Now that there are (sadly) just three games left in the season, it’s a good time to look at the upcoming class of potential NFL free agents. Things will change from now until March 9, when free agency officially kicks off, but the list of names is currently very attractive. From a premier running back to an elite safety to a handful of dynamic pass rushers, there is depth at just about every position.
Not all of these players will make it to free agency, of course, largely thanks to the franchise tag and teams opting to re-sign their guys before they hit the open market, but there will be plenty of big names to be had in a few months. Here are the 21 best as of now.
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Kevin Zeitler, G, Bengals
Zeitler could mark one of the rare instances where a young, talented guard hits free agency. The Bengals’ line struggled a bit this season, but Zeitler was consistent and good in both pass protection and run blocking. For a team like the Seahawks, overpaying to add Zeitler might be worth it. Russell Wilson probably thinks it would be.
USA TODAY SportsAaron Doster
Eddie Lacy, RB, Packers
Lacy is a huge question heading into free agency. The Packers aren’t likely to re-sign him, and it’s unclear how much a team would really trust him after back-to-back terrible seasons. If he can stay in shape and regain his lost quickness, he can be a great running back. It’s just not certain either of those things will happen. He did look stronger this year than last before suffering a season-ending foot injury.
Getty ImagesLeon Halip
Tony Jefferson, S, Cardinals
Jefferson burst onto the scene in 2016, recording 96 tackles, five passes defensed and two forced fumbles. He was an integral part of Arizona’s defense despite not getting nearly enough credit for his play. Jefferson flew somewhat under the radar nationally, but the world is about to become very familiar with him in free agency. He probably won’t make what Reshad Jones did ($7 million per year), but Jefferson will reach $6 million.
Nick Perry, OLB, Packers
Perry was mostly a role player for the Packers before this season, recording just 12.5 sacks in his first four years. In 2016, though, he was Green Bay's best pass rusher. Perry had 11 sacks and 52 tackles, both of which were career-highs. And that’s all while playing with a club on his hand late in the season. Considering he’s just 26 years old and coming off of a breakout year, a team will likely take a chance on him and pay him more than he probably has earned. But that’s what happens in free agency.
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Latavius Murray, RB, Raiders
The Raiders’ offense is built around Derek Carr and his playmaking receivers, but Murray quietly had a good season. In a shared backfield, Murray rushed for 788 yards while adding a career-high 264 receiving, totaling 12 touchdowns on the year. He’s not a top-level running back, but the Raiders would be foolish to let him get away. He’s a perfect complement to their high-powered offense and shiftier backup running backs.
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Terrelle Pryor, WR, Browns
Pryor had a breakout year in 2016, trash talk included, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for him. He proved to be the Browns’ No. 1 receiver, and they’ll have to pay him as such in March. The only thing left for Pryor to do is string together a second good season as a wide receiver after already completing the transition from quarterback this year.
Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY SportsScott Galvin
DeSean Jackson, WR, Redskins
Yes Jackson is still a priority free agent despite being undersized and 30 years old. His speed hasn’t gone anywhere as he’s gotten older, and it’s a huge reason he’ll still be a hot commodity in free agency. Jackson isn’t a typical No. 1 receiver, but as a secondary option who can take the top off of a defense, his impact is certainly felt. Eagles players have said he told them he’s returning to Philly, so that’s something to watch in March.
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Stephon Gilmore, CB, Bills
Gilmore has made it fairly clear that he wants to be paid a hefty amount of money and isn’t afraid to look elsewhere for it. The Bills have one solid corner entrenched already in Ronald Darby, but keeping the duo together would be huge – especially after the remarkable season they had two years ago. Top cornerbacks don’t often hit free agency, so expect Gilmore to fetch around $12 million per year.
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Dontari Poe, NT, Chiefs
Poe could be a big free agent, both literally and figuratively. He’s a massive, athletic presence on the interior of the defensive line, but his numbers have fallen off a bit in recent years. In turn, the Chiefs will likely choose to retain Eric Berry over Poe, considering how difficult it will be to re-sign both.
