NFL Training camps are in full swing and it really is hard to believe that the Hall of Fame game between Chicago and Baltimore was played Thursday night.
More so, the regular season starts in just five weeks when the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles renew hostilities in the first game of the regular season, a re-match from the NFC divisional playoffs.
The remaining 30 teams don’t start pre-season games until Aug. 9, with the focus on shaking things out and incorporating new players, either free agents, traded players or draft picks into their line-ups.
Speaking of free agents, we have covered the gamut of signed and available players.
With a fair number left to sign, we can’t help but look ahead to 2019 and just which good to elite free agents will need some love. Rumors out of the Giants camp say that the team is already looking at locking up superstar wide receiver Odell Beckham. Wait out on that one.
Here is our assessment of each team’s most important potential signee in 2019.
32. Arizona Cardinals – FS Tre Boston
We’re not quite sure why the Los Angeles Chargers didn’t hang on to Boston after the year he had for them in 2017. The former fourth round pick of the Carolina Panthers put together his finest season since debuting in 2014, parlaying a one-year, $900,000 contract into starting 15 of 16 games. He recorded 79 tackles, eight pass defences and a five interceptions, all career highs. This off-season, he signed a friendly one-year, $1.5 million pact with the Cardinals, who need him to replace the departed an equally effective Tyrann Mathieu (Houston). Looking ahead, Boston, 26, should continue to improve at his craft and should he have another good year, he should be in line for some job security and better money. We say somewhere in the neighborhood of the $3.25 million Buffalo’s Jordan Poyer makes (and who had nearly identical stats).
31. Atlanta Falcons – SS Ricardo Allen
Atlanta, while not a top 5 team against the pass, was in the top half of 32 teams in that category at no. 12. Even better, they were one of the top 10 stingiest teams, allowing just 19.7 points per game against. Which means they got down and dirty in the red zone, thanks to a pretty good defensive backfield. Ricardo Allen was intrinsic to the Falcons success in 2017, which resulted in another playoff berth that ended with a 15-10 loss to eventual champion Philadelphia. Allen, who was on a cheap one-year, $615,000 contract, played in 15 games, registering 54 tackles, two pass deflections and an interception. In the off-season, the Falcons placed a second-round restricted free agent tender on him for one year and $2.91 million. Reports out of camp say they are already looking at an extension.
30. Baltimore Ravens – LB C.J. Mosley
Some time after the conclusion of the 2018 NFL season — or long before that — the Ravens hierarchy is going to have to tender a big, fat contract to one of their best defensive players. Mosley, a three-time Pro Bowl selection in his four-year NFL career, has been a durable and very dependable part of the Ravens D and is on the last year of a fairly friendly deal that will pay him $2.197 million this year. Last season, the former Alabama standout and first round draft pick recorded 132 tackles, a sack, three forced fumbles, eight pass defences and two interceptions, including a pick-six. He’s a key figure in Baltimore’s defence and their de facto leader going forward as guys like Terrell Suggs and Eric Weddle near the end of their careers.
29. Buffalo Bills – WR Kelvin Benjamin
Where things get tricky for three-year veteran WR Kelvin Benjamin in 2018 is just who is going to be flinging him passes. In two and half seasons with the Carolina Panthers, who drafted him 28th overall in 2014 out of Florida State, it was Cam Newton. Last year, after being dealt mid-season to Buffalo, it was Tyrod Taylor. This year, well it’s a toss-up, with A.J. McCarron, Nathan Peterman and 2018 first round draft pick Josh Allen all vying for the starting job. Benjamin, who missed all of 2015 with a torn ACL and two games in 2017 with another knee injury, has seen his stats take a dip due to all that missed time. In his rookie year, he caught 73 passes for 1,008 yards and nine TDs. In 14 games split between the Panthers and Bills in 2017, Benjamin hauled in 48 passes for 692 yards and three scores. A return to those 2014 stats should earn him a decent new contract.
