What to look for as free agency begins in the NFL

Published 8:55 am Friday, March 3, 2017

On first look, it’s tempting to ask “Is that all there is?” on the NFL free agency front.

A deeper investigation reveals some talent being available at most positions. As for studs, game changers and franchise players, well, there simply isn’t much now that the Steelers won’t be letting prize running back Le’Veon Bell slip away.

While last year’s crop had a collection of All-Pros, some of whom wound up with franchise tags, this year’s group had only one full-time All-Pro, Kansas City safety Eric Berry, who also went through this in 2016 before being tagged at $10.8 million. He got his long-term deal at the end of February.

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Minnesota kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson is the other All-Pro whose contract is up.

The salary cap increases from $155.27 million to $167 million. So let the spending begin.

The cream

Unquestionably, Bell was the best among the unrestricted guys — and the most untouchable. Pittsburgh often has let players leave the Steel City, but those have been aging performers or ones who never made a major contribution. Bell is a difference maker and will be getting his money from the Steelers.

Beyond Bell, there are a half-dozen or so top-flight players, all of whom come with a significant question mark on their resumes.

Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles, both stalwarts for their previous clubs and with All-Pro credentials, are out there. But how many 30-plus running backs get long-term deals, even proven ones such as these? And both will want big bucks.

Berry’s Chiefs teammate, Dontari Poe, is among the league’s top nose tackles; he also delivers jump passes for TDs, but he has had back issues.

Darrelle Revis is out there, and he once was a premier shutdown cornerback. But he slumped in his second go-around with the Jets, and now he might have legal issues.

Still, the free-agent offerings on defense appear more enticing: Calais Campbell, Dont’a Hightower, Chandler Jones (non-exclusive tag), Lorenzo Alexander. Wide receiver is perhaps the deepest spot for free agents on offense with Alshon Jeffery, Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson and Terrelle Pryor.

With Kirk Cousins tagged by the Redskins, likely making him the league’s highest-paid player, the starting quarterback market is rather bare. Considering that the other QBs available range from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Landry Jones to Mike Glennon (more on him later), Cousins would have been one popular guy if the Redskins didn’t swallow hard and pay him.

Who are the big spenders?

The Giants found free agency valuable in retooling, with defensive additions Damon Harrison, an All-Pro at tackle, Janoris Jenkins and Olivier Vernon helping lift them into the playoffs for the first time since 2011. They have cap room to satisfy Jason Pierre-Paul, and need to solidify the offensive line.

Tail enders Cleveland, San Francisco and Jacksonville — who happen to own three of the first four draft picks — are swimming in cap space. The Jaguars have not fared well in free agency, though.

Ominously, only a half-dozen teams have more flexibility with the cap than do the Patriots.

Aging but available

They are hardly old men outside the realm of professional sports. Within the NFL, such free agents as Julius Peppers (37), DeMarcus Ware (34), Vincent Jackson (34), Andrew Whitworth (35), Vince Wilfork (36), Trent Cole (34), Vernon Davis (33), Chad Greenway (34), DeAngelo Williams (33), and Jahri Evans (33) carry caveats with their availability, like Peterson and Charles. Just how much do they have left?

Most, if not all of them, would command hefty money and each is unlikely to get anything resembling a long-term deal. With the exception of perhaps Whitworth, all are past their primes.

Their value, especially in this class, comes from their experience and the guidance they can provide, if only for one season, to the “kids” they would be leading.

Questionable QBs

Maybe we are being kind by categorizing the passers this way. Other than Cousins, there’s little proven talent on the market.

Glennon presents the most potential, albeit hardly franchise QB worthy. He was going nowhere in Tampa with Jameis Winston ahead of him, and several NFL personnel people believe Glennon has grown as a quarterback even with limited snaps that count.

Does that mean he’s headed for big bucks and starter’s status somewhere? Probably not, but he’s a more intriguing prospect than the rest of the 2016 cast of journeymen: try Josh McCown, Mark Sanchez, Matt Schaub, Matt Cassel, Brian Hoyer — you get the message.

Where are the bargains?

As always — just look at New England — there are value picks out there, guys who won’t cost a fortune or destroy a team’s salary structure. Maybe this year’s Chris Long (a free agent yet again, but with a Super Bowl ring, more expensive) is Bills linebacker Zach Brown.

Bengals guard Kevin Zeitler, Colts tight end Jack Doyle, Texans cornerback A.J. Bouye, Cardinals safety Tony Jefferson, Cowboys TE Gavin Escobar, Giants defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins and Patriots CB Logan Ryan won’t break the bank. They might enrich a new team with their less costly contributions.