Top 25 NFL free agents still available
The first wave of free agency bit deep, and most of the top available talent has been signed. That said, there are still some quality players available, and even more reliable role players out there for teams to sign on day two and in the second wave.
We have abandoned the original top 50 free agent list in favor of a more succinct top 25 that better reflects the thin nature of the remaining free-agent pool.
1. T.J. Lang, G, Green Bay Packers
Lang is two years older than Cleveland’s Kevin Zeitler, but like seemingly all Green Bay offensive linemen, he is one of the best players in the league at pass blocking. This past season, Lang didn’t allow a single sack or hit on quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and surrendered just 10 QB hurries all season, despite Rodgers recording the second-highest average time to throw in the league. If you are a team in need of guard help, and the passing game is the foundation of your offense, Lang would be your ideal target.
2. Dont’a Hightower, LB, New England Patriots
Dont’a Hightower is an impact player, but has a very specific skill-set that the Patriots have been able to utilize extremely well. He has good grades in every area of the game PFF measures in three straight seasons, and has been used heavily by the Patriots as a pass-rusher on the blitz—typically up the middle to augment their relatively average pass rush up front. Over the past three seasons, Hightower has recorded 18 total sacks and has averaged 32 total QB pressures per season, as well as being a solid run defender. The less space he has to play in, the better, but Hightower can be an impact linebacker for most teams.
3. Terrelle Pryor, WR, Cleveland Browns
[Editor’s note: Shortly following the publication of this article, Pryor signed a one-year deal with the Washington Redskins.]
Terrelle Pryor didn’t quite manage to make Charles Woodson look like a genius with an 1,800-yard season—as difficult as that may be to believe—but he did top 1,000 receiving yards and notch 77 catches with the Browns while cycling through a laundry list of quarterbacks, most of whom did no favors at all for their receivers. This was Pryor’s first real season as a wideout, and his potential remains extremely high given his athletic talent. He may never develop into the next Julio Jones, but he has already shown the ability to be a difference maker for any team as a starting option.
4. Dontari Poe, NT, Kansas City Chiefs
Dontari Poe has rare ability for a nose tackle, and can do things at 346 pounds that players 20 pounds lighter can’t from a movement standpoint. His 2013 season represents his potential. That year, he was an excellent run defender and brought enough as a pass-rusher in collapsing the pocket up the middle; what’s more, he did it while playing a crazy 1,063 snaps for a nose tackle. The issue is, though, that Poe hasn’t hit those heights since. He is just 27 years old, however, and teams will want to chase the potential he has at least proven capable of in the past.
5. Jabaal Sheard, EDGE, New England Patriots
A year ago, Sheard was coming off the best season of his career for the Patriots, and though they dialed back his playing time a little this year, he still played just seven fewer snaps over the entire season than he did in 2015 (albeit with an extra game in the Super Bowl giving him an extra 94 possible). Sheard is a capable player against the run and pass, and can play across different schemes and roles. He may never be an All-Pro, but he can be a valuable part of a team’s defensive front.
6. Martellus Bennett, TE, New England Patriots
We saw early in the season the kind of potential that Martellus Bennett has when he was ably filling in for Rob Gronkowski, and he deserves significant credit for gutting it out over the season and playing through injuries for the Patriots. That said, it did clearly affect his play. Bennett is one of the league’s most talented TEs, capable of excellent work as a receiver and blocker, but has rarely put it all together for extended stretches of play, and will be 30 by the time the new season rolls around.
7. Morris Claiborne, CB, Dallas Cowboys
Morris Claiborne is an interesting player for teams to evaluate. He was the No. 6 overall pick in the 2012 draft, then had four years of below-average play before completely turning things around in 2016—only to go down injured for the second half of the season. He has half a season that suggests he can be a legit high-end starter, but that’s it. The improvement in his play for 2016 was incredible, but there is a lot of bad tape before it, and a small sample size within that improvement.
8. Bradley McDougald, S, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Bradley McDougald has been an inconsistent player for the Bucs, but the high points of his performance are very good, and if a team can iron out the bad, he could be very useful. McDougald is extremely active, having made over 75 solo tackles in each of the past two seasons; he also has 13 pass breakups over his three-year career.
9. Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers
Back in 2014, Eddie Lacy was the third-highest-graded RB in the league, with an overall grade 86.0 (that would have ranked second in the 2016 season), but much-publicized weight issues and injuries have held him back and thrown his career into question. If a team can get his weight on point, there are few backs that can have the kind of overall impact he can have on an offense, but that has become a bet with pretty long odds over the past two seasons.
10. DeMarcus Ware, EDGE, Denver Broncos
Injuries are a major factor, but when he is on the field, DeMarcus Ware can still bring the heat off the edge. Even in 2016, Ware recorded five sacks and 26 total QB pressures from just 213 pass-rushing snaps. He probably makes the most sense as a situational pass-rusher for a team now, but he can still be among the better players in the game within that role.
