This is my favorite time of the off-season, because it is a chance to watch teams blow up their salary cap space to sign players that are either past their prime or are not conducive to a winning culture. That does not mean I am opposed to free agency, but I tend to look at free agency as an opportunity to add one impact player or sign a few free agents to fills some gaps for a year or two. I believe that the best teams focus on the NFL Draft and they cash in on their draft picks.
The big reason I do not like free agency is that the contracts are always too high and the players have too much wear and tear. Think of the NFL Draft as buying from a high-end department store and free agency as shopping at a thrift store. Except that in the NFL World, the department store is discounted by 80% and the thrift store has everything marked up. Yet some teams continue to build their team at the thrift store and pay inflated prices.
Draft picks are 21 to 24 year old players that are at the peak of their athletic ability and they have not been beaten down by years of NFL competition. They have a chance to fill roles and develop into star players. Free agents are usually players that are not quite good enough to be superstar players, otherwise they would have been franchise tagged or signed to long-term deals. They can thrive in the right system, but they usually do not make other players around them better. In the rare case where the player is a superstar, he is usually coming off an injury in the last year or two and there are questions about durability.
Here was last year’s prime example. The New York Giants signed RE Olivier Vernon, to a five-year, $85 million contract with $40 million fully guaranteed. At that price, he should have done better than 63 total tackles and 8.5 sacks. He was not selected to the Pro Bowl, did not win any accolades and in their Wild Card loss he recorded one tackle. He was the 13th ranked edge rusher by Pro Football Focus. He was a very good player, but tremendously overpaid given his production.
I am sure we will see some similar moves this year. There is always that player or two that an embattled GM busts the bank on hoping that player will save the day. Here are my top story lines to watch headed into 2017 Free Agency.
1) Is Washington able to sign QB Kirk Cousins to a long-term deal? Cousins has shown well over the last two seasons. He has completed 785 passes in 1,149 attempts for 9,083 yards, 54 touchdowns, 23 interceptions and a QB rating of 99.28. He has a record of 15-14-1, but they made the playoffs in 2015 and were a win away from making the playoffs in 2016. There is no free agent available that has two years of starting experience, is only 28-years old and can throw the ball like him.
Last year he played under his rookie contract, this year he played under the franchise tag. That means Washington has three options. First, they can let him walk, which seems very unlikely. Second, they can sign him to a long-term deal and make him the future of their franchise. Finally, if they are unable to work anything out, they can franchise tag him for a second season. It is likely they would use the exclusive tag to prevent another team from signing him and forfeiting two first round picks.
Franchise tagging him creates two problems though. First, they will have to pay him $23.94 in fully guaranteed money with no ability to spread that guaranteed money beyond this year. Second, if they are not able to work out a long-term deal, Cousins can play out this contract and become a free agent in 2018. Washington would not be allowed to apply a third tag, which means he would hit the market as an unrestricted free agent and he would probably have at least 10 teams in the running for his services. That could create a scenario where he signs a record-breaking contract on the open market.
Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio is reporting Cousins will not sign a long-term deal prior to the March 1 deadline for Washington to apply the franchise tag. That makes sense, because he would be crazy not to sign the tag now, it guarantees him $23.4 million for this year and he can still work out a new deal with the leverage that Washington cannot use a third tag. Washington will make a full-court press to sign him to a long-term deal after the tag is applied, but ESPN’s Jason Reid is reporting that Cousins doesn’t want to be in Washington and would prefer to be franchise-tagged and be allowed to leave in free agency in 2018.
This will be the most intriguing story of the off-season. Rarely does a 28-year old quarterback receive a second franchise tag and have the ability to hit free agency the next season without being able to receive a third tag. This report of him not wanting to play there could be posturing to make sure Washington is active in free agency and the draft and that they give him the most money. However, we could be back here talking about Cousins as the lead story of the 2018 season, except Washington will not be able to tag him. All bets are off as to what kind of contract he receives with multiple teams bidding against one another.
2) Do the Buffalo Bills release QB Tyrod Taylor? There is a lot of speculation about what will happen to Taylor this off-season. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport is reporting there is a “better chance” the Bills keep Taylor than not. Former Buffalo reporter and current Bleacher Report’s Ty Dunne speculates that the Bills will part ways with Tyrod Taylor and go with a low-cost veteran in 2017. Buffalo will need to pay $30.75 million guaranteed in 2017 and 2018 if they want to exercise the option on Taylor. That is not top-tier money for a starting quarterback, but it is not a cheap option either.
