NFL Playoff Stock Watch
It’s important to play well in the NFL playoffs, but not entirely for the reasons you might expect. Winning a title is every player’s dream and playing your best in the postseason is the easiest way to do so, but there’s more to it than that. Playing well in January means you’re performing against the league’s toughest competition during the one time of year when most of the league is actually watching. It’s the last live tape most personnel departments will keep in their minds before free agency — and offseason extensions — begin. In terms of creating a market for yourself and increasing the value of your next contract, an excellent postseason can be enormous. That’s why it’s time to break out the ol’ Playoff Stock Watch to see how players are seeing their value shift around the league during the 2013 postseason, and what that means for their next contract.
I’m going to focus on folks who (a) have contract situations that are expected to change in one way or another over the next couple of years, and (b) have exceeded or failed to surpass their expected level of play over the past three weeks. If your favorite player isn’t included, that’s probably why.
Let’s start with the biggest name in football right now. Richard Sherman’s stock, obviously, is sky-high. The Saints avoided him during their divisional-round loss to the Seahawks, and the 49ers dared to throw at him only twice on Sunday, producing a defensive holding call (which Sherman later suggested was “B.S.”) and a tip that led to a conference-sealing interception of Colin Kaepernick. During the first half of the season, it felt like Sherman was among the best cornerbacks in football. Now, it feels like he’s comfortably at the top of the charts.
Given his repeated statements about the matter, it certainly feels like being recognized as football’s best cornerback is very meaningful to the 25-year-old Sherman. That’s about to raise some very interesting questions for the Seahawks. Sherman is in the third year of his rookie deal, a contract that will pay him a total of $2.2 million over four years. If Sherman wants to be known as the best cornerback in football, it would stand to reason that he would want to be paid like the best cornerback in football, too. Given the structures of recent extensions for his predecessors as football’s top cornerback, Nnamdi Asomugha and Darrelle Revis, a Sherman extension could come in at a figure approaching $20 million per season.
That might not match Seattle’s plans for apportioning the cap space it has available. Pete Carroll’s reputation as a secondary guru has only been reinforced this season, with the Seahawks losing starter Brandon Browner and replacing him twice without skipping a beat, first with Walter Thurmond and then with Byron Maxwell. None of Carroll’s corners have had an outsize pedigree, either: Browner came from the CFL, Sherman was a fifth-rounder, Thurmond was a fourth-rounder, and Maxwell went in the sixth round. Kam Chancellor was a fifth-rounder, too, and only Earl Thomas went in the first round. The Seahawks can’t just plug in some midround pick and expect him to become the next Sherman, but if Carroll can coach up another fifth-rounder to be 90 percent of the player Sherman is now, the Seahawks could take the $18 million or so they would save per season and spend it on other parts of their roster that are harder to fill. That’s the same opportunity savings that allowed them to use the money they would normally lavish on a quarterback to sign Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett this offseason. The Seahawks might also look at the relatively short (about three-year) shelf life for players like Asomugha and Revis atop the cornerback rankings and wonder whether Sherman will begin to struggle or be afflicted by injuries partway through the deal. I don’t think I could fault the Seahawks for paying their best player as such, but I also think you can make a case that Seattle can replace most of what Sherman does while more efficiently spending its money elsewhere.
The guy Sherman is likely to spend his time working against in Super Bowl XLVIII is also seeing his stock rise this postseason. Demaryius Thomas has 15 catches for 188 yards and two touchdowns this January, including a 134-yard game against the Patriots in which he repeatedly torched New England’s Alfonzo Dennard. Thomas has basically posted two identical seasons during his two years with Peyton Manning at the helm, catching 94 passes for 1,434 yards during 2012 before bringing in 92 passes for 1,430 yards this year. He remains Manning’s top receiver and the Denver wideout most likely to win a one-on-one matchup.
It’s difficult to imagine the Broncos letting Manning’s top receiver go, and even if Manning were to be retired by the end of next season, when Thomas’s rookie contract runs out, they would want to have all hands on deck to make the transition to the Brock Osweiler era as smooth as possible. It’s more a question of how much the Broncos will pay Thomas, as his likely contract continues to rise. If he has a big game against Sherman in the Super Bowl, Thomas might be valuable enough to justify the five-year, $55.6 million deal that Vincent Jackson got from the Buccaneers as an unrestricted free agent. Thomas wouldn’t have that kind of leverage for a couple of years, but as a better player than Jackson he might get extra money to stay off the market.
