This is the second of a two-part series in which I preview the Free Agency class for 2017 by looking at which positions are the strongest and which are the weakest. This takes into account not only the level of talent available, but also the likelihood that the player actually reaches the market.
Strongest Position Groups
The cornerback group is one of the stronger groups in this year’s Free Agency class. There’s a number of guys who are either Pro Bowlers or very close to that level, along with several reliable #2 options.
After a career year, A.J Bouye of the Texans is the top free agent corner. Bouye was an UDFA in 2013, contributed some in the 2014 season, before turning in a Pro Bowl season as one of the top shutdown corners in the league this season. Bouye is physical, quick and plays the press well. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed just 41.5% of passes to be completed in his last six games. He hasn’t had quite the storied breakout that Josh Norman did last year (which netted Norman a cool $15m APY contract), but Bouye will at the very least be looking for north of Byron Maxwell’s $10.5m APY. The Texans have some cap space for next year, and as their defense is their identity, they should really prioritise retaining Bouye.
Trumaine Johnson is the next best alternative, and has been a solid contributor for the Rams for several seasons. Johnson struggles helping with the run, but excels as a pure cover corner. A testament to his talent level, Johnson was tagged by the Rams for 2016, and his price tag for a long-term contract should clear $10m easily. Stephon Gilmore was recently added to the AFC Pro Bowl roster, which gives him some late leverage in contract negotiations. He has been a key member of the Bills defense for since being taken with the 10th overall pick in 2012, and he could also be looking at a seven figure salary.
The next level features some very reliable starters, several of whom were high draft picks who could still have Pro Bowl seasons left in them. Morris Claiborne, Prince Amukamara, Logan Ryan and Dre Kirkpatrick make up this tier, and their contract negotiations would be very intriguing to listen in on. Ryan was a 3rd round pick, and has probably been the most consistent of the bunch, while the other three were all 1st rounders who have had up-and-down careers. On their best days, those three 1st round guys can all be shutdown corners, and a late blooming is not off the cards for them. Teams will be on the hunt for this tier as startable but cheaper options than the earlier three.
Malcolm Butler is an RFA in New England, and he should have a first-round tender applied to him. He will still be a name to watch as we all know that Bill Belichick is not afraid to go against public opinion with his player transactions. However, the fact that Butler remains a Patriot for Super Bowl 51 (unlike Jones and Collins) should indicate his place in this team.
So overall, the supply of starting cornerbacks is relatively high, with at least seven guys becoming UFA’s who should be able to really help a team’s pass defense.
Edge Rushers (4-3 DE/3-4 OLB)
This group is full of high-end, versatile talent at a position that is becoming increasingly valued in the NFL. There is also a nice mix of veteran contributors and promising young players.
The names that will feature in headlines throughout the next few months are Chandler Jones, Melvin Ingram and Jason Pierre-Paul. These three guys are all in that prime 26-28 age range, and should be ready to perform at the peak of their careers. Teams that want Jones may be looking at a price tag of at least $14m APY, with Ingram and Pierre-Paul at least $10m. Those costs shouldn’t reduce the demand for these three guys in the market, as getting to the quarterback is quickly becoming the highest priority for many NFL teams. I think Pierre-Paul is very likely to hit the market, as the Giants have already committed large long-term deals to Vernon and Harrison on their defensive line. Arizona and San Diego should have enough cap space to entice Jones and Ingram to return, but they owe it to themselves to test their value in this booming market.
Looking down the list, there are some developing talents in the likes of Jabaal Sheard from New England and Nick Perry of Green Bay, both of whom are reasonably young and highly-rated. Two similar situations, but different types of player. Sheard could help a team with a 4-3 base defense, while Perry suits coming off the edge in a 3-4. Sheard has been solid in both pass rushing and run stopping for the Patriots over the past two seasons, and Perry, a former 1st round pick, is coming off an excellent 11.5 sack year for the Packers. Neither Sheard nor Perry is likely to command a high price, and therefore they are prime candidates to re-sign with their current teams. However, with their decent production and contributions this season, in a premium position, there will be plenty of teams sniffing around for these cheaper, reliable starters.
