The only certain thing about NFL free agency is that every year we can count on craziness to be part of the recipe.
NFL free agents have the opportunity to make huge splashes during the offseason that have long-lasting ramifications felt throughout the league. Especially this year, since many teams have truckloads of money to throw around.
We’ll be delving into some interesting scenarios on that note, predicting bold moves for the biggest NFL free agents on the market this spring.
It’s important to note we’re not including a few high-profile unrestricted free agents due to the simple fact that their respective teams have already made it clear they’re not going to let them hit the market.
Le’Veon Bell of the Pittsburgh Steelers will be slapped with the franchise tag if no long-term deal can be worked out. Pittsburgh has made it crystal clear that he’s one of their biggest priorities for both the short and long term. Chandler Jones of the Arizona Cardinals is in the same boat, with team president Michael Bidwill making that crystal clear in a recent interview, and the same goes for Kawann Short of the Carolina Panthers.
The same cannot be said for the following free agents, whose futures are very much up in the air. One thing we can be sure of, however, is that they will make some serious money wherever they land. With that in mind, we present the following bold predictions for the top NFL free agents in 2017.
1. Kirk Cousins teams up with Kyle Shanahan
It’s kind of crazy that, in this era when so many teams are without an elite quarterback, the Washington Redskins aren’t willing to pay Kirk Cousins top dollar to stay. A recent report indicates Washington isn’t eager to keep Cousins around and that he might end up in San Francisco with his old Redskins offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan (more on that here).
Washington would be absolutely crazy to not at least hit Cousins with the franchise tag for the second year in a row. Letting him hit free agency would be an epic blunder that would make its way on any list of worst personnel blunders in NFL history.
Assuming that doesn’t happen, the only way Cousins leaves Washington is via trade, but that’s not exactly out of the question. General manager John Lynch recently said the 49ers “absolutely” need to upgrade their quarterback situation. Colin Kaepernick could be on his way out the door, despite having a positive meeting with Lynch and Co. last week.
A feasible trade scenario could see the 49ers trade their No. 2 overall pick, their 2018 first-round pick and/or this year’s second-round pick to Washington in exchange for Cousins.
Washington could then either draft a young quarterback this year or next while moving on from a quarterback that apparently isn’t someone it views as a long-term solution. We’re not sure it would be a win-win, but the 49ers would sure be happy to walk away from this year’s draft with a proven gunslinger whose accuracy is his best asset.
2. Alshon Jeffery joins Cousins in San Francisco
If the 49ers are going to invest the draft capital needed to bring Cousins on board, then the franchise better be ready to provide him with weapons. Currently, the team’s best options at wide receiver are Torrey Smith, a deep threat who has floundered badly in San Francisco, and Bruce Ellington, who has 19 career receptions.
Jeffery’s value might have taken a slight hit this past season due to his four-game PED suspension. And there can be no doubt his injuries (2012 and 2015) will give some teams pause about throwing big money his way.
That said, Jeffery’s talent is undeniable. During his five-year career with the Chicago Bears, Jeffery has caught 304 yards for 4,549 yards (15 yards per catch) and 26 touchdowns.
One has to imagine those numbers might inflate a bit more if he’s playing in a Kyle Shanahan offense with a quarterback who throws pin-point passes on the regular. Adding a wideout of Jeffery’s caliber would instantly upgrade the team’s receiving corps and give them a chance to immediately challenge the tough defenses of the NFC West.
3. Dont’a Hightower takes a Lambeau Leap
The New England Patriots don’t want to lose Hightower, who is a tremendous run defender and blitzing linebacker on passing downs. Ian Rapoport of NFL Media reported recently the Pats might be willing to hit him with the transition tag in an attempt to keep him in 2017. However, that would only allow the Patriots to match any offer he receives on the market, which is why it’s a cheaper option than the franchise tag.
One team that desperately needs an answer at middle linebacker, even if only for the short term while they continue to search for a long-term answer in the draft, is the Green Bay Packers.
You know things are bad on this front when outside linebacker and pass-rushing specialist Clay Matthews has been the team’s best option the past couple of seasons. Matthews thrives on the outside, but he’s been forced to move inside far too often.
Packers general manager Ted Thompson said he’ll be aggressive during free agency this year. It’s something we’ve heard from him before, but he hasn’t followed through on the promise. A good start to keeping his promise this time around would be to land Hightower to anchor the inside linebacker position for Green Bay, thus keeping Matthews on the edge where he belongs.
4. Martellus Bennett becomes Jared Goff’s best friend
Based on some recent comments made by Bennett himself, nobody knows what he’s going to do in free agency this year. He recently hinted that staying in New England could be best for his off-field interests, which are a big deal to him. Then more recently he blew up over a report that he was seeking more money than Rob Gronkowski, only to later in the same Twitter rant sound off on people suggesting he take less money with New England than he could in free agency (more on all that here).
