The Lions are scouring the defensive tackle market. They’re expected to bring in free agents Johnathan Hankins and Alan Branch for visits and former Titans defensive tackle Sylvester Williams is also on their radar, Field Yates of ESPN.com tweets. Meanwhile, they’re working on a deal with former Pats defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com (on Twitter).
The Lions project to start A’Shawn Robinson and Akeem Spence on the interior defensive line, but they’re a little thin in support. Last year’s sixth-round pick Jeremiah Ledbetter and former UDFA Toby Johnson are the only other DTs on the roster as of this writing. It’s possible that the Lions will look to sign two or more of the aforementioned quartet of free agent defensive tackles to pad out the depth chart.
Given GM Bob Quinn‘s ties to the Patriots, Jean-Francois would be a logical signing for Detroit. Hankins, meanwhile, might be the most intriguing talent of the bunch given his success in the Giants’ 4-3 scheme from 2013-2016. Last year, he also performed well in the Colts’ 3-4 defense.
The Patriots have exercised Kenny Britt‘s option for 2018, but they won’t be retaining defensive lineman Alan Branch. The Patriots are parting ways with Branch, a source tells Doug Kyed of NESN (on Twitter), allowing him to become a free agent.
Branch was one of the Patriots’ top defensive performers in 2016, but he was hardly a factor in 2017. The Patriots made him a healthy scratch for an October game against the Bucs and he finished the season on the sidelines thanks to a meniscus tear. Given all of that, the Patriots were not expected to bring Branch back with a cap number of $4.55MM.
Kyed reports that the Patriots are declining Branch’s option, but Branch’s contract was previously reported as a straight-up two-year deal. In any event, it appears that the Pats will save $3.55MM by dumping Branch with just $1MM in residual dead money.
In 2016, Branch tallied a career-high 49 tackles to go along with 1.5 sacks. He ranked 25th in overall performance among Pro Football Focus’ 127 qualified interior defensive linemen that season, but this year he ranked just 98th.
December 20th, 2017 at 12:57pm CST by Zachary Links
The Patriots will be without Alan Branch for the final two games of the regular season, at minimum. The defensive lineman does not need surgery to fix his injured meniscus, but he is expected to miss “a few weeks,” Ian Rapoport of NFL.com (Twitter link) hears.
The Patriots have already locked up the AFC East title, but they’re still looking to shore up a first-round bye over the next couple of weeks. If they can manage that, then Branch could theoretically return to action for the Pats’ first playoff game, which would be on January 13th. If they have to play in the Wild Card round, then they might have to start the playoffs without one of their starting defensive tackles.
At 11-3, the Patriots have a 90% chance of getting a first-round bye and a 70% shot at being the AFC’s top seed, per the New York Times’ playoff calculator. A win over the Bills this weekend coupled with a Jaguars loss to the Niners would seal up the bye.
The Patriots will be without two of their top cover men against the Jets. A late addition to the Pats’ injury report, Stephon Gilmore is out for Sunday’s game with a concussion. Gilmore was not listed on New England’s injury report prior to Saturday, but Josina Anderson of ESPN.com reports (on Twitter) the cornerback had experienced headaches since the Buccaneers game nine days ago. Eric Rowe is out with a groin injury, leaving the Patriots shorthanded on the outside. Gilmore’s concussion setback comes after he was a game-time decision to face the Bucs due to an ankle injury. Rowe hasn’t practiced since aggravating a groin problem in Week 4. New England did not sign anyone before Saturday afternoon’s deadline, so the team will not make a practice squad promotion for depth purposes as a result of these injuries.
Here’s more from New England and other AFC East headquarters prior to Week 6 Sunday.
Alan Branch, though, did make the trip with the Patriots to New York after being left off the travel roster for his team’s Week 5 tilt in Tampa, Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald reports. Branch played in New England’s first four games after being re-signed this offseason. His season’s traversing a pattern Jabaal Sheard‘s did last year. After being left off the travel list for a midseason road trip, Sheard returned a week later and finished last season with 15 regular-season games played. Branch signed a two-year deal worth up to $12MM, so another healthy scratch would certainly be strange.
