NFL1000: Early Look at the Top Players in 2018 NFL Free Agency

NFL1000 ScoutsFeatured ColumnistDecember 8, 2017

NFL1000: Early Look at the Top Players in 2018 NFL Free Agency

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    Gary Landers/Associated Press

    We're in the middle of another holiday season, but if you ask NFL executives when the real gifts roll in, it's at the start of every new league year in March. Then, nearly two months before the draft, the bidding can start for free agents.

    There are some intriguing names in the upcoming 2018 free-agent market. Some teams will be interested in these names regardless of scheme fit or talent around the player. That's how expensive mistakes are made.

    But teams that make additions based on what their coaches want to do can be rewarded. Not only by the benefit of high-priced talent that pays off, but also those low-market bargains whose play can far exceed their guaranteed money.

    With all that in mind, the #NFL1000 team of scouts has broken down the 16 most attractive potential free agents and hypothesized about a few potential landing spots.

Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints

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    In September 2016, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees signed a one-year contract extension, keeping him in New Orleans through the current season. However, a decision looms for the organization.

    At the start of 2017, one might have expected the team to move on from Brees prior to the 2018 season. His cap hit for 2017 is $19 million, and over the past two years the organization has paid him over $44 million in guaranteed money. For a team coming off three straight 7-9 seasons, it seemed likely an improvement would be sought through the draft or with backup Chase Daniel or special teams ace Taysom Hill.

    However, the organization seems to have nailed the 2017 draft, with both Alvin Kamara and Marshon Lattimore contending for Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year, respectively, and tackle Ryan Ramczyk starting for the team up front. Now the Saints are contenders rather than possible rebuild candidates, and re-signing Brees so he can finish his career with the team—he recently told Hardwick & Richardson XTRA 1360-AM (h/t he never wants to leave—seems the most likely outcome.

    If Brees somehow leaves town, a prime destination might be the Big Apple. Brees is well suited to offenses based on West Coast concepts, and New York Jets offensive coordinator John Morton is running such a system. That would be a reunion of sorts, as Morton was the Saints' wide receivers coach for the two previous years. Such a move would give the Jets a high-quality bridge to their next quarterback and still allow them to address the position in the draft.

    — NFL1000 QB Scout, Mark Schofield

Kirk Cousins, QB, Washington Redskins

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    Provided the San Francisco 49ers' Jimmy Garoppolo and Brees both re-sign, Kirk Cousins will be the darling of the 2018 free agency quarterback class. Washington faces a very difficult decision with Cousins after using a franchise tag on him each of the past two season. If it cannot work out a long-term extension with Cousins, the team could use a franchise tag on him again, but it would be costly: $34 million costly. It could use the transition tag on Cousins, which would be in the neighborhood of $29 million. Under that approach, though, Cousins would be free to sign with any team that matches the offer, and Washington would not receive any compensation if he walks.

    Looking at the upcoming 2018 quarterback draft class, you can see why an organization might prefer the known quantity over draft prospects that carry a bit of uncertainty. Signal-callers such as Baker Mayfield, Josh Rosen, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson might become upper-level quarterbacks in the NFL, but that would likely be a few years away. A team looking to compete in the next two seasons would be wise to go after Cousins.

    Two teams that come to mind are the Denver Broncos and the Cleveland Browns. The Browns have pieces in place on both sides of the ball, but for decades they have needed to find stability at quarterback. Out in Denver, the Broncos were hamstrung this year by poor quarterback play from a mix of Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler and Paxton Lynch. The organization might not be ready to move on from Lynch, a first-round selection, but Cousins would be a good fit for their offense.

    — NFL1000 QB Scout, Mark Schofield

Le'Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Le'Veon Bell is the most complete running back in the NFL. He's the first back to pass 1,000 yards rushing this season and leads all non-quarterbacks in total yards from scrimmage with 1,559. He ticks all the boxes of what is desired from a running back.

    Need a back to run between the tackles? Bell has incredible patience to allow his blocks to develop and the vision to find the smallest of holes. Prefer to run the ball to the edge? Bell has the burst to turn the corner, the cutting ability to elude tacklers in the open field and strength to run over smaller defensive backs.

    Bell is a proven threat as a receiver out of the backfield and on screens, where he again uses his patience to allow blocks to develop for big chunks of yards. He can even line up outside or in the slot as a receiver and run routes that will beat most linebackers. On top of all that, he's more than willing to step up and pick up a blitzer in the A gap to buy his quarterback time in the pocket.

