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Michael Conroy/Associated Press
It’s decision-making time for the NFL‘s 32 teams.
In advance of free agency next month, decisions have to made in regard to retaining free agents. For restricted free agents, it’s a relatively simple (and cheap) proposition. If they’ve performed well at all, they stay.
For unrestricted free agents, it’s another story. For starters, the league’s teams have wildly varying resources. The Indianapolis Colts have well over $100 million to spend on free agency, per Over the Cap. The Philadelphia Eagles are over $15 million in the hole.
Then there are the players themselves. Any number of factors can impact the viability of keeping a player around. Ability and performance are big ones, of course. So is the age of the player and his assumed price tag. There are some players teams would love to retain but can’t due to the realities of their cap situation.
After taking all of those factors into consideration, though, there’s still one player on each team who stands out above the others—a player who each team must prioritize bringing back. A player too valuable to let walk out the door.
The players listed here.
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Ralph Freso/Associated Press
Edge-Rusher Markus Golden
The bad news for the Arizona Cardinals is that the team with the worst record in the NFL in 2018 doesn’t have any free agents who are no-brainers to bring back—not after re-upping wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald to a one-year deal.
The good news for the Arizona Cardinals is that not being locked into any of the team’s in-house free agents offers the team a level of flexibility. There are a great many directions the team could go in when free agency opens.
Still, a strong argument can be made that re-upping edge-rusher Markus Golden is a wise course of action.
Yes, Golden has just 2.5 sacks over the past two years combined. But it wasn’t hard to see in 2018 that the ACL tear Golden suffered in 2017 was still a factor.
This is a player who exploded for 51 tackles and 12.5 sacks for the Cardinals in 2016. Now two years removed from his injury, Golden should be 100 percent.
And after a down 2018, Golden’s upside may be available at a discount.
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Defensive Tackle Grady Jarrett
Among the NFL’s young defensive tackles, there isn’t one who has provided his team with more bang for their buck than Atlanta’s Grady Jarrett. A fifth-round pick back in 2015, Jarrett topped 50 tackles for the second straight season in 2018, adding six sacks and three forced fumbles. Both were career bests.
And he did that for a salary that was less than $2 million.
The bill for that production (and Jarrett’s ascension) has come due now, and Falcons general manager Thomas Dinitroff told Will McFadden of the team’s website that Jarrett is the team’s No. 1 offseason priority.
“Priority is to jump into focusing on Grady,” he said, “and trying to get that taken care of, and then move towards Julio (Jones), of course. And then we have some other guys, and then obviously looking to free agency as well. We just need to start homing in on our finance situation and see where we are.”
The Falcons aren’t in especially great shape against the cap, but the team has already released veteran cornerback Robert Alford in an effort to free up wiggle room.
Whether it’s on a multi-year deal or the franchise tag, a big chunk of that money needs to be earmarked for the Falcons’ best defensive lineman.
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Inside Linebacker C.J. Mosley
The Baltimore Ravens have a general manager in Eric DeCosta, and DeCosta’s first offseason isn’t going to be an easy one. The Ravens possess just under $22 million in cap space, according to Over the Cap, and face a number of free-agent decisions. That’s especially true at linebacker, where edge guys Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith and inside ‘backer C.J. Mosley could hit the open market.
Per Ryan Mink of the team’s website, DeCosta indicated that locking Mosley up is a priority.
“I certainly hope that C.J. is back. I believe in my heart that he will be,” DeCosta said. “We’re in the business of keeping our good football players. Talent wins in the NFL and he’s a Pro Bowl linebacker. So we’re going to do what we can to make sure that C.J. is back on the team.”
Mosley is indeed a Pro Bowler—four times in five seasons. He’s topped 100 total tackles an equal number of times, adding 8.5 sacks, nine interceptions and six forced fumbles.
Mosley’s a more proven commodity than Smith, and almost a decade younger than Suggs.
He’s an easy call as the most important “keep” of the trio.