Buffalo is in an interesting dilemma. Taylor is a duel threat quarterback that had 3,023 yards passing, 580 yards rushing, 17 passing touchdowns and six rushing touchdowns. He also values the ball with just six interceptions and two lost fumbles. That made him the eighth ranked fantasy quarterback. However, the Bills were just (7-9) last year and Taylor has not shown to be an elite quarterback.
This is truly a toss up decision. Unless the Bills want to go with a cheap option, like Kansas City Chiefs QB Nick Foles or Chicago Bears QB Brian Hoyer, they are going to have to us a draft pick on a quarterback this year if they let Taylor walk. However, Taylor has not shown enough in two years to warrant the $30.75 million guaranteed, so paying that would be hoping that he develops under a new coaching staff.
There is also the chance this could end ugly with litigation. Pro Football Talk’s Michael David Smith is reporting that the Bills say that Taylor is healthy enough to play after his January groin surgery. That is a convenient position, seeing they need him to clear his physical by March 11th if they are going to cut him and not owe him the guaranteed money. If there is a disagreement about his health and he is waived, it is possible that there could be a lawsuit with a battle of medical experts arguing whether he was healthy enough to pass the physical. All this should lead to an interesting off-season in Buffalo. If I had to make a bet on the outcome, my guess is that Taylor becomes a free agent and the Bills part ways with him prior to the March 11 deadline.
3) Are the Pittsburgh Steelers able to reach an agreement with RB Le’Veon Bell this off-season? I also think it is likely that Bell is tagged before the March 01 deadline. The Steelers are in a very similar problem to where the Dallas Cowboys found themselves back in 2015. That was the off-season where RB DeMarco Murray and WR Dez Bryant were both free agents and they had to make a decision about which one they wanted to keep. They ultimately tagged the younger Bryant and allowed Murray to walk in free agency.
This is a little different, because Bell is a free agent this year and All-Pro WR Antonio Brown is a free agent next year. Bell does not have to worry about being tagged two years in a row, because he would be due $11.9 million this year, he would see his salary increased if he were tagged for a second year and if the Steelers do not sign Brown to a long-term deal, there is no way they will franchise Bell over Brown.
Pittsburgh has one of the best offenses in the NFL when Bell, Brown and QB Ben Roethlisberger are on the field at the same time. However, Bell is 25-years old, he has not finished the season healthy the last three years, he has served two suspensions and he wants a $15 million deal. I think they can stomach paying him $11.9 million this year, but it will be interesting to see if a long-term deal is reached or if Bell plays his last year in Pittsburgh in 2017.
4) Do the Oakland Raiders allow RB Latavius Murray to walk in free agency? This is probably going to be the best running back available in free agency. There are conflicting reports out of Oakland. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Vic Tafur expects the Raiders to move on from Murray. CSN Bay Area reported that GM Reggie McKenzie wants to resign Murray, citing his 6’ 3” and 230 lb. frame. Tafur is a good reporter and did not just snag that report out of thin air. Clearly there are mixed signals being sent about Murray.
They may decide that they have a Top-5 offensive line and a great passing game and that they will just allow Murray to walk and draft a running back. They may decide that they can transition tag him and see what he signs with another team and whether they want to match that contact. They may resign him and continue to use him in a committee. My guess is they allow him to walk. They only gave him 195 rushing attempts for 788 yards, that is not a player a team is going to tag and pay $11.9 million in 2017. He will have some appeal having just turned 27-years old, having only 543 career carries and coming off a 12-touchdown season. He will be in demand for teams looking for a running back this off-season.
5) Do the New England Patriots break up their backfield this off-season? RB LeGarrette Blount led the league this year with 18 rushing touchdowns, but he turns 30-years old this year and the Patriots are not likely going to break the bank to keep a running back with just a season or two left. They have RB James White and RB Dion Lewis on the roster and could go younger at running back and add someone in the NFL Draft. They could also go after Murray in free agency, who is younger and can be the physical goal line threat.
Blount says he wants to play in New England and if he wants to sign a team-friendly one or two year deal, I could see him back there. The problem is that his 18 touchdowns are going to cause some team to fall in love with him and if he receives a big contract offer, it may be too much for him to turn down.
