Biggest Potential Bargains in 2018 NFL Free Agency
When the new NFL league year begins on March 14 at 4 p.m. ET, we're likely to see a lot of player movement and a record amount of spending.
The salary cap continues to grow on a yearly basis, and teams are carrying an average of more than $32 million into free agency.
But just because many teams have a lot of money available, they don't need to spend it carelessly. One or two high-priced veterans can certainly help put a team over the top, but looking for bargains on the open market can also help improve a roster without breaking the bank.
For a team looking at a long-term rebuild or staring down a smaller amount of cap space, the frugal approach is better.
Fortunately, there are going to be plenty of bargain free agents available. They aren't going to be the guys grabbing headlines at the start, but they may well be the best additions.
We're here to examine the biggest potential bargains of 2018 unrestricted free agency.
CB Pierre Desir
With Malcolm Butler, Trumaine Johnson, Morris Claiborne and Prince Amukamara headed toward free agency, we're likely to see a lot of money spent on cornerbacks. This is one of the most important defensive positions in today's pass-driven NFL.
Four-year veteran Pierre Desir isn't going to be one of the guys collecting ridiculous money this offseason, but he's a solid player who can help improve a defense on the cheap. At worst, Desir would be a high-end depth player.
Having good depth is nearly as important as having raw talent at the cornerback position.
Desir, who entered the league as a fourth-round pick, has battled for playing time his entire career. He ended up starting over former Pro Bowler Vontae Davis—who is currently a free agent—for the Indianapolis Colts last season.
Desir appeared in nine games (six starts) for the Colts in 2017 before a pectoral injury ended his year. Desir racked up 32 tackles, seven passes defended and an interception on the season.
Desir probably isn't a shutdown corner in the making. But he is a starting-caliber corner who works hard and is entering his prime. He will turn 28 at the beginning of the 2018 season.
Most importantly, he comes cheap. Desir played on a one-year, $790,000 deal last season.
QB Josh McCown
Quarterback Josh McCown is only a bargain to a team looking to draft and develop a quarterback. There are several quarterback prospects expected to go in the first round, meaning multiple teams will be in this exact position.
McCown will turn 39 this summer, so he won't be a long-term solution. He's still capable of playing at a high level, though—he completed 67.3 percent of his passes last season and posted a passer rating of 94.5—and would be an ideal one- or two-year bridge.
Because of his age and journeyman status, McCown will also come cheap.
Kirk Cousins leads the group of QB free agents, and he's expected to garner a deal worth more than Jimmy Garoppolo's five-year, $137.5 million contract. AJ McCarron won't command as much money on the open market, but he's still likely to receive a hefty contract. The same can be said for Case Keenum.
Reigning Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles may be available via trade, but the Philadelphia Eagles aren't going to let him go for nothing.
McCown, on the other hand, probably won't command a whole lot more than the $6 million he received last season from the New York Jets. Compared to the three-year, $45 million deal Mike Glennon received last offseason, McCown was a massive bargain.
Glennon was brought in by the Chicago Bears to provide a bridge and to mentor then-rookie Mitchell Trubisky. McCown could do the same for a team in 2018—and he's said he's open to it.
"I really root for these guys being able to find that long-term answer at quarterback and want them to succeed," McCown said, per Brian Costello of the New York Post. "If that's through the draft or that's through people already on the team, if I can be a part of helping that, I'd love to."
WR Taylor Gabriel
There are some enticing available names at wide receiver. Players like Allen Robinson, Mike Wallace, Sammy Watkins and Danny Amendola top the list.
Amendola specializes in making plays out of the slot and in the middle of the field. While slot receivers aren't as highly coveted as outside pass-catchers like Robinson, Watkins and Wallace, the franchise tag on Jarvis Landry proves that their value is growing.
This is why Atlanta Falcons slot receiver Taylor Gabriel can be valuable in the right offense—possibly Kyle Shanahan's in San Francisco.
