NFL Free Agency 2018: Players Now in Danger of Losing Starting Roles

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistMarch 22, 2018

NFL Free Agency 2018: Players Now in Danger of Losing Starting Roles

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    We're more than a week into NFL free agency, and while some quality players remain unemployed, the majority of top-tier talents have found new homes. 

    While this is great for the teams that have added them, it can be bad news for incumbent players.

    We're here to examine the most notable players from 2017 who could be out of a starting job this season because of a free-agent signee or a player acquired via trade since the beginning of the new league year. We'll take a look at each player individually along with his potential replacement and the reasons a change could be coming.

Dean Lowry, DE, Green Bay Packers

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    The Green Bay Packers didn't have many standout defenders in 2017. Pass-rusher Clay Matthews had another steady season, and defensive tackle Mike Daniels was superb, but for the most part, the defense was bland and below average—it ranked 26th in points allowed at 24.0 per game.

    This is a big reason the Packers were quick to hand defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson a one-year, $5 million deal this offseason.

    Wilkerson is a powerful and versatile lineman who can plug running lanes, rush the passer and occupy blockers. He is also capable of playing on the edge and on the interior of the line. New Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who once coached Wilkerson with the Jets, should be able to get the most out of him.

    With Wilkerson in, the Packers will probably be pushing defensive end Dean Lowry out of the starting lineup. Lowry started 11 games last season but only produced 2.0 sacks and 32 tackles. He'll likely be relegated to a depth role as Green Bay looks to maximize the pressure generated by its three-man base front.

    Daniels and Kenny Clark combined for 9.5 sacks last season. With Wilkerson joining the trio, the Packers defensive line could become one of the most disruptive in the league.

    Lowry has two years left on his current contract and doesn't count much against the cap, so he'll likely remain on the roster. However, he also may be saying goodbye to the starting role he earned last year.

Chris Conley, WR, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Like Lowry, Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Chris Conley worked his way into a starting role in his second season. He started 11 games in 2016 and started the first five contest last season before suffering a torn achilles.

    He became a favorite target of then-Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith during that span.

    "That's the one thing that I thought really hurt us that kind of didn't get talked about, was Chris," Smith said, per Terez A. Paylor of the Kansas City Star. "From a depth perspective, outside, he gave us another guy that was such a threat downfield and did so many things for us.

    There's a common belief in the NFL that you shouldn't lose your starting job because of injury, but...well, just ask Smith about that.

    Conley will likely still have a significant role in the Kansas City offense, but the addition of Sammy Watkins likely means he will no longer be one of the two starting outside receivers. The Chiefs inked Watkins to a three-year, $48 million deal. That kind of money suggests the Chiefs view Watkins as, at worst, a No. 2 wideout.

    Expect Watkins and the speedy Tyreek Hill to be the top two receivers for new starting quarterback Patrick Mahomes when he takes the reins this season.

Ameer Abdullah, RB, Detroit Lions

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    The Detroit Lions drafted former Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah in the second round back in 2015 and have since given him 22 starts. Yet he hasn't taken advantage of that opportunity. 

    Over the course of his three seasons—he missed the majority of 2016 with a torn ligament in his foot—Abdullah has averaged just 3.8 yards per carry. He averaged a mere 3.3 yards per carry last season, and he's only found the end zone nine times as a pro. He may be out as Detroit's starter this season.

    Detroit signed running back LeGarrette Blount to a one-year, $2 million deal this offseason.

    Part of the reason the addition of Blount makes sense is his familiarity with new head coach Matt Patricia.

    "We really enjoyed each other," Blount said of his time with Patricia with the New England Patriots, per Justin Rogers of the Detroit News. "And it got to the point where we got really close.”

    The other reason is that Blount is still a bruising between-the-tackles runner. He averaged 4.4 yards per carry last season with the Philadelphia Eagles. As a rusher, he'd be a fantastic complement for receiving back Theo Riddick.

    Detroit will almost certainly give Abdullah a shot at retaining the starting job. If he continues to show ineptitude as a runner, however, Blount could take that job from him. The Lions could then save roughly $1 million by parting with Abdullah entirely.

Derrick Kindred, S, Cleveland Browns

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    The Cleveland Browns made three big-time trades before the 2018 free-agency period even began. One of them sent former starting quarterback DeShone Kizer to Green Bay in exchange for defensive back Damarious Randall.

