NFL Free Agents 2016: Reviewing the Biggest Name at Every Position

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor IMarch 8, 2016

NFL Free Agents 2016: Reviewing the Biggest Name at Every Position

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    Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

    When it comes to the NFL and big names, few are larger than quarterback Peyton Manning.

    No. 18 said goodbye on March 7 in an emotional press conference.

    Here, it's time to say hello, not goodbye, and remind people of the biggest names that surround this year's free-agent class.

    Whether it's proven veterans or youngsters who are looking for their breakout opportunity, the biggest names in this class have all earned a strong reputation in the NFL and should continue their strong play into 2016 and beyond.

Quarterback: Brock Osweiler (Potential UFA: Denver Broncos)

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    The sample size is quite small when it comes to Brock Osweiler, who started seven games for the Denver Broncos in 2015. In his first three NFL seasons, he saw action in just 13 contests and attempted only 30 passes.

    Over the weekend, Mike Klis of KUSA 9 News reported that the Broncos had offered the young signal-caller a three-year deal in excess of $45 million. That contract would make sense for a quarterback who still has a lot to prove.

    Washington's Kirk Cousins was given the franchise tag (and signed his tender, via Spotrac), and the Philadelphia Eagles recently re-upped with Sam Bradford. New York Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick comes off a career year, but we’re talking about an 11-year veteran who’s played for six teams (and counting?).

    The Redskins just released Robert Griffin III (who took to Instagram to say goodbye), who didn’t see the field in 2015.

    Osweiler is easily the best option out there for a team that is looking to make a solid investment. That includes the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos.

Running Back: Matt Forte (Potential UFA: Chicago Bears)

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    With eight seasons under his belt, there appears to be some concern about Matt Forte’s staying power. Nevertheless, the two-time Pro Bowler still led the Chicago Bears in rushing yards this past season and remains a sure-handed pass-catcher.

    Forte is just one year removed from setting an NFL single-season record for receptions by a running back (102 in 2014). But the concern is understandable for a player with 2,522 career touches from scrimmage and one who missed three games in 2015.

    Buccaneers running back Doug Martin was second in the league in rushing this past season and should command more attention than Forte on the open market, thanks to four fewer years of wear and tear. However, Forte’s proven versatility is a huge plus for a team that is looking for a full-time performer who can handle his share of carries and give his quarterback another target.

    Miami’s Lamar Miller will also command attention, but his rushing numbers were down from the previous year. Washington’s Alfred Morris has played only four years, but his production has steadily declined. Jets running back Chris Ivory totaled an AFC-high 1,070 yards on the ground but is not much of a factor as a pass-catcher.

    Forte turned 30 this past December, but a three-year deal with early guaranteed money would be more than reasonable for a player who still has a lot to offer in various roles.

Wide Receiver: Roddy White (Released by Atlanta Falcons)

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    Roddy White was a shell of his former self in 2015. This past season, his 43 catches and one touchdown in 16 games were his lowest totals since his second year in the league in 2006.

    The Atlanta Falcons recently gave him his walking papers after 11 seasons. It’s hard to believe that a player with his experience can’t help any number of teams. Clubs in dire need of wide receiver help (such as the New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers) will give him a hard look.

    Why choose White over the likes of Marques Colston (released by the Saints after 10 years) or Cincinnati Bengals wideouts Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones? Seattle’s Jermaine Kearse is also worth pondering given his 16.8 yards-per-catch average and six touchdowns in 10 postseason contests.

    Like these other performers, White has been on numerous playoff teams and is more than capable of putting up big numbers in the right setting. His NFL tenure is a big plus here, which is why you would give him the nod over Sanu, Jones and Kearse. In the case of Colston, you may be just splitting hairs.

    No doubt Bill Belichick (and quarterback Tom Brady) would get the most out of this player by putting him in an ideal role—and at the right price.

Tight End: Antonio Gates (Potential UFA: San Diego Chargers)

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    Associated Press

    When you’re one of only nine players in league history to total 100-plus career touchdown catches, that’s big.