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Rich Barnes/Associated Press
Offensive Guard John Miller
A quick glance at the unrestricted free agents for the Buffalo Bills is—let’s go with uninspiring.
I’m feeling nice.
The Bills are in great position relative to the salary cap. According to Over the Cap, the Bills have just over $79 million in cap space as things stand right now. Only three teams have more.
But just because Buffalo has the cash doesn’t mean the team should spend a ton on the in-house players. The player who will likely command the biggest contract is tackle Jordan Mills, who has started 53 games in four years with the team.
However, Mills has vacillated between adequate and awful over those four years. If the money’s right, he’s worth bringing back, but some tackle-needy team will more likely than not overpay the 28-year-old.
Let them, and instead re-up right guard John Miller.
The 25-year-old was relegated to a reserve role in 2017, but Miller was back in the starting lineup last season, playing decently in 15 starts.
Go with the younger, cheaper player—and save all that cabbage for the open market.
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Paul Sancya/Associated Press
Offensive Tackle Daryl Williams
There are some positions in the NFL where just about every team in the league is trying to get better every season. Offensive tackle is one of those positions.
As a whole, Carolina’s offensive line wasn’t terrible in 2018, ranking in the top 11 in both run and pass blocking, per Football Outsiders. But as the season progressed and injuries mounted, that line’s level of play slipped.
And the Panthers’ season came off the rails.
Daryl Williams was one of the first injuries that hit the Panthers. After serving as one of the best right tackles in the league two years ago, Williams hurt his knee in the season opener, and just like that, his year was over.
Both tackle spots are major question marks for the Panthers this year, and should Williams hit the open market, there will be teams lining up to offer him a big contract—even after last year’s injury. Tackles who are 26 years old and have shown the ability to play at a high level don’t become available very often.
If the Panthers are smart, Williams won’t either.
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Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press
Cornerback Bryce Callahan
Where the Chicago Bears are concerned here, this is an either/or proposition.
Safety Adrian Amos emerged as one of the better players in the NFL at his position in 2018, setting career highs in a number of statistical categories. But Amos also plays a position where the free-agent crop is relatively deep—he’d be much easier to potentially replace than slot corner Bryce Callahan.
Over the last couple of years, Callahan has grown into one of the best in the league at a position that has grown in importance. But Callahan has also missed seven games the last two years and suffered a broken foot last December.
In a perfect world, the Bears would lock up Callahan as early as possible, which would free up the franchise tag to possibly be used on Amos.
Have cake. Eat cake. All are happy. Well, except for Cody Parkey.
But if the Bears have to choose one, the smart play is to hold on to the guy whose hole would be more difficult to fill.
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Linebacker Preston Brown
Preston Brown certainly isn’t the biggest name among the Cincinnati Bengals’ list of unrestricted free agents—a list that includes offensive tackles Jake Fisher and Cedric Ogbuehi, tight end Tyler Eifert and cornerback Darqueze Dennard.
An argument can be made for retaining at least one of those tackles and Dennard. But those are positions that can command large deals in free agency, the Bengals have a reputation as one of the NFL’s more frugal franchises, and Cincy has to look ahead to A.J. Green‘s new deal in 2020.
In other words, the money needs to be right.
Inside linebacker Preston Brown isn’t a world-beater—especially in coverage. After topping 100 stops four straight years in Buffalo, Brown’s first season in the Queen City was an injury-shortened disappointment.
But when healthy, Brown’s a capable veteran linebacker who remains a force against the run. The Cincinnati linebackers were a nightmare last year, and that position has to be an area of emphasis for the team this offseason.
Bringing back Brown on a short-term deal wouldn’t break the bank and will at least give the Bengals something to build around.
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Offensive Tackle Greg Robinson
As Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com reported, Browns general manager John Dorsey has already stated that the team is interested in re-signing offensive tackle Greg Robinson.
Yes, that Greg Robinson—the former No. 2 overall pick who spent the first four years of his career working his way up “draft busts” lists for the Rams and Lions.
