Free agency is set to begin on March 9th, which means that NFL rosters will undergo further transformations. Reshuffling is a certainty. Where these players sign, if anywhere, is an uncertainty. It's an annual mystery that fills the minds of fans with hypotheticals. It's a guessing game within the game, but some guesses are more educated than others. Here at TheSportster, we aim to be educated, but hey, when guessing enough times, even the educated ones wind up like the others.
With so many moving parts, falling dominoes, and a field of 32 teams, foreseeing free agency is a fine warmup for filling out brackets and crossing fingers for March Madness. Embrace the chaos. And don't forget to include prefaces: The Steelers would be crazy to let Le'Veon Bell test free agency, Julius Peppers and Robert Mathis will either retire or take the pass rush of the Montreal Alouettes to the next level, and Washington will retain Kirk Cousins. You like that?! OK, let's speculate.
In what was likely his last game as a Patriot, LeGarrette Blount went out a champ--even though he lost a fumble and got outshone by James White, who should have the backfield locked down along with Dion Lewis moving forward. Blount Force Trauma was nonetheless great in the regular season, totaling 1,161 yards and 18 scores on the ground in a resurgent year. He's 30, so his age will deter some potential suitors, but Mr. Trauma probably plowed his way into a short-term deal with a team like the Lions.
With their adequate cap space, Detroit could pay a reasonable sum to sure up a ground attack that ranked a woeful 30th in rushing yards last season. In their ongoing search to replace Barry Sanders, the Lions have whiffed on drafting running backs as of late. Their second-rounder in 2015, Ameer Abdullah, looks prone to injuries and fumbles, and before him, Jahvid Best was a bust. While Blount would be more of a temporary fix, he'd still upgrade a backfield that needs a boost on a team that made the postseason in 2016.
It's better to have experienced a Super Bowl hangover than to have never won one at all, as DeMarcus Ware and the Broncos can tell you. The edge rusher recorded 7.5 sacks opposite the younger and more explosive Von Miller to propel Denver to victory in Super Bowl 50. Last season, Ware struggled to stay healthy and the Broncos fell short of the postseason berth required to defend their title. With Miller and a lights-out secondary still intact, Ware could be expendable as Denver uses this offseason to pursue a quarterback. More on that later, fans of foreshadowing.
Ware has dropped hints of a return to Dallas, where he spent the first nine seasons of his career and made a name for himself. Big D appeared to have serious constraints concerning the cap, but those crafty Cowboys have recently freed $17.3 million in space by restructuring the deals of marquee linemen Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick. They're also expected to unload Tony Romo in one way or another (foreshadowing), which means the Cowboys look poised to pull the trigger and add an impact defender. Provided the contract reflects Ware's role as a part-time impact defender, it makes sense.
In a clear case of "So long, and thanks for the ring," Martellus Bennett will enjoy the spoils of free agency and find a new home in 2017. He'll sign elsewhere just as sure as he won't be with the team when they visit the White House. As a Patriot for one year, he amassed 799 receiving yards, seven touchdowns, and filled in capably after Gronk was placed on Injured Reserve. The market for tight ends is decent at best, and Bennett will likely go to a team that lacks offensive threats and has heaps of cash to spend, such as the 49ers.
San Francisco is second only to Cleveland in total cap space, and they're in dire need of pass-catchers. Tight End Vance McDonald caught four scores, and get this: That actually led the team. The incumbent McDonald managed less than half of Bennett's receiving yards with 391. Whoever takes the field as their quarterback is going to need better weapons. With a Championship crossed off his list, Bennett could very well ink a huge deal with a team that has nowhere to go but up.
A key part of Green Bay's sturdy offensive line since 2009, don't expect T.J. Lang to return to the Pack. Last season he made his first Pro Bowl, which should boost his market value, and under the guidance of G.M. Ted Thompson, the Packers are as stingy as they come in free agency. This approach applies to re-signing talent as well, especially where the interior line is concerned. In the Favre/ Rodgers years, the team has let go of several excellent guards: Marco Rivera, Mike Wahle, Daryn Colledge, and Josh Sitton. Lang figures to be next.