When the Jets were surveying the quarterback market, they became the latest team to turn to Josh McCown‘s five-game audition with the 2013 Bears as evidence of proficiency. New OC John Morton observed McCown’s work during that stretch — one that booked him the starting gig with the 2014 Bucs and probably played a key role in coaxing the Browns to sign him a year later — and tailored Gang Green’s offense around what McCown did well that season, Bob Glauber of Newsday notes. McCown has the Jets at a surprising 3-2, with the three wins exceeding his total with the Bucs and Browns combined. The 38-year-old quarterback is completing 71 percent of his passes in Morton’s offense.
That said, the Jets aren’t expected to let this season distract them from plans to acquire a long-term quarterback in 2018, Rich Cimini notes (on Twitter). In comparing this to the 2016 situation that saw the Jets re-sign Ryan Fitzpatrick late in the offseason and then watching him regress last season, Cimini does not see the Jets turning to McCown again after this bridge season.
Despite some outside outcries for the Dolphins to bench Jay Cutler, Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald doesn’t get the feeling Dolphins players are ready to see the recently acquired veteran demoted just yet. In attempting 26 passes against the Titans, Cutler completed just 12 for 92 yards. The Dolphins plan to stick with Cutler throughout the season, although that plan could certainly be revised down the road if this offense regresses further.
Alan Branch was one of the Patriots’ top defensive performers in 2016. In 2017, he’s effectively done a disappearing act. The Patriots have responded by making him a healthy scratch for tonight’s game against the Buccaneers, as Mike Reiss of ESPN.com tweets. Branch also did not travel with the team to Tampa.
Branch is being cut out of the Patriots’ plans just months after re-signing on a two-year deal worth $8.45MM. At this point, it’s hard to see the 32-year-old (33 in December) playing out the second year of his contract. One has to wonder if he’ll even get to finish out the first year.
Branch’s deal included $3MM in guarantees at signing, but the Pats can wiggle out of their obligation to him in 2018 by eating just $1MM in dead money while saving $3.7MM against the cap. If he were to remain on the roster when the 2018 league year starts, he’d collect on a $1MM bonus.
Branch, a former second-round pick, was ranked as PFR’s No. 8 free agent interior defender at the outset of free agency. At the time, the Patriots’ decision to re-sign him seemed like a smart one. He turned in back-to-back seasons with 16 appearances, and 15 starts. In 2016, the veteran tallied a career-high 49 tackles and chipped in 1.5 sacks for the Super Bowl champs. Branch also ranked 25th in overall performance among Pro Football Focus’ 127 qualified interior defensive linemen.
The 2017 season will be the fourth in New England for the 32-year-old Branch, who was previously with the Cardinals, Seahawks and Bills. Branch is coming off back-to-back 16-appearance, 15-start campaigns, and the 10-year veteran tallied a career-high 49 tackles and chipped in 1.5 sacks in 2016 for the Super Bowl champions. He also ranked 25th in overall performance among Pro Football Focus’ 127 qualified interior defensive linemen.
Let’s take a look at the details of some recently-signed free agent contracts:
Martellus Bennett, TE (Packers): Three years, $20.25MM. $6.3MM guaranteed. Base salaries of $900K, $3.6MM, $5.65MM. $2MM roster bonus due on first day of 2018 league year. $600K in annual per-game roster bonuses. $$250K annual workout bonus (link via Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk).
A.J. Bouye, CB (Jaguars): Five years, $65MM. $26MM guaranteed. $10MM signing bonus. Base salaries of $3MM, $13MM, $13MM, $13MM, $13MM. $500K annual workout bonus (Twitter link via Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle).
Alan Branch, DT (Patriots): Two years, $8.45MM. $3MM guaranteed. $2MM signing bonus. Annual $400K workout and weight bonus of $400K each. $3.55MM available via not-likely-to-be-earned incentives (link via Mike Reiss of ESPN.com).
Ted Ginn, WR (Saints): Three years, $11MM. $3MM guaranteed. $3MM signing bonus. Base salaries of $2MM, $3MM, $2.5MM. 2018 $500K roster bonus. $500,000 aviailve vie playtime, catches incentives (Twitter link via Wilson).
