Predicting where the top 20 NFL free agents will land

Vincent Frank
Written by Vincent Frank

Now that NFL free agency is officially set to start on Thursday, the time for rumors are nearing an end. It’s now about impending free agents putting pen to paper. Which of these top-end players will move on to new cities in 2017? Can we expect some huge surprises when contracts are officially signed? Those are two big questions heading into free agency.

In keeping with this theme, we look at our top-20 free agents for the 2017 class and where they might land.

From Terrelle Pryor looking to capitalize on a breakout 2016 season to a certain future Hall of Fame running back potentially trading in the purple for the black and silver, here are our projected landing spots for the top-20 free agents in the NFL this year.

Dontari Poe, defensive tackle, Kansas City Chiefs

Nov 22, 2015; San Diego, CA, USA; Kansas City Chiefs nose tackle Dontari Poe (92) reacts after scoring a touchdown during the first half of the game against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium. Kansas City won 33-3. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Even after coming to terms with Eric Berry on a long-term contract, Kansas City decided against placing the franchise tag on this former first-round pick. What is good news for Poe’s earning potential will leave a glaring hole in the middle of the Chiefs’ defense.

A freak of nature in every sense of the term, Poe has earned two Pro Bowl trips in his five-year NFL career. The former first-round pick did struggle more this season against the run than in the past, but he’s going to be a mainstay along the defensive line for the next half decade plus.

The better news for Poe is that he’s not a scheme-specific player. He can line up as a nose tackle in a 3-4 defense (zero technique) and can play inside at the one technique in a 4-3 defense. This seems to suggest Poe’s market will be overflowing when free agency starts.

With Poe unlikely to return to a cash-strapped Chiefs squad in free agency, we have to look at other teams with both the need and the financial ability to add someone of his ilk. It’s in this that the Oakland Raiders make sense. Poe would instantly upgrade the interior of their defensive line — adding someone to team up with the combination of Dan Williams and Justin Ellis.

Poe’s presence on the Raiders would also free up Khalil Mack from an edge rush position. Simply put, opponents would have to send double teams Poe’s way on a consistent basis. Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie has also made sure to target Chiefs free agents in the past with cornerback Sean Smith being the most-recent example. This would work out well for both Poe and the Raiders, leaving Kansas City out in the cold completely.

Prediction: Oakland Raiders 

Kevin Zeitler, guard, Cincinnati Bengals

Expected to demand $11-plus million in free agency, it sure looks like Zeitler won’t be returning to the Bengals. They have a cheaper alternative on the roster in the form of Christian Westerman, and really need to look at upgrading other positions of need. Eight figures is a ton of cash to pay for an interior lineman, cash the Bengals simply don’t have.

Zeitler was graded out as Pro Football Focuse’s seventh-best guard this past season. He’s surely already one of the best players at his position in the NFL.

But much like Poe, the number of teams interested in Zeitler will be limited due to his asking price. This leads us to believe the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be his eventual landing spot. The team signed J.R. Sweezy to an absurd five-year, $32.5 million contract last season. He didn’t play a single game after suffering an injury during the offseason.

Reality tells us that Tampa needs another top-end guard to play alongside the surprising Ali Marpet. If that’s the case, Zeitler could make a ton of sense. The Bucs are a projected $70 million under the cap. They can also afford to push Sweezy to a backup role considering he earned $9.5 million last season and is set to count just $5 million against the cap in 2017.

Prediction: Tampa Bay Buccaneers 

A.J. Bouye, cornerback, Houston Texans

Jan 7, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Texans cornerback A.J. Bouye (21) in action against the Oakland Raiders during the AFC Wild Card playoff football game at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Despite bigger names such as Stephon Gilmore and Logan Ryan on the market, Bouye is by far the top corner available for teams in need of help here.

The former undrafted free agent out of Central Florida took a full-time starting role this past season and didn’t look back. Bouye tallied 62 tackles and 16 passes defended while finishing as one of the top-five cover guys in the entire NFL.

It’s going to be interesting to see the market play out for Bouye. There’s two train of thoughts here. First off, even as the best of what is a solid crop of free-agent corners, there’s not a whole lot of sample size. Bouye has started a total of 19 games in four NFL seasons. This seems to suggest that he might fall short of the elite-level corner money we’ve seen Josh Norman and Patrick Peterson ink recently.

