Ranking the 2016 Free-Agent Class by Position

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistFebruary 15, 2016

Ranking the 2016 Free-Agent Class by Position

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    We here at Bleacher Report aren't going to wait round until the official start of NFL free agency on March 9 to evaluate the market. We've been examining the players scheduled to become free agents for some time. Though the overall pool will undoubtedly change as teams move to re-sign their own, this is shaping up to be one of the top free-agent classes in recent memory.

    On March 7, clubs will be able to contact and negotiate with the agents of pending free agents, but you can bet the evaluation process for most teams started long ago.

    Where does the most talent reside? Well, that's what we're going to determine. We've broken the 2016 free-agent class into position groups and ranked them from weakest to strongest. Primary deciding factors include top-end talent—based on past performance—and overall depth at the positions.

    Do you agree with our ranking? Be sure to let us know in the comments section.

10. Specialists

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    You can make all the jokes you want about the value of NFL specialists, but a game can still easily be won or lost on special teams. This is why punters and kickers are a bit like quarterbacks in the sense your team either has a good one, or it has a problem at the position.

    Fortunately, if your favorite team is in need of a standout specialist, it has a chance of finding one in free agency this year.

    Longtime veteran kickers like Adam Vinatieri and Phil Dawson are scheduled to become available in March. Josh Brown, who represented the New York Giants in the 2016 Pro Bowl, is scheduled to become available as well. Super Bowl champion Brandon McManus, who was rated fifth overall among kickers by Pro Football Focus for 2015, is also scheduled to hit the market.

    The group of punters set to become free agents includes veteran starters like Jon Ryan, Shane Lechler and Bryan Anger. Long snapper Morgan Cox, who represented the Baltimore Ravens in the 2016 Pro Bowl, is expected to also be available.

    Unfortunately, there just isn't a ton of depth in the special teams pool. While there is some top-tier talent in this position group, we still have to leave the specialists at the bottom of our rankings.

9. Tight End

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    The 2106 crop of tight ends appears to benefit more from overall depth than it does star power. The biggest name of the bunch is San Diego Chargers standout Antonio Gates, and he seems to want to return rather than hit the open market.

    "This is the type of team I would love to finish my career with," Gates said, per Michael Gehlken of the San Diego Union-Tribune. "To make a long story short, I'd love to finish my career here."

    Of course, Gates isn't the only San Diego tight end set to hit free agency. Ladarius Green, John Phillips and David Johnson are all scheduled to become free agents. The good news for the Chargers and other teams in need of tight end help is that there are several value players about to become available.

    Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen of the Indianapolis Colts are heading toward free agency, as is Zach Miller of the Chicago Bears. These three fit into the good-but-not-great category, as does Will Tye of the New York Giants.

    Benjamin Watson is coming off a career year with the New Orleans Saints, where he had 74 receptions, 825 yards and six touchdowns. Even though he will be entering his 13th NFL season, Watson may be one of the more attractive pass-catching options on the market.

    Other tight ends set to become available include Jermaine Gresham, Logan Paulsen, Garrett Celek and Tony Moeaki.

    The bottom line here is that teams can find pass-catching help at the tight end position. A handful of teams will even be able to find serviceable starters, but expecting to snag a Pro Bowl talent would be a mistake. However, we're pretty sure a team will be willing to gamble on Vernon Davis regaining some of his former glory.

8. Wide Receiver

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    This year's class of free-agent receivers is certainly loaded with overall talent, though it is lacking receivers of the No. 1 variety. 

    The exception might be Chicago Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery, who was hampered by injuries in 2015 but still managed to produce a strong season. He only appeared in eight games but racked up 54 receptions for 807 yards and four touchdowns. Pro Football Focus rated him 10th overall among receivers for the year.

    Complementary receivers, however, should be plentiful. Cincinnati Bengals wideouts Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu are both scheduled to become free agents, as is Seattle Seahawks receiver Jermaine Kearse. New York Giants wideout Rueben Randle and Miami Dolphins standout Rishard Matthews are both headed to market as well.

    Cleveland Browns receiver Travis Benjamin, who reeled off 966 yards and five touchdowns in 2015, might be a perfect fit for a contending team in need of a speedy deep threat. He just turned 26 years old and is also a weapon in the punt-return game. Benjamin, though, may be headed back to Cleveland.

