Free Agent Stock Watch

Free Agent Stock Watch: Johnathan Hankins

Last year, Johnathan Hankins was among the league’s most sought-after free agent defensive tackles. In July 2018, Hankins is without an NFL home. 

Hankins’ market dragged a bit last year due to his asking price, but he settled for less in April when he signed a three-year, $27MM deal with the Colts. In March of this year, the Colts surprised many by terminating his contract.

Hankins finished out the year as Pro Football Focus’ No. 20 ranked interior defender and the Colts had – and still have – an abundance of cap room. The Colts’ change from a 3-4 scheme to a 4-3 setup likely played a part in their decision, but Hankins had only worked out of a 4-3 scheme prior to joining Indianapolis. Hankins did not offer much against the pass in 2017, but he was exceptional against the run, which is the primary goal of any defensive tackle.

Since his release, Hankins has met with the Redskins and Jets, but did not sign with either club. So, what gives?

We haven’t heard much on Hankins in recent weeks, but it stands to reason that his asking price is keeping him from landing a deal. In 2017, Hankins’ camp told teams that he was looking for $15MM per year. Soon after, the asking price was reduced to a more reasonable $10MM per season, and he eventually accepted a $9MM/year pact from the Colts.

After turning in a solid season – nearly the best of his career, according to PFF – Hankins may be unwilling to take anything less than what he received from the Colts. It’s the only logical explanation for one of the league’s best run-stuffing DTs being left in limbo.

That position may seem foolish since many teams have already blown their wad in the first and second waves of free agency, but there are still plenty of dollars available, particularly when it comes to his potential suitors. The Jets, who might not want to bank on 32-year-old Steve McLendon in the middle, will still have about $14MM in cap room after they sign top draft pick Sam Darnold. The Packers, who might not have complete confidence in Kenny Clark taking the next step in 2018, have nearly $11MM in space after inking their entire draft class. The Cowboys, who will start the year without David Irving, have nearly $15MM to work with.

Between now and the start of the year, it’s entirely possible that a team could open up the checkbook to meet Hankins’ demands. In addition to the aforementioned clubs, there are still 16 teams with eight figures in cap room. Beggars can’t be choosers at this stage of the summer, but all it takes is one GM to cave.

Alternatively, Hankins may wind up taking his salary demands down a notch or two, which would greatly open up his possibilities. The Lions, for example, have just $9MM in space, but they may want to consider Hankins to beef up their line, even after signing Sylvester Williams in March.

If the market doesn’t meet his demands, Hankins may be willing to settle for a one-year platform contract in the $7MM range to reestablish his value. If quality defenders like Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack, Jadeveon Clowney, and Geno Atkins are taken off of the 2019 free agent list with extensions, Hankins could be on the path to riches next spring.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Free Agent Stock Watch: Justin Blalock

With Michael Crabtree and Stefen Wisniewski finding new homes last week, only one free agent on PFR‘s Top 50 list — tackle Justin BlalockJoe Barksdale — remains unsigned. Barksdale (whom I profiled last month) might be the biggest name left on the free agent market, but there are other steady options available, including those who, like Barskdale, play along the offensive line. One such player is guard Justin Blalock, who didn’t earn a spot on our Top 50 list, but did garner a honorable mention.

Blalock was released by the Falcons — his only NFL team for all eight of his pro seasons — in late February, a few weeks before the start of free agency. As PFR’s Luke Adams noted at the time, the transaction was a bit of a surprise, given that Blalock had been a productive contributor during his time in Atlanta. However, he was set to count nearly $8MM against the salary cap in 2015, which would have been the third-highest figure on the club. Additionally, there were concerns that Blalock, a successful guard in a power scheme, wouldn’t be a fit for new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan‘s zone-blocking concepts.

The 31-year-old Blalock has generated a fair amount of interest since his release, and given that he’s been linked to teams with severe offensive line issues, it’s a tad stunning that he hasn’t found a new home yet. The Rams immediately displayed interest in Blalock, and were reportedly set to meet with him at some point (though it’s unclear if that meeting ever took place). Blalock did take a visit with the Lions, while the Buccaneers also showed some level of intrigue.

The level of interest engendered by Blalock shouldn’t come as a surprise, because he’s certainly been a good player throughout his career. His rookie season notwithstanding — he had the dubious honor of being ranked as the league’s worst guard in 2007 — according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Blalock has been remarkably reliable, topping out with a No. 12 finish in 2010 before settling in as a top-30 guard since. The former second-round pick has also been incredibly durable, as he’s missed just two games during his eight-year career.

Blalock should be able to latch on with a new team soon, and it’s conceivable that one of the clubs mentioned above could still sign him. St. Louis, in particular, has a gaping hole at right guard, where Barrett Jones is currently projected to start, as does Tennessee, where career backup Byron Stingily is atop the depth chart. The Patriots, Chargers, and (if they don’t want to rely on Chris Williams) Bills are clubs that both have a vacancy at guard and run a man-blocking scheme.

