Striking gold in the free-agent market can accelerate -- or even eliminate -- the rebuilding process for NFL franchises.
The Baltimore Ravens are similarly perched atop the AFC North thanks to an offseason shopping spree that included a comprehensive makeover of their own receiver room.
As we look ahead to next year's free agency, we know that superstars such as Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell, Dallas' DeMarcus Lawrence, Houston's Jadeveon Clowney, New York's Landon Collins and even Seattle's injured Earl Thomas will break the bank with mega deals that'll threaten to set the market for their respective positions.
Let's examine some of the lesser-known players enjoying fortuitously timed breakout campaigns, pushing for new contracts while playing at a Pro Bowl level.
1) Melvin Gordon, running back, Los Angeles Chargers
A couple of weeks into the season, my NFL Game Pass notes referred to Gordon as a poor man's Todd Gurley. A month later, that description seems to sell Gordon short. Equally adept as a tackle-breaking runner and smooth receiver, Gordon is on pace for 1,243 yards rushing and 744 receiving to go with 24 touchdowns -- numbers that are eerily similar to Gurley's Offensive Player of the Year campaign last season. Third in rushing behind Gurley and Cowboys Pro Bowler Ezekiel Elliott, Gordon has teamed with scatback Austin Ekeler to comprise the NFL's most productive complementary backfield. The dual playmakers are averaging 200 yards and two touchdowns per week, video-game production that has them ahead of the historic 2017 campaign turned in by New Orleans' Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram.
When Gordon entered the league back in 2015, he was determined to save the endangered workhorse back. Along with Gurley, Elliott and Bell, he has accomplished that feat.
Now, the Chargers exercised the fifth-year option on Gordon's rookie deal, so he's not a free agent this coming offseason. But at the moment, he's playing well enough to earn a hefty extension in the coming months, rendering that flex pact moot.
2) Frank Clark, defensive end, Seattle Seahawks
With a lightning-quick first step and the power to bull rush rookie left tackle Kolton Miller, Clark almost single-handedly shut down Derek Carr's aerial attack in London. After losing a sack to a holding call on cornerback Shaquill Griffin earlier in the possession, Clark forced a Carr fumble on third down, setting up David Moore's touchdown for a 14-0 Seattle lead in the first quarter. Carr managed to keep Clark at bay with a series of short drops and quick-trigger passing plays in the second quarter, but that's no way to orchestrate a comeback from a double-digit deficit. Forced to drop back again in the third quarter, Carr was smothered by Clark and Quinton Jefferson on second down. One play later, Clark came through with his second strip-sack of the day, once again handing Russell Wilson the ball deep in Raiders territory. Jon Gruden waved the white flag, essentially refusing to put his quarterback in harm's way for the game's final 25 minutes.
Barring a major injury, Clark is going to finish the season with double-digit sacks and cash in as a top-tier pass rusher next offseason.
3) Dee Ford, outside linebacker, Kansas City Chiefs
Clark isn't the only edge rusher taking full advantage of a contract year. Selected in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft as Tamba Hali's successor, Dee Ford recorded 10 sacks in a breakout 2016 campaign. Playing through hip and back injuries last season, however, he managed just two QB takedowns in six games before landing on IR in early December. Healthy again this year, he's been the lone bright spot on a 32nd-ranked defense allowing 197 more yards per game than top-ranked Baltimore. No defensive star -- not even Chicago's Khalil Mack -- has hit opposing quarterbacks more often through six weeks. Playing on the fifth-year option in his rookie contract, Ford will be a candidate for the franchise tag next offseason.
4) Za'Darius Smith, outside linebacker, Baltimore Ravens
Smith has been perhaps the most disruptive force on a front seven that includes potential Hall of Famer Terrell Suggs and three-time Pro Bowl selection C.J. Mosley. Even before his three-sack performance in Baltimore's beatdown of Tennessee, the 2015 fourth-round pick was emerging as a force to be reckoned with as a rotational rusher behind Suggs and starter Matt Judon. Through six weeks, he has more combined sacks, hits and hurries than perennial Pro Bowler Von Miller, who opened the season with a three-sack performance of his own. It will be interesting to see if GM-in-waiting Eric DeCosta allows Smith to reach the open market in March.
