Every spring, people wait with anticipation to see how NFL free agency shakes out, and there are usually some big names. The 2017 offseason was a bit disappointing however in terms of star power, as the largest contracts went to the likes of A.J. Bouye, Stephon Gilmore, Kevin Zeitler and Calais Campbell. While they’re all very good players, they didn’t generate a lot of buzz that previous free agent classes have.
The 2018 free agent class, however, appears to be one of epic proportions. There are big names at seemingly every position, and even some future Hall of Fame members that are due for massive paydays once the 2017 season comes to an end. Even though these players are unrestricted free agents, not all of them will make it to the next calendar year without a contract extension.
But which players will be getting those coveted extensions either during training camp or the regular season, and which ones will have their agents working overtime to field calls from the franchises around the league? Let’s take a look into the crystal ball and find eight potential free agents that will be staying put, and seven that will likely sign with other teams.
15 Staying - Le’Veon Bell
Heading into the 2017 season, Le’Veon Bell will be the highest paid running back by a longshot after a one year deal to keep him in Pittsburgh. Bell will be making $12.1 million, while LeSean McCoy is second at $8 million. In his first four seasons, Bell has tallied more than 6,000 yards from scrimmage despite only playing in three seasons worth of games. Bell is a huge part of the Steelers offense, and there’s no way they can let him walk.
That’s especially true if Ben Roethlisberger decides to retire after the 2017 season, as Pittsburgh will need all the help they can get. Bell and Antonio Brown play a huge part of the offense, and a retiring Roethlisberger would clear up more than enough room to get a rookie quarterback (or cheap free agent veteran) and keep both the running back and wide receiver happy.
14 Leaving - Teddy Bridgewater
The Vikings are approaching an interesting crossroads of their franchise, as they have two solid quarterbacks on contract for 2017, but not after the season ends. Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford are those two quarterbacks, so it seems that Bridgewater is the odd man out because of his severe knee injury suffered before the 2016 season.
Though the Vikings would be able to bring him back for fairly cheap, it’s hard to think that Bridgewater won’t get offered more money from outside despite being a huge question mark. Minnesota would like to do some fan service by signing Bridgewater and helping him create one of the best comeback stories, but it might not make business sense. It could be a move that comes back to haunt the Vikings, though it’s one they probably have to make.
13 Staying - Sam Bradford
With that said, the Vikings don’t want to leave themselves completely exposed without a quarterback. The team has a ton of salary cap room in 2018, so getting some of their key pieces like Sam Bradford back will be important. Bradford has been up and down for most of his career (especially injury wise), but is definitely more than serviceable. Last season, Bradford threw for 3,877 yards, 20 touchdowns and just five interceptions.
Those numbers definitely warrant some big money, and Bradford is making $18 million in the 2017 season. Bradford’s market value is estimated to be about $23.5 million per year, and at only 29 years old, the Vikings could certainly give him an extension with their cap room. It’s a tough decision to make for the Vikings, though there are some teams that would like to be in the predicament of having two good quarterbacks.
12 Leaving - Jimmy Garoppolo
Many people that follow the Patriots seem pretty adamant that Jimmy Garoppolo is the future of the franchise after Tom Brady retires. The only problem is, it doesn’t look like Tom Brady will retire anytime soon despite being 40 years old, and Garoppolo can only wait for so long. New England spent all offseason denying both trade rumors and trade proposals, hanging onto Garoppolo for the 2017 season.
If he makes it to free agency, there’s no doubt that teams will be lining up to offer Garoppolo a lot more money than the Patriots will offer. The opportunity to be a franchise quarterback starting in 2018 will be too much for Garoppolo to ignore, as he’ll get away from the comfort zone of being coached by Bill Belichick and try to forge his own path.
