With the NFL offseason approaching fast, general managers are already starting to look ahead to the 2018 season. For most GMs, the first steps in building a team for next year involves taking a long look at the free agent market and trying to decide who to keep, who to make a big offer for, and (possibly) who to let walk away to another team.
And we are quite sure that general managers, new and old, who aren’t currently watching their teams in the playoffs, are patiently waiting for the franchise/transition tag period opening on Feb. 20 and full on free agency come Mar. 14.
Of course, there are a slew of players, young and old, who will be looking for new deals. We’ve identified 16 players up for free agency, who should explore their financial and professional options with other teams.
16. DT Olsen Pierre – Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals got a lot of mileage out of undrafted free agent DT Olsen Pierre in his first NFL season, paying him just $540,000 for the season. Now might be time for the 26-year-old former Miami Hurricane to test his worth on the open market after a stellar rookie campaign. The native of New Jersey was second on the 8-8 Cardinals with 5.5 sacks, while also registering 30 tackles, forcing a fumble and successfully defending two pass attempts. He was particularly effective in a late season victory over Seattle, recording a season high four tackles, forcing a fumble and sacking Russell Wilson. Teams who will be looking for defensive linemen, particularly tackles, include Buffalo, Dallas and Atlanta.
15. TE Luke Willson – Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks, who missed the playoffs for the first time since the 2011 season, have some decisions to make on free agents, none harder than at the position of tight end. At one end of the spectrum is $10 million dollar man — and general disappointment — Jimmy Graham. Then there is back-up Luke Willson, who is four years younger than Graham at 27 and cost $8.2 million less. A back-up now for five seasons in Seattle, Wilson has done an admirable job, catching 89 passes in 72 games, for 1,129 yards and 11 touchdowns. He has also snared 13 passes in nine playoff games for 154 yards and another TD. With his age and experience, he has some leverage with the Seahawks, especially since Graham is likely gone. Baltimore, Dallas, Tennessee and Jacksonville all have a need at tight end. Or, he could chose to sign as back-up in Detroit, which is close to his hometown of LaSalle, Ontario.
14. TE Nick O’Leary – Buffalo Bills
Jack Nicklaus’ grandson Nick O’Leary looks like he could cash in this off-season. The third-year back-up tight end to Charles Clay in Buffalo had a pretty good season, catching a career high 22 passes for 322 yards (also a career best) and his first two NFL TDs. He also caught two passes for another 22 yards in Buffalo’s first appearance in the playoffs in nearly two decades. With Clay under control for two more seasons, it may be in ever-improving O’Leary’s best interests to up his cheap $480,000 salary with another club. And since he’s from Florida and a State grad, Jacksonville could be a desirable destination, as they have need (or maybe even getting a deal with Miami and Tampa Bay, where Anthony Fasano and Carmeron Brate, respectively, are also free agents).
13. CB Robert McClain – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Starting left CB Brent Grimes is due to be a free agent in March, which could open a hole for fellow free agent McClain, should he chose to stay. Grimes is 34 and was paid $6.75 million last year and unless he takes a pay cut, is likely out the door in Tampa. McClain is 29 and backed up Ryan Smith at right corner. The 29-year-old veteran had arguably his best season in a NFL career that started with Carolina in 2010. He ad 50 tackles in 14 games, along with a career high three interceptions, including his first pick-six. At just $775,000 in 2017, he was a bargain and will command more on the open market. A Philadelphia native, McClain could end up with his hometown Eagles (or any one of a slew of teams needing an upgrade at corner), who aren’t solid in that department.
12. RB Isaiah Crowell – Cleveland Browns
Even though the Cleveland Browns will have $100 million to sign just a handful of free agents, it might make more sense for fourth-year back Crowell to take the money and run away from the mess that was 0-16 Cleveland. The team’s leading rusher suffered from the malaise that has infected the Browns for years now, seeing his rushing yards dip from 952 in 2016 to 853 yards this season, as well as TDs from seven to two. His receiving yards also dipped from 319 in 2016 to 182 in 2017. The Alabama State grad has been a durable presence, not missing a game in his four seasons and at $2.75 million last year he was relatively cheap. Most contending teams don’t have immediate needs at running back, however, Tampa and Miami, both desirable locations, do have holes there.
