The 2017 NFL free agency period may have just finished up, but it's never too late to start looking ahead to next offseason, and projecting where the top names on the market are going to fall. Now that the annual draft has been completed as well, we have a good idea of what the general rosters are going to look like following the conclusion of the upcoming season. With some well-applied foresight, we can begin to determine where the next free agent class is going to sign. As usual, there will be some surprises, along with some teams willing to pony up the money to bring back one of their best players.
Of course, there is no possible way to accurately ensure that these projections are accurate, one year in advance. Now that each NFL roster is more or less set for this season, however, we now have some context to use for these free agency estimations. Let's see which NFL stars are going to be jumping ship to another team in 2018 via the open market, and which ones are going to return to their stomping grounds for at least one more year.
Ranked below are the top 15 NFL free agents of 2018, and where they might sign.
15 Vontae Davis: New York Jets
There's no denying that the Jets are a mess right now, and they have a long way to go before getting back into contention in the AFC. However, the strongest part of their roster is their defensive line. Davis is one of the top cornerback names on the market for 2018, and the Jets will have the capital to acquire him. Doing so would help bolster the back end of their defense, in an attempt to construct a formidable unit in 2018.
The Colts could resign him, but they have other parts of their team to address, and at his age, Davis may end up being a cap casualty. All in all, he has a good chance of hitting the open market, and he should be a prime target for the Jets to address their weak secondary.
14 Drew Brees: New Orleans Saints
This is a tricky one. Brees is 38-years-old, and certainly on the final leg of his career at this point. Most quarterbacks in his situation would have shown clear signs of regression. That hasn't happened with Brees, however, and he's still playing at a really high level for someone his age. It isn't inconceivable that he could play another two or three seasons consistently, and would therefore be worth a contract extension from New Orleans.
And really, the Saints don't have any other choice if they want to remain competitive. The Brees-led offense is the one thing that maintains them in some kind of contention every year. Their defense is one of the worst in the league, and they need an elite quarterback to offset that unit. A two-year contract could be in line for Brees, as he finishes out his legendary career in New Orleans.
13 T.J. Ward: Tennessee Titans
The Titans are quietly becoming one of the better young teams in the league. They've addressed many positions over the past couple of years, and Marcus Mariota is showing himself to be the franchise quarterback that he was slated to be coming out of Oregon. Things are generally looking up in Tennessee.
One of their few remaining problems comes in the form of the safety position, along with the secondary as a whole. They've made moves to upgrade the cornerbacks on their roster, but safety is still going to be a problem this year. The Broncos may not be willing to keep Ward, who's been one of the steadiest hands at the position in recent years. This is an ideal signing for the Titans who desperately need the help, and Ward should fit in nicely as an immediate starter.
12 Trumaine Johnson: Cleveland Browns
For a while, it didn't even look like Johnson was going to return to the Rams this year until he signed the franchise tag. Los Angeles may have bought his services for one more season, but the long-term outlook of Johnson's career there seems to be up in the air. There's a good chance that he'll be available once 2018 comes around.
The Browns need help in their secondary, after addressing their defensive line and linebackers in the offseason. Johnson would start immediately opposite of Joe Haden, and the duo would likely be one of the better cornerback combinations in the league. Cleveland has the cap space, and this is an ideal fit for their defense. This one makes a lot of sense, and Johnson likely won't be back with the Rams.
11 Melvin Ingram: Houston Texans
After a couple seasons of false starts, Ingram has shown himself to be one of the best pass-rushing linebackers in the league. For the money he's going to demand, he very well could be a cap casualty for the Chargers. If that happens, expect multiple teams to be chomping at the bit to acquire him.
One team that makes sense is the Texans. Ingram is an immediate starter at outside linebacker, and the transition wouldn't hinder him too much. With players like Brian Cushing and Jadeveon Clowney around him, he'll be able to acclimate quickly, and hit another season of peak production. If they have the capital, the Texans should really consider this to help bolster their defense even further.
10 Jimmy Graham: New England Patriots
After an offseason where the Patriots made several major moves to shake up their roster, a similar philosophy may be employed next offseason as well. Everyone knows how much Bill Belichick likes to use two TEs on the field at the same time, and it's not a forgone conclusion that Graham will be back in Seattle.
Needless to say, this would be a pretty ideal fit with the Patriots. With Gronk and Brady both expected to be back next season, Graham's presence on the field could prove devastating for opposing defenses. If he hits the open market, one would have to assume that there would at least be some interest from the Patriots, who signed Martellus Bennett prior to the 2016 season, to do essentially the same thing that Graham would be.
9 Kam Chancellor: Seattle Seahawks
No chance that Chancellor is let go from Seattle. He may have suffered a few injuries over the past several seasons, but he still may be the best player on the Seahawks' defense pound-for-pound. If Seattle wants any hope of regaining the level of defensive play to that of the "Legion Of Boom" days, then signing Chancellor should be priority number 1.
Whether it is or not remains to be seen, but it's likely that Chancellor will continue to find himself in a Seahawks uniform. He's already acclimated to the system, and would probably rather have the continuity, than adapt to a whole new defensive system when he's 30-years-old.
