Every NFL Team's Toughest Contract Decision
With the NFL playoffs officially over, it's time to crank up the offseason.
The largest event, and most impactful long term, is going to be the NFL draft in April. Before then is the start of free agency, when top veterans decide if they want to return to their former squads, chase rings with contenders or cash out with rebuilding franchises.
With that in mind, we'll break down the hardest choice each franchise has to make. Some teams have to decide if they want to retain a star who is about to walk into the open market. Other squads are clipped by individual contract numbers and need a player to either restructure or be cut in 2017.
Some franchises even have big-time options to pick up, with bonuses being locked in over the next two months, for a specific player.
Follow us as we sift through your favorite team, your favorite team's division and your favorite team's conference, giving you a heads-up on the top stories as we transition out of on-field football to the transaction wire.
Arizona Cardinals: Calais Campbell, DE
In 2008, Calais Campbell signed his rookie contract with the Arizona Cardinals as a second-round pick. In 2012, he signed a five-year, $55 million contract, setting an unreal market at the time for a 5-technique defensive end.
Campbell, standing at 6'8" and 300 pounds, is the poster boy for what a traditional 3-4 defensive end looks like, though he does kick inside to a defensive tackle spot and outside to an edge-defending spot for the Cardinals. Campbell will be a 31-year-old before he plays in his next regular-season game, which makes his third contract a tricky one to follow.
He can command big money on the open market, but does Arizona want to keep paying him into his mid-30s? Last year, Campbell had a cap hit of $15.25 million, per Spotrac, close to his $14.75 million cap hit in 2015. With no signs of slowing down, why would Campbell be willing to take a pay cut on a team that missed the playoffs in 2016 and has a quarterback who appears to be falling off in Carson Palmer?
With the likes of Chandler Jones, a pass-rusher who was added via a trade from New England last offseason, also slated to hit the open market, the Cardinals may have to choose between defenders to build around for the future of their franchise.
If Campbell walks, as one of if not the best 3-4 defensive ends from the 2016 regular season, expect a huge market to build around him as he becomes one of the key dominoes of the 2017 free-agency cycle.
Atlanta Falcons: Dwight Freeney, DE
There are people who believe the Atlanta Falcons' window for a Super Bowl run is over now that former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan took the head coaching opening with the San Francisco 49ers. While there was some immediate shifting of what the 2017 Falcons will look like after the 2016 season ended, they have few impact players expected to hit free agency this offseason.
While the coaches are changing, the players aren't. In fact, this may be the most boring team in free agency, which shouldn't be a surprise considering the staff has most of its fresh faces on their first deals.
The top Falcon who may hit free agency is Dwight Freeney, a veteran defensive end who is on his way to the Hall of Fame. After that, it may be their fullback Patrick DiMarco.
Freeney will be a 37-year-old pass-rusher at the end of this month, and he was put on a snap count during the regular season. Some might even go as far to say Freeney was gassed at the end of the Super Bowl, when New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw for 62 passes. Freeney had to move from his rotational role to a starting role in the playoffs, as both Derrick Shelby and Adrian Clayborn were on injured reserve.
How valuable is Freeney to an offensive-based team that just saw its leader walk out? How valuable is a rotational pass-rusher if you can't save him for the playoffs? Can you trust Clayborn, who has been banged up his entire career, to keep Freeney off the field in the regular season? Will Freeney, who recorded three sacks in 15 games in 2016, decline even more in 2017?
There's a lot of questions surrounding Freeney, and that's just from Atlanta's end. What if he's done with the sport after going through the most emotional loss in Super Bowl history?
Baltimore Ravens: Brandon Williams, DT
Brandon Williams is up there among the best players casual fans may not be aware of. He is at the end of his rookie deal, which he signed as a third-round player coming out of Missouri Southern State, a Division II school.
Listed as a 6'1", 340-pounder, you shouldn't be shocked to learn that Williams is a nose tackle. He's not just a run clog who has to be taken off the field on third down, though, as he's up there with Dontari Poe and prime Haloti Ngata as a bigger body who can still get after the passer.
The fact that a nose tackle, at that size, has posted 47 or more tackles in the final three years of his rookie contract speaks for itself. You don't find big bodies who are around the ball as often as Williams is. Period.
Unfortunately for him, he is a bit on the older side of the free-agency spectrum. At the end of this month, Williams will be 28, which means that if he does receive a four- or five-year deal like the market would suggest, based on his talent, a team would have to be betting on what a nose tackle looks like right up until his 33rd birthday.
