NFL Free Agency 2017: Rumors and Predictions for Top Players on the Market

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistMarch 5, 2017

Alshon Jeffery is one of the biggest names making the rounds at the combine.
Alshon Jeffery is one of the biggest names making the rounds at the combine.Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Fans know it is the NFL offseason when 40-yard dashes, bench presses and other workout moments anyone else can do headline the news out of Indianapolis. 

The NFL Scouting Combine being fully underway means something else, too—the fast approach of free agency (maybe not John Ross fast, but fast).

Given the presence of each team sending representatives to the combine, the rumor mill always kicks into high gear. Right on cue, some late night rumors emerged over the weekend concerning a big name because an agent and general manager had tabbed the combine as a meeting spot to talk about a deal.

Behind the scenes, Indianapolis is much more than a time to look at NFL prospects. Below, let's look at three of the bigger rumblings making the rounds.

      

Alshon Jeffery Reunion Talks Begin

It was only a matter of time.

At face value, it never made sense for the Chicago Bears to let Alshon Jeffery walk. One of the teams mired in a deep rebuild, letting a top-15 wideout go while sitting on about $52 million in free cap space, per Spotrac, not to mention more if the team moves on from guys like Jay Cutler, never made sense.

Alas, the Bears didn't hit Jeffery with another tag and made it clear he would test the market. Saturday, though, NFL Network's Ian Rapoport revealed both sides met:

This is great news for the Bears. Jeffery has never said he doesn't want to be back, but the front office letting him hit the market signaled it might not pony up the cash to keep him if a major offer from another team occurs.

So far, nothing. He's one of the best high-point catchers in the NFL and 27 years old but also missed 11 games over his past two years, served a four-game ban, has battled nagging health issues and only posted six touchdowns over the two-year period.

Bad environment or not, those aren't items on a list other front offices will look at and give Jeffery a major deal. A team like the Bears, though, will overpay a tad to keep such a player who can help with a rebuild. Jeffery's peak came in 2013 with 1,421 yards and seven touchdowns. He scored 10 times the year after. If the Bears can rebuild well, he's not far off from tallying similar production again.

Look for Jeffery's reps to test the market before re-upping with his familiar surroundings at market value, which is lower than what they expected.

Prediction: Bears re-sign Jeffery

     

Dre Kirkpatrick Staying in the AFC North?

Teams will pay up for Dre Kirkpatrick's size and upside.
Teams will pay up for Dre Kirkpatrick's size and upside.George Gojkovich/Getty Images

The 2017 draft class is one of the deepest in years when it comes to defensive backs, but it won't stop teams from coughing up major cash for proven NFL talent.

Deep class or not, defensive backs are major risks. Constantly under assault in a passing league while trying to adapt to the speed of the pros and the blinding combination of power and speed all wideouts and tight ends possess, one can thumb through lists of recent corners and safeties drafted and construct an all-bust team rather easily.

Hence two teams keeping a close eye on Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, per Rapoport:

Kirkpatrick is 27 years old, and the fact the Bengals aren't going out of their way to bring him back isn't too alarming. Cincinnati has young guys like Josh Shaw, Darqueze Dennard and William Jackson III to groom as starters while spending big money elsewhere.

A defensive legend like Dick LeBeau and team like the Pittsburgh Steelers have an interest in Kirkpatrick because of his length. It sounds almost silly, but a guy standing at 6'2" and 185 pounds with a huge wingspan has an easier time in coverage, even if he's recovering after a target passes him.

While he measures well on paper, Kirkpatrick only graded as the 66th corner in the NFL last year at Pro Football Focus. He did have a positive coverage grade, though, allowing a 59 percent completion percentage with two touchdowns and three interceptions.

With Cincinnati insulated at corner, look for the Steelers to win the bidding war here. The team is already familiar with what Kirkpatrick can do after seeing him twice a year or more since he entered the league. Fixing a defense that ranked in the middle of the pack against the pass is a priority, and the Steelers want to win now, not gamble on a first-year player to make a difference.

Prediction: Steelers sign Kirkpatrick

    

Andrew Whitworth Tests the Market

Even at 35, Andrew Whitworth remains one of the best players in the league.
Even at 35, Andrew Whitworth remains one of the best players in the league.Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Cincinnati also doesn't worry about Kirkpatrick as much as it should because one of the league's best offensive tackles is ready to dip his toes into the market.

Andrew Whitworth, 35 years old or not, hasn't shown any signs of slowing as one of the game's best presences on the left side of an offensive line.

According to ESPN.com's Katherine Terrell, though, Cincinnati won't rush into anything with the player the team drafted back in 2006: "There does not appear to be great urgency to get a deal done prior to the deadline. While it’s still possible for both sides to come to an agreement prior to the start of free agency, it’s likely Whitworth will test the free-agent market to assess his true value."

Age and the confidence Whitworth doesn't want to play anywhere else seem like the reason for patience here. But some such as Mike Klis of 9News have speculated the Denver Broncos would love to get their hands on a player like Whitworth, especially with former Cincinnati assistant Vance Joseph now the coach there. (Marvin Lewis' extensive coaching tree will all have an interest.)

And why not? Look at a note by PFF's Sam Monson:

Whitworth ranked as the third-best tackle in the NFL at PFF last year. Fourth in 2015. First in 2014. Readers get the idea.

The market will decide how much to pay a 35-year-old tackle who could start a decline any year. Once it happens, as it always does, he could still kick inside to guard and play effective football, though his new contract right now would have to keep such a development in mind.

Barring a dramatic change, it is hard to imagine the Bengals let Whitworth walk after recent experiments at finding a successor fell flat. Whether letting him drum up the asking price was a smart move is another discussion.

Prediction: Whitworth re-signs with the Bengals

     

Stats courtesy of NFL.com. All advanced metrics courtesy of Pro Football Focus.

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