NFL Free Agents 2017: Early Predictions for This Year's Top Available Players

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJanuary 18, 2017

NFL Free Agents 2017: Early Predictions for This Year's Top Available Players

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    The 2017 offseason has arrived for 28 of the NFL's 32 teams, which means front offices can begin to focus on free agency and the draft.

    The former kicks off in seven short weeks, and teams can apply franchise tags in less than a month. 

    With that in mind, let's take a break from Championship Game Weekend and look ahead to free agency by making some predictions regarding the top players slated to hit the open market in March. 

    * Salary cap projections via OverTheCap.com

Running Back Le'Veon Bell

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    Despite the fact he missed a quarter of the 2016 regular season, Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell ranked third in the NFL with 1,884 yards from scrimmage. He earned his second career Pro Bowl nod while recording 30-plus touches a league-high four times. 

    Bell has become the league's most patient and effective back, and he's still only 24 years old. Ergo, there's almost no way the Steelers let him hit the open market. He's far too valuable to let go with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's window beginning to close, and the franchise-tag price for running backs is awfully cheap (it was $11.8 million last year). 

    Bell has stated—per Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette—that he wants to return to Pittsburgh, and NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported earlier this month that the team does indeed plan on slapping Bell with the franchise tag.

    With over $40 million in projected salary-cap space, the Steelers can afford it. So if your team is in need of an elite running back, it will almost definitely have to look elsewhere.

    Who will sign him? Pittsburgh Steelers

Quarterback Kirk Cousins

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    In two seasons as the team's starting quarterback, Kirk Cousins has failed to lead the Washington Redskins to a playoff victory. But the Redskins posted winning records in both of those seasons, with Cousins ranking in the top 10 in terms of completion percentage, yards per attempt and passer rating in both 2015 and 2016. 

    This is a league with 32 teams and fewer than 32 franchise-caliber quarterbacks. And while the jury might still be out on whether Cousins has franchise quarterback potential in D.C., the reality is that he's clearly the best option for a competitive Redskins team. 

    Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports reported earlier this season that if push comes to shove, the Redskins are prepared to use the franchise tag on Cousins again, even though that would cost them about $24 million in 2017 (something they can afford with over $60 million in projected salary-cap space). 

    The 28-year-old didn't play well in the weeks that followed that report, finishing the regular season with a mere 86.3 passer rating in his final five games, and he still lacks consistency. But I can't imagine a scenario in which the Redskins let him walk. 

    Who will sign him? Washington Redskins

Safety Eric Berry

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    The Kansas City Chiefs enter the 2017 offseason with barely $4 million in projected salary-cap space. With key cogs Eric Berry and Dontari Poe unsigned, that's far from ideal. 

    Berry is one of the game's best safeties. He's smack-dab in the middle of his prime and is coming off his third All-Pro season in a four-year span. But the team hit him with the franchise tag last year, and doing so again would cost upwards of $13 million. 

    That would make it almost impossible for the Chiefs to improve elsewhere, which is problematic for a team with just one playoff win this century. 

    If they don't tag him, somebody else—a team with plenty of cap space that is desperate for an impact defender, like the Chicago Bears, Indianapolis Colts or Tennessee Titanswill likely outbid the Chiefs on the open market. But I still think they'll find a way to keep him with the tag. 

    Who will sign him? Kansas City Chiefs 

Wide Receiver Alshon Jeffery

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    Chicago Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery has failed to reach the 1,000-yard mark in each of his last two seasons, and he has scored just six touchdowns in his last 21 games. So while there's no doubt the 26-year-old possesses elite talent, it's hard to imagine Chicago slapping him with the franchise tag for a second consecutive year. 

    The Bears have plenty of money to spend, but they also have plenty of holes to fill. They can save about $14 million by cutting quarterback Jay Cutler, but then they'd have to pay someone new. And if that someone new is a rookie, do you really want to commit $17 million to an injury/suspension-prone receiver whilst starting from scratch under center? 

    Jeffery has started all 16 games in just one of his five professional seasons, and the Bears also have 2015 first-round pick Kevin White on the wide receiver depth chart. They'll make a hell of an effort to sign their top wideout to a long-term deal, but they'll be outbid by a team with more money to spend that might see Jeffery as the final piece to a Super Bowl puzzle.