That can be concerning, considering his size, and the fact that the nose tackle position is well behind edge defenders, 3-4 defensive ends and under tackles in terms of contract value in the NFL for line-of-scrimmage defenders. The fact that Baltimore landed undrafted standout Michael Pierce this year gives the team a safety net.
Buffalo Bills: Tyrod Taylor, QB
Two years ago, Tyrod Taylor entered training camp with the Buffalo Bills as a 25-year-old reserve quarterback. After signing a three-year deal worth less than $4 million, he somehow beat out EJ Manuel, who was heading into his third season in the NFL as a former first-round pick, and Matt Cassel, who was playing on a deal worth almost five times as much as Taylor's from an average salary perspective.
There will always be the looming "what if" surrounding the Baltimore Ravens, if they would have let Joe Flacco walk, instead of giving him a crippling contract, and allowed Taylor to be the starting passer of the team after its Super Bowl run. With that being said, it doesn't even seem like the Bills want Taylor.
The team benched him for Manuel and Cardale Jones in Week 17, as the Bills tried to protect themselves from locking in Taylor's 2017 money due to injury. Taylor was given a $90 million deal last year, but with just over $9 million of guaranteed money, he is on a short leash.
Buffalo can walk away from him, but plenty of teams would love to take a shot, especially considering Brock Osweiler signed with the Houston Texans for $37 million guaranteed in 2016, with an average salary of $18 million.
If the Bills do let Taylor go, expect them to be aggressive in moving up in the draft. Their front office has a history of doing so early in the draft, and you need to have your new quarterback in hand if you let one walk.
The only quarterback worth trading for this offseason is Jimmy Garoppolo, and it's doubtful the New England Patriots would be willing to help out their divisional rival. Taylor would be the top quarterback on the free-agency market.
Allowing Taylor to walk may not just impact the Bills immediately; it could end up costing them three seasons of first-round picks by the time April rolls around.
Carolina Panthers: Kawann Short, DL
There was no breakout defensive tackle in the 2015 regular season like Kawann Short. After posting five total sacks in his first two years as a former second-round pick, Short had an amazing 11-sack season with the Carolina Panthers, providing some momentum for the team as it went 15-1.
Short had a quiet start to the 2016 season, as the Panthers did overall, but there is now a pressing question on the mind of every Carolina fan: How much longer is Short going to be a Panther? The 315-pounder, who just turned 28 years old this month, is going to be a free agent this offseason.
Both he and nose tackle Star Lotulelei were drafted in the top 45 picks of the 2013 NFL draft. Lotulelei had his fifth-year option picked up, meaning he won't be a free agent until 2018, a year after Short. That's a bit of an issue, as the franchise drafted Vernon Butler of Louisiana Tech, a 22-year-old defensive tackle, in the first round of last year's draft.
Butler is going to replace one of Lotulelei or Short. Head coach Ron Rivera told ESPN's Adam Schefter the team will likely franchise-tag Short this season, meaning that both Lotulelei and Short would be free agents in 2018.
After we saw the Panthers mishandle cornerback Josh Norman's franchise tag last year—Norman signed with the NFC's Washington Redskins, while Carolina had to piece together a secondary for Julio Jones to ruin—that might not be the best idea. Either way, Short's future is in lockstep with the Panthers' projections, so this is a deal everyone in the NFL should be paying attention to.
Chicago Bears: Alshon Jeffery, WR
Alshon Jeffery was drafted with the 45th overall pick in the 2012 draft, despite the fact that he appeared to have visible weight issues at the University of South Carolina. Jeffery might have come out as a potential "next USC Mike Williams," but the 6'3" wideout made the Pro Bowl in his sophomore season.
After playing out his rookie contract, Jeffery was slapped with the franchise tag in 2016. The Bears can do that once more in 2017, but it will come at a higher cost, and Jeffery might start a holdout for a long-term deal. If the two sides couldn't come to an agreement after a year, what would make you say it's going to be better this time around?
To further complicate this issue, Jeffery missed half of the season in 2015, his first contract season, and was suspended for four games in 2016, his second contract season. Does he want to play out in a third contract season, with his last two going so poorly? At some point, he may just want to sign the largest second contract he possibly can.
The Bears have no star receiver without him, as Kevin White, a 2015 first-round pick, has only recorded 187 yards in his NFL career. As it stands, Jay Cutler is the top-paid passer on the team, but he will likely be let go this offseason, and the squad doesn't have a franchise quarterback to build around on its roster.
If you're Jeffery, why do you want to play a contract season in that situation, and that's if Chicago even tags you? Expect long term or no term in this negotiation.