11. Johnathan Hankins, DI, New York Giants
Johnathan Hankins put on tape the anti-contract year in 2016. While most players have the best year of their career with a big payday on the line, Hankins had the worst year of his career. With former Jets interior defender Damon Harrison coming on board, Hankins was shifted along the defensive line to accommodate him, and wasn’t nearly as successful playing as more of a three-technique, penetrating style of defensive tackle than he was over the nose in previous years. He has never been much of a pass-rusher, but could be a solid run defender for a team that puts him back in his old position.
12. Captain Munnerlyn, CB, Minnesota Vikings
Cornerbacks that are termed “sub-package only” were once one of the last things a team needed to get in place, but in today’s NFL, those players are playing two-thirds of their team’s defensive snaps, so they need to be capable. Captain Munnerlyn has been solid at worst for some time, and far better than that at points over the past few seasons. His play tailed off over the 2016 season, but there is certainly something to work with.
13. LeGarrette Blount, RB, New England Patriots
LeGarrette Blount was the hammer of the Patriots’ offense this past season. When they needed to pound the football and run with power, they handed him the ball, and it worked. He finished 2016 with a league-leading 18 rushing touchdowns and the second-most carries, with 299. Blount is somewhat one-dimensional, but he is a good power back.
14. Terence Newman, CB, Minnesota Vikings
Newman’s play alone would put him at the sharp end of this list, but at 38 years old, he isn’t a risk many teams will be keen on taking, and is likely only a one-year stopgap for somebody if they suddenly find themselves with a hole in their CB depth chart due to injury. Newman allowed 0.57 yards per coverage snap in 2016, the best mark in the NFL.
15. Kendall Wright, WR, Tennessee Titans
When healthy, Kendall Wright is a dangerous slot receiver that can play outside and make big plays for his team. He has quickness, speed and impressive route-running skills, but has now missed time in each of the past three seasons, and hasn’t recorded a 1,000-yard year or over 60 receptions since 2013.
16. Chris Long, EDGE, New England Patriots
Chris Long became a situational pass-rusher for the Patriots this past season, and though he didn’t have the best season of his career, he showed he could still make crucial big plays, including in the Super Bowl on his limited snaps.
17. Terrance Williams, WR, Dallas Cowboys
Playing second-fiddle to Dez Bryant for the Cowboys, Terrance Williams has largely seen a career limited by lack of opportunity, but he has proven to be productive and has the skills to make big plays. His career average per reception is 16.2 yards, with 4.7 of them coming after the catch, and he has receptions of at least 42 yards in every season. Williams may have more in the tank if he becomes a larger part of a new team’s offense.
18. Nick Mangold, C, New York Jets
The Jets cut Nick Mangold loose after an injury-plagued season, and it’s clear that he is no longer the force he once was. Mangold at his best was the top center in the game, but even at his current level, he remains an adequate starter, and hasn’t surrendered a sack in his last 33 games.
19. Latavius Murray, RB, Oakland Raiders
Latavius Murray is a solid running back option, but likely sees his market depressed with a draft class stacked full of backfield talent just around the corner. Last season, he averaged 2.6 yards per carry after contact behind one of the league’s better run-blocking offensive lines, but had only 207 carries. In the three games in which he carried the ball 20-plus times, he averaged 4.8 yards per carry.
20. Sam Shields, CB, Green Bay Packers
Concussions complicate Shields’ prospects, and they shut him down in 2016 after just 62 snaps. If he is medically viable, though, he is still a quality starter that can help teams in need of coverage on the back end.
21. John Sullivan, C, Washington Redskins
Injuries saw John Sullivan lose his starting center job in Minnesota before spending 2016 as a backup in Washington, but at his best, he was among the league’s top centers. Sullivan may be over 30, but offensive linemen often play deep into their 30s, and he could be a surprise upgrade for some team.
22. Sterling Moore, CB, New Orleans Saints
Sterling Moore won’t ever be an elite, high-end corner, but in a league that needs to be three-deep at the position, he is a more-than-capable second or third option. Over the past two seasons, Moore hasn’t been beaten for a pass longer than 40 yards despite 148 targets being sent his way.
23. Leon Hall, CB, New York Giants
At his best, Leon Hall was arguably the best slot corner in the game, and while injuries have knocked his career off the rails, he is still a very capable sub-package player, and has never earned a below-average coverage grade in any one season of his career.
24. Bennie Logan, NT, Philadelphia Eagles
Another player hitting free agency while coming off his poorest NFL season, Bennie Logan had been an excellent run defender as a nose tackle in Philadelphia’s 3-4 scheme, but the move to the 4-3 didn’t play to his strengths. He offers very little as a pass-rusher, but can be an excellent two-down run stuffer for a team that has space to carry one.
25. Stephen Paea, DI, Cleveland Browns
The man best known for holding the NFL Combine bench-press record at 49 reps of 225 pounds, Stephen Paea has been a useful rotational body on the defensive line for multiple teams over the past few seasons. However, he hasn’t seen a real starting role since 2014, when he was excellent as a pass-rusher. Paea won’t break the bank and will make somebody’s defensive line rotation stronger—literally.