    He has proven ability to not only enhance an offense, but carry it on his shoulders in both the run and passing game. The only question over Bell was his availability. He served a two-game suspension in 2015 after facing DUI and marijuana possession charges and sat out three games in 2016 due to missed drugs tests. However, he's on track to play all 16 games this season without any issues. It'd be very surprising to see the Steelers allow him to hit the open market, but there would be plenty of suitors lining up for his vast array of services if they do.

    — NFL1000 RB Scout, Mark Bullock

Allen Robinson, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    If a team is looking for a true X receiver in free agency, its first call should be to Allen Robinson from the Jacksonville Jaguars. Robinson has played in just one game this season due to a torn ACL suffered in Week 1 against the Houston Texans. But because the injury happened so early into the season, he should be just fine for offseason workouts.

    Robinson is just 24 years old and already has a 1,400-yard, 14-touchdown season under his belt. Unfortunately for him, he hasn't played with many competent quarterbacks, so we don't know what his statistical ceiling might be. The poor play of Blake Bortles and Chad Henne means Robinson's ability is still under question: Does he just put up good stats because he's on a bad team? Or is there another level to his game that has yet to be unlocked?

    Because of the uncertainty, expect Robinson to take a one-year deal with another team, similar to what Alshon Jeffery did prior to this season. Robinson is likely to bet on himself to parlay that production into a long-term deal.

    With his size and leaping ability, teams wanting to improve their red-zone offense would be wise to entertain the idea of signing Robinson. Despite the injury, he's still a No. 1 receiver who may be available at a discount price for one season.

    — NFL1000 WR Scout, Marcus Mosher

Jarvis Landry, WR, Miami Dolphins

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    Since Jarvis Landry came into the NFL in 2014 as a second-round pick out of LSU, only Antonio Brown and Julio Jones have more receptions than his 368. His 3,750 yards and 19 touchdowns on those receptions (compared to Brown's 6,112 yards and 44 touchdowns, and Jones' 5,936 yards and 23 touchdowns) have some minimizing Landry's contributions. It's been suggested he's a middling difference-maker and stat-collector. But that theory ignores what Landry does in the Miami Dolphins offense and what more he'd be able to do in a different role.

    Yes, Landry is primarily a slot receiver. But on the rare occasions he's put on the outside and asked to catch deep passes, he's done that as well. Moreover, Landry has a tremendous sense of holes in zone coverages and how to exploit them, and he's a good enough route-runner to fool the most practiced man cornerback.

    At 6'0" and 205 pounds, Landry isn't going to win a ton of physical battles with bigger, more aggressive cornerbacks, which makes him more of an ideal No. 2 receiver in any offense. But whether it's with the Dolphins or another team, Landry is capable of doing everything, from playing his role in crossing routes and flood concepts to winning on vertical routes in the seam or down the boundary.

    This is a player whose athletic value has been masked to a point by schematic limitations and questionable quarterback play. With a team like the New England Patriots, who run a ton of option routes and have a highly diverse short and intermediate passing game, Landry would flourish like never before.

    — NFL1000 Lead Scout, Doug Farrar

Davante Adams, WR, Green Bay Packers

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    After a rough start to his career, Davante Adams has really picked it up over his last 25 games. In that time, Adams has 126 receptions for over 1,600 yards and 17 touchdowns. Not only is he producing more, he's now replaced Jordy Nelson as the Green Bay Packers' No. 1 receiver. He leads the team in all major statistical categories and is the go-to receiver on third downs, with 25 third-down targets, according to Pro Football Reference.

    But Adams' free agency is going to be fascinating. Will teams believe he can be a true No. 1 receiver away from Aaron Rodgers? Luckily for Adams, he's shown over the last six weeks that he can produce without his star signal-caller, averaging close to 70 yards receiving with Green Bay's backup, Brett Hundley.

    Adams would be wise to re-sign in Green Bay and stay with one of the best pure passers the league has ever seen. But if he does hit the market, his best fit would be as an X receiver in a West Coast offense that utilizes slants and fade routes. He doesn't win by creating a lot of separation, but his body control and ability to win in traffic are what make him intriguing.

    Adams turns 25 on Christmas eve, but his best football is still ahead of him.

