Chris Simms' Most Intriguing Free Agents on the Market This Offseason

Chris Simms@@CSimmsQBNFL Lead AnalystFebruary 8, 2018

Chris Simms' Most Intriguing Free Agents on the Market This Offseason

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    Free agency in the NFL always makes for a fascinating time because so much of a player's value is going to vary from team to team. 

    For one, raw numbers, statistics and measurables don't mean the same things to each and every team. Most teams don't care if some grading site says a cornerback gave up the most long completions in a season if he spent all 16 games against No. 1 receivers and won more than he lost. Some put more stock into analytics.

    Some teams are going to have a size threshold for particular positions. Others will care only about a player's skill set.

    I always think back to my time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and with cornerback Ronde Barber. He wasn't the biggest defensive back in the NFL, but he could switch from the slot to the outside, jam receivers and cover as well as anyone in football. He was a huge reason why the Tampa 2 defense was successful, but he wouldn't have had the same value for a team that wanted bigger, longer corners.

    My point is that some teams will value a certain position or player type more than others because of the schemes they run. If two or three of them are looking to fill a spot in the same offseason, it can drive up the market price for an otherwise pedestrian player.

    This is why fans will sometimes see a guy's contract numbers early in free agency and scratch their heads. We simply can't predict how many teams are going to value a player when he hits free agency or what a potential bidding war could bring.

    This is why every free-agency period is full of unexpected developments, compelling situations and interesting players. These are my 10 most intriguing players with a little more than a month to go before the start of free agency.

TE Jimmy Graham

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    Seattle Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham tends to get lost in the shuffle a bit when discussing top free agents, in part because he didn't always produce eye-popping numbers in Seattle's offense. I'm very interested to see where he ends up, though, because Graham is still one of the biggest mismatches in all of football.

    Graham isn't a complete tight end in the mold of Rob Gronkowski, but he's nearly as dangerous as a receiver. It's hard to find a defender on any roster who can cover Graham one-on-one.

    Graham hasn't been the star in Seattle that he was with the New Orleans Saints, but there's going to be a market for a guy with his size who can move the way he still can. I think the market for him will be bigger than people think.

    If Martellus Bennett can pick up a three-year, $21 million deal—which he did last offseason—Graham should be able to get a similar or better deal.

    There should be a number of suitors for Graham, and one of those teams could be the New England Patriots. New England isn't quite sure what Gronkowski's future is. Even if Gronk decides to come back for another season, the Patriots may target Graham to be his running mate.

    The Patriots love to attack with multiple-tight-end-sets. A lot of other teams are going to want to do the same in 2018 after watching the Philadelphia Eagles use this strategy to win Super Bowl LII. There will be teams who already have quality starting tight ends still showing interest in Graham.

WR Jarvis Landry

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    Miami Dolphins wideout Jarvis Landry is certainly a very good NFL pass-catcher. However, I'm intrigued by his pending free agency because I don't think the Dolphins are going to overspend to retain him, and I'm not convinced Landry will get the kind of contract he feels he deserves.

    Landry wants to be paid like a legitimate No. 1 receiver, but that isn't what he is.

    Yes, Landry led the NFL with 112 receptions in 2017, and that's impressive. But people probably don't realize just how little he did with those receptions. Landry's yards-per-reception average of 8.8 doesn't even put him in the top 150 among wide receivers.

    He certainly isn't on the level of a Julio Jones, a DeAndre Hopkins or even a Larry Fitzgerald. You don't even have to design plays to get those guys open; you can just ask them to go out and win.

    Teams aren't going to view Landry as a guy they can stick on the outside and expect to consistently beat top cornerbacks. He is more of a possession and slot guy who relies heavily on scheme and working the middle of the field. Think of him as a stronger, bigger version of Julian Edelman.

    Not every system is going to place a ton of value on that. Offenses like those run by New England, Miami and the San Francisco 49ers could easily feature Landry, but other teams aren't going to offer the same significant role for him.

    Rather than getting a contract like the four-year, $68 million deal Antonio Brown got last year, Landry is probably looking at something similar to the four-year, $45 million contract given to Keenan Allen in 2016. This is likely on the high end and will only come if enough teams that truly value slot receivers decide to target Landry.

    I believe the Dolphins know this, which is why Landry hasn't already received an extension from Miami.

DE Demarcus Lawrence

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    What makes Demarcus Lawrence's impending free agency interesting is the fact he's coming off a breakout 14.5-sack season.

    To me, Lawrence proved that he's in the upper echelon of pass-rushers in 2017. He had a truly dominant year coming off the edge, and he showed he can be the kind of difference-maker that wins games on defense—defensive end Brandon Graham did the same in Super Bowl LII.

    There is no shortage of demand for pass-rushers in the NFL, and there's no telling where Lawrence could be playing next year. Dallas needs to bring him back because it doesn't have a ton of defensive talent. Unfortunately, the Cowboys aren't in the greatest shape cap-wise, and Lawrence is going to demand a hefty contract.

