Carolina Panthers linebacker Brian Burns (0) during the second quarter
Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Carolina Panthers linebacker Brian Burns (0) during the second quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Expert Analysis

February 13, 2024

15 min read

2024 NFL Free Agency: Predicting This Year’s Mega-Contracts

Super Bowl LVIII is in the books and the NFL focus shifts to the 2024 league year, beginning with free agency opening on March 11.

The upcoming free agent class is heavier on defensive talent, as the following list demonstrates. Here’s my Sweet 16 list of players in the best position to fetch mega-contracts. Many will be hit with the franchise tag at eight-figure sums on the one-year tender.

They’ll still hope to sign long-term deals with substantial guarantees rather than be stuck signing their one-year tenders. Here’s what some of those deals could look like.

>>READ: Top 100 2024 NFL Free Agents

Top Offensive Free Agents

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) takes the field before the game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. (Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports)

Kirk Cousins, QB, Minnesota Vikings

Before he tore his Achilles tendon in Week 8, Kirk Cousins’ 103.8 passer rating ranked third in the NFL, and the Minnesota Vikings had won three straight games. 

More recently, he looked well on the road to full recovery. He danced last week at the NFL Honors show, planting the seed with the Vikings and other potential free agent suitors — of which there should be many — that he should be good to go by June minicamps.

The Vikings can’t put the franchise tag on the 36-year-old Cousins, and coach Kevin O’Connell wants him to return. Cousins says that’s his preference as well. The four-time Pro Bowl quarterback is the top-ranked QB going into free agency, ahead of Baker Mayfield — who had a fine season — and a bunch of lesser quarterbacks, including Gardner Minshew, Jacoby Brissett, Joe Flacco, Jameis Winston and Ryan Tannehill.

The last time Cousins hit free agency was in 2018 when he left Washington for a record-setting, fully guaranteed $84 million over three years in Minnesota. His next deal should significantly exceed his expiring contract ($35 million per year).

He’s likely to receive a two-year deal for $90 million, fully guaranteed, along with a third year that voids after the 2025 season to reduce the cap hit over the next two years. He’ll likely stay with the Vikings, who have $29 million in cap room and can reduce a potential $28.5 million salary cap dead money hit by re-signing him for several years.

New York Giants Running Back Saquon Barkley
New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley (26) heads to the goal line in the second quarter past Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Nolan Smith (3).

Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants

Considering all the issues facing the New York Giants this offseason — from QB Daniel Jones' ACL recovery to alleged coaching staff dysfunction — the G-Men will likely make a concerted effort to keep their top pick from 2018.

That should result in a second straight franchise tag at $12.1 million or a long-term deal similar to Jonathan Taylor’s three-year, $42 million contract with the Colts.

Saquon Barkley’s numbers dipped as teams loaded the box to stop him after Jones’ injury. He played in two fewer games than in 2022 and fell from 1,650 to 1,242 scrimmage yards. He’s a 27-year-old, two-time Pro Bowler who, with Derrick Henry and Josh Jacobs, leads a solid free-agent class at running back.

Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins (5) warms up before the game
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins (5) warms up before the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Acrisure Stadium. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Tee Higgins, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

Despite a relatively down season in which he missed six games because of rib and hamstring injuries, Tee Higgins should be a prime target in free agency. The 25-year-old receiver had two straight thousand-yard receiving seasons before his production dropped in 2023 when he recorded 42 catches, 656 yards and five TDs.

The former second-round pick has 27 career touchdown receptions, including two in the postseason.

Higgins is a big, athletic receiver, and the Cincinnati Bengals could use the franchise tag to retain him while they work out a long-term extension with Ja’Marr Chase. If Higgins hits the open market, he should receive a contract in the $20 million per year range. 

>> READ MORE: Higgins' Top Landing Spots

Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Coming off his 10th straight 1,000-plus yard season, Mike Evans just finished a $16.5 million per season contract. He made his fifth Pro Bowl, recording 79 catches for 1,255 yards and 13 touchdowns. That helped lead a surprising Tampa Bay Buccaneers squad to the Divisional Round.

It’s unlikely the Buccaneers will use the franchise tag on Evans. They are more likely to tag the younger Antoine Winfield Jr. at the cheaper safety position and hope to re-sign Evans, who has said he’d like to stay in Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers possess $43.6 million in cap room. 

I'd guess it takes a contract in the $25 million per year range over three years with about $50 million guaranteed to re-sign the 6-foot-5, 231-pound Evans. The 30-year-old should have several more quality seasons ahead with the Buccaneers or elsewhere.

>> READ MORE: Evans' Top Landing Spots

Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. (11) during warmups before the game against the Las Vegas Raiders at Lucas Oil Stadium. (Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Michael Pittman Jr., WR, Indianapolis Colts

Michael Pittman Jr. is a younger version of Evans — another big, productive receiver. The 26-year-old is an ascending player who had 109 receptions (fifth-ranked in the league) for 1,152 yards and four touchdowns in a career year.

The Indianapolis Colts have plenty of cap room ($66 million) to put the franchise tag on their 2020 second-round pick. Unlike most franchise-tagged players, Pittman says he wouldn’t be upset by that prospect and the expected $21 million one-year tender amount. But the Colts would be wise to re-sign him to a four-year deal for $80 million, with $50 million guaranteed.

Along with QB Anthony Richardson and RB Jonathan Taylor, Pittman is a vital piece of the team’s offense. He will be a target of many teams if he hits the open market.

New England Patriots guard Mike Onwenu (71) lines up against the Kansas City Chiefs during the second half at Gillette Stadium. (Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports)

Mike Onwenu, OT, New England Patriots

Mike Onwenu is a former sixth-round pick of the New England Patriots. He is the kind of player, at 26 years old, who teams like to target in free agency as they come off their rookie contracts. He is big, strong and versatile as a lineman who has played tackle and guard.

A contract similar to the five-year, $87.5 million deal Mike McGlinchey received last year from the Denver Broncos is possible for Onwenu.   

Top Defensive Free Agents

Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones
Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones (95) warms up before Super Bowl LVIII against the San Francisco 49ers at Allegiant Stadium. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Chris Jones, iDL, Kansas City Chiefs

Chris Jones is the best defensive player on the two-time defending champion Kansas City Chiefs, the second-ranked defense in the regular season. Jones is the best overall player in the upcoming free-agent class, too. Despite an extended holdout that cost him the opening game, he is coming off another stellar season.

Including playoff games, Jones had 11 sacks and 35 QB hits this season after 17.5 sacks and 35 QB hits in 2022. He earned $22.75 million in 2023 (including incentives) and will likely seek a contract close to Aaron Donald’s $31.5 million per year as the league’s highest-paid defensive tackle.

The Chiefs have $22.6 million in cap room. After restructuring a few existing contracts (such as Patrick Mahomes'), they could put the franchise tag on Jones, a former second-round pick, at approximately $20 million.

Kansas City will likely try to sign the soon-to-be 30-year-old to a three-year deal at $25 million per year. It could settle closer to four years and $28 million per year with guarantees exceeding Quinnen Williams’ $66 million.

Kansas City could also franchise tag Jones and try to trade him, but that would significantly weaken their defensive front.

Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Justin Madubuike
Jacksonville, Florida, USA; Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Justin Madubuike (92) celebrates after beating the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Stadium. (Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports)

Justin Madubuike, iDL, Baltimore Ravens

Justin Madubuike is another player who timed his free agency well. He had a career season at 26 years old for the league’s No. 1 scoring defense. Madubuike led the Baltimore Ravens with 13 sacks and 33 QB hits. Baltimore’s third-round pick in 2020, he made his first Pro Bowl and was Second-Team All-Pro.

The Ravens are tight against the cap and must free up some room to franchise tag Madubuike, which they’ll do if they can’t get a long-term deal done.

So he’ll either be paid $20 million under the one-year franchise tender or, more likely, be signed in the range of Williams (four years, $96 million with $66 million guaranteed).

If the Ravens want to take the next step and make it to the Super Bowl, Madubuike is a critical player to retain.

Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Christian Wilkins
Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Christian Wilkins (94) looks on against the Dallas Cowboys during the second quarter at Hard Rock Stadium. (Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports)

Christian Wilkins, iDL, Miami Dolphins

The Miami Dolphins are in a tough spot at $51 million over the cap entering 2024. Christian Wilkins is a dominant defensive tackle, who played last season on his fifth-year option for $10.75 million.

He staged a hold-in that didn’t result in an extension last summer. The Dolphins could hit him with the franchise tag at $20 million if they can clear the cap space.

Miami can achieve a lower cap number than the franchise tag amount by signing Wilkins, 28, to a four-year, $90 million deal with $60 million guaranteed. That deal would come in under Williams’ and is similar to Daron Payne’s deal with Washington last year. If Miami doesn’t step up with the franchise tag or a long-term contract, Wilkins will get his $90 million elsewhere.

Wilkins had a career-high in sacks (nine) and QB hits (23) to accompany his excellent run defense. He had 98 tackles in 2022, with 16 tackles-for-loss, and 65 tackles (10 tackles-for-loss) in 2023.

Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Josh Allen
Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Josh Allen (41) hypes up the crowd after a turnover against the San Fransisco 49ers in the first quarter at EverBank Stadium. (Jeremy Reper-USA TODAY Sports)

Josh Allen, EDGE, Jacksonville Jaguars

After playing out the fifth-year option in his rookie contract, Josh Allen is poised to cash in. He tied for second in the league with a career-high 17.5 sacks, added 33 QB hits. He also is a solid run defender (13 tackles-for-loss and 54 tackles). Allen made his second Pro Bowl this past season.  

He earned $10.9 million in 2023 and is not leaving Jacksonville. He will either play under a $22 million franchise tag, or Jacksonville will extend him for $25-27 million per year.

That is less than Nick Bosa and T.J. Watt earn annually, who lead the edge rushers. But it would be more than Myles Garrett and Montez Sweat earn — both at $25 million annually.

>> READ MORE: Allen's Top Landing Spots

Minnesota Vikings linebacker Danielle Hunter
Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings linebacker Danielle Hunter (99) warms up before a game against the Chicago Bears at U.S. Bank Stadium. (Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports)

Danielle Hunter, EDGE, Minnesota Vikings

After two injury-ravaged seasons in 2020 and 2021, Danielle Hunter bounced back with two healthy Pro Bowl seasons, including his most productive year in 2023. He had a career-high 16.5 sacks (fifth in the league) and showed he is an excellent run defender (league-high 23 tackles-for-loss).

A third-round pick of the Vikings in 2015, Hunter is a free agent for the first time at 29 years old. He can’t be franchised after reworking his contract to end a short training camp holdout when the Vikings boosted his pay to $20 million plus incentives.  

Hunter is the Vikings' best defensive player. He is critical in defensive coordinator Brian Flores’ scheme that improved the team last season until critical injuries down the stretch derailed them.

The Vikings or another team in need of a pass rusher who also plays the run will sign him for $25 million per year on a four-year deal with about $60 million guaranteed.

So he slots in alongside Allen, Brian Burns and Watt but under Bosa’s $31.5 million per year. The contract likely will include roster bonuses to max out the deal, so he’s paid the full amount if he stays healthy.

Carolina Panthers edge Brian Burns
Re-signing linebacker Brian Burns (0) is imperative for the Carolina Panthers. (Morgan Tencza-USA TODAY Sports)

Brian Burns, EDGE, Carolina Panthers

Brian Burns earned $16 million in 2023 playing on his fifth-year option. Since the Carolina Panthers passed on trade offers for their two-time Pro Bowler the past two years, they will likely place the franchise tag on Burns. He is a key defender on the fourth-ranked defense in the NFL — one of few bright spots in a two-win season.

The 25-year-old's production dropped from 2022, when he had 12.5 sacks, 22 QB hits and 63 tackles, to eight sacks, 18 QB hits and 50 tackles. He also has 33 tackles-for-loss during the past two seasons, so he plays the run well.

It makes sense for the Panthers to franchise tag Burns and negotiate a long-term deal — four years, $100 million, with more than half guaranteed. As a former Pro Bowl linebacker, new Carolina general manager Dan Morgan doesn’t want to lose one of his top defensive players.

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Patrick Queen
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Patrick Queen (6) warms up before a game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Stadium. (Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports)

Patrick Queen, LB, Baltimore Ravens    

Patrick Queen is headed out of Baltimore after they declined his fifth-year option. He set himself up for a big contract with a career-best 133 tackles and 3.5 sacks. He earned his first Pro Bowl and was a Second-Team All-Pro.

Queen’s future course was set when the Ravens traded for First-Team All-Pro LB Roquan Smith last year. They then extended Smith for $20 million per year and drafted Trenton Simpson in the third round as a future starter at Queen’s spot. 

Queen will be a free-agent target for many teams, as a 24-year-old playmaker has never missed a start. He will seek a similar contract to Smith at $20 million per year, and he should reach that mark on a four-year, $80 million deal with $50 million guaranteed.

Chicago Bears Cornerback Jaylon Johnson
Chicago Bears defensive back Jaylon Johnson (33) tackles Las Vegas Raiders wide receiver Jakobi Meyers (16) at Soldier Field. (Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports)

Jaylon Johnson, CB, Chicago Bears

The Chicago Bears are building a solid defense that improved considerably in 2023, going from 29th to 12th. Jaylon Johnson is a key player as the team’s top corner. The former second-round pick made his first Pro Bowl and was named Second-Team All-Pro this season. 

Johnson had four interceptions, 10 passes defensed and 36 tackles in 14 games last season and has battled injuries during his career. He has stated he wants to be the NFL’s highest-paid corner over the Green Bay Packers’ Jaire Alexander, who signed a four-year, $84 million extension in 2022 (with $30 million guaranteed). That deal averages $19.5 million annually, including the final year before the extension kicked in.

The Bears have plenty of cap room to hit Johnson with the franchise tag at a projected $18.4 million if they can’t get a long-term deal done before free agency, so he’ll be staying in Chicago for at least one more year.

The Bears likely will sign Johnson for four years and $80 million (including some active roster bonuses) with 50 percent guaranteed. It would put his actual average and guarantees above Alexander’s two-year-old deal.  

>> READ MORE: Johnson's Top Landing Spots

Kansas City Chiefs cornerback L'Jarius Sneed
Kansas City Chiefs cornerback L'Jarius Sneed (38) reacts after a play during the first half of a 2024 AFC Wild Card game against the Miami Dolphins at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. (Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports)

L’Jarius Sneed, CB, Kansas City Chiefs

A fourth-round pick of the Chiefs in 2020, L’Jarius Sneed and second-year man Trent McDuffie (a 2023 First-Team All-Pro) formed one of the NFL’s top corner pairs for the Super Bowl champion Chiefs.

Now, Sneed is one of the top corners available in free agency and primed for a significant raise from his $2.74 million base salary on his rookie deal.

Sneed had two interceptions, 17 passes defensed and 95 tackles this season (including playoffs). He is a feisty player who made a huge play in forcing a goal-line fumble by Baltimore’s Zay Flowers in this year's AFC title game.

The Chiefs have a long list of free agents, with Jones and Sneed at the top. Jones is more likely to be tagged with the corner franchise tag projected close to the DT tag amount.

If the Chiefs can’t sign Sneed for about $16-17 million per year, he’ll likely hit free agency and get paid that amount or slightly more by one of the many corner-needy teams.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Antoine Winfield Jr.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. (31) celebrates after a fumble recovery during the first quarter against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. (Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports)

Antoine Winfield, Jr., Safety, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Antoine Winfield Jr. was the Buccaneers’ second-round pick in 2020. The 25-year-old hits free agency at an opportune time after his career-best season. He recorded 122 tackles, six sacks, three interceptions, 12 passes defensed and a league-high six forced fumbles. He’s a former Pro Bowler and was selected First-Team All-Pro in 2023.

The Buccaneers have $43.6 million in cap room and likely will hit Winfield with the franchise tag at around $17 million. To reduce his cap hit by about $7 million, they should negotiate a five-year deal for $90 million (with $50 million guaranteed).

That would put the versatile playmaker in the range of top-paid safeties Derwin James and Minkah Fitzpatrick. Winfield's new deal would be more than the deal Jessie Bates signed last year in with Atlanta for four years, $64 million with $42 million guaranteed.