28. Carolina Panthers – RB C.J. Anderson
Could it be that the Panthers have signed a running back who will supplant QB Cam Newton as the Panthers leading rusher? After Denver released Pro Bowler C.J. Anderson, the Panthers scooped him up and signed him to a bargain one-year, $1.75 million contract. It was a curious move by Denver, given that Anderson just completed his first 1,000+ yards season and had 1,241 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns. If Anderson can duplicate that kind of production, there is no reason to believe that he can’t take some pressure of Newton to run and allow him to use his gun of an arm to throw for more yards than the 3,302 he did in 2017. Anderson will make a nice half to a backfield tandem that includes Christian McCaffrey and if he has a year like he did in ’17, may command a pay hike and some term.
27. Chicago Bears – OT Bobby Massie
If the Bears want to return to the playoffs, where they haven’t made an appearance since 2010, the offence is going to have to improve and lead the way. The Bears, with rookie Mitch Trubisky at the helm, were not very good in 2017, but there is hope. Key to keeping Trubisky healthy is an offensive line and a consistent performance from six-year veteran tackle Bobby Massie. Alternately very good at his craft and very bad, Massie hopes to put it all together in his second season with Chicago (he played five seasons in Arizona to begin his career). He, along with another maligned tackle, Charles Leno, will be key to protecting Trubisky, who was sacked 31 times last season. Massie is making $4.25 million this year, which is 34th best in the NFL, right in line with his 40th overall ranking. He may be much better than that and the 2018 season is make or break, we believe.
26. Cincinnati Bengals – DE Carlos Dunlap
The Bengals may be in the unenviable position of either re-signing three very good defensive linemen, or cutting a couple of them loose at the end of the 2018 season. In a 2019 free agent trio that includes DT Geno Atkins, 30, DE Michael Johnson, 31 and DE Carlos Dunlap, 29, the latter is the most pressing for contract renewal. Since being taken 54th overall in the second round of the 2010 draft, Dunlap evolved into a star, making the Pro Bowl twice. In eight seasons he has logged 368 tackles, 64.5 sacks (7.5 in 2017), 16 forced fumbles, two interceptions and 42 pass defences. Word out of Bengals camp is that Dunlap, on the last year of a five-year, $39.37 million deal he signed in 2013, is already attempting a contract renegotiation. The Bengals would do very well to lock him up for another five years.
25. Cleveland Browns – CB E.J. Gaines
There is so much to like about the play of E.J. Gaines, if he can stay healthy. Now with his third NFL teams since being drafted 188th overall by the Rams in 2014, Gaines has done very well for himself, despite missing the entire 2015 season, as well as 11 games due to various ailments over the other three seasons. After being dealt to Buffalo in the Sammy Watkins trade in 2017, Gaines started 11 games for the Bills and recorded 59 tackles, three forced fumbles, nine pass deflections and an interception. Even still, the Bills opted not to re-sign him, with Cleveland picking up the tab on a one-year deal for $4 million. Should he win a training camp battle with T.J. Carrie, it will be up to Gaines to convince Browns management to sign him long term. According to Spotrac, his valuation as the no. 13 rated cornerback in the league would put him in $9.3 million annual earnings territory. He just has to prove it, again.
24. Dallas Cowboys – DE DeMarcus Lawrence
Sooner than later, the Cowboys and owner Jerry Jones will have to fork out for emerging superstar DE Lawrence. The Cowboys 2014 second rounder had a heck of a breakout year in 2017, starting all 16 games for the first time in his four-year career and making the Pro Bowl. Lawrence had 58 tackles, forced four fumbles and tied for second overall in the NFL with Jacksonville’s Calais Campbell in sacks with 14.5. For that, the Cowboys slapped the franchise tag on Lawrence, which will cost the team $17.143 million this season, tying him for highest salary among defensive ends with Detroit’s Ezekiel Ansah. A duplication of this 2017 effort should certainly earn Lawrence a hefty extension. We think the Cowboys would be wise not to wait until the end of the 2018 campaign.
23. Denver Broncos – OT Jared Veldheer
How important is pass protection in Denver? How about the fact that the three quarterbacks they utilized in 2017, Brock Osweiler, Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch were sacked a collective 52 times, the third most in the NFL. This year, Case Keenum was brought in as the no. 1 pivot and in order to keep him from being ground to dust, the Broncos went out and traded for veteran OT Veldheer. Injuries to his tricep and ankle forced him to miss 11 games in the last two seasons with Arizona, after he missed just 11 games in his first six seasons in the league. The 31-year-old Michigan native is on the last year of a five-year, $35 million pact he signed with Arizona in 2014, paying him $6.5 million this year. How Veldheer goes about helping stem the onslaught of sacks suffered last year will go a long way to his career security.