Outside of the Rams, I think the Lions could present the best fit for Blalock. They’ve already shown interest in him, and they currently a hole at left guard, pending the outcome of their talks with their owner free agent guard, Rob Sims. Detroit general manager Martin Mayhew indicated last month that the team was in negotiations with Sims, but nothing has come of those discussions as of yet. Blalock was the better player in 2014 (Sims was PFF’s No. 40 guard), and while Blalock earned more last year, I’d bet the two will ultimately earn similar money in 2015.

Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com pointed to Blalock as a option for the Lions earlier this month, so it could be that Detroit is waiting for either Blalock or Sims to accept an offer that’s already on the table. Responding to a Twitter question today, Tim Twentyman of DetroitLions.com argued that the club’s most pressing need was at left guard as opposed to right tackle — at RT, says Twetyman, the Lions at least have LaAdrian Waddle, who has some experience, while the team has no such option at left guard. An addition of Blalock would give Detroit a line of (left-to-right) Riley Reiff, Blalock, Travis Swanson, Larry Warford, and Waddle, a solid (if uninspiring) group.

Left guard isn’t a highly-paid position, and Blalock won’t be able top Geoff Schwartz‘s $4.2MM AAV from last offseason. While he plays a different position, Wisniewski recently received $2.5MM from the Jaguars, and while he’s probably a better player than Blalock, he’s also recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, lowering his value. I’d guess that Blalock will ultimately come in around $2-3MM, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Lions or the Rams were the club that signed the Texas alum.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Free Agent Stock Watch: Greg Jennings

Hundreds of NFL players have found themselves on the free agent market at some point this offseason, but few seem to have had as much fun with the process as Greg Jennings.Greg Jennings

The veteran wideout has kept his fans up to date on his latest free agent visits by not-so-subtly alluding to them on Twitter — during a week that included meetings in Jacksonville and New Orleans, he wrote that he had the urge to visit a Jaguar dealership, and suggested he had a craving for some Popeyes. Of course, earlier in the process, Jennings indicated that he was set to announce his new team at 10:00pm pacific time on March 31, but that “announcement” was ultimately an April Fool’s gag.

At some point though, Jennings will find a new home, and it will be interesting to see where he lands and how he adjusts to his new situation. The ex-Packer was one of Aaron Rodgers‘ top weapons in Green Bay, where he spent the first seven years of his NFL career. During the three seasons in which he played all 16 games, from 2008 to 2010, the former second-round pick posted three straight 1,100-yard seasons, averaging about 75 receptions, 1,223 yards, and eight touchdowns per year.

That production in Green Bay earned Jennings a massive five-year, $45MM deal from the Vikings which almost immediately looked like a mistake. With the quarterback situation in Minnesota unsettled, Jennings was catching passes from a combination of Matt Cassel, Christian Ponder, and even Josh Freeman during his first year with the Vikes, and never appeared to be an ideal fit. Even after Teddy Bridgewater emerged as the starter in 2014, Jennings’ production was unspectacular — he recorded just 59 receptions for 742 yards last season.

With his cap number on the rise and his performance on the decline, Jennings was an unsurprising cap casualty last month, as the Vikings opted to add another pricey veteran wideout – Mike Wallace – in his place. Now, as Jennings searches for his next NFL team at age 31, potential suitors will attempt to determine whether the veteran is past his prime, or if he could have a bounce-back season in the right situation.

Within the last few weeks, Jennings has been linked to a number of receiver-needy teams, including the Panthers, Dolphins, Jaguars, and Saints — all of whom he’s visited, and all of whom are certainly logical fits. Miami and New Orleans jettisoned many of their top pass catchers from a year ago, as the Fins parted ways with Wallace, Brandon Gibson, and Brian Hartline, while the Saints traded Kenny Stills and Jimmy Graham. Jacksonville has some promising young wideouts on the roster, including Marqise Lee, Allen Robinson, and Allen Hurns, but the Jags could use a veteran presence in that group. As for the Panthers, their receiving corps was depleted last year, and adding Jarrett Boykin in free agency didn’t change that.

If Jennings is going to bounce back, it will likely be in situation opposite to the one he found himself in with the Vikings two years ago — in that instance, he was the go-to target, but didn’t have a top quarterback capable of getting him the ball consistently. If he were to join a team like the Saints or even the Panthers, Jennings wouldn’t be at the top of the receiver depth chart, but he could become a steady, reliable weapon for a QB like Drew Brees or Cam Newton.

I think the 31-year-old could also be a fit for a veteran team like the Patriots or the Ravens. Oakland doesn’t really meet my criteria, and the team just signed another veteran receiver in Michael Crabtree, but the Raiders shouldn’t be ruled out entirely — after all, GM Reggie McKenzie was in Green Bay’s front office when the Packers drafted Jennings, and Raiders offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave was the OC in Minnesota when the Vikes signed Jennings in 2013.

