Free agency is a higher risk/higher reward way to build your team. Though not as consistent as the draft, the correct free agent signing can right a sinking ship. (See: Drew Brees to the Saints.) An incorrect free agent singing can put the final nail in a regime's coffin. (See: Albert Haynesworth to the Redskins.)
For this list I included the free agents most likely to join other teams. I've also included a few that I feel will remain with their teams but are so big-name they need to be mentioned anyway. If a player isn't on here it isn't necessarily because I feel like they aren't as quality of a player as someone mentioned on the list.
To make the list easy to read if you're not caught up to what team the player is currently on I've put the current team in parentheses. If you feel differently than I do make sure to leave a comment stating where you think a player will go. Here we go.
20 Nate Solder (New England Patriots) To The Seattle Seahawks
Tackle Nate Solder has been a solid but unremarkable starter for the Patriots. During his time in New England he has started three Super Bowls and been a worthwhile part of the team. But he is a free agent on a team where free agents aren't given the best treatment and he might want out.
While he won't get a big contract in Seattle but it will be larger than the one he would get in New England, while still getting to play for a contender. With Duane Brown coming from the Texans to the Seahawks, he will likely get to play right tackle, the position where he started out originally. There are plenty of teams that would want Solder, but the Seahawks are the best of the Venn Diagram of Money/Competitiveness/Opportunity.
19 AJ McCarron (Cincinnati Bengals) To The Cleveland Browns
AJ McCarron would already be on the Browns, if it wasn't for a comedy of errors. Whose errors? That's a prickly question. The Browns insist it wasn't them, the Bengals insist it wasn't them, and the league has been silent. But what we do know is that McCarron wants out of the Bengals. Now, does he want in on the Browns? We can't know that, but we do know that the Browns want McCarron, and the list of teams that want him isn't expected to be too long.
McCarron obviously thinks he can be a starter, but he has started just 4 games in his career, going 2-2 and looking like just about what you'd expect a backup to look like. Plenty of teams would take a look at McCarron as a backup, but there are few teams he can expect to contend for a starting job on. A one-year prove-it deal with the Browns makes sense, especially if receiver Josh Gordon and tackle Joe Thomas return in 2018, as they're expected to.
If McCarron can lead the Browns to even 5 wins, he'll lock up a huge contract in 2019. There is a direct path to a lot of money for McCarron, and it runs through Cleveland. If he dares.
18 Terrelle Pryor (Washington Redskins) To The Cleveland Browns
Pryor has had one of the strangest career arcs in NFL history. He has gone from promising to underachieving to promising multiple times, and at multiple positions, with multiple teams. First Pryor was drafted as a QB in the 2011 supplemental draft, and experienced some success, such as a 93 yard touchdown run against the Steelers in a surprising victory where the Pryor-led Raiders upset a playoff-bound Steelers team, but it was obvious he wouldn't be in the NFL long at QB.
Then he was out of the league for 2014. Then he came back in 2015 as a wide receiver for the Browns. Then in 2016 he posted 77 catches for almost 1,100 yards and became a legitimate threat at wide out. Then he signed with the Redskins to be Kirk Cousins' new bread and butter, but has underperformed after signing a "prove it" one-year deal with them. So, it makes sense for him to go back to the team where he has found the most success: Cleveland, and more specifically, coach Hue Jackson. The Browns need weapons and Pryor needs a team that will give him another chance.
Going back to Cleveland makes sense, but the real question is this: Will Hue Jackson still be coaching the Browns in 2018? Right now, Cleveland is sitting at a record of 1-23 with him. We'll see how it plays out.
17 Antonio Gates (Los Angeles Chargers) - Retirement
Antonio Gates has been one of, if not the, greatest tight ends of all time. The future Hall Of Famer has grabbed 912 catches for 11,336 yards, and an absurd 112 touchdowns in his 15 year career. But he is aging, and at 37 years old his effectiveness and production has dropped to the point where Gates is now a backup.
