In just under a week, NFL GMs — who aren’t still busy applying franchise tags to players — will start shopping the available free agent market.
On March 14, free agency officially opens and the pickings, as the say, are slimmer than usual. Outside of a couple of big QB names like Drew Brees, Kirk Cousins and even Case Keenum, there aren’t many others to sate a league wide salacious appetite for accomplished pivots.
At other positions, besides a few marquee names, not much jumps off the page either.
Thus, with a salary cap set at $177.2 million, player personnel types will have to be prudent with their cash and hope like heck that their draft picks turn out, their trades don’t bring in underachievers and that everyone stays healthy.
The list of available players will likely dwindle as the dreaded franchise tags are applied, so we are taking a cautious approach to available free agents. We’ve come up with a list of 22 players, at least one from each position — with an eye to fielding a “team” who all might provide the best bang for the buck. Starting with offence and going to defence.
22. QB Case Keenum
Once opposing GMs trip all over each other for the right to sign Kirk Cousins to an over-the-top deal, Case Keenum and his agent will have an idea what his actual value is. Given the chance to be a bona fide starter for the first time in his career, Keenum rose to the occasion in Minnesota, throwing for 3,547 yards in 14 starts, with 22 touchdown passes and just seven interceptions. He topped that fine season by beating Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints in the divisional playoffs, before getting thumped by Nick Foles and the Eagles in the NFC Championship game. A surprise hero in Minnesota, Keenum was suitably lauded for his accomplishments. But, at 30, was his 2017 season an anomaly and was it worth top dollar on the open market? In a quarterback-starved market, he’ll probably get big bucks, but not at Cousins or Drew Brees level, we think. He is hardly over the hill and proved he can play under pressure, so he’s our pick for best prospective value at his position.
21. WR Albert Wilson
The wide receiver position seems to have the best array of talent in terms of free agents. However, some teams will overpay for guys like Sammy Watkins and Marqise Lee. A deeper look at the list sees a quietly effective wideout in Albert Wilson of the Kansas City Chiefs. He is 25, has four years of experience under his belt and made about $1.8 million last season. Now, he may want to stay in K.C. to haul in bombs from Pat Mahomes, but, Wilson may also want to cash in with interested clubs, one of which is said to be Chicago. The Georgia State product had his best year in 2017, catching 42 passes for 554 yards and three touchdowns. Wilson also caught two passes for 26 yards (both for first downs) in the Chiefs loss to Tennessee in the playoffs.
20. WR Tyrell Williams
In young receiver Tyrell Williams case, he is a restricted free agent, meaning that the Los Angeles Chargers — his home for the last three years — can match any offer from another club. But, given his increasing value as a pass-catcher, they may not be able to. Williams, who beat long odds coming out of tiny Division II school Western Oregon, caught 43 passes for 728 yards and four TDs. It wasn’t as good as his 2016 campaign (69 receptions, 1,059 yards, 7 TD), but a body of work that will get him a significant raise from the $525,000 he made last year. It would seem, too, that the Chargers have a big decision to make in that they have invested heavily in Travis Benjamin, Keenan Allen and 2017 first rounder Mike Williams.
19. RB Orleans Darkwa
The tire fire that was the New York Giants 2017 season would be reason enough for a good running back like Orleans Darkwa to bolt to teams looking to employ him, reportedly the Jets and Oakland Raiders. The 26-year-old four-year veteran made $1.1 million last year and after a career year will get a hefty raise. Not top dollar, mind you, but maybe two to three times his 2017 intake. The Tulane grad had his best season for the 3-13 Giants, posting career highs in attempts (171), yards (751; 23rd in the NFL), longest run (75 yards) and touchdowns (5). He also caught a career high 19 passes for 116 yards (seven receptions resulting in first downs). Darkwa didn’t just victimize poor run defences for big games either, as his second highest game total (117 yards) came in a win over Denver, which had the fifth fewest rush yards against (89.4 yards/game).
