2016 NFL Free Agents: Latest Rumors and Predictions Surrounding Top Players

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2016 NFL Free Agents: Latest Rumors and Predictions Surrounding Top Players
Gregory Payan/Associated Press
Josh Norman is one of the most intriguing impending free agents.

The NFL draft is at the forefront of the conversation right now, but rest assured NFL front offices remain hard at work on the upcoming free-agent market. 

So it goes when—at least for now—star players like Josh Norman, Doug Martin and Alshon Jeffery could hit the market.

The draft remains more important than free agency when it comes to building a contender. It's where teams lay the foundation and build around key prospects, guys they nurture for years before it all comes together.

Free agency, though, is the complementary area to fill in the spaces around the building blocks. While it's hard to think major names will make it to market, there's always a chance, so here's a look at the latest rumblings around guys who won't remain under contract long.

Josh Norman-Panthers Talk

Bob Leverone/Associated Press
Norman has made it clear he wants to stay in Carolina.

It's always hard for a team that makes a trip to the Super Bowl to keep some of its best players around. Playing in the big game has a way of throwing the bargaining position in favor of the player and his representatives.

Long story short, it's not a shock to hear that the Carolina Panthers haven't made a ton of headway in keeping top corner Josh Norman around.

According to Fox Sports' Mike Garafolo, Norman is a tag candidate if the two sides cannot work something out soon:

Norman certainly hasn't made it easy on the Panthers, going from a former fifth-round pick to a guy who might stack up as the top corner in the league.

Pro Football Focus wound up ranking him tied for sixth along with the likes of Richard Sherman and Chris Harris Jr. while only surrendering two touchdowns and a 54 percent completion rate.

For his part, Norman has made it pretty clear he wants to stick with the Panthers.

"I really hope that I can be here, because I've been here my whole life,'' Norman said, according to ESPN.com's David Newton. "I don't want to change that. But hey, you never know how things will go.''

Perhaps the only thing holding up a deal would be Norman coming in at the age of 28 after just four seasons in the league. He's liable to want a massive deal right now because it might be the only shot he has at one.

Either way, Norman will likely remain with the Panthers. Whether it's the tag or a deal doesn't matter, teams don't let a talent like Norman walk.

Prediction: Norman re-signs with the Panthers.

Doug Martin Update

Doug Martin would be a strong example of just how fast the conversation can change around a free agent.

For a while now it seemed like Martin would ink another contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Both sides seemed to have mutual interest, with Martin having called Tampa Bay his home since entering the league and the Buccaneers needing to ensure they have a top-flight talent at running back to make life easier on Jameis Winston.

It seems the situation has changed, though. Now a note from Roy Cummings of the Tampa Tribune suggests Martin will take his talents elsewhere:

Call it a complete reversal of the positive vibes about the situation sent out by the organization a few days ago.

While speculation, it's not hard to think what might stand in the way of a reunion. Martin exploded last season, rushing for 1,402 yards and six touchdowns on a career-high 4.9 yards per carry average.

But Martin is also 27 years old and the two seasons sandwiched between debut and end-of-contract explosions were mediocre and littered with injury. While Martin has every right to demand top dollar, the Buccaneers don't have to surrender such a figure with adequate guys such as Charles Sims and Mike James on the roster, not to mention a draft class headlined by Ezekiel Elliott and Derrick Henry.

Martin figured to land somewhere touting a bigger market and a front office unafraid to spend cash. In other words, Dallas. The Cowboys have a need at running back unfulfilled by Darren McFadden, and Martin won't cost as much as DeMarco Murray, who they didn't pay last offseason.

In theory, Martin running behind a Tony Romo-led attack in a scheme that suits his skills will provide a boon for the Cowboys.

Prediction: Martin signs with the Cowboys.

Alshon Jeffery and the Tag

Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press
Risks or not, Chicago wants to keep Alshon Jeffery in town.

The Chicago Bears won't let Alshon Jeffery get away.

The above has actually been a rather strong point of contention since the season ended. With Chicago in an odd limbo between contending for the NFC North and rebuilding, many were right to question the merits of paying top dollar to one player.

As ESPN's Adam Schefter revealed, though, the Bears intend to slap the tag on their star wideout:

The argument against keeping Jeffery? While elite, the Bears might be better off spending the cash elsewhere to shore up multiple spots. The South Carolina product has only played in two full 16-game seasons out of four, having missed six games as a rookie and seven last year.

In the end, though, those might look like small prices to pay to keep a guy as talented as Jeffery, who cleared minimums of 1,100 yards and seven scores in his two 16-game seasons.

Coach John Fox made that point clear enough at the combine, as captured by ESPN.com's Jeff Dickerson: 

If not the Bears, another team would end up taking the risk. Jeffery is only 26 years old, and while a staple on the injury report, his presence on the field opens any offense up.

Jeffery is a risk but a player no team has an excuse passing on if the opportunity presents itself. Look for the Bears to get a deal done and make the open market a little more boring than it could be.

Prediction: Jeffery re-signs with the Bears.

Stats courtesy of NFL.com and are accurate as of Saturday. All advanced metrics courtesy of Pro Football Focus.

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