Sherman’s defensive teammate is also on the rise. Michael Bennett had to sign a one-year deal this offseason for just less than $5 million when the market didn’t seem to hold him worthy of a long-term contract. After a valuable regular season and a stunning, active postseason run, Bennett’s going to cash in. It probably won’t be in Seattle, where they’ll probably be more comfortable signing the next Michael Bennett on a one-year deal. Instead, Bennett will wander out onto the market again in search of the financial stability his play deserves. As one of the best two-way 4-3 ends in the game and one of the stars of this postseason, he shouldn’t lack for offers. The Bears, Chargers, Falcons, Raiders, and Vikings should all be in on Bennett this offseason. You can guess where Robert Mays hopes he ends up.
Seattle’s vanquished opposition also has a number of interesting offseason cases coming up. Anquan Boldin had a quietly successful postseason, posting a 16-227-1 line over three games, including that catch on a Colin Kaepernick whistler over Earl Thomas in the end zone on Sunday. That might have been Boldin’s last touchdown catch as a 49ers player. Boldin will become an unrestricted free agent this offseason after playing out his contract extension from the Baltimore days, and he’ll represent an interesting catch in the market. Teams probably won’t be interested enough to give Boldin, entering his age-34 season and with a long injury record, a multiyear deal (or, at the very least, a deal that they expect to honor for multiple seasons, even if the contract terms suggest a multiyear deal for bonus-spreading purposes). A one-year deal at $4.5 million would be a slight pay cut, but it would be the sort of contract that a possibly competitive team like the Giants or Chargers would find more affordable. After all, Aldon Smith and Kaepernick aren’t going to sign themselves.
A plausible cap casualty who had a subpar postseason? Look at Frank Gore, whom Joel Corry identified as a possible candidate for restructuring or release last week. Gore did have that 39-yard run against the Panthers in the divisional round, but his other 47 postseason carries produced a total of 125 yards, an average of just 2.66 yards per rush. The 49ers could save nearly $6.5 million by releasing the 30-year-old Gore this offseason, a move that would allow them to start building contract extensions for another set of young stars while also leaving them with the ability to dip into free agency to shore up weaknesses at wideout and in the secondary. Gore’s absence would leave them with no recognized starter at running back, but the Niners could very well make do behind that dominant offensive line with a combination of Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James, and the returning Marcus Lattimore, who spent the 2013 season on the reserve/NFI list. There are no guarantees those three could live up to Gore’s production, but as he turns 31 with 2,327 career pro carries on his body, there’s no guarantee Gore can repeat his past performance, either.
In what appears to be a perennial buyer’s market, a released Gore would be joined in the running back scrums of free agency by LeGarrette Blount, who ran for 189 yards in Week 17 and 166 yards in the divisional round before producing a mere six yards on his five carries against Denver in the conference championship. His stock isn’t as high as it seemed a week ago, of course, but it’s in the stratosphere compared to where it was when Blount left Tampa Bay last April. The problem is that the market is about to be saturated with better backs. Even if Gore isn’t released, Blount is likely to be in line behind Chris Johnson, Rashard Mendenhall, Maurice Jones-Drew, Darren McFadden, Knowshon Moreno, Donald Brown, Rashad Jennings, and Ben Tate this offseason. Blount’s best-case scenario is the three-year, $10 million deal that Shonn Greene got from the Titans this offseason to be a power/goal-line back, but even that might be unlikely.
A couple of Blount’s teammates are almost sure to see bigger deals. Julian Edelman didn’t get a single offer in free agency last year before returning to the Patriots, but after a 105-catch regular season and a 16-catch, 173-yard postseason, Edelman is not going to have to settle for the veteran’s minimum in 2014. He won’t get Danny Amendola–level money from anyone, but a three-year deal worth $14 million or so would seem to make sense. The ironic wide receiver chain, of course, would occur if Edelman left New England to join the Broncos, with Eric Decker then leaving Denver as an unrestricted free agent this offseason to join the Patriots.
