Dion Lewis

South Notes: Panthers, Newton, Titans, Davis, Henry, Buccaneers, Winston

Just three years ago, Cam Newton was the league’s MVP who led the Panthers to a 15-1 record and a Super Bowl appearance. The past two years haven’t gone nearly as well for him, and now Newton is on the “hot seat” according to David Newton of ESPN.com. He notes that 2018 will be a big year for Newton as he starts anew with a new offensive coordinator and scheme.

“If he doesn’t show improvement after consecutive down years, there will be a lot of questions about his future” he writes. Newton is the face of the franchise, but the team could theoretically get out of his contract relatively easily after this season. It would be shocking if it happens, but according to this report, it’s not totally inconceivable that the end of the Cam Newton-era in Carolina could be near if he doesn’t turn things around this season.

Here’s more from the league’s southern divisions:

  • Corey Davis “was one of the stars” of the Titans’ early offseason workouts, according to Jim Wyatt of Titansonline.com. The fifth overall pick in 2017, Davis was somewhat limited by injuries last season, but still flashed a ton of potential. Wyatt notes that Davis “looked smooth during the offseason, snatching the ball out of the air with ease in traffic”, and that the team is “counting on Davis to make a big leap in Year 2.”
  • Jameis Winston‘s suspension may have caught a lot of people by surprise, but it didn’t shock the Buccaneers, according to Rick Stroud of The Tampa Bay Times (Twitter link). Stroud writes that the Bucs had been bracing for the suspension for quite some time, and re-signed Ryan Fitzpatrick back in March knowing they might need him to start some games.
  • “The plan” is for Derrick Henry to be the Titans‘ lead back in 2018, according to Wyatt. The Titans signed Dion Lewis to a four-year, $20MM deal this offseason, but apparently view him as more of a complimentary piece.

Contract Details: Lotulelei, Bradham, Lewis

Let’s take a look at the details from the latest contracts signed in the NFL:

Titans Sign RB Dion Lewis To Four-Year Deal

The Titans have agreed to sign running back Dion Lewis to a four-year deal, tweets Adam Schefter of ESPN.com. Lewis’ new contract is worth $20MM in total and contains $3MM in incentives, per Mike Garafolo of NFL.com (Twitter link). He’ll collect $11.5MM in guarantees, reports Josina Anderson of ESPN.com (Twitter link).

The running back’s decision ultimately came down to the Titans and his former team, the Patriots (via ESPN’s Dianna Russini on Twitter). This is the second former New England player to head to Tennessee, as the Titans signed cornerback Malcolm Butler earlier today.

Lewis is an ideal pass-catching alternative for number-one running back Derrick Henry. When healthy, Lewis was one of Tom Brady‘s top targets over the past four seasons, and he’s gradually improved in the rushing game, as well. 2017 may have been Lewis’ best NFL season, as he finished the campaign with a career-high 896 rushing yards and six touchdowns (5.0 yards per carry). He also added another 32 receptions for 214 yards and three touchdowns. Pro Football Focus was seemingly a fan of Lewis’ versatility, as he ranked fifth among 58 eligible running backs. Lewis placed 29th in our rankings of the top-50 free agents.

With Lewis out of the picture, the Patriots will likely lean even more on James White in the passing game. Meanwhile, Henry and Lewis will likely see the bulk of the snaps for the Titans, with David Fluellen and Khalfani Muhammad currently slated as backups.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Several Teams Comprise Heated Lewis Market

On a player-friendly second tampering-window day, Dion Lewis has yet to make his decision. He’s going to be receiving a notable raise from his previous contract, however, when he does choose his next team.

The 27-year-old running back does not look like he will be returning to the Patriots, who were not believed to be a bidder if the price escalated to a certain point. Now that it apparently has, the Dolphins, Jets, Giants, Titans, Texans, Colts and 49ers are in on Lewis, Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk reports.

The Jets, Colts and Titans were reported suitors earlier this week, but the remaining teams are now diving into the fray.

The Giants signed previous Pats passing-down back Shane Vereen in 2015 but haven’t found much in the way of backfield success in several years, and the 49ers may well lose Carlos Hyde in free agency. The Dolphins traded away Jay Ajayi and have versatile runner Kenyan Drake. Houston, interestingly, has a Lamar MillerD’Onta Foreman setup but is evidently eyeing big-name help.