    Kizer won't be the only player to lose his starting job as a result of this deal. Browns safety Derrick Kindred will probably be relegated to a backup role as well. Cleveland plans to move Randall from cornerback to his college position of free safety.

    "Great, great move. I love it," Randall said, per Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal. "That's where I wanted to play since I came into the league, and I'm just really looking forward to it."

    Kindred was solid, if unspectacular, at strong safety last season. However, the Browns will almost certainly want to move Jabrill Peppers from free to strong safety now that Randall is on board. Peppers was more of a linebacker-safety hybrid at Michigan and was miscast as a free safety last season.

    Moving Peppers to strong safety should help maximize his skill set. At the very least, it will give the Browns a better idea if it was worth spending a first-round pick to get him. This is a good shuffle for Cleveland, but one that should push Kindred into a rotational role.

Lance Kendricks, TE, Green Bay Packers

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    The Packers are expecting to have a healthy Aaron Rodgers back under center this season. That will provide an obvious boost to the offense, but new Green Bay general manager Brian Gutekunst still seems determined to upgrade the talent around him.

    While Green Bay parted ways with longtime Packer Jordy Nelson, it also added tight end Jimmy Graham on a three-year, $30 million deal.

    The Packers may look to get younger at the receiver position—Nelson will be 33 before next season—but will have to find a replacement for Nelson's production regardless. Graham isn't going to be that replacement, but he will finally provide the mismatch at tight end Rodgers has lacked since the heyday of Jermichael Finley.

    Graham is especially dangerous in the red zone. He had 10 touchdowns last season and has 69 over the course of his career.

    The addition of Graham, though, likely pushes Lance Kendricks out of the starting job. Kendricks came over from the Los Angeles Rams last offseason and ended up appearing in all 16 games with nine starts. However, he caught just 18 passes for 203 yards and a touchdown.

    Kendricks can still have value as a depth player, but with just $600,000 of his $2.25 million cap hit guaranteed, the Packers could move on from him altogether.

Ereck Flowers, OT, New York Giants

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    We discussed New York Giants offensive tackle Ereck Flowers last week when we examined players who were put on notice by early free-agency moves. The Giants added longtime Patriots starter Nate Solder in free agency with a four-year, $62 million deal

    Flowers is out of chances to establish himself as New York's franchise left tackle. However, it doesn't appear the Giants are going to simply dump him. According to general manager Dave Gettleman, the Giants will give him a shot at right tackle.

    "As soon as we announced the signing of Nate, [coach] Pat [Shurmur] spoke with Ereck," Gettleman said, per Jordan Raanan of ESPN.com. "He called him on the phone to talk to him and said, 'Listen, we're going to move you to right, and at the end of the day, the five best offensive linemen play.'"

    Here's the problem for Flowers: He might not be one of the Giants' five best linemen once it's time to set the depth chart.

    While Flowers missed only two games in his first three seasons, he has struggled in pass protection throughout his career. According to FoxSports.com, he was responsible for allowing six sacks and was called for six penalties in 2017.

    Flowers will have to compete for a starting job, and a guy like Adam Bisnowaty—who started at right tackle in his NFL debut—or a 2018 draft pick could turn him into a backup.

    Flowers likely will remain on New York's roster this season, as his salary is fully guaranteed. If he doesn't show improvement in his new role, however, he may spend the final season of his rookie contract watching from the sideline.

William Gholston, DE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had a pass rush that was nearly nonexistent in 2017. No team produced fewer than the 22 sacks Tampa did. This is precisely why the Buccaneers signed defensive end Vinny Curry to a three-year, $27 million deal this offseason.

    Curry should immediately take over one of Tampa's starting defensive end spots—probably the one vacated by recently released end Robert Ayers. The other spot could be settled by a competition between free-agent signee Mitch Unrein and former second-round pick Noah Spence. William Gholston, a starter over the past three seasons, will likely be in on the competition too, but he could be the odd man out.

    Gholston has never been a particularly disruptive pass-rusher (just 10.0 career sacks), but he was especially ineffective in 2017. He didn't log a single sack over the course of the season, and he produced just 36 tackles in 14 games.

