PFR Originals

Top 2017 NFL Free Agents By Position: Offense

NFL free agency will get underway on Thursday, March 9th, 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.

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 2017:

Quarterback:

  1. Kirk Cousins
  2. Mike Glennon
  3. Nick Foles
  4. Brian Hoyer
  5. Ryan Fitzpatrick
  6. Case Keenum
  7. Matt McGloin
  8. Mark Sanchez
  9. Geno Smith
  10. Ryan Mallett
  11. Josh McCown
  12. Christian Ponder
  13. Blaine Gabbert
  14. Matt Schaub
  15. Ryan Nassib

Honorable mention: Shaun Hill

As of this writing, Kirk Cousins is far and away the best potential free agent quarterback in this year’s crop. By the time March gets here, we’re fully expecting Cousins to be spoken for. Ultimately, the Redskins could franchise tag him, work out a long-term deal with him, or swing some type of trade that nets them a massive haul of talent and picks. That will leave a crop of retread quarterbacks that would probably best serve as transitional options for QB-needy teams. Kirk Cousins

Mike Glennon hasn’t done much in his 18 career starts, but talent evaluators are still in love with his size and potential. The 6’7″ quarterback will get more money this spring than you might expect, particularly since there are no surefire QBs in this year’s draft.

Teams looking for stopgap QBs will find a plethora of experienced, though perhaps uninspiring, signal callers. Nick Foles, Brian Hoyer, and Ryan Fitzpatrick all have their best football behind them, but they could hold down the fort for a team in 2017 and maybe even find some success if the defense is strong enough. Of course, the ideal role for those guys would probably be as a backup to a better, younger quarterback.

Running back:

  1. Le’Veon Bell
  2. Eddie Lacy
  3. LeGarrette Blount
  4. Latavius Murray
  5. Darren McFadden
  6. Jacquizz Rodgers
  7. Rashad Jennings
  8. Danny Woodhead
  9. Rex Burkhead
  10. Tim Hightower
  11. DeAngelo Williams
  12. Andre Ellington
  13. Chris Johnson
  14. Christine Michael
  15. Robert Turbin

Consider Le’Veon Bell‘s name written in Etch-A-Sketch, because he is very unlikely to get near the open market. That could leave Eddie Lacy as the best tailback available in March. Lacy has struggled with weight issues in recent years and he lost much of the 2016 season to injury. Still, he is a bruising back that could nicely complement a quicker ball carrier. Before he was shut down for the year, Lacy was averaging 5.07 yards per carry in five games for Green Bay.

LeGarrette Blount (vertical)In the last two years, LeGarrette Blount seems to have put his off-the-field troubles behind him. Whether that’s a sign of his maturity or a product of the Patriots’ culture remains to be seen. Teams can ignore his past indiscretions, but they will be wary of his age. Blount turns 31 in December.

Latavius Murray has shown glimpses of being a special running back, but he has been inconsistent and his 4.0 yards-per-carry average of the last two years isn’t overly impressive. Darren McFadden ran for more than 1,000 yards in 2015, but 2016 was pretty much a lost year for him. Jacquizz Rodgers seemed to break out last year, but he wound up succumbing to the same injury bug that took down a host of other Buccaneers running backs. Speaking of injuries, Rashad Jennings was initially brought to the Giants to be a workhorse back, but two of his three years in New York were marred by ailments. Everyone in this tier has the potential to make a difference, but none should be counted on as anyone’s main guy in 2017.

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Top 3 Offseason Needs: Pittsburgh Steelers

In advance of March 9, the start of free agency in the NFL, Pro Football Rumors will detail each team’s three most glaring roster issues. We’ll continue this year’s series with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who won the AFC North with an 11-5 record before falling to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.