Cincinnati Bengals: Domata Peko, DT
The Cincinnati Bengals have types on their defensive line. At defensive end, they like long bodies like Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson and Margus Hunt. At defensive tackle, they like Domata Peko.
Peko has been with the team since he was a fourth-round selection in the 2006 draft. In the last 10 years, Peko has started all 16 regular-season games in nine of them. Peko might not have been the most productive player during that time, but he's been on the field for the Bengals, an in-house team that rarely looks at free agency for splash additions.
After signing a two-year, $9 million extension on a five-year, $27.8 million contract, Peko is finally slated to walk in free agency. As a 32-year-old, he shouldn't expect more than a one- or two-year deal, no matter if the Bengals or any of the other 31 NFL franchises sign him.
Other than Peko, Pat Sims, another aging nose, and Andrew Billings, a Day 3 selection coming off a rookie season, are the options for the Bengals opposite Geno Atkins. This is the measuring stick for how content Cincinnati is at retaining its own.
If he's back, the Bengals are Green Bay Packers-level free-agent participants, but if they allow him to walk, opening up a space for them to spend some cash on a new, potentially flashy tackle, the fanbase will let out a sigh of relief.
Cleveland Browns: Terrelle Pryor, WR
Terrelle Pryor might have one of the weirdest football careers of all time. After being a highly recruited player in both football and basketball, he went to Ohio State, where there were Heisman Trophy expectations from the moment he stepped on campus.
After the quarterback was part of an episode that led to his suspension, because he received tattoos for signing autographs, he entered the supplemental draft, which rarely ever features players of his talent. The Oakland Raiders bid a third-round pick on him, received his rights and released him after three seasons.
He then bounced around the league as a workout quarterback for a while. After being cut by four teams in about a year, Pryor decided to attempt a transition to receiver, because of his athleticism, which led him to Cleveland. There, he met with former Raiders head coach Hue Jackson, who, like Pryor, was given a second chance in the NFL.
This year, in his first real shot at receiver, he recorded 77 receptions for 1,007 yards and four touchdowns. So, how much is Pryor, who will be a 28-year-old heading into his second full season as a receiver in 2017, worth to the Browns, who have a lot of money to spend and few free agents to retain?
After Jamie Collins became the highest-paid off-the-ball linebacker in the league last month, Pryor could receive a long-term deal from the franchise. If not, he's a big franchise-tag candidate. If Cleveland wants to sell itself as a long-term-thinking franchise, it would be great for the Browns to give Pryor a significant offer.
Dallas Cowboys: Morris Claiborne, CB
The 2012 draft cycle was eventful. The then-St. Louis Rams traded with the Washington Redskins to essentially hand Griffin to the squad. There were people who said No. 2 overall pick Robert Griffin III was better than No. 1 selection Andrew Luck, and for a year, that looked true.
There was a lot going on. No one knew when Ryan Tannehill was going to go off the board. Brandon Weeden was old. Russell Wilson, at 5'11", was short.
One of the forgotten players from that class is Morris Claiborne, an LSU cornerback who went sixth overall. He was thought of as the next Tigers cornerback to follow Patrick Peterson, but unfortunately, for years, Claiborne failed to reach expectations.
He finished his four-year contract with the Cowboys, but the team declined his fifth-year option. He did sign a one-year, $3 million contract, though, keeping him with Dallas in 2016. In a prove-it season, Claiborne stepped up to the plate until a groin injury kept him out of the second half of the season, right up until the playoffs.
As a 27-year-old at a speed position, Claiborne has one more chance to sign a large contract. Sam Shields turned 29 in December, and the Green Bay Packers cut him this week. Darrelle Revis, one of the best ever, may be cut by the New York Jets at 31 years old.
Father Time comes for everyone, and Claiborne won't be the exception. Does Dallas want to invest in a player with a first-round name who hasn't put together a full season in his NFL career? The Cowboys are desperate on defense and can't afford to regress anywhere with a young quarterback in Dak Prescott, but what's best for 2017 may not be best for the team in 2018 and 2019.
Denver Broncos: Russell Okung, OT
After spending six seasons with the Seattle Seahawks, Russell Okung, who was his own agent during the free-agency period, signed with the Denver Broncos. Okung, the sixth overall pick in the 2010 draft, had dealt with several injuries in recent years, leading to the Seahawks allowing him to walk.
On paper, Okung signed a five-year, $53 million deal, but that's not how it plays out. Basically, it was a $5.2 million one-year deal with a four-year, $47.8 million option. Denver has until the second week of March to make a decision on him, or else his 2017 and 2018 salaries become guaranteed.
If the Broncos turn down Okung's option, there's a good chance he could find himself back in Seattle, where the Seahawks struggled to replace him with George Fant, a former basketball player who converted to the line.