11. RB Orleans Darkwa – New York Giants
Yes, it’s a big market with lots of exposure, but after the Giants imploded spectacularly in 2017, we expect and exodus of players (not the least of which may be Eli Manning). For running back Orleans Darkwa, the season he just had should make him a rich man. The undrafted Tennesseean hit highs in all categories, including rushing yards (751), touchdowns (5) and receiving yards (116). All that, for the low, low price of $1.1 million. New GM Dave Gettleman will have to open up the vault a little more to retain Darkwa, who stated after the last game of the season — where he had a season high 154 yards and a TD in a 18-10 victory, no less — that he’s not sure if he is returning or not. Like Isaiah Crowell in Cleveland, the 25-year-old Darkwa has plenty of options and should get a few offers.
10. SS Eddie Pleasant – Houston Texans
While the Houston Texans secondary was considered an overall disappointment in a dismal 4-12 season, second string strong safety Eddie Pleasant had himself a fine year in a bench role. He was paid just over $1 million and posted respectable numbers in 16 games. He had 32 tackles, two sacks (career best), a forced fumble, an interception and three successful pass defences. He’s been noted as a steady, if unspectacular player who just gets the job done in the secondary, as well as on special teams. Undrafted out of Oregon, the California native is entering his seventh season in the NFL (he’s played all six years in Houston). He could chose to remain in Texas, but three other teams, all playoff squads like Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Kansas City (which doesn’t have a first round pick like Houston) have identified holes at safety.
9. FS Adrian Phillips – Los Angeles Chargers
Versatile, not to mention cost-effective, are two words one could associate with Chargers back-up free safety Adrian Phillips. Sometimes utilized as a linebacker, Phillips gave good value for his cheap $690,000 contract in 2017. The fourth-year safety out of Texas finished seventh on the Chargers in tackles with 63 (career high), forced a fumble, had two interceptions and five pass defences for the 9-7 Chargers. Yet another undrafted gem, Phillips may elect to stay in southern California, but the team also needs to sign their starter at free safety, Tre Boston. He was outstanding with 79 tackles and five interceptions, while making just $900,000. It is very possible one of them is on the way out and we think it will be Phillips, depending on Boston’s demands.
8. WR Kendall Wright – Chicago Bears
There was plenty of blame to go around for the Bears 5-11 season, particularly for the offence, which mustered the fourth fewest points in the NFL at 264. Some of it could be put at the feet of rookie QB Mitch Trubisky, or those planning the schemes, but a lot of it fell on the receivers, who were cited as not particularly adept at gaining separation and having sure hands. One player who made the most of his one-year, $2 million contract was Kendall Wright. While he led the Bears in catches (59), targets (91) and receiving yards (614), those numbers, particularly the targets paled in comparison to other no. 1 receivers. He was targeted nearly half as much as Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins (176, the leader). Getting 91 tosses thrown at him (part of a league low 367 total pass attempts) didn’t do the Bears much good, apparently, as those numbers also got run-happy coach John Fox fired. Many teams have a need at wideout and Wright will be on a few radars.
7. WR Jarvis Landry – Miami Dolphins
The NFL’s leader in receptions, Jarvis Landry, may have played his last game for the Fish in the 2017 finale against Buffalo. While he has said he wants to return to the Dolphins, and they want him back, he did ignite an ugly brawl in a loss to the Bills and his hot-headed ways may be too much of a distraction. With Ryan Tannehill coming back, it might behoove the Dolphins to re-sign the four-year vet, who had 400 receptions in 64 games with Miami, for 4,038 yards and 22 touchdowns. This past season he caught a NFL high 112 passes for 987 yards and nine TDs. Many teams with need at wideout will no doubt sniff around. He is due a hefty raise on his $868, 728 salary this past season, if teams can look past his issues.