Depth Chart (via Roster Resource)

Pending Free Agents:

Top 10 Cap Hits for 2017:

  1. Ben Roethlisberger, QB: $18,200,000
  2. Antonio Brown, WR: $13,618,334
  3. Maurkice Pouncey, C: $11,051,000
  4. David DeCastro, G: $11,050,000
  5. Cameron Heyward, DL: $10,400,000
  6. Mike Mitchell, S: $8,135,416
  7. Marcus Gilbert, T: $7,308,500
  8. Ladarius Green, TE: $6,187,500
  9. Ramon Foster, G: $3,591,666
  10. Ryan Shazier, LB: $3,025,020

Other:

Three Needs:

1. Bring in a new linebacker: The Steelers have a history of developing linebackers, but the two of club’s past three first-round selections at the position haven’t exactly panned out (thus far, at least). Jarvis Jones has been the most obvious failure, as the former 17th overall pick has managed only six sacks over four seasons in Pittsburgh. “Failure” might be too strong a word, as Jones is a capable run defender who probably ranks as an average NFL linebacker. But he’s not the type of edge presence the Steelers were hoping to land with a first-round pick.

Bud Dupree, meanwhile, was chosen two years after Jones, and offered a much different collegiate profile, boasting more natural athleticism but less statistical production. He’s been a bit more productive than Jones during his two years with the Steelers (8.5 sacks from 2015-16), but Dupree has earned far worse marks from Pro Football Focus, grading poorly against both the run and pass. Still only 24 years old, however, Dupree showed marked improvement from Year 1 to Year 2, and should see his snap percentage increase in 2017.James Harrison (vertical)

Jones is a pending free agent and not expected back, but the same can’t be said for fellow free agents James Harrison and Lawrence Timmons, each of whom Pittsburgh is working to re-sign. Harrison is the more likely to return, and it could be a matter of time until the veteran pass rusher formally inks a new deal with the Steelers. General manager Kevin Colbert wants to bring Timmons back into the fold, as well, but admitted the 30-year-old could find better offers on the open market.

If Timmons departs, Pittsburgh could need to find a new inside linebacker to play next to Pro Bowler Ryan Shazier. The club would have at least one internal candidate to fill that role, as Vince Williams put up a decent showing in 2016 on roughly a quarter of the Steelers’ defensive snaps. While Pittsburgh likely won’t invest financial resources to bring in a free agent inside ‘backer (unless it’s someone who can contribute on special teams like Jon Bostic or Audie Cole), a mid-round draft pick on the position isn’t out of the question. LSU’s Kendell Beckwith, Wake Forest’s Marquel Lee, or Michigan’s Ben Gedeon could interest the Steelers on Day 2 or 3.Haason Reddick (Vertical)

While adding an inside linebacker could be an area of focus, bringing in a new edge rusher should be a much higher priority for Pittsburgh this offseason. Indeed, targeting an outside linebacker at pick No. 30 will be a consideration for the Steelers, and perhaps even considered a likely proposition. Nearly every industry mock draft has sent a pass rusher to Pittsburgh, and both Mel Kiper Jr. of ESPN.com and Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com agree Temple’s Haason Reddick, who put up 9.5 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss last year, would be a logical fit. Takkarist McKinley (UCLA), Carl Lawson (Auburn), Charles Harris (Missouri), and Tim Williams (Alabama) are among the other prospects that could intrigue Pittsburgh at the end of Round 1.

Free agent pass rushers may also interest the Steelers, although the club is highly unlikely to spend extravagantly to lure a top-notch edge defender such as Melvin Ingram or even Jabaal Sheard — it’s simply not the club’s style. However, Pittsburgh should go bargain-hunting and find another veteran to play alongside Harrison, especially if it doesn’t find what it’s looking for in the draft. Erik Walden and Alex Okafor could make sense on short-term contracts, while longtime NFL pass rusher DeMarcus Ware would also look good in a Steelers uniform.