The Seahawks need offensive line help, and it's not rare to see a player return to his original team if he fails one year after free agency.
A similar situation happened to Michael Johnson. The defensive end, who was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals, signed a $43.75 million contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The team cut him after one season, and he returned to Cincinnati.
Should the Broncos turn down Okung's contract, they need to know they may have to beat Seattle in a bidding war, or they need to have an answer for their left tackle position heading into 2017.
Detroit Lions: Riley Reiff, OT
Offensive line talk. The Detroit Lions. Let's go there.
The Lions selected Riley Reiff in the first round of the 2012 draft. Detroit thought enough of him to exercise the fifth-year option, and he just turned 28 years old in December.
That's significant on the offensive line. Bodies seem to last there, as they have less to do with speed than just about any other position on the field other than specialists and quarterbacks. Also, there is little depth in the league to replace them with. Seems easy, right? Just extend the guy, then. Wrong.
After the Lions drafted Taylor Decker with the 16th overall pick last year, there are questions regarding who will be the blindside tackle long-term for Detroit.
According to Spotrac, the highest-paid right tackle in the league is Lane Johnson ($11.25 million average salary), who will be the left tackle in Philadelphia when the Eagles move on from Jason Peters in the near future. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga of the Packers is next at $6.75 million.
Bulaga's contract with Green Bay would rank 19th among left tackles. The difference between left tackle and right tackle money is huge, and that's even when you account for any money Bulaga could leave on the table to return to the Packers.
Do the Lions think Reiff is worth left tackle money or right tackle money? If they think he should be on the closed side but another team is willing to offer him open-side money, will they match? If they do, they need to buy into an offensive style of play that allows their tackles to play on island often, like the Packers and Tennessee Titans do.
Committing to anything when Jim Bob Cooter is one of the hottest offensive coordinators in the league is a tough task. Detroit has a lot of decisions to make in the next year or so, and this domino could lead to Cooter's ousting Jim Caldwell as head coach.
Green Bay Packers: Nick Perry, OLB
Nick Perry is the most important free agent on the Green Bay Packers roster because of how many other players his re-signing would impact.
For example, Perry, Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers and Datone Jones are the top pass-rushers on the team.
After being drafted in 2012, Perry played through his rookie deal and a one-year prove-it contract, leading to his second contract year of 2016.
Matthews moved to inside linebacker in 2015, shifted from the position in 2016 and played through an injury-riddled season. He could be on the hot seat, but if the team has no other option than to pay him in full because of its outside linebacker depth, he's a negative contract.
Peppers is also a free agent at 37 years old. Based on his age, it's hard to imagine how he can return on any deal longer than a single season.
Jones, like Perry, was a first-round pick who had his fifth-year option declined. He moved from end to backer in the Packers defense, and his lack of consistent success is in part why Green Bay played nickel defense so often in 2016. Jones is a free agent also.
Ultimately, Perry will be the first domino to start this chain reaction of pass-rusher shuffling. Despite rolling into his third contract, he's only 26 years old, two years older than some draft prospects.
Perry's breakout 2016 season of 11 sacks, despite his missing two games and playing with a cast on his left hand—which he'd pet like a super villain would a cat after making a big play—should lead Green Bay to re-sign him.
Houston Texans: A.J. Bouye, CB
If you wanted to make a run for A.J. Bouye, a time machine sure could have helped. Not only was Bouye an undrafted player in 2013 coming out of Central Florida, but he was a restricted free agent last offseason, with an original-round tender that only cost the Houston Texans $1.67 million.
Now, Bouye is one of the best free agents slated to hit the open market, and he might be the top cornerback on it. He's still only 25 years old, and no one should hesitate to give him a long-term deal. And teams don't often let talented 6'0" corners who can fit any system walk.
Houston is spoiled with cornerbacks. It has Kareem Jackson, a 2010 first-round pick; Kevin Johnson, a 2015 first-round pick; and Jonathan Joseph, a 2006 first-round pick who may be the most underrated corner in this era of football outside of Bouye. Unfortunately, Bouye is the only free agent of the bunch.
If he's the odd man out, some other team is going to be happy. Look for trade talks to start heating up for one of these cornerbacks in the coming weeks. There's no sense in investing top assets into four corners.
Indianapolis Colts: Outside Linebackers
The Indianapolis Colts used to be built around two great pass-rushers in Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney, but those days are gone. After missing on first-round pick Bjoern Werner out of Florida State in 2013, the Colts haven't recovered at the position, and that's taken a toll on the defense overall.