“He’s a very young man who has incredible athletic gifts,” Dorsey said. “Sometimes you have to be a little patient with guys like that. You have to earn their trust. He did everything he was asked and everything we thought he would since we signed him in late June.”
To be fair, Robinson wasn’t great in 2018. But he wasn’t terrible either—in eight starts, Robinson played easily the best football of his career, and by season’s end, he was the starter on Baker Mayfield’s blind side.
Even if the Browns take a tackle early in the 2019 draft (as many expect), having an athletic 26-year-old with 56 career starts on the roster isn’t a bad idea—and while Robinson isn’t going to come as cheaply as he did in 2018, the big man’s probably still going to be a relative bargain.
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Ron Jenkins/Associated Press
Defensive End Demarcus Lawrence
You’ll notice something as we move further into this piece. There are some big-name edge-rushers potentially set to hit free agency. And just about all of them are the top re-signing priority of their respective teams.
That’s certainly the case with Dallas Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Lawrence. After logging 10.5 sacks while playing under the franchise tag in 2018 (his second straight year of double-digit sacks), Lawrence wants a multi-year megadeal. And according to ESPN’s Todd Archer, Jerry Jones appears inclined to give him one.
“Nothing’s changed in terms of my opinion,” Jones said, “except for the better in terms of what type of player Demarcus Lawrence is for our football team. Certainly a huge priority for us to get him signed. We want to sign him up long term. I think he’s going to play this season at 27 and still a young player and still in front of him in terms of him improving and getting better.”
A second franchise tag would probably lead to a holdout, so it behooves both player and team to get a deal done here.
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Center Matt Paradis
After a second consecutive year of double-digit losses, Broncos grand poobah John Elway intimated to ESPN’s Jeff Legwold that big changes could be coming in the Mile High City.
“We’re going to bust our tails to get better, to get back competitive, to get back where we want to be,” Elway said. “Our young guys did well this year, we’re going to continue to try to do well in the draft, that’s key to what we want to do.”
That statement, plus reports that the Broncos and center Matt Paradis aren’t close on an extension, have led some to speculate that the 29-year-old Paradis could be on his way out of town after an injury-shortened 2018 season.
That would be unwise.
Over the past four seasons, Paradis has been Denver’s most reliable lineman. The seven games he missed in 2018 were the first of his career. And of all Denver’s free agents up front, he’s easily the one most worth retaining.
If the two sides can’t agree on a long-term deal, Paradis is just the sort of player who makes for an ideal franchise tag target.
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Rick Scuteri/Associated Press
Edge-Rusher Romeo Okwara
Romeo Okwara is an exception in this piece, in that the 23-year-old is a restricted free agent in 2019.
But with all due respect to whatever’s left of Ezekiel Ansah (who some NFL team will probably throw $10 million-plus a season at because nothing makes sense anymore), there isn’t a single unrestricted free agent in Detroit who merits “must re-sign” status (or even close).
Okwara’s another story.
After two invisible seasons in New York, Okwara was a revelation in Motown last year. Okwara led the Lions with 7.5 sacks, adding 39 stops and a forced fumble.
The best course of action for the Lions would be to make things simple and just sign Okwara to a multi-year extension. It doesn’t have to be a knee-buckler—a two- or three-year deal would be a nice reward for Okwara’s performance last season.
But if the Lions want to go the thrifty route, it’s imperative they hit Okwara with a high tender—as in first-round tender. If they don’t, it’s just about a certainty that someone’s going to sign Okwara to an offer sheet that could involve a bigger raise than the Lions could have given him to start with.
Play this smart, Detroit.
There’s a first time for everything.
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Mike Roemer/Associated Press
Cornerback Bashaud Breeland
Back in December, veteran cornerback Bashaud Breeland told Ryan Wood of Packers News that he hoped to return to the team in 2019.
“If I have the opportunity,” Breeland said, “I would (like to come back). At this point in time, the Green Bay Packers have first dibs because I’m here. They can make it happen at any moment.”
That feeling is likely mutual.
