NFL Free Agents Who Should Re-Sign with Their Current Teams
For NFL teams, free agency is simple enough. They need to add talent in all the right places without sinking themselves financially down the road.
But for players, the open market is a little more complicated than chasing money.
Free agents are entitled to reach for every glittering dollar available without being called greedy. Everyone wants to get paid what they're worth. But that need has to be balanced with finding the right situation, which is the tricky part.
Focusing solely on money can lead to a poor roster fit and a situation where a player's career could be torpedoed by declining production. Often the best move is no move at all.
Each offseason there are free agents who would benefit from staying with their current teams and continuing to thrive. That's true in 2018 too, especially with New Orleans Saints quarterback and franchise icon Drew Brees. An improved rushing offense has set Brees up nicely during the golden years of his career.
Dion Lewis, the New England Patriots running back, would also be wise to stay with a team that knows how to utilize his talents in a niche role. And the Ravens' Mike Wallace needs to stick around for likely his final chance to be a No. 1 wide receiver.
Here's a deeper look at some of the top free agents who should jump at the opportunity to re-sign with their current franchises.
Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints Quarterback
Drew Brees' re-signing with the New Orleans Saints feels inevitable. It's as if the signing has already happened and we can all ignore the fact that one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history is scheduled to be a free agent.
The source of the foregone conclusion is this easy dot-connecting: The Saints have a resurrected offense and a rising team, and all that momentum would be crippled by losing Brees. Soon they'll have to face life without the 39-year-old quarterback—just ideally not now, after a season when the Saints won their division and came a Stefon Diggs miracle away from advancing to the NFC Championship Game.
But the need to stay connected should be a mutual feeling, as Brees needs the Saints just as much as they need him.
Brees is still firmly a premier talent at the most complex position in football. He averaged 8.1 yards per attempt in 2017 while throwing 23 touchdown passes and just eight interceptions. He's incredibly durable too and has appeared in at least 15 games during all but one season since 2002.
But not even Brees is immune to fading as he approaches the age of 40. Having the support of a strong rushing offense is a great way to make sure his decline is gentle and gradual.
The Saints have checked that box after selecting Alvin Kamara with their third-round pick in 2017. Kamara was named Offensive Rookie of the Year following a season when he finished with 1,554 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns. He combined with Mark Ingram (1,540 yards from scrimmage) to give New Orleans a fifth-ranked rushing offense.
That made Brees' life a whole lot easier during a season when he attempted only 536 passes, down dramatically from his 673 in 2016.
Dion Lewis, New England Patriots Running Back
Dion Lewis has been wildly successful in a specific role for the New England Patriots. The problem is his lack of success anywhere else.
A combination of injuries and ineffectiveness led to journeyman status for Lewis before the running back became another scrap-heap project for Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. Late in the 2014 season he was signed to a futures contract.
That came after he had been on three teams since being drafted in 2011. Worse, Lewis had missed the entire 2013 season due to a fractured fibula and then didn't latch on anywhere in 2014 after being cut early by the Indianapolis Colts.
Lewis didn't get his first real shot until he was 25 years old, which is sadly about middle-aged at his position. He capitalized on it with 622 yards from scrimmage in 2015 over only seven games. But then his brittle ways returned, and Lewis' season ended prematurely due to a torn ACL.
He also played only seven regular-season games in 2016 after needing a second knee surgery and starting the season on the physically unable to perform list.
The 2017 season marked the first time Lewis played a full 16 games, and he did it while thriving as Belichick's passing-down playmaker. Lewis was on the field for just 35.6 percent of the Patriots' offensive snaps, but he still recorded 1,110 yards from scrimmage and nine touchdowns.
Duplicating that success under a coach who isn't as well-versed in the art of managing his running backs will be a tough challenge.
Paul Richardson, Seattle Seahawks Wide Receiver
There's about to be a seismic shift for the Seattle Seahawks' pass-catching hierarchy if tight end Jimmy Graham departs as a free agent.
It'll be tempting for wide receiver Paul Richardson to do the same, but sticking around and filling the void left by Graham is a smart career move.
Graham finished 2017 with 96 targets, making him the second-most targeted Seahawks pass-catcher. Wide receiver Doug Baldwin was first by a wide margin with his 116 targets, and Richardson finished third at 80 targets.
The 25-year-old averaged 2.8 receptions per game as part of a passing offense that limped through the season while held back by a feeble offensive line. But he capitalized on his opportunities to make an impact by averaging 16 yards per reception, solidifying himself as a deep threat with both the speed to separate and the acrobatic athleticism to come down with jump balls.