Lewis’ asking price was rumored to be around $6MM per year, and given the events of Tuesday and the number of interested teams here, it’s quite possible the sixth-year veteran could surpass that despite having just one 100-touch season on his resume. However, that also means Lewis could have a few productive seasons left despite being set to turn 28 later this year.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

FA Rumors: Lewis, Moncrief, Jets, Fuller

Despite having surpassed the 100-touch mark just once in a season, Dion Lewis may well have surged to the point of being the top running back available. And the healthy market expected for the 27-year-old back shows no signs of slowing down. However, the Patriots are going to try to keep Lewis, Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports reports. However, he notes Lewis’ price may “far outpace” what the Pats are willing to spend to keep him. The Colts, Titans and Jets look to be the early favorites for Lewis. The Titans being run by former Patriots exec Jon Robinson — who was in New England when the Pats acquired Lewis — and the fact Tennessee just released DeMarco Murray would make the AFC South team a logical suitor. The Jets have passing-down veteran Bilal Powell going into the final year of his contract, and the Colts are without a proven back now that Frank Gore is out of the picture.

New England still has James White and Brandon Bolden under contract. Here’s the latest from the market:

  • The Bears placing their transition tag on Kyle Fuller may not dissuade teams from inquiring about the corner. JLC hears from multiple execs the fifth-year cornerback could be in line to see an offer sheet. However, Chicago holds $50MM in cap space and would seemingly be an obvious threat to match an offer that comes Fuller’s way. La Canfora reports the Packers, Titans, Buccaneers and Texans are doing extensive work researching the cornerback market. With Fuller tagged, Trumaine Johnson and Malcolm Butler are the prizes currently unattached.
  • Muhammad Wilkerson will make his fourth visit on Monday, meeting with the Redskins, per Josina Anderson of ESPN.com (on Twitter). One of the top defensive UFAs available, the eighth-year defensive lineman has already visited the Packers, Saints and Chiefs.
  • Donte Moncrief is likely to exit Indianapolis, and the Ravens are interested, La Canfora hears. The Ravens, as of now, possess less than $5MM in cap space. But with Moncrief perhaps in line for a one-year deal after an inconsistent Colts tenure, La Canfora writes Baltimore is in the mix for the athletic target.
  • Austin Seferian-Jenkins and the Jets may be a bit out of sync as far as terms go, but the team remains intent on retaining the tight end, per JLC. Now armed with the most cap space in the league, the Jets would be able to meet ASJ’s reported $7MM-AAV asking price. But it’s uncertain if they will. La Canfora connects the Falcons and Seahawks as being interested in Seferian-Jenkins.
  • The Broncos are expected to have interest in Ja’Wuan James if the Dolphins are intent on gauging trade offers for their four-year right tackle, Troy Renck of Denver7 tweets. Denver, which has started four different right tackles in its past four season openers, is again in need of a right tackle. Although John Elway said Menelik Watson will be back, it’s hard to believe the Broncos wouldn’t try to upgrade after their most recent right tackle signee did not fare well.

PFR’s Top 50 NFL Free Agents For 2018 1.0

There will be tons of free agents available in March, but only a some of them can be real difference makers for your favorite team. To help separate the wheat from the chaff, we’ve assembled our early list of the Top 50 NFL Free Agents for 2018.

Our early version of the NFL’s top 50 free agents may include players who will be re-signed between now and March 14. When we update this list next week, a few of the big names will be spoken for while new high-profile names will join the fray as veterans become cap casualties.

Recently, we broke down the top free agents by position on both offense and defense, but our rankings below may not have each player listed in the same order. Those position lists took the short-term value of a player into account more heavily, meaning many players in their 30s received prominent placement. Our overall top 50 list favors longer-term value, and is more about forecasting which players will be in highest demand when it comes to years and dollars.

With those caveats out of the way, let’s dive in! Here are Pro Football Rumors’ top 50 NFL free agents for 2018:

1. Kirk Cousins, QB (Redskins): At long last, Kirk Cousins is headed towards unrestricted free agency. You may or may not regard Cousins as a star, but he is the best quarterback in recent history to reach the open market and QB-needy teams will be rolling out the red carpet for him. The Jets, Vikings, Broncos, and Cardinals have been named as the top suitors for his services, but the NFL is full of surprises this time of year and we would not be surprised to see other teams get involved. The cash-flush Browns are reportedly keen on signing a lower-cost vet and drafting a QB early, but who’s to say they won’t change course and get in on the Cousins sweepstakes? The Bills, Giants, Dolphins, Bucs, and Colts could also consider kicking the tires here, but there are obstacles in that bunch ranging from established starters already in place (Eli Manning, Ryan Tannehill, Jameis Winston, and Andrew Luck) to financial constraints. No matter where he goes, it’s almost certain that Cousins will become the league’s highest-paid player of all-time. That is, until another top-tier QB signs a contract extension soon after.

