The NFL free agency period each year always generates plenty of buzz, but 2015 just may be the best class to date. Although dozens of high-profile starters potentially in play will be locked up by their current teams within days of their final game of the season.
There are, however, a handful of elite offensive weapons almost certain to test the waters of free agency and entertain serious offers from other teams. Here are five potential game-changers willing and wanting to be wooed.
Randall Cobb, Wide Receiver, Green Bay Packers
Of all the teams with high-profile offensive weapons set to become free agents in 2015, there’s probably no team that regrets not working out an extension prior to the season more than the Packers with wide receiver Randall Cobb. With his previous best season coming in 2012, uncomfortably sandwiched between two very mediocre ones, re-signing him shouldn’t have been that difficult.
Green Bay was able to lockup Aaron Rodgers’ favorite target in Jordy Nelson for four-years, but according to Fox Sports, Cobb simply hadn’t “done enough” to warrant the same consideration. Well, that is no longer the case. He’s having the best season of his career and is on pace to finish with upwards of 1,400 yards and 13 touchdowns. And Cobb won’t even by 25 till late August.
Despite thumbing their noses at him last summer, the Packers do still have Rodgers’ high-octane, stat-swelling offense working in their favor. But Cobb is going to have options and he may already be tired of co-starring in the Jordy Nelson show. He may even be able to get a deal that rivals or exceeds Nelson’s outside of Green Bay.
Julius Thomas, Tight End, Denver Broncos
To this point Broncos tight end Julius Thomas has yet to hit 500 yards receiving on the season, but his 10.7-yard average per reception and 12 touchdowns are more than enough to position him as the most bankable free agent tight end in 2015. The 26-year-old also happens to be one of the youngest players at his position—or any position, really—set to hit the open market.
A fourth-round pick out of Portland State in 2011, Thomas combined for a grand total of five yards in the nine games he dressed for the Broncos in his first two years in Denver. Buoyed by the presence of Peyton Manning, this season he became the first tight end in NFL history with 12-plus touchdowns in consecutive years. There’s no question John Elway would like to bring him back, but with limited cap space and a whole slew of expiring contracts to contend with, including that of wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, tough decisions are on the horizon.
Considering his limited resume, Thomas is more likely to be dismissed in Denver as a commodity created by Manning, and therefore both expendable and replaceable. But that doesn’t mean he won’t excel elsewhere, especially if he lands with a team that is just one or two weapons shy of really competing.
Jeremy Maclin, Wide Receiver, Philadelphia Eagles
Eagles wide receiver Jeremy Maclin showed an awful lot of promise in his first four seasons in Philadelphia, that despite dealing with a number of unfortunate injuries and playing second banana to DeSean Jackson. In January he had to choose between a modest five-year deal, the terms of which were not released, or a one-year contract worth upwards of $6 million with incentives.
Rather than settle for something that may have been in the range of the five-year, $22 million deal mediocre teammate Riley Cooper settled for in the offseason, Maclin decided to gamble on himself finally reaching the 1,000-yard mark and establishing himself as one of the NFL’s best at the position. It was a gamble that is likely to pay off big time for 26-year-old Maclin, whose career-best stats this season put him among heavyweights like Jordy Nelson, Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant.
When he signed in February, Maclin said he wasn’t thinking of it as a one-year deal, but circumstances in Philly have changed. There are decisions to be made at the quarterback position, with Nick Foles going into the final year of his rookie contract and Mark Sanchez set to become a free agent. Then there’s Maclin’s relationship with Cooper, which is icy on its best days. It may have been Maclin’s intention to stay in Philadelphia, but that’s not going to happen.
That means one of the best wideouts in the NFL, and his drama-free personality, is up for grabs. And Maclin is going to come cheaper than Dez Bryant.
Mark Ingram, Running Back, New Orleans Saints
A Heisman-winning running back out of SEC powerhouse Alabama, Mark Ingram was the first-round selection of the Saints in 2011, one year removed from their Super Bowl XLIV win over the Colts. After three very underwhelming seasons in New Orleans mired by injury and dragged down by all the baggage that comes with being labeled a “bust,” Ingram is on pace for the first 1,000-yard season of his career. And his timing couldn’t be better.
The cash-strapped Saints (understandably) declined Ingram’s fifth-year option last offseason and are in no better position now than they were then to lock him down longterm. There is always the chance GM Mickey Loomis will use the franchise tag on Ingram, who is only 24 and has very little mileage on him, but even that may not be financially feasible for a rapidly sinking Saints team that looks to be anything but a position player or two away from salvaging the ship.
Ingram is almost certain to attract some significant interest as he tests the waters of free agency. Surely there will be one or two desperate teams willing to vastly overpay him, but if Ingram chooses the wrong situation, it could be the last big payday of his career. Signing a less lucrative one or two-year deal with a contender could set him up for longterm success and an even bigger payday from a better team that could be concerned this season was a fluke. Suppose it just depends on how much Ingram believes in his future.
Dez Bryant, Wide Receiver, Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys have been attempting to resign wide receiver Dez Bryant for awhile now, but despite the confidence of Jerry Jones that a deal will ultimately get done, there is no indication the significant gap between the two sides has begun to close. Jones has maintained publicly the organization has offered “some really nice contracts” to Bryant, who has, in turn, publicly warned them about disrespecting him with anymore lowball offers.
Adding to the problem in big-spending Dallas is the epic season in progress of running back DeMarco Murray, who is also set to become a free agent next year. That’s in addition to a number of other starters with expiring contracts. Which means that without substantial salary cuts, keeping Murray and Bryant might not even be possible. At this point you have to get the sense that Bryant’s loyalty and respect might cost a smidgen more than the Cowboys are willing to pay, making Murray’s price tag look all the more reasonable by comparison.
The difference between Bryant and everyone else on this list, including Murray, is that he’s a proven commodity whose success cannot be dismissed as a one or two-year fluke. He’s been one of the most explosive playmakers in the NFL the last four seasons, having improved his game along the way. Bryant has also matured, with the off-the-field issues that plagued him early in his career seemingly behind him.
Come January, all eyes will be on Dez, the biggest, loudest, flashiest and most expensive fish in the free agent sea. He also happens to be the most talented.