8 Sammy Watkins: Chicago Bears
The Bears just traded a bunch of assets to acquire Mitch Trubisky in the draft. A new future franchise quarterback (potentially) also means that they'll have to acquire weapons for him on the offensive side of the ball. Watkins could be an intriguing option. He's dealt with the injury bug for a portion of his career, but when he's on the field he's one of the best receivers in the game.
He could help to fill the void left by Alshon Jeffery, and also provide Trubisky with a go-to receiving option for a long time. The Bills have been taken over by a new coaching regime, and may not have the attachment to Watkins that previous coach Rex Ryan did. If he does end up walking out of Buffalo, the Bears are a sensible option for him when he hits the prime years of his career.
7 Sam Bradford: Minnesota Vikings
The Teddy Bridgewater injury really put the Vikings in between a rock and a hard place. They overspent for Bradford in the trade they made with the Eagles prior to the start of 2016. Still a defensively-led team, the Vikings could be thinking to stick with Bradford for the foreseeable future.
Bradford has some serious detriments to his game, but he did perform relatively well last year in Minnesota. With no young quarterback waiting in the wings to compete for the starting job, it seems more than likely that Bradford will receive a contract extension. The Vikings could then draft a quarterback in the next year or two to eventually replace him, if Bradford doesn't elevate his game to that of an upper-tier NFL quarterback.
6 Larry Fitzgerald: Retirement
Fitzgerald has hinted at retirement over the past year or so, and it would make a lot of sense for him after his contact with the Cardinals is up after the 2017 season. He's certainly earned the right to do so, sporting one of the best resumes for a wide receiver for this generation.
He had a career resurgence when Bruce Arians moved him to more of a possession receiver role in the slot, and he's really produced well at an age where most of his peers have left the league. All great careers must come to an end however, and Fitzgerald will likely walk away from the game all together when his contract is up, rather than sign with a new team after being in Arizona for his entire career.
5 Alshon Jeffery: Philadelphia Eagles
While he was only brought in to Philly on a one-year contract, the long-term plan is likely to have Jeffery stay in the ranks of the Eagles. The short, prove-it type of contract he received is best for both Jeffery and the team. With a suspension and an injury on Jeffery's resume, he felt he could maximize his output this season, and then sign an even better contract in 2018 than anything he would have gotten this past offseason.
He has a great chance to develop a rapport with a young franchise quarterback in Carson Wentz, and become his go-to target for a long time. Ultimately, Philly is the best place for Jeffery to play out the rest of his career, and unless something goes haywire this season, that's where he'll likely end up for the long-term.
4 Matthew Stafford: Detroit Lions
This is perhaps the safest projection on the entire list. Stafford has his detractors, but he's a franchise quarterback who produces high-quality numbers year-in, and year-out. He's still relatively young for a quarterback, and the Lions frankly have no better options at their disposal. There's little chance that Stafford doesn't get some type of contract extension, and at the very least he will sign the franchise tag.
Whether or not he can lead Detroit on a deep playoff run remains to be seen. But it's undeniable that the Lions have a much better offense with Stafford on the field, and for that reason alone, they will make sure that he stays for the foreseeable future. This is a shoe-in, and Stafford will be staying in the Motor City.
3 Terrelle Pryor: Washington Redskins
Similar to Alshon Jeffery, Pryor signed a one-year, prove-it deal with Washington this offseason. After a surprise breakout year with the Browns after moving from quarterback to wide receiver, Pryor has become one of the biggest names surrounding the free agent market the past few years.
Given that the Redksins have just lost DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, it would take a lot for them to not resign Pryor in 2018. They need the help at receiver, and they're a pass-first offense that needs to throw the ball to be successful. Pryor factors into that equation well, unless he completely botches the 2017 campaign. All in all, expect him to return to Washington on a multi-year deal after this year.
2 Kirk Cousins: San Francisco 49ers
For Cousins, however, he may be on his way out of Washington. He already has a great rapport with new 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan from his years with the Redskins. Add on to that the fact that Cousins is the only quarterback in NFL history to sign two franchise tags with the same team; a sure sign that there have been significant breakdowns in contract negotiations.
No doubt, the 49ers are a logical choice for Cousins. He's young enough to see the team entirely through their rebuild, and be their franchise quarterback when the roster has improved. Moreover, the 49ers have the money and cap space to make this happen. Cousins' interest in returning to Washington for the long-term seems to be decreasing, and he'll be able to transition to a comfortable situation in San Francisco with relative ease.
1 Le'Veon Bell: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs have spent plenty of resources bolstering their offense, and this would be the final piece to the puzzle. They already seem to be one of the most complete offenses in the NFC this season, and that's without a sure answer at running back. Doug Martin is injury prone and unreliable, and rookie Jeremy McNichols doesn't project to be a three-down starter.
The Steelers may very well resign Bell to a long-term deal, but he does come with a fair bit of question marks to his name. Between injuries and suspensions, he's been off the field just enough for Pittsburgh to think twice about shelling out the money for him. If he does hit the open market, consider the Bucs one of the best suitors for him. If he's able to stay on the field in Tampa Bay with such great offensive personnel around him, the Bucs could be looking at a chance to win it all. Bell is one of the best running backs in the game, and he would be the catalyst they need to truly get over the hump.