NFL Players Who Must Be Re-Signed Before Free Agency Begins
It's almost the time when the shopping begins for all 32 NFL franchises.
But you can’t buy what’s not available.
Here’s a list of standout performers slated to become free agents on Wednesday at 4 p.m. ET. Their respective clubs must do everything they can to bring them back.
The key here is not necessarily the word "re-signed." Rather, it’s the "must." Why must these potential free agents (listed in alphabetical order) not be allowed to hit the open market?
These eight players are all extremely valuable to their respective clubs in various roles. Be it as part of a unit or a tandem or serving as a guiding force for other teammates at their position, the impact of these players can’t be understated.
CB Prince Amukamara, New York Giants
Why on Earth would a team re-sign a cornerback from a defensive unit that allowed the most passing yards (4,783) in the league this past season?
Because when it came to stopping opposing quarterbacks, the biggest issue for the New York Giants was their inability to consistently get to the passer.
A team that finished with 47 sacks in 2014 saw that number cut in half (23) this past year. Meanwhile, starting cornerbacks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (19th) and Prince Amukamara (40th) earned strong grades from Pro Football Focus, which ranked 218 cornerbacks in 2015.
Despite missing five games, Amukamara finished fourth on the team with 63 tackles and second with 10 passes defensed. He’s played only 16 games once in his five-year career, but both he and Rodgers-Cromartie were bright spots on the NFL’s 32nd-ranked defense.
Keeping the duo together is essential if the Giants are to show any improvement on defense this upcoming season.
WR Anquan Boldin, San Francisco 49ers
In 2015, the San Francisco 49ers scored the fewest points in the league (238) and ranked 31st in total offense (4,860 yards). Their passing attack averaged only 207.3 yards per game (29th in the NFL) and produced only 16 scores.
Regardless of the quarterback, wide receiver Anquan Boldin remained the team’s most reliable pass-catcher. He led the Niners with 69 grabs and 789 receiving yards while tying for the club lead with four touchdowns even while missing two games.
Under new head coach Chip Kelly, San Francisco faces some uncertainty at quarterback despite the fact last year’s starters, Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert, remain on the roster. Andy Benoit of the MMQB reminded us Kaepernick’s agents recently requested a trade. He also took the opportunity to evaluate the quarterback’s game.
No matter which player winds up starting behind center for the 49ers this season, Boldin’s veteran presence is essential.
The sure-handed pro has outfoxed and outmuscled defensive backs throughout his 13-year career. His experience is vital to a team that has eight other wide receivers on the roster with five years or less of NFL experience.
G Richie Incognito, Buffalo Bills
Now that the Buffalo Bills have basically ensured their starting left tackle isn’t going anywhere, they would be advised to make sure their left guard doesn’t fly the coop as well.
On Tuesday, the team slapped the franchise tag on OT Cordy Glenn. General manager Doug Whaley must turn his attention to re-signing Richie Incognito, who was named to the Pro Bowl this past season after being out of football in 2014.
Only the Baltimore Ravens' Marshal Yanda earned a higher grade at guard with Pro Football Focus than Incognito this past year. He started all 16 games for the Bills and helped the team lead the NFL in rushing (2,432 yards).
The returns of Glenn and Incognito, combined with center Eric Wood, would give Buffalo three 16-game starters from this past season. Teamed again with right guard John Miller and right tackle Seantrel Henderson, the club’s primary offensive line for 2015 would remain together for a second consecutive year.
ILB Jerrell Freeman, Indianapolis Colts
Just because the Indianapolis Colts finished 26th in the NFL in total defense this past season (6,066 yards) and a disappointing 28th in the league when it comes to stopping the run, doesn’t mean the team doesn’t have a few good men on the defensive side of the football.
One of those performers is Jerrell Freeman, who graded out with Pro Football Focus as the second-best inside linebacker behind only Carolina Panthers Pro Bowler Luke Kuechly. The former undrafted free agent played in just 13 games and finished second on the team with 112 tackles, along with three sacks and an interception return for a touchdown.
Freeman (21.4) ranked much higher than teammate and fellow inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson (minus-14.5), who finished first on the Colts with 150 tackles. With Freeman, you also get a rapidly improving player who did not grade highly in 2014 and struggled in the early stages of this past season, but played extremely well for Chuck Pagano’s team in the final eight games.
FS Reggie Nelson, Cincinnati Bengals
On Friday, per Jim Owczarski of the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Cincinnati Bengals re-signed the first of 14 potential unrestricted free agents by inking wide receiver/kick returner Brandon Tate.