Gabriel had a breakout year playing under Shanahan in 2016, when he amassed 579 yards and six touchdowns. He averaged 12.8 yards per reception. His reward was a bargain-priced one-year, $2.75 million deal for 2017.
Gabriel wasn't as effective in Steve Sarkisian's offense last season—he had just 378 yards and a 6.1 average—and that's going to drop his potential earnings. He doesn't blame Sarkisian for his dip in production, though.
"Sarkisian, he's a great offensive coordinator and a great mind," Gabriel said, per Vaughn McClure of ESPN.com. "You can say we missed plays and things like that, but it's football. Sometimes the ball goes your ways; sometimes it doesn't go your way."
Gabriel has speed, and he can be a big-time playmaker out of the slot. However, he's still a 5'8", 167-pound pass-catcher coming off a disappointing season.
This means some team is going to get a solid No. 3 wideout at a bargain price.
WR Terrelle Pryor
We can't talk about receivers having disappointing 2017 seasons without bringing up Terrelle Pryor. He rarely seemed to be on the same page with Cousins, and he never looked completely comfortable in Jay Gruden's offense.
Pryor finished the season with just 244 yards and a touchdown in nine games.
Washington signed Pryor to a one-year, $6 million prove-it deal. Unfortunately, Pryor wasn't able to prove much of anything, and he isn't likely to get a better deal in free agency this offseason. That's bad for Pryor, but potentially great for whichever team is willing to take a chance on him.
The former quarterback can be a dominant pass-catcher. He played his first full season at wide receiver in 2016 and finished the year with 1,007 yards, four touchdowns and a 13.1 yards-per-catch average. He did that playing for the Browns and with quarterbacks like Cody Kessler, Robert Griffin III and Kevin Hogan under center.
If Pryor can be a 1,000-yard receiver with that collection of quarterbacks, he can be a 1,000-yard receiver once again—assuming he finds a team and offense that fit him better.
At 6'6" and 240 pounds, he's strong, physical and on the right side of 30. While Pryor is still adjusting to life as an NFL receiver, he should still have several productive seasons left.
A team is going to be taking a chance with Pryor, but that chance could pay off with a ton of value.
DE Alex Okafor
Edge-defender Alex Okafor didn't have a disappointing season with the New Orleans Saints in 2017, but he did have a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 11 against Washington. and according to Sean Fazende of Fox8Live.com, he may not be ready for the start of training camp.
So whoever signs Okafor will be betting on his ability to be ready to start the season as the same player from years past.
The Okafor the Saints got last season was fantastic. In just 10 games, he amassed 43 tackles, four passes defended, two forced fumbles and 4.5 sacks. While Okafor isn't a dominant pass-rusher, he can create pressure—he did have eight sacks in 2014—and that's always valuable to an NFL defense.
If the gamble on Okafor pays off, some team will be getting a quality defender at an affordable price. He signed a one-year, $2 million deal last season last offseason and isn't likely to see a massive jump in salary due to the injury.
Someone should be able to scoop Okafor up with an incentive-laden two- or three-year deal, and that would be beneficial to the team. Okafor just turned 27, so if he does return to pre-injury form, those two or three years will be prime ones.
RB Isaiah Crowell
Le'Veon Bell is easily the best free-agent running back. Even though he carries a suspension risk for multiple violations of the league's substance-abuse policy, he's going to be coveted.
After Bell, Dion Lewis and Carlos Hyde are likely to be the hot runners in free agency. Browns running back Isaiah Crowell may not draw as much interest as Lewis and Hyde, and he isn't on the same level as Bell, but teams looking for a new leading runner should consider him.
While Crowell has never reached 1,000 yards rushing in a season, this is due to his workload, not his ability. Crowell has shared running back duties in Cleveland in each of his four seasons, the last three with receiving back Duke Johnson. Crowell has averaged 4.2 yards per carry—slightly less than the 4.3 averaged by Bell—but has never logged more than 206 carries in a season.