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Dont'a Hightower, OLB, Patriots
Part of the reason the Patriots traded both Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins in the past year is because Hightower is also a pending free agent. With Jones and Collins out of the mix, the Patriots can now afford to retain Hightower, along with a few others such as Martellus Bennett and Jabaal Sheard. Hightower is an elite inside linebacker – one that several teams would love to have. So much so that he could approach $9 to $10 million per year.
Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, Giants
Pierre-Paul has said he doesn’t want to sign another one-year deal, and he’s proved that he can be effective despite the damage to his right hand suffered in a fireworks accident. Pierre-Paul silenced all doubters this season, recording seven sacks and 53 tackles in just 12 games. He’s not on the top tier of pass rushers, but he’s right on the edge of it when healthy.
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Trumaine Johnson, CB, Rams
The Rams had a decision to make last offseason: Janoris Jenkins or Johnson. They chose Johnson by franchise tagging him, and while it wasn’t a complete mistake, he didn’t have nearly the season he had in 2015. After picking off seven passes two years ago, Johnson had just one interception this season. The tools are all there – size, speed, length – so he’s likely to be paid a good amount this offseason.
A.J. Bouye, CB, Texans
Bouye isn’t Josh Norman, but his career path is very similar. He came out of nowhere this season and performed like a true No. 1 cornerback for the Texans, much like the way Norman came on two seasons ago. As a result, a team is going to pony up a lot of cash for Bouye, and it will be well deserved. He has a great deal of potential and is a willing tackler, which is rare for most corners.
Melvin Ingram, OLB, Chargers
Good news for teams looking for a pass rusher: Ingram is a great one. The bad news? There’s little chance he’ll reach free agency. With Joey Bosa entrenched at defensive end, the Chargers have to keep Ingram around as that dynamic edge player to complement Bosa’s disruptiveness as a 3-4 DE. Ingram has 18.5 sacks in his last two seasons, which is a strong number after recording six in his first three years.
Getty ImagesSean M. Haffey
Kawann Short, DT, Panthers
Short didn’t get much attention this season due to the Panthers’ defensive struggles, but he’s a force on the interior of the line. He had six sacks (down from 11 last season) and 30 solo tackles, providing a lift against both the run and the pass. He’s not Aaron Donald, but Short is just a tier below.
Jamie Collins, LB, Browns
The Patriots traded Collins to the Browns during the season, partially because they knew he was due for a big payday. Considering the price Cleveland paid – a third-round pick – the Browns aren’t likely to let him hit free agency. He’ll be the team’s top priority this offseason, as he should be. Collins would pull in eight figures annually on the open market, and likely will get that from the cap-friendly Browns.
Alshon Jeffery, WR, Bears
Jeffery has concerns to address, from his suspension to his injury history, and he did little to help those issues this season. However, considering his size, athletic ability and sheer potential to be a Dez Bryant-type player, a team will give him a lucrative deal in free agency. He could probably use a fresh start with a good quarterback.
Chandler Jones, OLB, Cardinals
Jones was the centerpiece of a blockbuster deal last year that sent him from the Patriots to the Cardinals. It was a shocking trade but one that landed Arizona a premier pass rusher – one the Cardinals aren’t likely to let go of. He’ll net a deal worth eight figures per year.
Eric Berry, S, Chiefs
The Chiefs tried to get Berry locked up with an extension last offseason, but it simply didn’t work out. This offseason, it has to be a priority. There’s no guarantee he’ll choose to come back, though, after they were a bit reluctant to reward him 10 months ago. If Berry hits the open market, he’ll be the top defender available.
Kirk Cousins, QB, Redskins
Cousins is in an interesting situation because his numbers suggest he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the league, but they’re a bit inflated thanks to Washington’s offense. However, the Redskins will have no choice but to give Cousins a long-term deal – likely one that will make him the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL. Yes, seriously.
Le’Veon Bell, RB, Steelers
Bell isn’t going to hit the open market, as he’s expected to get the franchise tag if the Steelers can’t sign him long-term, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a potential free agent. If he were to somehow make it to free agency, he’d likely become the league’s highest-paid running back, especially with the probability that Adrian Peterson receives a new contract. Bell is among the two-best running backs in the game today, if not the very best.