After Henry’s injury last year, Gates was brought back to the only organization he’s ever known, serving mostly in a backup role. Appearing in all 16 games for the Chargers, Gates totaled 28 receptions for 333 yards, with only two touchdowns.
In the interim, the Chargers seem content with expanding the roles of tight ends Virgil Green and Sean Culkin while Henry recovers from his injury. Green is coming off a lackluster 2018 campaign, where he hauled in 19 passes for 210 yards and a touchdown, while appearing in all 16 games for the Chargers. Despite this, he is expected to start, with Culkin serving in a back up role.
On the most recent edition of the RapSheet + Friends Podcast, quarterback Philip Rivers spoke with NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport about a number of topics, including his current contract. “I really just feel at peace about that. Tom [Telesco] and I had really good conversations throughout the last couple months. I think it’s sincere, the both of us, really desire I’m still a Charger in 2020,” Rivers told Rapoport. “I think that sincerity will make it all work out. Had it worked out before the regular season got started, I’d have been fine with it, but it didn’t. Shoot, hey let’s just wait and it kinda worked best for both sides to do that. I really feel good about it. I’m in a good place.” Rivers is in the final year of a four-year, $83.25 million contract extension he signed in August 2015.
In an effort to create cap space, Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher‘s contract was restructured, which included the conversion of his $9.54MM base salary to a fully guaranteed roster bonus that will be prorated from 2019 to 2021, dropping his 2019 cap hit to about $6.4MM, according to Yahoo Sports’ Terez A. Paylor. Paylor also reports that linebacker Anthony Hitchens‘ restructure, which included the conversion of $5.6MM of his base salary to a fully guaranteed roster bonus that will also be prorated from 2019 to 2022, created roughly $4.2MM in cap room.
September 10th, 2019 at 7:41am CST by Zachary Links
The Chiefs did base salary-to-signing bonus conversions for linebacker Anthony Hitchens & offensive tackle Eric Fisher, Field Yates of ESPN.com (on Twitter). With that, they’ve carved out nearly $10.6MM in cap room for this year.
Between these deals and the cap-smoothing extension for Tyreek Hill, the Chiefs are in solid cap position. Of course, they’ll be in better position in general when Hill returns to action, but they have plenty of offensive firepower to keep things moving in the interim.
Hitchens signed a five-year, $45MM deal with the Chiefs in 2018 that made him the league’s seventh-highest paid inside linebacker on an annual basis, at the time of signing. The pact counted for $3.6MM against Kansas City’s salary cap last year, but was set to triple in size for this year. Fun fact: The Chiefs tried to trade for Hitchens in 2017, when he was on the Cowboys. Ultimately, they got their man anyway.
Fisher, 28, is under contract through 2021 thanks to the four-year, $48MM extension he inked in 2016. There’s no guaranteed money in the final year of the contract, but the Chiefs have no plans to ditch him after he earned his first career Pro Bowl nod in 2018.
The Chiefs signed former Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens to a five-year contract this offseason, but Kansas City had made attempts to acquire Hitchens previously. According to Lynn Worthy of the Kansas City Star, the Chiefs actually tried to trade for Hitchens during the summer of 2017.
The Cowboys declined to deal Hitchens — originally a fourth-round pick in the 2014 draft — and he went on to play on 500 or more defensive snaps for the fourth consecutive season. In total, 2017 marked one of the best campaigns of Hitchens’ career, as he appeared in 12 games (all starts) and posted 55 tackles, two passes defensed, and one forced fumble, all while grading as the NFL’s No. 18 linebacker, per Pro Football Focus.
“We’re sitting there on the free-agency board, and the guy that we made our first call to back in August about his availability, he’s a free agent,” Chiefs general manager Brett Veach told Worthy. “We knew we were going to go in a different direction with Derrick [Johnson]. It just made sense. We spent a lot of time on him with the work we did back in August. Here we’ve come full circle now. Now, we’re right back where we originally started, which is pursuing Anthony Hitchens.”