    The flip side of the contract conversation is that Lawrence has an injury history and has dealt with back issues during his pro career. This could prevent him from receiving top-shelf money on the open market.

    Will teams assume the risk and overpay to address a premium position with Lawrence? Will the Cowboys be able to move around enough money to retain him? There are plenty of questions surrounding the first-time Pro Bowler heading into free agency, and I'm extremely interested to find out what the answers are.

CB Trumaine Johnson

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    Cornerback Trumaine Johnson has played the last two seasons under the franchise tag, and I cannot see the Los Angeles Rams tagging him for a third time.

    I can understand the Rams not jumping to give Johnson a long-term deal after his breakout year in 2015. The problem is that he became a true shutdown cornerback under Wade Phillips this past season, and he's going to have a massive market in free agency.

    Where I think things get interesting is in the level of contract Johnson can hope to receive. Josh Norman got a five-year, $75 million deal two years ago. When I look at Johnson as a player and on film, he is a notch above Norman.

    Johnson is hands-down one of the 10 best cover cornerbacks in football, and he's in the top five or six for my money. I don't think he's quite as dominant as Jalen Ramsey or Xavier Rhodes, but Johnson is a guy who can play in the slot or on the outside. He's also a guy who can be asked to shadow a receiver all game long. Phillips used him exactly the way he used Aqib Talib with the Denver Broncos.

    Talib is making roughly $9.5 million per year. So is Robert Alford of the Atlanta Falcons. Johnson is a notch above those guys as well.

    I think the Redskins overpaid for Norman, but his contract is going to be used by Johnson as a starting point in negotiations. Johnson may not actually get $15 million per season, but with his size, experience, age (he just turned 28 in January) and cover ability, he's going command close to it.

    Plain and simple, Johnson is an elite cornerback, and he deserves to be paid like one.

S Lamarcus Joyner

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    Lamarcus Joyner isn't a household name. He's a former second-round pick out of Florida State who has had to earn his role on the Rams defense. For my money, though, Joyner is one of the best combination free safety-nickel corner defenders in all of football.

    These kinds of hybrid secondary players are extremely valuable, and they're in high demand—especially when they can cover and tackle the way Joyner can.

    Joyner has the physicality to match up with running backs and tight ends in the middle of the field. He has the range to play the deep safety role, and he also has the speed and agility to cover wide receivers in the slot. He isn't afraid to run up and make a hit either.

    Joyner reminds me a lot of Earl Thomas in his prime. However, Thomas' four-year, $40 million deal is outdated. Joyner deserves something like the $12.5 million per year Tyrann Mathieu is receiving—though Joyner is playing better than Mathieu right now.

    Because offenses utilize so many personnel changes now, hybrid safeties like Joyner are becoming more valuable than ever before. I'd expect the Rams to try to keep him around, but Trumaine Johnson's free agency has to play a part here.

    Will the Rams keep one of Johnson and Joyner over the other, will they pony up to try retaining both, or will they let both walk and restock with newer talent?

CB Malcolm Butler

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    After going back over the game film from Super Bowl LII, I'm pretty confident in saying that the Patriots would have won that game if Malcolm Butler had been on the field.

    We don't know the whole story about why Butler didn't start in the Super Bowl—and it's something teams are going to want to find out—but Butler was easily one of the three best players on New England's defense leading up to it.

    I'd actually argue that no cornerback in the league has had more pressure placed on him over the past three years than Butler. He's been asked to match up man-to-man with either a No. 1 or No. 2 receiver all game and every game pretty much since his big interception in Super Bowl XLIX.

    Butler is a true island corner; he's smart, he tackles, and he does virtually everything right in coverage. Cornerbacks of his caliber just don't hit the market often, and I'm excited to find out where he plays next.

    I don't think there's any chance Butler is back with the Patriots after the way things went this season. New England paid Stephon Gilmore instead of giving Butler a long-term deal, then benched him in the biggest game of the season.

    Someone is going to give Butler big-time money, though. Former teammate Logan Ryan got $10 million per season from the Tennessee Titans last year, and I promise you Butler is a better player than Ryan. Desmond Trufant is getting nearly $14 million a year from the Falcons. Butler is better than him too.

    Butler is one of the very best man corners in the entire NFL, and I expect him to be paid like it. I'm interested to see where he ends up, if New England even bothers to make an offer, and how much the Super Bowl story affects his market in free agency.

DT Star Lotulelei

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    Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Star Lotulelei is another guy who isn't exactly a household name. However, this has more to do with Lotulelei's role as an interior lineman rather than his playing ability.

    Lotulelei is a former first-round pick, and he has been a starter ever since being drafted. Of course, the Panthers have had one of the most dominant defensive lines over the past few years—and Lotulelei has been a big part of that.