Between that and trading 2010 first-round pick Jerry Hughes to the Bills right before his breakout, Indianapolis seems to be stuck in a decision-making funk. This year, most of the Colts' outside linebacker unit is hitting free agency.
Erik Walden, who came from Green Bay on a four-year contract, is slated to be a free agent and will be 32 years old in his next regular-season game. Trent Cole is hitting the market at 34 years old, and Mathis—who would have been a free agent—announced his retirement in December.
Akeem Ayers and Chris Carter, a pair of 27-year-olds floating through the league, are joining the voyage of free agency.
That leaves two notable players at outside linebacker: Curt Maggitt and Deiontrez Mount.
Maggitt was an undrafted rookie who finished his year on injured reserve; Mount, a sub-250-pound rusher and former sixth-round pick, was cut by the division Tennessee Titans prior to the 2016 campaign.
If nothing else, the Colts need warm bodies to bring back. Indianapolis isn't an exciting team outside of its offensive passing game, and its free agents reflect that.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Kelvin Beachum, OT
The Jacksonville Jaguars' free agents are boring. In terms of salary, Prince Amukamara is their top guy hitting the market. A former first-round pick for the New York Giants, Amukamara signed a one-year prove-it deal in 2016 before the Jags took Jalen Ramsey to be their cornerback of the future.
Luke Joeckel and Tyson Alualu are the next largest free agents in terms of average salary. Joeckel is a lineman who failed to meet the expectations of a second overall pick, and Tyson Alualu is a former top-10 selection who has recorded 17.5 sacks in seven years as an NFL defensive end.
Like Russell Okung with the Denver Broncos last offseason, Kelvin Beachum signed an interesting deal with the Jaguars when he came over from the Pittsburgh Steelers. Essentially, his five-year, $45 million contract is a one-year, $5.38 million deal with four one-year options that make up the rest of it.
That means Beachum is playing in a contract season in every year from now until 2020. After he started 15 games last season—and considering this year's weak offensive line class, both in free agency and in the draft—there's a good chance he stays put in 2017 and waits for another big decision in 2018.
Kansas City Chiefs: Dontari Poe, NT
While some might point to safety Eric Berry as the most important free agent for the Kansas City Chiefs to retain, nose tackle Dontari Poe is the more valuable player.
The Chiefs selected Poe with the 11th pick of the 2012 draft out of Memphis, a non-Power Five conference school, after just about everyone in the draft cycle called him unrefined but athletic.
That's not usually how first-round picks play out, but Poe was so athletically gifted for a 346-pounder that it was hard to pass him up. By his sophomore year in the league, Poe was a Pro Bowler, and Kansas City had a player who not only ate blocks in the ground game, but could get after the passer.
Poe has started 76 of the possible 80 games of his Chiefs career. The team proved his play pleased it when it picked up his fifth-year option up to secure him for the 2016 season.
Also, Poe is just 26 years old. At his position, even if his legs start to give a little, he might have two more contracts in him. The question is if Kansas City is open to handing him an $80-to-90 million contract in 2017.
The team already used the franchise tag on Berry last season, and it might be Poe's turn. Considering the nose tackle's age relative to Berry's—the safety turns 29 near the end of the 2017 campaign—that might not be the worst option.
Los Angeles Chargers: Melvin Ingram, DE
Melvin Ingram was a first-round pick of the San Diego Chargers, and they used him as a 3-4 outside linebacker. Under a new coaching staff led by head coach Anthony Lynn, defensive coordinator Gus Bradley—formerly a Seattle Seahawks DC and a head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars—will likely bring in his Cover 3-heavy 4-3 under D.
That means there will be a left "base" end—which Joey Bosa could fit perfectly—and a "Leo" position, a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end role. Ingram could fit the latter spot well. From that perspective, Ingram isn't too different from what Bruce Irvin was to the Seahawks or what rookie Yannick Ngakoue was to the Jaguars last season.
Unfortunately for the Chargers, Ingram is a free agent before they get to test him in the scheme. Ingram, who has been more productive than Irvin in his career, should warrant a contract larger the $37 million deal Irvin signed last season with the Oakland Raiders.
The Chargers have been known as a cheap franchise for a long time, and it's why Bosa held out to start his rookie year, missing some time early in the 2016 season.
Will the team, which is already spending money to relocate to Los Angeles, be willing to fork up the cash in a transitional period?
Los Angeles Rams: Trumaine Johnson, CB
Last year, the Los Angeles Rams had a major decision to make. Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson, their top two cornerbacks, were going to be free agents.