Hitchens, 26, ultimately landed a five-year, $45MM deal with the Chiefs that makes him the league’s seventh-highest paid inside linebacker on an annual basis. That pact also contains $21.29MM in fully guaranteed money, second to only Luke Kuechly among inside ‘backers. During the upcoming campaign, Hitchens will collect a base salary of $790K and count for $3.6MM against Kansas City’s salary cap before his cap charge nearly triples in 2019.
With the Chiefs, Hitchens will start next to Reggie Ragland — whom Kansas City acquired from the Bills last year — in defensive coordinator Bob Sutton‘s 3-4 scheme. Johnson, whom the Chiefs opted not to re-sign after he spent 13 seasons with the club, was regularly playing more than 800 defensive snaps per year, so Hitchens will need to increase his playtime percentage as he transitions to a new team.
The Chiefs have reloaded their linebacker corps, agreeing to a deal with former Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens, according to Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero of NFL.com (on Twitter). Hitchens’ deal will span five years for a total of $45MM, per Pelissero (on Twitter), including a $14MM signing bonus and $21.29MM guaranteed at signing. His contract will be worth up to $49.25MM, with incentives included.
A reunion with the Cowboys seemed unlikely as they ranked No. 28 in the NFL entering Monday with $3.12MM in available cap space. They had placed the franchise tag on linebacker Demarcus Lawrence and have reportedly made extending the fellow linebacker to a long-term deal a priority.
The signing of Hitchens was the second major addition Tuesday for the Chiefs as they also reportedly agreed to a deal with free-agent wide receiver Sammy Watkins. Hitchens started 12 games for the Cowboys last season and recorded 55 tackles, which were the most since his rookie season in 2014. The Colts were also reportedly interested in Hitchens, as new Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus had previously worked as the linebackers coach for the Cowboys.
The Cowboys originally selected Hitchens in the fourth round of the 2014 draft out of Iowa. He had not missed a game leading up to this season, in which he missed four due to a tibia plateau fracture sustained in August.
NFL free agency will get underway on Wednesday, March 14th, 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. The frenzy is right around the corner and it’s time for us to break down the outlook for each position. After looking at offense on Monday, we’ll tackle defense and special teams today.
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 players who received the franchise tag, 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 2018:
As a positional group, pass rushers comprise interesting market on the defensive side of the ball. It’s not often that a list of best available players is topped by a 38-year-old, but Peppers is the top free agent edge defender after the Cowboys and Lions deployed the franchise tag on Demarcus Lawrence and Ezekiel Ansah, respectively. As with quarterbacks, NFL clubs are extremely reluctant to allow pass rushers to hit the open market, so top-tier options are rarely ever truly “available.” Peppers, for his part, hasn’t even declared whether he’ll return in 2018, but indications are that he’ll suit up for a 17th campaign after posting 11 sacks last year.
Alongside Peppers, other veterans populate the edge market, and while William Hayes may not be a household name, he’ll be a contributor for whichever team signs him. A stout run defender, Hayes is also capable of generating pressure despite managing only one sack in 2017. The Dolphins used Hayes on only 271 defensive snaps a season ago, and have since replaced him by acquiring fellow defensive end Robert Quinn from the Rams. Now that he’s entering his age-33 season, Hayes should come cheap, but will almost assuredly outplay his contract.
Nearly every other available pass rusher has some sort of flaw which will likely limit his market next week. Trent Murphy is only 27 years old and put up nine sacks in 2016, but he missed the entirety of the 2017 campaign with injury. Pernell McPhee, Alex Okafor, Junior Galette, and Derrick Shelby have also been plagued by health questions in recent seasons. And Adrian Clayborn famously registered the majority of his 2017 sacks (and 20% of his career sack total) in one game against overwhelmed Cowboys backup Chaz Green.