    — NFL1000 WR Scout, Marcus Mosher

Sammy Watkins, WR, Los Angeles Rams

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    Al Bello/Getty Images

    Sammy Watkins' ceiling is the highest of all the free-agent wide receivers on this list. There is nothing he can't do: He can win on the outside with his speed and route-running. He can win from the slot. He's also a red-zone threat in the right offense. On top of all his strengths, he is just 24 years old and still a few years away from his physical prime.

    However, multiple lower-leg injuries have stunted Watkins' growth to start his career, and it's fair to wonder if he will ever be able to fully overcome them. He also just hasn't produced to the level expected when he was the first receiver taken in the loaded 2014 draft class. He has just one season over 1,000 receiving yards and has yet to break 70 catches in any year. As talented as he is, he just hasn't been able to put it all together in the NFL.

    Like Jeffery, Watkins would be smart to take a one-year deal with a team that has an established quarterback to show what his ceiling is. If paired with an Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees for a season, his price tag could easily double. Whoever takes the chance on Watkins will likely benefit in a big way, even if it's only for one season. If your team needs a receiver, Watkins should be its first call.

    — NFL1000 WR Scout, Marcus Mosher

Jimmy Graham, TE, Seattle Seahawks

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    The Seattle Seahawks gave up major assets to acquire Jimmy Graham only to completely misuse him in his first two years with the team. Graham was moved from New Orleans for starting center Max Unger and a first-round pick, and when he arrived, he was supposed to be the missing piece in Seattle's offense.

    That didn't happen at first because Seattle's coaching staff was bent on turning Graham into something he's never been: a blocker. When the Saints selected him out of Miami in the third round of the 2010 draft, they understood exactly who he was: a unique athlete, more experienced in basketball than football, with the size and speed to win one-on-one matchups with any defender.

    Because the Seahawks didn't understand those attributes and chose to see if they could turn him into a more traditional tight end, Graham's stats were muted in 2015 and 2016. Injuries didn't help, but it was awfully strange to see Graham being limited in route concepts. Seattle's offensive minds failed to use him in red-zone situations, in which he had so much success in New Orleans.

    The Seahawks finally reversed course in 2017, using Graham more in intermediate and deep iso situations, as well as in the red zone, and he's responded accordingly with his best season in Seattle. Of course, this came just in time for Graham's contract year, but it isn't his fault that his coaches blew their chance to make him more than what he had already been.

    It would be a surprise if Graham wanted to re-sign in Seattle, but he'll give his team a plus offensive weapon on every down; a 6'7", 260-pound super athlete capable of breaking any game open. Teams looking for a tight end/receiver hybrid would be hard-pressed to do any better.

    — NFL1000 Lead Scout, Doug Farrar

Andrew Norwell, OG, Carolina Panthers

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    It's shocking the Marty Hurney-led Carolina Panthers, who place an importance on keeping and rewarding their own players, have not given Andrew Norwell a long-term deal. And continuing to wait may cost them if they want to keep their best blocker around.

    Norwell is only 26, has put up three years of dominant tape and not only wins often, but wins viscerally; something offensive line coaches looking for an infusion of toughness up front will crave.

    He isn't a household name, which is pretty hard to do from the interior, but there isn't a player with a better blend of physicality and detail in pass protection in the league. Norwell's improvements in these areas have been key to his jumping into the elite guard ranks this year. In the past, he has mostly relied on leverage and anchor to overpower opponents hat on hat.

    His traits alone are just so impressive. With the amount of disruptive interior defensive linemen on every team's schedule, the ability to set the tone early and then be able to mirror a third-down pass-rusher is becoming more and more important. Not many have the tools to pull that off, but Norwell's ability to do so means he's going to have plenty of suitors this offseason.

    — NFL1000 OL Scout, Ethan Young

Demarcus Lawrence, DE, Dallas Cowboys

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    Demarcus Lawrence has been easily one of the fastest risers in the NFL this season. After posting eight sacks in his sophomore 2015 season, Lawrence's following campaign was derailed by a drug-policy suspension. In a bounce-back season in a contract year, Lawrence has been able to record 13.5 sacks, good for the NFL lead with a month remaining.