Although he is still considered an excellent team leader, he has caught just 15 balls on the year for the 3-5 Chargers. If the Chargers were contenders there is a chance Gates might come back for the chance to grab a ring, the only accomplishment his stellar career lacks, but with the Chargers an average team that while trending upwards is not a contender, retiring is a more likely outcome. There is little left for Gates to prove, and the little that is left is likely out of reach for him. He'll spend 2018 just waiting for enshrinement.
16 Teddy Bridgewater (Minnesota Vikings) Stays With Vikings
It's been almost two years since Vikings QB Teddy Bridgewater has played a game in the NFL after a non-contact injury almost cost him his leg. He is now prepping for a return and because of another injured Vikings QB, he'll most likely get a chance to start this year.
If he ends up getting back to where he could have been or if "where he could have been" is franchise level are the big questions the Vikings have to ask now. Even when Bridgewater was healthy and on an excellent Vikings team, he posted just 14 touchdowns and threw 12 interceptions, and that was when his mobility was top notch.
Regardless of all that, it makes sense for the Vikings to bring Bridgewater in for 2018 because he knows the system, wants to be there, will be cheap (relatively speaking of course), and even if he performs poorly, there is a chance he'll get better in 2018.
Bridgewater will be with the Vikings in 2018, but a more interesting item to think about is "where will he be in 2019?"
15 Jimmy Garoppolo (San Francisco 49ers) Stays With 49ers
You don't trade a second-rounder for a guy to have him for 8 games (and only play 4-6 of them), but the 49ers have put themselves in a spot here. It's great they got the guy they think can help them win, but now you have to keep him. While his contract won't be ridiculous, it will be expensive unless he signs a prove it deal, but why would he? He can get a large contract without proving it that serves the same purpose. So to keep him you have to pay him, or tag him.
The problem is to franchise him it will cost $22M, or close enough that it doesn't matter. Well now you're in another spot, where if he plays well you have to pay him the big contract he wants or tag him again at a price increase that could put the tag in the $26M range. You could argue that the Niners should be happy, as it means that they've found their franchise QB, but it doesn't really mean that. What if Garoppolo is hurt? What if he plays well enough to keep but doesn't pan out enough to pay but enough to keep? It raises a ton of questions. Regardless of that whole situation, the team has to deal with those questions will be the 49ers.
14 Larry Fitzgerald (Arizona Cardinals) To The Patriots
This is a signing that's been rumored since 2012 and hoped for since Fitzgerald's crazy run in the 2008 postseason might happen in this upcoming offseason. Now that it's pretty much settled that the Cardinals as of now are closer to the 2016 team than the 2015 team, it's time for Fitzgerald to depart.
"Fitz" stayed on with the birds in an attempt to finally win a ring with his long-time team, and when QB Carson Palmer announced he was returning it seemed like the Cardinals had a shot. Now Palmer is injured and out for the year and the Cardinals are sitting at 4-4 and 3rd in the NFC West. Meanwhile, the Patriots could always be even more stacked on offense and, as always, they will look to contend. This will likely be a low guarantee, high incentive based contract that essentially has Fitzgerald just playing for a ring. The 34-year-old Fitzgerald has stuck with his team long enough that no one can blame him for doing one last year of ring chasing in Foxboro.
13 Trumaine Johnson (Los Angeles Rams) Stays With The Rams
One of the biggest reasons in the Rams turnaround from struggling team to contender is Cornerback Trumaine Johnson. Johnson established himself as an excellent corner in 2015 when he picked off 7 passes for the then St. Louis Rams, and also posted 71 combined tackles on the year. This season has been more of the same, and while Johnson's interception totals have dropped, his play has arguably improved. At 6'2", 205 lbs, Johnson is built differently than a lot of corners and his physical style of play matches the Rams dominant front seven.
The Rams certainly realize how important he is as they tagged him in the offseason of 2016, and for right now the Rams are set up well to hold onto him. The Rams offense is built around a core of young players on rookie contracts (Quarterback Jared Goff, running back Todd Gurley, and numerous others) so there is some money to keep him. A few years from now the situation might change when it's contract time for all the young stars on the Rams, but for now Johnson will stay right where he belongs.