2. Drew Brees (Saints): There are multiple possibilities for Cousins but it’s hard to see a scenario in which Brees actually leaves the Saints. Brees has already said that he does not plan on testing free agency, so he’ll likely put pen to paper before things begin on March 14. As far as we can tell, the only way Brees will think about leaving is if he is lowballed to an extreme degree by the Saints, but that seems improbable based on his history with the team

3. Case Keenum (Vikings): One year ago, no one ever would have expected Keenum to be one of 2018’s most sought-after free agents. The Vikings signed the former Rams signal caller to a one-year, $2MM deal in March with the idea that he would back up Sam Bradford and, eventually slide down to third on the depth chart when/if Teddy Bridgewater returned to full health. When Bradford went down in September, Keenum exceeded all expectations and put together the best season of his career. The 30-year-old graded out as Pro Football Focus’ ninth-ranked QB in 2017, putting him above the likes of Jimmy Garoppolo, Aaron Rodgers, Marcus Mariota, Matthew Stafford, and Tyrod Taylor. With Keenum at the helm, the Vikings earned a first-round bye and beat the Saints in a playoff thriller before succumbing to the Eagles in the NFC championship game. Of course, after four seasons of mediocrity, teams are wondering whether this was an aberration or a real sign of things to come. Teams know that Keenum is not a lock, but he’s also the best Plan B for any team that loses out on Cousins or doesn’t have the means to sign him.

4. Andrew Norwell, G (Panthers): There was a time when tackles were the only offensive linemen to really cash in on the open market. That’s no longer the case, as evidenced by the contracts of Kevin Zeitler (five years, $60MM) and Kelechi Osemele (five years, $58.5MM). Osemele inked his free agent deal with the Raiders in 2016 and Zeitler signed his in the 2017 offseason. Given the cap increase and the natural progression of the market, Norwell figures to reset the market for interior linemen. Keenum figures to gross no less than $20MM/year on his next contract, so he’s slotted behind him, but an average annual value of $13-14MM is not out of the question for the former undrafted free agent.

5. Nate Solder, OT (Patriots): Solder isn’t coming off of his best season and he might be the least sexy name in the top ten. Still, there’s a dearth of tackles league-wide and Solder has been among the league’s best at his position for quite some time. The Patriots are bracing for Solder to leave as they fear he’ll garner offers of $12MM/year. No other tackle in this year’s free agent crop is even close to him in terms of ability, so we’re also buying into the hype. Injuries contributed to Solder’s up-and-down season, particularly early on, so teams will take that into account when evaluating him.

6. Allen Robinson, WR (Jaguars): The Jaguars opted against using the franchise tag on Robinson, which is understandable since they have limited cap space. Robinson missed almost all of 2017 with an ACL tear, but his 2015 season (and even his so-so 2016 campaign) gives teams reason to believe that he can be a quality WR1. Robinson is one of only two such players on the unrestricted market, so expect him to get paid. Robinson probably couldn’t do worse than Kenny Britt‘s four-year, $32MM deal with the Browns from last season (and he should do a whole lot better), but if he is underwhelmed by the multi-year offers he receives, he could always go the Alshon Jeffery route. Jeffery inked a one-year, $9.5MM prove-it deal with the Eagles and that turned out to be a smashing success for both parties. Jeffery was rewarded with a four-year, $52MM extension in December, so Robinson’s camp will surely be open to a pillow contract if necessary. 

7. Sammy Watkins, WR (Rams): Some may view Robinson and Watkins as 1A and 1B in this year’s wide receiver class, particularly since Robinson missed all of 2017 and Watkins, despite his own injury history, played in all but one of the Rams’ games. Unfortunately, Watkins did not have the platform year he was hoping for as he caught just 39 passes for 593 yards. If we strike Robinson’s lost year and Watkins’ down year from the record, the breakdown favors the Jags receiver – Robinson averaged 77 receptions for 1,078 yards and eight touchdowns per 16 games in that set versus Watkins’ 66 grabs for 1,063 yards and seven scores. These two should come pretty close in average annual value, but we give the edge to Robinson.

8. Trumaine Johnson, CB (Rams): Players often bemoan the franchise tag, but Johnson can’t really complain after receiving two consecutive tags from the Rams and earning more than $30MM between 2016 and 2017. The Rams, rightfully, did not consider a third consecutive tag for Johnson at a cost of ~$20MM and they already have his replacement in Marcus Peters. That’s one suitor down, but plenty of other teams will be eager to speak with Johnson, who profiles as the best cornerback in a deep class.