6. DE Shelby Harris – Denver Broncos
For a guy most scouts projected to be not much more than a practice squad player, Denver’s Shelby Harris has made the most of his NFL opportunity, especially in 2017. In his first full campaign since being drafted in the seventh round by Oakland in 2014, the Milwaukee native finished second on the Broncos in sacks with 5.5 (Von Miller had 10) and contributed 34 tackles and three passes defended in 16 games off the bench. Because of the fact he was cut by so many teams before Denver took a chance on him, Harris was offered just a $615,000 contract. He can play both end and line, which will make him very marketable to the clutch of teams requiring help on the defensive line.
5. DE Denico Autry – Oakland Raiders
Despite being no. 2 on the depth chart at defensive end to Mario Edwards Jr., Denico Autry outplayed him, statistically at least. Four-year pro Autry (he played all four seasons with Oakland) had 36 tackles to Edwards Jr”s 27 and five sacks to his 3.5. Autry also successfully defended seven passes will Edwards Jr. recorded a donut in that category. What will make Autry attractive to other teams is the fact he was relatively inexpensive ($1.8 million). He will probably listen to all prospective offers, as the new Sheriff, Jon Gruden comes back to town, with his own agenda.
4. LB Demario Davis – New York Jets
It was a redemptive year for six-year veteran linebacker Demario Davis, who returned triumphantly to the team that drafted him in the third round of the 2012 draft out of Arkansas State. After one decent season in Cleveland — preceded by four in New York — Davis actually took a pay cut and signed a friendly $2.25 million contract with the Jets and followed it up by having a career year. The durable veteran who has not missed a game in six years, finished sixth in the NFL in tackles with an eye-popping 135, along with a career high 5.0 sacks (tops on the Jets, too) and three passes defended. The Chargers, Lions, Bills, Rams, Steelers and Eagles all have a need at linebacker. Davis will be a hot commodity come mid-March.
3. LB Jon Bostic – Indianapolis Colts
Journeyman linebacker Jon Bostic won’t wow anyone with his pass-rushing skills, but any team needing a solid tackler who can stuff the run and not get beat too much in coverage should offer him a contract when he hits free agency. Playing on his third team in four seasons, Bostic started all 14 games he appeared in and finished third on the Colts in tackles with 97, along with one sack. A former Florida Gator drafted 50th overall by Chicago in 2013, Bostic played two seasons with the Bears and one with New England before missing all of the 2016 campaign as a member of the Detroit Lions (he was on injured reserve with a foot ailment). At $690,000 Bostic was a bargain basement find and with the teams we mentioned in the previous slide on the prowl for help, he’ll get a few phone calls.
2. QB Kirk Cousins – Washington Redskins
While the Redskins might franchise tag Cousins on another one-year deal (it would be his third in a row with the Redskins), the prolific passer says the limit on one-year deals, where he is concerned, is running out. The NFL’s seventh best QB in passing yards (4,093) earned nearly $24 million on his pact, but after three straight seasons of over 4,000 yards passing along with 81 TDs (against 36 INTs) Cousins wants a multi-year pact. Now 29, Cousins is still in his prime throwing years and looking at what is available out there, or their own cupboard (Colt McCoy), the Redskins could do a lot worse than to give Cousins a multi-year deal. If they franchise tag him, he would get $34.5 million (or $28.8 million on a transitional tag). If he does happen to hit the market, competition for his services would be stiff.
1. QB Case Keenum – Minnesota Vikings
There are a few “What If’s” when it comes to current Vikings starter and soon-to-be free agent Case Keenum. As in, what if the super-sub leads the Vikings all the way to the Super Bowl, maybe even winning the whole darned thing? Being that starting QB Sam Bradford is on the mend and also a free agent, what do the Vikes do with Keenum, who passed for 3,547 yards in 15 games, both career bests. He also tossed 22 TD passes, which is also a career high, against just seven interceptions. In Bradford’s absence, and by another measure free agent Teddy Bridgewater’s, too, Keenum has performed way above anyone’s expectations. Starting this weekend when the Saints come marching into U.S. Bank Stadium, Keenum can write another chapter to his journeyman career and produce a Minnesota playoff victory for the first time since the 2009 season. He made $2 million this year — one-ninth what Bradford earns — and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that he could easily quintuple that elsewhere.