    The Dallas Cowboys have needed a quality pass-rusher since DeMarcus Ware was made a cap casualty before the 2014 season. Since 2015, the team has signed Greg Hardy and drafted Randy Gregory and Taco Charlton. Combined, they have recorded eight sacks for the Cowboys. Despite the past suspension, the team's inability to land a No. 1 pass-rusher could lead to either a franchise tag or a long-term extension for Lawrence.

    If for some reason Lawrence is allowed to hit the open market, expect him to net at least $80 million in what appears to be a weak class for free-agent pass-rushers. With the Jacksonville Jaguars' success this season with a ferocious pass rush, the demand for defensive ends will be higher than the supply in a copycat league.

    — NFL1000 DL Scout, Justis Mosqueda

Sheldon Richardson, DT, Seattle Seahawks

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    Players land in team doghouses for all sorts of reasons. 

    While with the New York Jets, Sheldon Richardson received a four-game suspension in 2015 for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy. A one-game suspension followed in 2016 under the league's conduct policy after Richardson was caught driving 143 mph, while police also said they detected a "strong marijuana odor" in the car. Combined with the fact the team was loaded with interior defensive linemen, the Jets felt they didn't need the hassle.

    This led to a lengthy process in which the Jets tried to trade Richardson. They also decided to use the 2013 Defensive Rookie of the Year and 2014 Pro Bowler as a base end instead of his preferred role of interior pass-rusher. Things didn't go well, and when the Seahawks decided to make the move to bring Richardson onto their defense, it was clear he would return to the three-tech penetrating role he played so well earlier in his career.

    Richardson has been a revelation. He has just one sack and 20 tackles through 11 games, but as is generally the case with great defensive tackles, traditional stats don't tell the entire story. He's been an absolute terror as a run defender, using his impressive upper-body strength, speed and leverage to upend blockers on the way to backs. And as a pass-rusher, he gets more pressures than you might think. For example, he had eight total pressures on Carson Wentz in Seattle's upset win over the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday night, per Pro Football Focus.

    If Richardson keeps it up on the field and remains clean off it, he's going to get a big contract from a team in need of a defensive tackle that can do it all. He's not quite at the Aaron Donald level, but he's close enough to make him a force on any defensive line.

    — NFL1000 Lead Scout, Doug Farrar

Alex Okafor, EDGE, New Orleans Saints

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    The New Orleans Saints placed defensive end Alex Okafor on injured reserve with a torn Achilles on November 21 after he suffered the injury during an outstanding performance against the Washington Redskins. After four years with the Arizona Cardinals, Okafor signed a one-year, $2 million contract with just $1 million guaranteed with the Saints, and he was well on his way to making that look like one of the NFL's better bargains in 2017.

    Okafor has clear talent as a pure edge rusher, with 4.5 sacks on the season before the injury, but he can do more than that. He also excels at faking a pass rush and flaring out to deflect a throw. He does well in coverage and is a tough, mechanically sound run-stopper when placed in a true defensive end role.

    The injury may give some teams pause, but smarter front offices will see a player who has proven to be highly effective in 4-3, 3-4 and hybrid fronts, with a multi-faceted skill set and the ability to be a three-down defender. The Saints got Okafor at a good price in 2017, but it'd be a big surprise if he has just a one-year deal wherever he lands in 2018.

    — NFL1000 Lead Scout, Doug Farrar

Tahir Whitehead, OLB, Detroit Lions

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    It is not a good free-agent linebacker class. The only major name potentially hitting the market is Nigel Bradham. Considering how well he has played for the Philadelphia Eagles, it is likely they do everything they can to retain him. That leaves Tahir Whitehead of the Detroit Lions as the next man up.

    Whitehead is the best player in a bad Detroit linebacking corps. Rookie Jarrad Davis may develop into a consistent force, but he is not there right now. Paul Worrilow is certainly not better, either. Whitehead is the veteran leader for a young and ragtag group.

    Whitehead is best between the tackles. As a run defender, Whitehead can spear through defenses on occasions and handle blocks adequately. He is not one to be worked out of plays on power and inside zone runs. Though not particularly athletic, Whitehead does a decent job of picking up on his run fits and triggering on time. He has collected seven tackles for loss on the year to lead Lions linebackers.

    Playing sideline to sideline is a problem for Whitehead, though. His change of direction and raw acceleration in space leave more to be desired. Even though he may key on a play in time, he does not have the athleticism to work to the perimeter consistently. Likewise, Whitehead struggles in coverage when asked to do anything more than play hook zones and collision on crossing routes.