    In a down year for the San Diego Chargers, tight end Antonio Gates totaled more scores (five) than the Bolts had wins (four).

    Is the rapport between the 13-year tight end and quarterback Philip Rivers impossible to duplicate? Is Gates still a viable performer who could help another team? Chances are we will never know the answer to the latter, according to Michael Gehlken of the San Diego Union-Tribune.

    As for other options at the position, Stephen Holder of IndyStar.com reports that the Indianapolis Colts have given Dwayne Allen a new deal, which means teammate Coby Fleener will test free agency. A team such as the Los Angeles Rams (with $44.3 million of cap room) could sign the receiving threat to a four-year deal, replacing the likes of recently released Jared Cook.

Tackle: Russell Okung (Potential UFA: Seattle Seahawks)

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    The knock on Seattle Seahawks left tackle Russell Okung is that he can’t stay healthy. That’s a valid point considering he’s played six seasons and has yet to make it through an entire 16-game campaign.

    The sixth overall pick in 2010 just put the wraps on the final campaign of the six-year, $48.5 million deal he signed as a rookie. When available in 2015 (13 games), he graded out very well at Pro Football Focus.

    There’s that word: available. This past season, the Oakland Raiders’ Donald Penn ranked higher than Okung. But he has a little more wear and tear on his body after playing every game in nine seasons.

    Some would point to Cleveland’s Mitchell Schwartz as the best tackle who is about to hit the open market, but unlike Okung, he lines up on the right side. Could he make the switch if called upon? He’s started every game at his current position for four consecutive seasons.

    That's why we lean toward Okung, a Pro Bowler in 2012 who could wind up being a smart investment. He’s worthy of a five-year deal, and returning to Seattle is certainly an option.

Guard: Jahri Evans (Released by New Orleans Saints)

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    Sean Gardner/Getty Images

    Six Pro Bowl invitations in 10 years buys you a lot of credibility. However, it wasn’t enough to prevent the New Orleans Saints from cutting loose guard Jahri Evans last month.

    “The Saints came to us for the second year in a row about doing a little contract adjustment and pay cut this year,” said Jerrold Colton, Evans agent, on The Mike and Ike Show, via 94WIP in Philadelphia in February. "We weren't going to do it again.”

    That implies that the decision to part ways with the proven performer was based more on finance than performance, although Pro Football Focus indicates that there has been some slippage in his play the past two seasons. Evans was limited to 11 games in 2015, a career low.

    The guard market will include four-year pro Kelechi Osemele (who will command the biggest money and no less than a five-year contract), as well as veterans such as Evan Mathis and Richie Incognito. The former Saints stalwart should get a four-year deal from a club that hopes to squeeze out at least two more quality seasons from the standout blocker.

Center: Alex Mack (Potential UFA: Cleveland Browns)

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    Associated Press

    At his position, there is center Alex Mack, and then there are a bunch of other players. The three-time Pro Bowler rebounded with a respectable season after missing the final 11 games of 2014.

    Last week, Mike Garafolo of Fox Sports reported that Mack opted out of the final three years of his contract with the Cleveland Browns.

    “We view Alex’s decision to void as procedural,” said Tim Younger, Mack’s agent, according to Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com. “It was built into his contract to afford him maximum flexibility. For the first time in his career, he will be experiencing true free agency. Although we anticipate interest from multiple teams, he was very impressed with Hue Jackson and returning to the Browns certainly remains on the table.”

    Cabot feels the seven-year pro will command a minimum of $10 million per season. Bleacher Report’s Jason Cole believes the Atlanta Falcons have serious interest in Mack, who earned better grades as a run-blocker than pass protector in 2015.

    Don’t be fooled by the notion that he is on the decline simply because he turned 30 years old in November. Offensive linemen have a longer shelf life than most positions, and a five-year deal for Mack is a realistic possibility.

Defensive End: Mario Williams (Released by Buffalo Bills)

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    Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

    Remember when Mario Williams was the first overall pick in the NFL draft in 2006?

    Unfortunately, the 10-year pro comes off a forgettable year, one that never saw him fit in Rex Ryan’s defense. With just five sacks and arguably more than twice as many complaints about the system, Williams was cut loose by the club last week.

