The NFL’s free agency period officially begins Wednesday afternoon, with the “legal tampering” period starting Monday. All eyes will be on Kirk Cousins.
While there’s been some blowback over whether Cousins is really a top-10 quarterback and what he’s actually worth, this much is true: In the salary-cap era there has never been another quarterback like him to hit the market. Cousins will be 30 years old this season, has 13,176 yards and 81 touchdowns the past three seasons and isn’t coming off an injury. Thank the Washington Redskins’ mishandling of Cousins’ contract situation for one of the more intriguing free-agent stories in a while.
Cousins might not be the best player among free agents (though, he might be considering this isn’t a top-heavy free-agent class), but he’s certainly the most valuable. And he’ll be paid as such. Therefore, he leads our list of top 25 overall free agents as we get closer to the madness:
[For more, check out our top quarterbacks, top skill-position players, top defensive players and top offensive linemen available in free agency this offseason, as well as a look at team-by-team needs.]
1. QB Kirk Cousins
Not much more needs to be said about Cousins. The criticism of Cousins always fails to acknowledge that none of the quarterbacks you’d reasonably rank ahead of him are available. It would be no surprise if he lands with the Minnesota Vikings.
2. QB Case Keenum
It’s fine if you don’t think Keenum is the second-best player in free agency. But it’s a good bet he’ll get the second-largest contract. Keenum has more risk than Cousins because he has had only one good season, but it was a good season and it came at an age (29) in which it’s not unreasonable to think he was putting it all together in his first chance to play for a good team.
3. CB Trumaine Johnson
Johnson is a big, talented cornerback who is hitting the market because the Rams weren’t going to use a third franchise tag on him. He has played in zone-based defenses and man-based defenses, meaning he’ll appeal to any team looking for help at corner.
4. WR Allen Robinson
One concern worth noting is that the Jaguars didn’t franchise Robinson, despite having the cap space for it. Are they worried about Robinson’s knee after ACL surgery, or think his sluggish 2016 season was an accurate representation of who he is as a player? Some team will look at Robinson’s 2015 tape, when he went for 1,400-yards, and see him as a young No. 1 receiver for their offense.
5. OT Nate Solder
As discussed in the offensive line preview, offensive tackle is probably the thinnest position in free agency this season. Solder is a good, solid tackle who is about to get paid like an All-Pro due to supply and demand.
6. G Andrew Norwell
Norwell is coming off a true breakout, with an All-Pro season for the Panthers. Not long ago, paying a guard big money was seen as foolish. But players like Kevin Zeitler, Kelechi Osemele and Trai Turner have gotten huge deals recently, showing that teams have bumped up the value of interior offensive linemen.
7. DT Sheldon Richardson
Richardson’s off-field issues caused the Jets to trade him last year. He had a good season with the Seahawks, and is now ready to hit the market. Regardless of the baggage, he’s a highly skilled interior defensive lineman.
8. CB Malcolm Butler
Talk about highs and lows. He made perhaps the most impactful defensive play in NFL history to help the Patriots win a Super Bowl, then got mysteriously benched for another Super Bowl. The latter will have to be vetted by teams, but Butler is still a fine player at a valuable position.
9. WR Sammy Watkins
If a team needs a receiver but is worried about Allen Robinson’s knee, Watkins still has the combination of youth and promise. He didn’t get many yards but had eight touchdowns with the Rams last season. He’s no sure thing, but everyone remembers what a great prospect he was coming out of college.
10. DT Dontari Poe
Poe had to settle for a relatively modest one-year deal with the Falcons last season. It’s expected that won’t be the case this time around. Poe is big, athletic and still well in his prime.
11. DE Muhammad Wilkerson
It has to be concerning how Wilkerson’s play slipped after signing an $86 million deal with the Jets, and how he couldn’t even make it to meetings on time. He won’t get a mega-deal this time around, but some team will buy into getting a more focused Wilkerson.
12. TE Jimmy Graham
Graham is one of the few impact tight ends on the market. We all remember how good he was with the Saints. He is still playing at a Pro Bowl level and is a good option for a team that needs a jolt in the passing game.
13. DT Star Lotulelei
Lotulelei was a big-time prospect in college, and has been a good player for the Panthers. He’s at his best stopping the run, and quality big bodies in the middle of a defense are always in demand.
14. TE Trey Burton
Burton isn’t without risk. He has five career starts and 629 yards for the Eagles. But his five-touchdown season in a limited role opened some eyes and will have teams wondering what he can do when he’s not backing up Zach Ertz.
15. LB Nigel Bradham
Bradham is coming off two very good seasons with the Eagles. He plays every down and can stop the run or drop in coverage. His versatility makes him an asset.
16. CB Richard Sherman
Sherman’s release adds a big name to the market. If he was healthy, he’d probably be ranked higher. But an Achilles injury for a cornerback who will be 30 next season complicates things.
17. RB Carlos Hyde
Hyde will be an interesting case. He’s just 27, can catch the ball and has a 4.2-yard average, often playing in a bad 49ers offense. He also doesn’t have any 1,000-yard rushing seasons and teams looking for a running back should easily be able to find one in a deep draft class.
18. S Eric Reid
Reid is a strong safety who can play near the line but also cover. It will be interesting to see if Reid’s options in free agency are limited because he was one of the most prominent players who kneeled during the national anthem. After what happened to his former teammate Colin Kaepernick, it’s an issue worth tracking.
19. QB AJ McCarron
McCarron seems like this year’s Brock Osweiler or Mike Glennon. His status has grown based on a few starts (in 2015) and has apparently made teams forget that when he came out of college he was still available in the fifth round. Because quarterbacks are always at a premium, it seems like someone could overpay McCarron based on what he might become as a starter.
20. RB Dion Lewis
Lewis’ issue has never been a lack of talent. He’s a multi-faceted back who has a 4.8-yard career average running the ball. Health has been a major problem, but Lewis playing all 16 games last season for the first time in his career might make teams more comfortable with the risk.
21. LB Avery Williamson
Williamson developed nicely as a three-down linebacker for the Titans who can do a little bit of everything. He just turned 26 so he seems like a nice long-term investment.
22. S Morgan Burnett
Burnett had eight quality, productive seasons for the Packers. His value might lie in his ability to line up in a linebacker position in nickel defenses. That has plenty of appeal in today’s game.
23. QB Teddy Bridgewater
It’s hard to evaluate Bridgewater. He was coming along fine two years ago, a former first-round pick who did some good things for the Vikings. Then he suffered a knee injury so bad that it was feared he would lose his leg. He has thrown two passes in two seasons since the injury. If he can get back to 100 percent, it will be a nice investment for some team. But the risk is clear.
24. LB NaVorro Bowman
Bowman has had a borderline Hall-of-Fame career, and while injuries have cut into some of his effectiveness, he showed last season after he was signed by the Raiders that he can still be an impact player. His veteran leadership is also a plus.
25. WR Paul Richardson
Early on, Richardson’s development was slowed due to injuries. But last season he looked like the athlete Seattle thought it was getting in the second round of the 2014 draft. He can make some spectacular catches, and it seems like there’s another level possible for him on the right team.
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