9. Sheldon Richardson, DT (Seahawks): Richardson gave the Jets lots of headaches, but he also gave them high-end production. He didn’t quite match that production in Seattle, but Richardson is positioned for a massive payday anyway since impactful defensive linemen are at a premium. Our own Dallas Robinson estimates that Richardson will garner about $9MM/year, but I would say that is his floor. The top-end of free agency rarely yields team-friendly deals, so Richardson could easily creep into eight figures in AAV, particularly since he does not turn 28 until November.

10. Dontari Poe, DT (Falcons): Poe thought he was in for a monster contract last offseason, but concerns about his lingering back issues forced him to take a one-year, $8MM deal with Atlanta. Teams may still worry about his back being a ticking time bomb, but perhaps they’ll view him in a different light now that he has played back-to-back 16 game seasons and has only missed two regular season contests over the course of his career.

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Top 2018 NFL Free Agents By Position: Offense

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. We’ll start today on offense, before getting to defense and special teams later this week.

Listed below are our rankings for the top 15 free agents at each offensive position. The rankings aren’t necessarily determined by the value of the contracts that each player is expected to land in free agency, they 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 are not listed here since they are unlikely to actually reach the open market. The same goes for players who have been franchise tagged or transition tagged.

We’ll almost certainly be higher or lower on some guys than you are, so we encourage you to make your voice heard in our comments section to let us know which free agents we’ve got wrong.

Here’s our breakdown of the current top 15 free agents by offensive position for 2018:

Quarterback:

  1. Kirk Cousins
  2. Drew Brees
  3. Case Keenum
  4. A.J. McCarron
  5. Sam Bradford
  6. Teddy Bridgewater
  7. Colin Kaepernick
  8. Josh McCown
  9. Mike Glennon
  10. Drew Stanton
  11. Jay Cutler
  12. Chase Daniel
  13. Ryan Fitzpatrick
  14. Brock Osweiler
  15. Tom Savage

There were many difficult calls when putting this list together, but ranking Kirk Cousins as the No. 1 QB available was not among them. Cousins is the best quarterback to reach free agency in recent history and he’ll become the highest-paid player of all-time – at least, for some period of time – in mid-March. Who will make history with Cousins? That’s anyone’s guess right now. The Browns have more cap room than any other team, but a recent report from Adam Schefter of ESPN.com listed the Broncos, Cardinals, Jets, and Vikings as the final suitors for Cousins. Of those four, the Jets have the most money to work with, but they’re concerned about the Vikings winning out and Cousins’ desire to win could point him in another direction. If the Broncos and Cardinals want in on the Cousins sweepstakes, they’ll have to get creative with the books.

Drew Brees is included here, but by his own admission, he’ll be re-signing with the Saints rather than testing the open waters of free agency. Unless the Saints lowball their franchise QB, it’s hard to see him leaving New Orleans.

Case Keenum put together a tremendous season for the Vikings, but he doesn’t have a history of success beyond 2017. There will be plenty of interest in Keenum, but only after QB-needy teams strike out on Cousins. The incumbent Vikings could re-sign Keenum, but right now, it seems like they are intent on exploring the Cousins waters first.

There isn’t a ton of footage on A.J. McCarron, which made his placement on this list awfully tricky. We know this much: McCarron did well in place of Dalton in the home stretch of the 2015 season and his former offensive coordinator Hue Jackson was salivating at the chance of landing him before the Browns bungled the trade with the Bengals. McCarron’s relative youth is a plus (he won’t turn 28 until September) and his lack of experience can be looked at as a positive. Unlike some of the other names on this list, he hasn’t run up his NFL odometer.

What will NFL teams make of Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford this offseason? Not long ago, both seemed like quality starting options. However, there are serious injury questions about both players and any team signing them will either look to backstop them with another decent option or ask them to come onboard as a QB2. With that in mind, one has to wonder if Bradford would consider retirement if asked to hold the clipboard for another signal caller. Bradford has earned upwards of $110MM over the years in the NFL, so it’s safe to say that he has enough money in the bank to call it quits if he wants. For now, he’s intent on playing.

Colin Kaepernick‘s placement on this list is sure to draw some strong reactions from his fans and detractors alike. Looking purely at his football ability, there’s no question that he belongs on someone’s roster. At minimum, Kaepernick profiles as a high-end backup, even after a year out of the game.

