Top 10 players likely to hit free agency

Senior Analyst Sam Monson runs through the list of the top players most likely to hit the 2017 free-agent market.

| 4 months ago
Jason Pierre-Paul

(Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Top 10 players likely to hit free agency

With the Super Bowl the only remaining NFL game left in the 2016 season, it’s time to begin turning our attention towards the offseason, and in particular, free agency.

At this time of year, the list of prospective free agents always looks mouth-watering, with names like Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell, Chiefs S Eric Berry, Panthers DT Kawann Short and Redskins QB Kirk Cousins among those slated to hit the open market, but a large portion of the top-end talent will either be re-signed or franchise tagged, keeping them with their current teams and away from the clutches of potential rivals.

Instead, let’s take a look at 10 of the best players that are more likely to be available once free agency officially opens:

1. Melvin Ingram, EDGE, Los Angeles Chargers

The Chargers will likely try and keep Ingram around, but they don’t have a huge amount of cap space and have a second stud edge rusher in 2016 rookie Joey Bosa. After a slow start to his career, Ingram has developed into a dominant edge rusher, posting 72 total QB pressures in 2016 after recording just 83 over the previous two seasons. He was PFF’s sixth-ranked edge rusher overall this past season, slotting in just behind Bosa. Ingram posted solid grades in every facet of the game PFF measures, and his pass rush, in particular, has been improving year over year since his disappointing sophomore season that saw him play just 241 snaps. Ingram would upgrade most team’s pass-rush unit immediately.

2. Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago Bears

The Bears will likely part ways with Jeffery this offseason, having been toying with the idea of locking him down long-term over the past few seasons. Jeffery has missed too much time for the team to be able to confidently rely on him as their No. 1 target long-term, and his elite play has been too fleeting over the past few seasons. In 2016, he recorded more than five catches just twice, and had only one 100-yard plus game (in the first week of the season). Jeffery has shown big-time ability, but the Bears will likely let somebody else roll the dice on the big contract it will take to see it in the future.

3. Jason Pierre-Paul, EDGE, New York Giants

Jason Pierre-Paul played well in 2016, his first full season after his gruesome hand injury sustained in a fireworks accident on July 4, 2015. JPP finished this season as PFF’s 13th-ranked edge defender with a grade of 86.2, just ahead of teammate Olivier Vernon. The Giants already have big money tied up in that defensive line, though, with Vernon and defensive tackle Damon Harrison both getting hefty contracts a year ago. Pierre-Paul was good this past season, but not so good that the team has no choice but to re-sign him. He notched 54 total QB pressures in 498 pass-rushing snaps before being lost to injury late in the season.

4. Ronald Leary, G, Dallas Cowboys

Ronald Leary regained his starting guard spot this season after La’el Collins went down hurt, and reminded everybody that he was a pretty good starting guard before Collins landed in the Cowboys’ lap. He finished the season as PFF’s 25th-ranked guard (80.4), and didn’t allow a sack all season, totaling 21 pressures surrendered over the year. Leary’s best trait was his run blocking, though, and he was 13th league-wide at guard in that area. He would be a solid starting option for many teams once Dallas presumably hands the job back to Collins.

5. DeSean Jackson, WR, Washington Redskins

It sounds like DeSean Jackson is on his way out of Washington, and much of the talk seems to surround a return to Philadelphia, the team he departed for the Redskins. Other teams could certainly be in the mix for a player that still has blazing speed and the ability to make big plays for a passing offense. Jackson averaged 17.9 yards per reception, with 4.9 of those coming after the catch this past season. When throwing Jackson’s way in 2016, Kirk Cousins had a passer rating of 107.2—better than Matt Ryan’s passer rating when targeting Falcons WR Julio Jones.

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 24:  Washington Redskins wide receiver DeSean Jackson (11) fends off Chicago Bears inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman (50) during second at Soldier Field in Chicago, Il on December 24, 2016. (Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

6. A.J. Bouye, CB, Houston Texans

A.J. Bouye was one of the breakout performers of 2016, and sustained his high level of play throughout the season and even into the playoffs. Including the postseason, Bouye allowed just 51.1 percent of passes thrown his way to be caught (seventh-best) for a passer rating of 59.5 (sixth-best), and was beat for only 10.0 yards per catch (16th-best) while intercepting or breaking up 16 of the 92 passes thrown his way. In the playoffs alone, Bouye allowed a passer rating of 5.6 when targeted.