The Edge Rusher market also contains several older players that had productive walk years. Mario Addison, Erik Walden and Lorenzo Alexander had 9.5, 11 and 12.5 sacks respectively. These guys are all over 29, with Alexander likely on the home stretch of his career at 33. Their great 2016’s may push them to test their value one last time on the open market, but teams will be cautious committing to them at this age. At this position, there are some 33+ year old veterans still playing at a high level, but basically all of them have had All-Pro to Hall of Fame level careers such as Julius Peppers (who is another UFA, but contemplating retirement), DeMarcus Ware, and Cameron Wake. Nevertheless, teams are always on the lookout for effective pass rushers, and the trio of Addison, Walden and Alexander have shown themselves to be just that in 2016.
So to summarise the Edge Rusher market, it’s fair to say that teams looking for help in that department have a good range and variation in talent, age and price level, starting with the star trio of Ingram, Pierre-Paul, and Jones.
Defensive Tackle/Nose Tackle
This group is deep with high-level talent. Kawann Short is an absolute force both getting to the QB and stopping the run, and had a significant part in the Panthers’ run to Super Bowl 50. Short gets good sack/pressure numbers, and could slot in between Malik Jackson’s $14m APY and Fletcher Cox’s $17m.
Short is the clear top-dog, but the next tier is still riddled with talent. The likes of Dontari Poe, Johnathan Hankins, Bennie Logan and Brandon Williams are all excellent run defenders, and that makes them all mainly 3-4 Nose players, but several of them have been effective in a 4-3 scheme. They are all relatively young and either in or approaching their prime, so there will be plenty of demand as teams look to stop the young dangerous backs coming through like David Johnson, Le’Veon Bell and Ezekiel Elliott. Anywhere between $6m and $9m APY is a fair range for this group of tackles. Poe could require more than that as he has been dominant at times when fully healthy.
Safeties – Eric Berry headlines this group as one of the better defensive players in football. Also, Johnathan Cyprien, Tony Jefferson and Barry Church had big 2016 seasons and could attract some attention from teams that need help at the back of the defense.
Weakest Position Groups:
This one is an interesting one, as the top player, Calais Campbell, is one of the premier defenders in the NFL, but the rest of the group is relatively average. Chris Baker has been the lone spark in a weak Redskins line, but beyond that the best alternatives are Karl Klug, Damion Square and Lawrence Guy, all solid enough but mainly two-down run stuffers or injury-prone role players who can flash on their day.
Campbell is truly elite though, and at 31 years old, will surely be looking for a contender to compete for his first Super Bowl, and whether he sees Arizona as such is yet to be seen. Campbell would turn an already strong 3-4 into a true force. Despite his age, his performance level is still at the pinnacle of the position, and he should maintain his $10m APY.
Beyond Campbell, the 3-4 DE group just lacks difference makers, and that means that the draft could be an important source of DE’s for teams needing a boost at that spot.
This is an interesting one, as there is plenty of fluidity between linebacker positions, whether it is 4-3 MLB, 3-4 ILB, or 4-3 OLB. However, this Free Agent class features few players that are clearly considered 4-3 OLB specialists, or “scheme fits”.
Jamie Collins could have come into this position group as an UFA, but Cleveland recently snapped him up for four years, $50 million. The Browns employed Collins mainly on the outside in their 3-4 last season, but they are likely to move to a 4-3 for 2017, in which he will play a similar role as he did with the Patriots.
With Collins gone, it’s slim pickings for 4-3 OLBs. Malcolm Smith, the Super Bowl 48 MVP, and Jelani Jenkins are two of the bigger names, but neither has been a truly consistent performer for his team. Beyond that, there are only really solid two-down players like Josh Bynes of the Lions or Justin Durant of the Cowboys.
As I mentioned though, there’s plenty of movement between MLB/ILB/4-3 OLB positions, and guys like Dont’a Hightower and Zach Brown are talented and versatile enough to switch between any and all of these spots. Therefore, it is perhaps misleading to label the 4-3 OLB group as weak, but there just isn’t much depth for players that have recently and usually been used in that role.
Will Eddowes is a 20 year old college student from New Zealand. Will is in his third year of study at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, pursuing conjoint degrees in law and economics. Despite living so far away from football, Will has developed a strong passion for the game, particularly the front office aspects of salary cap analysis and team building/scouting. Follow Will on Twitter @WillEddowesNFL