2017 NFL Free Agency: Which Players Could Be Market's Best Bargains?
Free agency is often looked as fool's gold. There's more value in the NFL draft because of the controlled price points of rookie contracts.
But with a constantly rising cap, there are more opportunities for teams to build through free agency, particularly on the defensive side of the field, where you're only as good as your weakest link. Look at the defenses Denver and Seattle made Super Bowl runs with; they weren't possible without the free-agent additions of Aqib Talib, Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril.
Teams still have until March 9—the start of free agency—to offer deals to their players. After years of negotiations, though, if the two sides haven't come to an extension by now, players are likely to hit the open market.
We'll go over eight players who could be the difference between a team's making or missing the playoffs.
Some are stars, while others have never been 16-game starters before. All of them, though, could be value signings based on their talent relative to the markets of their individual positions, either overall or in this specific free-agency class.
These players could be the next Bennett or Avril pairings, the players who years from now you're looking at and wondering how a "smart franchise" landed their amazing contracts.
Kirk Cousins, QB
If you've ever been to Las Vegas on a Sunday in the fall, you've seen football fans lose plenty of money to sportsbooks, who think rationally instead of impulsively. Unfortunately, football fans—in a hot-take era—are told to act impulsively.
When you look at those lines that books set, they often move point spreads by six or more points when a starting quarterback goes down. There are few players league-wide, at any other position, who are even worth a single point of value in the eyes of Vegas.
That's the rational beings' telling you how much the quarterback position matters. Kirk Cousins may be a baseline quarterback, but having a baseline quarterback means more than anything else in the NFL. The highest-paid non-quarterback in the NFL right now is Von Miller, the pass-rusher from Denver who signed a $114 million, six-year deal with the Broncos last year.
To a team in a total rebuild, is it more important to have a dominant pass-rusher or a middle-of-the-pack quarterback? Vegas would say the quarterback. So is Cousins worth in the ballpark of $20 million per year?
Knowing the opinion of Vegas, not even including the fact that Brock Osweiler just signed a deal that nets him $18 million per season, you'd have to say yes.
If Cousins does hit the open market, should the Washington Redskins not franchise-tag him or sign him to a long-term deal, teams like the San Francisco 49ers, Buffalo Bills and Chicago Bears should look at the 28-year-old as their top priority in their offseason.
DeSean Jackson, WR
DeSean Jackson is still a deep threat. In a more vertical offense than the Washington Redskins' scheme, he could be a clear-cut No. 1 receiver.
Jackson was the Redskins' top threat in 2016, but their offense was constructed around making plays simple for Kirk Cousins to hit near windows. It's one reason why they were able to work well off action and with their tight ends over recent seasons.
Jackson recently turned 30 years old, and speed for a receiver is the biggest trait to leave around his age, but his pace isn't like many receivers in this era. He ran a 4.35-second 40-yard dash coming out of California; there aren't many starting receivers you can say that about league-wide.
Another speed receiver, T.Y. Hilton, signed a deal worth $13 million per season with the Indianapolis Colts in 2015. Five years isn't what Jackson will get, even on the open market, but that type of money on a short-term deal could swing a playoff run for several teams.
If nothing else, Tavon Austin signed for $10.5 million per year in 2016, and Jackson should be valued more than the Los Angeles Rams player.
JC Tretter, Interior OL
JC Tretter was a high school quarterback who transitioned to tight end and eventually left tackle as a non-scholarship player at Cornell. He did well enough shuffling around for the Big Red to warrant a fourth-round pick by the Green Bay Packers in 2013, who transitioned him to center.
The Packers had a starter in Evan Smith, but he left as a free agent for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers one year later. With that spot open, Tretter was assumed to be the 2014 starter, as he looked well in spot and preseason reps, but he lost the job to rookie Corey Linsley after going down with a knee injury.
Linsley did well enough to garner Pro Bowl chatter as a rookie, and he had won the job outright by the time Tretter returned from injury.
The Packers offensive line has been one of the more stable lines in the NFL over the last two or three seasons, and Green Bay has swapped Tretter and Linsley seamlessly several times during that period. The team had two centers in a one-center sport.
The Packers have a bigger hole at guard than center since T.J. Lang may leave. If they don't re-sign Tretter, a team will sign a starting-level lineman with 10 solid NFL starts under his belt at the age of 26. For reference, Garett Bolles of Utah, who may be the first offensive lineman drafted in 2017, will be a 25-year-old before he takes a single NFL snap.
At 26 years old, Ben Jones signed a $17.5 million, four-year contract to flip from the Houston Texans to the in-division Tennessee Titans. That should be the aiming point for Tretter. Whether he gets that much based on 10 starts has yet to be seen.
Johnathan Hankins, DL
The biggest names in the nose tackle market this offseason are Brandon Williams and Dontari Poe, which shouldn't be surprising.
Williams, who turns 28 on Tuesday, was a top-100 pick for the Baltimore Ravens and has become one of the faces of that defense. Poe, the 11th pick of the 2012 draft class, is a two-time Pro Bowler who has run and thrown for touchdowns in recent years.
With that all being said, the biggest steal in this nose tackle class is going to be Johnathan Hankins. Think about a player with his resume: In college, he was an All-American. As a draft prospect, he was a top-50 pick. In the NFL, he's played very well and started the last three seasons. He's also just 24 years old, the age of some 2017 draftees.
The Giants moved Hankins from nose tackle to under tackle in 2016 due to the signing of nose tackle Damon Harrison and the busting of former top-100 pick Jay Bromley. Hankins can play either spot, but at a listed 6'2" and 320 pounds, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out which role he should ideally play.
