It’s the last day of 2018 so it’s a perfect time to bring my 2019 NFL free agency preview to a close. If you haven’t seen any of the previous posts, there could be a ton of defensive talent hitting the open market in March.
In fact, 18 of the 25 players (72%) on my list play defense. The final act of this five-part series continues that trend with four of the five players (80%) being defensive stars.
Without any further ado let’s count down my top five players in the 2019 NFL free agency:
5. S Earl Thomas
Earl Thomas‘ time with the Seattle Seahawks likely came to a disastrous end when he fractured his left leg in a game against the Arizona Cardinals back in September. Prior to the injury, Thomas had emerged as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate after ending his holdout at the start of the 2018 season. In just four games of action, Thomas was able to contribute three interceptions, five passes defended, and 16 solo tackles according to Pro Football Reference.
2018 was the final year of a four-year contract extension Thomas signed in 2014. The contract averaged out to $10 million per year, which made Thomas the NFL’s highest-paid safety at the time. Despite the injury, Thomas is likely to try to reclaim his place at the top of the safety pay scale from Eric Berry this offseason.
Not only is Thomas the best sideline-to-sideline safety currently in the game, but a case can also be made for him being the best safety of his generation. There is no doubt that he’ll be one of the most desirable free agent defenders on the open market in March.
4. DE Frank Clark
Frank Clark was drafted by the Seahawks in 2015 out of the University of Michigan with some off-field concerns. Since being drafted, Clark has gone about his business in Seattle and stayed out of trouble, tallying up 36 sacks since he came into the NFL.
At just 25 years old, Clark is one of the most underrated edge players in football and will be in consideration for the Seahawks’ franchise player designation. He’s shown consistency as a pass-rusher, logging at least nine sacks in each of the last three seasons according to Pro Football Reference.
If Seattle was to franchise tag Clark it would cost them upwards of $18 million on a one-year fully guaranteed deal. However, with a projected $58 million in cap space for 2019, the Seahawks may look for a long-term extension for their team’s leading pass rusher. Especially since Clark and Jarren Reed have emerged as one of the best defensive line duos in the NFL. That being said, teams should have Clark atop their wish lists if he doesn’t re-sign with the Seahawks.
3. Edge Jadeveon Clowney
Pass-rushers are going to dominate in free agency, and Jadeveon Clowney is one player that could look to cash in on the open market. Clowney is a defensive end disguised as a linebacker. Yes, he can drop into coverage and play in space, but his value is derived from setting the edge and getting after quarterbacks.
While he hasn’t cracked double-digit sacks yet, Clowney now has back-to-back seasons with at least nine sacks. Clowney is one of the best all-around defenders in the NFL when healthy, but he has only made it through one full 16 game season. Clowney has been healthy for the most part this year, only missing one game in November because of back and elbow ailments.
The fifth-year pro may have to wait to cash in, though, if the Houston Texans use the franchise tag on him. The use of the franchise tag in Clowney’s case though will include a conversation about his position classification. Per CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora:
“The Texans intend to apply the tag; Clowney will argue that he should receive the amount for defensive ends (projected to be worth more than $17 million), while the team will contend that he should be tagged as a linebacker (roughly $15 million).”
If Clowney makes it to the open market, the edge-rusher would appeal to 4-3 and 3-4 base defenses alike.
2. RB Le’Veon Bell
Le’Veon Bell opted to sit out the entire 2018 season rather than sign his franchise tender worth $14.5 million from the Pittsburgh Steelers. Bell’s time with the Steelers is likely to come to an end as James Conner took the starting running back job and never looked back, racking up 973 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns in 13 games.
With teams like the Indianapolis Colts, the New York Jets, the Houston Texans, and the Seattle Seahawks projected to have a boatload of cap space in 2019, Bell is likely to get the long-term contract via the open market that the Steelers were unable to provide.
Bell will be 27 at the start of the 2019 NFL season. There’s no question that the former Michigan State Spartan is extremely talented, but we’ll have to wait to see how the holdout affects his overall value. The interesting thing about Bell though is he is one of the best “all-around” offensive weapons in the NFL. Not only will he help improve the running game for whichever team secures his talents, but Bell will also become one of their best-receiving targets.
1. DE DeMarcus Lawrence
Dallas Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence broke out during the 2017 season with 14.5 sacks, and with another 10.5 sacks through the 2018 regular season he’s earned the top spot on my list. At just 27 years old, Lawrence has emerged as one of the premier pass rushers in the league.
Lawrence is playing on a $17.1 million franchise tag this season, and his long-term contract talks will come up at an opportune time. According to CBS Sports’ Joel Corry, the Cowboys have until 2020 to reach a spending floor established by the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement:
“The NFL collective bargaining agreement (CBA) requires each team to spend 89 percent of the salary cap in cash over the four-year period of 2017 through 2020. The Cowboys rank 31st in the NFL in spending during the 2017 and 2018 league years at just under $293.5 million according to NFLPA data. The $293.5 million has Dallas below the 89 percent threshold.”
The NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported in July that Lawrence plans to secure a long-term contract next year and will not play on a second consecutive franchise tag, which makes him an immediate priority. There is no denying that quarterback Dak Prescott and wide receiver Amari Cooper are important to Cowboy’s success, but they both still have another year left on their current deals. This means that the largest contract extension could be coming DeMarcus Lawrence’s way.
For #Cowboys DE DeMarcus Lawrence, his goal is to go out, play on the tag and earn a long-term deal in Dallas. Source said he will not play on a second consecutive tag in 2019.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) July 16, 2018
If for some reason the Cowboys let Lawrence hit the open market, he will certainly draw interest. Since 2017, Lawrence has 25 sacks which is good enough for the third most in the NFL behind only Chandler Jones (30) and Aaron Donald (31.5).
That’ll do it for the 2019 NFL free agency preview. Obviously, it is hard to say at this time which players will or will not make it to the open market in March. We’ll take another look closer to the start of free agency.
If you missed any of the previous portions of the free agency preview, check out the lists below:
25. RB Kareem Hunt
24. OT Daryl Williams
23. WR Golden Tate
22. OT Trent Brown
21. CB Ronald Darby
20. CB Bradley Roby
19. DE Ezekiel Ansah
18. C Matt Paradis
17. S Tyrann Mathieu
16. DT Ndamukong Suh
15. S LaMarcus Joyner
14. DT Sheldon Richardson
13. S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
12. LB Preston Smith
11. DE Brandon Graham
10. QB Teddy Bridgewater
9. S Landon Collins
8. DT Grady Jarrett
7. OLB Dee Ford
6. DE Trey Flowers
You can read the previous part of the free agency preview by clicking the link below: