It’s never too early to start looking ahead to free agency. With the regular season about midway in the books, the offseason is that much closer. March will sneak up on us before we know it. While teams typically look to build through the draft, free agency can prove to be a useful resource to address a specific need with a player who can impact from the get-go.
While half the players on this list may wind up re-signing with their respective teams, looking ahead at who could potentially hit the market is always fun to do. Who do you hope your favorite team targets?
20. CB Morris Claiborne (Dallas Cowboys)
Perhaps the most surprising name on this list, Morris Claiborne has had a very good season and has been the best corner on the Dallas Cowboys in 2016. It’s about time the Cowboys have gotten good play from their 2012 1st round pick, and what better timing than in a contract year?
For a team who has suffered from poor CB play year after year as of late, they’re more than likely to bring Claiborne back. However, nothing is set in stone when it comes to free agency. Claiborne is a solid #2 CB at this point in his career, and the market will pay him more than that most likely.
19. WR Terrelle Pryor (Cleveland Browns)
Terrelle Pryor has enjoyed a breakout season for Cleveland this year and has far exceeded my expectations I set for him at the beginning of the season. Pryor has proved to be a legitimate #1 WR for the Browns. He’s arguably the most athletic player in the game and is only going to get better with more experience at his new position. So far he has 35 catches for 431 yards and 3 TDs.
With Josh Gordon now out of football, I highly doubt the Browns let go of Pryor. However, he may want to test the market after his breakout season and see what type of money will come his way. He can serve as a legitimate #2 on most teams, if not their top WR.
18. DL Calais Campbell (Arizona Cardinals)
The oldest player to appear on this list, Calais Campbell has proven that age is just a number. Even after surpassing the 30 year old mark, Campbell has remained a stout defensive linemen for the Cardinals. He’s racked up respectable pass rush production nearly every year of his career, and is even better against the run.
With Chandler Jones also set to be a free agent, the Cards are likely to retain the veteran Campbell as he’ll come at a cheaper price. If Campbell does hit the market, he can serve as an instant start at defensive end in a 3-4 scheme for competing teams.
17. DT Johnathan Hankins (New York Giants)
After signing players such as Olivier Vernon, Janoris Jenkins and Damon Harrison last offseason, the Giants don’t have much wiggle room to work with and Johnathan Hankins is likely to hit the free agent market. His production has dipped a lot following a 7 sack season back in 2014, but the upside is still there with is the main reason he lands inside my top 20.
At only 24 years old, Hankins could prove to be one of the best value signings this upcoming offseason. He’s proven that he can make his presence known as an interior pass rusher and his play against the run can be stout at times. A great fit in 4-3 schemes.
16. CB Trumaine Johnson (Los Angeles Rams)
The Montana product is coming off a breakout 2015 season in which he recorded 7 interceptions. His play earned him a franchise tag as he is set to cash in a long-term deal this upcoming offseason. Johnson is a playmaker on the outside with size. At 26 years old, he still has a lot of good football ahead of him.
It’s hard to imagine the Rams let Johnson walk after doing so with Janoris Jenkins last offseason. They elected to retain Johnson over Jenkins, so clearly they like him a lot. Letting Johnson walk would create a huge hole at the corner position for LA.
15. G Kevin Zeitler (Cincinnati Bengals)
Kevin Zeitler was drafted in the 1st round four years ago and has lived up to the position. He has started nearly every game since being drafted and has proved to be a key cog in Cincinnati’s offense while establishing himself as one of the most consistent interior linemen in the game.
The Bengals are in a tight cap situation, so allowing Zeitler hit the open market may be the necessary decision. He excels in both run blocking and pass blocking. He’s improved as a run blocker each season and didn’t allow a single sack in 2015. He should receive a similar to contract to Kelechi Osemele from a year ago.
14. CB Stephon Gilmore (Buffalo Bills)
Since being drafted in the 1st round back in 2012, Stephon Gilmore has been a reliable #1 corner for the Buffalo Bills. He brings an aggressive, physical style which certain teams will covet. He’s productive against the pass and makes an impact by batting balls an even picking off passes. Has lockdown skills as well.
It’s hard to imagine Rex Ryan letting Gilmore walk, but perhaps if a new regime comes in they’ll shake things up a bit and start a rebuild. Gilmore would instantly improve a team’s CB corps and give them a starter on the outside.
13. DT Brandon Williams (Baltimore Ravens)
One of the most underrated defensive players in all of the NFL, Brandon Williams is an imposing force at 6’1”/340. His presence at the nose tackle is something all 3-4 teams will covet, especially considering his elite skills against the run.
I think the Ravens are likely to bring Williams back. He’s the anchor of that defense and extremely valuable to them, as he would be to any team. Now all they have to do is continue to build around him.
12. S Eric Berry (Kansas City Chiefs)
The future looks bleak for Eric Berry in Kansas City as he’s likely to hit the free agent market this upcoming offseason. The 4-time Pro Bowler is a difference maker at the safety position who can do a little bit of everything. If Eric Weddle can cash in on a big deal last season, I’m intrigued to see what Berry’s asking price will be at only 27 years old.
Berry makes an impact in every phase of the game. His battle with cancer has been well documented over the past year or so and is a true testament to the type of competitor he is. He’s in for a well deserved pay day.
11. DL Jabaal Sheard (New England Patriots)
The former 2nd round pick of the Cleveland Browns has found a career rejuvenation after signing in New England just two years ago. Jabaal Sheard has emerged as the team’s best defensive linemen and premier pass rusher. He debuted in New England with 8 sacks last season, with 3.5 through 7 weeks in 2016.
The Patriots are a team that can seemingly re-stock their defensive line effortlessly, so it’ll be interesting to see what they do with Sheard’s contract – as he’ll definitely demand more money. As the team’s best defensive linemen, you’d expect them to re-sign him, but the Patriots have invested a lot into the defensive line through the draft in recent years.
10. LB Jamie Collins (Cleveland Browns)
In a shocking trade as week 8 concluded, the Patriots shipped their defensive cornerstone to the Cleveland Browns in return for a 3rd round pick. He proved to be the odd man out in New England as they were unlikely to be able to retain the free agency trio also featuring Hightower and Sheard.
One of the most versatile linebackers in all of football, Collins has the skillset to fit in nearly any defensive scheme. He’s one of the best coverage linebackers with 5 career INTs (2 this year) and 16 career passes defended. Collins excels against the run and can get to the QB as well. He’ll likely be back in Cleveland on a franchise tag, but if he hits the open market, a team will have themselves a cornerstone defensive player.
9. CB A.J. Bouye (Houston Texans)
Like Josh Norman last season, A.J. Bouye is another corner to emerge out of nowhere in a contract year and solidify himself as one of the best corners in all of football. Bouye has stood out in a Houston secondary that features former 1st round picks such as: Johnathan Joseph, Kareem Jackson and Kevin Johnson.
While he doesn’t have the INT production to gain national attention, he has been a lockdown corner and currently tops the list on PFF among all corners in the NFL. The former undrafted free agent is in for a big pay day.
8. LB Dont’a Hightower (New England Patriots)
Another Patriot to appear in this list, Dont’a Hightower becomes the headliner of New England’s defense after the trade of Collins. Hightower does a little bit of everything, but mainly serves as an asset against the run, and he does a fine job of rushing the passer.
With Collins now out of the picture, it looks like Hightower re-signing with New England is inevitable. Either way, Hightower is one of the best LBs in the game and is still young which will draw interest from most teams in the league.
7. DE/LB Melvin Ingram (San Diego Chargers)
After being drafted in the 1st round back in 2012, the former Gamecock has emerged as one of the NFL’s most lethal pass rushers after a breakout 2015 season where he recorded 10.5 sacks. It looks like Ingram has finally found his stride and untapped his potential that San Diego drafted him for.
I could see San Diego letting Ingram test the open market. He’s going to demand a lot of money and the Chargers are a team with far too many needs to invest a lot of money in one player. Ingram is at his peak, what better time to cash in?
6. DE/LB Chandler Jones (Arizona Cardinals)
After being traded to Arizona this past offseason on an expiring deal, Chandler Jones has made the trade well worth it for the Cardinals as he’s racked up 5 sacks through the first 7 weeks of the season. At 26 years old, Jones is set to be the premier pass rusher of this 2017 free agency group.
Heading into 2017, Jones will have around 50 career sacks. A team like Pittsburgh or Indianapolis who are desperate for pass rushers could pay him big this offseason. The emergence of Markus Golden who leads the team in sacks will make it easier for the Cards to let go of Jones, especially with their championship window closing a bit.
5. QB Kirk Cousins (Washington Redskins)
Originally I had Kirk Cousins ranked in the teens on this list, but I had to comeback a few weeks later and move him up as his play elevated to a new level after an inconsistent start to the season. Through 11 weeks, Cousins has been among the most productive QBs in the league with over 3,000 passing yards, 17 TDs and a completion percentage standing at 67%.
With QB clearly the most important position in football, Cousins is in for another huge payday as he proved to be worthy of a long-term deal. I doubt the Redskins let him walk, but if he does hit the open market, he will be among the highest paid players in a few months.
4. RB Le’Veon Bell (Pittsburgh Steelers)
After missing the first 3 games of the 2016 season due to suspension, Bell has returned to elite form in Pittsburgh’s backfield and has perhaps re-established himself as the top RB in the game. Through week 7, he already has 30 catches and has averaged 5 yards per carry. At only 24 years old, that’s an added bonus and will make teams want to pursue him even more.
While RB isn’t the most coveted of positions during free agency, Bell could see a record breaking deal in today’s market. He’s still young, can do everything the positon demands, and is a true franchise tailback. I expect him to return to Pittsburgh, but who knows with his off-field history.
3. WR Alshon Jeffery (Chicago Bears)
It’s not every year that we see a stud #1 WR hit the open market, and that’s likely to be the case for Alshon Jeffery – Chicago may even trade him prior to the upcoming trade deadline. It’s no surprise that the Bears are in rebuilding mode, and it doesn’t appear Jeffery is part of their long-term plans which makes his availability very high.
A WR needy team such as the Philadelphia Eagles would be more than willing to give a guy like Jeffery an annual salary of $10M+. He’s stayed healthy this year, and has played very well despite playing with a handful of QBs. Jeffery is the most valuable offensive weapon to hit the free agent market this year. I don’t expect his suspension this past season to hurt his demand.
2. CB Josh Norman (Washington Redskins)
For the 2nd time in two years, Josh Norman will find himself on the free agent market. It’s still unclear whether or not he will return to the Redskins, although it’s hard to imagine they bring him in for just one season. As it currently stands, he is without a long-term contract and will be a free agent come March.
Norman is one of the best corners in the game. He’s extremely athletic and possesses the lockdown corner capabilities. After signing a one year deal prior to 2016, he’s set to cash in big on a multi-year deal this upcoming offseason. I expect him to return to DC, but I can’t keep him off this list.
1. DT Kawann Short (Carolina Panthers)
While he’s having quite a disappointing 2016 campaign as are most of the players on the Carolina Panthers, Kawann Short tops my list of 2017 NFL free agents. Even though he’s registered only 1 sack halfway through the season, Short established himself as one of the NFL’s most disruptive interior pass rushers last season where he recorded 11 sacks.
Teams will be willing to dish out record breaking money for the soon to be 28 year old defensive linemen as he brings an instant force to trenches. After signing guys like Luke Kuechly and Cam Newton long-term, money is a bit tight in Carolina as you saw them cut Josh Norman this past offseason. Short very well could find himself on the open market this upcoming offseason if he’s not tagged.