The two names that I keep coming back to are Aaron Lynch (49ers) and Jeremiah Attaochu (Chargers). Yes, Lynch has been suspended for substance abuse, struggled with his weight, and was reportedly in danger of being waived prior to last season. He’s also extremely young (he won’t turn 25 years old until Thursday) and ranked fifth in the league with 34 pass pressures as recently as 2015. Attaochu, a 25-year-old former second-round pick, also has youth on his side, and while he hasn’t quite flashed as much as Lynch, he’s also been buried on LA’s depth chart for much of his career.
Interior rushers are getting more respect in today’s NFL, but that still hasn’t translated to them being paid on the level of edge defenders — the 2018 franchise tag for defensive tackles, for example, is roughly $3MM cheaper than the tender for edge rushers. While the 2018 crop of interior defenders boasts some impressive top-end talent, none of the available players figure to earn a double-digit annual salary. Sheldon Richardson may have the best chance to do so, but Seattle determined he wasn’t worth a one-year cost of $13.939MM, so is any other club going to pay him $10MM per year? I’d guess he comes in closer to $9MM annually, which would still place him among the 25 highest-paid defensive tackles.
Dontari Poe will be an intriguing free agent case after setting for a one-year deal last offseason, but the most interesting battle among defensive tackles will take place Star Lotulelei and Muhammad Wilkerson, and I’m curious to see which player earns more on the open market. Both are former first-round picks, and it’s difficult to argue Wilkerson hasn’t been the more productive player — or, at least, reached higher highs — than Lotulelei. Wilkerson also won’t affect his next team’s compensatory pick formula given that he was released, but his off-field issues, which include a reported lack of effort and problems with coaches, could limit his appeal.
While Beau Allen and Denico Autry are potentially candidates to be overpaid based on their youth, there are bargains to be had at defensive tackle. Tom Johnson is 33 but he’s offered consistent pressure from the interior for years — his last contract was for three years and $7MM, so he shouldn’t cost much this time around. Haloti Ngata was injured in 2017 but plans to continue his career, and he can still stop the run. And Dominique Easley was outstanding as a 3-4 end in 2016 before missing last season with a torn ACL, meaning the former first-round pick could be a value play for any number of teams.Read more
Although there are a number of high-quality starting linebackers available in free agency this year, I predict most contracts signed by LBs over the next few weeks will come in lower that most expect. The linebacker market is relatively stagnant, and unless the player is a legitimate star or inking an extension with his original club, he’s usually disappointed with his annual value. The most expensive deal for an unrestricted free agent ‘backer who signed with a new team was Bruce Irvin‘s $9.25MM/year pact with the Raiders, and Irvin can almost be considered an edge rusher. After Irvin, it’s Danny Trevathan, whom the Bears signed for a $7MM annual value in 2016.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise if no linebacker listed above is able to top Trevathan’s two-year-old average, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t starting-caliber LBs on the market. Zach Brown, the poster boy for having to accept cheap contracts, is coming off another solid season, but is reportedly asking for top-three inside linebacker money. Good luck. Similarly, Demario Davis is looking for $8-10MM annually, while the Jets — who have interest in re-signing him — view him as a $3-4MM/year player.
Nigel Bradham and NaVorro Bowman should both come in around Trevathan’s $7MM average after posting excellent 2017 campaigns. While the Eagles would surely prefer to re-sign Bradham, the club’s dire cap situation may mean Bradham will hit the open market next Wednesday. Bowman, meanwhile, was traded from the 49ers to Raiders last season, and he seems like a good bet to stay with Oakland after new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther heaped lavish praise on the 29-year-old.
Top-to-bottom, the cornerback market is the deepest positional group on the defensive side of the ball. Need a No. 1 defensive back with experience in both man and zone? Trumaine Johnson is your guy. How about a top-end cornerback who, while admittedly up-and-down at times, has the ability to shut down opposing wide receivers? Malcolm Butler has you covered. A former first-round pick who has finally played up to his potential over the past two seasons? Take a look at Morris Claiborne. Or is a career journeyman who posted 10 excellent games last year more your speed? Look into Rashaan Melvin.