18. RB Isaiah Crowell
Up five positions on the statistical running yards chart from Orleans Darkwa is Cleveland Browns running back Isaiah Crowell. And if there is anyone needing to escape a bad situation more than Darkwa, it’s Crowell, who performed admirably for a 0-16 club going nowhere fast. While he didn’t score as many touchdowns as years past with two (the Browns didn’t score much, period) Crowell did start another 16 games for the fourth straight season and had his most rushing attempts (206) and second most yards (853). In four seasons, the Alabama State product has played all 64 games, running for 3,118 yards and 21 TDs. He’s also caught 96 passes for 770 yards and another score. At age 25, his best years are in front of him and rumored landing spots are Detroit and Miami. He made just under $2.75 million and will get a boost in free agency, but not crazy money.
17. TE Antonio Gates
Gates is the “old man” here at 37 (he’ll be 38 at the start of the 2018 season), but the eight-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro still has something to offer, most likely on a one, maybe two, year contract. The lifelong Charger may not get the $5.5 million he made in 2017, however, he still has supple hands and smarts honed over 15 seasons. In 16 games last year, Gates caught 30 passes from 316 yards and three touchdowns. His production has been slipping year over year since 2013, however, if he doesn’t re-sign in Los Angeles (which is more and more likely as the signing period nears), he could be a great mentor/pass catcher in another market. What makes a player of Gates even more special is his durability — especially at his age. He played all 16 games in 2017 and has failed to appear in only 20 of a possible 240 games in his lengthy career.
16. OT Eric Winston
Not quite in the same geezer category as Antonio Gates is Cincinnati Bengals veteran tackle and NFLPA president Eric Winston. The big Texan is 34 and going into his 13th season. He was originally drafted in the third round, 66th overall by Houston in 2006, after a standout career at Miami. He started seven of 12 games his rookie season and then reeled off seven straight seasons starting 16 games, six with the Texans and then one each with Kansas City and Arizona. Cincinnati picked him up in 2014 and since then he’s been on a series of one-year deals hovering around $1 million per season. If the Bengals want to go another way, many teams could do worse than inking him to yet another one-year pact, not just for his ability on the line but his locker room presence.
15. OG Jahri Evans
Evans, like Eric Winston in Cincinnati, is another of those solid veterans looking to keep their careers going. Evans who is the same age as Winston, played and started more games than Winston (14) for the Green Bay Packers and made a modest $2.25 million. Evans, who spent 11 seasons with New Orleans protecting future Hall of Fame QB Drew Brees, played a major part in the Saints 2009 Super Bowl run. He would be a good fit then, either staying in Green Bay to protect Aaron Rodgers for another go, or with another contender looking for veteran smarts on the line at a cost-effective price. Evans, who was selected 108th overall by the Saints out of little Division II Bloomsburg in 2006, is a six-time Pro Bowler, four-time First Team All-Pro and two-time winner of the Madden Most Valuable Protectors Award.
14. C Weston Richburg
While we’re not advocating that every Giants free agent run as far and as fast as they can away from the Big Apple, Weston Richburg is arguably the best center on the market and can cash in. The rumors, too, out of New York suggest the Giants weren’t that impressed with his body of work and are going to move on (i.e. sign another center or draft one). Reviews on his performance have been mixed, but up until 2017 he was a reliable starter, missing just one game in three seasons. Last year, injuries limited him to four starts. One team that has their sights reportedly set on Richburg is the New York Jets. He was on the last year of a modest four-year, $4.877 million contract he signed after being picked 43rd overall out of Colorado State in 2014.
13. K Chandler Catanzaro
The kicking position doesn’t get a lot of love, from fans and pundits alike, but not having a good kicker has killed some clubs at crunch time. There aren’t many big names on the free agent board at that position, but there is some skill to be had, at the right price, too. Catanzaro, who was signed by the Jets last year after three campaigns in Arizona, is one of those guys. He was good on 25 of 30 attempts in 2017 (83.3 percent) and 100 percent on 29 point after attempts, all while making a budget friendly $900,000. Over his four-year career the Clemson product has been 84.4 percent accurate on field goals, with a 60-yarder being his longest. He has also kicked successfully 152 of 161 PATs.