22. Detroit Lions – DE Ezekiel Ansah
Just like his confrere in Dallas, DeMarcus Lawrence, Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah got the franchise tag applied to him after a bounce-back season. Ansah got signed for the the maximum $17.143 million allotted for his position for one year and should he perform to expectations, will be in line for a long-term deal. The 29-year-old BYU product had 12.0 sacks last year after just 2.0 in 2016, while also compiling 44 tackles and forcing a fumble. The only fly in the ointment so far to the 2015 Pro Bowler’s 2018 season is the fact that he is still on the PUP list after undergoing off-season knee surgery and the team has no concrete timetable for his return.
21. Green Bay Packers – FS Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
Of all the teams on this list, the Packers have more than their fair share of good 2019 free agents to consider re-signing. Among them are Clay Matthews, Randall Cobb, Muhammad Wilkerson and Marcedes Lewis. However three of them are on the wrong side of 30 and Cobb will be there in three weeks. So, the prime target for a big new contract would be Clinton-Dix, who is 25 and fresh off another very good season. A Pro Bowler in 2016, Clinton-Dix played in all 16 games again (he hasn’t missed one in four seasons), registering 79 tackles, six pass defences and three interceptions (he has 11 career). Clinton-Dix and corner Damarious Randall, who had four interceptions, were the deadliest pair in the Green Bay backfield. His salary, at just under $6 million this year, is not in line with his statistical output or talent.
20. Houston Texans – LB Jadeveon Clowney
Houston is blessed, and cursed, with three very good defenders who will all require contractual love come the end of the 2018 season — or before. Safeties Kareem Jackson, 3o and Tyrann Mathieu, 26, as well as LB Clowney, 25 are all up for new contracts. Clowney, the first overall pick in the 2014 draft, will require deft handling, especially after the team exercised the fifth-year option on his initial contract (to no doubt save themselves some dough, at least for one season). The two-time Pro Bowl selection will make $12.3 million this year, which is well below his projected market value of over $16.5 million (made by statistical contemporaries Von Miller and Chandler Jones, to name two). Clowney had his best full season yet in 2017, playing in all 16 games for the first time and recording career highs in sacks (9.5) and tackles (59).
19. Indianapolis Colts – WR Ryan Grant
The Colts don’t really have any high end players to re-up in 2019. However, they may have a potential breakout wide receiver in Grant who could command a contract in the neighborhood of the one that his former team, Washington, negated at the last minute this off-season. He initially agreed to a four-year, $29 million pact with the Redskins, who ended up voiding it after their fan base jeered it for being an overpay. The ‘Skins failed his physical due to an ankle injury, from which Grant was cleared by an independent doctor. That allowed the Colts to sign the 27-year-old wideout to a one-year, $5 million contract. The Tulane product had his best season in 2017, starting seven of 16 games and catching 45 passes for 573 yards and four TDs. With Andrew Luck possibly firing darts at him, who knows where his ceiling is.
18. Jacksonville Jaguars – RB T.J. Yeldon
This is T.J. Yeldon’s “show me” year. Like Indianapolis, the Jags don’t have a lot of high end players whose monetary egos need stroking. But, Yeldon, who had a great rookie season in 2015 with 1,119 all-purpose yards and three TDs, has sunk to the level of just a good third-down back since then. He appeared in 10 games in 2017, none starts after making 25 in his first two seasons, rushing for 253 yards and two TDs, while catching 30 passes for 224 yards. Not bad numbers for a reserve, but we believe he could still be capable of rookie year numbers, given ample chances (which he probably won’t get behind Leonard Fournette). Yeldon’s salary is a shade under $1.25 million and if he can pump his numbers up, could get a contract similar to that of statistical contemporary Chris Ivory of Buffalo ($2.75 million a year).