6) Will the Vikings release RB Adrian Peterson? This is probably the no-brainer of the free agency period. There is no way the Vikings are bringing back a player that had only 37 rushing attempts for 72 yards and averaged only 1.9 yards per carry at $18 million. That would be hard to justify if he was 25-years old and in the prime of his career. It is impossible when he is turning 32-years old and near the end of his career. Unless he decides to take a pay slash down to $2 or $4 million, he will be released and able to pursue other options.
I think a team would be crazy to sign him at this point and there is a report by CBS Sports Radio that several GMs are balking at the idea of paying him $5 million for one year. Peterson is a first ballot Hall of Famer and one of the best running backs in the history of the NFL. He appears to have run out of gas and unless he is willing to play backup on a minimal salary, there does not appear to be a place for him in the NFL at this point.
7) Is WR Alshon Jeffery back in Chicago in 2017? My guess is that he signs with another team. The Bears are not going to franchise him for a second year in a row when he had only 52 receptions for 821 yards and two touchdowns and he was suspended for four games for violating the policy on performance enhancing drugs. The cost to franchise tag him this year is about $17.5 million, which would be insane given his health and production the last couple years.
Jeffery could sign a long-term deal to stay with the Bears, but at this point, why would he do that. The Bears have no quarterback of the future on their roster, they have the third pick in the NFL Draft and he is not going to be a superstar there in that situation. He would be better signing with a team that has quarterback stability and hope that he delivers on a big contract. The only reason to stay in Chicago is if they franchise tag him and $17.5 million makes that too steep of a salary to keep a talented, but injury-prone player.
8) Can the Cleveland Browns resign WR Terrelle Pryor prior to free agency beginning? There are reports that the Browns plan to franchise tag him and there are reports that they will not franchise tag him. They are also meeting with his agent and they may have a long-term deal worked out before March 01. Anything is possible at this point, but they need to keep Pryor. He was their best player with 1,077 yards receiving and four touchdowns playing with the worst cast of quarterbacks in the NFL.
The Browns started their rebuilding effort by trying to target young players in free agency, trades and the NFL Draft. Pryor is one of those young players they acquired and now they need to lock him up. The Browns have been rebuilding since they reentered the league back in 1999. They seem to be on the right track now, even though their (1-15) record would indicate they have a long way to go. Signing Pryor shows they are committed to keeping their young players and would be a big move for this organization.
• An interesting player to watch in free agency will be WR DeSean Jackson. He is still an elite deep threat and he could still be an impact player, but his durability and longevity are a huge concern. It will be interesting to see if a team overpays him to help at receiver. I still like him, but only on a short-term deal at the right price.
• I am interested to see if Tampa Bay Buccaneers QB Mike Glennon lands in a good spot. Glennon was solid in 2013 and 2014 before the Buccaneers drafted QB Jameis Winston and he could earn a chance to be a starter somewhere this off-season.
• Green Bay Packers RB Eddie Lacy looked like he was a great player his first two years, finishing sixth in fantasy points both seasons. He struggled with health and conditioning the last two seasons and is unlikely to be resigned in Green Bay. He is probably going to have to sign a prove-it contract, but he could be a great late-round flyer, if he could ever stay healthy and in shape.
• Green Bay Packers TE Jared Cook was mostly a bust until he turned it up the last month of the regular season and in the postseason. Hopefully, he returns to Green Bay and he plays with QB Aaron Rodgers. He may generate some interest in the free agent market, but a return to a bad quarterback situation would destroy his fantasy appeal.
• Nobody likes to talk about guards in free agency, but Cincinnati Bengals G Kevin Zeitler and Green Bay Packers G T.J. Lang are two of the best and they could really help a line in need of help in the interior. Their signings could impact fantasy running backs values, depending on where they sign.
• New York Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul could receive the franchise tag, which would be crazy to me. He had only 7.0 sacks last year and a franchise tag would likely cost the Giants $17.5 million in salary. Considering what they are paying Oliver, that would be a huge investment for them at the defensive end position.
• Arizona Cardinals DE Chandler Jones had a monster year in Arizona and he could command a ton of money on the open market. The Cardinals are likely to franchise tag him, it will be interesting to see if they can wrap him up to a long-term deal this off-season.
• Los Angeles Rams CB Trumaine Johnson, Buffalo Bills CB Stephon Gilmore and Dallas Cowboys CB Morris Claiborne headline a quality class of free agent cornerbacks this off-season. It will be interesting to see if the three of them end up returning to their respective teams or what they command on the free agent market. All three are intriguing gambles for big contracts given their youth and athletic ability.