At this point in his career, the days of five-year, $45MM contracts are long behind Jennings, who will likely have to settle for a modest one-year pact. A team with plenty of cap space, like the Jaguars, would probably be more willing to spend a few extra bucks on the veteran wideout this spring, but he may be better off settling for something closer to the minimum with a team like the Saints, where he could catch balls from a Pro Bowl quarterback and improve upon his Minnesota numbers. That sort of bounce-back year could potentially buoy him to one last multiyear deal with a little guaranteed money a year from now.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Free Agent Stock Watch: Hakeem Nicks

After Michael Crabtree signed with the Raiders earlier this week, Hakeem Nicks suddenly became the most intriguing free-agent wide receiver still on the market. Greg Jennings might have something to say about that, but in terms of potential upside, Nicks presents the best opportunity for a low-risk investment to pay significant dividends.

At just 27, Nicks already has a fairly impressive resume. In the 2010 and 2011 seasons, the former 29th-overall pick averaged 78 receptions for more than 1,100 yards and nine touchdowns for the Giants. He was also a major contributor to New York’s Super Bowl title in 2011, averaging seven receptions and 111 yards per game over the team’s four-game playoff run (including a 10-catch, 109-yard performance in Super Bowl XLVI). He also grabbed four touchdowns during that stretch. Combined with Victor Cruz’s breakout 2011 season, it appeared as if Eli Manning would have one of the most dynamic pair of receivers in the league at his disposal for the foreseeable future.

Hakeem Nicks (vertical)

Unfortunately, the injury bug struck Nicks as the Giants prepared to defend their title. During OTAs in May 2012, Nicks fractured the fifth metatarsal in his right foot and was forced to undergo surgery. As a result, he missed valuable training camp time, and even when he returned to the field, he had to play through pain. He landed hard on his right knee during the Giants’ Week 2 contest that year, and he ultimately missed three consecutive games due to knee swelling.

Although he suited up on game days the rest of the season, he was rarely able to practice with the team, and it was clear that the injuries had sapped a great deal of his explosiveness and playmaking ability. His numbers—and the Giants’ offense—suffered as a result. In the last two games of the season, Nicks failed to record a single catch, playing just one snap in the finale.

The former North Carolina standout enjoyed a statistical uptick in 2013, but he failed to crack 900 receiving yards and did not catch a single touchdown despite playing in 15 games. He therefore signed a one-year “prove it” deal with the Colts last season, but he was unable to prove much of anything. Nicks was lost in the shuffle of an otherwise explosive aerial attack led by Andrew Luck, who favored Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, and Coby Fleener. Nicks recorded a mere 38 catches for 405 yards and four touchdowns, and he was targeted just 68 times after receiving over 100 targets in each of his previous four years with the Giants.

The once-promising wideout is consequently looking for another team to offer him the same opportunity the Colts did. Nicks has visited with both the 49ers and Titans, but has otherwise failed to generate a great deal of interest. It is somewhat telling that the Dolphins, who are known to be in the market for a veteran receiver, were apparently more interested in Crabtree, Jennings, and Wes Welker.

Nicks may not be able to recapture his 2011 form, but given his relative youth and record of productivity, one would have to think there is some truth to his assertion that he is “nowhere near finished.” Perhaps on a team like Tennessee or Miami, which feature several talented but young receivers, Nicks would be able to succeed. But if San Francisco is still interested, the 49ers may represent the best opportunity for him. He offers some of the downfield ability of Torrey Smith but is more akin to Anquan Boldin in terms of his route-running and good hands, and is therefore a quality complement to both. Guided by a capable quarterback in Colin Kaepernick, Nicks could thrive in the Bay Area.

But regardless of where he lands, it would be a surprise for him to get much more than the one-year, $3MM deal that Crabtree just signed. And if his 2015 numbers do not show a marked improvement over what he compiled in 2014, he may, in fact, be finished, as the promise of 2011 gets pushed further into the rear-view mirror.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images

 

Free Agent Stock Watch: Dwight Freeney

Using the 2015 franchise tag figures as a gauge, it’s evident that edge defenders are considered, and compensated as, one of the most important position on the field, second only to quarterbacks. While the QB franchise number for the upcoming season is set at $18.544MM, the figure for pass rushers (which I determined by averaging the franchise salaries for defensive ends and liDwight Freeneynebackers) will be $13.854MM.

The need for high-quality edge defenders was borne out in free agency, where the best available rushers garnered top-end contracts. Jerry Hughes signed a five-year, $45MM pact to stay with the Bills, the Bears handed Pernell McPhee $38.75MM to lure him away from Baltimore, and Brandon Graham was retain by the Eagles on a four-year, $26MM deal. The market for rushers (and defenders as a whole) is mostly picked over now that we’re a month removed from the beginning of free agency, but there are a few options still remaining, one of whom is veteran LB/DE Dwight Freeney.