    With that in mind, one particular team makes the most sense. Congratulations, Marcus Mariota! 

    Who will sign him? Tennessee Titans

Defensive Tackle Kawann Short

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    Since becoming a starter midway through the 2014 season, Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short hasn't missed a game while racking up 19.5 sacks. Pro Football Focus graded him as the league's seventh-best interior defensive lineman in 2015, a Pro Bowl year for Short, and the same source rated him as the NFL's third-best run-stopping defensive tackle in 2016.

    Can the Panthers afford to let him go? Considering how the defense regressed after top cornerback Josh Norman departed in 2016 and Carolina's projected $50 million in salary-cap space, you'd think keeping Short would be the team's top priority. 

    Yes, they've got Star Lotulelei inside and they drafted another defensive tackle, Vernon Butler, in the first round last year. But the Panthers appear to value that defensive front in a big way, and Short proved in 2016 that he can line up on the edge. 

    If need be, they'll hit him with the tag. 

    Who will sign him? Carolina Panthers

Linebacker Chandler Jones

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    The Arizona Cardinals had an extremely disappointing 2016 season, but that had nothing to do with top pass-rusher Chandler Jones. The 26-year-old had 11 sacks while starting every game at outside linebacker, earning the seventh-highest Pro Football Focus grade among edge-rushers. 

    Jones also forced four fumbles for the second consecutive year. He's a playmaker in his prime, which should make him a hot commodity on the open market. 

    But don't expect him to reach that market. After giving up a second-round pick in exchange for Jones last year, the Cardinals won't likely let Jones fly the coop. 

    This month, per Kyle Odegard of the Cardinals website, head coach Bruce Arians said, "[Jones] is not going anywhere. If we have to, we'll franchise him."

    That settles that. 

    Who will sign him? Arizona Cardinals 

Defensive End Jason Pierre-Paul

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    It finally appeared Jason Pierre-Paul was back. 

    The two-time Pro Bowler wasn't himself while missing half of the 2015 season after suffering a freak injury to his right hand that summer, and he started the 2016 campaign slowly on a one-year prove-it contract.

    Finally, he exploded with 5.5 sacks and 12 pressures in a two-game span in November. But the very next week, he suffered a season-ending groin injury. And now we're left wondering what to expect going forward from an incredibly talented 28-year-old who has experienced a tumultuous career thus far.

    That hot streak combined with Pierre-Paul's sheer talent and history will probably still be enough for him to catch an expensive long-term deal on the open market. He has said he'd like to return to the Giants, but he's also made it clear he won't do another one-year deal in New York. 

    "At the end of the day, I have a family. We're going to sit down and think about the process," Pierre-Paul said after the season, per James Kratch of NJ Advance Media. "Football is a game of business. You don't work for free. That's basically it. It's going to be a family decision, and it'll be my decision at the end of the road."

    Thing is, the Giants already have an expensive defense, and that unit performed extremely well without Pierre-Paul down the stretch. They're projected to enter the offseason with over $30 million in salary-cap space, but they have a slew of players hitting free agency. Don't expect them to spend $17 million on a franchise tender which JPP likely would refuse to sign, and don't expect them to outbid teams with more money and larger defensive holes to fill. 

    Two that come to mind? The Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns. But I think Detroit knows it can make a Super Bowl run with a stronger pass rush, so I'll lean in that direction. 

    Who will sign him? Detroit Lions

Guard Kevin Zeitler

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    Kevin Zeitler isn't a big name at a sexy position, but Pro Football Focus graded the steady Cincinnati Bengals guard as the sixth-best player at his position in 2016. The five-year veteran has been a starter from the get-go in Cincy, and he has consistently received positive grades from PFF. 

    That certainly makes the 26-year-old a valuable part of the Bengals offense, but guards are almost never worth hitting with the franchise tag. 

    The Bengals aren't usually big spenders in free agency, but they do like to keep their own guys. And with major transitions on the horizon at the tackle positions, they might want to ensure Zeitler sticks around to maintain some continuity along that line. 