• Kansas City Chiefs S Eric Berry is one of the more intriguing free agents this off-season. The Chiefs franchise tagged him in 2016 and there is speculation they will do so again in 2017. That means that he could be playing his last season in Kansas City or a long-term deal could be reached before the July deadline. Hopefully, they can reach a deadline; Berry has had a great career in Kansas City and deserves the opportunity to retire a Chief.
5 Free Agents I Would Target
1) New England Patriots LB Dont’a Hightower – He turns 27-years old this year, he made his first Pro Bowl in 2016 and he has two Super Bowl rings in New England. If New England does not sign him to an extension or franchise tag him that is a player I would take a gamble on in free agency.
2) Oakland Raiders RB Latavius Murray – I do not think he will ever be a Hall of Fame caliber back and the Raiders elite offensive line played a large role in him scoring his 12 touchdowns this year. He also has only 543 carries and is only 27-years old, so I think he has a chance to make an impact and teams should not have to break the bank to sign him.
3) Minnesota Vikings WR Cordarrelle Patterson – He never lived up to the billing in Minnesota, but he also never had a quarterback there and he is only 26 years old and one of the most exciting players in the league. He will be available at a cheap price and he is a quality returner. Worst-case scenario, a team finds a good returner, best-case scenario, he ends up being a sleeper wide receiver with a team that has a quality quarterback.
4) Green Bay Packers G T.J. Lang – He was one of the better guards in the NFL and he is 29-years old. I think a team could do a lot worse than adding a guy that plays the position at a high level. He was Pro Football Focus’ sixth ranked guard and he should have another 3-5 years of quality play in front of him.
5) Buffalo Bills CB Stephon Gillmore – Sometimes a team takes a gamble and breaks the bank on a player in free agency and I think Gillmore is worth the gamble. He was the tenth pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, he had a career year with five interceptions and he made his first Pro Bowl this year. He wants Top-5 cornerback money, but if I needed a shutdown corner in free agency, he is the player I would be looking to add in free agency.
5 Free Agents I Would Not Target
1) Chicago Bears WR Alshon Jeffery – He is probably going to be looking for a deal bigger than what Detroit Lions WR Marvin Jones signed in the 2016 season. Jones inked five-year, $40 million contract that contained $20 million guaranteed. I would not be willing to pay a player big money that has had durability issues and served a four-game suspension for violating the league’s performance enhancing substances ban. I would let another organization spend money and have the cap headache in 2018 or 2019.
2) Washington WR DeSean Jackson – He is one of the best deep-threat receivers in the NFL and averaged 17.9 yards per catch last year. He also has not made a Pro Bowl since 2013, which is the last season he played 16 games. He has only 142 receptions in his last three seasons and he has only 14 touchdowns. I could see giving him a two-year deal, but I would not break the bank for a 30-year old receiver that rarely finds the end zone and is consistently dinged. His 17.7 yards per reception for his career is very appealing, but I think he is a player that is in decline at this point in his career.
3) Green Bay Packers RB Eddie Lacy – I do not even know if I would give Lacy a “prove it” deal at this point. Our website thought he was going to be a great value in a contract year having done P90X all off-season and having dropped 30 lb. Instead, he was slow and injured and appeared to gain weight as the season progressed. I do not want to waste a roster spot on a player that is more concerned which chain his next hamburger is coming from. I would not trust him to return to his 2013 or 2014 form.
4) Pittsburgh Steelers LB Lawrence Timmons – He is one of my favorite players on the Steelers D, he always seems to be around the ball, he has not missed a game the last five seasons and he has been a team leader on a team that competes for Super Bowls. He also had only 114 tackles, which is low by his standards and did not seem to be the same impact player he was on every down in recent years. At the right price in a reduced role, I would love to bring him to my team. I would not want to spend a boatload of guaranteed money over the next three years to have him lead my defense. Kansas City signed veteran LB Derrick Johnson to a three-year, $21 million contract with $9.75 million guaranteed. I would pass on Timmons if that were what his market ends up being in 2017.
5) Minnesota Vikings RB Adrian Peterson – He is not a free agent yet, but he will be when the Vikings release him to avoid paying his $18 million number this year. They need to release him and teams need to pass on signing him. He is 32-years old and a future Hall of Famer on the first ballot, but he also is coming off an injury-plagued season where he played only three games and he averaged only 1.9 yards per carry. It only takes one crazy GM to give him a contract, but at this point, I would not want Peterson in my rotation, much less the starter on my team.