's contract talks. David Canter, who represents Lawrence, negotiated Vernon's deal. It wouldn't be a surprise if Canter viewed adjusting Vernon's contract to the current salary cap environment as a more appropriate framework for discussions. A deal equivalent to Vernon's would average slightly under $19.5 million with almost $60 million guaranteed, of which approximately $45.5 million is fully guaranteed at signing. 

It's smart that Lawrence isn't in a hurry for a new deal, as waiting until closer to the mid-July deadline for franchise players to sign long-term could work to his benefit. Rams All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald and/or Raiders All-Pro defensive end Khalil Mack are expected to raise the salary bar at some point this offseason by becoming the NFL's first $20 million per non-quarterbacks.

Texans general manager Brian Gaine acknowledged at his introductory press conference that a new contract for outside linebacker/defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is on the offseason to-do list. A new Clowney contract could also provide more ammunition for adapting Vernon's deal.

DE Ezekiel Ansah (franchise tag)

  • Target contract package: four years, $66 million
  • Overall guarantees: $45 million
  • Fully guaranteed at signing: $35 million

The immense importance of players who can pressure opposing quarterback is the primary reason for the Lions designating Ansah as a franchise player for $17.143 million. Ansah, who turns 29 in May, was one of the NFL's better pass rushers in 2015 when he was third in the NFL with 14.5 sacks. A nagging ankle injury derailed a 2016 season in which he only had two sacks.

Ansah's 12 sacks last season weren't indicative of consistent play. Hampered by knee and back injuries, his sacks came in bunches. Ansah collected three sacks in Week 2's contest against the Giants. Another six sacks came in the final two regular-season games. Franchised edge rushers in 2017 signed long-term deals in the $16 million per year neighborhood with guarantees ranging from $40 million to $53 million.

DT Sheldon Richardson

  • Target contract package: five years, $81.25 million
  • Overall guarantees: $47.5 million
  • Fully guaranteed at signing: $37.5 million
  • First three years: $52.5 million

The Jets dealt Richardson to the Seahawks for a 2018 second-round pick and wide receiver Jermaine Kearse prior to last year's roster cutdown deadline. The Seahawks were pleased with how Richardson controlled the line scrimmage as a 4-3 defensive tackle, which is different than how the Jets used him in their 3-4 defense. The 2013 Defensive Rookie of the Year displayed his versatility with New York by lining up at various spots across the defensive line and at linebacker.

Richardson is someone the Seahawks would like to keep, but reportedly there's mutual interest in him going back to New York. The roster purge of Seattle's once vaunted defense could make retaining Richardson a bigger priority.

There's a risk of Richardson pricing himself off the market if the five-year, $86 million contract with $53.5 million in overall guarantees his former defensive linemate Muhammad Wilkerson, who was recently released, received from the Jets in 2016 is an important salary data point to him. Since it's hard to envision him accepting a long-term deal in the same neighborhood as the four-year, $48 million extension containing just under $25.5 million in guarantees Timmy Jernigan got from the Eagles during the middle of the 2017 season, a one-year prove it deal is a possibility. Interior defensive linemen Bennie Logan and Dontari Poe took such deals respectively from the Chiefs and Falcons in the $8 million neighborhood as free agents last year. Poe's contract is worth as much as $10 million through incentives.

CB Trumaine Johnson

  • Target contract package: five years, $77.5 million
  • Overall guarantees: $51 million
  • Fully guaranteed at signing: $37.5 million
  • First three years: $52 million

The almost $30.7 million Johnson made in 2016 and 2017 playing under franchise tags with the Rams is the second-most money for a cornerback during this period behind only Josh Norman. The Redskins made Norman the NFL's highest-paid cornerback on an extremely front-loaded five-year, $75 million deal containing $50 million in guarantees in April 2016. This was a couple of days after the Panthers rescinded the franchise player designation they had placed on him.

Johnson hasn't duplicated his breakout 2015 campaign in which he tied for NFC lead with seven interceptions while playing in Gregg Williams's defense. The Browns, with Williams at defensive coordinator, have a huge need at cornerback. At 6-foor-2 and 213 pounds, Johnson has the size the 49ers covet in a cornerback. The 49ers ranked near the bottom of the league in several conventional statistics that measure pass defense (passing yards allowed, interceptions, yards per pass attempts, passer rating, etc.).

CB Kyle Fuller (transition tag)

  • Target contract package: five years, $67.5 million
  • Overall guarantees: $42 million
  • Fully guaranteed at signing: $32 million
  • First three years: $43.5 million

The Bears declined to pick up a fifth-year option on Fuller worth $8.526 million for the 2018 season last May. At the time, passing on the option seemed like a good move because Fuller missed the 2016 season after undergoing preseason surgery on his right knee. There was talk about moving Fuller to safety because of struggles early in the 2015 season.

The Bears placed the seldom used transition tag on Fuller for $12.971 million after his rebound in 2017. According to Pro Football Focus, Fuller was the most targeted cornerback in the NFL last season with 119 passes thrown in his direction. Opposing quarterbacks completed 51.3 percent of passes against him for a 69.0 passer rating. Fuller's 22 passes defensed were tied for second most in the NFL.

The transition tag only gives the Bears a right to match another team's offer sheet. It's going to be difficult for another team to put together an offer sheet that can't be matched because Chicago is expected to have in excess of $60 million in cap space.

The five-year, $65 million contracts A.J. Bouye and Stephon Gilmore received from the Jaguars and Patriots in free agency last year have likely caught Fuller's attention. Bouye's $26 million fully guaranteed at signing is $5 million less than Gilmore's. He's also $1.5 million behind Gilmore after three years with $40.5 million. Gilmore deal has $40 million in overall guarantees.

FS Lamarcus Joyner (franchise tag)

  • Target contract package: five years, $57.5 million
  • Overall guarantees: $30 million
  • Fully guaranteed at signing: $24 million
  • First three years: $37.5 million

The Rams wisely chose to put a franchise tag on Joyner over wide receiver Sammy Watkins because he thrived in his switch from slot cornerback to free safety, which he played at Florida State. The safety franchise number is $11.287 million. 

Joyner, at 5-foot-8 and 190 pounds, was probably the Rams' best and most valuable defender last season outside of the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald. He compares favorably to Cardinals defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, who signed a five-year extension in 2016 averaging slightly more than $12.5 million per year, because of a similar size and skill set.

Former Sports Agent

Joel Corry is a former sports agent who helped found Premier Sports & Entertainment, a sports management firm that represents professional athletes and coaches. Before his tenure at Premier, Joel worked... Full Bio

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