Entering his age-35 season, Freeney obviously isn’t the player he once was during his prime when the Colts, with whom he averaged 10 sacks per year from 2002-12 (including a league-leading 16 in 2004). But the Syracuse alum still has a lot to offer on the football field, including the ability to stand up and play outside linebacker, the position he manned during the past two seasons in San Diego. Freeney didn’t rack up the same gaudy sacks totals with the Chargers that he did with Indianapolis — he posted just four total sacks from 2013-14 — but a deeper look his statistics shows that he’s still capable of affecting an opposing club’s passing attack.

Freeney played on approximately 55% of San Diego’s defensive snaps last year, rushing the passer or defending the run on nearly every play (he saw just 14 coverage snaps). While he accrued just 3.5 sacks, he placed third among qualifying 3-4 OLBs with 40 quarterback hurries, and 14th with nine QB hits — as such, he graded as the sixth-best at his position in terms of pass-rush productivity, an all-encompassing metric from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) that seeks to measure a defender’s total pressure output. Subscribing to Josh Norris of Rotoworld’s theory that “disruption is production” — in other words, sack totals aren’t the only way to judge a pass rusher — it’s clear that Freeney has quite a bit left to offer.

Unlike the other edge rushers mentioned above, Freeney shouldn’t require a multi-year deal or any significant amount of guaranteed money. That might seem like an odd statement given his production last season, but given his advanced age, and the fact that he’s yet to draw any known interest since announcing his intention to play this season on March 2, it seems like Freeney will have to end up accepting a one-year deal with minimal risk attached for the team.

Freeney, a three-time All Pro, is coming off a contract that paid him nearly $4.5MM annually (though he eventually accepted a pay cut from the Chargers), but he probably won’t be able to match that figure again. Fellow OLB Sean Weatherspoon recently signed a one-year, $3.875MM pact with the Cardinals, and while Weatherspoon does have a lengthy injury history to account for, he’s also eight years younger than Freeney. As such, I’d guess that something like $3MM over one year, perhaps with some incentives available, would be a fair deal for Freeney.

There a quite a few teams that could use a situational rusher like Freeney, and because he has experience both with his hand in the ground and standing up, I wouldn’t think he’d be limited to one scheme. That versatility could prove handy, especially for clubs that like to mix up their defensive fronts. One such team, the Patriots, always seem to be able to coax out the last bit of production from veteran players, so Freeney could be a fit in New England. Elsewhere, the Falcons, Packers, Bengals, Bears, and Chiefs all finished among the bottom-10 in adjusted sack rate, and might be interested in adding edge talent. For his part, Peter King of TheMMQB.com opined last month that the Buccaneers could also be a possible fit, while I recently suggested another NFC South club, the Panthers, could find a bargain in Freeney.

One club that won’t be signing Freeney is the Chargers, as general manager Tom Telesco told Freeney in March that San Diego wouldn’t be retaining him. Personally, I find that a bit surprising, as San Diego’s pass rush was nothing special last season — the team finished 29th in sacks and 20th in adjusted sack rate. Following the retirement of Jarret Johnson, the Chargers don’t have much depth at outside linebacker, so unless they’re especially high on 2013 sixth-round pick Tourek Williams (the projected starter at LOLB), I’m confused as to why San Diego wouldn’t welcome Freeney back.

One reason that could help explain why Freeney remains unsigned is that free agent contracts are still tied compensatory draft picks for another month. In the past, the cutoff date for draft pick compensation was June 1, but the league recently moved that deadline up to May 12. Based on Zack Moore of Over the Cap’s calculations, Miles Austin‘s $2.3MM deal with the Browns is currently the least-expensive contract tied to a compensatory pick. So if Freeney is asking for the ~$3MM that I estimated for him, interested clubs might be wary of possibly forfeiting the chance at a comp pick to sign him (even if that pick will only be a sixth- or seventh-rounder). As such, we’ll probably have to wait until after that May 12 date so see Freeney (and other veterans like him) find new homes.

Like I noted when I profiled fellow free agent Brandon Spikes, I think NFL teams are wise to focus on what a player can do, instead of what he can’t do. Spikes is out of his element in pass coverage, but he’s an effective run defender when given the chance. Freeney is 35 years old and needs to have his playing time monitored, but as a part-time pass rusher who sees 35 snaps per game, he can still be highly productive. A club could do much worse than to hand Freeney $3MM or so and insert him into it’s edge defender rotation.

Free Agent Stock Watch: Brandon Spikes

Last March, coming off a five-year stretch with the Patriots, inside linebacker Brandon Spikes had to settle for a one-year deal with the division-rival Bills that netted him just $3.25MM. That contract, while likely below Spikes’ salary target, was signed within days of the start of the free agent period. This year, however, we’re nearly a month separated from the beginning of free agBrandon Spikesency, and Spikes is still unsigned.

