Depending on your perspective, we’re either still or only about a week away from the beginning of free agency on March 9. Despite all the fanfare surrounding it each year, the majority of free-agent signees will become role players or not even end up making the 53-man roster. And while continuity is key across the league and locking big money into a player before you’ve seen him function within your team’s specific scheme is always a high-risk game, there are plenty of good players who hit the market each year. Sign the right ones, and they can take your team to a new level. Just ask the New York Giants defense.
So, before the first megadeal gets doled out, let’s take a look at the best available player at each position. We’re not counting guys who’ll likely get the franchise tag, and we’re not worried about the best values, either. All of the guys on this list are in for big paydays, and it’s almost guaranteed that some of them will sign deals that look bad from the get-go. But if we could start a team tomorrow that consisted of only 2017 free agents, this would be the core.
Quarterback: Brian Hoyer, Chicago Bears
Hoyer tops this list because there’s just no way the Redskins are going to let Kirk Cousins out of the building. The former Patriot, Cardinal, Brown, Texan, and Bear has started 31 games in his eight-year career, including a relatively solid stretch as the starter for Houston in 2015 when he led the Texans to a 5–4 record in nine starts, throwing 19 touchdowns and just seven interceptions while compiling a 91.4 passer rating. Of course, Hoyer’s disastrous performance in Houston’s loss to the Chiefs in the wild-card round, in which he threw four picks and lost a fumble, led to his release that offseason. After signing a one-year, $2 million deal in Chicago to be Jay Cutler’s backup, Hoyer was forced into action due to an injury to Cutler’s thumb. In six games, he completed 67 percent of his passes for 1,445 yards, six touchdowns and no picks for a 98 passer rating before a broken forearm ended his 2016 season prematurely.
In fact, the 31-year-old has completed 64 percent of his passes with a 24–6 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 95 passer rating in his past 16 regular-season appearances. He’s not an aggressive downfield thrower and he’s not the type of guy who’s going to put an offense on his back and carry it, but if you’re signing Hoyer, you’re signing him to be a bridge to some currently inaccessible future. Right now, there’s no one better suited for that role.
Running Back: Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers
The Steelers aren’t going to let Le’Veon Bell hit the open market — you can just stop fantasizing about what he’d look like in your team’s offense right now — and after him, the options at the running back spot consist mostly of over-the-hill veterans and situation-specific specialists. LeGarrette Blount posted 1,161 yards and 18 touchdowns for the Patriots last year, but like fellow free agents DeAngelo Williams and Rashad Jennings, he’s coming off of a season on the wrong side of 4.0 yards per carry, and he’s going into 2017 on the wrong side of 30 years old. Danny Woodhead, Andre Ellington, and Jacquizz Rodgers could provide value in certain roles, but they don’t have lead-back potential.
And so Eddie Lacy offers the most upside of any player in this group. Lacy won the Offensive Rookie of the Year award and was second-team All Pro in 2013, then followed that up with another 1,000-yard campaign for Green Bay in 2014. His performance dropped off significantly in 2015 as his weight — rumored to be as high as 260 pounds — became a problem, but after dropping about 15–20 pounds over the offseason, thanks to P90X workouts with creator Tony Horton, 2016 looked like it was going to be his bounce-back year. Through five games, he’d averaged 5.1 yards per carry on 71 totes and had racked up 19 broken tackles, fourth best in the NFL at the time, per Pro Football Focus. But an ankle injury suffered in October eventually required surgery and ended his season.
Still, that small sample size provided a glimpse of what the bruising, tackle-breaking back can provide when healthy and in shape. His weight will be a major factor — and he may get only a one-year deal because of his history — but if he comes into the season at around 235 pounds (and stays there), the 26-year-old could be a steal for a team looking for a sustaining lead back.
Wide Receiver: Alshon Jeffery, Chicago Bears
Jeffery comes with a lot of red flags — he missed half of the 2015 season to multiple injuries and got popped for a four-game PED suspension last year — but the 27-year-old playmaker makes up for those concerns with his elite catch radius and his red zone threat. The 6-foot-3, 218-pound, sixth-year pass catcher needs to get paired with a quarterback who throws with aggressiveness and anticipation. Jeffery’s not incredibly fast or quick, and isn’t going to get much separation in and out of his breaks, but with preternatural body control in the air and an understanding of positioning to block out defenders and catch tight-quarter passes down the sideline and in the end zone, he’s as close to the prototype of a true no. 1 in his prime that you’ll find in this market.