17. Kansas City Chiefs – RB Spencer Ware
The only thing standing in the way of a comeback year and potential pay day for Spencer Ware is the immense shadow of RB Kareem Hunt. Ware, who missed all of 2017 with a knee injury, got a sideline seat to watch super rookie Hunt lead the NFL in rushing with 1,327 yards, along with 455 receiving yards and 11 total touchdowns. Before Hunt came along, though, Ware had his finest season in 2016, when he rushed for 921 yards and three TDs, as well as catching 33 passes for another 447 yards and two scores. While he may have to be a back up to Hunt, Ware was fairly superb in that role during his second season in the league, 2015, when he ran for 403 yards and six TDs in 11 games. Ware will make $1.45 million this season and if he performs to his ability, will make considerably more, and maybe not in K.C. (what with Hunt around).
16. Los Angeles Chargers – WR Tyrell Williams
The Chargers are getting a bargain in undrafted wide receiver Tyrell Williams — but not for long. The Chargers placed a second-round restricted free agent tender on their star wideout, which will pay him just under $3 million. Last season, his third in the NFL with the Chargers, Williams started 15 of 16 games and caught 43 passes for 728 yards and four TDs. In his first full season, 2016, Williams was even better, snaring 69 passes for 1,059 yards and seven touchdowns. The Chargers are blessed with a quartet of very talented receivers, including Keenan Allen, Travis Benjamin and Mike Williams. Only thing is, Tyrell is the lowest paid, by far, among all four but was the second best statistical receiver on the team in 2017. Williams could get at least what Benjamin makes at $6 million per season, should he duplicate his numbers.
15. Los Angeles Rams – FS Lamarcus Joyner
L.A. definitely has a player in Joyner, who they slapped the franchise tag on when they couldn’t come to a contract agreement. The four-year pro out of Florida State, originally a quarterback, competed for one of the free safety spots and won it last year and then went out and had a good season. He started 12 of 12 games he appeared in, made 49 tackles, deflected a career high nine passes and recorded the first three interceptions of his young career, converting one of them into a touchdown. The Rams have to be concerned, though, that Joyner was placed on the Non-Football Injury list on July 25 with an undisclosed ailment. Before being placed on the NFI list, newly acquired CB Aqib Talib gave Joyner high praise, comparing Joyner to all-Pro Earl Thomas. Joyner will make just over $11.25 million on the franchise tag and his valuation going forward is just above that.
14. Miami Dolphins – QB Brock Osweiler
Depending on how Ryan Tannehill comes back from an injury that kept him out of the line-up for all of 2017, we have to believe that Brock Osweiler is the no. 2 and should get some reps, depending on the abuse Tannehill takes behind center. Which is a bone of contention in Miami, where pass protection wasn’t and maybe isn’t where it should be. So, should Osweiler, who has not quite performed to expectations, come in and shine, he will most certainly get a raise on the $880,000 he will be paid in 2018 to do the job. Yet, returns on his training camp experience with his new team haven’t been glowing. But, we don’t put too much stock in the first seven days of drills, long before the first passes are flung in anger. Osweiler’s presence in South Beach is intriguing, to say the least.
13. Minnesota Vikings – RB Latavius Murray
There is a new regime at quarterback in Minnesota, with Kirk Cousins and Trevor Siemian vying for the starters job. Where there isn’t much change is in the offensive backfield, where Murray and Dalvin Cook will divide up the reps. In his first season with the Vikes, after three with Oakland, the Pro Bowl running back started 11 of 16 games, rushing for 842 yards and eight TDs. He also caught 15 passes for another 103 yards. At $5 million for the 2018 (the last season of a three-year deal) Murray is the 13th highest paid running back in the NFL. He’s not overpaid by any stretch, as Houston’s Lamar Miller, who makes $6.5 million, had very similar stats (888 yards rushing, 3 TD, 327 yards receiving, three more TDs).
12. New England Patriots – K Stephen Gostkowski
We didn’t think a kicker would make this list, but when that kicker is one of the most accurate in the league, his future free agent status can’t be ignored. Stephen Gostkowski may also be one of the oldest players on this list at 34, but he is a spring chicken compared to still active and former Pats kicker Adam Vinatieri, who is 45. Last year, Gostkowski, who superceded Vinatieri in Foxboro, was 92.5 percent accurate on his field goals (37 for 40), including a perfect 4-for-4 from 50 yards or more. He was also 45 for 47 on extra points and is 99 percent accurate in that category career. In the last two Patriots championship playoff runs, Gostkowski was a perfect 8-for-8 on field goals. He is already the highest paid kicker in football at $4.3 million per season, so he can do his brethren a solid and re-establish the market value in 2019.