Richardson easily finished with single-season career highs in receiving yards (703) and touchdowns (six). It's not hard to imagine a near future when the connection with quarterback Russell Wilson builds and Richardson's production soars in a larger role.
He's likely daydreaming about that same future. But the desire to stay and the need to get paid fair market value don't always line up. Like any player, Richardson is entitled to want and pursue the highest possible price tag for his services. But getting it from the Seahawks might be a challenge with their $13.7 million in projected cap space.
If he wants to continue the upward trajectory of his career, Richardson may have to consider accepting a deal slightly below market value.
Nigel Bradham, Philadelphia Eagles Linebacker
Linebacker Nigel Bradham has found a defense, and more importantly a defensive coordinator, that highlights his strengths and puts him in the best position to be successful.
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who has been with the Philadelphia Eagles since 2016, has presided over two of Bradham's best seasons.
The six-year veteran has recorded three seasons with 80-plus tackles, and two have come in Philadelphia. In 2017 he also improved as a pass defender while finishing with a career-high eight passes defensed. Throughout his career he's allowed only six touchdowns when targeted in coverage, per Pro Football Focus.
Bradham played the third-highest percentage of defensive snaps for the Eagles during the 2017 regular season (89.5 percent), as well as every snap throughout the playoffs. He shined during the Super Bowl too and in the first half alone tallied three run stops, again per PFF.
The coaching carousel has stopped spinning for now, and Schwartz is still the Eagles' defensive coordinator. That alone should motivate Bradham to stick around and keep playing for the coach who's helped to reignite his career. It's a nice little bonus that he can do it while defending a championship as part of the fourth-ranked defense in 2017.
E.J. Gaines, Buffalo Bills Cornerback
The Buffalo Bills defense allowed the second-fewest passing touchdowns in 2017 (14) and only 6.7 yards per attempt (tied for eighth). The play of standout rookie cornerback Tre'Davious White (18 passes defensed and four interceptions) factored heavily into that swarming secondary, as did the five interceptions from safety Jordan Poyer.
Which meant the steadiness of cornerback E.J. Gaines could get overlooked. He gave the Bills a solid return after coming over in the trade that sent wide receiver Sammy Watkins to the Los Angeles Rams.
Gaines has struggled to stay healthy, and that battle with durability continued in 2017 when he missed five games. Previously he sat out the entire 2015 season due to a Lisfranc injury, and he was sidelined for five more games in 2016 with a thigh issue.
But Gaines was effective when on the field in 2017, recording nine passes defensed and an interception. He fit well into Bills head coach Sean McDermott's zone-coverage scheme, earning a grade of 86.6 and placement as Pro Football Focus' 13th-best cornerback.
Gaines turns 26 years old in February, meaning he's young enough to command a hefty raise on the open market. With a projected $29.4 million in cap space, the Bills can pay him what he deserves, and then Gaines doesn't have to leave the promising partnership he's formed with White.
Lamarcus Joyner, Los Angeles Rams Safety
Leaving the pleasant company of Wade Phillips wouldn't be a good career move for safety Lamarcus Joyner.
Phillips, the Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator who always seems to squeeze the most out of his players, assessed Joyner's talent and decided he should get on the field more. The way to do that was moving him from slot corner to safety.
Joyner was indeed on the field more in 2017 after the move and played 688 snaps even while missing four games due to injury and rest. That nearly matched the 700 snaps he played in 2016, a year when Joyner was on the field for 14 games.
The result of Phillips' experiment and Joyner's increased playing time was a career-best season in coverage. Joyner has now recorded three career interceptions, and all of them came in 2017. He also piled up a career-high nine passes defensed.
Joyner is entering his prime at 27 years old. With a projected $45.1 million in cap space, the Rams have plenty of financial resources to give him the raise he's earned. Leaving the watchful eye of Phillips would likely result in lost value eventually—and worse, lost games too.
Case Keenum, Minnesota Vikings Quarterback
Prior to the 2017 season Minnesota Vikings quarterback Case Keenum had never logged double-digit starts in a season. He had never attempted even 350 throws in a year, and Keenum's career touchdown pass total sat at pedestrian 24 over five seasons.
Then he went from journeyman to the quarterback of a team that won its division and was one game away from playing in the Super Bowl.
The Vikings were trounced in that NFC Championship Game, losing 38-7 to the Philadelphia Eagles. Still, they wouldn't have advanced that far or had such a successful season without the play of Keenum, who's now one of three quarterbacks on the Vikings depth chart set to hit free agency. Keenum just turned 30 years old, and he picked the right time to have an impressive year, throwing 22 touchdown passes with only seven interceptions, and his passer rating was 98.3 at the end of 2017.