Slot cornerbacks are also prevalent in this year’s defensive back market, and while I ranked Aaron Colvin, T.J. Carrie, Patrick Robinson, and Nickell Robey-Coleman in order of my preference, they could each be plugged into a starting nickel package immediately. I originally though Robinson could land a disappointing deal given his age (31) and his track record of underwhelming play prior to 2017, but he’s already garnering interest from the Giants, Raiders, and Cardinals, so his market should allow him to reach at least $5MM annually. Colvin could garner even more than Robinson thanks his youth (26), and Ian Rapoport of NFL.com expects Colvin to have a “legit” market.
If teams are looking for a bargain at cornerback, they should target Ross Cockrell, whom the Steelers dealt to the Giants last year for a seventh-round pick. Cockrell has always been overlooked in the NFL, but he keeps producing results. In 2017, Cockrell finished first in Football Outsiders’ success rate, which measures cornerbacks on their ability to consistently stop opposing wideouts short of the sticks. In fact, Cockrell was one of only eight defenders who stopped a receiver short of a successful gain on over half their tackles a season ago, as FO’s Aaron Schatz recently tweeted, but the league consistently undervalues him and his skill-set.
The best free agent safety was taken off the board earlier today when the Rams used the franchise tag on Lamarcus Joyner, and the remaining market is extremely top-heavy. Eric Reid, Morgan Burnett, Tre Boston, and Kenny Vaccaro could all be in line for at least $5MM annually, but the rest of the class could struggle to find multi-year deals. Among the top-tier safeties, Vaccaro stands out as perhaps the most interesting name. A first-round pick in 2013, Vaccarro has posted three exemplary campaigns and two dreadful years; in 2017, Pro Football Focus ranked Vaccaro as the single-worst safety in the league among 87 qualifiers. But given his draft pedigree and his ability to man the slot, Vaccaro should land a solid deal.
While I like Reid and Burnett a bit more as players, it wouldn’t be a shock if Boston actually lands the largest contract. Reid and Burnett spend a lot of time close to the line of scrimmage, and both have been used as de factor linebackers from time to time. Boston, on the other hand, is a deep safety who can play coverage, and that repertoire is much more difficult to find on the open market. Similarly, Tyvon Branch has been great in coverage during his career with the Raiders, Chiefs, and Cardinals, so he could also see a nice pay bump next week.
After Branch, the crop of available safeties steeply drops off. Every other free agent we’ve listed above will be at at least 29 years old when the 2018 gets underway except for the Lions’ Tavon Wilson, and he was one of the NFL’s worst starting defensive backs last season. Veterans like Corey Graham or Ron Parker can still play as third safeties who see time in “big nickel” packages, but if you’re looking for a starting safety, you’ll want to bring in one of the top six defensive backs on the board.
February 28th, 2018 at 7:26pm CST by Dallas Robinson
The Dolphins are attempting to trade wide receiver Jarvis Landry after assigning him the franchise tag last week, but the club probably shouldn’t expect a first-round pick for their slot receiver, as Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald writes. Instead, fair compensation is likely to be a third-round pick, a low second-rounder, or perhaps a player, multiple sources tell Salguero. Landry can be an effective weapon, but any team that acquires him is either committing to carrying his $16MM+ salary in 2018, or inking him to a new deal, so Miami isn’t likely to get blown away in terms of trade offers. The Dolphins were expected to meet with Landry’s representatives at the combine on Wednesday, so a resolution could be coming soon.
Although the Bills inked veteran defensive back Vontae Davis to a one-year deal earlier this week, they’re not giving up hope of re-signing free agent cornerback E.J. Gaines, general manager Brandon Beane told reporters, including Joe Buscaglia of WKBW (Twitter link). Buffalo acquired Gaines in 2017 as part of the return for wideout Sammy Watkins, and the 26-year-old went on to start 11 games, ranking 11th in the league in yards per pass. He’s expected to garner at least $6MM annually on the open market.