11. New Orleans Saints – RB Mark Ingram
In terms of his recent statistical output, Saints running back Mark Ingram is grossly underpaid. He was the fifth leading rusher in the NFL with 1,124 yards, along with a second best 12 TDs. He also caught 58 passes for another 416 yards. Ingram did all that for the relatively cheap sum of $4 million, which he will again make in 2018. In terms of remuneration, Ingram is tied for 17th, though, along with the Jets Isaiah Crowell and New England’s James White. What might hurt him in the pocketbook, though, is the fact that he will have to sit out the first four games of the 2018 season for violating the league’s PED policy. Riding shotgun on that bad news is the emergence of Alvin Kamara, who, if he plays as well as he is capable of, may help sway management not to re-sign Ingram long term.
10. New York Giants – WR Odell Beckham Jr.
There might not be a bigger free agent in the 2019 class than Beckham Jr. The man who amassed over 4,000 receiving yards in his first three seasons and scored 35 touchdowns had a down year in 2017, missing all but four games, which truly hurt the Giants. Now healthy, the talks have begun in earnest to get the elite pass-catcher inked to a new deal before the season starts. It was reported that Beckham Jr. not only wants to be the highest paid wide receiver (who is currently Antonio Brown) in the NFL, but the highest paid player, period. It is said that the three-time Pro Bowler has made $20 million per season his target going into negotiations. For 2018 at least, he’ll have to content himself with just under $8.5 million, which is half what Pittsburgh’s Brown pulls in.
9. New York Jets – QB Teddy Bridgewater
In 25-year-old pivot Teddy Bridgewater, the Jets might have their best starting quarterback in some time. The QB carousel in the Big Apple can finally come to a stop, that is, if Bridgewater can maintain good health long enough to secure a long term deal. Before he missed all of 2016 and played in one game during the 2017 season, Bridgewater was a revelation in Minny, throwing for 2,919 yards and 14 TDs in his rookie season (12 INTs). In his second year, 2015, Bridgewater made the Pro Bowl, tossing 292 completions for 3,231 yards, with 14 more touchdowns against just nine interceptions in 16 games. The Miami native is also a decent scrambler and runner, totaling 401 yards rushing and four TDs in his first two years. At $6 million on a one-year deal, he is exactly the 32nd highest paid quarterback in the NFL. With a season like he had in 2015, that figure will grow exponentially.
8. Oakland Raiders – DE Khalil Mack
Not long before the Raiders take their act to Vegas, they need to lock up their best defensive player, Khalil Mack. The dynamic linebacker, though, is holding out for a better contract during training camp, which is being run by new guru Jon Gruden, who isn’t giving the former Defensive Player of the Year enough respect. On a sub-par defence in 2017, Mack was a monster, recording 78 tackles, 10.5 sacks, a forced fumble and three pass deflections. In his short four year career, he hasn’t missed a game and has 303 total tackles, 40.5 sacks, nine forced fumbles and 11 passes defended. The Raiders, who may be considering all options, including a trade, picked up the fifth-year option on Mack’s contract, which will see him make just under $14 million. He’s worth Ezekiel Ansah money and will get it, somewhere.
7. Philadelphia Eagles – DE Brandon Graham
Graham finally made a name for himself in Super Bowl LII against New England, making a pivotal strip-sack on Tom Brady to help seal the Eagles first Super Bowl titles. Graham, 30, had his best season in eight as an Eagle since being drafted 13th overall in 2010, registering 47 tackles, a career high 9.5 sacks (tied for 19th in the NFL), two forced fumbles and three pass defences. Now at the end of a four-year, $26 million contract, the Michigan product is coming off ankle surgery and played in the Super Bowl with a hamstring injury, so he’s a bit banged up. However, his market value suggests that he should be paid in the range of $12 to $15 million a season, such as is paid to other defensive ends like Akiem Hicks and Calais Campbell.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers – LB Vince Williams
It took him a while, but the Steelers have to be surprised with the development of 2013 sixth round (206th overall) pick Williams. In his first year as a starter after four seasons as mostly a back-up linebacker, Williams was way better than average, recording 88 tackles, 8.0 sacks, one pass deflection and the first interception of his career. Now entering the final year of an inexpensive three-year, $5.5 million contract, Williams has stated that he “wants to die a Steeler.” No further impetus, it would seem, is needed for Steelers’ brass to start negotiating with their star linebacker. Williams, 28, formed one-fourth of a very good linebacking corps that includes second-year man T.J. Watt (7.0 sacks in 2017), Bud Dupree (6.0 sacks) and newly acquired Jon Bostic from Indianapolis.