On ther other hand, with NFL’s cap going up $10-plus million for the fourth consecutive season, there’s a completely different market out there. That could suggest unusually large contracts for lesser-known players. While Bouye fits this category, he’s also a Pro Bowl caliber performer. After all, he posted an absurd 90.9 grade according to Pro Football Focus metrics last season.

While there’s certain to be a couple handful of teams make a play for Bouye, our expectation is that he will return to the Texans. Houston knows very well that its defense has been the bread-and-butter of the team’s success over the past couple years. Simply put, the Texans can’t afford to lose their best cover guy.

That’s only magnified by the fact that his play-making ability will be doubled moving forward with J.J. Watt returning to full health. Just imagine quarterbacks having to rush the ball to Bouye’s side of the field with Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus creating havoc in the offensive backfield.

Prediction: Houston Texans

Brandon Williams, defensive tackle, Baltimore Ravens

It’s looking more like the Ravens won’t be able to retain either tackle Rick Wagner or defensive tackle Brandon Williams. Such is the nature of the beast when you have $55 million in cap space allocated to just four players. Now just $14-plus million under the cap, Baltimore will likely have to look at in-house or cheaper alternatives to replace these two plus-level starters.

What’s bad news for Baltimore could end up being great news for a couple other teams out there. As it relates to Williams specifically, he’s about as dominating of a 3-4 defensive tackle as you can find in the NFL. But as we mentioned with Poe, he’s not solely limited to that role.

Williams, 28, has morphed into one heck of a player in his four professional seasons. A workout warrior at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine, this former Missouri Southern standout was a surprise third-round selection of the Ravens. All he has done is start 46 of a possible 48 games over the past three seasons — acting as an anchor along a Baltimore defensive line that’s been among the best in the business at stopping the run.

Coming off a 2016 campaign that saw them finish with the second-best run defense in the NFL, some figure the Tennessee Titans might not be in a market for a defensive tackle. That’s until we realize Williams’ primary responsibility in their scheme would be to take up double teams for edge pass rushers. This is an area Tennessee struggled in last season.

They yielded the third-most passing yards in the NFL. A more consistent pass rush would help in this area. And unlike other interior defensive linemen, Williams has proven he can also make an impact from that standpoint. That would surely help the likes of Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo continue to excel from the EDGE positions.

It’s also important to note that Tennessee has a cool $64.2 million to spend under the cap. Even if it were to add a Brandin Cooks in a trade, that’s still a whole heck of a lot of cash.

Prediction: Tennessee Titans 

Dont’a Hightower, linebacker, New England Patriots

Dont'a Hightower

It seems to be a foregone conclusion that New England won’t be able to retain Hightower. The team decided against placing either the franchise or transition tag on its former first-round pick. This, despite the fact that Hightower earned his first Pro Bowl nod in 2016.

We’ve seen this story repeated over and over again. The defending champs simply don’t value their soon-to-be free agents at the level of other teams. We can point to the team trading both Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins over the past calendar year. And while those trades seemed to suggest Hightower would be retained, letting him hit free agency throws that whole idea into question.

With Hightower set to test the free-agent market, he will be a highly-coveted option for other teams. A three-down linebacker that has proven himself to be solid in coverage, the five-year pro will draw interest from teams that run multiple defensive fronts.

Enter into the equation a Green Bay Packers squad that has stayed away from free agency in the recent past. It’s worked well for general manager Ted Thompson and Co., but the team simply needs to reverse course here. As evidenced last season, Green Bay hasn’t hit on enough draft picks to justify avoiding free agency. We touched on this recently, and it’s something that is seemingly in the minds of the Packers’ front office (more on that here).

If Green Bay were to actually sign a top-end free agent, it would be on the defensive side of the ball. More than that, it would have to be at linebacker. Former All Pro Clay Matthews has been tasked with playing inside linebacker far too often for this squad. It’s led to a lack of production from a pass-rush standpoint. That’s a clear indication inside linebacker will be a target. If so, why not go after the best of the bunch and make that one big splash?