After a freak injury voided his lucrative deal with the Carolina Panthers, Breeland languished on the open market before eventually signing a “prove it” deal with the Packers. Injuries continued to be an issue for the five-year veteran, who played in just seven games for the Pack.
But when he was in the lineup, Breeland provided a steadying veteran presence in Green Bay’s young secondary. Capable of playing both inside and out, bringing back Breeland to do the same in 2019 makes a lot of sense for the Packers.
It’s also not going to be especially expensive.
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Outside Linebacker Jadeveon Clowney
Back in 2014, Jadeveon Clowney was the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. And despite never amassing double-digit sacks in a season, Pro Football Focus and Over the Cap’s Jason Fitzgerald have tabbed Clowney as the top potential free agent of 2019.
“Clowney has basically every soft factor going for him when it comes to earning a big salary as a free agent,” Fitzgerald said. “His status as a former number 1 draft pick generally puts him in a class by himself. While we can argue statistics and production versus the rest of the edge rushers, his draft grade likely means that there is strong support on 32 teams that he is the best player available and by a wide margin.”
Here’s the thing, though. While the Texans have other free agents-to-be who were major contributors in 2018 (defensive backs Kareem Jackson and Tyrann Mathieu chief among them), the odds that Clowney gets anywhere near the open market are zero-point-zero percent.
There’s just no way that a Texans team with upward of $65 million in cap space is going to let their 2014 No. 1 draft pick get near the door—much less walk through it.
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AJ Mast/Associated Press
Cornerback Pierre Desir
Blue and white’s been very kind to Pierre Desir.
The 28-year-old Desir, who was signed by the Colts just before the 2017 season began, made just seven starts over his first three seasons with the Cleveland Browns and San Diego Chargers. However, Desir blossomed in Indianapolis, making 18 starts over the past two years.
The 2018 season was really Desir’s coming-out party. In 16 games (and 12 starts), Desir logged 79 total tackles—nearly as many as his first four seasons combined. As the season progressed and the Colts got hot, Desir became the team’s top cornerback, and in two late-season meetings with the Houston Texans, Desir helped limit one of the league’s most dangerous wide receivers (DeAndre Hopkins) to nine catches for 73 yards.
Those two performances alone are enough for Desir to get a fat raise.
Should Desir hit the open market, there would be no shortage of suitors for his services after his breakout season. But with an NFL-high $109 million-and-change in cap space, per Over the Cap, there’s zero reason for Colts GM Chris Ballard to let that happen.
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Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press
Kicker Josh Lambo
Yes. A kicker.
Hey, they’re people, too.
According to Over the Cap, the Jacksonville Jaguars are in one of the worst positions in the NFL relative to the salary cap. In fact, the Jags are one of two teams that presently are in the red—by about $4.3 million.
The Jaguars can create quite a bit of cap space by releasing high-priced vets like quarterback Blake Bortles and defensive tackle Malik Jackson, but where the team’s in-house free agents are concerned, frugality is the word of the day.
Fortunately, only two starters for the Jaguars are set to hit free agency—guard A.J. Cann and kicker Josh Lambo. Given Cann’s performance last year, there isn’t going to be a stampede to re-up the 27-year-old.
However, after an iffy first two seasons with the team, Lambo has become one of the more accurate kickers in the NFL. In each of the past two seasons, Lambo has hit on over 90 percent of his field-goal attempts—including making six of seven attempts from 50 yards or more over that span.
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D. Ross Cameron/Associated Press
Outside Linebacker Dee Ford
The defining moment of Dee Ford’s 2018 season is one he’d just as soon forget—a penalty for offsides that negated an interception that would have propelled the Kansas City Chiefs on to Super Bowl LIII.
But the Chiefs would be wise to shake that momentary lapse off and bring Ford back, because the totality of his fifth NFL season tells a much different story.
Playing on the final year of his rookie deal, Ford piled up 13 sacks for the Chiefs in 2018—a career-best and the second-most on the team. The former Auburn star also shattered his career highs in tackles (55) and forced fumbles (seven—tied for most in the NFL).