    The Buccaneers may be inclined to keep Gholston on the roster this season, as all $6.5 million he's due to earn is guaranteed. However, they'll likely to look elsewhere when it comes to establishing their defensive line of the future. That $6.5 million is all Gholston is guaranteed over the final four years of his contract.

    Tampa Bay can release Gholston after the 2018 season without any financial implications.

Adolphus Washington, DT, Buffalo Bills

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    The Buffalo Bills brought in a player head coach Sean McDermott knows well from his time with the Carolina Panthers. The team added defensive tackle Star Lotulelei on a five-year, $50 million contract. That kind of cash almost guarantees Lotulelei will inherit one of the two starting defensive tackle jobs.

    "After playing for Bills coach Sean McDermott in Carolina, expect Lotulelei to be put in a position that maximizes his impact in the game plan," Matt Bowen of ESPN.com recently explained. "This is a smart signing by the Bills at a position of need that is directly tied to improving their porous run defense."

    The other starting job will likely go to longtime Buffalo vet Kyle Williams. The Bills brought him back on a one-year, $6 million deal. Williams is 34 years old, but he's still an effective run defender.

    Last season, the Bills ranked just 29th in run defense, allowing 124.6 yards per game. Starting Lotulelei and Williams in the middle of the defensive front would go a long way toward improving the run defense this season.

    Another likely result of starting Lotulelei and Williams is the demotion of defensive tackle Adolphus Washington. The former third-round pick started 10 games last season and 21 over the last two but has been a liability against the run.

    Washington was a draft pick of the Rex Ryan and Doug Whaley era. If he doesn't show value in a backup role, McDermott and Co. may decide to part with him.

Bilal Powell, RB, New York Jets

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    Last season, running back Bilal Powell took over the starting job for the New York Jets. Long considered more of a complementary back than a starter, Powell proved to be the best back on the roster and the right choice to carry the load.

    He finished the season with 772 yards rushing, 170 yards receiving, five touchdowns and a 4.3 yards-per-carry average. He also showed his explosiveness with a long run of 75 yards.

    Things haven't stayed static in the Jets backfield, though. Matt Forte retired after the season, and New York signed Isaiah Crowell to a three-year, $12 million deal in free agency.

    There's a lot to like about Crowell, even though he's never been a 1,000-yard rusher. He runs hard between the tackles, has solid vision and touts some breakaway ability of his own. He ripped off an 85-yard run two seasons ago and a 59-yarder last season.

    Crowell is also just 25, four years younger than Powell.

    Powell is in the final year of his current contract, and the Jets could save $4 million releasing him. However, he likely has too much talent to be pushed off the roster.

    Crowell may bump Powell out of the starting role, though. The former Brown started all 16 games in each of the past two seasons and is a more physical runner than Powell. It wouldn't be surprising to see Crowell and Powell split the load the way Crowell and Duke Johnson did in Cleveland.

    Powell still would have a sizable role as a pass-catcher and a change-of-pace back, but he would lose his role as a starter.

Buster Skrine, CB, New York Jets

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    The Jets landed one of free agency's biggest prizes when they signed cornerback Trumaine Johnson to a five-year, $72.5 million deal. New York also brought back Morris Claiborne on a one-year, $7 million deal. These two moves could leave Buster Skrine as the odd man out in the Jets starting lineup.

    The former Brown started 15 games last season and has started 29 over the past two. While he has played well at times, he isn't a natural fit on the outside and seems to play his best in the slot. Would the Jets be willing to pay $8.5 million for their slot corner in 2018? It's a fair question, as that's going to be Skrine's cap hit.

    The Jets could consider cutting Skrine, which would allow the team to save $6 million in salary. Asking him to take a pay cut doesn't seem to be an option.

    "What's my cap, 8.5 next year?" Skrine said, per Darryl Slater of NJ.com. "So I'm expecting 8.5. I don't think any player goes into thinking if they're taking a pay cut."

    If the Jets are willing to pay Skrine—and they have the cap space to do so—they'll probably slide him into the slot, giving Claiborne and Johnson the starting jobs. Skrine was primarily a slot corner in Cleveland.

    Skrine would still have a notable role as the No. 3 corner. However, his tenure as a full-time starter is likely coming to an end. If New York doesn't plan on re-signing Skrine, it may look for his successor in the draft.

        

    All contract information via Spotrac.com.