Prediction: Green Bay Packers

DeSean Jackson, wide receiver, Washington Redskins

DeSean Jackson

Jackson may not have the same buzz surrounding him as he did during his days in Philadelphia, but the 30-year-old receiver is still highly productive. He put up the fifth 1,000-yard performance of his career this past season en route to leading the NFL with an average of 17.9 yards per reception.

That’s the type of down-field threat most teams around the NFL still covet. It’s also going to make Jackson a wanted man when free agency officially gets going on Thursday.

While the Eagles themselves have been bandied about as a potential landing spot, most recent rumors have linked Jackson to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This makes a ton of sense considering Jameis Winston and Co. are in need of a deep threat to team up with No. 1 receiver Mike Evans.

Winston himself has endorsed the idea of Jackson coming aboard. Meanwhile, this one report has Jackson signing with the Buccaneers at north of $12 million annually once he’s able to put ink to paper. It really makes too much sense at this point.

Prediction: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tony Jefferson, safety, Arizona Cardinals

A tremendous in-the-box safety, Jefferson recorded 92 tackles, two forced fumbles and two sacks in what was a Pro Bowl caliber performance for Arizona this past season. Despite this, it doesn’t seem like the Cardinals have any intention of going too far out of pocket to retain the strong safety.

“Various reports – fueled by speculation while agents and teams worked the Scouting combine in Indianapolis over the last week – have Jefferson potentially getting as much as a $10-million average on a new deal. Campbell is expected to get even more money than that,” the Cardinals’ official site noted on Monday. “Those numbers figure to price the Cardinals out of a reunion with either.”

That seems to be about as clear as it gets. If Jefferson isn’t retained by the Cardinals at $10-plus million annually, there’s surely going to be a ton of interest in his services. A safety that can dominate against the run is a very underrated facet of defenses in today’s NFL.

Enter into the equation a Colts team that is going to be moving on from two-time Pro Bowl safety Mike Adams next season. Adams himself suggested as much just recently.

Indianapolis finished in the bottom eight of the NFL this past season against the run and yielded an absurd 4.7 yards per rush. While the team’s defensive front needs to improve, getting a play-making in-the-box safety would sure help out.

With a projected $56 million to spend in free agency, Jefferson himself could very well be a top-end target for new general manager Chris Ballard and Co.

Prediction: Indianapolis Colts

Terrelle Pryor, wide receiver, Cleveland Browns

Cleveland Browns wide receiver Terrelle Pryor (11)

Pryor is one of those rare 27-year-old free agents that seems to be relying as much on upside as he is on production on the open market. Here’s a dude that’s coming off his first full season as a wide receiver in the NFL.

The former Oakland Raiders starting quarterback responded by putting up over 1,000 receiving yards for a horrible Browns team that boasted the worst quarterback situation in the NFL. Not only does that tell us a story of a pass catcher that has proven he can produce, it leads us to believe that Pryor is just scratching the surface.

Most figured Cleveland would do everything possible to retain Pryor. This included suggestions that it would potentially place the franchise tag on him. Once that didn’t happen, questions arose about whether Pryor would return to the Browns. Now, heading into free agency itself, the receiver seems to be questioning whether Cleveland is serious about him over the long term (more on that here).

The writing sure seems to be on the wall here. Despite proving itself to be among the most talent-stricken teams in the NFL, Cleveland might not be willing to match what will be a lofty asking price from Pryor in free agency.

One team that might decide upside is worth $10-plus million annually is Philadelphia. The Eagles have a major need at wide receiver — potentially even looking at bringing in two starter-caliber players at that position.

Jordan Matthews regressed big time in his third season with the team. Meanwhile, former first-round pick Nelson Agholor was so bad that he found himself benched throughout the 2016 campaign. This led to a disastrous effort from the Eagles’ wide receiver group for rookie quarterback Carson Wentz.

Already linked to Pryor, it seems to make too much sense. As mentioned above, the receiver has untapped potential. Add him to the mix with Wentz, and the sky could be the limit here. Flush with just $8.1 million to spend, Philadelphia would have to get creative here.

