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2019 NFL free agency preview: Fine crop of D-linemen, safeties

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Aaron Donald is holding out this summer so that other premier defensive linemen can eat. He probably doesn't see it that way, but Donald's anticipated megadeal with the Rams should set the table for a bounty of talented large humans approaching the market.

If 2018 was the year of the big receiver contract, 2019 will be about paying the pass rushers. Donald and fellow holdout Khalil Mack may kick-start the gold rush, with DeMarcus Lawrence, Jadeveon Clowney, Geno Atkins, Trey Flowers, Ndamukong Suh, Grady Jarrett, Sheldon Richardson and many more waiting in the wings.

The quality and depth of the edge players and defensive tackles approaching free agency stands in stark contrast to the prospective quarterbacks and offensive linemen. There is no Kirk Cousins on the horizon set to sign a fully guaranteed contract. There isn't even a Nate Solder. The rising salary cap and smarter front offices are conspiring to keep the best players with the teams that drafted them.

In my 2019 free agency primer below, I'll look at positional trends before picking some players who could use a big contract year and others who could sneakily make it to the open market. Many of the best players listed won't make it to the open market next March, of course, especially if Donald shows them the way.

Tyrod or bust?

Time will tell if a Case Keenum-like figure emerges from the pack, but Tyrod Taylor is the only current starting quarterback scheduled to hit free agency who is likely to pique much interest. Teddy Bridgewater could change that equation with a strong preseason or spot-start duty during the year, but it's worth remembering that he settled for a contract that included less guaranteed money than Ryan Fitzpatrick signed for this year. (Fitzpatrick and Josh McCown are free agents yet again next year, living life one-year contracts at a time.)

Teams always find a way to spend money on free-agent quarterbacks -- look at what Sam Bradford got from the Cardinals -- but going through the draft or executing a trade will likely be a better route for desperate organizations in 2019. That won't be true for teams looking for a running back ...

Big year for big backs

Investing in another team's running back is often fool's gold, but it will be tempting next year. Le'Veon Bell is the position's answer to Kirk Cousins, using the franchise tag to eventually get to free agency and sign a monster deal. Unlike Cousins, Bell is one of the very best at his position. If Bell stays healthy, he can top Todd Gurley's contract totals.

That Gurley contract should make it easier for the Cardinals to come to an agreement with David Johnson before next March, and the franchise tag looms if no deal is struck. Other promising options to start -- like Tevin Coleman, Jay Ajayi and Mark Ingram -- could also make it to an evolving NFL landscape that isn't quite so unfriendly to veteran running backs.

ODB and the number twos

Wide receiver free agency usually has someone for everyone. That's true again in 2019, but the top-shelf talent is mostly missing beyond Odell Beckham. (ODB's situation in New York is just weird enough to make it believable that the Giants could foolishly let him leave, although the franchise tag looms.)

If Beckham does re-sign soon, he'll join a long list of big names to sign huge contracts at the position over the last 12 months, DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins, Allen Robinson, Jarvis Landry, Davante Adams, Brandin Cooks and Stefon Diggs among them. The well is running dry, although there are plenty of prospective free agents who can best serve as a complementary piece: Randall Cobb, Kelvin Benjamin, Golden Tate, Larry Fitzgerald, Devin Funchess and Rishard Matthews are among the highlights. At least you can find starters at the position, which is not the case on the offensive line.

It's still thin as hell on the OL

The best prospective left tackles -- Jake Matthews, Taylor Lewan and Duane Brown -- all signed contracts as camp began. The next-best tackle, second-team All-Pro Panthers RT Daryl Williams, suffered a serious knee injury to open camp. He's expected to head to injured reserve.

There simply aren't any tackles to spend big money on. The Rams have three starting linemen set for free agency and guard Shaq Mason is one of many key Patriots starters entering a contract year, but it's become increasingly rare for a plus starter on the offensive line to reach the market. As mentioned above, that's not the case among defensive linemen and edge rushers. The next-best free-agent group to D-line might be safety.