    There’s little question that the four-time Pro Bowler and his 96 career sacks could help any defense. What makes Williams the choice over Chris Long, Charles Johnson, Greg Hardy and Jason Pierre-Paul is that while the veteran has excelled at defensive end, he’s had some experience at outside linebacker in the 3-4.

    NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport (via NFL.com) reports that Williams has already visited the Miami Dolphins and is slated to meet with the New York Giants—a team with nearly $57 million in cap room and one that totaled just 23 sacks in 2015.

Defensive Tackle: Haloti Ngata (Potential UFA: Detroit Lions)

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    There’s a lot to be said about experience and savvy, especially in the trenches.

    Detroit Lions defensive tackle Haloti Ngata has that and more. He’s lined up in numerous positions up front in 10 seasons and garnered five Pro Bowl invitations.

    So why not sink some money into New York Jets nose tackle Damon Harrison, a younger performer (27) who was rated the sixth-best interior defensive lineman and second in terms of run defense in 2015 by Pro Football Focus? What you don’t get from the up-and-coming pro is any semblance of a pass rush. However, if you’re a 3-4 team that is looking to clog the middle, Harrison makes the most sense.

    Thanks to his versatility and steady play, look for the Lions to retain Ngata and again pair him with Tyrunn Walker, who just re-signed with the club.

    Teryl Austin’s defense played well after a shaky start this past season. Keeping the defensive tackle duo intact for a second straight year would be a big plus. The former Baltimore Ravens standout should command a three-year, front-loaded deal.

Outside Linebacker: (Tamba Hali: Kansas City Chiefs)

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    The Kansas City Chiefs won’t be able to keep all of their potential free agents on defense.

    Terez A. Paylor of the Kansas City Star reported Friday that outside linebacker Tamba Hali’s contract voided on March 4, which means he will be available for other teams to sign.

    Ideally, a team with last season’s seventh-ranked defense and a pass rush that produced 47 sacks will find a way to retain the five-time Pro Bowler. But that’s easier said than done with free safety Eric Berry getting the franchise tag and defenders such as Derrick Johnson and Sean Smith looking for new deals.

    Last season’s track record indicates that the Arizona Cardinals would be a perfect fit for Hali. Bruce Arians made great use of veteran Dwight Freeney, who led the team with eight sacks in limited action. Hali has missed only four games in 10 seasons and did begin his career at defensive end before moving to outside linebacker.

    At this stage of his career and with teams always looking for pass-rushing help, you can look for a contract similar to the one that Trent Cole (two years, $14 million) signed with the Indianapolis Colts last offseason. And you can bet there will be some incentives in terms of sacks in the deal as well.

Inside Linebacker: Jerrell Freeman (Potential UFA: Indianapolis Colts)

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    R Brent Smith/Associated Press

    There is quite a talent pool when it comes to inside linebacker.

    But there’s little question that Indianapolis Colts defender Jerrell Freeman should warrant the most attention on the market at his position.

    Freeman played well in the latter stages of 2014 and put together a solid campaign this past season despite the dismal rankings of the Indianapolis defense. Pro Football Focus rated the former undrafted free agent as the second-best inside linebacker in the league behind perennial Pro Bowler Luke Kuechly.

    That means he ranked ahead of Kansas City’s Derrick Johnson (third), Denver’s Danny Trevathan (sixth) and the New York Giants’ Jasper Brinkley (eighth)—who were all rated in the top 10 this past year.

    We haven’t seen a team shell out big money at this position, and perhaps Freeman or even Trevathan won’t command a huge payday. But look for both to ink at least a four-year deal with their current or new club for $4 million to $6 million per year.

Cornerback: Sean Smith (Potential UFA: Kansas City Chiefs)

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    According to Pro Football Focus, only 16 of 218 cornerbacks graded out higher than Kansas City’s Sean Smith in 2015.

    That fact is made even more interesting when you consider that none of those 16 players is available in free agency (unless you want to sign franchise-tagged Josh Norman of the Carolina Panthers to an offer sheet).

