Predicting the Best Bargains at Each Position in 2018 NFL Free Agency

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystJanuary 31, 2018

Predicting the Best Bargains at Each Position in 2018 NFL Free Agency

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    The amount of dollars true NFL heavyweight teams throw down on splashy signings in the first hours of free agency isn't what separates them from the pack. No, it's their ability to find key contributors during the second and third waves.

    Take, for example, the two teams that are playing in Super Bowl LII on Sunday.

    The Philadelphia Eagles offense has a backfield with many moving parts. One is running back LeGarrette Blount, who was a short-yardage and goal-line bruiser during critical games late in the 2017 season. He scored six rushing touchdowns over the Eagles' final seven contests, including the playoffs. Blount didn't sign with Philly until May and played under a contract that paid him just $900,000.

    The other team has Rex Burkhead. The New England Patriots running back finished the regular season with 518 yards from scrimmage and eight total touchdowns over only 10 games, all while getting paid just $1.8 million.

    There are plenty of opportunities for similar bargain-bin diving in 2018. Jerick McKinnon could be the next running back to make a major contribution at little cost. Others, such as tight end Tyler Eifert and wide receiver Jordan Matthews, come with clear injury concerns, but that will be reflected in their value on the open market, making any gamble well worth the risk.

    Here's a look at the best likely bargains available at every position.       

Quarterback: Josh McCown

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    Let's go ahead and start with the obvious here: Josh McCown is old.

    When free agency begins March 14, the 2017 New York Jets quarterback will be less than four months from his 39th birthday. He's only a year younger than Patriots signal-caller Tom Brady, who will be playing in his eighth Super Bowl on Sunday and whose continued excellence has left us in awe for several years now.

    Brady and McCown are clearly on two separate ends of the talent spectrum. But they still have impressive age-related accomplishments. McCown's claim to fame is that he's not only in the league as his 40th birthday nears, but he has also become perhaps the best example of what it means to have an average quarterback on your roster.

    There's great value in getting average play out of a top-heavy position. Teams are so desperate for competent quarterbacks that they're willing to give Mike Glennon $18.5 million in guaranteed money.

    McCown, meanwhile, didn't care what you had to say about his age or New York's roster in 2017. He recorded a career-high 18 touchdown passes with only nine interceptions, all while averaging a solid 7.4 yards per attempt and surprisingly leading the talent-starved Jets to five wins.

    He was supposed to be the ideal veteran bridge. The problem, of course, was that the Jets didn't have any viable young quarterbacks on the other side, so McCown kept starting and ended up impressing.

    He's still injury-prone, which is expected at his age. And he can make the odd maddening late-game decision. But overall, he isn't just some veteran arm. He's an aging and cheap option to give a short-term deal (almost definitely one year) and would give his team a chance to win every week—preferably with a promising young quarterback watching and learning from the sideline.

          

    Projected contract (average annual value): $8 million

Running Back: Jerick McKinnon

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Discussing discounts on running backs in free agency is like looking for sales at the dollar store.

    With some notable exceptions (hi there, Le'Veon Bell), running backs aren't able to demand much on the open market. The position gets maximum exposure to the inherent violence of football, and that goes beyond getting whacked at the end of runs. Running backs also need to pass block and at least impede the progress of far larger blitzing linebackers.

    Latavius Murray was one of the top running backs available during free agency in 2017. He only received $8.55 million guaranteed from the Minnesota Vikings. Now teammate Jerick McKinnon is positioned to be the next high-upside, low-cost bargain at the position.

    McKinnon filled in nicely for Dalvin Cook, who tore his ACL in Week 4, and recorded 991 yards from scrimmage—easily a career single-season high (his previous high was 794 yards in 2016). Much of that yardage came as a pass-catcher. McKinnon showed his skill in that area and his comfort in space with 51 receptions for 421 yards.

    He's a multidimensional weapon and potentially rising. However, his price in free agency should be low because McKinnon doesn't have an established history of production. He's averaged fewer than four yards per carry in each of the past two seasons, and 2017 was his first year with 800-plus yards from scrimmage.

               

    Projected contract (average annual value): $4.5 million

Wide Receiver: Jordan Matthews

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    Almost every potential free-agency bargain involves taking a chance. The price has to mitigate the risk and make it tolerable. And ideally, the cost would be low enough that if the deal blows up, the team can shrug and move on. 

    That brings us to wide receiver Jordan Matthews.

    In the not-so-distant past, Matthews was a rising slot receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles. The 2014 second-round pick finished just three yards shy of 1,000 yards during his second NFL season. He also scored 16 touchdowns over his first two years at the next level.

    But Matthews struggled somewhat in 2016, which can partly be blamed on the inconsistency of the Eagles offense (at best) while quarterback Carson Wentz went through his rookie growing pains. However, even in a year of regression, Matthews finished with a solid 804 receiving yards.

