The March 14 start to NFL free agency is just around the bend, and with a league-wide surplus in salary cap space (there are 21 teams currently projected to have more than $20 million to work with this offseason), bidding wars on the top players set to hit the open market could get intense. Spending aggressively in free agency is always a risky venture, but as we saw last year, using big bucks on outside talent has the power to transform a team and change the complexion of the league. Just ask the Jaguars, who went from a punchline to a contender after inking game-changing defenders A.J. Bouye and Calais Campbell to mammoth deals last March; or the Eagles, who picked up a playmaking no. 1 receiver in Alshon Jeffery en route to their first Super Bowl; or the Rams, who signed elite left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who helped quarterback Jared Goff put together a breakout year.
This year’s crop of free agents could similarly shift the balance of the league, so let’s take a look at the best available player at each position. We’ll exclude locks for the franchise tag. This isn’t a list of players who will provide the best value, either. These are the big-money free agents with the most potential to make an impact on the league in 2018.
Quarterback: Kirk Cousins, Redskins
Yeah, Drew Brees is technically a free agent, but he’s not going to be playing for anyone but the Saints next year. That makes Cousins the easy choice for top quarterback of this free agent class. While I wouldn’t rank him among the truly elite at the position, Cousins has posted top-10 numbers in many of the key passing categories over the past three years, and in 2017 he finished seventh in passing yards (4,093), eighth in touchdown throws (27), tied for ninth in yards per attempt (7.6), and put together four game-winning drives—tied for most among quarterbacks. Cousins is durable, competitive, and dynamic—capable of playing from the pocket, throwing on the run, and working all three levels of the field as a passer. Signal-callers of Cousins’s quality rarely hit free agency. He’s the type of player who could turn a cellar dweller into a playoff team, or a contender into a Super Bowl squad.
Runners-up: Case Keenum, Sam Bradford, and Teddy Bridgewater, Vikings; Josh McCown, Jets
Running Back: Dion Lewis, Patriots
Barring a last-minute contract extension, Le’Veon Bell’s going to get franchise-tagged for the second straight year. That leaves Lewis as the best of a talented group of running backs set to hit free agency. The 27-year-old landed New England in 2015 and quickly established himself in the running back rotation. After two injury-shortened seasons, he broke out in 2017 as the team’s bell cow, averaging 5.0 yards per carry on a career-high 180 totes, totaling 896 yards and six touchdowns. Last season, he finished second among all running backs in Football Outsiders DVOA (value per play), first in DYAR (total value), and fourth in success rate.
Lewis is slippery in the open field and runs with surprising power for a player listed at 5-foot-8 and 195 pounds: He forced 42 forced missed tackles on the year (good for fifth league wide, tied with Marshawn Lynch) per Pro Football Focus, averaging 3.2 yards after contact per rush (fourth)—and of all running backs who played at least 50 percent of their team’s snaps, he ranked first in the NFL in PFF’s Elusive Rating. Oh, and he didn’t fumble the ball once.
Lewis wasn’t featured as a pass-catching back in New England’s scheme in 2017, reeling in 32 passes for 214 yards and three scores, but he’s efficient and capable as a receiver out of the backfield. Running back committees consisting of a handful of specialized players are more common these days, but a guy like Lewis, who plays on all three downs and does a little of everything, can be a major upgrade to an offense looking to disguise its intentions or play up-tempo, no-huddle football.
Runners-up: Carlos Hyde, 49ers; Isaiah Crowell, Browns; Jerick McKinnon, Vikings; LeGarrette Blount and Darren Sproles, Eagles
Wide Receiver: Allen Robinson, Jaguars
Teams have until Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET to place the franchise tag on impending free agents. Usually, a 24-year-old über-athletic deep threat with size and speed like Robinson would be a prime candidate for that tag—except it’s looking like Jacksonville may let him hit the open market. If he becomes a free agent, Robinson will be the highest-upside option in an intriguing and deep receiver class. There’s reason for concern, sure: Robinson had a down year in 2016 and tore his ACL in 2017. But in 2015, Robinson caught 80 passes for 1,400 yards and tied for the league lead with 14 touchdowns. Robinson’s still just 24 years old, and he could easily return to a Pro Bowl level. A downfield threat like him could transform an offense for years to come.
Runners-up: Sammy Watkins, Rams; Marqise Lee, Jaguars; Paul Richardson, Seahawks; Danny Amendola, Patriots; Albert Wilson, Chiefs; Terrelle Pryor, Redskins; Jordan Matthews, Bills
Tight End: Jimmy Graham, Seahawks
Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert, who’s younger and more explosive and offers more as a pass catcher up the seam than Graham, was a tempting option for this spot, but Eifert’s heath is still a major question mark. Eifert is coming off back surgery and has missed 22 games over the past two seasons. That gives Graham, who hasn’t missed a game in the past two years, the edge. The 31-year-old former Seahawk wasn’t much of a factor between the 20s last year, averaging a career-low 9.1 yards per reception, but by employing a combination of size and body control was unstoppable inside the 10-yard line, leading all tight ends with 10 touchdowns. In the right system and with the right quarterback—back in New Orleans with Brees, for instance, it’s easy to imagine Graham going for double-digit scores again in 2018.
Runners-up: Tyler Eifert, Bengals; Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Jets; Trey Burton, Eagles
Offensive Tackle: Nate Solder, Patriots
Solder is the most experienced, durable, and dependable left tackle on the market—it’s not close—and the soon-to-be 30-year-old veteran is due for a big payday. Solder struggled in the early part of 2017, but locked down Tom Brady’s blind side as the year went on, allowing just one sack over the second half of the season and playoffs.