    "I'm optimistic that something will get something done in the near future,'' his agent Ronald Butler told Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com. "We've been in contact with the organization here in the last couple of weeks and we're still trying to figure out how we can get this thing done where both sides agree to a fair offer."

    Ageless wonder Anquan Boldin should be another popular target among contending teams. The 35-year-old wideout managed to rack up 69 receptions for 789 yards in the 29th-ranked (207.2 yards per game) San Francisco 49ers passing offense this past season.

    Other receivers headed toward free agency include Jerricho Cotchery, Brian Quick, Jordan Norwood, Nate Washington, James Jones and Marlon Brown.

    There should be plenty of opportunities for teams to fill out their receiving corps come March.

7. Quarterback

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    We have to judge this year's crop of free-agent quarterbacks a little bit differently than we do other position groups. This is because when you're talking about depth in a free-agent quarterback pool, you're generally talking about depth players—you know, backups. There is just never going to be a market full of starting-caliber signal-callers.

    This year's free-agent class, however, does feature a number of quarterbacks worthy of earning a starting opportunity, which is rare. Of course, this is assuming a flurry of new contracts aren't handed out before March 9.

    The biggest name on the list might be Denver Broncos quarterback Brock Osweiler, who, for a time, was starting for the eventual Super Bowl champions. A number of teams will likely yearn for Osweiler's services, but if the Broncos can afford to keep him, Osweiler will probably stay in Denver.

    "Every single guy on this team embraced me, and that is something I think they all know how thankful I am for that," Osweiler said after Super Bowl 50, per Nicki Jhabvala of the Denver Post. "But this is the best team in the world, and we have a very special group in our locker room."

    Washington Redskins Kirk Cousins (9-7 as a starter) is another guy who proved he can be a starter in 2015. Journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick (10-6 as a starter) showed he can excel with the right team around him. Both are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents. It would not be surprising to see both re-signed before the new league year.

    Sam Bradford, who showed glimpses of true starting potential with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2015, is more likely to hit the market in a few weeks.

    If even one—or two—of these starting-caliber guys reaches free agency, though, it will mean more than we typically see.

    This year's list of journeymen and backups includes names like Michael Vick, Matt Hasselbeck, Drew Stanton, Chad Henne, Charlie Whitehurst, Matt Flynn and Luke McCown. If your team needs a quality backup, it can likely find one in the coming offseason.

    What could make things more interesting is the potential release of quarterbacks like Johnny Manziel and Robert Griffin III. According to Pat McManamon of ESPN.com, the Cleveland Browns plan to release Manziel at the start of the league year. John Keim of ESPN.com reported the Redskins will try to trade Griffin but will likely release him if they cannot.

    These moves should add to a talent pool that features a few starting-caliber quarterbacks and a whole lot of capable depth.

6. Defensive Line

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    There is a good amount of defensive line talent to be had in 2016 free agency, though most of the starting talent will probably be concentrated at the interior of the line.

    The big exception, of course, is game-changing defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, who racked up 12.0 sacks for the New York Jets in 2015 and is rated fifth overall among 3-4 defensive ends by Pro Football Focus.

    Of course, it won't be surprising if Wilkerson doesn't ultimately become available. Sid Saraf of FoxSports.com recently explained why:

    For what it's worth. GM Scott Mike Maccagnan told reporters that, "yes, we'd very much like to have Muhammad back in the organization." So, that means they have to hit the negotiating table hard. And if all else fails, use the franchise tag on him. Players usually bristle at that, but the Jets must take that risk if a long-term deal is untenable.

    Broncos defensive end Malik Jackson, rated ninth overall among 3-4 ends by Pro Football Focus is also scheduled to be a free agent. However, Mike Klis of 9 News Denver reported the Broncos have already begun negotiating with him.

    Los Angeles Rams defensive end William Hayes, who is rated sixth overall among 4-3 defensive ends by Pro Football Focus, should also be a trendy target. Mike DeVito, Jason Pierre-Paul, Jason Jones and Greg Hardy are some other ends who should see interest in free agency.

    The group of defensive tackles who will be available is impressive, though more because of depth than star power. San Francisco 49ers tackle Ian Williams, who is rated ninth overall among all defensive tackles by Pro Football Focus, tops the bunch. However, the Rams' Nick Fairley is rated right behind him at 11th overall and is about to become an unrestricted free agent.