    In August, the Eagles saw an opportunity to improve a weak area of their roster. They traded Matthews to the Buffalo Bills as the centerpiece of a deal that landed them cornerback Ronald Darby.

    Matthews limped through another season, though he did it literally this time. He missed six games with knee and ankle injuries that required offseason surgery.

    Those issues alone should knock down his price significantly, along with his two-year downturn in production—though it was out of his control to some extent. But Matthews is still young at 25 years old and has demonstrated he can find the end zone often and be a high-volume receiver when used in the right role.

                     

    Projected contract (average annual value): $5 million

Tight End: Tyler Eifert

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    While Matthews had injury concerns, Tyler Eifert will probably make his future team's general manager and head coach give up on sleep altogether.

    Hoping the tight end can stay healthy hasn't ended well for a while. He hasn't played a full 16-game season since he entered the league in 2013, and he has missed 41 of a possible 80 regular-season games. Worse, Eifert has been on the field for just 10 games since the beginning of the 2016 campaign.

    Over that two-year stretch, he's needed two back surgeries. That's beyond a red flag—being carved up twice often leads to a white flag. 

    If Eifert were in his early 30s, his career might be winding toward an unfortunate injury-induced conclusion. He'll only be 27 years old when free agency begins, however, which means it's much easier for a team in need of a tight end to talk itself into Eifert, especially since he might be limited to a one-year deal while trying to re-establish his value.

    Eifert has proved he can be a red-zone behemoth when healthy by scoring 18 touchdowns during a 21-game stretch during the 2015 and 2016 seasons. He earned a Pro Bowl selection in 2015 with 52 receptions for 615 yards and 13 touchdowns, all while missing three games.

    It won't cost much for a team to take the chance he'll return to his 2015 form. If he ends 2018 on injured reserve again, the sting won't last long either.

                       

    Projected contract (average annual value): $3 million

Offensive Tackle: Andre Smith

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    There isn't a lot to get excited about when looking at the offensive tackle free-agent class in 2018. For evidence of that, look no further than Andre Smith, one of the top tackles available after an inconsistent season with the Cincinnati Bengals.

    The 31-year-old's pass-blocking ability has declined in recent seasons. In 2017, Pro Football Focus gave him a grade of 48.0, which ranked a lowly 62nd among tackles.

    Smith still had his moments as a pass-blocker, however, including in a Week 10 loss to the Tennessee Titans. He allowed only one pressure on quarterback Andy Dalton's 36 dropbacks, according to the PFF Analysis Team. That came against the league's fifth-ranked pass rush.

    He's much better when asked to plow forward as a run-blocker. A run-oriented team on a budget could do worse than signing the aging Smith as either quality depth or a mid-tier starter.

                                

    Projected contract (average annual value): $1.5 million

Guard: Alex Boone

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The bare-minimum requirement when teams are looking for players to solve their offensive line woes is durability. A line performs as a unit, and the on-field product is much better if the five blockers are familiar with one another and have continuity from OTAs to the end of the season.

    Alex Boone, who spent 2017 with the Arizona Cardinals, has been a steady presence as an interior blocker. He's missed only eight games over the past seven seasons, and Pro Football Focus gave him a grade of 70-plus each year between 2011 and 2016.

    He's especially effective on passing downs and posted a 97.7 pass-blocking efficiency (a metric that measures pressure allowed on a per-snap basis) in 2016 for the Minnesota Vikings, according to Michael Manning of Pro Football Focus. However, during the same season, he struggled as a run-blocker, which contributed to the Vikings' last-place finish in 15-plus-yard runs, per Pro Football Focus' Eric Eager.

    Boone played under a contract that paid him a mere $900,000 in 2017. In May, he'll turn 31 years old—an age that should lower his value enough for a team wanting to affordably plug an offensive line hole.

                             

    Projected contract (average annual value): $1 million

Center: John Sullivan

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    John Sullivan was arguably the NFL's best center not long ago. 

    He was a key cog in a Minnesota Vikings offensive line that opened gaping holes for running back Adrian Peterson's 2,097-yard rushing season in 2012.

    Injuries set in, as a back issue kept him out for all of 2015. Then he was a depth piece for the Washington Redskins in 2016 and made only one start. He rebounded strongly for the Los Angeles Rams in 2017 as a key piece in their offensive line turnaround and cleared the way for running back Todd Gurley, who erupted for 1,305 rushing yards.

    Sullivan was also effective as a pass-blocker and had numerous games in which he stood tall against a tough pass rush. That included a Week 16 win over the Tennessee Titans. He allowed only one pressure on 40 pass-rushing snaps, per Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus.

    Injuries remain a concern as Sullivan gets further into grizzled veteran years and prepares for his age-33 season. But he's still one of the first calls to make if a team needs a low-cost answer at center.