Runners-up: Justin Pugh, Giants (also plays guard); LaAdrian Waddle, Cameron Fleming, Patriots; Chris Hubbard, Steelers
Offensive Guard: Andrew Norwell, Panthers
Norwell was First-Team All-Pro at guard in 2017, and per Pro Football Focus, the 26-year-old was the only offensive lineman in the league (who played at least 50 percent of his team’s snaps) to not surrender a sack or quarterback hit all year. Which … just … holy crap! He pass-blocked on 564 snaps! Here’s my analysis: Norwell is good. Look for him to get a massive long-term deal and provide an immediate upgrade to his new team’s line.
Runners-up: Jack Mewhort, Colts; Josh Sitton, Bears
Center: Weston Richburg, Giants
Richburg played in just four games in 2017 after suffering a concussion early in October, so health is a concern for potential buyers. But with an ever-increasing infusion of super-athletic interior defensive linemen to the NFL, center may be more important now than ever before, and two seasons ago, Richburg was one of the best centers in football. The former Giant registered a pass-blocking efficiency of 98.6 in 2016, per Pro Football Focus (fourth best, league-wide) surrendering just 11 pressures all year (fifth fewest). He’s bound to find himself a sizable market once free agency opens.
Runners-up: Ryan Jensen, Ravens; John Sullivan, Rams
Edge Rusher: Adrian Clayborn, Falcons
The free-agent edge rusher class is a relative barren wasteland, especially with the top two players who would have been available at this spot, Demarcus Lawrence and Ezekiel Ansah, both getting the franchise tag. That leaves two others vying for the top spot on this list, the 38-year-old Julius Peppers and the 29-year-old Clayborn, who gets the advantage here because he’s nearly a decade younger. Clayborn is probably the least sexy name on this list. He also is the beneficiary of misleading numbers, at least when it comes to sacks: In 2017, he got 6.0 of his 9.5 sacks in one game. But Clayborn was a consistent factor for the Falcons in a rotational role last season, notching 54 pressures—one more than Jason Pierre-Paul generated, but on 157 fewer snaps. Clayborn finished tied for 10th among 4-3 rushers in Pro Football Focus’s pass rush productivity metric (10.9), registering a better per-snap pressure rate than big-name rushers like Chandler Jones, Justin Houston, Jadeveon Clowney, Cameron Jordan, Myles Garrett, and Michael Bennett, just to name a few.
Runners-up: Julius Peppers, Panthers; Junior Galette and Trent Murphy, Redskins; Pernell McPhee, Bears
Defensive Lineman: Sheldon Richardson, Seattle Seahawks
Richardson finished tied for seventh among defensive tackles in PFF’s pass-rush productivity last year, ahead of guys like Ndamukong Suh, Grady Jarrett, and Dontari Poe. He racked up 28 quarterback hurries (12th among interior defensive linemen), seven quarterback hits (16th), one sack, one forced fumble, and one interception. Plus, he’s still just 27 years old, can play all along the defensive line, and is an excellent run defender.
Runners-up: Muhammad Wilkerson, Jets; Bennie Logan, Chiefs; Star Lotulelei, Panthers; Kyle Williams, Bills
Off-Ball Linebacker: Nigel Bradham, Eagles
There’s a handful of strong run-stuffing linebackers in this group, but for me, the edge goes to Bradham for his superior combination of experience, versatility (to play outside or in the middle), and chops as a coverage defender. The 28-year-old graded out sixth among inside linebackers in coverage, per Pro Football Focus—and, over the past two seasons, showed that he can run with tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. It’s a passing league, and offenses are utilizing backs and tight ends more and more in the passing game. Defenses need middle-of-the-field coverage defenders like Bradham to counter that evolution.
Runners-up: Avery Williamson, Titans; Navorro Bowman, Raiders, Zach Brown, Redskins; Preston Brown, Bills; Todd Davis, Broncos; Tahir Whitehead, Lions
Safety: Lamarcus Joyner, Rams
After making the switch from nickel corner to full-time safety in 2017, Joyner thrived in Wade Phillips’s scheme, finishing third in coverage at that position per PFF, and surrendering just one touchdown in coverage all year. The 27-year-old former Seminole picked off three passes, deflected another five, and gave up a passer rating of just 31.8 on passes to his area (fourth best among safeties). At 5-foot-8 and 184 pounds, Joyner isn’t a big-time physical force against the run, but he was dependable as a tackler, missing just three tackle attempts all year (tied for second among safeties who played at least 50 percent of their team’s snaps). Joyner may end up getting tagged before Tuesday’s deadline, but top-tier coverage defenders are at a premium, and if he hits the open market, he’ll get plenty of interest.
Runners-up: Eric Reid, 49ers; Kenny Vaccaro, Saints; Morgan Burnett, Packers
Cornerback: Kyle Fuller, Bears
This year’s free-agent cornerback class is stacked, but Fuller still stands head and shoulders above the rest. The former first-rounder was thrown at a league-high 119 times in 2017, per Pro Football Focus. But the 26-year-old held his own, allowing just two touchdowns while finishing the year tied for second in the NFL with 22 passes defensed. Fuller surrendered a passer rating of 69.0 to opposing quarterbacks (15th out of 84 qualifying corners who played 50 percent of snaps), and gave up a catch rate of just 51.3 percent (14th).
Runners-up (and there are many): Trumaine Johnson, Rams; Rashaan Melvin, Colts; Bashaud Breeland, Redskins; E.J. Gaines, Bills; Malcolm Butler, Patriots; Patrick Robinson, Eagles; Travis Carrie, Raiders; Brent Grimes, Buccaneers; Aaron Colvin, Jaguars; Prince Amukamara, Bears