    Other starting-caliber defensive tackles heading toward free agency include Brandon Mebane, Terrance Knighton, Haloti Ngata, Al Woods, Ahtyba Rubin and Kevin Williams.

    There isn't much elite talent to be had along the defensive line this year, but the amount of starting talent that will be available puts this position group right in the middle of our rankings.

5. Linebacker

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    The linebacker position is one of the stronger positions when it comes to pending free agents, though some of these guys aren't likely to actually be free agents once we hit the afternoon of March 9.

    We'll start with Broncos pass-rusher and Super Bowl MVP Von Miller, who Pro Football Focus rated second overall among 3-4 outside linebackers for the 2015 season. Teams would undoubtedly be chomping at the bit to snag Miller. However, the Broncos will almost certainly franchise Miller if they cannot re-sign him.

    Miller isn't the only top-tier outside linebacker headed toward free agency, though. Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Tamba Hali, who is rated fifth overall among 3-4 linebackers, is also headed there. Other starting-caliber outside linebackers scheduled for free agency include Chad Greenway, Courtney Upshaw, Bruce Irvin, Calvin Pace and Nick Perry.

    The Chiefs are also set to lose inside linebacker Derrick Johnson to free agency. Johnson is rated third overall among inside linebackers by Pro Football Focus for 2015. Kansas City might find it difficult to keep both Hali and Johnson. If Johnson, who is 33 years old, is the guy who walks, one of the game's elite inside 'backers will be up for grabs.

    A guy who is close behind Johnson is Broncos inside linebacker and Super Bowl champion Danny Trevathan, who is rated sixth overall among inside linebackers by Pro Football Focus. As is the case in Kansas City, the Broncos may find it difficult to keep both star linebackers.

    Bengals linebacker Vincent Rey might be one of the other big targets in March. He is just 28 years old, played both inside and outside in 2015 and is coming off a 98-tackle season. Other notable inside linebackers include Sean Weatherspoon, Craig Robertson, Sean Spence and Kelvin Sheppard.

    Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall headlines a group of restricted free agents that also includes Michael Wilhoite and Nathan Stupar.

4. Running Back

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    This is a good year to be an NFL team in need of a running back, because there are more than a few starting-caliber backs scheduled to become unrestricted free agents next month. In fact, there are a couple of legitimate stars in the group.

    Pro Bowlers Chris Ivory and Doug Martin headline the 2016 crop of free-agent running backs. Ivory led the AFC in rushing, producing 1,070 yards on the ground for the New York Jets. Martin was second in the entire league in yards rushing, producing 1,402 yards with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    Other potential starters include Alfred Morris and Lamar Miller.

    Let's not leave out veteran back Matt Forte. He's 30 years old and battled through some injuries with the Chicago Bears in 2015, but he could be the perfect back to help bolster a contender's offense. This is likely a big part of why Forte won't be returning to the Bears.

    "It's not even about the money," Forte said on NFL Network before Super Bowl 50. "I want to be in the Super Bowl."

    Borderline starters and valuable role players set to become available include the likes of Chris Johnson, Ronnie Hillman, James Starks and LeGarrette Blount—assuming Blount returns at 100 percent from his season-ending hip injury. Familiar names like Fred Jackson, Steven Jackson and Ahmad Bradshaw are also going to be available.

    This year's list of restricted free agents includes guys like C.J. Anderson, Shaun Draughn and Christine Michael. Talented fullbacks like John Kuhn, Mike Tolbert and Cory Harkey (restricted) are also set to become free agents.

    We could realistically see a half-dozen NFL teams claim new starters at running back through free agency this year, with many more teams finding ways to strengthen the position. The amount of top-tier talent and depth here makes this one of the stronger positions in free agency.

3. Cornerback

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    Starting-level players and depth make cornerback one of the stronger positions of free agency.

    Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith, who is rated 17th overall among cornerbacks by Pro Football Focus, will probably be one of the hotter names at the position. He is 28 years old and entering the prime of his career.

    Adam Jones of the Bengals, rated 13th overall by Pro Football Focus, should be another enticing target. Fellow Bengal Leon Hall, rated 27th overall, is another.

    However, the biggest name of all is unquestionably Josh Norman of the NFC champion Carolina Panthers. He is rated sixth overall by Pro Football Focus and is coming off the most dominant season of his four-year NFL career.