That leaves 13 more players on the list, nine of whom are on defense—four of those in the secondary. The quartet includes cornerbacks Leon Hall and Adam Jones and safeties Reggie Nelson and George Iloka.
Three-year pro Shawn Williams could replace Iloka, and the Bengals have substantial depth at cornerback with Dre Kirkpatrick, Darqueze Dennard and Josh Shaw.
However, Nelson has that gift of grab that is hard to teach. He tied for the NFL lead with eight interceptions and totaled 10 of Cincinnati’s 28 takeaways in 2015. He also finished second on the club in tackles (77) and passes defensed (14) and made his first Pro Bowl.
Nelson is backed up by Derron Smith, who played in 16 games as a rookie and totaled four tackles this past season.
For those making the argument the Bengals would be wiser to re-sign linebacker Vincent Rey, the club leader in tackles (98) in 2015, this is a defense that has a lot of experience (Vontaze Burfict, Rey Maualuga, A.J. Hawk) at that position.
RT Mitchell Schwartz, Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns have been a downtrodden franchise for too many years. But one aspect of their team that has garnered some positive attention has been the play of their offensive line.
In 2015, according to Pro Football Focus, the Browns were one of only five teams in the league to earn a positive grade when it came to pass protection.
The unit is led by left tackle Joe Thomas, named to the Pro Bowl in each of his nine seasons in the league, while Mitchell Schwartz anchors the other tackle spot. Both players started 16 games in 2015 at their respective positions, with Thomas ranking second and Schwartz rated sixth in the league with Pro Football Focus.
Not only could the right tackle test free agency, but so could three-time Pro Bowler Alex Mack. According to NFL Media's Ian Rapoport (via Dan Hanzus of NFL.com), the Browns center voided the final three years of his contract and can hit the open market on March 9.
So why should re-upping with Schwartz be a priority over Mack? Remember the Browns invested one of their two first-round picks last April on guard/center Cameron Erving. The Florida State product started four games—two each at both guard spots—but struggled in all aspects.
Still, a switch to center for Erving is an option should the team not re-sign Mack. Replacing Schwartz would be far more difficult, and the Browns front office should make this its priority ahead of Wednesday.
CB Sean Smith, Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs recently gave the franchise tag to four-time Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry, one of many key potential free agents the team has on defense.
The list includes linebackers Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali, defensive linemen Mike DeVito and Jaye Howard and cornerback Sean Smith. Chiefs general manager John Dorsey recently emphasized the team and Johnson’s representatives were talking.
“We are going to move this thing forward,” said Dorsey, relayed by Terez A. Paylor of the Kansas City Star. “Anytime you become the all-time leading tackler for the Chiefs...we’re not going to let good football players go in this thing.”
Along the front seven, Kansas City still has outside linebackers Justin Houston and Dee Ford, as well as defensive end Allen Bailey and nose tackle Dontari Poe, who all produced this past season.
As for cornerback, Smith’s return is vital. With Berry healthy and both Smith and rookie Marcus Peters in the secondary, the Chiefs picked off 22 passes last season. That was 16 more than the previous year as Peters tied for the NFL lead with eight interceptions.
However, it was Smith who earned a top-20 ranking from Pro Football Focus at cornerback. Retaining him would keep the starting secondary intact and give Peters more time to learn from the seven-year veteran.
S Walter Thurmond, Philadelphia Eagles
The words "strong suit" and the statistic "NFL’s 30th-ranked defense in 2015" don’t really go together.
Yet the Philadelphia Eagles featured the top-rated safety in the league, Malcolm Jenkins, and another player at the position, Walter Thurmond, who finished 18th in the same Pro Football Focus rankings.
While Jenkins—who led Philadelphia in tackles (90) in 2015—signed a new four-year, $35 million contract, per Spotrac, with the Birds late in February, Thurmond is eligible to hit the free-agent market on Wednesday. He was third on the team with 71 stops to go along with two sacks, three interceptions, a pair of forced fumbles and a fumble return for a touchdown.
On the same day Jenkins signed his new deal, he was asked about his running mate in the secondary.
“Definitely he is a guy I want to continue to play with,” Jenkins said to Eliot Shorr-Parks of NJ.com. “His knowledge of the game and his production speaks for itself. He is a player that can make a lot of plays and made a lot of plays for us.”
The Eagles should keep this duo intact when you consider there could be changes under new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. Jenkins added this regarding Thurmond: "His versatility freed me up a lot. Very versatile, similar to myself. He played corner his whole career and then his first year at safety was very, very productive."
A team that allowed 430 points, gave up the most rushing yards in the league (2,153) and permitted 36 touchdown passes could use all the defensive production it can get.