12 Ezekiel Ansah (Detroit Lions) To The Jets
Ezekiel Ansah has been inconsistent for the Lions, which is expected for someone who hasn't been playing football for as long as you'd like. Ansah only started playing Football in his sophomore year... Of college. Just three years later he was drafted in the first round by the Lions and the results vary. In 2015 he was an All-Pro after posting 14.5 sacks; In the other four seasons he has played he has a grand total of 21.5 sacks. What's concerning is that he should be better than this, especially after reaching a top level. Was 2015 a sign of what he can be or just a fluke season caused by Ansah's freak athletic skills?
This is where the Jets come in. The Jets have cap room and could use a good pass rusher, and one could argue that with Ansah's skill set he could be even better as 3-4 OLB instead of a 4-3 DE. The Jets know how to use and make the most of their D-line and having a better supporting cast on the line in the forms of Leonard Williams and Muhammad Wilkerson could do wonders for Ansah and could also improve the Jets defense through free agency instead of forcing them to use another draft pick.
11 Malcolm Butler (New England Patriots) To The Eagles
The only person who might be able to use Malcom Butler better than Bill Belichick is Eagles DC Jim Schwartz. Schwartz is up there with the best Coordinators in football and is a huge reason the Eagles are succeeding this season. The biggest knock on the Eagles has been the secondary, though they're performed admirably.
Butler wanted a contract extension from New England. Instead New England signed another young corner. What is Butler to make of that? Butler, the hero of Super Bowl XLIX, seemingly wants out of New England, and what better place than Philadelphia? The Eagles could certainly use him and Butler would either fit right in or would have a space especially made for him. This is an Eagles team that is looking to make the step towards Super Bowl caliber team, and a veteran presence that has plenty of post season success getting put into the weakest position group on the team could help them tremendously.
10 Sammy Watkins (Los Angeles Rams) To The Redskins
When the Bills traded Sammy Watkins people rushed to say that the Bills were tanking. Two months into the season, the situation has become a lot clearer. The Bills are now 5-3 and Watkins has been one of the few players on the Rams this season to not be better than advertised.
Despite Jared Goff's vast improvement in 2017, which includes him throwing for 2,000+ yards and 13 touchdowns, Watkins has been underwhelming to say the least. Watkins has posted just 19 catches for 331 yards and 3 touchdowns.
With one receiver who isn't playing up to his contract (Tavon Austin, who signed a monster deal with the Rams under the previous regime) it's doubtful to think the Rams will put a lot of money towards keeping Watkins. A team that might, however, is the Redskins. Kirk Cousins needs a legit number one receiver and Watkins has shown promise in his career. Getting a guy like Kirk Cousins to throw to him and getting a full offseason of development with his team could turn Watkins into the elite wideout the Bills hoped he would be when they took him in the first round of the 2014 draft.
9 Sam Bradford (Minnesota Vikings) - Retirement
Sam Bradford finally put it all together this year with the Vikings. In his one healthy game he went 27-for-32, 346 yards, and 3 touchdowns in a double-digit win over the now 6-2 Saints. Sadly, Bradford's knees are shot, and there is no real fix for what ails him now. Rather than a direct injury that can be fixed, like an ACL tear or broken foot, his knee is simply dealing with "wear and tear". One game caused massive swelling and him missing weeks, when he returned he played poorly then re-injured his knee. This isn't going to get better next year when he turns 31 during the season.
With Teddy Bridgewater returning and the Case Keenum-led Vikings rolling at 6-2, Bradford's days in Minnesota seem numbered. If Bradford was healthy than there would be a good chance the Vikings would keep him long term instead of Bridgewater, especially considering that Bridgewater is also injured and a current question mark. But the Vikings need consistency at the QB spot, not flashes of brilliance.
This was made especially clear as Case Keenum has led them to a 5-1 record in games he has played. As Bradford got the last big #1 overall pick contract, money isn't a pressing need for him, and seeing as most contenders already either have their QB of the future or won't look too hard at Bradford, him retiring makes a lot more sense than him taking a pounding for a bottom team in exchange for a huge payday. I hope I'm incorrect, but it's seems we've seen the last of Bradford.
