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2017 NFL Free Agents: Latest Rumors, Predictions for Cousins, Jeffery and More

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistJanuary 6, 2017

LANDOVER, MD - JANUARY 01: Quarterback Kirk Cousins #8 of the Washington Redskins passes the ball against the New York Giants in the second quarter at FedExField on January 1, 2017 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

We still have a long way to go before the start of the 2017 free-agency period. Teams won't even be able to legally contact pending free agents until March 7. They won't be able to actually sign them until March 9 at 4 p.m. ET.

This does not mean, however, that it's too early to begin looking ahead to some of the transactions that could take place. On the contrary, teams looking to add, re-sign or renegotiate with players have begun doing this quite some time ago.

Now, we're going to examine some of the latest buzz surrounding pending free agents that could be hot commodities after the start of the new league year. We'll be looking at the latest rumors surrounding guys like quarterback Kirk Cousins and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and making our own predictions for how their situations will unfold.

        

Kirk Cousins, QB, Washington Redskins

Given the relatively lackluster nature of this year's rookie quarterback class, there should be a high demand for veteran signal-callers on the free-agent market. One of the top targets for quarterback-needy teams will be the Washington Redskins' Kirk Cousins—should he become available.

Cousins might not be an elite signal-caller—and he deserves at least some of the blame for Washington missing the postseason this year. Yet, it's hard to deny that he isn't at least an above-average starter that can effectively lead an offense.

This Michigan State product has passed for more than 4,000 yards in each of his two full seasons as a starter. He has 54 touchdown passes in that span, and he has a respectable career passer rating of 93.6.

Pro Football Focus rated cousins eighth overall among all quarterbacks for the 2016 season.

The negatives for Cousins include struggles in the red zone—he passed for nearly 5,000 yards this season but just 25 touchdowns—and a bit of carelessness with the ball. He has turned the ball over 29 times over the past two seasons.

According to ESPN's Britt McHenry, some NFL coaches believe these traits prevent Cousins from being a great quarterback:

Britt McHenry @BrittMcHenry

A few coaches around league on Kirk Cousins: good, will win games but not a Super Bowl. INT doesn't help his case. Tough ending for Skins

Still, Cousins is better than what the Redskins are likely to find on the open market or in the draft, at least in the short term. It would be wise for Washington to re-sign him before the start of free agency.

The problem is that, as John Keim of ESPN.com recently pointed out, pending coaching hires could drive up Cousins' value:

Former Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and the coach who holds that current title, Sean McVay, will interview for head-coaching positions over the next week. Not every team they’re talking to will be in the market for a quarterback, but if one or both do become head coaches for teams without a starting quarterback, then there’s no doubt they’d be interested in Cousins. And his market value would creep higher.

Considering Brock Osweiler got a four-year contract that guaranteed $37 million this past offseason, Cousins might command more than $50 million in guaranteed money. He has a bigger body of work and has had far more success than Osweiler did this time last year.

However, there are plenty of folks who don't believe the Redskins are sold enough on Cousins to give him that type of money.

"For right now, Kirk has not done enough to show what you need to see to give that guy $50 million guaranteed," Mike Jones of the Washington Post told Sports Junkies (via CSN Mid-Atlantic's Peter Hailey) back in November. "He's playing like an $18 million quarterback right now."

If the Redskins aren't wanting to commit $50 million to Cousins, they might want to consider letting him walk. Using the franchise tag for another season is an option, but there's a problem. Cousin's earned nearly $20 million guaranteed under the tag in 2016, and he'd be due roughly $24 million at minimum under the tag in 2017—based on the 120 percent value for using the tag a second time.

Of course, Washington might be willing to risk $24 million for another season-long audition rather than $50 million on a long-term commitment.

Prediction: Washington tags Cousins a second time.

        

Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago Bears

If feels far less likely that the Chicago Bears will be interested in using their franchise tag on the same player for a second consecutive year. Last year, the team used the tag on Jeffery—and they were rewarded with just 821 receiving yards and two touchdowns.

There's a lot to like with Jeffery, of course. He's a physical 6'3", 218-pound pass-catcher that swallows nearly anything thrown his way like a black hole. However, he also has an extensive history of injuries and was recently suspended four games for violation of the league's performance-enhancing drug policy.

“I don’t feel like this season he really got into a rhythm that he would have liked to have gotten into," Bears general manager Ryan Pace recently said of Jeffery, per the team's official website. "I think that was because of a lot of different quarterback play. And also he missed four games. It’s hard for him to get in a rhythm and showcase what he can do.”

Committing to Jeffery for the long term would be a tad risky. He's battled through injuries and missed seven total games in 2015. Another PED violation would result in even more missed time too. However, giving Jeffery a 20 percent raise on top of the $14.59 million he was due under the tag in 2016 is equally risky for these same reasons.

The good news is that the Bears may not be forced to use the tag in order to retain Jeffery. His injury and PED risk likely make him less attractive to other potential employers than he was at this time last year. As Bleacher Report NFL Insider Jason Cole suggested back in November (see video above), this could lead to a thin free-agent market for Jeffery.

The two sides should be able to agree on a deal that doesn't require too much risk on the part of the Bears but also gives Jeffery the opportunity to earn the type of money he desires.

Prediction: Bears sign Jeffery to three- or four-year, incentive-laden deal.

        

DeSean Jackson, WR, Washington Redskins

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 24:   DeSean Jackson #11 of the Washington Redskins carries the football ahead of  Johnthan Banks #35 of the Chicago Bears in the first quarter at Soldier Field on December 24, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by David Banks/Getty
David Banks/Getty Images

Jeffery isn't the only big-name receiver scheduled to hit the open market this offseason. The Redskins are potentially set to see both receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon enter free agency. Jackson is a particularly interesting story because there has been some chatter about him rejoining the Philadelphia Eagles.

ESPN's Adam Schefter reported last month that the Eagles could be interested in bringing the Cal product back into the fold.

"Multiple teams believe that Jackson, who will be an unrestricted free agent after the season, could return to Philadelphia," Schefter wrote. "The Eagles would benefit from the addition of a speedy deep threat, and Jackson and Eagles coach Doug Pederson are big admirers of each other, sources said."

Jackson, who just wrapped up another 1,000-yard season, could certainly help provide young quarterback Carson Wentz with some receiving firepower. The problem here is that Jackson is 30 years old and may not be as valuable by the time Wentz is fully developed as a signal-caller.

Former Eagles quarterback and current NFL analyst Ron Jaworski believes that the Eagles shouldn't bring Jackson back because of this.

"They're not close. I think they're a couple years away," Jaworski explained, per Jeff Skversky of WPVI-TV. "I would not bring DeSean Jackson back. I would bring someone in with Desean Jackson's skills, a young DeSean Jackson via the draft," Jaworski said. "I think you build your team through the draft."

For the Eagles, bringing back Jackson might only make sense on a short-term deal or a contract that lacks back-end guarantees. If Jackson is still playing at a high level two or three years from now, then by all means, the team should then keep him. But Philadelphia cannot risk wasting precious cap space on an aging pass-catcher.

Ideally, the Eagles will be needing cap space in order to extend ascending young players like (hopefully) Wentz.

Prediction: Eagles offer Jackson a short-term contract or one lacking in back-end guarantees. If Jackson is interested in getting the most guaranteed money possible, he'll likely sign elsewhere.

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