The Patriots have reached agreement with defensive tackle Alan Branch on a two-year deal that can be worth up to $12MM, tweets Ian Rapoport of NFL.com.
Branch, 32, has spent the past three years in New England, and has started 15 games in each of the past two campaigns. The Patriots reportedly believed they had made a “solid offer” to Branch last week, and Branch apparently agreed, as he’s now under contract through the 2018 season. In 2016, Branch graded as the league’s No. 25 defensive tackle, according to Pro Football Focus, which gave him excellent marks against the run.
NFL free agency gets underway on Thursday and while the list of free agents will change between now and then, we do have some idea of who will be available when free agency kicks off. Here is our updated outlook for each defensive and special teams position.
Listed below are our rankings for the top 15 free agents at each defensive position. These rankings aren’t necessarily determined by the value of the contracts – or the amount of guaranteed money – that each player is expected to land in free agency. These are simply the players we like the most at each position, with both short- and long-term value taken into account.
Restricted and exclusive-rights free agents, as well as franchised players aren’t listed here, since the roadblocks in place to hinder another team from actually acquiring most of those players prevent them from being true free agents.
We’ll almost certainly be higher or lower on some free agents than you are, so feel free to weigh in below in our comments section to let us know which players we’ve got wrong.
Here’s our breakdown of the current top 15 free agents by defensive position for this offseason:
Now that Chandler Jones, Melvin Ingram, and Jason Pierre-Paul have all been assigned the franchise tag, Nick Perry stands as the top edge defender on the free agent market, and is now in a position to cash in. The Packers opted against the franchise tender for the 26-year-old Perry, so he’ll hit the open market following a career year which saw him post 11 sacks.
After managing nine sacks over the first nine years of his NFL tenure, Lorenzo Alexander busted out with 12.5 quarterback takedowns in 2016, and now could be looking for a double-digit annual salary. Charles Johnson, meanwhile, looks like a good bet to return to the Panthers, but DeMarcus Ware could be something of a wild card — after missing 11 games in the past two seasons, does the 34-year-old have enough left in the tank? The same could be asked of Dwight Freeney, who at age-37 posted three sacks in a rotational role for the Falcons.
Calais Campbell is the best overall player among interior defenders, and though he’s entering his age-31 season and may not cost as much as Johnathan Hankins, Brandon Williams, and Dontari Poe, Campbell will still be highly-sought after as he searches for his last substantial payday Campbell’s agent met with the Cardinals last week, but other speculative fits for the veteran defender include the Broncos, Raiders, Ravens, Colts, and Titans.
Hankins is only 24 years old, and though the Giants are trying to retain him along with the rest of their defensive core, the 6’3″, 320-pound mauler should represent an attractive option to a number of clubs this offseason. Williams, too, offers a massive presence on the inside, while Poe could intrigue clubs based on his first-round pedigree and athleticism (though his play hasn’t always matched his potential). The Redskins’ Chris Baker is a solid, well-rounded defensive tackle, and could constitute a consolation prize for teams that miss out on their top targets.
As usual, the non-rush linebacker market isn’t exactly overflowing with elite talent, and Dont’a Hightower stands as far-and-away the best player among this group. The Patriots already traded away several of their best defenders, including Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins, an indication that they view Hightower as the best best to stick around long term. New England didn’t place the franchise nor the transition tag on Hightower, so he’ll have the ability to set the market at linebacker.
Coming off a disappointing four-year run with the Titans in 2016, Zach Brown was last year forced to sign a one-year deal with the Bills for less than $1.5MM. That won’t be the case this spring, as Brown finally lived up to his second-round draft status by grading as one of the league’s best ‘backers. Brown especially excelled in pass coverage by using his speed to chase pass-catchers around the field, and in today’s NFL, that’s a skill-set that equals a hefty paycheck.
The Texans are didn’t use the franchise tag on A.J. Bouye, a decision which sets up the young corner to be the single-most intriguing player on the 2017 free agent market. Only 25 years old, Bouye came out of nowhere to grade as PFF’s No. 3 corner in 2016. But the former undrafted free agent played on less than 900 defensive snaps over the first three years of his career, so he’s going to get paid on essentially one season of production. Bouye earned less than $3MM total during his time with Houston — his next contract could contain five times that amount…annually.