There are a myriad of reasons that could help explain why Spikes is still on the market, but chief among them is probably the devaluation of the inside linebacker position. Not only are ILBs not (for the most part) getting paid in free agency, but two-down run-stopping specialists, such as Spikes, are rapidly falling out of favor in today’s NFL.

The advanced metrics provided by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) actually paint a relatively positive picture of Spikes’ pass-coverage abilities, as he ranked fourth-best at his position in yards per coverage snap and coverage snaps per reception. Each of those statistics, however, are dependent on a player’s total coverage snaps, of which Spikes had few. The 27-year-old saw just 222 snaps in coverage, the 16th-fewest among qualifying inside linebackers. Small sample size is obviously an issue here, as the consensus among most observers is that Spikes isn’t cut out for three-down duty.

But for a club looking for a force against the run, there are certainly worse options than Spikes. Overall, he graded as PFF’s 13th-best inside linebacker in the league last season, and his total ranking was buoyed in large part by his run-stopping acumen, as he placed ninth in that department. Spikes’ 2014 run-defense numbers are no fluke, as he ranked No. 1 against the run in both 2012 and 2013.

Of course, Spikes’ on-the-field limitations and/or strengths might not be the only factors playing into his current availability. Clubs also take into account soft factors, and Spikes has a history of (relatively minor) off-the-field incidents. He’s been called a “headhunter” by other players (and has been fined heavily for certain hits), posted offensive material on social media, and been lambasted by former teammates. Perhaps most seriously, Spikes was suspended for four games in 2010 for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. On their own, none of the above episodes are overly consequential, but taken together, they paint Spikes as a player who could be more of a distraction than he’s worth.

But yet, as Steve Palazzolo noted on a recent PFF Podcast, in a league where 31-year-old David Harris is worth $21.5MM over three years, it’s possible that Spikes is being undervalued. Yes, two-down linebackers are increasingly less important, but as Palazzolo added, a team could sign Spikes, draft a coverage linebacker, and replicate the production of a Harris-type linebacker for half the cost.

One potential path for Spikes could be returning to Buffalo, which still had interest in re-signing its free agent linebacker as recently as March 27. Back in February, however, Bills general manager Doug Whaley said that Spikes would only return as a two-down linebacker, adding that if Spikes wanted a larger role he would have to look elsewhere. Of course, at this point, an early-down role looks like the only route for Spikes, regardless of team, but overall, Buffalo doesn’t seem overly invested in retaining Spikes.

Other clubs have expressed their interest in Spikes, including the 49ers (reeling from the loss of Patrick Willis and Chris Borland) and the Vikings. Minnesota, though, proceeded to sign fellow ILB Casey Matthews, which reportedly signaled the end of the team’s interest in Spikes. The Dolphins were also mentioned as a potential suitor, but it sounds like Koa Misi will man the middle in Miami.

So now that the dust has settled on free agency, where could Spikes fit? I’d think the Browns could make a play for him, as he’d act as a good complement to Craig Robertson, who is a solid coverage linebacker. Elsewhere, the Titans, Cardinals, Packers, Chiefs and Texans all currently list at least one inexperienced player atop their inside linebacker depth charts, so Spikes could add something of a veteran presence to each of those 3-4 schemes. Among clubs who play a 4-3 front, the Falcons could look for an upgrade over the smallish Paul Worrilow, and Spikes (at 6’2″, 255 pounds) could be an improvement.

Spikes will probably have to settle for another one-year deal, and because he’s still unsigned into April, he might have to take even less than he received in 2014. A.J. Hawk, by any measure a less-talented linebacker, will earn a $1.625MM AAV with the Bengals, a figure that should act as a floor for Spikes. Nate Irving, a good comparison for Spikes, will garner a shade less than $2.5MM per year per his deal with the Colts, so I’d guess that Spikes will earn something in that range. A team willing to play to Spikes’ strengths, and perhaps pair him with a coverage-centric linebacker, could end up finding a bargain.

Free Agent Stock Watch: Joe Barksdale

As we head into April, there are just four remaining unsigned free agents that were listed among Pro Football Rumors’ Top 50 FAs. Our 29th overall free agent, receiver Michael Crabtree, had a down year in 2014, and PFR’s Rory Parks look at wJoe Barksdalehy he remains on the open market. Linebacker Rolando McClain, our No. 35 FA, has already retired twice during his young career, and is facing a fine after failing a third drug test, as documented by PFR’s Luke Adams. And our 39th-ranked free agent, center Stefen Wisniewski, is recovering from offseason shoulder injury, which could explain his lack of a market.

