This year’s free agency class is littered with talent. Unfortunately, as is the case most offseasons, many of the top names will either be franchise-tagged or sign extensions with their respective teams. That doesn’t mean plenty of big names won’t be on the move come March when free agency begins, though.
Outside of a few obvious names, many of the top free agents could be in for a change of scenery, with a handful of teams boasting a great deal of cap space. That should lead to a number of players to land lucrative deals with the likes of Kirk Cousins potentially becoming the highest-paid quarterback in the league.
Will that be in Washington, or somewhere else? Here’s our prediction for Cousins, as well as the other 20 best free agents.
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Le’Veon Bell, RB: Steelers
The Steelers aren’t going to let Le’Veon Bell, their best player in 2016, hit the open market. They’ve made that apparent, insinuating that he’ll get the franchise tag if a long-term deal isn’t reached. He’s not going anywhere.
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Kirk Cousins, QB: Redskins
The Redskins don’t have many options at quarterback outside of Kirk Cousins, considering they won’t be able to draft one of the top prospects at 17. As a result, they’ll franchise tag him if they can’t agree on an extension that will likely make him the NFL’s highest paid quarterback.
Eric Berry, S: Chiefs
The Chiefs opted not to sign Eric Berry to an extension last offseason, choosing to instead franchise tag him. They can’t miss that opportunity this time around after he put together an All-Pro season. Berry has said he won’t play on the tag again, which makes a long-term deal imperative. They’ll get it done.
Chandler Jones, OLB: Cardinals
The Cardinals just traded for Chandler Jones last offseason, and they won’t let him get away as a one-year rental. Bruce Arians flat-out said they’ll franchise tag him if he’s not signed to an extension, so he’s staying put.
Alshon Jeffery, WR: Eagles
Here’s where things get interesting. Alshon Jeffery isn’t likely to return to the Bears, making him arguably the prized free agent on the market. The Eagles learned the hard way what can happen when a young quarterback doesn’t have talent around him, and they’ll fix that this offseason. The Titans and Chargers could also be landing spots, but Philly is ideal.
Kawann Short, DT: Panthers
Ron Rivera said the Panthers would “probably” slap the franchise tag on Kawann Short, though as we saw with Josh Norman last year, that doesn’t guarantee he’ll return. The two sides will work on a long-term deal, but if one isn’t agreed upon, Short will be on the tag. He’s an impact player for Carolina.
Melvin Ingram, OLB: Colts
Melvin Ingram is an interesting one because the franchise tag is there for the Chargers to use if they want to. It’s just unclear if they will. He’s a premier pass rusher, but not to the level that Chandler Jones is. A team like the Colts will come calling and throw a great deal of money at him, prying him from Los Angeles. The Ravens and Steelers could do the same.
A.J. Bouye, CB: Browns
Bill O’Brien made it known he wants A.J. Bouye back, and why wouldn’t he?
“Free agency's tough and I can tell you that we want A.J. Bouye back. I mean, the guy is one of us, you know what I mean?” he said.
The only problem is that he’s sure to be the top cornerback on the market, and the Browns have about $106 million in cap space to throw around. The Texans are going to get outbid for their coveted free agent and be forced to let him walk.
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Trumaine Johnson, CB: Bears
The Rams franchise-tagged Trumaine Johnson last offseason, making it difficult for them to do so again this year. They would love to have him back, but they have several other needs that have to be addressed, namely re-signing T.J. McDonald. The Bears have Kyle Fuller and Tracy Porter, but other than that, their secondary is bad. Johnson would solve a lot of problems.
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Jason Pierre-Paul, DE: Lions
The Giants are reportedly going to make a strong push to re-sign JPP this week, but after doling out a great deal of money on the defense last offseason, it may not be in the cards. Instead, the Lions, who have a clear need at defensive end next to Ziggy Ansah, will make him a lucrative offer to pull him from New York. The Falcons and a team like the Jaguars (led by Tom Coughlin) could do the same.
Dont'a Hightower, LB: Patriots
The Patriots traded Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins for this exact reason: So they could have room to re-sign Dont’a Hightower. They’ll make that happen, particularly with all the cap space they’ve built up. He’ll be their top priority this offseason, despite having several other key free agents.
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Dontari Poe, NT: Raiders
The Raiders were not good against the run this season, ranking 23rd in the NFL. Dontari Poe is a good fit for their defense, and not only will he clog up running lanes, but he has the ability to generate pressure from the interior of the defensive line. They have plenty of cap space to bring Poe in, too.
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Stephon Gilmore, CB: Titans
Stephon Gilmore has made it clear he’s fine with leaving Buffalo, which is likely to happen next month. The Titans need playmakers in the secondary after ranking 30th in passing yards allowed last season. Gilmore is a physical player on the edge who can match up with bigger receivers, making him a good fit in Tennessee.
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DeSean Jackson, WR: Rams
The Rams already have one small, speedy receiver in Tavon Austin, but he’s a completely different player than DeSean Jackson. He typically runs underneath routes and catches screens, while Jackson can blow the top off of a defense. He could follow Sean McVay to the West Coast and join the Rams, especially if they let Kenny Britt go.
Terrelle Pryor, WR: Browns
The Browns have already taken care of Jamie Collins, leaving Terrelle Pryor as their next priority. He’s likely to be re-signed to a long-term deal with the franchise tag being a fallback option. The Browns simply have too much cap space to let their best offensive weapon walk.
Latavius Murray, RB: Giants
The Giants let Rashad Jennings go this week, opening up a hole at running back. Paul Perkins could take his place as the top back, but Ben McAdoo was reluctant to hand him the keys for most of the season. Latavius Murray is a similar player to DeMarco Murray and could be a good fit in New York.
Nick Perry, OLB: Packers
Nick Perry had a breakout season in 2016, leading the league in sacks for part of the year. Considering his inconsistency in the NFL, he’s not going to command top dollar. As a result, the Packers will do what they typically do and retain their own free agents before dipping their feet in the pool of outside players. Don’t be surprised if it’s a short bridge contract before signing him long-term – a prove-it deal of sorts.
Tony Jefferson, S: Buccaneers
Tony Jefferson somehow stayed in Arizona last offseason after the Cardinals placed a low tender on the safety. No teams came calling to match the offer, leading him to remain with the Cardinals. After a terrific 2016 season, he’ll be much more of a priority. The Buccaneers have a clear need at safety, and Jefferson is exactly the rangy ball hawk they could use.
LeGarrette Blount, RB: Patriots
LeGarrette Blount is at the point of his career where he’s not going to be a highly sought-after free agent, considering he’s on the wrong side of 30. As a result, the Patriots will likely be able to woo him to stay in New England on a relatively cheap, incentive-laden deal, keeping him around for yet another Super Bowl run.
Kevin Zeitler, OG: Jaguars
Luke Joeckel is probably out in Jacksonville, leaving a hole at guard for the Jaguars. With all the cap space they have, and the need to protect Blake Bortles, Kevin Zeitler is an ideal fit. He can be a long-term option for Jacksonville as it attempts to rebuild its offensive line. The Bengals, with Dre Kirkpatrick and Andrew Whitworth also free agents, may not be able to pony up the cash to keep Zeitler.
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Andrew Whitworth, LT: Vikings
Andrew Whitworth could solve a lot of problems for a lot of teams needing a left tackle, like the Giants, Broncos and Jets. The Vikings, however, need a left tackle more than any of those teams. Matt Kalil is likely to move on, opening a spot on the left side of the line for Whitworth. Head coach Mike Zimmer spent time with Whitworth in Cincinnati, so there’s a connection already.