They couldn't afford to pay both of them long term, and they could only franchise-tag one. In the end, they selected Johnson—though most believed Jenkins was slightly better—possibly because they thought they had a better chance of signing him to a large deal in 2017.
There has been no progress there yet, though.
Prior to the 2016 campaign, Jenkins signed a five-year, $62.5 million contract, including $28.8 million in guarantees, with the New York Giants.
Expect Johnson to be asking for something in that ballpark.
The Rams need to make a decision quickly because the cornerback market is hot in free agency, and they might not have a chance to give Johnson a second offer once he hits it.
Miami Dolphins: Kenny Stills, WR
There are two receivers who are incredibly young in this free-agency class. Both Buffalo's Robert Woods and Miami's Kenny Stills are still only 24, despite the fact that they have played out their rookie contracts in the NFL.
Stills was originally a New Orleans Saint but was traded to the Dolphins and was replaced with both Brandin Cooks and Michael Thomas. Miami spent a first-round pick on DeVante Parker and has used Jarvis Landry basically as a running back by throwing him lots of screens, but there is no consistent, successful downfield receiver on the team outside of Stills.
Speed positions are hard to invest in, because of how fast the decline is with age, but Stills could play out a full four- to five-year contract with the Dolphins, depending on the price tag. The Dolphins are in an interesting spot, with Stills essentially the same age as some rookies. Of course, they wouldn't have to burn a pick to give the young player a long-term contract.
Minnesota Vikings: Adrian Peterson, RB
Adrian Peterson is the best running back of this generation. Adrian Peterson is a Minnesota Vikings lifer. Adrian Peterson is turning 32 years old next month. Adrian Peterson has a $18 million cap hit in 2017.
Those are all of the facts you need. Peterson tore his ACL in 2011, returned in amazing fashion in 2012 to win the league's MVP award when he cracked the 2,000-yard mark in rushing yards. In 2013 and 2014, he had a list of off-field incidents, including one involving child abuse allegations that eventually led to a suspension.
At the end of 2015, he started to wear down, visibly and statistically. In 2016, he carried the ball 37 times for a 1.9-yards-per-carry average.
Something has to be done. Peterson is either taking a massive pay cut or getting cut. The Vikings aren't going to Kobe Bryant him, throwing bad money at the former star so he retires with the team.
New England Patriots: Martellus Bennett, TE
Martellus Bennett is going to be 30 next month, but the tight end position is one that tends to have longer careers than most positions. Bennett also still looks like he's playing in his prime, and his combination of pass-catching and run-blocking skills make him hard to replace.
Considering the history of injuries that tight end Rob Gronkowski has dealt with since his days as a Wildcat at the University of Arizona, it's not a bad idea for the Patriots to double down at the position. Bennett is going to be a free agent this offseason cycle, but Gronkowski is only about two years younger than Bennett, and New England can save $17 million over two years if they let their top tight end walk after the 2017 season.
One more year of their two-TE system, with Bennett being a potential parachute option for Gronkowski's health, could be the best option. Bennett, who finally saw a successful playoff run after years in the league, may not want to leave for just any team at this point in his career.
New Orleans Saints: Jairus Byrd, S
In 2014, Jairus Byrd signed with the New Orleans Saints as one of the best free safeties, maybe only behind Seattle's Earl Thomas, in the NFL. Byrd was allowed to leave the Buffalo Bills for the chance of a big payday, and the former Oregon Ducks cornerback looked like a perfect fit as a single-high option on turf.
That's not how the story shook out, though. Byrd did sign a six-year, $54 million contract, but the now-30-year-old has recorded just three interceptions in his three years in New Orleans. In his five years in Buffalo, he had at least that many in four individual seasons. He's also recorded just eight pass deflections in three seasons with the Saints.
If the Saints cut Byrd, they will save $3.7 million in 2017. Over the next three years, they'd save over $20 million.
It's not like New Orleans doesn't have future plans at the position, either. Kenny Vaccaro is still under his first-round rookie contract. Last year, the team drafted Vonn Bell, another safety, in the second round.
Byrd is either going to take a pay cut or have to find a new team to play for.
New York Giants: Jason Pierre-Paul, DE
The New York Giants like to play two defensive ends. Last year, Olivier Vernon led Pro Football Focus' 4-3 defensive ends in snaps, and Jason Pierre-Paul played in over 90 percent of snaps in games he suited up for, per the same site.
Vernon got a huge payday last year, when he signed a five-year, $82 million contract, turning down offers from the likes of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Pierre-Paul, coming off a season that started with his recovering from a firework injury, was given a one-year "prove it" deal worth $10 million.