    Whitehead, though not abysmal, is a niche player. He will need a specific role that does not ask him to be in space much and enables him to be aggressive against inside runs. Additionally, a two-high defense that calls for safeties to fill wide alleys would help. Wherever he lands, Whitehead will need to be protected by scheme, but he can be a functional piece.

    — NFL1000 LB Scout, Derrik Klassen

Johnathan Joseph, CB, Houston Texans

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    In what could potentially be a deep cornerback free-agent crop, one of the most interesting options will be Houston Texans veteran Johnathan Joseph. The 33-year-old has been a stalwart for the franchise since signing with the team in 2011, but free agency will allow him to potentially chase more money or find a team in better Super Bowl contention. He'll be an enticing option for a younger team looking for a stopgap who can still play at an above-average level and mentor teammates, or he could be the missing piece for a secondary lacking a reliable presence.

    Joseph is one of few cornerbacks who has aged gracefully past 30 due to his outstanding route recognition and instincts. Opposing offenses have had more success throwing his way this season—an inevitability of aging—but he's still a quality second corner with a high floor. His durability is also a major bonus: Joseph has missed more than two games in a season just twice since 2008. 

    Joseph is best in off-man and Cover 4 alignments. This helps mitigate his speed concerns and keeps him reacting to what's in front of him. He rarely allows big plays, though as a trade-off he's no longer a real threat to force turnovers. His value this offseason should be between $6 million and $8 million on a one- or two-year deal, making him especially attractive for teams on a budget needing a steady performer.

    — NFL1000 DB Scout, Ian Wharton

Trumaine Johnson, CB, Los Angeles Rams

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    Trumaine Johnson will be the premier talent available at cornerback this offseason. The Los Angeles Rams star isn't an elite, shutdown playmaker like a few of his peers, but he's a very good No. 1 corner capable of playing in press-man and zone schemes. He's also one of a few corners who can shadow receivers into the slot, as he showed last week in his matchup against Arizona Cardinals great Larry Fitzgerald.

    Johnson will turn 28 in a few weeks, and he'll be searching for his first and likely last long-term contract after the Rams franchise-tagged him two consecutive seasons. He has elite size and play strength, and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has helped him regain value after the Rams' off-ball scheme in 2016 hindered him. For Johnson to live up to a lofty contract, he'll have to be used in a similarly aggressive scheme.

    Unlike most of his peers scheduled to hit free agency, Johnson has shown playmaker traits and the ability to force turnovers. His seven interceptions in 2015 were above the norm, but he's been averaged 0.22 interceptions and 0.77 pass breakups per outing throughout his 81 career games. He finds the ball at a high rate and is a legitimate threat when it's in the air. He'll drastically upgrade a team's No. 1 corner situation the moment he signs.

    — NFL1000 DB Scout, Ian Wharton

Kenny Vaccaro, S, New Orleans Saints

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    In an indirect fashion, Kenny Vaccaro was responsible for the New Orleans Saints' shocking defensive turnaround after their 36-20 Week 2 loss to the New England Patriots. Head coach Sean Payton had benched him in that game soon after Vaccaro had an interception taken off the board because he was busted for holding Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots tight end had beaten him with a push-off on an in-cut in one of many plays this season in which Vaccaro was asked to defend from the slot and looked uncomfortable.

    Ideally, Vaccaro is a moving pass defender as opposed to a safety—either free or strong—in the traditional sense. He's okay as a run-stopper at linebacker depth, and he can cover deeper or play press in the slot, but Vaccaro's next team would do well to line him up everywhere, from the line of scrimmage on blitzes and fake-blitz looks to brackets with cornerbacks to hide disguised coverages. Give him bail-coverage assignments where he can read the field and jump routes with his athleticism.

    Vaccaro isn't always the most disciplined player when asked to pattern-match, which is one reason the Saints were shopping him around the time he was benched, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. That's what they want to do with their coverages, and it's been very successful from Week 3 through now. Still, and despite playing through minor injuries this season, Vaccaro has a career-high three picks on the season.

    So, if you're looking for Earl Thomas, Kenny Vaccaro isn't that. (Note: Nobody else is, either). But if you have a creative defense in which your safeties will play multiple roles and move around the field at high speed, Vaccaro could be your guy. And you might get him at a relative bargain.

    — NFL1000 Lead Scout, Doug Farrar