Michael Thomas (S)

East Rumors: Patriots, Lawrence, Giants

Despite an offseason that included retirement rumors, contract frustration and trade talks, Rob Gronkowski appears to be sufficiently ready to put some of this behind him. The Patriots‘ future Hall of Fame tight end attributed his time away from the team to determining whether he could handle the rigors of a ninth season.

I am refreshed,” Gronkowski told NFL.com’s Willie McGinest (via NBC Sports Boston). “You know after the season, long seasons, how your body can feel and everything. I just wanted to see where I was at, and see how I can get my body feeling, see if I can handle it, endure it again, and I feel like I’m super ready, man.”

Gronkowski remains without an adjusted contract, despite the sides being rumored to be close to finalizing one. Gronk has not been connected to a training camp holdout just yet, though given his injury history and actions this offseason, one can’t necessarily be ruled out. But the 29-year-old tight end is set to return for the Patriots, which will be even more important than it usually is considering Julian Edelman will miss a second straight September.

Here’s the latest from New England and some other cities whose teams play in Eastern divisions.

  • After Danielle Hunter‘s extension, Tom Curran of NBC Sports Boston identifies Trey Flowers as a prime candidate to cash in. However, Flowers’ Patriots employment may delay a big deal. The Patriots have traded away defenders with higher profiles in recent years, dealing Jamie Collins and future All-Pro Chandler Jones, so Curran warns this situation could be slow-played — particularly because of the Hunter deal — past Flowers’ 2018 contract year. Although, Hunter’s $12MM-AAV extension can be considered a team-friendly pact given his age and potential. Flowers led the AFC champions with 6.5 sacks last season and looks to again be the team’s best edge-rushing presence.
  • With less than two weeks left until the deadline for teams to sign franchise-tagged players to extensions, might the Cowboys consider letting DeMarcus Lawrence play on the tag? The Cowboys may be somewhat skittish about the defensive end’s injury history, per Jori Epstein of the Dallas Morning News, and would like to see if Lawrence can duplicate his breakout 2017 season. While Lawrence is set to count $17MM-plus toward Dallas’ 2018 cap, the team already finalized an extension with Zack Martin and still has $14.8MM worth of cap space. And the Cowboys did not replace Dez Bryant or Jason Witten with big-money pass-catchers, so they may now be in position to take a wait-and-see approach with Lawrence.
  • The Giants added backup safety/special-teamer Michael Thomas in late March, before it became clear something was amiss with the safety market. Thomas signed for two years and $4MM, which gave the expected backup a better deal than longtime Chiefs starter Ron Parker received from the Falcons last week. Needless to say, Thomas believes something is up and connects it to Eric Reid‘s status as a free agent. “I was never worried, but collusion is real,” Thomas said about his free agency, via Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle. “I understand that, but it was a blessing in disguise. The Giants organization was the right situation for me.” Thomas isn’t the first outside of Reid to connect the former 49er’s offseason to the slowed safety market. Reid remains embroiled in a grievance with the NFL over his unemployment, which he connects to his involvement in the racial inequality-themed protests of the past two years.

Giants To Sign S Michael Thomas

The Giants have agreed to terms on a two-year deal with free agent safety Michael Thomas, according to Jordan Raanan of ESPN.com (Twitter link).

Thomas is one of the league’s best special-teamers, as he played more than 70% of the Dolphins’ ST snaps over the past four seasons while leading the NFL in special teams tackles during that time. He should assist a Giants special teams unit that ranked dead last in DVOA a year ago, while he’ll also add a high-character voice in New York’s locker room. Rannan indicated earlier this offseason that Giants general manger Dave Gettleman was intent on altering the club’s culture, and Thomas was specifically mentioned as a viable option for aiding in that effort.

While his defensive playing time has decreased in each of the past two seasons, Thomas started 13 games for Miami as recently as 2015. A such, he could conceivably be in competition for a starting role with the Giants, as Darian Thompson graded as a bottom-20 safety (per Pro Football Focus) while playing opposite Pro Bowler Landon Collins. Thompson played on 96% of New York’s defensive snaps in 2017, so he won’t be easy to jar loose, but Thomas could be in line for snaps, if only in three-safety looks.

Before signing with the Giants, Thomas also took a visit with the Steelers.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

S Michael Thomas Visits Steelers

The Steelers hosted safety Michael Thomas on a visit, Mark Kaboly of The Athletic tweets. This is the first known visit for Thomas, who spent five seasons with the Dolphins.

However, Kaboly reports Thomas left Pittsburgh’s facility without a contract. Both sides could be surveying their options, and the Steelers are in need of safety help.