As for where Lang will sign, money means a lot, but the man has also grown accustomed to postseason play, as well as blocking in front of an elite quarterback. Ideally, he could get all three, but in this scenario, he might have to be patient a year or two as Jameis Winston continues to develop. With a 9-7 mark last year, the Bucs seem as close to reaching the postseason as Winston is to rising another tier as an NFL quarterback. Adding a Pro Bowler to a group of guards with no standouts would solidify the trenches for Tampa. Lang is also a great run blocker who could help create better lanes for the team's ground attack.
If Terrelle Pryor is a fan of classic punk rock, he must be singing "Should I Stay Or Should I Go?" (YouTube it if you're under 25.) The QB-turned-receiver pulled off an unlikely trick in his contract year: He changed positions at the highest level with great success. His days as a starting QB were numbered and the athletic Pryor adapted, catching 77 balls for 1,007 yards and totaling five touchdowns. His 2016 squad can spend a fortune this offseason. The Browns could re-sign Pryor and add a few major players. Then again, Pryor is not as proven as, say, DeSean Jackson or Alshon Jeffery, and from Pryor's perspective, can he be blamed for craving a change of scenery?
Pryor to the L.A. Rams makes sense for a few reasons. First, the receiving corps of the Rams is weak, and the group has struggled for a long time. Second, they're heavily invested in last year's first-rounder Jared Goff, and he needs playmakers and chain-movers to help his cause following a shaky rookie season. Finally, they have adequate cap space; their total ranks in the middle of the pack at about $36 million. Inking the aforementioned Jackson or Jeffery might cost a bit too much for a team with the Rams' current finances. Unproven or not, Pryor could be the smarter investment for L.A.
5 10. Jason Pierre-Paul: Indianapolis Colts
It's hard to imagine an offseason more nightmarish than the one Jason Pierrer-Paul. experienced in 2015--even if it was self-inflicted. Fireworks on the Fourth of July are fun. Having one's right finger amputated in the wake of a nasty accident with said fireworks is a bummer. A soap opera in the Big Apple ensued, but Pierre-Paul has weathered the incident and performed well enough to merit an array of offers this March. Last season, he totaled seven sacks, 53 tackles, and three forced fumbles. His next home could be in Indy.
Remember when the Colts' D was led by two premier defensive ends? Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney were key ingredients in their Super Bowl win a decade ago. For now, Mathis remains, but at 37, he's a free agent who might retire. Stuck in a funk of 8-8 mediocrity, the Colts need a revival on defense, and adding someone who can pressure the quarterback is a good place to start. Pierre-Paul could work in concert with outside linebacker Erik Walden and provide the Colts with the pass rush they'll need to give Andrew Luck the same success Peyton Manning enjoyed.
While some have projected a return to Title Town for Eddie Lacy, don't underestimate the thrifty nature of this franchise that relies so heavily on the draft. Expect the Packers to prioritize re-signing pass-rusher Nick Perry and Jared Cook, the best tight end they've had in years. As for Lacy, he has a pair of 1,000 yard campaigns on his resume, but he's coming off a season in which he had to shut it down due to injury after Week 6. Ty Montgomery made the switch from receiver to runner and averaged 5.9 yards a carry. Lacy's return is uncertain at best, and in 2017, he could be the featured back of the Colts.
Frank Gore will be 34 when the season starts. That's an ancient age for an NFL running back. He can still be effective in moderation in the last year of his deal, but Indy needs to find a younger back to help carry the load. Albeit in one-third of a season, Lacy averaged 5.1 yards a carry in 2016. Compare that to Gore's mark of 3.9 and it's clear that Lacy could provide a jolt to the Colts' offensive attack and reduce the pressure on Andrew Luck to win every game with his throwing arm.