5) C.J. Mosley, middle linebacker, Baltimore Ravens
Speaking of Baltimore's contract conundrums, DeCosta will have little choice but to open the checkbook for Mosley, a defensive leader touted by none other than Ray Lewis as the league's best middle linebacker. Detractors of Don "Wink" Martindale's shutdown defense may circle the 34 points surrendered in a Thursday night loss to Cincinnati back in Week 2. It's no coincidence, however, that the defense collapsed after its play-caller went down with a severe bone bruise on the Bengals' opening possession. Mosley is the glue that holds the unit together, and he's going to get compensated accordingly in 2019.
6) Sheldon Richardson, defensive tackle, Minnesota Vikings
Mike Zimmer's defense has softened a bit with Pro Bowl pass rusher Everson Griffen sidelined, but it's through no fault of Richardson or NFL sack leader Danielle Hunter. Forced to settle for a one-year, make-good contract after recording just one sack in a disappointing 2017 season with Seattle, Richardson has been reborn in Zimmer's scheme. He already has more quarterback hits in six games with the Vikings (10) than he managed in all of 2016 with the Jets (9) and all of 2017 with the Seahawks (7). He may not be Geno Atkins or Fletcher Cox, but he's not far behind right now.
7) Morris Claiborne, cornerback, New York Jets
While former Rams franchise player Trumaine Johnson landed a whopping five-year, $72.5 million mega deal with Gang Green, Claiborne was forced to go the Richardson route with another one-year rental contract. Johnson has been an injury-ravaged bust early in his Jets career, leaving Claiborne to put the clamps on top receivers. Finally showing why he was a top-10 draft pick by Dallas a half-dozen years ago, Claiborne is tied for the league lead in passes defensed and ranks among the stingiest cornerbacks in opposing passer rating on throws in his coverage. Turning 29 in February, Claiborne has time to hit the jackpot before the inevitable decline sets in.
8) Margus Hunt, defensive lineman, Indianapolis Colts
This one came out of left field. Before new coordinator Matt Eberflus landed in Indianapolis this past offseason, Hunt was known primarily for his colorful nickname ("The Eastern Block," because he hails from Estonia and set SMU's school record for blocked kicks in a season) and star turn on HBO's "Hard Knocks" with the Bengals early in an otherwise-nondescript career. The behemoth defensive end is suddenly playing to his potential, hip-tossing blockers to hunt down quarterbacks and hog-tying running backs behind the line of scrimmage. Already 31 years old, his best bet is to re-sign with the Colts and continue to thrive as a sidekick to hotshot rookie linebacker Darius Leonard.
9) Jared Cook, tight end, Oakland Raiders
Now that Marshawn Lynch is nursing a groin injury, Cook might qualify as the lone bright spot in Jon Gruden's offense. Before Oakland's debaculous fiasco at Wembley Stadium, an explosive Cook was outproducing perennial All-Pros Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce, thanks to a pair of spectacular 100-yard performances against the Rams and Browns. Even after he was limited to 10 yards on two catches in the loss to Seattle, Cook remains on pace for 85 catches and 1,067 receiving yards, both of which would shatter previous career highs. Ask a Packers fan if they'd rather have Cook or Jimmy Graham going forward.
10) Rodger Saffold, offensive guard, Los Angeles Rams
A second-round pick of the St. Louis Rams back in 2010, Saffold has spent the majority of his career mired in misery. He's been given new life under Sean McVay, teaming with All-Pro left tackle Andrew Whitworth and veteran center John Sullivan to lead the league's most consistently excellent blocking unit. Now that first-time starter Austin Blythe has displaced Jamon Brown on the interior, the Rams boast the league's premier guard duo, paving the way for Gurley's career-high 208 rushing yards last week in Denver. What's more valuable to Saffold, a Super Bowl ring or one last life-altering contract? He might not have to make that choice come February.