Though the playoff chase is ramping up, it's never too soon to look toward the future. So I thought I'd examine a handful of players in the final year of their first NFL contract and decide whether their respective teams should pay up to keep them or let them walk. Below, you'll see four players on expiring rookie deals who should be retained -- and four who can be allowed to test the market.
Jadeveon Clowney, LB, Houston Texans: General manager Brian Gaine will have to weigh the positives against the negatives when considering a multi-year offer for Clowney. Speedy and unbelievably athletic, Clowney is a game-changing defender with rare physical gifts. His best talent is rushing the passer with his hand on the ground, but the former No. 1 overall pick (and two-time Pro Bowler) can also move outside and drop into coverage. He also has a lengthy injury history, including multipleknee surgeries, most notably microfracture surgery in December of 2014, with most of his rookie season lost to a knee injury. But with defensive load-bearer J.J. Watt getting older, Clowney -- who is on pace for a career-high 11 sacks -- figures as a natural star around whom to focus the unit going forward. At a minimum, I'd expect him to be franchise-tagged, though with QB Deshaun Watson still just two years into his rookie contract, there would be room to put something more lasting together with Clowney.
Frank Clark, DE, Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks decided to take a second-round gamble on a player who wasn't even on some other teams' draft boards after a domestic violence arrest -- which ultimately resulted in a plea agreement on a reduced charge of disorderly conduct -- led to Clark's dismissal from Michigan during his senior season. Since then, he's developed into one of the NFL's top pass rushers. After posting nine sacks in 2017, Clark has racked up 10 already through 11 games this year for Seattle's 16th-ranked defense. Clark has 29.0 sacks since 2016, the seventh-most in the NFL in that span; that's more than Calais Campbell (28.5) and Cameron Jordan (28.5) and just 0.5 less than Khalil Mack. Clark has great bend when he comes around the edge and is very hard to block. He can be the centerpiece of the Seahawks' defense for years to come, and they should have the cap room to work something out with him, thanks in part to the recent veteran exodus in Seattle.
Dee Ford, LB, Kansas City Chiefs:Browns GM John Dorsey -- who drafted Ford in the first round of the 2014 draft back when he held the same position with the Chiefs -- told me on Sirius XM Radio during my annual training-camp tour that he considered Ford to be the second-best pass rusher in his class, which included Clowney, Khalil Mack and DeMarcus Lawrence. (Dorsey wouldn't tell me who he had at No. 1.) After showing flashes in his first four NFL seasons, Ford is proving Dorsey right this year -- he is on pace to finish with a career-high 13 sacks. Ford's injury history, which includes multipleback surgeries, scares you to death, but Andy Reid and the Chiefs can't afford to let Ford get away, not with Justin Houston's time as a game-changing edge threat winding down. Ford is the kind of player who can cover up some ugly spots on an otherwise bad defense. He's also helped make Chris Jones a more effective player. Ford is undoubtedly key for this defense.
Jesse James, TE, Pittsburgh Steelers: It would behoove the Steelers to use some of the money they might have spent on retaining Le'Veon Bell to keep James, even if it means having to overpay a bit to prevent him from testing the market. James was ill-prepared for the NFL when he entered the league as a fifth-round pick in 2015 following his junior year at Penn State, and he didn't do much as a rookie, recording eight catches for 56 yards on 11 targets. Since then, he's developed into a huge deep threat, upping his yards-per-catch mark from 7.0 in 2015 to a beefy 14.6 in 2018. James' catch percentage also shot up from 68.3 in 2017 to 81.3 this season, while his yards-per-target figure (11.84) ranks third-best in the NFL this season among players with 30-plus targets. He's a 6-foot-7 beast who can do everything you want a go-to tight end to do, and the Steelers should make him a part of their future plans.
LET THEM WALK
Denzel Perryman, MLB, Los Angeles Chargers: You've got to feel for Perryman, a second-round pick in 2015 who landed on injured reserve earlier this month with a knee injury. He's one of the top run-stuffing linebackers around, with a career average of 5.5 tackles per game in 42 career games. But he's never completed a 16-game season. Even if the Chargers can get Perryman back at the right price, they would probably be better served to find a more reliable option at inside linebacker, maybe someone who has better coverage skills, which is not Perryman's strength. Perryman is excellent against the run, but his difficulty in pass defense makes him a less attractive fit for today's game.
Tevin Coleman, RB, Atlanta Falcons: This is less about Coleman than it is about his fit with the Falcons. On another team, Coleman can be a perennial 1,000-yard runner, but Atlanta simply doesn't feature the running back like that. With fellow running back Devonta Freeman sidelined this year by a variety of injury issues (he's currently on injured reserve), Coleman has been productive, ranking second on the team in yards from scrimmage (774). But the Falcons will presumably get Freeman -- who inked an extension last summer -- back next year, when they'll also have Ito Smith on the second year of his rookie deal. Thus, Coleman is probably expendable in Atlanta. But he would be a good fit for a team that likes to run the ball; he seems like the kind of back who would do well with an organization like Tennessee.
Anthony Barr, LB, Minnesota Vikings: Yes, Barr has been a Pro Bowler for three consecutive seasons. But when a hamstring injury sidelined Barr from Week 8 to Week 11, his absence was hardly noticeable, a reflection of just how far the former first-round pick has fallen from his status as a difference-making linebacker. He's recorded five-plus tackles in just three games thus far and is on pace to finish the season with 49, 22 below his per-year average coming into this season. His shortcomings in coverage were exposed in the Week 4 loss to the Rams. Barr was the nearest defender on five pass plays, according to Next Gen Stats -- and L.A. scored touchdowns on three of those plays, including the Rams' first score of the game, when Todd Gurleyslipped behind Barr in the end zone. I wouldn't use the franchise tag on him, given the lofty going rate for linebackers. And based on Minnesota's inability to get Barr signed last offseason, it would appear he values his services more than the Vikings do.
Devin Funchess, WR, Carolina Panthers: Ostensibly Carolina's No. 1 receiver, Funchess has been vastly outpaced by running back Christian McCaffrey in targets (82 to 68), catches (71 to 41) and receiving yards (608 to 516). Meanwhile, rookie receiver DJ Moore and second-year man Curtis Samuel are poised to assume a bigger role in the passing game going forward. Funchess' length helps him catch some balls, but he doesn't create great separation and he doesn't have No. 1-receiver speed. If Carolina can get him on a reasonable contract, I'd consider it, but I wouldn't franchise-tag him or sign him for No. 1-receiver money.