Per Pete Sweeney of Arrowhead Pride, Chiefs GM Brett Veach has made it clear retaining Ford is a priority.
“Dee’s a player that had done so much for us,” he said, “in particular, last year, that we’re excited about bringing him back.”
With the Chiefs switching to a 4-3 base in 2019 under new DC Steve Spagnuolo, the franchise tag makes a ton of sense here—an insurance policy of sorts against Ford struggling in the transition to defensive end.
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Gail Burton/Associated Press
Safety Adrian Phillips
There may not be a player in the NFL who did more to help himself in his contract year than Chargers safety Adrian Phillips.
As Jamie Hoyle wrote for SB Nation, while Phillips may have begun the 2018 season as a relative afterthought, he certainly didn’t end it that way.
“Phillips was the Chargers most improved player,” he said, “if not the most improved player in the NFL in 2018. The fifth-year defender led the NFL in special teams tackles (19) while finishing among the Bolts’ top five defenders in solo tackles (77), assists (29), total tackles (94), and passes defensed (10). Adrian also earned first team All Pro, Pro Bowl and Professional Football Writers of America All-NFL Team honors for his work on special teams. Needless to say, he’s going to get paid.”
Phillips’ value is all the higher given his schematic versatility—in L.A.’s run to the playoffs last year, Phillips spent as much time lined up as a subpackage linebacker as he did as a traditional safety.
If Phillips gets to the open market, his phone is going to ring off the hook. And the last thing the Bolts need is a bidding war.
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Rick Scuteri/Associated Press
Guard Rodger Saffold
The Los Angeles Rams face a number of difficult decisions regarding big-time contributors about to hit free agency—whether it’s defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, safety Lamarcus Joyner or offensive guard Rodger Saffold.
The Rams would no doubt like to bring back all three veterans—but with only about $30 million in cap space, that’s not an especially realistic option.
Of that trio—and indeed among all of L.A.’s free agents—the most important player to retain is Saffold.
Linemate Austin Blythe told Clarence Dennis of the team’s website that he’s hopeful the team’s longest-tenured player will return for a 10th season.
“[R]odger, he’s got a lot of great football in front of him I think, so hopefully it’s here with us playing for the Rams,” Blythe said. “I’d like to have him back because I look up to how he plays, how he carries himself, so hopefully all five of us are back.”
That five might already be four if veteran tackle Andrew Whitworth retires, making it all the more imperative that the Rams try to hold a line responsible for a significant portion of Jared Goff’s ascension together as much as possible.
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Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press
Offensive Tackle Ja’Wuan James
As ESPN’s Cameron Wolfe reported, Dolphins left tackle Laremy Tunsil is both happy batterymate Ja’Wuan James is about to cash in and worried that the 26-year-old will do so somewhere besides Miami.
“He’s huge for us. We are a better team with him. I love playing with him. I hope I can again next year,” Tunsil said. “But he definitely has to do what’s best for him moneywise, too. I’m excited for him to get this opportunity.”
James held up his end of the bargain in his option year in 2018—he was arguably the Dolphins’ best offensive lineman. The $64 question is whether a Miami team beginning a ground-up rebuild is willing to commit substantial cap resources to a right tackle.
In a word (well, two words) Miami should—assuming that the two sides can agree on a multi-year pact and avoid the use of a franchise tag that would be upward of $15 million for one season.
Miami has work to do, both in regard to filling holes and in creating room under the salary cap. Letting a quality lineman walk in free agency might save a few bucks, but it doesn’t get the Dolphins any closer to contention.
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Paul Sancya/Associated Press
Guard Nick Easton
Nick Easton isn’t the biggest name among the Minnesota Vikings’ pending free agents in 2019. Or the second-biggest. That would be linebacker Anthony Barr and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, a pair of high-priced good-but-not-great defenders who could be difficult to retain for a team with the third-least cap space in the NFL—under $7 million.