11 Staying - Matthew Stafford
After the Detroit Lions finished the 2008 season with an 0-16 record, they’ve finally found some stability at the quarterback position with Matthew Stafford. Stafford is very young for his draft class (he won’t be 30 until after the 2017 season), and he’s amassed a record of 34-30 in the past four years, and while that might not seem great, that’s a significant improvement for the Lions compared to what they had in the previous decade.
The Lions have more salary cap space than any other team in the 2018 season, meaning that they can throw a ton of money at their quarterback to keep him in town. The franchise has certainly been willing to hang onto Stafford, the only thing that could prevent his return is Stafford’s desire to play elsewhere. After Calvin Johnson saying that he no longer wanted to play in Detroit and retiring early, you can’t rule anything out, but expect Stafford to stick around for at least five more years.
10 Leaving - Ezekiel Ansah
Ezekiel Ansah (or Ziggy if you prefer) was solid for his first two seasons, and then posted a big fourth year with 14.5 sacks. Ansah took a huge step back in 2016, missing three games and only collecting 21 tackles and two sacks. With his contract season coming up, Ansah can make himself a lot of money by having a big 2017 season, but he’ll still get paid even if he has a mediocre year.
Expect Ansah to be around the eight sack mark in 2017, which wouldn’t really warrant a massive contract. Though the Lions would have enough room in the salary cap to bring him back, other teams would be offering too much money for the pass rusher. With other players at the position becoming available and the Lions having cap room, they won’t overpay for Ansah unless he has a season like he did in 2015.
9 Staying - Larry Fitzgerald
At this point, it’s really hard to imagine Larry Fitzgerald in anything but an Arizona Cardinals jersey. Before the 2016 season, Fitzgerald signed an extension throughout the 2017 season, but has yet to extend it once again. Despite being in his mid 30’s, Fitzgerald hasn’t showed many signs of slowing down as he has gone over 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons, collecting 15 touchdowns.
Both Fitzgerald and quarterback Carson Palmer will be free agents, but the team would certainly be more interested in signing their franchise receiver. Though a contract for Fitzgerald would probably only be for one more season, expect him to be back in 2018. The only thing that might drag Fitzgerald away is an opportunity at winning a championship, so a good run by the Cardinals would ensure Fitzgerald’s return in 2018.
8 Leaving - Jimmy Graham
The Seahawks will have some decisions to make beyond the 2017 season as they have $21.3 million in cap space. While that sounds like a lot, they have less to work with than teams like the Texans and 49ers, who have a lot more players signed for next season. Seattle has just 49 players under contract, so they won’t be able to get all the big money players that they want. Now on the wrong side of 30, Jimmy Graham could be let go, as he’s making $10 million in 2017.
Graham will likely want that type of money on a new contract, but it’s hard to see the Seahawks being able to offer that to Graham. He’s a pretty big part of the offense, but the team’s offense was doing fine before his arrival, and Seattle really needs to concentrate on finding offensive line talent. Graham is certainly more known for his route running than his blocking, so other teams could provide a better fit for Graham.
7 Staying - Kam Chancellor
Seattle won’t be able to retain everybody that they want, but they can still bring back some talent. Kam Chancellor has been the center of trade rumors for a couple of years now, but Seattle has been very intent on keeping the strong safety for years to come. Chancellor is only making $7 million in 2017 despite many saying that he’s the best safety in the league, so he’ll be asking for a big raise.
Seeing how vital Chancellor is for the Seahawks defense, he’s not as expendable as Jimmy Graham. Chancellor should be able to command close to $10 million per year over the next three seasons, and the Seahawks are already working on signing him to an extension. It will come down to how much Chancellor wants to stay, but the fit so far has been beneficial for both sides.
6 Leaving - Alshon Jeffery
The Eagles certainly appear to be in win-now mode as their 2018 salary total is well over the projected cap. Philadelphia is trying to get to the Super Bowl now with a wide range of talent before Carson Wentz comes off of his rookie contract and starts costing the team a lot of money. With that said, they’ll have to watch as some of their free agents walk after the 2017 season, which could include the one-year rental of Alshon Jeffery.