                                    

    Projected contract (average annual value): $2 million

Cornerback: Nickell Robey-Coleman

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    It can be a lucrative experience for a cornerback to find his niche. At the least, it can lead to peace of mind and job security.

    Just ask Nickell Robey-Coleman. At 5'8 and 178 pounds, he's undersized for today's NFL cornerback and doesn't have the height or bulk to match up well on the outside against the modern human trees who catch passes.

    But he does have the quickness and agility to perform well in the slot, a difficult position that takes away the safety net the boundary provides and requires cornerbacks to cover a lot of ground. Slot cornerbacks need to have the football intelligence to properly diagnose routes and do it fast.

    Robey-Coleman emerged as one of the league's more underrated slot corners in 2016. That was when he allowed a passer rating of just 74.9 from the slot, which put him behind only the Denver Broncos' Chris Harris Jr.

    Over the past two seasons, he's recorded four interceptions, and he helped improve a Rams pass defense that allowed a passer rating of 78.4 in 2017 compared to 95.5 the season prior.

                       

    Projected contract (average annual value): $1 million

Safety: Bradley McDougald

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    Bradley McDougald is a versatile safety who can come down and be a thumper against the run when needed, and his future team can also feel comfortable with him in coverage.

    He was one of the league's best safeties when defending the run in 2017 and recorded 17 run stops for the Seattle Seahawks through Week 16, per Mark Chichester of Pro Football Focus. That came after two seasons with 85-plus tackles for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and in 2016, McDougald finished with a career-high 10 passes defensed and had two interceptions.

    He'll be 27 years old heading into the 2018 season, and that youth combined with recent quality play likely raised his value a bit. However, the number attached to McDougald is starting at the floor after he received a base salary of $800,000 in 2017. The year prior, the Bucs gave him $2.6 million for one season.

    His salary will likely rebound to that 2016 level at most. Being even one of the top-30 highest-paid safeties means earning $4.5 million annually.

                                            

    Projected contract (average annual value): $3 million

Defensive Tackle: Dominique Easley

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    There's an obvious risk with defensive tackle Dominique Easley. This is another case in which tolerating that for a potential reward is what makes the player appealing. And in NFL terms, the cost to get Easley will be roughly the equivalent of a Happy Meal.

    Easley tore his right ACL in the 2017 preseason, and in college, he tore both of his ACLs. Needing to recover from the same severe injury three times leads to some serious mileage on a 25-year-old body.

    But if Easley can rehab to be even three-quarters of his 2016 self, any team signing him will get a valuable contributor. Easley was a force up the middle in 2016 against both the run and pass, setting single-season career highs with 24 tackles and 3.5 sacks.

    He erased gaps with his 19 defensive stops, and in 2015, he showed how disruptive he can be as a pass-rusher by recording 35 quarterback pressures, according to Mike Cahill of Pro Football Focus. He cost the Rams only $1.8 million in 2017, and that price will surely go down as Easley recovers from another injury.

                 

    Projected contract (average annual value): $1 million

Defensive End/Outside Linebacker: Alex Okafor

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    Just like Easley, the risk with signing Alex Okafor is obvious after he tore his Achilles in November. That's why he'll likely be limited to a one-year prove-it deal.

    But the soon-to-be 27-year-old could reward any team that trusts he'll bounce back quickly with high-end production for low-end dollars. Okafor is coming off a promising season in which he recorded 43 tackles and 4.5 sacks over only 10 games.

    Okafor's sudden rise in 2017 is even more intriguing when you consider he was among the best run-stopping edge defenders. His 21 total stops ranked third at his position prior to his injury, according to Brett Whitefield of Pro Football Focus.

    Okafor should be the ideal target for any cap-crunched team that needs help up front. He was paid a base salary of just $935,000 in 2017.

                      

    Projected contract (average annual value): $1 million

Middle Linebacker: Karlos Dansby

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    Karlos Dansby turned 36 years old in November. At that age, retirement becomes an annual question regardless of your position.

    If the 2004 second-round pick wants to continue playing, however, he won't have trouble finding employment because he keeps beating back the hands of time. The inside linebacker has been a versatile defender for a discounted price because of his age in recent years.

    Dansby has recorded 317 tackles over his last three seasons (95 in 2017), and he's snatched at least one interception in four of his last five campaigns.

    He'll turn 37 midway through the 2018 season, so there's some injury risk. But Dansby keeps silencing those concerns. He's played 16 games in six of his last seven seasons and has never logged fewer than 12 games throughout his 14-year career.

    Dansby would be the perfect signing for a team that needs a short-term solution at linebacker, which is the hole he filled for the Arizona Cardinals and Cincinnati Bengals over the past two years. 

              

    Projected contract (average annual value): $1.5 million

              

    Advanced tracking courtesy of Pro Football Focus.