4 8. DeSean Jackson: Carolina Panthers
Both Pierre Garcon and Jackson topped a thousand yards last season, and they're both free agents. While they do have plenty of cap space, the 'Skins will have to allocate a large sum to keep Kirk Cousins at QB. They might also pursue a running back. All this is to say they will probably have to choose between the two veteran receivers. It wouldn't cost as much to bring back Garcon for similar production, so let's assume it's Jackson who changes his zip code. He could relocate to (North) Carolina.
Some predictions slate DeSean Jackson returning to Philly, but don't forget, the 30-year-old speedster parted ways with the Eagles on bitter terms, amidst gossip of gang ties. Getting a fresh start seems like a wise move, and the Panthers have a healthy cap number to ensure a hefty payday. Cam Newton would applaud the signing. After all, when his team made it to the Super Bowl two seasons ago, they did so in spite of the inconsistent play of the receivers. Having Jackson to stretch the field with Greg Olsen catching passes over the middle could revive an offense that looked lost at times last season.
3 7. A.J. Bouye: Tennessee Titans
A shade overshadowed by a lethal front seven, A.J. Bouye is an emerging star in the secondary. He's gaining hype as a corner-safety hybrid, which means he can cover an array of receivers and tight ends. His prowess in the back end was vital to the Texans' D, which gave up the second-fewest yards per game through the air. Bouye was signed as an undrafted rookie in 2013, and from those humble beginnings, he has excelled and set himself up for a contract on par with the likes of the Lions' Darius Slay. He'll go to a team with money to spend and holes in their secondary, such as the Titans.
Tennessee ranked near the bottom in passing yards allowed in 2016, tied with the Packers and one spot ahead of the Saints, who were 32nd. With a cap number that's among the healthiest in the league, the Titans should be busy this offseason in an effort to compete in a division that looks wide open. The team was 9-7 and fell just short of a division crown (and a postseason berth) in Marcus Mariota's second season. If not Bouye, they might target a corner such as Trumaine Johnson--assuming the Rams fail to re-sign him. (Such is the falling dominoes effect).
Probably the best linebacker on the market, Melvin Ingram is going to get paid. He can soon expect to earn a contract that's about $17-$18 million per year--just shy of Von Miller's salary--and at age 27, Ingram will warrant plenty of long-term offers. He's been a wrecking crew on an unheralded team. In the past two seasons combined, Ingram has 18.5 sacks and 10 forced fumbles. The Chargers have been lousy and their cap total doesn't inspire much confidence, so expect Ingram to sign with a team such as the Bears.
Why the Bears? Well, their financial flexibility now ranks in the top ten. Plus, their once-dominant defense isn't what it used to be; they surrendered the ninth-most points last season. Finally, remember when stud linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs led the Bears to a Super Bowl appearance a decade ago? They did so on a team with a lackluster offense. Going back to Singletary and way back to Butkus, this is a franchise that values linebackers. Expect the Bears to improve defensively before they improve offensively. Ingram would be a savvy investment.
2 5. Adrian Peterson: New York Giants
"All Day" Adrian Peterson will be 32 when next season starts, which means he'd better get used to hearing questions about "Father Time." The Vikings' all-time leading rusher has endured a roller coaster ride the last three seasons. In 2014, a suspension for child abuse limited his rushing total to 75 yards. The next season, he thrived, gaining 1,485 on the ground. Last season, he tore a meniscus in his right knee and had to shut it down after two games in which he managed a meager 1.6 yards a carry. That brings us to the present, where the Vikes could very well part ways with Peterson. The Giants are the front-runner to sign him.
In mid-February, the seven-time Pro Bowler offered an obvious clue in the form of a tweet: "The Giants been making some interesting moves." The post was a likely reference to the G-Men releasing vet RB Rashad Jennings. Peterson has mentioned two other possible landing spots: Tampa Bay and Houston. His willingness to name-drop other teams suggests he's done in Minnesota. The Giants ranked 29th in rushing yards in 2016, but still clinched a wild card thanks to their passing game and defense. They have the cap space and the "win now" mindset required to sign A.D.