In no way does that mean the team won’t spend big on a receiver. After all, the Eagles have already been mentioned as a potential landing spot for Alshon Jeffery. If they are forced to go a tad cheaper, Pryor would be a nice alternative.

Prediction: Philadelphia Eagles

T.J. Lang, guard, Green Bay Packers

Lang might not set the market for guards in free agency, but he’ll surely come in just a notch below Kevin Zeitler. Having started 91 games over the past six seasons, Lang has been among the most consistent interior offensive linemen in the NFL during that span.

He’s performed well from both a pass-protecting and run-blocking standpoint during this span. And as the rest of the Packers’ offensive line has turned over during his tenure, Lang has acted as the one constant for Aaron dodgers. Despite this, the Packers seem content with letting Lang walk.

If that’s the case, we fully expect the division-rival Minnesota Vikings to come knocking. Not only would this take a stud lineman away from Green Bay, it would fill a major hole for the Vikings.

Sure they need to add a left tackle to the mix, and that’s definitely going to happen at some point. But why not fortify the interior of the team’s offensive line in the process? Lang teaming up with Alex Boone would be all sorts of sexy. And if the Vikings are then able to add a blindside protector for Sam Bradford, a major weakness turns into a strength for a squad that disappointed big time during the 2016 season.

Prediction: Minnesota Vikings

Alshon Jeffery, wide receiver, Chicago Bears

Despite the fact that he’s coming off two consecutive substandard seasons, Jeffery hits free agency as the most-prized offensive player on the market. The talent here is undeniable as evidenced by the combined 2,554 yards and 17 touchdowns he put up during a two-year span back in 2013-14.

Most experts won’t hold Jeffery’s lack of tremendous production the past two seasons against him. He was still able to put up a combined 1,628 yards with the likes of Jay Cutler, Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley tossing him the rock.

The issue here is that Jeffery is coming off a 2016 campaign that saw him suspended four games for violating the NFL’s PED policy. That’s a problem for teams. It will also dictate how much of a ceiling Jeffery has when it comes to earning potential on his new contract.

With all that said, we still fully expect Jeffery to receive north of $13 million annually. Philadelphia, Tennessee and San Francisco have all been linked to the former Pro Bowler. Heck, Chicago has reportedly shown an interest in bringing him back. Whether that’s realistic is anyone’s guess.

What we do know is that San Francisco will have north of $95 million to spend in free agency. It also just released former high-priced free agent signing Torrey Smith — creating more room under the cap as well as a need for a No. 1 wide receiver. Also important to note here, new 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan had a tremendous amount of success working with Julio Jones in Atlanta. Jeffery is the same type of receiver with the same build and nearly the exact skill set. It’s a match made in heaven for both sides.

Prediction: San Francisco 49ers

Calais Campbell, defensive end, Arizona Cardinals

Could Calais Campbell land with the Redskins?

Despite being up there in age at 30 years old, Campbell remains a highly productive player. He put up 53 tackles and eight sacks in a Pro Bowl caliber performance for Arizona this past season.

Also working to Campbell’s advantage here is the fact that he can play both defensive tackle and defensive end. This is a clear indication that he’ll receive a ton of interest on the free-agent market. At this point, it seems highly unlikely that Arizona will be able to retain Campbell after placing the franchise tag on fellow pass rusher Chandler Jones. That leaves the Cardinals out of the equation here.

Both the Washington Redskins and Jacksonville Jaguars have reportedly shown interest in the impending free agent. Of the two, Washington seems to be the best fit. He can play end in the team’s 3-4 scheme and would help offset the loss of Trent Murphy, who will be suspended for the first four games of the season due to violating the NFL’s PED policy.

Prediction: Washington Redskins 

Johnathan Cyprien, safety, Jacksonville Jaguars 

We’re pretty surprised that Jacksonville wasn’t able to lock up Cyprien long term before his rookie contract expired. The former second-round pick has improved in each of his first four NFL seasons. He’s also coming off a 2016 campaign that saw him record 126 tackles as an in-the-box strong safety.

Much like Jefferson before, there’s definitely going to be a solid market for Cyprien’s services. We’re looking at him getting $10-plus million on an annual basis.