Every scheme in the NFL can utilize him. He's a proven professional and very young. That player should get a lot of money on the open market, but a combination of playing a bit out of position in 2016 and the other names on the market will keep his price lower than his true value.
Dan Williams signed a four-year, $25 million contract with the Oakland Raiders two offseasons ago. That's not the money New York is paying Harrison or Olivier Vernon or the projected money that Jason Pierre-Paul should get, but Harrison's low end of contract negotiations should never dip below Williams' current deal.
Melvin Ingram, EDGE
Melvin Ingram is going to get paid, but he could still be a huge value signing.
In 2012, the San Diego Chargers selected Ingram 18th overall, and if you had said a few years ago that he would be one of the best pass-rushers in this free-agency class—if not the best—people would have called you crazy.
Coming out of South Carolina, there were questions about Ingram's arm length, as they were listed at 31.5 inches at the combine. In 16 games as a rookie, he only had one sack. In his next two seasons, he played just 10 out of 32 possible games due to injuries, including a torn ACL.
Over the last two years, though, Ingram has become one of the best edge defenders in the league. While Joey Bosa, the team's first-round pick last year, stole the spotlight, the 27-year-old Ingram has slipped under the national radar.
In the last two seasons, the only players league-wide who recorded more sacks than Ingram in both years are Khalil Mack, Chandler Jones, Geno Atkins and Von Miller. Those players are all considered elite or borderline elite. The fact that Ingram may even hit the open market is incredible.
The Los Angeles Chargers should tag him if nothing else. If he does test the open market, Ingram should be paid better than Olivier Vernon, who found an $85 million, five-year deal with the New York Giants in the last free-agency cycle. Look for Ingram to ask for a deal in that range.
Jabaal Sheard, EDGE
It may not seem like it, but Jabaal Sheard has been somewhat of a value play during his whole career. Pass-rushers are a lot like quarterbacks. There is a large distance between the low-end starters in the league and those who are legitimately great at the position, and the good ones often are drafted in the first round and get paid giant contracts.
Sheard was a second-round pick in 2011. Since 2005, only four second-round pass-rushers have recorded more seven-sack seasons than Sheard. Since he was drafted, no second-round edge defender has joined that group other than Sheard.
Second-round pass-rushing prospects are a lot like second-round quarterback prospects, in that the bust rate after the first round is huge. Sheard has beaten expectations of those who study what a second-round pass-rusher should look like, even if 36 sacks in six seasons doesn't seem like a great number to the average fan.
Sheard recorded 13 sacks in two years in New England on an $11 million, two-season deal. Less than $1 million per sack is pretty good value. Denver handed Von Miller a deal worth $19 million per season, and you don't hear Broncos fans calling for John Elway's resignation after Miller's 13.5-sack season.
There's no reason to think less of the 27-year-old Sheard than the 25-year-old who signed with the Patriots in 2015. Another two-year deal between $10 million and $14 million is about the range he should land in. If he produces as he has over the last two years, he should again be treated as someone who has beaten his price point in three different contracts.
Tony Jefferson, S
According to Spotrac, Tony Jefferson of the Arizona Cardinals is coming off the most valuable expiring contract for a strong safety in this class. He played 86 percent of Arizona's snaps in 2016, per Pro Football Focus, but he only had an average salary of about $1.7 million a year.
The Cardinals make their safeties do a lot, as they run a blitz-heavy scheme in which Tyrann Mathieu acts like a cornerback more than a safety. Jefferson often plays man defense, which typically is reserved for cornerbacks, as the middle-of-the-field safety plays a deep zone.
On top of all of those factors, Jefferson played the 2016 season as a 24-year-old. He's still young, even though he's spent the better part of the last three years as an NFL starter. The undrafted player is one of the many feel-good stories in Arizona right now, but because of the contract value of Mathieu and Patrick Peterson, Jefferson may be the odd man out in that secondary.
In terms of average salary, the highest-paid safety in the league right now who signed his current deal on the open market is Jairus Byrd of the New Orleans Saints. Considering Jefferson's age, a $54 million, six-year deal doesn't seem out of the question.
Think about it this way: How much cap space would you be willing to part with for a top draft pick? Jared Goff, an unknown product coming out of college, signed a deal worth roughly $7 million per year as the first overall pick.
Around $9 million per year for a proven product shouldn't seem odd, especially when you take into account that 2017 mock drafts often place two safeties in the top 10: LSU's Jamal Adams and Ohio State's Malik Hooker. That's the evolving safety market.
Micah Hyde, S
During draft season, you'll hear a lot about Jabrill Peppers from Michigan. In the NFL, he'll be a hybrid defender and return specialist.
Peppers went to Michigan as a cornerback, but he converted to safety and then played as a linebacker and occasional running back for the Wolverines, becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist. If you're looking for someone similar in this free-agency class, one of the first names you can point to is Micah Hyde of the Green Bay Packers.
Hyde was a cornerback at Iowa who transitioned to a slot safety role that often has him used in run fits as a borderline linebacker with the Packers. In his rookie contract with the team, after being drafted in the fifth round, Hyde has recorded 33 starts, eight interceptions, 227 tackles, 24 pass deflections, 110 combined kickoff and punt returns and three return touchdowns.
T.J. Ward, who played some cornerback at Oregon before playing a strong safety-linebacker role in the NFL, signed a four-year, $22.5 million contract in 2014. That could be the high-end look for Hyde, who turned 26 on New Year's Eve.
The fact Hyde doesn't play a traditional position may hurt him at the negotiation table, but his impact is undeniable.