The Bears are in disarray. They've lost their identity as a fierce defensive squad, and worse, they play against Aaron Rodgers twice a year. In the wake of a 3-13 disaster in 2016, they have reason to be optimistic about their cap space, their third overall draft pick, and not much else. As under construction as the team is, don't expect them to overpay for Alshon Jeffery, who has topped 1,000 yards twice in five seasons, but has also been hampered by injuries the last two years. Regardless, his high ceiling and big play ability will draw many offers.
Expect the Browns to start blowing up his cellphone. Masters of futility, re-builders on a yearly basis, Cleveland knows how to struggle. But here's the good news: The Browns currently have more money to spend than any other team. Their cap space is exorbitant--roughly $105 million. They are in dire need of talent, and signing (probably) the best receiver in this class could help restore hope in the franchise. Jeffery didn't exactly grow attached to winning in Chicago, and Cleveland could simply outbid everyone else to make him one of the richest receivers in the league.
1 3. Tony Romo: Denver Broncos
Tony Romo's postseason plight does not erase his claim as one of the most efficient quarterbacks in league history. By the start of the 2017 campaign, he'll be 37, which is not necessarily a red flag for a signal caller these days. After a spinal injury knocked him out of action, he was a good sport about losing his job to rookie sensation Dak Prescott. There might be enough football life left in Romo to lead a team into the playoffs, but his days of leading the Cowboys' offense are numbered.
Obviously, Dallas would rather trade him to get value in return, but the bottom line is that other teams will have bargaining leverage. Everyone knows the Cowboys need to clear cap space, and that Prescott will be their leader in the years to come. If Romo doesn't get traded, he will be cut, albeit on amicable terms. He'll want to play for a contender that needs a QB. Look no further than the Denver Broncos, who pulled off a strikingly similar move a few years ago by signing Peyton Manning, which eventually led to a Super Bowl win. Romo will seek the same ending to his great career.
In five seasons in the league, Chandler Jones has racked up 47 sacks. He became a Cardinal when the Pats dealt him in March of 2016. (The move might have been linked to Jones' "bad reaction to synthetic marijuana" during the postseason, which caused the kind of distraction that makes Coach Belichick frown even harder). Even though the Cards underwhelmed, Jones produced, to the tune of 11 sacks. Now the Cards are faced with a quandary, as defensive standouts Calais Campbell and Tony Jefferson are free agents as well. They won't re-sign all three. Expect Jones to take the money and run to Cleveland.
As noted before, the Browns have an enormous amount of cap space. Honestly, their cap space is probably their most compelling asset right now. And if they add enough good football players, they can get over the same hump that the Cubs did in baseball. Compiling athletic talent can conquer a mindset of pessimism and doom. Cleveland can offer Jones--and other big names--a lot of money, to be sure, and who knows? In two years, with the right quarterback, they could be competitive. If nothing else, the Browns will be a competitive force in free agency this March.
It's rare for someone who plays so far away from the ball on defense to ascend to the top of the class of free agents, but Eric Berry has made five Pro Bowls in seven seasons. He's a ball hawk and a leader. In all likelihood, Berry is the best vet who will find a new home in 2017. Kansas City would love to bring him back, but the state of their cap is bleak. Expect Berry to sign a huge deal with a team that has leaky secondary and cash to spend, like the Oakland Raiders.
The Silver and Black are a team on the rise. They just clinched their first playoff berth since the early 2002. Still, the Raiders have flaws, such as pass defense, which ranked 24th in the league. Free Safety Reggie Nelson was a bright spot, picking off five balls en route to his second straight Pro Bowl. By signing Berry, the Raiders would be adding another impact defender to play behind the pass-rushing phenom Khalil Mack. Relying on two premier safeties to limit big plays and create turnovers has certainly worked wonders for Seattle (with Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas). Oakland has the cap space and Berry could take them to the next level. Stay tuned.
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