With Barry Church set to become a free agent and unlikely to return to the mix, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Dallas Cowboys pay very close attention to Cyprien’s market. Sure the defending NFC East champs are not in the best of cap situations, but this is an area the team might target. The idea of teaming Cyprien up with cover safety Byron Jones just seems to make too much sense.

Prediction: Dallas Cowboys 

Nick Mangold, center, New York Jets

Nick Mangold

A seven-time Pro Bowl performer, Mangold has been the best center in the NFL over the past decade. If you question that conclusion, it would be hard to argue the fact that he’s been the most consistent at his position during this span.

Interestingly enough, some teams have reportedly reached out to Mangold to play guard (via ESPN). This does nothing but expand the market for the future Hall of Fame offensive lineman. Though, it’s questionable to believe a 33-year-old center could transition to guard this late in his career.

What we do know is that Mangold will likely look to catch on with a contender. Considering he’s still going to earn a nice payday, that will limit the market for the veteran’s services.

Why not look at the Seattle Seahawks as a potential landing spot? Seattle needs upgrades at tackle, guard and center this offseason. Heck, an argument could be made that the team could use four new starters.

The idea here would be to move Justin Britt back to his natural guard position while inserting Mangold in at center. That would be akin to killing two birds with one stone. It makes too much sense not to happen.

Prediction: Seattle Seahawks 

Logan Ryan, cornerback, New England Patriots

Ryan has been so consistently good in his four years with New England that he might have priced himself out of the team’s market. The expectation here is that Ryan will receive north of $10 million on the open market. That makes sense considering he’s coming off a 2016 campaign that saw him record 92 tackles and 11 passes defended.

Ryan might not be a tremendous cover guy, but he makes up for it in other aspects of the game. He’s strong in run support and has been among the best pass-rushing corners in the NFL.

It’s a role very few defenses rely on from their cornerbacks. That’s to say, most aren’t focused on sure tackling, an in-the-box presence and blitz capabilities. Though, one team that might very well look to add a player of that ilk are the Los Angeles Rams.

Top cover guy Trumaine Johnson signed his franchise tag tender on Monday. Adding someone of Ryan’s ilk to play opposite him would be an extremely good fit in Wade Phillips’ defense.

Prediction: Los Angeles Rams

Stephen Gilmore, cornerback, Buffalo Bills

Gilmore had himself a down season in 2016. More than anything, the former first-round pick struggled allowing the big play. He yielded a 60.3 completion percentage and 15.6 yards per catch last season.

The good news here is that Gilmore has played 95 percent of Buffalo’s defensive snaps in three of his five seasons with the team. He’s continually on the opposition’s top receiver and has proven himself more than capable. That’s big news in an NFL where proven corners are a rare breed.

This also means that Gilmore himself will be vastly overpaid on the free-agent market. Look for a team with an excess of cash and a need at that position to throw the gold at Gilmore. Our prediction is that Tennessee looks to fortify its defense by adding a true starter in the secondary. It has the money. It has the need. And the team will surely be targeting Gilmore from the start.

Prediction: Tennessee Titans 

Kenny Britt, wide receiver, Los Angeles Rams

Despite dealing with a disastrous quarterback situation in Los Angeles last season, Britt still found a way to put up the first 1,000-yard performance of his eight-year career. Some will be thrown off because it happened in a contract year. We’re here to say that the skepticism isn’t warranted. Britt had to catch passes from a raw Jared Goff and an overmatched Case Keenum in an NFC West that included two tough defenses in Arizona and Seattle. That justifies him being put in the top 20 here.

Likely in the second tier when it comes to money on the market, it doesn’t look like Britt will be returning to the Rams in 2017.

Though, the presence of former Rams wide receivers coach Mike Groh in Philadelphia could signal a reunion of sorts. While we already have the Eagles landing Terrelle Pryor, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the team sign two starter-caliber receivers in free agency. Outside of the connection with Groh, it sure looks like Philly is interested in Britt.

“The Philadelphia Eagles are expected to show interest in free-agent wide receiver Kenny Britt, according to league sources,” ESPN’s Tim McManus reported on Monday.

If the Eagles were to add two receivers of substance for Carson Wentz, the combination of Pryor and Britt would make a ton of sense. As to where Pryor could act as a deep threat, Britt himself would become the team’s top possession receiver — providing Wentz with consistency on third-down situations.