What we do know about Bennett is that he’s likely never going to get another chance to land a huge payday after he signs his next contract. He’s already 30 years old and has played for four teams during his nine-year career.
Bennett had his best touchdown-catching season to date (seven) this past year playing with Tom Brady. He is a good run blocker on top of being productive receiver and would be a tremendous security blanket for a young quarterback.
The Los Angeles Rams don’t have the kind of cap space you might expect from a team that has been a cellar dweller for so long. Still, there is enough money to retain cornerback Trumaine Johnson (a guy they’d ideally love to keep) and make a few more splashes in free agency.
Landing Bennett to give Jared Goff a set of reliable hands and a big body in the middle of the field would be a smart decision. He’d be an immediate upgrade at the tight end spot and would be an invaluable asset to help Goff improve in his second NFL season.
5. Calais Campbell lands payday in South Florida
The Miami Dolphins are good for at least one extravagant free agency signing a year. This year, they might actually pull off one that makes them better.
Campbell will have many suitors. He’s one of the premier 3-4 defensive ends in football and could probably be just as devastating a player in a 4-3 scheme. At 6-foot-8 and roughly 300 pounds of offensive-line-wrecking fury, Campbell is going to haul in at least one more huge payday before he retires.
Since his second year in the NFL, the former second-round pick out of Miami has started 120 games, racking up no less than five sacks every season while racking up nearly 500 total tackles. He can play inside or outside in any alignment and would be a huge upgrade over recently released Mario Williams, a player Miami picked up on the decline of his career.
Campbell is still just 30 years old and appears to have plenty of gas left in his tank. He’s been extremely durable and productive throughout his career. Miami would be smart to lay out the red carpet for this veteran, who would immediately improve a defense that needs help up front.
6. Kevin Zeitler lands huge contract to bolster Indy’s O-line
The first order of business rookie general manager Chris Ballard needs to address this offseason is protecting Andrew Luck. In addition to bringing in offensive linemen who can block on passing downs, this also means providing the assets for the Colts to run the ball effectively.
The Colts have over $50 million in cap space heading into free agency. And while this isn’t a great year to land an elite offensive tackle, there are better options at guard.
Free agent guard Kevin Zeitler is excellent in pass protection and is very efficient as a run blocker. Adding him to play inside along with center Ryan Kelly and guard Jack Mewhort (who would slide to the right side) would make Indianapolis’ offensive line quite formidable.
Guards aren’t typically viewed as big splashes. However, if the Colts landed Zietler this year it could have as much of a positive impact for them as Kelechi Osemele did for the Oakland Raiders last year.
7. A.J. Bouye joins youth movement in Jacksonville
— The MMQB (@theMMQB) February 25, 2017
The Jacksonville Jaguars have assembled a nice young group of defenders in recent years, including Dante Fowler Jr., Yannick Ngakoue, Sheldon Day, Myles Jack and Jalen Ramsey.
There is still some work left to fill out the defensive secondary, however. Davon House isn’t a serviceable second corner to play opposite Ramsey, and Prince Amukamara is an unrestricted free agent.
Red-hot free agent A.J. Bouye would be a fantastic addition to what Jacksonville is building on the defensive side of the ball.
He played in the slot primarily for Houston last year and can also play safety in certain packages. But he’s also got to be itching to prove he’s a legitimate top corner in this league, which means lining up on the outside and dominating.
The Jags have both the need and the means to bring a talented cornerback like Bouye into the fold. Teaming him up with Ramsey would give them quite the young duo, and it would keep him in the AFC South, where he’s played since joining Houston as an undrafted free agent out of UCF in 2013.
8. DeSean Jackson gives Famous Jameis another weapon
Almost as baffling as Washington’s stance regarding Kirk Cousins is the franchise’s willingness to let both DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon hit free agency. There is a good chance the Redskins will lose both receivers, too, despite the fact they led the team’s receiving corps last year.
Jackson has made a lot of news because of comments he made about potentially re-joining the Philadelphia Eagles now that Chip Kelly is no longer part of the equation.
However, another team, perhaps a dark horse to land the talented speedster, has emerged as a potential landing spot. It’s been reported that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could lasso Jackson — a move quarterback Jameis Winston wholeheartedly supports.
It makes perfect sense, too. Both from Jackson’s perspective and from the perspective of what Tampa Bay needs to take things to the next level as a true contender in the NFC.
The Bucs need to pair talented wideout Mike Evans with another talented receiver, and Jackson would be a perfect complement to what Evans can do. Both are deep threats, but whereas Evans is more of a perimeter guy who can make plays in the deep middle as well, Jackson’s quickness is perfect for the short and intermediate game underneath.
The Bucs have tons of cap space with which to lure Jackson to Tampa Bay. We’d love to see it happen.