12. P Pat O’Donnell
Even further down the free agent to-do list than field goal kickers are their hoofing brethren, punters. The biggest name in free agency this year is veteran Dustin Colquitt of the Chiefs, but he is expensive and near the end at 35. The best option among six punting free agents is Chicago’s Pat O’Donnell. The 27-year-old O’Donnell had his best statistical season for the Bears in 2017 (his fourth since being drafted in 2014), sending 87 punts a collective 4,087 yards for a 47.0 average, good for ninth best in the NFL. Of those 87 punts, 27 fell inside the 20, six were for touchbacks and 15 were signaled for fair catch. The net on his punts was 41.1 yards. O’Donnell was on the last year of a four-year, $2.325 million contract.
11. DE Denico Autry
Switching the focus to defenders, there are a glut of decent to great defensive ends available, some, like Muhammad Wilkerson, who will be paid big (maybe overpaid). One guy we see getting a healthy raise, but still won’t break the bank, is Oakland’s Denico Autry. Undrafted in 2014 out of Mississippi State, Autry had a career year in 2017 with the Raiders. In 16 games he registered highs in tackles (36), sacks (5.0) and pass defences (7). His signature game in a so-so Oakland season was a three tackle, two sack, one pass defence effort in a 21-14 victory over AFC West rival Denver on Nov. 26. A no-nonsense player noted for being a versatile lineman, Autry made just under $1.8 million on a one-year deal in 2017.
10. DE Shelby Harris
After the breakout season he had in 2017, the Denver Broncos are going to have to match some pretty significant offers to RFA DE Shelby Harris. He was originally drafted 235th overall by Oakland in 2014, didn’t stick, bounced around a bit and ended up with the Broncos on an inexpensive one-year, $615,000 deal in 2017. He rewarded the Broncos faith by playing sound football in a lost year. Like Denico Autry in Oakland, Harris had personal bests in games (16), tackles (34), sacks (5.5) and passes defended (3). He immediately made an impression in his first game with Denver last year, making two tackles and blocking what could have been the game-winning field goal in a 24-21 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers.
9. DT Beau Allen
All the buzz surrounding the Philadelphia Eagles and their surprising championship season will have a rub-off effect on most of their free agents, DT Beau Allen included. The 26-year-old defensive lineman out of Wisconsin was his usual steady self in a reserve role and with four years under his belt might be looking for a starting spot, not to mention more money (he was on the last year of a four-year, $2.282 million contract in 2017). He may be willing to take a hometown discount to stay with the champs, however, he did play well in limited action, recording 20 tackles in 15 games, along with a sack and four stuffs. With the Eagles forced to clear some cap space, meaning they can’t pay Allen what he’ll want, a rumored suitor is rival Washington.
8. DT Clinton McDonald
In 2017, Clinton McDonald was voted the Buccaneers’ Man of the Year for his philanthropic endeavors in the Tampa Bay area. We’re not sure if the Bucs are going to show him some fiscal love, too, and ink him to a new contract, but if they don’t there may be willing partners out there looking for a veteran lineman with game. In his fourth season with Tampa, after three in Seattle, McDonald put up decent numbers. He had 29 tackles, five sacks and a pass defence. He saved one of his best performances for last in 2017, combining a season high five tackles with his fifth sack in a 31-24 season ending win against New Orleans. McDonald was on a the final year of a four-year, $12 million contract.
7. LB Connor Barwin
It had to be a bit unnerving for Connor Barwin to watch the Philadelphia Eagles win the Super Bowl. Not that he wasn’t playing for a great Rams club in 2017, but for the fact he was released before the 2017 season by the Eagles (saving them $7.75 million in cap space). Before the 2017 season unfolded, the veteran linebacker signed a one-year, $3.5 million contract to play his eighth season in L.A. The former Pro Bowler appeared in 14 games and registered 34 tackles, 5.0 sacks and two stuffs. He’s a few seasons removed from a huge Pro Bowl campaign with Philly in 2014 (64 tackles, 14.5 sacks), but Barwin has proven resilient. The 31-year-old University of Cincinnati product was good in L.A.’s lone playoff contest, getting in on three tackles and one sack in the loss to Atlanta.