    But it's hard to expect Norman to actually make it to market this year. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the Panthers are likely to use the franchise tag on Norman if he cannot be re-signed before the start of free agency.

    Even with Norman likely out of the mix, this is still an impressive group of pending free-agent corners. In addition to the guys mentioned above, starting-level players like Terence Newman, Janoris Jenkins, Prince Amukamara, Charles Tillman, Cortland Finnegan, Greg Toler, Jerraud Powers, Coty Sensabaugh and William Gay are scheduled to become available.

    Teams looking strictly for depth should also have a wide variety of choices this offseason. Players like Antwon Blake, Brandon Boykin, Jeremy Lane, Johnson Bademosi, Tarell Brown and Josh Wilson will also be available.

    Because of the amount of talent, the amount of depth and the position's importance in this modern passing league, we have to list cornerback as one of the strongest positions in free agency this year.

2. Safety

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    When it comes to star power, there probably isn't a stronger position group than safety in this year's free-agent pool. This group is deep and top-heavy in talent.

    Eric Berry of the Kansas City Chiefs and Walter Thurmond of the Philadelphia Eagles are both headed toward free agency. Both appeared in the 2016 Pro Bowl, and Berry is rated fourth overall among all safeties by Pro Football Focus for the season.

    Berry, of course, was also this past season's NFL Comeback Player of the Year.

    Bengals safety Reggie Nelson, who was named to the Pro Bowl but did not participate, is also set to become an unrestricted free agent. Nelson snagged a whopping eight interceptions in 2015.

    Also scheduled to be a free agent is San Diego Chargers safety Eric Weddle, who is rated 12th overall by Pro Football Focus. Chiefs safety Husain Abdullah, rated 16th among safeties by Pro Football Focus, is too. Other safeties with starting-level talent include George Iloka, Roman Harper, Tashaun Gipson, Quintin Demps, Bacarri Rambo and Rashad Johnson.

    Rams safety Rodney McLeod heads up a group of standout restricted free agents that also includes Michael Thomas.

    Teams searching for depth at the safety position can target players like Brandon Meriweather, D.J. Swearinger, Taylor Mays, Eddie Pleasant, Chris Banjo and James Ihedigbo.

    The safety group nearly topped our list because of the top-end and starting talent available. However, there is a bit more depth in our final position group, so safeties come in at No. 2.

1. Offensive Line

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    If you're a team looking for starting-level talent along the offensive line, you're in luck. 

    Teams looking for a blindside offensive tackle should be quick to target Cordy Glenn of the Buffalo Bills, who is rated ninth overall among offensive tackles by Pro Football Focus. Glenn is rated just one spot above Oakland Raiders left tackle Donald Penn, who is also scheduled to become a free agent.

    Ryan Harris, who started 13 games at left tackle for the Super Bowl champion Broncos, is also headed toward free agency. Seattle Seahawks starting left tackle Russell Okung is as well. Veteran left tackles like Will Beatty and Jake Long will also be available.

    Teams in need of help on the other side of the line might want to look at Mitchell Schwartz of Cleveland, who is rated sixth overall among tackles by Pro Football Focus. Other right tackles who started in 2015 include Andre Smith, Joe Barksdale and Bobby Massie.

    Moving all the way inside to center, we'll have names like Stefen Wisniewski, Tim Barnes and Ryan Wendell on the open market. If Browns center Alex Mack decides to opt out of his contract, the talent pool at center will increase.

    A slew of starting-caliber players are set to become available at guard. Richie Incognito, who is rated second overall among guards by Pro Football Focus for 2015 tops the list here. Evan Mathis, who is rated seventh overall, and who just won himself a Super Bowl ring, is right behind him.

    Other notable names at guard include Alex Boone, Jahri Evans, Geoff Schwartz, J.R. Sweezy, Austin Pasztor and Willie Colon.

    There is a large number of players along the offensive line likely to switch teams in early March, and many of those appear ready to start and to excel in their new homes. Some of the linemen headed to market are among the best in the business.

    When it comes to depth players along the offensive line, there are plenty of those too. The sheer amount of starting talent that is going to be available, along with a deep overall talent pool, makes offensive line the strongest position of the 2016 free-agency period.

    *All contract information via Spotrac.com.

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