While new Lions head coach Matt Patricia has a clear working relationship with free agent cornerback Malcolm Butler, Detroit is more likely to fill its secondary needs internally, said general manager Bob Quinn (link via Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com). Given that they may need to replace both Nevin Lawson and D.J. Hayden (and find a new slot corner with Quandre Diggs moving to safety), the Lions will likely give opportunities to 2017 rookies Teez Tabor and Jamal Agnew. “We drafted those guys for a reason last year, and when we evaluated them in the postseason process, we liked what they did and their role,” said Quinn.
Veteran quarterback Mark Sanchez didn’t attempt a single pass for the Bears last season, but Chicago could nonetheless be open to a reunion. “You know, he did a good job this year,” Bears general manager Ryan Pace said, via Jeff Dickerson of ESPN.com. “All the things we value with him: his veteran leadership and his experiences. Again he’s a free agent; those are all evaluations that are ongoing.” Chicago doesn’t have a backup for Mitch Trubisky on its current roster after announcing its intent to releaseMike Glennon earlier today.
If linebacker Derrick Johnson doesn’t land a new deal on the open market, he has a standing to return to the Chiefs as a coach, head coach Andy Reid told reporters, including Terez A. Paylor of the Kansas City Star (Twitter link). The Chiefs recently announced that they won’t re-sign the 35-year-old, but Johnson still wants to continue his career. Johnson is highly respected for his locker room presence, so it’s no surprise Reid would want the veteran defender on staff if his playing career is over.
The Cowboys have a number of objectives this offseason, but they will certainly prioritize signing Zack Martin and Demarcus Lawrence to long-term deals. Lawrence will get hit with the franchise tag at some point prior to the March 6 deadline, which will give the two sides until July 16 to work out a multi-year contract. Martin, meanwhile, is still under club control through the 2018 season, but Dallas has been talking about extending him for some time now.
Both scribes point to recent comments from executive VP Stephen Jones to suggest that Hitchens will not be in Dallas next season. Jones said of Hitchens, “I can’t say enough good things about him. He’s one of those guys who is available. You can count on him. He understands this game is a tough game. He put himself in harm’s way out there when a lot of players wouldn’t do it. He’s the type of guy you want on your football team … At the same time, we all know he’s not the ‘quote, unquote’ Pro Bowl football player. He’s not the guy who’s getting all the accolades but he’s the type of guy you want on your football team so it does make it hard.”
Hill believes that, if Hitchens wants to stay in Dallas, he will have to take a team-friendly deal and turn down more money elsewhere. After all, the Cowboys have just $19MM in cap room at the moment, while other potentially interested teams — like the Colts — are considerably more flush.
Former Dallas LBs coach Matt Eberflus was recently named the Colts’ new defensive coordinator, and Hill believes a Colts-Hitchens union makes perfect sense. Indeed, Indianapolis will be moving from a 3-4 scheme to a 4-3 under Eberflus, and Hitchens would help the team make that transition.
Assuming Hitchens does leave, Hill says Dallas will need to prioritize the linebacker position in the draft, but as the 2018 draft class is rife with quality LB prospects, the Cowboys should be able to adequately replace Hitchens’ production.
After the hiring of former Cowboys linebackers coach Matt Eberflus as the team’s new defensive coordinator, the Colts are expected to make a play for Dallas linebacker Anthony Hitchens once free agency opens, Ed Werder speculates (Twitter link).
Werder goes on to say Eberflus values him as a high-quality player who can help others learn the system. Though Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones has made re-signing Hitchens one of the team’s top priorities in free agency, the team isn’t expected to have much cap room to work with assuming it works out a deal or places the franchise tag on defensive end Demarcus Lawrence.
Though it is just speculation, the move makes plenty of sense and Werder is among the most well-connected reporters working around the Cowboys. No one should be better at setting Hitchens’ value than the Colts new defensive coordinator, who coached the linebacker since he entered the league in 2014.
Hitchens has started 48 of his 60 career games, with the majority coming at middle linebacker. He is versatile, however, and is capable of playing just about anywhere in Eberflus’ 4-3 scheme. Despite missing four games in 2017, Hitchens made 84 tackles.