With the end of the regular season just a few days away, the offseason is quickly approaching. That means teams will have to begin thinking about who they’re going to re-sign, who they’re going to let walk and which players are worthy of the franchise tag.
Every team has a list of free agents-to-be, but they won’t be able to keep them all, of course. Good players will hit the market while the best ones will be retained by their current teams – or at least they should be.
These 32 players should be top priorities for their respective teams, making them must-signs in the upcoming offseason.
Arizona Cardinals: Chandler Jones, OLB
The Cardinals will have a difficult decision to make this offseason with their free agents. Jones has had a nice first season in Arizona, but safety Tony Jefferson has been one of the best at his position. Considering their depth in the secondary, though, Jones is the player they must re-sign. He’s a perennial double-digit sack guy and pairs well with Markus Golden at outside linebacker. He won’t be cheap, but after trading for him last offseason, retaining him is a must.
Atlanta Falcons: Patrick DiMarco, FB
Not every team utilizes fullbacks often, but the Falcons do. DiMarco is an integral part of Atlanta’s offense, doing a great job lead-blocking for Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. The Falcons don’t have a long list of players who are high priorities to re-sign, but DiMarco has suddenly topped the list due to recent extensions given to Robert Alford and Ryan Schraeder.
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Baltimore Ravens: Brandon Williams, NT
The Ravens have the second-best run defense in the NFL, and a big part of that has been the play of Williams. The 27-year-old nose tackle will be a free agent, and while the Ravens may not want to re-sign him to a lucrative contract, they should. He’s an anchor on the defensive line and Baltimore probably doesn’t have a player of his caliber ready to step into his role.
Buffalo Bills: Stephon Gilmore, CB
Elite cornerbacks are difficult to come by in the NFL, and when a team finds one, it has to keep him. Gilmore may not be in that “elite” tier just yet, but he’s right on the border – despite having a down 2016 season. Gilmore will command top money, but the Bills would be smart to keep him in Buffalo. Having two good cover corners will be a nice start for the team’s next head coach, and that’s what the Bills will have if Gilmore re-signs.
USA TODAY SporTimothy T. Ludwig
Carolina Panthers: Kawann Short, DT
Prior to this season, re-signing Short was an absolute must for the Panthers. No ifs, ands or buts about it, they had to sign him long-term. He’s had a rough 2016, making less of an impact than he did last season, but he’d still be a smart player to bring back on a new deal. Giving him Marcell Dareus-type money might not be the best move, but he can still be an impact player for the Panthers.
Chicago Bears: Alshon Jeffery, WR
Jeffery had a terrible year. He struggled on the field, and when he wasn’t out there with his teammates, he was serving a four-game suspension or battling an injury. He did nothing to prove he’s one of the best receivers in the league, and that might actually be a good thing for Chicago. Now, his price will be much lower than it would have been if he put up 1,400 yards and 10 touchdowns. The Bears will still need to protect themselves with a prove-it contract, but giving him a new deal wouldn’t be the best thing for a team in need of weapons.
Cincinnati Bengals: LT Andrew Whitworth
The Bengals had issues on the offensive line, taking a step backward after a stellar 2015 season. Whitworth isn’t the best left tackle in the NFL, but he is toward the top. And with the Bengals having no viable replacement for him, signing the veteran to a short-term – possibly one-year – deal would be smart. They need to protect Andy Dalton, and Whitworth is the best man for the job.
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Cleveland Browns: Jamie Collins, OLB
Signing receiver Terrelle Pryor is also a must after his breakout season, but Collins has to be priority No. 1. The Browns traded a third-round pick to acquire him, and they didn’t do so for a half-year rental. He’ll be expensive, but the Browns have the most cap space in the NFL next year. Letting him walk after trading a third-round pick would be disastrous, especially after the great stint he had in Cleveland this year.
Dallas Cowboys: Morris Claiborne, CB
The Cowboys have a bunch of free agents they’d like to re-sign, but one of them stands out among the rest: Morris Claiborne. Prior to his crushing injury, Claiborne was playing like a top-15 cornerback. He remained healthy for the first half of the year and appeared to be overcoming the debilitating injuries he’s battled in the past. The Cowboys need to retain him and pair him with Orlando Scandrick and Anthony Brown with the possibility that Brandon Carr is cut due to his expensive contract. Terrance Williams, Ronald Leary and Barry Church are also candidates to be re-signed.
