Top 10 potential free agents to watch in Super Bowl LI

Which 2017 free-agents-to-be should you be watching on Sunday? John Kosko runs down the list.

| 4 months ago
Martellus Bennett

(Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Top 10 potential free agents to watch in Super Bowl LI

With Super Bowl LI kicking off on Sunday, the 2017 NFL free-agency period is right around the corner. Looking towards that, the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots have a bevy of players set to hit the open market come March 9. While this list is New England-heavy, here are Super Bowl LI’s top players about to become free agents:

1. Malcolm Butler, CB, Patriots

2016 season overall grade: 89.8

2017 designation: Restricted free agent (RFA)

Known for arguably the greatest interception in NFL history, the former undrafted free agent is set to become a restricted free agent this upcoming offseason. Expect the Patriots to place a first-round tender on Butler, but a team needing an elite cornerback might make a move on the rising star. Butler followed his Super Bowl-winning interception with a good 2015 season, which he’s built upon to grade as a top-six CB in 2016. Butler surrenders a good number of yards, but combines that with getting his hands on the ball, recording six interceptions and 30 pass breakups over the past two years.

2. Dont’a Hightower, LB, Patriots

2016 season overall grade: 85.5

2017 designation: Unrestricted free agent (UFA)

The leader of the No. 1 scoring defense in the NFL, Hightower has been a rock at middle linebacker for five straight seasons. A great all-around player, the former Crimson Tide standout isn’t elite in any one area, but can be relied upon as a three-down player, as he’s played in 82.1 percent of the defense’s snaps this season. Whether it be rushing the passer, where he’s recorded five sacks and seven hits, or dropping into coverage, where he’s allowed just one touchdown the past two seasons, Hightower can do it all, and will be coveted this offseason if the Patriots aren’t able to secure him long-term.

3. Logan Ryan, CB, Patriots

2016 season overall grade: 84.5

2017 designation: UFA

While teammate Malcolm Butler tops this list, no cornerback in the NFL has played better than Ryan since Week 11, where he’s allowed 7.9 yards per catch, zero touchdowns, three interceptions, and seven pass breakups. Ryan hasn’t missed a tackle in that timeframe, and has missed only 12 in his career. After a shaky start to 2016, Ryan has positioned himself extremely well for the offseason if he chooses to test the open market. His teammate, Malcolm Butler, gets much the attention, but Ryan is currently playing at a higher level, and will play a big role in holding the high-flying Falcons’ offense in check on Sunday.

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 14:  Logan Ryan #26 of the New England Patriots reacts in the second half against the Houston Texans during the AFC Divisional Playoff Game at Gillette Stadium on January 14, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

4. Martellus Bennett, TE, Patriots

2016 season overall grade: 80.2

2017 designation: UFA

Acquired in the offseason from the Bears, tight end Martellus Bennett was needed insurance in case of a Rob Gronkowski injury. The move paid off, as Gronk didn’t see his first action until Week 3, played well, and then was placed on IR after needing back surgery in December. With Bennett, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was still able to run the offense the same way, as Bennett’s talent drop-off from Gronk isn’t as great as it would have been to Matt Lengel. A productive player as a receiver the past five seasons, Bennett has typically been a strong run blocker, as well. Despite the fact that Bennett will be 30 years old in March, he still grades as a top-tier tight end, and should provide to be an upgrade for most teams needing talent at the position.

5. Taylor Gabriel, WR, Falcons

2016 season overall grade: 80.6

2017 designation: RFA

Another player that benefits from his offensive coordinator’s system, the former undrafted free agent is having a breakout season with his new team. Taylor Gabriel had a solid rookie campaign under Kyle Shanahan in Cleveland, but when the OC departed for Atlanta, Gabriel’s production took a massive hit, recording a 17.9 drop rate. With Shanahan utilizing Gabriel’s talents more efficiently, the former Brown has seen his production spike back up, grading as the No. 23 WR season. As a restricted free agent, the Falcons have a decision to make on a round tender, but if Shanahan does depart for the 49ers, San Francisco is a likely landing spot.