He’ll need to stay on the field, but he’s the only wideout available who can get his new team 85-plus catches, 1,000-plus yards, and double-digit touchdown totals in 2017.
Tight End: Martellus Bennett, New England Patriots
Bennett gutted out ankle, shoulder, and knee injuries throughout the year to catch 55 passes for 701 yards and seven touchdowns for the Patriots, and the 10th-year veteran is a blocking force in the run game as well. Bennett may be slightly past his prime at this point — he turns 30 next month — but you’re not going to find many tight ends in the league (free agents or not) that offer the type of versatility he provides in both the passing game and the rushing attack. With Bennett on the field, his team has the luxury of using him in-line as a blocker, asking him to release into a route, or splitting him outside to run an isolation route against a smaller defensive back or slower linebacker. Any offense he’s in, whether the play’s going to him or not, is going to be much less predictable. And as defenses tailor their personnel groups to defend against either the run or the pass more frequently, an offense that can do either out of any personnel group or formation has a big advantage.
Tackle: Andrew Whitworth, Cincinnati Bengals
At 35, Whitworth’s no more than a short-term option for any team that signs him, but he remains one of the league’s best players at one of its premium positions. Andy Dalton’s blindside protector surrendered just 14 quarterback pressures in 561 pass-blocking snaps in 2016, the fewest in the NFL at that spot, per Pro Football Focus. He’s not just consistently sound in his protection, either; he’s been consistently available for the Bengals throughout his entire career, missing just two starts in the past eight seasons. High-quality, dependable, and experienced left tackles don’t grow on trees, so Whitworth will be in high demand despite his advanced age.
Guard: Kevin Zeitler, Cincinnati Bengals
The guard spot might be the deepest position group in free agency this year, featuring Green Bay’s T.J. Lang, Dallas’s Ronald Leary, Detroit’s Larry Warford, and Tennessee’s Chance Warmack. But Zeitler sits above them all both in overall talent and potential. At 26 years old, he’s still heading into his prime, but he’s already one of the NFL’s most balanced performers in both run blocking and in pass protection. Zeitler hasn’t missed a game in two seasons and allowed only one sack in that time. He was also a top-five run-blocking guard in 2016, per Pro Football Focus. Plus, he’s only going to get better.
Center: J.C. Tretter, Green Bay Packers
Tretter has started just 10 games and has only 1,001 snaps under his belt in four seasons in Green Bay, but the way he performed in limited action last year — he started the Packers’ first seven games before an MCL injury derailed a strong start — makes him the most intriguing center on the market. Tretter’s an obvious injury risk, as he’s missed big parts of three of the four seasons he’s been a pro, but he’s still just 26 years old. He graded well in the run game (seventh among centers) and as a pass blocker (12th) per Pro Football Focus, and he’s athletic enough to play every position on the line for a zone running team.
Tretter’s best spot is in the middle, but he’s also filled in at guard and even acquitted himself well with meaningful snaps at left tackle for Green Bay in 2015. He possesses the kind of versatility that teams covet, and that’ll be enough to make some teams look past his injury history.
Interior Defensive Line: Calais Campbell, Arizona Cardinals
With Carolina’s Kawann Short likely to be slapped with a franchise tag, this pseudo-award goes to Campbell. The 10th-year veteran provides size and length rarely seen on the interior of a defense: He utilizes his 6-foot-8 frame and vine-like arms not only to out-leverage and swat away offensive linemen when rushing the passer, but to control offensive linemen and wrap up runners in the ground game.
Campbell’s list of suitors will be long; he’s made his career manning two gaps as a five-technique (lining up on the outside shoulder of the tackle) on Arizona’s three-man front, but also lines up as a three-technique (on the outside shoulder of the guard) enough to be a nice fit on a four-man front. Whether he’s sitting back and taking on two gaps or shooting forward in a one-gap system, Campbell’s one of the most disruptive trench players in the league. In 2016, he registered 8.0 sacks, 56 pressures, six passes defensed, and two forced fumbles. It’s the kind of production you can rely on, too, as Campbell’s missed only two games in the past four years.