Crowell has just 737 career carries, meaning he has relatively little wear and tear on his body. He is also younger than Bell, Lewis, Hyde and other free-agent backs like Rex Burkhead, Alfred Morris, LeGarrette Blount and Jeremy Hill. More importantly, he's remained healthy and appeared in all 16 games in each of his four seasons.
Because he shared backfield duties and has played for the sad-sack Browns—who often trailed in games and eschewed the run—Crowell isn't one of the hotter names heading into free agency. However, the undrafted free agent could be a standout in the right offense.
There are going to be some quality backs in the draft, but Crowell is an ideal bargain option for teams not looking to invest a draft pick in the position. Latavius Murray received $5 million per year from the Minnesota Vikings last offseason, and Crowell will probably command a similar deal.
RB Jerick McKinnon
Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon is a nimble runner with excellent receiving skills. Last season alone, he racked up 51 catches for 421 yards and two touchdowns. That came on top of 570 yards rushing and three scores on the ground.
McKinnon has admitted that he'll be looking for a bigger role when determining his next destination.
"I want to be the guy," he said, per Courtney Cronin of ESPN.com. "I don't put in all the work in the offseason to come back and be in this role. I appreciate the role. It worked out well, but I want bigger and better things for myself."
This will likely to lead to an incentive-laden deal that is a potential bargain, because McKinnon has yet to prove he can handle a prominent role as a runner. While he has averaged 4.0 yards per carry over his career, he's averaged 3.6 over the last two seasons.
Considering the overall value of the position and the crop of incoming rookie running backs, McKinnon is going to have to prove his worth as a runner in order to earn significant snaps.
TE Trey Burton
One team is going to gamble on Eagles tight end Trey Burton developing into a top-tier receiving tight end.
Burton has been a good pass-catcher over the last two seasons, but he hasn't exactly been putting up Pro Bowl numbers. Between 2016 and 2017, Burton totaled just 575 yards and six touchdowns.
Someone will bet on his upside. He's a young, fast and athletic tight end who can create mismatches. Think of the 6'3", 228-pound Florida product like an oversized receiver with enough blocking ability to play on the line of scrimmage. He has produced respectable numbers while backing up Zach Ertz and Brent Celek.
"I have been really fortunate for the last four years to play behind Celek and Ertz," Burton said, per Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune. "You can't really ask for better guys on the field or off the field, and they've just done a really good job of taking me under their wing and teaching me stuff and just really helping me develop into the player I am today."
While Burton may not have the size of a complete tight end, he should get an opportunity to be a bigger piece of the passing attack than he was in Philadelphia. This doesn't mean Burton won't re-sign with the Eagles—which becomes more of a possibility if Philadelphia decides to release Celek in a salary-saving move—but he could easily be drawn in by the promise of a more prominent role.
Burton's Super Bowl ring might earn him more than a typical third-stringer, but he is likely to hold a market value significantly lower than a guy like Jimmy Graham.
G Josh Kline
There is a shortage of top-end offensive linemen in the NFL, and there are several high-profile players—like Nate Solder, Luke Joeckel, Andrew Norwell and Weston Richburg—heading toward free agency. Naturally, some linemen are going to be overpaid this offseason.
Tennessee Titans guard Josh Kline may also benefit from a league-wide need for quality offensive linemen, but he's enough of an under-the-radar option that he can still be a bargain. He isn't an emerging star, and he isn't a big-name veteran with multiple Pro Bowls.
Still, Kline is an excellent run-blocking guard with plenty of starting experience. He started 13 games for the Patriots in 2015, and spent the last two years starting for the Titans, who had one of the league's most dominant rushing attacks in that time.
At 6'3" and 300-pounds, Kline is a solid interior lineman. He has the size and strength teams look for at guard, and he has enough athleticism to pull on outside running plays. He can also start in two different offensive systems.
At just 28, Kline is in his prime. He'll likely earn a significant raise over the $2.4 million he received last season, but his contract will probably still be a good deal compared to the five-year, $60 million pact Kevin Zeitler got last year.
All contract information via Spotrac.com.