Easton’s health is also a question mark, having lost the entirety of the 2018 season to a herniated disk in his neck. That injury was one of the reasons Minnesota’s line struggled so badly last year, as the 26-year-old had been penciled in as the starter at left guard.
However, assuming Easton’s recovery is on track, the injury could have a silver lining—it’s going to depress his contract somewhat.
The Vikings need every dime they can save.
What the Vikings most assuredly do not need is any more problems along an offensive line that’s already a looming issue for the franchise in 2019.
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Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Defensive End Trey Flowers
The New England Patriots have players at two of the NFL’s premium positions about to hit free agency in left tackle Trent Brown and defensive end Trey Flowers.
However, with Doug Kyed of NESN speculating that the Pats will let Brown test free agency, there’s zero question who the team’s most important pending free agent is—Flowers, who amassed 57 tackles and 7.5 sacks for the Super Bowl champions in 2018.
The Patriots have a history of letting players just like this walk. Chandler Jones was dealt to Arizona. Jamie Collins was traded to Cleveland. But Kevin Duffy of the Boston Herald believes this time is different.
“Flowers is a much more consistent, well-rounded defensive end than Jones ever was in New England,” he wrote. “He plays the run effectively and rushes from the inside on third down. He single-handedly wrecked games against the Packers and Vikings, to name a few.”
It’s not going to be easy—it would take just about all of New England’s $16.1 million in cap space, per Over the Cap, to keep the 25-year-old Flowers in Beantown.
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Sean Gardner/Getty Images
Running Back Mark Ingram
According to Fox 8 News in New Orleans, the first preference of tailback Mark Ingram is to remain in New Orleans, where he’s 89 yards shy of overtaking Deuce McAllister as the team’s all-time leading rusher.
That should be the Saints’ preference, as well.
Yes, both Ingram’s usage and production were down in 2018. With Alvin Kamara taking over a larger role in the offense, Ingram gained just 645 yards on the ground after topping 1,000 each of the last two years. It was Ingram’s lowest total since 2013.
But on a per-touch basis, Ingram was still highly effective, averaging 4.7 yards a carry. It marked the fourth straight season that he’s averaged over 4.5 yards a pop.
This is going to come down to cold hard cash. If there’s a team out there that believes Ingram can function as its bell-cow back, it may offer a contract that will be out of the Saints’ price range for a complementary ball-carrier.
But with Ingram set to turn 30 in December, it’s equally possible that teams will be skittish about a big payday for the eight-year veteran—which would open the door for the Saints to keep Ingram around as the “Thunder” to offset Kamara’s “Lightning.”
Don’t fix what isn’t broken—especially with the Saints hip-deep in win-now mode.
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Safety Landon Collins
During the 2018 season, the narrative surrounding the New York Giants was all about the exploits of rookie tailback Saquon Barkley. The offseason talk will no doubt center on the team’s situation at quarterback.
But where free agency is concerned, for Big Blue it’s all about safety Landon Collins.
Collins missed four games in 2018 and failed to accrue 100 total tackles for the first time in his career. But over his four years in the NFL, Collins has averaged almost 110 stops a year, he’s been named to the Pro Bowl three times (including 2018), and Collins was a First Team All-Pro back in 2016.
Safety isn’t exactly a premium position in today’s NFL, and with less than $30 million in cap space, per Over the Cap, and multiple needs on both sides of the ball, tying up over $10 million a season in Collins isn’t without risk.
But there’s a reason why there are umpteen articles out there about Team X making a run at Collins. He’s an elite safety.
And you don’t let elite talents depart if you can help it.
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Seth Wenig/Associated Press
Kicker Jason Myers
The New York Jets are positioned to be major players in free agency if they choose—only the Indianapolis Colts have more cap space entering free agency.
That war chest puts the Jets in good shape to bring back just about any free agent the team wants. But there are only a few who appear to be no-brainers. The biggest, wide receiver Robby Anderson, is a restricted free agent. Kick returner Andre Roberts will likely be brought back, but at the end of the day, he’s a kick returner.