    Expect Zeitler to draw plenty of interest in free agency, but the Bengals should prioritize signing him over the rest of their free agents—including aging left tackle Andrew Whitworth. They're projected to enter the offseason with over $45 million to spend, so a long-term deal shouldn't be hard to nail down. 

    Who will sign him? Cincinnati Bengals

Cornerback A.J. Bouye

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    Unsurprisingly, breakout star cornerback A.J. Bouye wants to return to the Houston Texans. 

    "I would like to be back," Bouye said recently, per Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle. "It'll mean a lot because it'll show that they wanted me and saw what I did this year and there are better things that are going to happen in the future from an individual and team standpoint."

    And less surprisingly, the Houston Texans want breakout star cornerback A.J. Bouye to return. That's what head coach Bill O'Brien told reporters this week, according to NFL.com's Conor Orr:

    Free agency's tough and I can tell you that we want A.J. Bouye back. I mean, the guy is one of us, you know what I mean? He was a guy who was undrafted before we got here and when we came here, based off his own work ethic, the coaching from (secondary coach) John Butler, the guy has done an excellent job.

    But shutdown corners are hard to come by. Plenty of teams will hope to pursue Bouye after the 25-year-old allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete just 41.5 percent of their passes against him during the final six games of the year (including playoffs), according to Pro Football Focus

    Bouye also matched a league-high with seven passes defensed during that span, and he put the cherry on top of a successful contract year with two interceptions in two playoff games. 

    The Texans are projected to enter the offseason with less than $26 million in salary-cap space, and what they do at the quarterback position could greatly impact the books. It won't be easy to keep Bouye as well as his impending unrestricted free-agent peers, Quintin Demps and John Simon. But Bouye is clearly Houston's top priority. 

    I wouldn't be surprised to see the Browns, Bears, Bengals, Titans and Miami Dolphins make aggressive runs at Bouye, but I also wouldn't be surprised if the Texans wrap him up before any of those teams have a shot. 

    Who will sign him? Houston Texans

Defensive End Calais Campbell

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    The Arizona Cardinals don't have a lot of money to spend this offseason, and it already appears they're determined to bring pass-rusher Chandler Jones back. With safeties Tony Jefferson and D.J. Swearinger and center A.Q. Shipley also slated to hit the open market, veteran defensive end Calais Campbell might get away. 

    Campbell's a hell of a player. Pro Football Focus graded him as the top 3-4 defensive end in the game in 2016, and over the last nine years, he's become a fixture in the Arizona locker room and community. But he'll be 31 before he plays his next regular-season game and expensive after making $11 million during a strong 2016 season. Plus, the Cards might have an ideal replacement lined up with 2016 first-round pick Robert Nkemdiche.

    So where will Campbell end up? At this point in his career, he might favor a contender. If so, the Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders are intriguing potential landing spots. He could essentially replace Malik Jackson in Denver, and that Oakland D could use a versatile veteran up front to complement edge-rushers Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin. 

    Both teams have plenty of salary-cap space. So do the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers, neither of whom are contenders but both of whom could really use a player like Campbell up front. I'd expect all of those teams to express interest in Campbell, but I'll give him to the contender with the most money to spend.

    Who will sign him? Oakland Raiders

Linebacker Melvin Ingram

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    One of the best things the Chargers had going for them during their final season in San Diego was the emergence of an exciting pass-rushing duo. 

    The headliner, of course, was first-round rookie defensive end Joey Bosa. But steady five-year veteran Melvin Ingram had another strong season. After the 2012 first-round pick recorded eight sacks, Pro Football Focus graded him as the sixth-best edge-defender in the NFL. 

    The Los Angeles Chargers can't afford to regress in their new home. So although the Chargers are projected to enter the offseason with just $21 million in salary-cap space, their top priority should be locking up their only elite in-house free agent in order to sustain the pass rush's momentum.

    Ingram would command top dollar on the open market, but I highly doubt the Bolts let that happen.

    Who will sign him? Los Angeles Chargers

Wide Receiver DeSean Jackson

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    Washington Redskins wide receiver DeSean Jackson hasn't played a complete season since 2013, and he hasn't made a Pro Bowl since then either. But the speedster is only 30, and with the right fit in the right environment, he might still possess the ability to take over games. 

