Michael Thomas, WR, 25, Saints
If you haven’t figured out how good Michael Thomas is yet, you simply haven’t been paying attention. The Saints receiver has over 250 catches in less than 40 games, and while the knock on him has been a lack of touchdowns (9 total in his first two seasons), the 25-year-old is on pace for 10 in 2018 alone. He’s catching more than 70% of his targets, and his ability to run routes, get himself open, and work across all facets of the field appears to be a quarterback’s dream.
The 2nd round pick in 2016 will be heading into a contract year in 2019, but the Saints likely won’t let him get that far without a new deal. Financially he holds an $18.2M valuation, which puts him just ahead of the deal Odell Beckham Jr. signed in NY, making him the highest average paid WR in NFL history. He’ll be seeking $55M in 3-year cash, $66M+ of practical guarantees, with $41M+ guaranteed at signing - which are all tops in the league currently among WRs.
Frank Clark, DE, 25, Seahawks
In terms of edge players who’ve been asked to rush the passer and fall back into coverage, Clark has been one of the best in the game this year. The 2nd round pick in 2015 had a great 2016, then took a bit of a step back last year, but has certainly rounded back into form in 2018, and is peaking in a contract year.
The 25-year-old is likely heading toward a deal similar to what Trent Murphy locked in with the Bills (3 years, $22.5M), or what Brandon Graham scored from the Eagles (4 years, $26M), with an AAV in the $8.5M range. Though continued production in 2018 will obviously increase all of this quickly. He’s scheduled to hit free agency in March.
Related: View Clark's Market Valuation
Dee Ford, OLB, 27, Chiefs
With Justin Houston out of the lineup for multiple weeks in 2018, the Chiefs have needed Ford to turn it up a notch, and he’s responded. After an injury shortened, and unproductive 2017, Ford is putting himself inline for a nice payday as he nears free agency in March. If he follows through with his current pace of around 15 sacks, the Chiefs will have plenty to discuss this winter. Can a franchise tag or long-term deal for Ford exist along with Houston on the roster, or will one have to go?
His production this year vs. what he’s done over the past 3+ seasons is apples and oranges, so from a calculated value standpoint he falls in just north of $11M per year. But he’s shown he can handle an edge rush, drop back in coverage, and handle himself adequately against the run as well, putting him in prime position to be a Top 3 defensive free agent on the open market next March - assuming KC let’s him get there.
Russell Wilson, QB, 29, Seahawks
We made note prior to this season that it was a very big year for the Seahawks, who, after gutting their defense, and turning over a lot of their offensive pieces across the past few seasons needed to prove they were still capable of building a team that Russell Wilson could work with successfully. So far so good. The 4-3 Seahawks are a surprise team thus far, and stand safely in 2nd place behind the Goliath Rams in the NFC West.
Why the urgency in 2018? Wilson will be entering a contract year in 2019, and on the cusp of 30-years-old as well, both notable factors in his immediate future, which certainly doesn’t have to be in Seattle. Wilson has slipped down the advanced ratings in the past few seasons, but it’s in direct connection with Seattle’s inability to bring in and/or keep viable weapons around him on a consistent basis. Were the Seahawks to nosedive in the standings this year, It could’ve been a direct path to an entire rebuild for the franchise, something Wilson most certainly wouldn’t have been interested in sticking around for. But with a strong start to 2018, Seattle needs to show they can rebuild this thing on the fly, via the trade deadline this week, and certainly in the upcoming offseason when a few more cap dollars open up at their disposal. Until that happens, don’t expect Wilson to sign an extension of any kind to remain a the Seahawks QB.
Regardless, the 29-year-old has done enough according to our calculations to push for a deal at or above the $30M per year mark. It stands to reason that Matt Ryan’s 5 year, $150M contract with $100M guaranteed is the foundation point for Wilson’s negotiations.
Le’Veon Bell, RB, 26, Unsigned
Much has been made about the lengthly hold out that Bell has taken from Steelers, which is expected to end in the coming weeks, non-coincidentally after the trade deadline. Le’Veon will still be able to reel in around $7M in 2018, but will be focused mostly on staying healthy as he eyes his first real pay day next March.
The challenge with valuing Le’Veon, for anyone, is that it’s criminal to compare him to other running backs alone. Bell’s been the second leading receiver for the Steelers for years, and only not first because he’s competing with Antonio Brown for targets. While all of these numbers, both in the rush and pass game, look amazing, the red flag that seems to stand above it all for most is the usage he’s put on his body through three seasons at Michigan State, and now 5+ seasons in Pittsburgh. Yes he’s only going on 27, but it’s hard to ignore the drop off in pay to running backs nearing 30, and the coinciding drop in production as well (Adrian Peterson in 2018 notwithstanding).
We’ve run a series of valuations on Bell over the past three seasons, but with a running back market so weak around him financially, could never come close to fairly producing a calculation worthy of his multi-use talents. However, now that the Rams have rewarded Todd Gurley with an early, impactful extension we at least have someone to bounce production off. So just simply speaking, Bell vs. Gurley across 2016-2017, Bell comes out 8.6% better, which brings his valuation to $15.5M. If we’re talking top marks across the board here, he’ll need $40M+ over three years, $45M+ practically guaranteed, with $24M+ guaranteed at signing.