    In 2013, Smith inked a three-year, $18 million deal to join the Chiefs after four seasons with the Miami Dolphins. Now, he’s primed for a bigger contract and will get it after totaling 45 tackles, two interceptions and 12 passes defensed in just 13 games.

    The cornerback market includes veterans such as Terence Newman and Adam Jones, both with nine-plus seasons of experience, as well as younger performers such as Janoris Jenkins, Brandon Boykin and Prince Amukamara.

    Smith offers the best of both worlds with only seven years under his shoulder pads. He’s missed only four games over that span (three of those in 2015 due to a league suspension). He should garner a five-year deal worth somewhere between $9 and $10 million per season.

    With the chance to again tutor reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Marcus Peters, Smith would be the wisest offseason investment made by the Chiefs.

Safety: Eric Weddle (Potential UFA: San Diego Chargers)

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    It was an ugly parting of the ways between safety Eric Weddle and the San Diego Chargers. Now, Weddle, a three-time Pro Bowler in nine seasons with the Bolts, looks to begin the second phase of his career.

    The need for the free safety’s skills can be found in Oakland, where the Raiders will no longer have the pleasure of Charles Woodson’s company. The Cincinnati Bengals could also look for help at the position, should they not be able to re-sign Reggie Nelson (the NFL’s co-leader with eight interceptions in 2015) or strong safety George Iloka.  

    The Philadelphia Eagles could have a hole in their secondary if they don’t retain Walter Thurmond. It would give the Birds quite the tandem, pairing Weddle with Pro Bowler Malcolm Jenkins.

    The Raiders would seem to be the logical landing place for Weddle, a rangy performer who has also been a contributor on special teams. General manager Reggie McKenzie has shown a willingness to spend money, especially on defense, and the franchise has room to spare cap-wise. If Oakland was willing to give Nate Allen a four-year, $23 million deal one year ago, Weddle figures to command at least $6 million annually.

Kicker: Adam Vinatieri (Potential UFA: Indianapolis Colts)

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    After 20 seasons—10 each with the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts—Adam Vinatieri ranks third in NFL history in points and field goals made. He’s also the league’s all-time leader in postseason scoring.

    It’s hard to ignore numbers. In a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, he totaled 107 points and connected on 25 of 27 three-point tries in 2015—nailing four of his five attempts from 50-plus yards. But the veteran performer did miss three PATs.

    Vinatieri leaves the kickoff duties for punter Pat McAfee, something place-kicker Greg Zuerlein of the Los Angeles Rams handles for his club. But Zuerlein comes off an erratic year when it came to field goals and PATs, missing a combined 12 kicks in 2015.

    This market got a lot thinner in recent weeks with the Baltimore Ravens giving Justin Tucker the franchise tag and Mason Crosby re-signing with the Green Bay Packers. Courtesy of John McClain of the Houston Chronicle, the Texans have brought back Nick Novak for another season. That likely means Vinatieri will head back to Indianapolis to begin his third decade in the league.

Punter: Bryan Anger (Potential UFA: Jacksonville Jaguars)

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    Punter is another position with few options, especially after Shane Lechler agreed to return to the Houston Texans via a one-year contract, according to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle, and the Oakland Raiders locked up Marquette King last week.

    So the nod goes to Bryan Anger, almost by default considering the only other punters scheduled to hit the unrestricted free-agent market are Seattle’s Jon Ryan and Carolina’s Brad Nortman. Ryan has spent the last six years with the Seahawks and at 34 is seven years older than Anger.

    Anger, a third-round pick in 2012 by the Jacksonville Jaguars who is playing out his rookie contract, ranked 11th in the NFL in gross average this past season. Look for the team to give him a five-year deal sooner than later, and don’t be surprised if both Ryan and Nortman re-up with their clubs as well.

    Unless otherwise noted, all player and team statistics come from Pro-Football-Reference and ESPN.com. All player ratings courtesy of Pro Football Focus.

    All free-agent and salary-cap information, as well as 2016 transactions, are courtesy of Spotrac. Team salary-cap figures change on a daily basis.