But perhaps the most puzzling member of the unsigned free agents club is offensive tackle Joe Barksdale, who ranked 36th on our Top 50 list. The 27-year-old Barksdale has spent the past three seasons with the Rams, and has started 29 games over the past two years. Without a strong crop of right tackles available in free agency, Barksdale seemingly should have been in line for a multi-year pact that paid him in the neighborhood of $6MM annually, comparable to the deals signed by Andre Smith and Anthony Collins in recent years.

The few free agent right tackles who did hit the market were handsomely rewarded, making it even more confusing that Barksdale hasn’t been able to find a home. The top RT available, Bryan Bulaga, re-signed with the Packers for almost $34MM, and while he’ll average just $6.75MM per year, it’s assumed that he took less money to stay in Green Bay. Jermey Parnell, largely unproven after starting just seven games over three seasons for the Cowboys, secured a five-year, $32.5MM deal from the Jaguars, while Doug Free will earn a $5MM AAV after re-signing with Dallas.

A glance at Pro Football Focus’ (subscription required) offensive tackle grades could offer some explanation as to why Barskdale remains available — while Bulaga, Parnell, and Free all ranked within the top 21 tackles, Barksdale placed just 48th. His run-blocking grade (arguably the more important mark for a right tackle) was impressive, however, as he ranked as the league’s 11th-best T in the run game. Still, based on PFF’s ratings, Barksdale might not be in the same class as those top three tackles, so if he’s asking for $5-6MM per year, clubs could be looking elsewhere.

Indeed, Barksdale hasn’t drawn much known interest from around the league, as he’s only been linked to the Rams and the Titans. Tennessee’s interest seems to be lukewarm, as reports indicated that the club would “consider” Barksdale after losing Michael Roos and Michael Oher earlier this year. Based on reports, it appears that a reunion between Barskdale and St. Louis is the most likely scenario — the Rams initially thought that the tackle was overestimating his market, and now that that seems to have been the case, head Jeff Fisher confirmed the two sides were talking.

Even after a dreadful season, Oher was able to garner a $3.5MM AAV from the Panthers, and I’d be very surprised if Barksdale has to settle for less than that. Something in the $4-4.5MM range (at the level of Zach Strief and Breno Giacomini) would make sense for both Barksdale and the Rams. For its part, St. Louis can use all the help it can get along the offensive line, where Greg Robinson and Rodger Saffold are the only returning starters. With only about $2.6MM needed to sign its draft class, the Rams have approximately $6.4MM in effective cap space, so they should easily be able to fit a Barksdale-level contract on their books.

Free Agent Stock Watch: Rolando McClain

Less than a year ago, on April 22, 2014, linebacker Rolando McClain retired from the NFL. After being reinstated by the Ravens and working out for the team, McClain had such a poor showing at that workout that he decided to give up his comeback attempt and end his NFL career.Rolando McClain

“I’m done,” McClain said at the time in a text message to Seth Wickersham of ESPN.com. “If football made me complete I would play. But whenever I think of it my heart pulls me away [for] whatever reason.”

About two and a half months later, the Cowboys unexpectedly swung a deal for McClain, sending a late-round draft pick to Baltimore to acquire the former eighth overall pick. Apparently, the veteran linebacker, who has been plagued by off-field troubles since entering the NFL, wasn’t quite as retired as he had suggested back in April. Still, it seemed unlikely that he’d contribute much for the Cowboys after having not appeared in a regular season game since 2012, and having announced his retirement twice in the interim.

As such, McClain’s performance in 2014 was one of the most surprising storylines of the year. In 13 games for Dallas, McClain racked up 87 tackles and a sack to go along with two interceptions. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranked McClain eighth out of 60 qualified inside linebackers, and he excelled in every aspect of the game — PFF’s grades placed him eighth as a pass rusher, seventh as a cover man, and 11th as a run defender, among inside linebackers.

Based on that impressive performance, and his pedigree as a former top-10 draft pick, I ranked McClain as the 35th-best free agent available this offseason. However, it’s becoming increasingly clear that teams around the league aren’t necessarily on board with that assessment. Of our top 50 free agents, only four remain unsigned, and only one (Michael Crabtree) ranked higher on our list than McClain.

That wariness is certainly justified. After all, less than 12 months ago, McClain was talking about his heart pulling away from football, which could very well make any team reluctant to offer him a multiyear contract. Additionally, the former Raider failed a third drug test earlier this year — the league’s new substance abuse policy simply calls for a fine for a third failed test, but a fourth violation of the policy would result in an automatic four-game suspension. Potential suitors for McClain may try to alleviate the risk of a possible suspension by include significant per-game roster bonuses in their contract offers, like the Cowboys did with Greg Hardy.

Those off-field concerns surrounding McClain may limit his market, or result in short-term offers, which could help to explain why he remains available. From McClain’s perspective, some long-term security would be preferable, but if he signs a one-year deal and stays healthy, productive, and out of trouble in 2015, it could increase teams’ willingness to commit to him on a longer-term contract a year from now.