    Now, interior defensive linemen don't usually get the hype pass-rushers and skill-position players do in free agency. Lotulelei is going to be in high demand this offseason, though. Guys who are 6'2", 315 pounds and have the strength and athleticism Lotulelei possesses don't come around often.

    Teams are going to look at what linemen like Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan did for the Eagles during their Super Bowl run, and they're going to believe Lotulelei can do the same for their defenses. I'd expect Lotulelei to command something similar to the five-year, $46.25 million deal Damon Harrison received from the New York Giants a couple years ago.

    The Panthers could be in the running for Lotulelei, but they did just invest $80.5 million over five years in fellow defensive tackle Kawann Short. If the Panthers decided to hand the reins over to former first-rounder Vernon Butler, Lotulelei will be getting his money elsewhere.

TE Trey Burton

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    Trey Burton isn't the first tight end you probably think of when you think of the Eagles. Zach Ertz is probably the first on your mind, and longtime Eagle Brent Celek is probably not far behind. However, I truly think people are going to be surprised by the kind of contract Burton gets on the open market.

    The tight end position is so popular right now that teams are going to fall in love with a guy like Burton. He's big and physical enough to be a serviceable run-blocker, and he's fast and agile enough to excel as a pass-catcher.

    Burton reminds me a lot of a Vernon Davis or a Jordan Reed. He has a similar skill set and the same kind of value in a passing offense. NFL teams can't have enough players who can create mismatches in the passing game—and that's exactly what Burton can do. I expect him to end up with a sizable contract because of this.

    If Jack Doyle can get a contract that is worth $6.3 million per year, Burton should be able to get a deal that pays him quite a bit more than that. Burton has far more upside and athleticism, and he's only 26 years old. He also doesn't have a lot of wear on his body.

    People might not think Burton has accomplished a lot to this point in his NFL career, but his market value won't be determined by what he's done. It'll be determined by what he can do and by the kind of pressure he can put on defenses.

QB Teddy Bridgewater

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    There are several intriguing aspects to Teddy Bridgewater's free agency. The first is that he may not even be a free agent this offseason. Because he spent the first six weeks of 2017 on the PUP list, the final year of his deal may be rolled over to 2018, meaning he'd be under contract with the Vikings next season.

    Even if Bridgewater does reach free agency, there's no telling what will happen once he gets there.

    Bridgewater was drafted to be a franchise quarterback, but I have a hard time imagining teams will view him as one in free agency. I'm not saying I don't believe Bridgewater deserves to be a starter—he's obviously shown that he can—but there's no avoiding the fact that he hasn't played in two years and is still recovering from a leg injury that nearly ended in amputation.

    I'll be interested to see if there's any value for Bridgewater as a starter on the open market. I'll also be interested to see what kind of offer he can get from Minnesota. If the Vikings make him an offer before the start of free agency, that's going to tell us a lot about where Bridgewater is physically and what the Vikings think of his recovery.

    Minnesota viewed Bridgewater as the face of the franchise before the injury, and they thought enough of him that head coach Mike Zimmer wouldn't commit to Case Keenum until late in the season. However, the Vikings also made Sam Bradford, not Bridgewater, the backup in the NFC title game.

    Bradford and Keenum are both also pending free agents, by the way.

    There's a lot of mystery surrounding Bridgewater's future, both in and outside of Minnesota, and that's what makes him one of the most intriguing pieces of free agency this offseason.

RB Le'Veon Bell

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    Le'Veon Bell of the Pittsburgh Steelers wants to be paid like a top-tier running back and a top-tier receiver. I think he needs to be a little more realistic with his free-agency expectations.

    I believe Bell is one of the four best backs in the league, along with Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley and David Johnson, and there's no denying he's going to garner heavy interest if he reaches the open market. However, there is some risk involved with him. He's carried a heavy workload during his five years with the Steelers, he's endured some injuries, and he is a suspension risk.

    Bell also has to realize this isn't the best time for a free-agent running back to cash in. There have been some tremendous runners coming out of college in recent years, and not all of them are even being taken that high.

    Hell, Kareem Hunt was a third-round pick, and he just led the NFL in rushing.

    Now, what could keep Bell's value high is his importance to the Steelers offense. He changes what Pittsburgh is able to do offensively, and the Steelers aren't the same when he isn't on the field or at 100 percent.

    Just look at the first half of the 2017 season, when Bell was still returning to form. The Steelers lost two of those games, and one of those losses was enough to cost Pittsburgh the No. 1 seed in the AFC.

    Bell helps get receivers like Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster favorable matchups because teams aren't comfortable pulling an extra defender away from the run game or trying to cover Bell as a receiver with a linebacker.

    I'd argue that Bell is more valuable to the Steelers than he would be to another team. I'd expect him to receive more than the $8.25 million a year  Devonta Freeman is getting. If Bell wants to maximize his earnings, though, his best bet may be returning to Pittsburgh.

    All of these angles help make Bell one of the most intriguing free agents this offseason.

    All contract information via Spotrac.