Prediction: Philadelphia Eagles

Larry Warford, guard, Detroit Lions

Having started 57 of a possible 64 games in four seasons with Detroit, Warford has proven himself to be an above-average starter in the NFL. And while his game hasn’t taken off like many expected it would following a tremendous rookie season, he’s been solid all the way around. Reports seem to suggest that Warford is looking at around $8 million per season. If so, this places him in the ballpark of multiple teams in need of interior offensive line help.

Our first thought was for Detroit to somehow figure out how to retain their former third-round pick. Now that he’s not looking at $10-plus million annually, that’s even magnified further. The Lions need to retain as much talent as possible to contend with Green Bay and Minnesota in the NFC North. Keeping Warford in the mix would be huge for the team. Look for them to do just that.

Prediction: Detroit Lions

Johnathan Hankins, defensive tackle, New York Giants

Hankins, a former second-round pick from Ohio State, has been a stud for the Giants in his three seasons as a full-time starter. During that span, the 24-year-old defensive tackle has record 10 sacks, three forced fumbles and 124 tackles. These aren’t tremendous numbers, but they don’t tell the entire story.

An anchor for the Giants during these three years, Hankins has been equally good getting to the quarterback and stuffing the run. He’s also as versatile as it gets. Here, you can see the youngster rushing from the end position.

He also finished the 2015 campaign as the NFL’s third-best run-stuffing defensive tackle, according to Pro Football Focus. That’s a whole lot of ability and untapped potential from a guy that’s already playing like a Pro Bowl caliber performer. It’s in this that we’re looking for San Francisco to make another splash along the defensive line.

Having already added Earl Mitchell to the mix, the 49ers have made it known they’re looking to upgrade the interior of their defensive line. That makes sense considering this team ranked dead last against the run last season. Adding Hankins to go with Mitchell inside would be absolutely huge here. Enter into the equation defensive ends Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner, and that makes for one of the most-talented defensive lines in the NFL.

Prediction: San Francisco 49ers

Brandon Marshall, wide receiver, New York Jets

New England Patriots. We’re not sure there’s much more to add here. It just makes too much sense. Immediately after Marshall was released by the Jets earlier this month, reports surfaced that the defending champs might be a potential landing spot. Why not?

Marshall is that possession receiver Tom Brady could use to go with Chris Hogan and Julian Edelman. This is to say, the veteran can add another dimension to New England’s offense by giving Brady a large and consistent target on third-down opportunities. It would also be a way for the team to overcome the potential departure of tight end Martellus Bennett in free agency.

The major question here is whether Marshall will take less cash in an attempt to go out on top. The former Pro Bowl receiver balked at the idea of making $7.5 million per season when he was a member of the Jets. He won’t earn that on a deal with New England. But Marshall surely would have an opportunity to stick it to the Jets while competing for a Super Bowl title.

Prediction: New England Patriots 

Adrian Peterson, running back, Minnesota Vikings

Adrian Peterson

With just 20 games under his belt since the end of the 2013 season, Peterson isn’t going to be a highly-coveted free agent. He’s on the wrong side of 30, missed all but three games to injury last season and seems to have a higher opinion of himself than his market will dictate.

In no way does this mean Peterson won’t catch on as a starter. Remember, he led the NFL in rush attempts, rushing yards and rushing touchdowns back in 2015. Sure recency bias tells us a different story, but there appears to be some tread left on these tires. Linked to everyone from Dallas to New England, we’re expecting Peterson to target a team that has the ability to contend for the Lombardi in 2017.

That brings us to the Oakland Raiders, who were one of the first teams linked to Peterson after Minnesota declined his option for the 2017 season. Latavius Murray is likely set to walk in free agency, leaving Oakland with a gaping hole at running back. Just imagine a rejuvenated Peterson teaming up with Derek Carr, Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree on Oakland’s offense. Man, that would be a sight to behold.

Prediction: Oakland Raiders

About the author

Vincent Frank

Vincent Frank

Editor-at-large, Sportsnaut.

“You were born with wings, why prefer to crawl through life?” Rumi