5. San Francisco 49ers – OG Jonathan Cooper
If Cooper can make it back into the line-up after off-season surgery to repair and injured MCL, he will be a boon to the pass protection needed for QB Jimmy Garoppolo. He is about the only free agent of any consequence on the San Francisco 49ers roster we felt worthy of mentioning here. The well-traveled Cooper, he was drafted seventh overall by Arizona in 2013 and also played for Cleveland and Dallas, enters his fifth season as a newly minted Niner. He is on the PUP list right now and is expected to battle third-year guard Joshua Garnett (also nursing a knee injury) for first line duties as training camp rolls on. Cooper, who started a career high 13 games last year with the Cowboys, is on a one-year deal with San Fran worth $4.95 million.
4. Seattle Seahawks – FS Earl Thomas
The Seahawks are at an impasse with superstar safety Earl Thomas about a contract extension and it couldn’t come at a worse time. They have a slew of defensive players coming up for unrestricted free agency in 2019, including fellow defensive backs Justin Coleman and Byron Maxwell. The three-time first team All-Pro safety has been a very durable presence in Seattle, missing just seven games in eight seasons. He has also been a statistical monster, logging 662 tackles, 66 pass defences and 25 interceptions in his standout career. Currently, the Texas product and former first round pick is making $8.5 million on the last year of a four-year, $40 million deal. He is statistically superior to the highest paid (on average) safety, Kansas City’s Eric Berry, so the holdout may be lengthy.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – WR Adam Humphries
The Bucs certainly underwhelmed last year, due to a number of factors, missing the playoffs after going a dismal 5-11. It was supposed to be much better than that, but one of their wide receivers was a very consistent player, who may be deserving of a new contract come 2019. Undrafted out of Clemson in 2015, Humphries signed with Tampa and in three seasons steadily improved, to the point he was third in receiving yards for the Buccaneers last season with 631, recording a touchdown. Those yards came primarily as a reserve and of note he was second only to Mike Evans in receptions with 61 (of 83 targets). He has had great chemistry with Jameis Winston, but after signing just a bridge one-year, $2.914 million deal to stay in Tampa, it doesn’t look like he has a long term future there. But, another team may be more than willing to ink him to a multi-year pact.
2. Tennessee Titans – LB Brian Orakpo
Brian Orakpo’s recent iron man status may have been put in jeopardy by a shoulder injury suffered in the first week of training camp. However, it is believed he will only miss a week and get back to the business of working toward another standout season. After six seasons in Washington, where he was great when in the line-up, Orakpo has been a very consistent presence in the Titans defensive scheme the last three years, playing all 48 games. In those games the former first round pick had 141 tackles, 24.5 sacks, five forced fumbles and 11 pass defences. A four-time Pro Bowler, Orakpo is in the final year of a four-year, $31 million contract he signed with Tennessee in 2014. If he can log another outstanding 16-game ledger this year, the Titans will have to open the vault a little more to re-sign him.
1. Washington Redskins – LB Preston Smith
Heading into a contract year, young defensive end Preston Smith, who started all 16 games for the second season in a row, is harder on himself than anyone else. He has stated that he doesn’t feel he contributes unless he makes a big play or influences the outcome of a game somehow, yet, he had 8.0 sacks for the second time in his brief three-year career in 2017. The talented and agile linebacker will have to put up those kind of numbers again for a re-tooled Redskins squad looking to erase the memory of a 7-9 season and a return to the playoffs for the first time since the 2015 season. Just 25, Smith should be in line for a big payday — contract re-negotiations haven’t begun yet — should he meet or surpass his 2017 totals.