He's pinballed to four different teams over six NFL seasons, including two stints with the Houston Texans. Keenum has finally proved he belongs and no doubt wants to be rewarded accordingly.
But leaving the Vikings comes with danger for a quarterback who hasn't had success elsewhere.
He would no longer have the support of a defense that gifted him quality field position and kept scores low by giving up a league-best average of 15.8 points per game. He wouldn't benefit from having Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen in his huddle, two talented young wide receivers who finished with a combined 2,125 receiving yards in 2017. And he wouldn't be around for the return from injury of Dalvin Cook, the running back who went off for 354 rushing yards in his first four NFL games.
If a contract is offered to Keenum, the Vikings might be conservative because of all the high-priced pending free agents they'll have to re-sign in 2019. But leaving the security of his cocoon in Minnesota is risky for Keenum, even if he has more lucrative offers on the table.
Mike Wallace, Baltimore Ravens Wide Receiver
Wide receiver Mike Wallace will turn 32 years old in August, and he's coming off the second-lowest yardage total of his 10-year career (748 yards in 2017).
That's two strikes against him—and a reason to salvage whatever is left of his career and move on from the Baltimore Ravens. But despite the struggles of quarterback Joe Flacco, and by extension the entire Ravens offense, Baltimore is still the best place—and maybe the only place—for Wallace if he wants to be a No. 1 wide receiver.
Flacco's albatross of a contract creates a deep salary-cap hole for the Ravens. He averaged a mere 5.7 yards per pass attempt in 2017 but has a cap hit of $24.75 million in 2018. Because of that monstrous contract, the Ravens will have only $11.7 million to spend, per Spotrac, which is the fourth-lowest projected cap space.
That makes it highly unlikely a top free agent will knock Wallace off the lead spot on the Ravens' wide receiver depth chart. Even an early draft pick at the position would need time to develop, leaving Wallace with plenty of targets.
Rashaan Melvin, Indianapolis Colts Cornerback
There's a bit of a Hollywood shine to Rashaan Melvin. The cornerback is the classic underdog story after being overlooked and cast aside multiple times. But when the Indianapolis Colts gave him an opportunity in 2016, the 28-year-old proved he belonged.
Undrafted in 2013, Melvin headed into last season having appeared in just 12 games in stints with four different teams, including two stops with the Miami Dolphins.
He showed some promise in 2016 with seven passes defensed. Then he took off in 2017, recording 13 passes defensed and three interceptions over 10 games before his season ended early due to a hand injury.
He rose to the challenge against some of the league's best receivers, including DeAndre Hopkins. Melvin finished with a passer rating in coverage of just 39.6, per PFF, while assigned to the Texans wideout for most of a Week 9 win.
Now Melvin is in search of his first and likely only payday as a late-blooming defender. He'd be wise to not look far.
The Colts can easily afford to give Melvin the raise he's earned. At $79.2 million, they're projected to have the third-most cap space. So Melvin can get paid and continue to benefit from playing alongside fast-rising safety Malik Hooker, who snatched three interceptions in only seven games as a rookie.
Hooker's instincts and ability to cover ground give Melvin the confidence to take more chances knowing there's a reliable safety net lurking in the secondary.
Danny Amendola, New England Patriots Wide Receiver
Wide receiver Danny Amendola is surely aware that what you've done lately means a whole lot when the market opens for business in March. Memories are short, and his brilliance throughout the 2017 postseason with 26 catches for 348 yards and two touchdowns could be bolded and underlined by potential bidders.
Had the New England Patriots come back to win Super Bowl LII, Amendola would have received MVP consideration with his 152 yards under that bright spotlight. It wasn't the first time he thrived in the playoffs, as Amendola also finished with eight catches for 78 yards and a touchdown in Super Bowl LI.
Going back further, the 5'11", 190-pound wideout has scored six touchdowns over 13 playoff games with the Patriots. The problem is what he's done over the rest of his time in New England. Or rather, what Amendola hasn't done.
He's been serviceable throughout the regular season, but nothing more. A mediocre 659 receiving yards in 2017 was a single-season best with the Patriots, and over his 10-year career Amendola hasn't hit even the 700-yard plateau. He's also scored just 12 regular-season touchdowns since his time in New England began in 2013.
He's a playoff superhero and a regular-season role player, and his connection with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady would be tough to duplicate with another quarterback anywhere else.