Only four teams are left in the Super Bowl hunt, but even more importantly from a roster standpoint, less than two months remain until the start of the new league year and the beginning of free agency. We have seven more weeks of data since the previous edition of our free agent power rankings, and one player included in the prior list — Broncos cornerback Chris Harris — has signed an extension. With that in mind, let’s update our stock watch of the 2015 unrestricted free agent class:
1. Ndamukong Suh, DT: Already among the best available free agents heading into the stretch run, Suh ramped up his level of play during the last six games of the year, racking up four sacks and 21 tackles. He then posted a dominating performance during the Lions’ wild card round loss to the Cowboys, sacking Tony Romo twice, hurrying him five times, and registering his third-highest grade of the season per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Detroit general manager Martin Mayhew recently said the club would “leave every option open” with regards to retaining Suh, who turned 28 six days ago, but recent reports suggested that as many as 10 teams could be prepared to make “titanic pitches” to the star defensive tackle. PFR’s Luke Adams recently examined several Suh-related scenarios that could play out in the coming months, including the Lions working out a long-term agreement, using the franchise tag, or allowing the 2014 All-Pro to walk.
2. Justin Houston, OLB: Like Suh, Houston’s production in the final leg of the season was outstanding, as he posted an astounding nine sacks and 22 tackles during the Chiefs’ final five games — he took down Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers four times in Week 17 alone, hurrying him another three times. He finished the year with 22 sacks, which led the league and was just a half-sack shy of matching Michael Strahan’s all-time record. Houston, who turns 26 next Wednesday, graded out as the No. 1 3-4 outside linebacker per PFF; his +51.1 score was nearly double that of Pernell McPhee, the No. 2 finisher. There hasn’t been much news regarding Houston as of late, but the more time that passes without a long-term deal being agreed upon, the more likelier it becomes that Kansas City places the franchise tag on its pass-rusher.
3. Dez Bryant, WR: In November, reports indicated that Bryant’s camp didn’t believe they would agree to a multiyear pact with the Cowboys, meaning the star pass-catcher is likely to be franchise-tagged. Dallas has reportedly offered Bryant an extension worth $114MM over 10 years, but with just $20MM guaranteed. With the franchise tag figure for receivers expected to approach $13MM in 2015, it would make little sense for Bryant to accept such a deal. Bryant, who earned just $1.78MM in base salary this season, finished the year with 88 receptions for 1,320 yards and 16 touchdowns.
4. Demaryius Thomas, WR: Thomas, who turned 27 on Christmas Day, was solid down the stretch, averaging six receptions for 86 yards and a score over the Broncos’ final six games, before tacking on five catches for 59 yards and a touchdown in Denver’s playoff loss to the Colts on Monday; on the season, he caught 111 balls for more than 1,600 yards. In December, Thomas indicated that he was open to accepting a hometown discount to remain in Denver, noting that he was fond of playing with Peyton Manning. Now, with Manning’s future uncertain and the entire Broncos organization in a state of upheaval, it’s unclear if Thomas would offer those same sentiments. His preferences will likely be determined by the choice of head coach and Manning’s decision on retirement, but the club ultimately will have final say: if an extension can’t be worked out, the Broncos will almost certainly franchise-tag Thomas.
5. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE: Perhaps no player did more to raise his stock during the final stretch of the season than Pierre-Paul. During the Giants’ final six games, he registered nine sacks, five QB hits, and 15 QB hurries — also a stout run defender, JPP finished as PFF’s No. 6 overall 4-3 defensive end. Giants owner John Mara said in December that he’d be very surprised if Pierre-Paul wasn’t with New York next season, but JPP has been adamant that he won’t accept a hometown discount to stay with the team that drafted him in the first round in 2010. PFR’s Rory Parks took a look at Pierre-Paul’s contract situation last month, and estimated a contract in the neighborhood of five years, $80MM for the pass-rusher.
6. Randall Cobb, WR: One of only two members of this list who plays for a team that remains in the postseason, Cobb was able to stay healthy for all of 2014, something he’s had trouble with in the past. As of mid-December, there was no movement on extension talks between Cobb and the Packers. Cobb, who caught 91 passes for 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns this season, could seek to match the five-year, $35MM contract signed by Eric Decker last offseason. As Luke noted in the link above, however, Green Bay may want to ensure that Cobb doesn’t earn more than No. 1 receiver Jordy Nelson, who inked a four-year, $39MM extension during the summer. The youngest player on this list, Cobb won’t turn 25 until August.
7. Devin McCourty, S: With Harris off the board, McCourty is now the top defensive back available among free agents. Aside from Brandon Flowers (who will be 29 when next season begins) there aren’t many options at cornerback, so teams looking for secondary help will have to turn to McCourty, who stands alone in a FA safety class that contains middling players like Chris Conte and Rahim Moore. McCourty, 27, will hit free agency with his stock high — he rated as the league’s eighth-best safety per PFF after racking up 54 tackles and two interceptions for the Patriots this season. On December 14, Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald reported that there was “nothing happening” between McCourty and New England regarding an extension. I examined McCourty, a 2010 first-round pick, as an extension candidate in November, projecting that he could match Jairus Byrd‘s $9MM AAV.
8. Jeremy Maclin, WR: Maclin didn’t finish the season as strong as some of the others on this list — he averaged just five receptions for 56 yards during the Eagles’ final six games, and scored only once during that time. Maclin was adjusting to playing with a new quarterback in Mark Sanchez, however, who trailed off after a hot start and seemed to favor slot receiver Jordan Matthews at times. Nevertheless, Maclin enjoyed a strong comeback season in 2014, catching 85 balls for more than 1,300 yards while playing under a one-year, prove-it deal worth $6MM. Eagles head coach Chip Kelly said in December that it was a priority to retain Maclin, whom Luke projected could surpass Decker’s contract.
9. Jerry Hughes, EDGE: The most unheralded player on this list, Hughes has been a revelation with the Bills since being considered a bust after Indianapolis selected him in the first round of the 2010 draft. In 2014, he posted 10 sacks and graded as the 14th-best 4-3 defensive end in the league per PFF — he’d have placed much higher if not for his -9.1 penalty grade. He’d fit in either a 3-4 or a 4-3 look; in new Buffalo head coach Rex Ryan’s scheme, he’d work best as an OLB. In late December, Hughes indicated he would not be open to accepting a hometown discount to remain in Buffalo. It’s conceivable that he could garner $10MM annually on the open market.
10. Greg Hardy, DE: The most difficult player to slot on these rankings, Hardy played in just one game in 2014 before being placed on the commissioner’s exempt list after being charged in a domestic violence incident. The league is extremely sensitive to cases like Hardy’s, as it should be, and it’s beyond PFR’s purview to determine what the proper penalty for Hardy’s actions should be. But the fact remains that NFL teams pay for production, and Hardy is extremely productive. He posted consecutive double-digit sack seasons in 2012 and 2013, grading as a top-six 4-3 defensive end per PFF in both years. With his trial date set for February 9, Hardy should have some sort of resolution regarding his status shortly. If not for his off-the-field baggage, the 2010 sixth-rounder would easily be in the top half of this list, if not in the top three.