As we approach Week 12 of the NFL season, teams are able to undergo something of a self-assessment and determine whether they are legitimate playoff contenders. Additionally, clubs can begin to look toward the offseason, examine their current personnel, and decide where improvements can be pursued. With that in mind, we’re unveiling the inaugural edition of PFR’s 2015 Free Agent Power Rankings, an overview of the talent available in next year’s FA class.
A couple of things to keep in mind: First, we’ll only be looking at unrestricted free agents. Restricted free agency is tough to evaluate because it’s unclear at what level RFAs will be tendered. Also, restricted free agents rarely change teams, so sticking with UFAs will streamline this exercise. Second, in today’s NFL, available cap space is often utilized on five key positions — quarterback, left tackle, wide receiver, cornerback, and pass-rusher. Because there aren’t any impact QBs or LTs available in the 2015 crop, this list is exceptionally WR-, CB-, and DE/OLB-heavy.
1. Justin Houston, OLB: Leading the league with 13 sacks, Houston, 26 in January, will be the premier defensive player available when free agency begins in March. He has youth on his side, his production has increased each year he’s been in the league, and he plays one of the most critical defensive positions. Unsurprisingly, he grades as the best 3-4 outside ‘backer among 46 qualifiers per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), excelling both against the run and the pass. Jason Cole of Bleacher Report recently reported that though the Chiefs previously had concerns about extending Houston, a long-term deal is now expected to get worked out, with the edge-rusher receiving a contract that will pay him a little less than J.J. Watt.
2. Ndamukong Suh, DT: A defensive tackle wouldn’t typically be listed among top-of-the-line free agents, but Suh is unarguably a game-changer on the defensive side of the ball. He is sixth in sacks among DTs, and is a stopper against the run as well, rating as PFF’s No. 1 DT in that capacity — he also rates as the league’s best overall defensive tackle. Suh, the second overall pick in the 2010 draft, is a key contributor to a Lions defense that rates first in both yards allowed and DVOA. He currently earns about $12.9MM under the terms of his rookie contract. Fellow defensive tackle (and 2010 draft class member) Gerald McCoy recently signed a extension with an AAV of $13.6MM, a figure that Suh will surely aim to best.
3. Demaryius Thomas, WR: With a torrid 2014, Thomas, 27 next month, has cemented his status as the best pass-catcher available. Through 10 games, he’s racked up 72 receptions for 1,105 yards and six touchdowns as the No. 1 target on the league’s best offense. Thomas is tied for second among WRs with 17 receptions for 20+ yards. Doubters may opine that Thomas’ production is inflated by playing with Peyton Manning, and while there’s probably some merit to that, Thomas is still an excellent player who will do well in free agency. The Broncos don’t expect to sign Thomas during the season, and if he reaches the open market, he should reach the $14MM AAV that PFR’s Luke Adams projected in June.
4. Dez Bryant, WR: The latest news revolving around Bryant includes a rumored long-term proposal from the Cowboys in the 10-year, $114MM range, but with only $20MM in guarantees. It seems as though there’s some contentiousness on both sides, and with Bryant recently signing on with Roc Nation, talks could only get more harsh. Additionally, Dallas is short on cap space, and with DeMarco Murray also a pending free agent, the club could be faced with difficult decisions. A franchise tag is possible if the two parties can’t reach an agreement, but a long-term pact is probably in the better interests of both team and player. On the season, Bryant has 56 receptions for 793 yards and eight touchdowns.
5. Chris Harris, CB: While the 2014 free agent class contained many shutdown corners, including Darrelle Revis, Aqib Talib, and Vontae Davis, this year’s crop doesn’t have the same level of top-end talent. Additionally, a number of No. 1 CBs like Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson, and Joe Haden have signed recent contract extensions, so positional scarcity will cause Harris’ stock to rise. It doesn’t hurt that he grades as the league’s best corner, per Pro Football Focus, who give him a +17.2 mark against the pass. While the Broncos and Harris were reportedly discussing a new deal earlier this month, talks evidently stalled recently. It’s not out of the question that Harris could match the $13-14MM per year that Sherman, Haden, et al. received.
6. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE: Pierre-Paul was perhaps the most difficult player to slot on this list. He has name value, has been a part of historic defensive units, plays a preeminent position, and is the league’s best run defender among 4-3 DEs, per PFF. However, since his 16.5-sack season in 2011, he hasn’t been adept at bringing down the quarterback. In 2014, he’s accrued only 3.5 sacks. Still, he’ll be just 26 in February, and his potential should be able to secure him a contract in the $12MM AAV range.
7. Randall Cobb, WR: Cobb is the youngest free agent on this list (he tuned 24 in August), and his youth could be a key factor in his receiving a large contact. The Packers already extended fellow receiver Jordy Nelson, and it’s unclear whether the club will want to heavily invest in one position group. Still, we heard last night that league insiders don’t expect Green Bay GM Ted Thompson to let Cobb hit free agency. Cobb leads WRs with 10 receiving touchdowns, and is tops in terms of DYAR. Although I estimated in October that he would sign a contract similar to that of Golden Tate (five years, $31MM), I’m starting to think that was a little light.
8. Jeremy Maclin, WR: The concerns about Maclin are obvious: he’ll be 27 next season, he suffered a torn ACL in 2013, and though his numbers are impressive, he plays in an offense designed to produce eye-popping statistics. Still, Maclin, who’s caught 57 balls for 921 yards and nine touchdowns, should be able to find a large deal when he hits free agency. He signed a one-year deal worth $6MM to stay with the Eagles for 2014, but as Luke noted when examining Maclin as an extension candidate, it’s conceivable that he could match or exceed the five-year, $36.25 deal that Eric Decker received from the Jets.
9. Julius Thomas, TE: Following his 2013 breakout, Thomas is again playing like of the best tight ends in the league. His 12 touchdowns lead the NFL, and he’s third in DYAR among TEs. If the Broncos are able to work out an extension with Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas is extremely likely to be slapped with the franchise tag. The franchise figure for tight ends, which was $7.035MM last season, would be manageable for Denver. If he does hit the open market, Thomas should easily secure a deal that would place him among the top-five highest-paid TEs. Is it possible he challenges Jimmy Graham‘s four-year, $40MM pact?
10. DeMarco Murray, RB: It might be surprising to see the NFL’s best running back in 2014 listed at the bottom of these rankings, but it’s important to remember that running back is a severely devalued position. As Grantland’s Bill Barnwell outlined yesterday, contracts for free agent RBs go awry more often than not, and Murray isn’t without question marks, specifically in the health department. Additionally, Murray could face competition from backs we know will be free agents – like Mark Ingram and Frank Gore – and those we think will hit the open market, like Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch. Ultimately, Murray will probably earn a lot less than most observers currently estimate.