JPP just turned 28, which isn't close to being old for someone heading into his third NFL contract, but he has yet to have the big contract that stars play for. A 2011 All-Pro and Super Bowl champion, he likely wants to check that next box as far as his career accomplishments go.
With that being said, there's no precedent for what Pierre-Paul, who is missing digits, should be paid. Maybe the Giants franchise-tag him, but does he want to be in a contract season, for his first major deal, at the age of 28?
New York Jets: Darrelle Revis, CB
Darrelle Revis will soon be 32. For the first time ever, Revis recorded fewer than 10 pass deflections while also starting 15 or more games, as he only posted five.
In his prime in 2009, Revis had 31 pass deflections on the season. After spending 2013 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2014 with the New England Patriots and the last two years with the New York Jets, his second stint with the team, he might be on his last major contract.
Think of Nnamdi Asomugha or Charles Woodson in the recent past. When your speed goes at the position, it's over for you, and the Jets learned that the hard way last season when they hung Revis in man coverage. He's nearing the end of his career. Period.
So what can New York do? Well, his contract isn't up, but that doesn't mean they can't cut him. In fact, letting him walk now would save more than $9 million immediately for the 2017 season, and over $31 million over the next three seasons.
You can easily replace his talent with that type of money.
Oakland Raiders: Latavius Murray, RB
The Oakland Raiders don't have many large contracts coming up, which shouldn't be surprising since most of their top players are either young or were recent free-agent signings. One name that does stick out, though, is Latavius Murray.
Murray is an athletic running back, but he has never been able to put together a great season. Last year, the Raiders rotated several backs into the lineup, though Murray was the primary starter.
Of the 14 games that Murray played, he started 12 of them. Is Oakland willing to let Murray walk, leading to a possible regression of the running back unit?
He recorded 12 rushing touchdowns in 2016, which would have led the NFL in the 2015 season. Murray is 25, and he's only posted 543 carries in four years with the team. It just might be worth it for the Raiders to lock him down for another three or so years on a manageable deal, where he could flex between a No. 1 and No. 2 back, depending on the surrounding talent on the team.
Philadelphia Eagles: Vinny Curry, DE
Vinny Curry and the Philadelphia Eagles shocked everyone in 2016 when they agreed to a five-year, $47 million contract. Curry, a former second-round pick who was asked to play in a 4-3 defense during a transition, has 19 sacks over five seasons.
According to Spotrac, based on his average salary, he's the ninth-highest-paid end in the league, behind Muhammad Wilkerson, Olivier Vernon, J.J. Watt, Robert Quinn, Cameron Jordan, Mike Daniels, Michael Bennett and Cameron Heyward. All of those players are Pro Bowl-caliber, while Curry doesn't even start for his own team.
This is by far the worst defensive line contract in the sport. The worst part? Of the $47 million, $23 million is guaranteed. For reference, Daniels, Bennett and Heyward all signed for $14 million or less guaranteed money.
That means only five defensive ends in the league have a higher average salary and a larger amount of guaranteed money than Curry, who averages fewer than four sacks a season in his career and has never started an NFL game.
They need to restructure that contract before it becomes more of problem than it already is. Curry's cap hit jumps from $3 million to $9 million this year, heading into the second year of the five-year deal.
Pittsburgh Steelers: James Harrison/Jarvis Jones, OLB
There aren't many pass-rushing careers more different those of James Harrison and Jarvis Jones. Harrison is an undrafted pass-rusher out of mid-major Kent State who, going on 39 years old, has 81.5 sacks in his NFL career.
On the other hand, Jones, who transferred from powerhouse USC to powerhouse Georgia, was drafted 17th overall in 2013, and in four years he has just six NFL sacks to show for it. Jones, a 27-year-old, joins Harrison as a free agent in this upcoming class.
The team's No. 1 pass-rusher moving forward, a 3-4 outside linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, is Alvin "Bud" Dupree, a 2015 first-round pick who heated up to end the 2016 regular season, after he was activated off the injured reserve list.
The Steelers have a bare cupboard opposite of Dupree, though. Are they comfortable parting ways with Harrison and Jones after Dupree had just a 4.5-sack 2016? Who starts opposite of him next season? Is Pittsburgh willing to use another first-round pick on a pass-rusher?
Those are all questions that need to be answered by March.
Seattle Seahawks: Jimmy Graham, TE
In 2014, the New Orleans Saints signed Jimmy Graham to a four-year, $40 million contract. Because of how the NFL's trade policy works, the Saints had to eat his signing-bonus money before trading him to the Seattle Seahawks in 2015.