As far as potential fits go, Dallas was clearly a good one for McClain, and it certainly wouldn’t hurt the team to bring him back for 2015. Linebackers Justin Durant and Bruce Carter, who were regular contributors in 2014, have signed elsewhere this month, replaced by incoming free agents Jasper Brinkley and Andrew Gachkar. With the linebacking corps undergoing an overhaul this offseason, re-signing McClain to anchor the unit in the middle would at least provide some stability and continuity.

If McClain doesn’t return to Dallas, teams like the Saints, Dolphins, Vikings are among the clubs who run a 4-3 scheme and could use some help at the middle linebacker position. Of course, New Orleans may not be an ideal match for McClain, given his history with former Raiders head coach Dennis Allen, who is now a defensive assistant for the Saints. Free agent players often end up reconnecting with former coaches on new teams, but in the case of McClain and Allen, the relationship in Oakland was somewhat strained.

As far as other former coaches go, McClain could explore the idea of rejoining Tom Cable in Seattle, or Hue Jackson in Cincinnati, though neither of those teams look like the fit that Dallas, Miami, or Minnesota would be.

Ultimately, McClain may be forced to settle for the sort of short-term, prove-it contract that notable free agents like Nick Fairley and Terrance Knighton signed. An impressive 2014 season in Dallas helped to partially rebuild McClain’s value, but it doesn’t appear that any team is ready to spend big on him, particularly since he plays a position where huge free agent deals are somewhat rare. A one-year agreement heavy on incentives and per-game roster bonuses wouldn’t be a surprise.

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Free Agent Stock Watch: Michael Crabtree

Two weeks ago, we compiled our top 50 free agent list. Since that time, almost all of the players on that list have either signed with a new club, re-signed with their original team, or retired. The most intriguing name remaining is Michael Crabtree, who checked in at No. 29 and who is still looking for a new home.

Last July, our Luke Adams examined Crabtree as an extension candidate. In that piece, Adams described Crabtree’s breakout 2012 campaign, in which he established career highs in receptions (85), receiving yards (1,105), and touchdowns (9). Crabtree was just as dynamic in the postseason that year, compiling 285 yards and three touchdowns through the air and helping San Francisco reach the Super Bowl, where he nearly hauled in a game-winning touchdown on the team’s final drive.

Michael Crabtree

But it has all been downhill from there for Crabtree. In the spring of 2013, the former Texas Tech star–who famously held out until October of his rookie season, thereby becoming the longest rookie holdout in 49ers history–underwent surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon, and he did not get back on the field until December. He ultimately played just five games in the 2013 season, catching 19 balls for 284 yards and a score.

2014 was a season that most 49ers fans and players would sooner forget, and Crabtree is no exception. He managed to stay on the field for all 16 games, but he caught just 68 passes for 698 yards and four touchdowns. Those are not especially poor numbers, especially in an offense that largely struggled, but they are not the sort of statistics befitting someone of Crabtree’s talents.

As a result, Crabtree, like a number of his fellow veteran wide receivers, has had difficulty generating much interest on the open market this offseason. He visited the Dolphins several days ago, and the Chargers and Washington have also been rumored as potential landing spots. The Dolphins, who recently traded Mike Wallace and who released Brian Hartline earlier this year, would appear to be a strong fit. At this point, though, it does not appear that anything is imminent.

Age, at least, is on Crabtree’s side. He just turned 27 in December, and he has proven that he can be a capable downfield threat when healthy. But it could be that teams simply do not believe Crabtree can ever be healthy enough to replicate his 2012 form. Tony Grossi of ESPNCleveland.com opined (via Twitter) this morning that Crabtree is a descending wideout since the Achilles injury. Although that may be something of a harsh assessment, it is not a stretch to say that Crabtree was just as much a cause of the 49ers’ anemic offense last year as he was a victim of it.

As a result, he may have to settle for a one-year deal to prove himself. A team with an established quarterback and another quality receiving option or two may provide the ideal platform for Crabtree to showcase his talents, but at this point, it is uncertain whether a suitor like that is out there. So Crabtree, like Hakeem Nicks, will continue to hope for an opportunity to show that he has put his injury history behind him and can be the dynamic player of a few seasons ago.

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Free Agent Stock Watch: Julius Thomas

One of the more rapid rising stars in the game, Julius Thomas presents an interesting case in his first foray into free agency. The two-year starting tight end made next to no impact in his first and second seasons, hampered by lingering ankle maladies. But his ensuing two slates create a robust market for the athletic, yet frequently unavailable target.