8 Tyler Eifert (Cincinnati Bengals) To The Titans
There are major changes coming for the Bengals in 2018. At least, their fans hope there are. One of the changes the fans don't want is to lose Tyler Eifert, the teams playmaking tight end. The Bengals offense has weapons with running backs Bernard and Hill, along with receiver A.J. Green and QB Andy Dalton.
The Bengals also have some big name free agents on D coming up in 2018, chiefly troubled LB Vontaze Burfict. Someone has to be the odd man out, so we're predicting it's Eifert. Eifert is a very good tight end but has struggled with injuries. In 2015 he played extremely well, grabbing 15 touchdowns. So where does he go in 2018?
The Titans currently get excellent tight end play from Delanie Walker, but Walker will be 34 in week 1 of 2018. Eifert would thrive in the Titans offense and playing with Marcus Mariota, and his blocking would allow him to be used to complement the "exotic smashmouth" the Titans offense runs. The Titans are also one of the few teams that wouldn't be reliant on him, so instead of being reluctant to sign him because every dollar counts, the Titans can adapt. It's a fit, and now we'll see how Eifert comes back.
7 Sheldon Richardson (Seattle Seahawks) To The Lions
The Lions can replace one top-tier defense lineman with another by signing Sheldon Richardson. Richardson has been a very good player in his relatively short career but has struggled as of late. He was the defensive Rookie of The Year in 2013 and made a Pro Bowl in 2014, but on a Jets D-line loaded with talent he found himself as the odd man out.
Still, the play he showed during his first 2-3 years will be enough to entice a lot of teams, especially one like the Lions.
While Richardson isn't an exact fit (As he is usually in a 3-4 not a 4-3 like the Lions use) he is already in a 4-3 in Seattle, the team that traded a second-round pick and Jermaine Kearse for him back in September. While that trade points to wanting to keep him, it's going to come down on what the team thinks he is worth, and with the stacked defensive roster Seattle has Richardson may very well be the odd man out for the second time in as many seasons. The Lions would love to have him and Richardson will be happy to take the contract they'll offer.
6 Jarvis Landry (Miami Dolphins) To The Chargers
The Dolphins definitely want receiver Jarvis Landry, but Landry might not want the Dolphins. An unstable QB situation in Miami means that Landry jeopardizes his future if he reads the cards incorrectly here. Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill is a decent starter, but it's unknown how he'll perform post-injury. There are three QBs on the roster for the Dolphins right now and their future starter might not be one of them.
This means Landry, who has quietly become one of the best at his position, needs a huge deal now or needs to gamble that whoever starts in 2018 could get him a better deal in 2019. Which is why the Chargers make more sense for Landry.
Signing with the Chargers will give Landry at least one year of top-shelf QB play (assuming Rivers doesn't drop off by a huge margin) and when Rivers is gone he'll be able to find a better fit or if he sees what he likes with the Chargers at that point, stick with them. Landry isn't a deep threat (He has 344 catches in the last four years but averages just 10.1 YPC), he is a consistent short area guy who can get you the yards you need to move you forwards. He might be the replacement the Chargers need to find for oft-injured wideout Keenan Allen.
5 Jimmy Graham (Seattle Seahawks) Stays With Seahawks
Jimmy Graham's career has been odd. He has gone from record shattering receiving weapon with New Orleans to deadly in a different way. Graham's receiving skills are still top notch, but now that his blocking has improved he is a complete weapon.
That's why the Seahawks aren't going to let him go anywhere in 2018. Graham is a perfect fit for the Seahawks offense that wants to be a power run, game managing offense but is forced to be a pass (and Russell Wilson)-heavy offense due to its poor offensive line, which is where Graham comes in.