Safeties aplenty

Perhaps all the teams that failed to pay for free-agent safeties this past offseason were saving up for this group. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Landon Collins, Lamarcus Joyner and Earl Thomas are in line for big paydays. (Thomas' 2018 team, however, remains undetermined.)

Tyrann Mathieu is on a "prove it" contract this year, while unheralded players like Jimmie Ward and Clayton Geathers could play themselves into bigger contracts. Practically every team is looking for versatile safeties who can play a little linebacker and operate in space. This offseason's dip in the market should be an anomaly, especially because there are so many Pro Bowl-caliber players set to become available.

Players who could use a big contract year

Bradley Roby, CB, Denver Broncos and Ronald Darby, CB, Philadelphia Eagles: The 2019 cornerback crop looks scarce after a relative bumper crop last offseason. While there are plenty of short-term-solution veterans like Brent Grimes, Vontae Davis and Morris Claiborne, Roby and Darby stand apart as young building blocks who could earn huge free-agent contracts like Trumaine Johnson did this year.

Martavis Bryant, WR, Oakland Raiders: Bryant looked like one of the 10 most talented receivers in football by the end of 2015, but his suspensions and approach didn't endear him to the Steelers. Already called out by Jon Gruden in Oakland, Bryant risks being box-office poison if he strikes out with a second team on his rookie contract.

Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Buffalo Bills: It's a slippery slope from "physical receiver" to "possession receiver without great numbers and a penchant for blaming others."

Frank Clark, DE, Seattle Seahawks: A controversial second-rounder after multiple legal issues at Michigan, including a domestic violence charge that prompted his dismissal from the team, Clark grew into the rare productive draft pick for John Schneider since the GM's early boom years. Another healthy season overstuffed with hurries and sacks will make Clark a rich man.

Tyler Lockett, WR, Seattle Seahawks: No one would have guessed a year ago at this time that Paul Richardson could have parlayed a career year with 703 yards to a big free-agent contract. Lockett is just as talented, and the targets should be available for a sneaky 1,000-yard season -- if Lockett can finally stay healthy.

Brandon Graham, DE, Philadelphia Eagles: One of the most quietly consistent pass rushers of the last three years, Graham needs one more great season to hit the third-contract jackpot. His career arc and potential payday could mirror Everson Griffen's. Derrick Morgan, Brian Orakpo and Clay Matthews are in similar boats, even if they aren't quite as effective as Graham.

Ndamukong Suh, DT, Los Angeles Rams: It's hard to see many scenarios where the Rams re-sign Donald and still have the largess to pay Suh again. This isn't a Super Bowl-or-bust year for the Rams, but it might be for Suh. A great season for a winning franchise could earn one of the best-paid players of his generation one last big contract and burnish his Hall of Fame resume in the process.

Sneaky candidates to hit free agency

Anthony Barr, LB, Minnesota Vikings: The 2020 Vikings roster is loaded, and Barr is unlikely to be on it. Minnesota sent a message by signing Barr's UCLA buddy, Eric Kendricks, to a long-term contract before him, and there are only so many defenders a team can pay huge dollars to. Kendricks, Everson Griffen, Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes aren't going anywhere, and Barr's athleticism hasn't always translated to playmaking.

Geno Atkins and/or Carlos Dunlap, DL, Cincinnati Bengals: Bengals owner Mike Brown already doled out big second contracts to both Atkins and Dunlap, investments that proved wise. Doubling down with another contract at the top of the market isn't Brown's style.

Jadeveon Clowney, DE, Houston Texans: Texans coach Bill O'Brien keeps saying that Clowney is not yet in football shape, as the former No. 1 overall pick recovers from more knee surgery. That's a situation worth watching, with Clowney wanting a new contract and the Texans perhaps wanting to see if he can stay healthy.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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