Like every year, the early look at 2016 NFL free agency is a combination of good and bad news. The bad news first: Many of the top names on this list will never hit the market because of franchise/transition tags as well as the possibility of contract extensions with their current teams. The good news: There is still ample talent available for clubs hoping to upgrade their rosters. FOX Sports Senior NFL Writer Alex Marvez takes a look at the top 10 defensive players whose contracts are expiring after the 2015-16 season ends. His look at the top 10 offensive players can be found here.
Carolina cornerback Josh Norman
Franchise/transition tag possibility without contract extension: Extremely high. ... The Panthers reportedly offered Norman a contract extension worth $7 million annually entering the 2015 season. Norman declined the offer thinking he was worth more, which is a decision about to pay huge dividends. Norman is now considered an elite-level cornerback who is expecting a contract to reflect such standing. If the Panthers don’t reach Norman’s financial demands, he is line for a franchise tag projected in the $14-million range for the 2016 season.
TNS via Getty ImagesCharlotte Observer
Denver outside linebacker Von Miller
Franchise/transition tag possibility without contract extension: High. ... Rebounding from an NFL drug suspension and serious knee injury, Miller has resumed his place among the league’s top pass rushers. The tricky part for the Broncos will be trying to re-sign Miller and quarterback Brock Osweiler, who also is set to become an unrestricted free agent. If a deal can be struck with one of them, Denver can use the franchise tag on the other.
New York Jets defensive end Mo Wilkerson
Franchise/transition tag possibility without contract extension: High. ... Even though they chose Leonard Williams with the No. 6 overall pick in last year’s draft, the Jets aren’t about to let one of the top defensive ends walk out the door even if means having to use a franchise tag in the $16 million range on Wilkerson for the 2016 season.
Leon Halip/Getty Images
Miami defensive end Olivier Vernon
Franchise/transition tag possibility without contract extension: High. ... The Dolphins made three big contract moves last offseason when signing Ndamukong Suh in free agency and extending the deals of quarterback Ryan Tannehill and center Mike Pouncey. The next big one is retaining Vernon, who led Miami with 7.5 sacks after top pass rusher Cameron Wake went down at midseason with a torn Achilles tendon.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY SportsKim Klement
Kansas City safety Eric Berry
Franchise/transition tag possibility without contract extension: High. ... Berry has gradually regained the form that made him one of the NFL’s top safeties before being diagnosed in December 2014 with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The franchise tag for a safety ($11 million range) is the cheapest of any defensive position, which makes using it a viable option if Kansas City can’t reach agreement on a new contract.
Getty ImagesJoe Robbins
Denver defensive end Malik Jackson
Franchise/transition tag possibility without contract extension: Low. ... Like fellow 3-4 end Jaye Howard in Kansas City, Jackson is an under-the-radar standout at his position with the hard-to-find combination of pass-rush and run-stuffing skills. Denver’s recent re-signing of end Derek Wolfe could be an indication that the Broncos are prepared to lose Jackson in free agency, especially with keeping outside linebacker Von Miller a higher priority.
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY SporIsaiah J. Downing
Seattle outside linebacker Bruce Irvin
Franchise/transition tag possibility without contract extension: Possible. ... Irvin is comfortable enough in Seattle that he told Seahawks media earlier this week that he would take '$3 million to $5 million' less than market value over the length of a long-term contract extension. If a deal can’t be crafted, Irvin won’t be lacking suitors in need of a pass-rush specialist. Among the teams in that boat are Jacksonville and Atlanta, both of which are coached by two of his former Seahawks defensive coordinators in Gus Bradley and Dan Quinn respectively.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY SportsMatthew Emmons
Los Angeles Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson
Franchise/transition tag possibility without contract extension: Possible. ... The crop of quality young cornerbacks heading toward free agency is thin, which will help the stock of both Johnson and fellow Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins. At 6-foot-2, Johnson is four inches taller than Jenkins. Johnson also had seven interceptions in 2015 compared to Jenkins’ three. Jenkins, though, also enjoyed his best season with 15 passes defensed. Plus, Jenkins is considered by some scouts as more of a 'shutdown' corner than Johnson. No matter which player the Rams have graded higher, Los Angeles will suffer a defensive setback if neither player is kept in the fold.
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY SportsJasen Vinlove
New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul
Franchise/transition tag possibility without contract extension: Extremely low. ... It’s cost-prohibitive for the Giants to use the franchise tag on Pierre-Paul for a second straight season – not that the franchise would have any interest after his 2015 season was marred by a severe hand injury suffered in a fireworks accident. The fact JPP even returned to play without a left index finger and other damage was remarkable in itself. But he also wasn’t the same caliber defender with only one sack and grip issues causing missed tackles. Pierre-Paul recently underwent another hand surgery that may help rectify the problem, but buyer beware to any team that signs JPP and expects the same pre-mishap productivity.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
San Diego safety Eric Weddle
Franchise/transition tag possibility without contract extension: Extremely low. ... The relationship between Weddle and the Chargers gradually disintegrated after he was unable to reach agreement on a contract extension heading into the final year of his deal. Weddle wants out after nine seasons in San Diego and the Chargers appear ready to comply. 'He’s stated he’s ready to move on,' general manager Tom Telesco told Chargers media earlier this month. 'For all parties involved, that’s probably (for) the best.'