6. Jabaal Sheard, ED, Patriots

2016 season overall grade: 79.0

2017 designation: UFA

Sheard is an interesting player on this list, as he graded as PFF’s No. 4 4-3 DE in 2015, but saw his playing time and production take a big hit in 2016, dropping him to 15th (No. 38 amongst all edge defenders). When looking at his career grades, the perceived breakout season in 2015 looks more like an exception than a sign of things to come. That being said, Sheard is still is a good player with position versatility, recording an above-average pass-rushing productivity mark of 9.1 this season. With Sheard reportedly unhappy with his playing time, and being a relatively young player at the age of 28, expect the former Pittsburgh Panther to test the open market and get paid well.

7. Patrick DiMarco, FB, Falcons

2016 season overall grade: 84.0

2017 designation: UFA

A dying breed, fullbacks just aren’t as common as they were just 10 seasons ago. Playing 31 percent of his team’s snaps, DiMarco graded well as a run blocker and provided a surprise target for the Falcons the past three seasons. Any team that utilizes a true fullback would be wise to target DiMarco, as he’s graded as one of the game’s best FBs the past two seasons. If offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan takes the open head coaching role in San Francisco, don’t be surprised to see DiMarco follow, as he’s seen the most snaps of his career under Shanahan.

Patrick DiMarco

8. Duron Harmon, S, Patriots

2016 season overall grade: 77.9

2017 designation: UFA

The lone player in the Super Bowl to double up on PFF’s recent under-the-radar free-agent list, Harmon is a name that will rarely be said during games, but someone that does his job extremely well. Harmon has allowed four TDs when his coverage area has been targeted this season (two in the last two games). The former Rutgers Scarlet Knight has allowed a total of 22 catches on 1,431 coverage snaps in four seasons to go with nine picks and three pass breakups. While Harmon’s role is that of a deep safety that rarely sees targets, his ridiculous coverage stats are intriguing, and should warrant consideration for teams looking for bargain free-agent talent.

9. James Develin, FB, Patriots

2016 season overall grade: 85.6

2017 designation: UFA

Even though fullbacks are rare in today’s NFL, Super Bowl LI will feature two of the game’s best. Develin has a whopping eight career carries, and zero this season, and is even featured less as a receiver than DiMarco, seeing just seven targets. What Develin does do is block extremely well, as he is the No. 2 run-blocking fullback in the NFL (by PFF grade), while also grading well in pass protection, allowing just one hurry. Knowing Bill Belichick, expect Develin to get a surprise touch or two on Sunday, but what teams will buy into with the former Ivy League player this offseason is his blocking ability.

10. Alan Branch, DT, Patriots

2016 season overall grade: 80.8

2017 designation: UFA

The 10-year veteran is the oldest player on this list, but his production the past two seasons warrants a spot. Branch has been an average player his whole career, with a few good seasons defending the run, but his play the past season and a half has been the best of his career. While his play as a pass-rusher is poor, his size allows him to anchor and stuff running lanes, finishing the regular season with a top-eight run-defense grade. While Father Time might catch up with Branch soon, any team needing to shore up their run defense would be hard pressed to find a player as good as Branch for the value he’d present on the open market.

| Analyst

John is an analyst for Pro Football Focus and former safety for the University of Kansas Jayhawks (2004–2006).

  • AJ

    Butler will get paid a good bit this offseason, either by New England or someone else. Some team out there will be more than happy to give up a first round pick for a relatively young, proven corner. Belichick is the GM of the team in addition to the coach, and probably the best GM in the league. He knows who to pay and who not to pay. Even a great franchise player will leave the team if the price is too high. Let someone else overpay while Belichick makes diamonds out of coal with some other player. No player improves after leaving New England. Some players, and that’s very few, stay at the same level, but nobody gets better.

    • crosseyedlemon

      “No player improves after leaving New England”.
      I guess your too young to remember Al Davis resurrecting the career of Jim Plunkett and winning a championship with him.

      • AJ

        I meant during the Belichick era. I don’t believe in blaming a team’s results on curses, superstitions, or any kind of coincidences like that. In the words of Belichick, “If only it were that easy.” What happened during the Plunkett years means nothing for today’s team.

        The reason players hit their ceilings in New England is because Belichick knows how to motivate players, evaluate strength and weaknesses, and accordingly put players in the best position to succeed.

  • crosseyedlemon

    The uncertainty surrounding Gronk probably forces the Patriots to re-sign Bennett. If the Dolphins don’t re-sign Jordan Cameron (unlikely) they would probably make a strong bid to get Martellus if he were available.