Quarterbacks coaches have long believed that Mike Glennon is capable of great things, due in part to his height. At 6’7″, he can see over any defensive line, but he hasn’t done much on the field to prove that he is a quality Week 1 starting option. Josh McCown, who is a decade his senior, edges him here for his surprisingly strong performance in 2017 at the helm of a weak Jets offense.

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Free Agency Notes: Jets, Colts, Lewis, Burton

Here’s a look at the latest free agency buzz:

  • Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com (on Twitter) hears the Jets and Colts are “possible destinations” for Patriots free agent running back Dion Lewis. The language in Fowler’s report is admittedly soft, but free agents are technically forbidden from talking to rival teams during this time, so this may be a wink-wink acknowledgement that both teams have engaged in some secretive discussions prior to the legal tampering period on March 12. Recently, Mike Florio of PFT indicated that the Texans, 49ers, and Raiders were also potential destinations for the 27-year-old (28 in September).
  • No surprise here, but free agent tight end Trey Burton is a popular man. With the Eagles unlikely to retain him, 16 clubs have already checked in on his status this week, according to NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport (Twitter link).
  • Some executives who spoke with Jason La Canfora of CBSSports.com indicated that Dontari Poe could be a fit for the Buccaneers. Poe, who did well on his one-year platform deal with the Falcons, may also fit the Redskins, Broncos, and Colts, per JLC.
  • More from JLC, who cautions of a potential bidding war between the Bears and Chiefs over backup quarterback Chase Daniel. The Saints would like to retain the veteran, but they might not be able to afford him with a big money extension on the horizon for Drew Brees. The Bears and Chiefs both make sense for Daniel given the ties he has to both coaching staffs.

Dion Lewis Expected To Draw Interest From 6-7 Teams

Patriots free agent running back Dion Lewis is expected to draw significant interest on the free agent market, according to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk."<strong

Lewis, who is reportedly seeking a $6MM annual salary, is likely to draw the eye of the Jets, Texans, 49ers, Raiders, and Colts, per Florio. New York, San Francisco, and Indianapolis are each facing vacancies in their backfields, but a Lewis addition in Houston or Oakland would presumably lead to the release of Lamar Miller or Marshawn Lynch, respectively.

The Patriots had a cavalcade of running backs on their roster in 2017, but Lewis was the best of the bunch. The 27-year-old Lewis posted the most outstanding season of his career in 2017, toting the ball 180 times for 896 yards (both team highs), managing 214 yards on 32 receptions, and scoring 10 total touchdowns (including one in the return game). Lewis ranked first in Football Outsiders‘ DYAR metric, sixth in broken tackles, and sixth in Pro Football Focus‘ pass-blocking grades.

Lewis isn’t the only free agent running back about whom New England needs to worry. Rex Burkhead is also scheduled to hit the open market later this month, so while the Patriots still employ James WhiteBrandon Bolden, and Mike Gillislee they could see a great deal of turnover in their backfield over the coming weeks.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Latest On Pats RB Dion Lewis’ Asking Price

Patriots running back Dion Lewis is expected to request a three-year contract in the range of $18MM with $10MM guaranteed in order to pass up free agency, according to Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald. Lewis isn’t interested in offering a hometown discount to New England, and the “early vibe” is Lewis won’t re-sign with the Patriots, as Howe reports in a separate piece."<strong

A pact that comes with a $6MM annual value would place Lewis comfortably within the top-10 running back deals, while a $10MM guarantee would tie Lewis for sixth among runners (discounting rookie contracts). The Patriots typically don’t land in that range for running backs, and have usually resided in the $3MM per year scope. Still, Mike Reiss of ESPN.com expects New England to keep a dialogue open with Lewis before the free agent period opens on March 14.

The Patriots have a cavalcade of running backs on their roster, but Lewis was the best of the bunch last year. The 27-year-old Lewis posted the most outstanding season of his career in 2017, toting the ball 180 times for 896 yards (both team highs), managing 214 yards on 32 receptions, and scoring 10 total touchdowns (including one in the return game). Lewis ranked first in Football Outsiders‘ DYAR metric, sixth in broken tackles, and sixth in Pro Football Focus‘ pass-blocking grades.

Aside from Lewis, other New England backs scheduled to hit free agency include Rex Burkhead and Brandon Bolden. At present, the Patriots only have ~$13MM in salary cap space, so retaining any of their free agents may be tough. However, the club can easily increase their cap room to more than $30MM by cutting player such as Martellus Bennett, Dwayne Allen, Mike Gillislee, David Harris, and Alan Branch.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.