Edge Rusher: Melvin Ingram, Los Angeles Chargers
New York’s Jason Pierre-Paul and Arizona’s Chandler Jones will likely receive franchise tag designations, so that brings us to Ingram. A first-round pick out of South Carolina in 2012, he shed concerns over his short arms and overcame a slow start as a Charger to notch 18.5 sacks, 11 passes defensed, and seven forced fumbles in the past two seasons.
Last year, Ingram really blossomed as a complete player, recording 72 quarterback pressures and 33 run stops. He’s become a three-down player who can get upfield rushing the passer just as smoothly as he can set the edge against the run or drop back into coverage. (He was asked to cover in almost a quarter of the snaps he played.) His versatility in multiple roles keeps him on the field in every situation, and it keeps the opposing offenses guessing. Offensive tackles tasked with blocking him never know whether he’s coming upfield or dropping back, which muddles their responsibilities, and quarterbacks have to be aware of him suddenly dropping back into a passing lane.
Inside Linebacker: Dont’a Hightower, New England Patriots
There aren’t many middle linebackers like Hightower left in the NFL: The 265-pound beast in the middle of the field has been driven toward extinction by pass-happy offenses that feast on slow-footed defenders. But the Patriots star has stayed on the field because of his unique coverage ability for a guy his size. Hightower makes plays all over the field; he hits like a ton of bricks on runs up the middle, he rushes off the edge like a defensive end in certain spots (including a crucial strip sack in the Super Bowl); and he runs in coverage on tight ends and running backs in the flats.
He emerged as one of New England’s emotional leaders the past two seasons, and he’d be a three-down impact player in any defense. A $14–15 million franchise price tag may prove to be too rich for the Patriots to give to a middle linebacker (a number that factors in the top contracts of pass-rushing outside linebackers and would make Hightower the highest-paid middle linebacker in the NFL), and his injury history may be a concern in contract negotiations (he’s played a full season only once in five years), which means he’s likely to hit the open market. But he’ll get plenty of interest around the league because he can fit in any scheme.
Safety: Tony Jefferson, Arizona Cardinals
The Chiefs will almost certainly re-sign or place the franchise tag on Eric Berry, and that leaves the rest of the free-agent safety group with very few complete players. If you’re looking for help with coverage of the deep middle, New England’s Duron Harmon might be your guy, and if you’re looking for a run-defending thumper, Jacksonville’s Johnathan Cyprien is the ticket. But if you want someone who can do a little bit of everything, from run defense to coverage responsibilities, Cardinals safety Tony Jefferson is the best bet.
Jefferson is an excellent run defender — he missed just five tackles on 98 attempts in 2016, as he led Arizona in tackles — and he improved significantly against the pass after slimming down in the offseason to increase explosiveness and speed. He held up in coverage on tight ends and running backs, so Arizona was able to keep him on the field against pretty much any offensive look. (He played over 86 percent of the Cardinals’ snaps in 2016, fourth most on the team.) He was effective as a blitzer as well, grabbing two sacks on the year, which tied him for third in the league among defensive backs. Jefferson’s a battle-tested, versatile defensive back that defensive coordinators can deploy in a variety of roles, and at 25 years old, he’s got room to improve.
Cornerback: A.J. Bouye, Houston Texans
Bills free-agent corner Stephon Gilmore might have a better overall skill set, but his inconsistent play last year makes him a boom-or-bust prospect. Bouye’s stable, steadfast performance in 2016 makes him the safest bet for consistent cornerbacking.
The former undrafted free agent started the season fourth on the Houston depth chart, but injuries pushed him into the starting lineup, where he flourished. Bouye’s physicality (his strength near the line of scrimmage and his ability to redirect receivers) and his ball skills are his best attributes, and he racked up 16 passes defensed and an interception in 15 games. Including the playoffs, Bouye allowed just 50.5 percent of passes thrown his way to be caught, per Pro Football Focus, and while he’s best utilized on the outside, he has experience lining up inside too. Early in the year Houston even used him as a tight end coverage specialist.
Bouye’s just 25 years old and still entering the prime years of his career, and while he’d fit in any defense, his size (6-foot, 186 pounds) and aggression make him an ideal fit for a scheme that asks him to press at the line of scrimmage often. Bouye’s at his best when he’s disrupting timing and making it hard for opposing receivers to get into their routes.