Denver Broncos: Russell Okung, LT
Okung isn’t technically a free agent, but the Broncos have a big decision to make regarding his future. He has a team option in March that, if picked up, will kick in $19.5 million in additional guaranteed money. If not, the Broncos can move on from him. Okung has had a rough 2016 season, but at least he’s stayed healthy and played every game thus far. There may not be a better option out there.
Detroit Lions: Riley Reiff, OT
Reiff is a solid right tackle for the Lions, but a team may view him as a left tackle in free agency. If that’s the case, his price could be out of Detroit’s range. However, the Lions would be smart to extend him and keep at least one of the two pieces on the right side of the line with Larry Warford’s contract also expiring.
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Green Bay Packers: T.J. Lang, OG
The Packers have had a terrific season on the offensive line, doing a great job protecting Aaron Rodgers in the pocket. Lang earned his first Pro Bowl nod, and the Packers will need to reward him with a contract extension. Ted Thompson doesn’t typically let his home-grown players get away, and the 29-year-old Lang will continue that trend.
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Houston Texans: A.J. Bouye, CB
Few players in the NFL had the breakout year Bouye had in 2016. The slot corner played fantastic for the Texans, filling in well for Kevin Johnson when he went down with the injury. Bouye is going to be a hot commodity on the open market if he gets there, but the Texans can’t afford to let that happen. According to Pro Football Focus, he has the fourth-highest grade among cornerbacks this season, which is impressive.
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Indianapolis Colts: Erik Walden, OLB
Walden played extremely well this season, proving to be the Colts’ most consistent pass rusher with 10 sacks. Robert Mathis is getting up in age and isn’t the playmaker he once was, so retaining Walden to build younger pieces around will be key. The Colts can’t afford to let their top pass rusher walk.
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Jacksonville Jaguars: Prince Amukamara, CB
Amukamara showed that he can remain relatively healthy this season, missing just two games early on. Though he doesn’t have an interception, he’s had a good season in Jacksonville and has earned another contract. The Jaguars have a ton of cap space and not a lot of high-priority free agents, so Amukamara is the obvious choice here. He and Jalen Ramsey can be a good duo in the secondary.
Kansas City Chiefs: Eric Berry, FS
This is arguably the most obvious choice on the list. Berry is a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate after winning comeback player a year ago. He’s one of the three or four-best safeties in the NFL today, and the Chiefs can’t afford to let him get away – especially after all he has been through with them. It’s time for Kansas City to reward him with the lucrative contract he deserved to get last offseason.
Los Angeles Rams: Trumaine Johnson, CB
The Rams opted to keep Johnson over Janoris Jenkins last offseason, and it wasn’t a bad decision. Johnson is a long cornerback with terrific ball skills, one who can turn into a top guy at his position. Kenny Britt and Dominique Easley would also be smart re-signings, but it’s Johnson who deserves that long-term deal.
Miami Dolphins: Kiko Alonso, LB
Alonso finally stayed relatively healthy for most of the season, playing 14 of 15 games thus far. He’s had 110 tackles and two interceptions, proving he can play at the level he once did as a breakout rookie in 2013. Considering his injury history, the Dolphins won’t have to break the bank to retain him, and they have plenty of cap space to fit him in. With him, Ndamukong Suh and Reshad Jones, the Dolphins have the middle of their defense set.
Minnesota Vikings: Adam Thielen, WR
Thielen has been one of the best stories in the NFL this season. The former Division II player has blossomed in Minnesota’s offense this year, approaching the first 1,000-yard season of his career after coming into 2016 with just 281 receiving yards combined. He’s been a reliable big-play threat for the Vikings, outplaying even Stefon Diggs for the most part.
New England Patriots: Dont'a Hightower, LB
This decision would have been much more difficult if the Patriots hadn't traded Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins. Now you can see why they did, though, considering those two players are other teams’ must-sign free agents. Hightower is an elite middle linebacker, one who elevates the play of the entire defense. The Patriots won’t move on from a third stud defender, so he’ll be back in 2017.