Right now, Graham is Seattle's best weapon and in the future when(if?) Seattle fixes its O-line he'll become an even better fit. Ironically one of the reasons Seattle's line is depleted is because they traded their best lineman (Pro Bowl center Max Unger) to the Saints in part of the trade for Graham. Expect Graham in the rainy city for the foreseeable future.
4 Trai Turner (Carolina Panthers) To The 49ers
Trai Turner isn't one of the bigger names on this list, but he will be one of the most sought after free agents this offseason. Turner is just 24 years old and already has two Pro Bowls under his belt. He has been a huge part of the Panthers success. Turner is one of the best guards in football and has been playing for the Panthers on a salary that is close to $700,000 per year.
Safe to say, that steal of a contract will be gone for the Panthers next year, and Turner will likely be gone too. Out in the West, 49ers GM John Lynch is trying to build a classic run-first, smashmouth offense along with protecting his new investment Jimmy Garoppolo.
The 49ers have a ton of cash to throw at Turner and signing him would put the 49ers much closer to being the team Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan want, and what they would hope looks very similar to the 2016 Falcons offense where a powerful run game sets up an excellent passing game.
Look for Turner in San Fran next year.
3 Le'Veon Bell (Pittsburgh Steelers) To The Colts
What better way to take pressure off an overworked QB than by getting a running back who can be an entire offense on his own? Le'Veon Bell is among the league's best weapons and is easily a top three running back, yet he remains free of a long-term contract.
While the Steelers have been going back and forth with Bell, the Colts will be more than happy to spend what's needed. Colts Quarterback Andrew Luck will miss the entire 2017 season with a shoulder injury and an immediate return to form in 2018 seems doubtful, having Bell would help greatly.
While the Colts have an ageless wonder behind the QB in the form of Frank Gore (who posted 1,000+ yards last year at 33 years old), adding Bell would make the Colts a much better team. Bell is vaunted for his receiving skills as well as his rushing ability, and he has grabbed over 200 catches in his career. Shifting the burden from Luck to Bell could result in big things, and the Colts currently have the most cap space per spotrac.com
It's a deal that makes sense for all involved. Except the Steelers.
2 Drew Brees (New Orleans Saints) Stays With The Saints
"Where will Brees go for the twilight of his career?" Six weeks ago this question would have a very different answer, but now it might not even be valid. For the previous three years Brees was stuck pulling an average Saints team and an atrocious defense to respectability.
During those three years, Brees averaged 5,000 yards and 30+ touchdowns. And the Saints won just 21 games. When the Saints started 0-2 this year while the defense gave up an average of 32.5 PPG, it seemed like Brees might be headed elsewhere. But then the Saints defense became competent, and the Saints have ripped off 6 straight wins to take sole possession of the NFC South. During that stretch the Saints D has given up an average of 15 points per game, as well as recording a shutout of the Dolphins.
Now it appears that Brees won't need to leave the Big Easy, and may even benefit by staying put. Brees stats aren't as incredible as always, and right now he is on pace for 4,400 yards and 26 touchdowns, both far from his average during his decade of dominance since 2008. Yet you can't argue with 6-2.
There are talks of Brees retiring popping up quite often, but what if that day isn't as close as we think? Sure, the days of Brees getting out of bed and throwing for 350 yards are most likely over, but it isn't crazy to think Brees has 2-3 more seasons of play like this left in him. And for that reason, Brees will stay right where he belongs: In Black and Gold.
1 Kirk Cousins (Washington Redskins) Stays With The Redskins
There was a legitimate chance that the Redskins wouldn't sign Cousins in the offseason, but now it appears it's all but locked in. For starters, the main threat to take Cousins away was the 49ers and head coach Kyle Shanahan (who has ties to Cousins through Shanahan's time in Washington) have now dropped out of the race after trading a second-rounder for a different QB of the future.
While it's possible that the Browns could shovel money at Cousins, the few extra million won't be enough to lure him to the program in its current state.
The Redskins would be foolish to let Cousins walk and at this point the franchise tag isn't viable because of the increase each time you use it (It would be $34 million if the Skins use it on Cousins again) so expect a long term-deal to get worked out, if it isn't already.