Aqib Talib also won’t need to settle for a one-year deal again. Talib was brilliant during the first half of the season before struggling with injuries during an inconsistent second half; after the Patriots’ defense collapsed without him against Denver, though, Talib’s stock might have actually gone up while he was in the locker room. Talib was paid just less than $5 million on his one-year deal this season; I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Patriots try to lock Talib up with the franchise tag this year, a move that would pay him roughly $11.3 million, while trying to negotiate a longer-term deal with him. If he hits the free market, just about anybody with any cap space will be after him. The free-agent market will be deep at corner again this year, with Talib, Brent Grimes, Alterraun Verner, Sam Shields, Tarell Brown, Vontae Davis, and Charles Tillman all due to be available, but at his best, Talib’s better than any of the alternatives.
One of the players Talib shut down this season might also become a free agent, although it seems unlikely. Jimmy Graham saw his stock fall after going almost entirely absent against the Seahawks in the divisional round, and he finished the postseason with just four catches for 52 yards. Of course, he was also playing through a torn plantar fascia in his foot, an injury that limited his effectiveness and sapped his athleticism as the season went along. The Saints are in an abysmal cap situation heading into 2014 and will need to release players just to get in line with the cap, so a big deal for Graham will just make things more difficult. They would probably prefer to slap the franchise tag on Graham, but that might not be an option if the league rules against New Orleans. Graham, his agent, and the NFLPA are surely going to argue that any franchise tag placed on Graham should come as a wide receiver, given how often Graham lines up as one in the New Orleans offense. The Saints will point out that Graham’s listed as a tight end. The difference between the tight end tag ($6.7 million) and the wideout tag ($11.6 million) is nearly $5 million; it’s a big call that the Saints hope will go in their favor. It’s likely that Graham will stay put.
If Graham doesn’t dive in, the best free agent in the water might very well be 25-year-old Panthers end Greg Hardy, who had 15 sacks in a breakout season for Carolina. Hardy dominated the 49ers when he suited up against them in the regular season, but he was kept mostly anonymous by Joe Staley during Carolina’s playoff loss to San Francisco. Even with his stock having fallen a bit, Hardy would be one of the best free agents to hit the market in recent memory. Teams don’t let players this good — and young — hit free agency often, but the brutal contracts left from the Marty Hurney era make it difficult for the Panthers to construct a deal that would keep Hardy in town.
Hardy has promised to take some small measure of a hometown discount, but he’s still going to be paid like a superstar defensive end, and the Panthers might not be able to make that kind of commitment on their cap and field a full roster in 2014 or 2015. It would cost $12.5 million to franchise Hardy for 2014, so the Panthers would probably prefer to try to build a long-term deal that keeps Hardy’s cap hit relatively small for the first two years of the deal before it dramatically rises in 2016 and beyond, when they’ll be in better cap shape. Of course, they’ll also need to find space for new deals for Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly around then, so that newfound room may not last long, with or without Hardy around. I suspect that Carolina will sign Hardy to a massive deal with a huge signing bonus (approaching $40 million) spread over something like seven or eight years with low base salaries in the first two years of the contract before guaranteeing a big base salary in the third year of the deal. Hardy’s just too valuable to let go.
And to end on another big contract, start counting up the millions for Colin Kaepernick, who unquestionably saw his stock rise this postseason, even considering the pair of interceptions he threw in the fourth quarter against Seattle. Kaepernick was the best offensive player in the postseason up to that point, which is pretty impressive for a guy who looked lost at times during the regular season. Kaepernick really is a different player with Michael Crabtree around, and they should get a full season together in 2014. While I often lump Kaepernick in with the “Gang of Four” because they each came of age during the 2012 campaign, Kaepernick’s a product of the 2011 draft, which means he’s already three years into his rookie deal. First-round picks have a built-in team option, but because Kaepernick was a second-round pick, the 49ers are forced to make their move with him a year earlier. The deal to look at is the five-year, $103.8 million contract the Falcons signed with Matt Ryan before the season. Kaepernick would be in line for that sort of deal, especially after his back-to-back postseason runs. Kaepernick may not have had a particularly memorable regular season, but with a string of playoff performances like the one he’s put together, the Niners won’t really care.