The cornerback market stands as one of the best free agent positional groups this offseason, as strong players permeate the list from top-to-bottom. Stephon Gilmore is a more high-profile name than Logan Ryan, but Ryan has simply played better over the last few campaigns, and offers a more dependable output. The Bears are expected to make a run at Gilmore, while the Bengals have already been linked to Ryan.
Morris Claiborne is a former first-round pick but didn’t play like it until last season. Dre Kirkpatrick is a former first-round pick but has never played like it. The rest of the cornerback list has warts, as well: Prince Amukamara has dealt with injury, Kayvon Webster has only two career starts, Terence Newman is entering his age-39 season, and Sam Shields is coming off multiple concussions. All of these players offer upside, but they are all undoubtedly attached to risk.
Tony Jefferson is expected to hit free agency, and could be in for a contract that nears the $8-9MM range. Jefferson did reach the free agent market in 2016 as a restricted free agent, but he didn’t come with draft compensation attached. Any club could have signed him to an offer sheet, and if the Cardinals declined to match, would have acquired Jefferson scot-free. No team did so, which could be an indication that Jefferson’s 2016 market could be less robust than expected.
Also working against Jefferson is the fact that he plays close to the line of scrimmage, a role that’s relatively easy to fill, as Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus explained on a recent podcast. Duron Harmon, on the other hand, has demonstrated an ability to play deep safety, and thus could be in for a surprisingly high salary. The Cowboys’ Barry Church is “solid at everything, great at nothing,” tweets Andy Benoit of Sports Illustrated, while Jonathan Cyprien and T.J. McDonald are primarily run defenders. Darius Butler may be the most fascinating case among this list of safeties, as the former corner should theoretically offer above-average coverage skills.
Micah Hyde could have been listed among the free agent corners, as the do-it-all defensive back is capable of playing multiple roles. His versatility is central to the Packers’ defense, and D.J. Swearinger provides the same sort of flexibility to the Cardinals. If Jefferson defects via the open market, Arizona will likely hone in on re-signing Swearinger as his full-time replacement. Jairus Byrd is a late addition to the safety market after being released by the Saints, and it’s possible another will hope he can rebound to his All Pro days as he enters his age-30 season.
The Seahawks don’t figure to re-signSteven Hauschka after bringing in fellow kicker Blair Walsh, but the longtime Seattle placekicker should be able to quickly find a new home in free agency. Nick Novak attempted the second-most field goals in the NFL last season after many Texans’ drives stalled, while Robbie Gould filled in admirably for the Giants after they released Josh Brown, converting of all ten of his field goal attempts.
Nick Folk was released as a cap casualty, and still has the talent to become another club’s kicker, while Mike Nugent — cut by the Bengals at midseason — may be nearing the end of the road after missing six extra points. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Phil Dawson come back for a fifth season with the 49ers, but Greg Zuerlein could move on from the Rams after the club threatened to bring in competition last offseason.
Jeff Locke, 27, managed to pin opposing clubs inside the 20-yard line 34 times in 2016, good for fifth in the league. Now 40 years old, Shane Lechler is a seven-time Pro Bowler, but the Texans lost 12.7 points of field position on punts last season, meaning Houston could go in another direction at punter.
The Patriots and Dont’a Hightower are maintaining positive, productive dialogue, Jeff Howe of The Boston Herald writes. Still, Hightower is intrigued by the idea of finding out his value on the open market, so there remains a real chance that he reaches free agency on March 9. The Pats have not extended a formal, written proposal since last summer.
Jets coach Todd Bowles claims Darrelle Revis‘ recent felony arrest was not a factor in the decision to release him (Twitter link via Rich Cimini of ESPN.com). He also says the idea of moving him to safety was discussed, but it doesn’t sound like it was a serious consideration.
The Dolphins aren’t sure whether safety Isa Abdul-Quddus can take the field in 2017, Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald writes. Last year, they signed Abdul-Quddus to a three-year deal with the hope that he could hold down the position. Unfortunately, he suffered a bad neck injury late last season.