Does Thomas’ value lie in being an athletic tight end with elite ball skills, a package the Broncos haven’t unleashed since Shannon Sharpe, who played under then-offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak for most of the latter half of his career? Or is he an injury-prone Peyton Manning product? Since the 26-year-old Thomas morphed into a red zone dynamo, with 12 touchdown receptions in each of the past two seasons, and has positioned himself as this market’s top tight end, teams will bid big to find out.Julius Thomas

But the best offer for the 2011 fourth-round pick might not come from the Broncos. Now transitioning back to Kubiak’s offense, which relies heavily on tight ends blocking and not splitting out wide as much, with multiple other dominant free agents to take care of — including Demaryius Thomas and Terrance Knighton — Denver may not be able to afford Julius Thomas’ services. He may not even be in large font on the Broncos’ offseason itinerary considering the scheme change and the numerous ancillary free agents from their 2011 draft class, which is easily the best under fifth-year GM John Elway‘s watch.

Undrafted Pro Bowl cornerback Chris Harris re-upped for 5 years and $42.5MM, and first-rounder Von Miller will play out his fifth-year option on a $9.7MM cap number next season from that class. But Thomas, left guard Orlando Franklin and free safety Rahim Moore (second round), middle linebacker Nate Irving (third) and in-line tight end Virgil Green (sixth) are all free agents who played key roles last season.

Thomas, who played for just $645K last year, has understandably been lukewarm to the idea of a hometown discount, something to which Demaryius Thomas and Knighton have been receptive. With Demaryius Thomas likely to be slapped with the franchise tag, as we discussed Tuesday, the Broncos will need to reach a long-term contract with Julius Thomas to keep him around. Even though Elway reiterated his desire to keep Julius Thomas in Denver in January, per Nicki Jhabvala of the Post, the former Big Sky basketball standout already turned down a deal that would’ve made him one of the league’s top four highest-paid tight ends, a source told Kils in October. With a projected $26MM+ in cap space and more than a third of their starters unsigned, the Broncos likely won’t bring back all of their top three free agents and may be stuck with just one after franchising Demaryius Thomas, should Knighton also receive a strong offer considering his career metamorphosis the past two years.

The case for the Broncos bringing back Julius Thomas depends on which version of Manning they think they’re getting back. The future Hall of Fame quarterback has inflated the numbers for plenty of pass-catchers over the past 18 years, but assuming he returns for his age-39 season — this probably will be the case after the QB iterated his desire to return Friday night — he will need as much firepower as possible to keep the Broncos on their current course. Thomas’ reputation as a bigger wide receiver who is ill-equipped for Kubiak’s system may not be entirely accurate, either. The 6-foot-4, 251-pound Division I-FCS product improved from 2013 when Pro Football Focus (subscription required) tabbed him as the NFL’s second-worst run-blocking tight end to last season when the site gave Thomas a positive grade and slotted him at No. 33 in the category — just two spots behind Rob Gronkowski.

Former Broncos head coach John Fox and OC Adam Gase in a way validated Thomas’ market value by orchestrating a dramatic overhaul of the offense — to a C.J. Anderson-heavy ground approach — the week after Thomas encountered ankle turmoil for the fourth straight season. Not that there weren’t additional factors in Manning’s decline in the season’s second half, but the Broncos’ offense didn’t look the same without its top touchdown target. Without Thomas at full strength, a level he didn’t return to after his latest injury, Manning had just two games with a quarterback rating over 86 — against the Dolphins and Chargers, respectively. This precipitous fall came after Manning (22 TD passes and just three interceptions in the Broncos’ first seven games) charted just one game under 110 in a stretch that wasn’t a bad imitation of his 2013 MVP effort. Thomas had nine TD grabs during Denver’s peak span and three multi-score showings.

The case against re-signing Thomas hinges on what the Broncos do with Knighton, how much they want to invest in the aforementioned 2011 draft class, how much money they allocate to reshape their offensive line and, perhaps most importantly, whether they feel the tight end’s availability justifies his likely high re-up price. As TheMMQB’s Peter King summarized last year, Thomas considered giving up football after a persistent ankle injury he sustained in 2011 dogged him throughout his first two seasons. Overall, ankle problems forced him to miss 28 games in four years. But teams with shaky tight end outlooks — the Raiders, Cardinals and Browns, to name a few — likely won’t have as much of an issue with Thomas’ negatives, considering a player with these numbers rarely reaches free agency.

If Jared Cook and Kyle Rudolph could ink $7MM-per-year deals within the last couple years — Cook as a free agent with production nowhere near Thomas’ — Thomas has a good chance to earn top-five money at the position. That top five currently ends with Rudolph and starts with Jimmy Graham‘s $10MM-per-year contract signed last year, per OverTheCap.com.

Re-signing Green ($645K in his fourth season last year) or someone like Dolphins free agent Charles Clay makes sense if the Broncos don’t want to meet Thomas’ salary wishes, but for a team whose title window depends heavily on the success of an aging quarterback with fading arm strength, it might be prudent to keep his main weapons around — especially the one who is Manning’s preferred option to finish off drives. The cap math adds up better for the Broncos if Manning renegotiates his salary — something we learned on Friday he could be willing to do — which is set for $19MM and a $21.5MM cap hit.

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