Jeffery was given $9.5 million for the season, and you can expect him to have a huge year to land a long term deal elsewhere. Both Jeffery and Jordan Matthews will be free agents, and the younger Matthews has been invaluable in the slot. They won’t be able to keep both it seems, so expect Matthews to stick around while Jeffery walks.
5 Staying - Devonta Freeman
Throughout the first three seasons of his career, Devonta Freeman has made to Pro Bowl teams, putting up more than 3,000 scrimmage yards in the past two years. Freeman is a huge part of the Falcons offense right now, and with as close as the franchise came to winning their first Super Bowl last season, they would like to keep it intact for as long as possible.
Right now, Freeman is tremendously underpaid as he’s making $676,000, so it will take a lot to keep him happy. The market value has Freeman making more than $10 million per year. Atlanta will have to change some salaries around so that they can keep Freeman, but every indication is that they’re close to signing Freeman to an extension. Freeman even said he’s going to be “blessed” with a new deal from the team.
4 Leaving - DeAndre Hopkins
After 2015, DeAndre Hopkins was considered one of the best wide receivers in the league when he posted 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns. With Brock Osweiler under center and the addition of Will Fuller in the first round, though, Hopkins’s stats in 2016 took a step back as he had 954 yards and just four touchdowns. With some inconsistencies at the quarterback position, teams know that Hopkins can be a huge part of an offense with someone more stable.
The Texans have a solid amount of cap room in 2018, but Hopkins will likely be offered more than $15 million per year by another team that would be willing to give him a very long contract. Hopkins is only 25 years old during the 2017 season, so he has a lot of prime years left in his career.
3 Staying - Tyler Eifert
No player has been a more dependable target in the red zone over the past couple of seasons than Tyler Eifert has been for the Bengals. Eifert has missed 11 games over the past two years, but that hasn’t stopped him from collecting 18 touchdowns in that time span. Eifert’s injury concerns will certainly play into his next contract, but expect that contract to be with the Bengals once again.
Eifert will be making just over $2 million on the last year of his rookie contract, and the market value says that he’ll be worth more than $9 million per year. Teams will be willing to overlook his injury history for a target like that, but they probably won’t get the chance. Most of the Bengals big names are signed beyond 2017, and they still have nearly $20 million in cap room, which should be plenty to keep Eifert in town.
2 Leaving - Drew Brees
No player that’s entering free agency after the 2017 season is getting paid more than Drew Brees, whose contract is worth $24.25 million. The Saints have been pushing Brees’s contract back for years now, and it has put them into a very bad salary cap situation. That’s a clear sign that they’re willing to mortgage their future to try and get Brees one more ring, but it’s resulted in three consecutive 7-9 seasons.
Brees hasn’t slowed down much at 38 years old, posting 5,208 yards and 37 touchdowns in 2016, which was actually an improvement on the previous two seasons. The only way the Saints can even come close to getting out of cap hell, though, is by letting him go. With $18 million in dead money already counting against the team in 2018 because of Brees, whatever contract they could give him would add on to that. Because of that, Brees will likely end his career with a short (yet large) contract in an attempt to get one more Super Bowl run.
1 Staying - Kirk Cousins
The Redskins have placed the franchise tag on Kirk Cousins for both the 2016 and 2017 seasons to make sure that he could be the franchise quarterback that the team has struggled to land for decades. Cousins has certainly shown he can be the man in Washington, posting a career high 4,917 passing yards with 25 touchdowns and 12 interceptions last season, and has brought the Redskins two consecutive winning seasons for the first time in more than 20 years.
While there are rumors that the Redskins still aren’t convinced that Cousins is the long term solution, the franchise will keep him around beyond 2017. Whether that means making Cousins the highest paid quarterback in the league (giving him a contract higher than Derek Carr’s) or even franchising him once again in 2018 for a massive amount, Dan Snyder won’t let Cousins walk just yet.