7. Trumaine Johnson, CB, Los Angeles Rams

Trumaine Johnson was kept around by the Rams a year ago in preference to tying down cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who put together an excellent debut season with the New York Giants. Johnson wasn’t bad this season, but he didn’t take a step further or suggest that he is really worth elite money for the position. He allowed 60.7 percent of passes thrown his way to be caught and surrendered four touchdowns, up from just two over the previous two seasons combined. At 6-foot-2 and over 200 pounds, Johnson has the size and measurables that a lot of NFL teams covet at the minute, but his play is still more potential than actual proven production five years into his career.

8. Morris Claiborne, CB, Dallas Cowboys

A season ago, Claiborne looked like a draft bust for the Cowboys, but this year, he was a different player, finishing the season as PFF’s 12th-ranked CB with an overall grade of 84.7. Claiborne only played half of the 2016 season before going down hurt, but in that half of a year, he looked like a different player than in previous seasons. When targeted, the completion percentage he allowed dropped 10 percent from the best previous year of his career to 51.9, and he gave up a passer rating of 63.0, more than 30 points better than any other year. When beaten, he was even giving up smaller plays, averaging just 8.9 yards per catch this past year—his previous career average was 14.4.

9. Tony Jefferson, S, Arizona Cardinals

Tony Jefferson is another player who took a big step forward this season, ending the year ranked No.5 overall in PFF’s safety rankings with a grade of 88.6. Jefferson’s run grade was stellar this season (98.0), as he notched 35 defensive stops (tied for third among safeties), but his coverage was also solid as a strong safety for the Cardinals. Jefferson played in the box 59.1 percent of the time for Arizona this season and was used in underneath coverage often, where he averaged just 7.1 yards per reception allowed when acting as the primary coverage defender. One-season wonders will always make teams a little concerned come free-agency time, but Jefferson’s play this year was excellent.

10. Dontari Poe, NT, Kansas City Chiefs

Kansas City has some choices to make this offseason, with both safety Eric Berry and nose tackle Dontari Poe slated to hit the open market. My hunch is that they will choose to retain Berry and let Poe walk, given his regression from being one of the game’s top nose tackles back in 2013. At 346 pounds, his pass-rush has never been much of a factor, but the Chiefs have consistently kept him on the field for 74 percent of defensive snaps or more over his career. His run defense has been good in two of the past four seasons, but entirely average in two others. In order to be worth the kind of big-money contract Damon Harrison got from the Giants a season ago, Poe needs to show that he is a guaranteed monster in that area, and he hasn’t been to this point in his career.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN.

  • CollinsworthsBar-keeper

    Why is S Tony Jefferson labeled as a ‘one-season wonder’. He’s playing great since entering the League as an undrafted rookie.

    • AJ

      I think it’s because he was only a rotational player. This year he played significantly more snaps than he had ever played, plus he started consistently for the first time in his nfl career

  • McGeorge

    DeSean Jackson is 30. For a speedster WR, that will impact how much a team will pay. Will he go back to the Eagles?

    • crosseyedlemon

      I’m thinking the Ravens might have some interest. At 30 Jackson is a spring chicken compared to Steve Smith and still has something left in the tank.

      • Nelson Cobb

        Problem is, one of the 1st things to go as you get older is speed, and that’s 80% of Jackson’s game. If he starts to lose that speed edge, does the rest of his game consist of enough to keep him successful. Steve Smith did, I don’t know that Jackson does cause he mostly always wins with speed. I’d be really cautious about how many years and how much guaranteed money I gave him.

    • PKLIP

      He is not going back to the Eagles. They embarassed him and his family when they ran him out of town.

      • McGeorge

        But the Chipster is gone, and for the right price …

  • Furcsányi Diktor

    So you think Calais Campbell won’t hit free agency? Otherwise I can’t see how he’s not on the list.

    • crosseyedlemon

      He will be a tag victim like Le’Veon Bell and the others that were mentioned.

      • Furcsányi Diktor

        Maybe not, because the Cards will need to tag Chandler Jones.

        • crosseyedlemon

          Jones has a 2 mill contract compare to the 11 mill of Campbell so they can probably make some cap adjustments to accommodate him without using the tag.

          • Nelson Cobb

            As good as Campbell is, Jones will be the more coveted player on the market. He’s younger and the more productive player, plus plays a more valued position. If I’m the Cards, I’m looking to keep Jones above all else, and that might require the tag. Also, If Campbell has to get tagged as a DE, that’s projected to be about 17 mil, while Jones as a LB has a projected tag of 14.6 mil. Cheaper franchise tag, but likely higher market cost. So I’d expect to see Jones get that tag.

          • crosseyedlemon

            Spotrac has the Cards currently ranked 27th in cap space so economics might be a more important consideration than player need. Where they apply the tag will depend to some extent on what their plans are for next season when Larry Fitzgerald becomes a FA.