That means that over the last two years, the Seahawks only owed Graham guaranteed money when he showed up for workouts and made the roster. In March, Graham's $2 million roster bonus kicks in during the last year of his contract.
Do the Seahawks want to re-sign him long-term? The 30-year-old, who will be 31 in-season next year, has only recorded 1,528 receiving yards and eight touchdowns in his two years in Seattle. For reference, his last two years in New Orleans, leading up to the trade, were for 2,104 yards and 26 touchdowns.
Graham also has a reputation of being a poor-blocking tight end. If the Seahawks want, they can save $10 million by letting Graham walk out the door before that March bonus kicks in.
For reference, Seahawks safety Earl Thomas and defensive end Michael Bennett make $10 million a year. Other players in the same price range league-wide include Denver cornerback Aqib Talib and Philadelphia left tackle Jason Peters.
He's not worth the money he's receiving, and the Seahawks more often than not are looking to trim the fat.
San Francisco 49ers: Colin Kaepernick, QB
Kaepernick had a large 2016 as an off-field, or sideline, figure, but lost in the headlines was the fact that he had something of a bounce-back season. He posted a 90.7 passer rating in 2016, good for 18 total touchdowns and just four interceptions.
That's a huge improvement from his 2015 season, which led to a benching after he posted a 78.5 rating. In fact, his 2016 performance was his best since 2013, when he had a 91.6 rating and the 49ers went 12-4, falling six points short to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game.
Kaepernick will get another shot in the NFL, but it might not be with San Francisco. San Francisco has hired a new head coach (Kyle Shanahan) and general manager (John Lynch), and if they don't want to put in the effort for a restructured and extended contract, Kaepernick is likely going to hit the open market.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Doug Martin, RB
Doug Martin signed a five-year contract worth more than $35 million with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2016. After starting a four-game suspension in Week 17 for performance-enhancing substances, though, Martin could see the guarantees in his contract voided, meaning he's promised nothing by the Buccaneers for the next four seasons, per Jenna Laine of ESPN.com.
So, Martin will miss the first three games of the season, assuming he doesn't fail another test between now and then. The Buccaneers aren't tied to him at all, he had enough of an issue to enter drug rehabilitation, and Tampa Bay is on the hook for almost a $6 million salary for a 28-year-old running back.
If I were a betting man, I'd say he's a chopping-block candidate.
Tennessee Titans: Chance Warmack, OG
Chance Warmack was a guard drafted in the top 10 of the 2013 draft. Coming out of Alabama, Warmack was thought of as one of the best right guard prospects to hit the draft cycle in a long while.
In his first three years in the NFL, he started all but two games, but that still wasn't enough for the Tennessee Titans to pick up his fifth-year option. In a contract season in 2016, Warmack was put on the injured reserve list, after just two games, due to a torn tendon in his hand.
Recently, Tennessee has invested a lot in the tackle position, with Taylor Lewan, the 11th overall pick in the 2014 draft, and Jack Conklin, the eighth overall pick in the 2016 draft. The team bombed by missing on Jeremiah Poutasi, a guard prospect taken in the third round of the 2015 draft, who lasted just one year on the team.
They managed to hit on guard Quinton Spain, an undrafted player from West Virginia, but that right guard slot is still open. Warmack is only 25, with plenty of career ahead of him, if he can play more consistently and recover from his injury. Expect a short-term "prove it" deal from the Titans or nothing.
Washington Redskins: Kirk Cousins, QB
There's a quarterback in Washington by the name of Kirk Cousins. He's going to be a free agent this year, and he's a big deal because he's going to set the market for what an average quarterback is going to make in today's age.
Cousins—like Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, Brock Osweiler, Russell Wilson and even Nick Foles, sorry Brandon Weeden—was a quarterback who started in 2016 from the 2012 draft class. Unlike the rest of them, Cousins is still on his first contract, while Luck, Tannehill, Osweiler and Wilson already signed major long-term deals.
What's the holdup? No one is sure if Cousins is as good as the offensive talent around him. Receivers Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson are outgoing free agents, while Josh Doctson, last year's first-round pick, did little to nothing in 2016. The team has two quality tight ends in Vernon Davis, who is 33, and Jordan Reed, whose recurring concussion issues may lead to a short career.
Even on the offensive line, Cousins' left tackle, Trent Williams, is arguably the best tackle in football, and the squad spent the fifth overall pick on a true guard in 2015, the highest in decades, to lock up Brandon Scherff of Iowa.
Cousins could easily make $100 million with the Redskins, or he could walk into free agency. That's the definition of a big move. Maybe the team slaps a franchise tag on him for a second straight season, though it would owe him nearly $24 million for the 2017 season if so.