That leaves Pro Bowl kicker Jason Myers.
In a 2018 season that was short on bright spots for Gang Green, Myers was one of the biggest, hitting on a career-best 91.7 percent of his 36 field-goal attempts—including 17-of-19 from 40 yards or more.
The best part is that even elite kickers aren’t going to break the bank, which frees up all that cabbage for the Jets to get better when the market opens up.
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D. Ross Cameron/Associated Press
Tight End Jared Cook
The Oakland Raiders have as many holes on the roster as any team in the NFL—maybe more. The Raiders are also well-positioned to patch some of those holes in free agency with over $71 million in cap space, according to Over the Cap.
The best first course of action for new general manager Mike Mayock is to do what he can to prevent the team from springing any more leaks.
And that means bringing back tight end Jared Cook.
For most of his career, Cook’s been the definition of a journeyman. But the 31-year-old’s 10th season was easily his best—Cook set career highs in catches (68), yardage (896) and touchdowns (six) on his way to the first Pro Bowl of his career.
Cook was by far the Raiders’ most reliable pass-catcher in 2018. Frankly, he was the team’s most dependable skill-position player, period.
An Oakland team that needs all the help it can get can’t afford to lose Cook.
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Matt Rourke/Associated Press
Wide Receiver Golden Tate
The Philadelphia Eagles are in quite the pickle. No team in the league is in worse shape relative to the salary cap than Philadelphia, which presently sits a whopping $16 million and change over the projected salary cap for 2019.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the Eagles have a fistful of big-name players set to hit the open market—among them defensive end Brandon Graham, tailback Jay Ajayi, linebacker Jordan Hicks, cornerback Ronald Darby and wide receiver Golden Tate.
It’s Tate, who caught 30 passes in eight games after coming over in a midseason trade with the Detroit Lions, who tops the list of players who should be brought back—by process of elimination.
Graham turns 31 in April and only had four sacks last year, but that won’t stop him from getting a deal in excess of $12 million a season. Ajayi and Darby are both coming off season-ending injuries. So is Hicks, who has played in just 43 of a possible 64 games over his four seasons in the league.
That leaves Tate, who came on down the stretch last year, as Philly’s soundest investment given the team’s limited resources.
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Winslow Townson/Associated Press
Guard Ramon Foster
As Joe Ritter reported for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Steelers guard David DeCastro feels that Ramon Foster is a key piece of the Steelers offensive line.
“He’s been awesome,” DeCastro said. “He’s been as steady as ever. He always brings a good laugh to the party, and he gets serious when he needs to be. He does a great job of being that leader in the locker room. He’s the guy you see and look up to since I’ve been here.”
It’s hard to argue with him. Foster was one of two Pittsburgh linemen who played every offensive snap in 2018. He’s also one of four players on Pittsburgh’s roster who was there the last time the Steelers played in the Super Bowl.
Granted, at 33, Foster’s a lot closer to the end of his career than the beginning. But the former undrafted free agent is a quality starter with 131 starts under his belt and the Steelers’ only full-time starter about to hit the open market.
The Steelers need to make a concerted effort to prevent that from happening with a short-term deal.
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Tony Avelar/Associated Press
Kicker Robbie Gould
Yep. Another kicker.
You might be surprised not to see defensive back Jimmie Ward listed here. After all, the 27-year-old is a versatile player who can start in multiple spots in the secondary and just made over $8 million in the option year of his rookie contract.
It won’t be any kind of upset to see Ward re-up with the team—defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is a fan, and with over $60 million in cap space, San Francisco can afford him—but he’s not the top priority for San Francisco this offseason.
That’s veteran kicker Robbie Gould.
Since joining the team prior to the 2017 season, Gould’s been about as dependable as you can ask a kicker to be. He’s attempted 75 field goals over the last two seasons and missed on just three. He’s also hit all six of his field-goal attempts from 50-plus yards.
Kicker might not be a glamour position in the NFL, but having one as reliable and accurate as Gould has been in San Francisco is a real edge.