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New Orleans Saints: Nick Fairley, DT
Fairley signed a prove-it deal in New Orleans, and he did just that. The team shouldn’t break the bank to sign him long-term, but he can be a good building block in the middle of a defense that’s struggled to find playmakers in recent years.
New York Giants: Jason Pierre-Paul, DE
There were plenty of questions about Pierre-Paul entering this season, and he answered all of them with a terrific year. He absolutely deserves a long-term extension after proving the hand he injured in a fireworks accident is a non-issue. He’ll finish the year with seven sacks, which is a good number for a guy who was relatively ineffective in 2015. Keeping Johnathan Hankins is also key for the Giants.
New York Jets: Brian Winters, OG
The Jets don’t have many key free agents this year, but they’re certainly going to do some shuffling with high-priced veterans like Brandon Marshall and Darrelle Revis struggling. That’ll allow them to keep Winters, who was one of their few bright spots this season. He can help alleviate concerns on the offensive line surrounding Ryan Clady and Nick Mangold.
Oakland Raiders: Latavius Murray, RB
The Raiders are surprisingly one of the best rushing teams in the NFL this season after struggling in that department a year ago. Murray has had a lot to do with that, and though he’s been a cheap option for the Raiders, he’s going to get more expensive this offseason. He deserves it, too. Murray can be an every-down back and a good complement to Oakland’s dynamic aerial attack.
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Philadelphia Eagles: Nolan Carroll, CB
The Eagles have done a good job of locking up their own players with in-season contracts, so there aren’t too many free agents set to hit the market this year. However, Carroll has played well enough to earn an extension – or at least a short-term one. He’s played every game and has 11 passes defensed with one interception. In a secondary that’s undergone some shuffling, he’s remained consistent.
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Pittsburgh Steelers: Le’Veon Bell, RB
The Steelers are not going to let Bell walk in free agency. That’s one of the biggest certainties entering the offseason, not just for the Steelers but for the entire NFL. Look for him to be paid like one of the top running backs in the league. There simply isn’t another player that warrants consideration for Pittsburgh at this spot.
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San Diego Chargers: Melvin Ingram, OLB
Ingram followed up a great 2015 season with another solid campaign in 2016, recording eight sacks and four forced fumbles. He’s a budding star as an edge rusher and deserves every dollar he makes this offseason. The Chargers simply can’t afford to let him get away, especially with the issues they’ve had on defense this season. He and Joey Bosa at least give them some stability in the front seven.
San Francisco 49ers: Jeremy Kerley, WR
The 49ers have a litany of free agents next year, none of whom would be deemed “must-sign.” However Kerley has been a pleasant surprise. On a team that lacks weapons on the outside, Kerley has been a reliable target for Colin Kaepernick. They can’t go into 2017 with the unit they had this season, but Kerley should be retained.
Seattle Seahawks: DeShawn Shead, CB
The Legion of Boom isn’t nearly as daunting as it once was, namely because pieces have been lost. Shead has received high praise from his teammates in the past, and though he’s not the best cornerback in the world, he does have value. He’s knocked down 14 passes and picked off one in 14 games this season, which are decent numbers. He’s also not afraid to tackle, which is a must in Seattle (80 tackles).
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Tampa Bay Buccaneers: William Gholston, DE
Gholston is a good young pass rusher for the Buccaneers, who don’t have any real standout free agents this offseason. He should be their top priority, however, and he almost certainly will be. Gholston is solid against both the run and when rushing quarterbacks.
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Tennessee Titans: Sean Spence, LB
Spence isn’t the most athletic or rangy linebacker, but the Titans are thin at the position and letting him go in free agency wouldn’t help that cause. Tennessee can likely re-sign the linebacker for fairly cheap and then build around him in the offseason with a boatload of draft picks on the way.
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Washington Redskins: Kirk Cousins, QB
Cousins will be one of the most difficult players to sort out this offseason. Is he worth top money? Or is he just a marginal quarterback who will be overpaid based on need and desperation? Regardless of which is true, Cousins is going to get paid in the next few months, and it’s likely to be by the Redskins. At least, it should be. They don’t have any better options, and it’s not as if they’ll be picking in the top five. Cousins is their best option.