Pittsburgh cut longtime back-line starter Mike Mitchell, though the Steelers are interested in a reunion at a lower rate, and has not seen its second-round investment in Sean Davis pay off just yet. Despite restructuring the deals of several players, the Steelers still have barely $2MM in cap space.

Thomas, who turned 29 over the weekend, served as a part-time starter and full-time special-teamer in Miami. He made 24 starts (12 in 2015) during his tenure with the Dolphins.

Giants Notes: Darkwa, Richburg, Bromley

Although he’s drawing interest from the cross-town Jets, the Giants still want to re-sign running back Orleans Darkwa, according to Jordan Raanan of ESPN.com. Darkwa, 26, broke out with Big Blue in 2017, posting career-highs in starts (11), yards (751), and touchdowns (five). A former undrafted free agent out of Tulane, Darkwa had only managed 287 rushing yards in the three prior years of his NFL tenure. The Giants could conceivably lose both Darkwa and fellow free agent Shane Vereen to the open market, which would leave them with Wayne Gallman, Paul Perkins, Terrell Watson, and Jalen Simmons on their running back depth chart.

Here’s more on the Giants, all courtesy of Raanan:

  • Teams around the league are viewing Giants free agent Weston Richburg as both a center and a guard, per Raanan. Richburg has played at the pivot for the past three years, but he spend time at guard during his rookie season in 2014. Although injuries limited him to only four games in 2017, Richburg will be the best center available on the open market, leading a positional group that also includes Ryan Jensen, John Sullivan, Russell Bodine, and Travis Swanson, but he could increase his number of suitors by exhibiting versatility.
  • The Giants could field five new starters along their offensive line in 2018, a source tells Raanan. While that overhaul likely wouldn’t removing Brett Jones, who filled in for Richburg at center last season, but it would still represent a massive overhaul. Notably, changeover at all five positions would mean New York has moved on from former first-round pick, and incumbent left tackle, Ereck Flowers. Panthers guard Andrew Norwell could be part of the renovation, as Giants general manager Dave Gettleman reportedly “loves” the Carolina free agent, Raanan writes in a separate piece.
  • A number of Giants free agents are unlikely to remain with the club next year, per Raanan. Defensive lineman Jay Bromley and Kerry Wynn aren’t expected to re-sign, as neither is a good fit for new defensive coordinator James Bettcher‘s 3-4 scheme. Bromley, notably, is reportedly looking for a larger role on defense, according to Raanan, as he’s spent the majority of his career as a reserve. Linebacker Jonathan Casillas, additionally, doesn’t appear to be on the Giants’ radar, as the club is looking to get younger at the second level of its defense.
  • Gettleman will likely try to improve the Giants’ locker room culture by inking established veterans on the defensive side of the ball, and Raanan lists incumbent linebacker Kelvin Sheppard and Dolphins’ special teams ace Michael Thomas as players New York could sign for their leadership.

Top 2018 Free Agents By Position: Defense

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:

Edge defender:

  1. Julius Peppers
  2. William Hayes
  3. Trent Murphy
  4. Pernell McPhee
  5. Aaron Lynch
  6. Alex Okafor
  7. Adrian Clayborn
  8. Kony Ealy
  9. Connor Barwin
  10. Jeremiah Attaochu
  11. Junior Galette
  12. Derrick Shelby
  13. Barkevious Mingo
  14. Kareem Martin
  15. Erik Walden

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 defensive line:

  1. Sheldon Richardson
  2. Dontari Poe
  3. Muhammad Wilkerson
  4. Star Lotulelei
  5. DaQuan Jones
  6. Beau Allen
  7. Denico Autry
  8. Justin Ellis
  9. Tom Johnson
  10. Bennie Logan
  11. Chris Baker
  12. Kyle Williams
  13. Dominique Easley
  14. Haloti Ngata
  15. Jay Bromley

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

Dolphins Move Michael Thomas To IR

Michael Thomas‘ Dolphins contract expires after Week 17, and the fifth-year safety will not be participating in Sunday’s game against the Bills.

The Dolphins announced they placed Thomas on IR. He had been recovering from a PCL injury and missed the previous two Miami games. The Dolphins claimed safety Trae Elston off waivers from the Bills to take Thomas’ roster spot.

Thomas played this season on an RFA tender ($1.797MM). He will be a UFA this coming March. The former UDFA who’s been a part-time starter the past three seasons posted a message to Dolphins fans on Twitter. Thomas played 179 defensive snaps this season, and Pro Football Focus graded those fairly well despite the Stanford product being categorized as a part-time performer.