    That's why there's been so much buzz about Jackson's impending foray into free agency. 

    A lot of that buzz has revolved around the idea that the right fit and environment might exist in Philadelphia, where Jackson spent the first six years of his career before being booted out the door by former Eagles head coach Chip Kelly. 

    Kelly is gone now, and as Metro's Evan Macy points out, Eagles general manager Howie Roseman has seemingly expressed regret for losing Jackson and several other core players from those days. It just so happens that the Eagles are in desperate need of help at the wide receiver position, and they don't have any major in-house free agents to worry about. 

    "It's so logical," ESPN's Adam Schefter said of the potential Jackson-Eagles reunion on 97.5 The Fanatic in Philly last month (via Matt Lombardo of NJ Advance Media). "There are certain things that you can just see coming from a mile away."

    The Redskins are projected to enter the offseason with over $60 million in salary-cap space, but they have to address the quarterback position with Kirk Cousins. Veterans Pierre Garcon and Chris Baker are also impending free agents, and the team already has two potential rising stars at wideout. Second-year receiver Jamison Crowder had a breakout 2016 season and former TCU standout Josh Doctson was the Redskins' first-round pick in 2016.

    With that in mind, we'll defer to Occam's razor.

    Who will sign him? Philadelphia Eagles

Honorable Mentions

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    As for the best of the rest...

    LB Dont'a HightowerPro Football Focus graded the 26-year-old as the ninth-best linebacker in the league. With Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones gone, the Pats—who have plenty of salary-cap space—can't afford to let another top-tier front-seven defender go. Projected landing spot: New England Patriots

    LB Nick Perry: Despite battling injuries, the fifth-year pass-rusher had a breakout season in Green Bay. With Clay Matthews over the hill and Julius Peppers potentially gone, expect the Packers to lock him up. Projected landing spot: Green Bay Packers

    LB Jamie Collins: The Browns have more salary-cap space than anyone else in football, and they didn't trade for Collins in the middle of the season just so that they could lose him a couple months later. They'll overpay if need be. Projected landing spot: Cleveland Browns

    CB Trumaine Johnson: The 27-year-old had a down year while playing under the franchise tag and is as good as gone as a "Fisher guy" in Los Angeles. Projected landing spot: Chicago Bears

    TE Martellus Bennett: The veteran has probably earned a starting role after catching 75.3 percent of the passes thrown his way with the Patriots in 2016. Projected landing spot: Oakland Raiders

    S John CyprienPFF graded the 26-year-old as the fifth-best safety in the NFL this season in Jacksonville. The Jaguars are unlikely to be outbid. Projected landing spot: Jacksonville Jaguars

    WR Terrelle Pryor: The versatile offensive weapon had 1,000 yards receiving while chipping in as a passer and rusher in a breakout 2016 campaign. Cleveland simply can't afford to let another bright young star get away. Projected landing spot: Cleveland Browns

    S Barry ChurchPFF's 10th-highest-graded safety from 2016 won't likely be retained by the cap-strapped Cowboys. But there's one team that loves picking up former Dallas defenders. Projected landing spot: Washington Redskins 

    WR Pierre Garcon: He's no spring chicken, so the best potential fit for the 1,000-yard receiver is with a contender in need of a solid No. 2 or high-end No. 3 wideout. Projected landing spot: Minnesota Vikings

    S Tony Jefferson: Arizona has a lot of free agents to take care of, which might make it tough for the Cardinals to match bids put together by richer, more desperate teams. Projected landing spot: Indianapolis Colts

    G T.J. Lang: Lang had another great year in Green Bay. The Packers have money, and they take care of their own, but there's one team that might be desperate enough for offensive line help to sweep in and make Lang an offer he can't refuse. Projected landing spot: Seattle Seahawks

    CB Morris Claiborne: The 2012 No. 6 overall pick was good when healthy this season in Dallas, and he could still become a Pro Bowl-caliber starter. The Cowboys already have three solid corners, so somebody will pay a larger premium. Projected landing spot: Miami Dolphins