  • crosseyedlemon

    The Jeffery situation will be interesting to watch. The Bears don’t like what he’s costing them but since Kevin White can’t stay healthy they have no reliable backstop. Currently there are really only 4 teams (Browns, Niners, Jags & Titans) with the cap space to acquire Jeffery and I doubt the Browns or Niners would make a play at him until they resolve their QB situation. Mariota would certainly benefit by having Jeffery as a target but the Titans seem to be looking at making the run game their strength.

    • Matthew Hodges

      Cameron Meredith will make everyone forget about Alshon.

  • junaka3

    Andrew Whitworth? 35 years old but still one of the top left tackles.

    • crosseyedlemon

      No question that he is one of the best but he’s priced at almost 4 mill more than any other offensive lineman on the market. That plus his age will probably limit his appeal among several GMs.

      • junaka3

        He’s younger than Eli and has to be a priority for Giants. They’re not going anywhere with Flowers at LT and I don’t see a starter coming in the draft.

        • crosseyedlemon

          The Giants deserve the highest mark for being aggressive in last years FA market and they made some excellent acquisitions. I think they will be much less active this time around. If they were just one OL away from being a title favorite then grabbing Whitworth would be a no brainer but we will have to see.

  • JJ Watt eat dirt

    How bout Kevin Zeitler

  • Samuel Mazzini

    D.J. Swearinger is a guy that’s flying under the radar ,he lays the wood and has excellent range.

  • cd3382

    Berry who adds much more value to the team will be retained. As for Poe, a big man of his size already having back problems at his age is not a good sign long term, not to mention he was getting manhandled by the Steelers Oline in the divisional round. It’s been real but✌Poe!

  • dlund6cutler

    Bears need to go for Tony Jefferson and A.J Bouye because are secondary sucks.

    • crosseyedlemon

      The FO is not known for being proactive so they will probably just wait for another Charles Tillman or Richie Petibon to come along.

  • Nelson Cobb

    Ted Thompson, pull your head out your ass and sign AJ Bouye or Trumaine Johnson to replace Sam Shields. Then really get to work, and cut Clay Matthews and that ridiculous 11 mil cap hit and sign Melvin Ingram to replace him on the edge. Gotta get a couple impact players in the passing game to fix this freaking defense!!!

    • Marcolio

      Nelson Cobb that is basically my exact thoughts as I was reading the article. Clay is on the way down and Peppers isn’t producing anymore. I still don’t believe old Teddy is going to sign a top free agent until the ink on the contract is dry.

      • DLane

        I like the ideas for the secondary but not the signing of Melvin Ingram, his price is a little too rich and he will be overpaid.

    • Vincent Polidora

      Ted needs to Go. Can’t draft defensive players, won’t pay free agents. Offense keeps getting older while Ted “manages the cap” sad.

      • Nelson Cobb

        Hard to know what you’re drafting when you’re coaches are lousy at developing. I’m tired of hearing that comment, cause it’s not true. There’s 2 parts to draft and develop, the draft part, and the develop part. The develop part clearly isn’t getting done, cause he’s drafted 8 defensive players in the 1st 2 rounds in the last 5 drafts, and he’s not just picking guys at random. Every player he’s drafted has been consensus 1st and 2nd round guys. Prime example of the hands on part lacking, Casey Hayward. Underwhelming in Green Bay, never really stood out as a major play maker, goes to SD and in year 1 they fully maximize his ability and he’s a legit #1 CB who leads the NFL in INTs. Where was that in Green Bay??? That’s not Ted Thompson’s fault. Well, to an extent it is, because he’s allowing these coaches to keep their jobs with no accountability. He should have been furious and grilling Capers to why he wasn’t doing that in his defense. There’s no problem with the talent on the defensive side of the ball, but there is something wrong with the development of that talent. Clearly, guys aren’t getting put in position to maximize their ability and get the most out of them, that’s clear with Casey Hayward’s performance away from Green Bay. Biggest issue with Ted Thompson is his refusal to do anything outside of the draft and his ridiculous confidence in his current defensive coaches that have failed for the last 6 years now.

      • Skolbro

        That team that made a NFC Title Game run inspite of being decimated with injuries and all Packer fans can do is whine and want to run their guys out of town… that’s when they’re not busy Booing Rodgers out of Lambeau when he has one of his few bad games …ever.

        smh, talk about spoiled.

  • Malachi

    ricky. wagner. i hope my broncos pay up big for him, assuming baltimore won’t franchise their RT

  • DaStrongSKRAWN

    Claiborne is here (lol) but no Zeitler?