A 2016 UDFA, Elston played in 13 games for the Bills this season after beginning his season with the Eagles. Elston is under contract for next season, giving the Dolphins a chance at an offseason evaluation for potential safety depth.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Dolphins’ Michael Thomas Signs RFA Tender

Dolphins safety and special teams ace Michael Thomas has signed his restricted free agent tender, ensuring that he’ll remain in Miami for the 2017 season, tweets Alex Marvez of the Sporting News. Thomas had interest from two other clubs, one of whom offered him a three-year contract, according to Adam Beasley of the Miami Herald.Michael Thomas Dolphins (Vertical)

[RELATED: Dolphins RFA Damien Williams Visited Patriots]

Thomas was assigned the original round tender, so he’ll earn $1.797MM for the upcoming campaign. Because Thomas was originally an undrafted free agent, the Dolphins wouldn’t have been entitled to any draft pick compensation had they declined to match a Thomas offer sheet. It’s unclear as to why Thomas would reject a three-year contract in lieu of the RFA salary, but it’s difficult to assess the multi-year pact without knowing its specifics, such as structure and guarantees.

In 2016, Thomas continued his excellent work on special teams, playing on nearly 80% of Miami’s special teams plays while performing as one of the league’s best teams aces, per Pro Football Focus. Thomas, 28, was also called on to start eight contests due to injuries suffered by Reshad Jones and Isa Abdul-Quddus. Playing on roughly half the Dolphins’ defensive snaps, Thomas put up 39 tackles and one sack, but graded as a bottom-10 safety overall, according to PFF.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Dolphins To Place First-Round Tender On Kiko Alonso

The Dolphins are doing their best to ensure Kiko Alonso doesn’t bolt Miami as a restricted free agent, placing a first-round RFA tender on the linebacker, Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald tweets. Miami’s brass hopes this agreement will merely serve as a placeholder, because the Dolphins are attempting to sign Alonso long-term, per Ian Rapoport of NFL.com (on Twitter).

This continues the Dolphins’ path for an Alonso re-up. By using the first-round tender, Alonso will see a $3.91MM salary in 2017 — around $3MM more than he made in 2016 — if no extension is reached by Week 1.

Alonso has been the rare twice-traded starter on a rookie contract, bouncing from Buffalo to Philadelphia to Miami. He rated as Pro Football Focus’ No. 48 full-time linebacker last season.

The Dolphins also will place original-round tenders — $1.797MM — on safety Michael Thomas and running back Damien Williams.

 

ERFA Tender Decisions: 3/4/16

Earlier today, we rounded up the latest decisions on restricted free agent tenders. Now, we’ll shift our focus to the day’s exclusive-rights free agent tenders, for players with fewer than three years of NFL experience. here’s the latest:

Dolphins Notes: Thomas, Draft, Trusnik

Dolphins safety and special-teamer Michael Thomas met with coaches and formally signed his contract tender with the team this morning, according to Adam Beasley of the Miami Herald (via Twitter). There was no doubt that Thomas would be back, since he was an exclusive rights free agent and couldn’t negotiate with other teams, but he’s now officially under contract, and the club expects “big things” from him in 2015, says Beasley.

Here’s more on the Dolphins, courtesy of Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald:

  • A team source tells Jackson that Auburn receiver Sammie Coates and USC wideout George Farmer are among the prospects being flown in to meet with Dolphins coaches and executives this month. Miami acquired Kenny Stills in a trade with the Saints last month, but Stills alone won’t replace Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline, and Brandon Gibson, so the team remains in the market for receiving help.
  • Clemson outside linebacker Vic Beasley doesn’t look like a good bet to fall to the No. 14 pick, but the Dolphins have scheduled a visit with him anyway, says Jackson.
  • Miami’s Phillip Dorsett and Florida State’s Rashad Greene are among the receivers the Dolphins have invited to audition for them on their local day on April 10. According to Jackson, FSU tight end Nick O’Leary won’t be in attendance that day due to a scheduling conflict, but he’ll meet with team execs and coaches on April 9 instead.
  • Louisville cornerback Charles Gaines and Minnesota safety Cedric Thompson are among the defensive backs slated to visit the Dolphins, per Jackson. The club also intends to audition Miami middle linebacker Denzel Perryman, and sent linebackers coach Mark Duffner to Clemson to work out potential second-round pick Stephone Anthony.
  • According to Jackson, the Dolphins didn’t show any interest in retaining linebacker and special-teamer Jason Trusnik, who signed yesterday with the Panthers.