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Norm Hall/Getty Images
Defensive End Frank Clark
The “Legion of Boom” is a relic of Seattle’s golden days now. Most of the members of that vaunted defense have moved to other teams or retired. Earl Thomas will all but certainly be gone soon. That leaves just middle linebacker Bobby Wagner and defensive end Frank Clark, and Clark’s about to hit free agency.
The Seahawks can’t let the 25-year-old anywhere near the open market.
Over the last three seasons, Clark has been one of the more consistent sack artists in the NFL, posting 32 sacks over that span—including a career-high 13 a year ago.
And as Derek Lewis reported for 247Sports, Clark had that career year while reportedly playing with a torn ligament in his elbow.
“I wouldn’t lie to you guys. I played the whole season at 60 percent,” Clark said.
Given his age and level of production over the past three years, Clark’s in line for a massive payday. Spotrac estimates that a new deal for Clark would average $12 million per season, while Pro Football Focus slots him substantially higher—$17.5 million a year.
The most likely scenario here for 2019 (as with so many players on this list) is the franchise tag and one year of “kick the can.”
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Chris O’Meara/Associated Press
Linebacker Kwon Alexander
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are feeling the numbers crunch in 2019. As the Bruce Arians era begins in Tampa, the Buccaneers have 24 pending restricted and unrestricted free agents and only about $8.5 million in cap space.
It’s a list that contains some big names, too. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and cornerback Brent Grimes are likely goners. Ditto for left tackle Donovan Smith, who could be set for a monster payday on the open market. Slot receiver Adam Humphries could also be in store for a huge raise after a career year.
However, it’s middle linebacker Kwon Alexander who should be the team’s first order of business in free agency.
Alexander’s last two seasons have been cut short by injuries, including an ACL tear six games into the 2018 season. But the 24-year-old’s rehab is reportedly progressing well, and in his last full season with the team in 2016, Alexander ranked fourth in the NFL in total tackles with 145 and led the league with 108 solo stops.
When healthy, Alexander’s one of the better young inside linebackers in the game.
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James Kenney/Associated Press
Safety Kenny Vaccaro
Back in 2017, the Tennessee Titans signed veteran safety Johnathan Cyprien to a four-year, $25 million contract. By just about any objective measure, that signing was a mistake—a mistake the Titans can rectify this offseason by cutting Cyprien and saving almost $5 million against the cap.
That move would give the Titans in the neighborhood of $45 million in wiggle room in 2019, but it would also open up a hole at strong safety.
Of course, the Titans already have a replacement available: the player Tennessee signed last year when Cyprien got hurt.
In 13 games for the Titans last year, Kenny Vaccaro racked up 58 stops, adding two sacks, an interception and four passes defensed. The 27-year-old isn’t a world-beater in coverage, but he’s a stout run-defender who played reasonably well for the Titans in 2018.
Also, re-signing Vaccaro isn’t going to be an especially expensive proposition, which would free up that other $40 million-plus to address the pass rush and offensive line.
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Matt Rourke/Associated Press
Outside Linebacker Preston Smith
The Washington Redskins aren’t in a great position relative to the salary cap in 2019. According to Over the Cap, Washington has around $17.7 million available, although cuts and/or restructures could free up some more.
That means the team is going to have to be judicious. Even if it wanted to bring everyone back, it’s just not economically feasible.
Edge-rusher Preston Smith only had four sacks last year. But the four-year veteran is just 26 years old and has two eight-sack seasons on his resume. That “down” season in 2018 might serve to drive down Smith’s asking price a touch, although edge-rushers are a premium position in free agency.
According to ESPN.com’s John Keim, there hasn’t been much movement on the Smith front. “If they retain Preston Smith,” Keim said, “they wouldn’t need to seek another starting outside linebacker. But the Redskins have yet to engage in any meaningful contract discussions to bring him back. As of a week ago, there were none.”
Washington would be well-advised to change that. Edge-rushers are a premium position for a reason…they aren’t easy to replace.