NFL

Ten NFL free agents teams can’t afford to lose

NFL free agents
Jesse Reed
Written by Jesse Reed

There are some indispensable players set to potentially become untethered, unrestricted NFL free agents this March.

We’re talking about guys who will be desperately missed if they move on from their current teams, which still have a chance to lock them up before the new league year begins.

Among the players we’ll be featuring shortly include an up-and-coming defensive star, a raw, yet immensely talented receiver, a veteran safety looking for a huge payday and a franchise passer who might be on the outs with his current squad.

The following 10 players are soon to be free agents who’ll be desperately missed if they move on to greener pastures.

Tony Jefferson, safety, Arizona Cardinals

NFL Free agents, Tony Jefferson

The Cardinals have three big-time free agent defenders they’d love to keep this offseason — defensive end Calais Campbell, pass rusher Chandler Jones and Jefferson.

Team president Michael Bidwell has already made it clear he’ll use the franchise tag to retain Jones (more on that here) so it could come down to keeping Jefferson or Campbell in the end. The Cardinals will likely have to choose, simply because keeping both players on top of paying Jones will be too expensive.

Of the two, we’re giving Jefferson a higher value to Arizona, which features an up-and-coming star in Robert Nkemdiche, who’ll be entering his second season in 2017 and could be viewed as the long-term replacement for Campbell.

Jefferson is a player we highlighted as one who’s about to make some big money this spring. A do-it-all safety who is dangerous in the box against the run and as a pass-rusher off the edge, he is just starting to come into his own and meshes well with the other talented players featured in Arizona.

Still, it won’t be surprising whatsoever if Jefferson ends up on another team. He’s going to be in high demand and could end up out of Arizona’s price range. If he does end up bolting, then the Cardinals will be left with a huge hole to fill on the back end of their defense.

Terrelle Pryor, wide receiver, Cleveland Browns

Terrelle Pryor

It would be just like Cleveland to let another talented player leave in free agency, only to become a star for another team (like Taylor Gabriel did last year). Hopefully for Browns fans, the brass in Cleveland does what it takes to keep Pryor in house this spring.

The latest news on this front is that the Browns aren’t going to use the franchise tag to retain Pryor but would still like to sign him to a long-term deal.

In his first season as a full-time receiver, Pryor caught 77 passes for 1,007 yards and four touchdowns playing with sub-par quarterbacks. An outstanding athlete who came into the NFL as a quarterback himself, Pryor is still in the infancy stages of his development. It stands to reason that he’ll only improve going forward.

It remains to be seen if the team’s quarterback situation will improve this year, but we have to believe Hue Jackson will land “his guy” at some point in the near future. And when that happens, that guy will need talented receivers on the roster, something that has proven difficult in recent years. Rookie Corey Coleman was tremendous when he played, but there aren’t many other options going forward.

Fumbling this exchange would be devastating to a team that cannot afford any more missteps.

Brandon Williams, nose tackle, Baltimore Ravens

Brandon Williams

The Ravens have already targeted Williams as a key cog they can’t afford to lose this spring.

“He’s an ‘A’ player for us,” assistant general manager Eric DeCosta said, via the team’s official website. “He’s a rock inside. This guy can stuff the run, he can rush the quarterback, he can do everything we want him to do.”

Williams himself isn’t sure what the future holds. He recently made comments that make us believe he’ll be testing his value in free agency. We can’t blame him. Soon to be 28 years old, the nose tackle is going to be highly coveted by teams running a 3-4 or a variation of this scheme, like the one Gus Bradley and his pupils run.

As a third-round pick out of Missouri Southern State, nobody really knew if Williams was going to become a star in the NFL. He quickly answered that question in his second year, starting 14 games for Baltimore in 2014. He hasn’t missed a game since then, dominating the trenches with his 6-foot-1, 335-pound, low-center-of-gravity body.

Williams does a lot that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet, and if he does bolt the Ravens will have a hard time replacing him.

Larry Warford, offensive guard, Detroit Lions

Offensive guards don’t get a lot of love from the national media. In fact, the only time you hear about many of them on Sundays is if they’ve just committed a holding penalty that negates a big play. That doesn’t mean they don’t hold immense value.

Warford is the first of two offensive guards who show up on this list. His ability to protect quarterback Matthew Stafford on passing downs is extremely underrated, and he’s one of the best run-blocking guards the Lions have had in ages.

Already with four years of experience, the 25-year-old road grader has already made it clear he loves Detroit while keeping his options open in free agency.

“I have my family to think about, too,” Warford said, per Kyle Meinke of MLive.com. “I’m starting up a family, so that’s going to factor in. There are going to be a lot of factors in it, but I’m not thinking too much about it right now. I just want to get my mind off of football for a while, recharge and get ready to hit this offseason pretty good.”

Detroit isn’t the only team that needs a top-notch guard. There are plenty of others, including ones with some huge cap space to work with. The Lions very well could see their best offensive guard walk in free agency this year, which doesn’t bode well for the team’s running game or its franchise passer.

Kawann Short, defensive tackle, Carolina Panthers

Kawann Short

One of the most disruptive interior defensive linemen in the NFL, Short is a veritable giant in the middle of Carolina’s defense.

Originally a second-round pick out of Purdue, it took Short a year and a half to gain a starting role with the Panthers. Once that was settled, he settled into that role quite nicely, racking up 20.5 sacks, including 11 in 2015. He also hauled in 156 tackles in his last three seasons, proving as productive against the run as he was rushing the passer.