6. LB Navorro Bowman
As we saw above with defensive end Denico Autry, the Raiders have a few big decisions to make on their defensive free agents. Even more pressing than Autry, veteran linebacker Bowman bears re-signing, as his name has been linked in rumors to surprise playoff team Buffalo. Traded mid-season to Oakland from across the bay in San Francisco, the seven-year veteran saw his production take off. After recording 38 tackles, no sacks and one pass defence in five games with the 49ers, Bowman had 89 tackles, 1.5 sacks, an interception and two pass defences in 10 games with the Raiders. We see why the Bills might be looking at his inside linebacker, as he was a beast in eight playoff games with San Francisco between 2011 and 2013, registering 79 tackles, 2.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and three pass defences. He made a modest $2.6 million on a one year contract in 2017.
5. LB Jon Bostic
For what the Indianapolis Colts paid Jon Bostic last season, they certainly got their money’s worth. The four-year veteran was paid a paltry $690,000 on a one-year deal and in 14 games, the former Florida Gator didn’t disappoint the 4-12 Colts. Bostic recorded a career high 97 tackles, along with a sack, a fumble recovery and three pass defences. His best effort last season was in a 24-23 loss to Cincinnati, where made four solo tackles and assisted on four others, got that lone sack and had two stuffs. With just four years and 32 starts of playing experience under his belt, Bostic is still has the most experience at inside linebacker. They would do well to re-sign him to another inexpensive pact for the 2018 campaign.
4. CB Byron Maxwell
The last three seasons have been pretty topsy-turvy for veteran corner Byron Maxwell, but he has handled it with aplomb. A Super Bowl winner with Seattle during his first four-year foray with the team (XLVIII), Maxwell bounced to Philadelphia in 2015, then Miami in 2016 before being released by the Dolphins midway through the 2017 season and ending back up in Seattle. In seven games with the Seahawks, Maxwell had 38 tackles, forced a fumble, had an interception and successfully defended seven passes. Not too shabby for a player making just $900,000. Originally drafted way down at 173rd overall by the Seahawks out of Clemson in 2011, the 30-year-old South Carolina native lined up opposite Richard Sherman on the “Legion of Boom” that went to two straight Super Bowls, beating Denver in 2014 for the Lombardi Trophy.
3. CB Ross Cockrell
His name may be not all that well known except to the most hardcore fans, but Ross Cockrell proved very valuable to the New York Giants after being traded to the Big Apple from Pittsburgh after the 2016 season. A fourth round pick, 109th overall by Buffalo out of Duke University, Cockrell broke out with the Steelers after not sticking with the Bills. In two seasons, he had 106 tackles, a forced fumble, two interceptions and 25 pass defences. The Steelers essentially gave him away after signing Joe Haden last year, getting a sixth round draft pick in return. Cockrell was quietly good for the Giants, racking up 50 tackles in 16 games, along with a career high three interceptions and 11 pass defences. He made a very friendly $1.1 million on a one-year contract and at 26, he’d make a good addition in many places.
2. SS Tavon Wilson
Only a shoulder injury kept Tavon Wilson from having a career year with the Detroit Lions in 2017. Drafted 48th overall by New England in 2012 out of Illinois, Wilson languished as a back-up, before being picked up by the Lions on a two-year, $2.2 million contract prior to the 2016 season. He immediately paid dividends that year, recording a career high 89 tackles, his first career sack, two interceptions and two pass defences. In 2017, the 27-year-old native of Washington, D.C. played 10 games and was well on his way to eclipsing all his 2016 numbers before being sidelined. In those 10 games, Wilson had 55 tackles, a career high two sacks, a forced fumble, an interception and two pass defences. The Lions wouldn’t be wrong to re-sign him.
1. FS Corey Graham
Another bird might fly the coop in the City of Brotherly Love, as the champion Eagles go through salary cap machinations during free agency and heading into the draft. While veteran free safety Corey Graham had an outstanding season in a reserve role, his $1.8 million cap hit — if he were to re-sign for that — might be too rich for the team. Even as second banana to Malcolm Jenkins, the durable 11-year veteran put up solid numbers in 14 games. Graham got in on 38 tackles (34 solo), had two interceptions and four pass deflections. In three playoff games, Graham registered another 15 tackles (eight in the Super Bowl), as well as an interception against Minnesota in the NFC championship game.