As a result of his immense value to Carolina, it seems inevitable that Short will be hit with the franchise tag. Head coach Ron Rivera indicated as much recently.

We’re not convinced Short will be amenable to such an arrangement. He was not happy about his contract situation last summer before the season began, and the Panthers will almost certainly have to put up or shut up to keep him satisfied in the long term. Who can forget what happened last year with cornerback Josh Norman, after all?

Panthers fans better pray their team values Short more than it did Norman, who more than proved his worth simply by not being there for Carolina in 2016.

T.J. Lang, offensive guard, Green Bay Packers

T.J. Lang

One of the best pass-blocking guards in football, Lang’s services will be highly valued around the NFL this March.

Interestingly, Lang recently said the Packers have yet to reach out to him about working on a new deal before free agency opens up in March.

The 29-year-old guard is likely not someone quarterback Aaron Rodgers is keen on losing. But Green Bay appears to be less interested in making Lang a priority than one would imagine. The team has some big decisions to make, such as whether to re-sign pass rusher Nick Perry, who had a breakout campaign with 11 sacks in 2016.

General manager Ted Thompson recently said the Packers will be aggressive in free agency. This scribe thinks they should be aggressive about retaining Lang, who won’t be easily replaced if he ends up signing elsewhere.

Mike Adams, safety, Indianapolis Colts

Mike Adams returns an INT

The Colts have a new sheriff in town, rookie general manager Chris Ballard. It will be interesting to see what he decides to do about Adams, who has been the best secondary defender the Colts have featured the past few years.

Soon to be 36 years old, Adams could be deemed too old to keep around, especially in light of the team’s decision to cut veteran linebacker D’Qwell Jackson. That said, the Colts don’t exactly have anyone currently on their roster who can make up for the steady production, not to mention the leadership, Adams has provided.

Since joining Indianapolis as a free agent in 2013, Adams has put together the best statistical seasons in his 13-year career. Nabbing five interceptions in both 2013-14, he hauled in two more last season and was stellar in run support.

We won’t be surprised if the Colts do decide to move on and go younger at the safety position. Especially if they can lure in a guy like, say, Tony Jefferson. Just don’t be surprised if they also see a drop-off in production at the safety position the next couple of years.

Le’Veon Bell, running back, Pittsburgh Steelers

Let’s get this out of the way. The Steelers aren’t going to let Bell leave Pittsburgh without a fight. In fact, there is a good chance they will use the franchise tag to keep him locked into place.

It’s something that has been reported as a given since January, yet just this past week the Steelers wouldn’t commit to it. This leaves the door cracked ever so slightly for the possibility to exist that Bell could land somewhere else.

If the Steelers didn’t use the franchise tag option on Bell, then we have to believe he will get some seriously big offers, despite his mistakes in the past with marijuana.

And if he leaves, the Steelers will be in quite the bind. Unlike most situations around the league, Bell is not just another running back who can be replaced with a middle-round pick. He’s a unique player who has but one equal in the league (Arizona’s David Johnson), and even that’s very much up for debate.

Losing Bell this year, especially given Ben Roethlisberger’s advanced age and ever-devolving mobility, not to mention fellow free agent DeAngelo Williams’ age, would be a crippling blow to Pittsburgh’s offense.

Eric Berry, safety, Kansas City Chiefs

NFL free agents, Eric Berry

That Berry is one of the premier safeties in the NFL is something that is not up for debate. One of the most consistent secondary players at any position around the league, he’s just as dangerous in the box on running plays as he is covering the back end.

He’s also a home-run threat (five career pick-sixes), something we saw in full effect last year when the Chiefs played against the Atlanta Falcons (watch here).

Berry isn’t going to come cheap, either for the Chiefs or any other team. In fact, he’s extremely resistant to being hit with the franchise tag for the second year in a row and has made it clear he isn’t interested in playing in 2017 for Kansas City if they do choose that route.

Since coming back from successfully beating Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2015, Berry has hauled in six interceptions, including two he took to the house for six. He has also defended another 19 passes and has made some huge stops in the box. He’s the complete package and would be desperately missed by the Chiefs if he ends up on another team in 2017.

Kirk Cousins, quarterback, Washington Redskins

Kirk Cousins' future in Washington is up in the air

There is a lot of intrigue surrounding Cousins and his future.

He’s indicated he’d be willing to sign another franchise tag for this season, which would pay him $24 million guaranteed. That would put his two-year earnings at $44 million, which is pretty darn good, while still essentially guaranteeing he hits free agency or is signed to a long-term contract by Washington before the 2018 free-agency period begins. The reason for this is that, given the escalators with the franchise tag, he’d be due another $35 million or so in 2018. That’s not happening.

Another thing that might not be happening is Cousins getting tagged this year by Washington. One report indicates there is “internal resistance” to using the franchise tag on Cousins, and it’s also been reported that Cousins himself might not be so hot about a long-term future with the organization.

There are at least two teams linked to Cousins, should he become available. Both the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers have been reported as eager to land the quarterback.

It’s not surprising, either. All he’s done the past two years is pass for 9,083 yards with 54 touchdowns and 23 interceptions while starting all 32 games.

Should he find himself on another roster in 2017, then Washington would be in quite a bad spot at the quarterback position. Unless of course the ultimate goal was landing a top pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, which could feature a bumper crop for top quarterbacks.

About the author

Jesse Reed

Jesse Reed

Managing Editor here at Sportsnaut. Featured on Yardbarker, Foxsports.com and MSN.com, and formerly was a breaking news writer/NFL analyst for Bleacher Report.