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Top 3 Offseason Needs: Baltimore Ravens

In advance of March 9, the start of free agency in the NFL, Pro Football Rumors will detail each team’s three most glaring roster issues. We’ll continue this year’s series with the Baltimore Ravens, who have now missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time in the John Harbaugh era. Despite calls for their dismissal, Harbaugh and his top assistants will be back in 2017 in what will likely be a do-or-die year for them. There is enough of a foundation for the club to make a playoff push in 2017, but they will need to have a strong offseason in order to return to the postseason.

Depth Chart (via Roster Resource)

Pending Free Agents:

Top 10 Cap Hits For 2017:

  1. Joe Flacco, QB: $24,550,000
  2. Jimmy Smith, CB: $12,600,00
  3. Marshal Yanda, G: $9,125,220
  4. Elvis Dumervil, LB: $8,375,000
  5. Mike Wallace: $8,000,000
  6. Dennis Pitta: $7,700,000
  7. Lardarius Webb, S: $7,500,000
  8. Terrell Suggs, LB: $6,950,0000
  9. Eric Weddle, S: $5,750,000
  10. Shareece Wright, CB: $5,333,333

Current Projected Cap Room (via Over the Cap): $15,387,844

Other:

  • Must exercise or decline 2018 fifth-year option for LB C.J. Mosley

Three Needs:

1) Wide Receiver Help: GM Ozzie Newsome’s greatest weakness has been his ability to draft difference-making wide receivers. Breshad Perriman, whom the team selected in the first round of the 2015 draft, missed his entire rookie campaign due to injury, and though he was able to stay healthy throughout the entire 2016 season and showed some flashes of his potential, the jury is decidedly out on the UCF product. As it stands now, ex-Raven Torrey Smith is the best receiver the club has ever drafted, and though he had a productive career in Baltimore, he does not belong in the same conversation as AFC North elites like Antonio Brown and A.J. Green.

Dec 4, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Washington Redskins wide receiver Pierre Garcon (88) against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Redskins 31-23. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

As such, the team has been forced to rely on acquiring veteran possession receivers on the downside of their careers. Steve Smith, Anquan Boldin, and Derrick Mason all enjoyed some success with the Ravens, and now that Smith has retired and Kamar Aiken appears to be on his way out, Baltimore will likely need to turn to free agency yet again. The market for veteran wideouts is fairly underwhelming, as the Ravens will likely not be in play for the biggest fish in the free agent pool, Alshon Jeffery. Jeffery will probably get a Green-esque contract, and the Ravens simply cannot afford to spend that much (nor is it their practice to make such a splash in free agency).

Pierre Garcon seems like a perfect fit, as he is a quality possession receiver who would nicely complement Perriman and Mike Wallace (the latter of whom has been discussed as a potential cap casualty, though given his production in 2016 and Baltimore’s dearth of receiver talent, it would be shocking if the Ravens were to part ways with Wallace). However, the Redskins would reportedly like to have Garcon back, and even if he does not return to Washington, the Ravens will face stiff competition for his services.

That leaves less appealing options like Kenny Britt and Brandon LaFell, as Terrelle Pryor will likely stay in Cleveland or will be too pricey for the Ravens’ liking, and Kenny Stills’ skill-set is too similar to that of Wallace and Perriman. Of course, the Ravens could always pounce on an intriguing cap casualty like Brandon Marshall — if he is released — or Victor Cruz, though such players come with plenty of question marks.

Unfortunately for the Ravens, who hold the No. 16 overall selection in the 2017 draft, this year’s rookie class of wide receivers is lacking in top-end talent. Clemson’s Mike Williams, the consensus No. 1 wide receiver in the class, has a nice combination of size and speed but could be off the board by the time the Ravens are on the clock. Western Michigan’s Corey Davis or USC’s JuJu Smith-Schuster should still be available, with Davis looking like the better all-around prospect (Smith-Schuster projects as a possession receiver at the next level).

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Top 3 Offseason Needs: New Orleans Saints

In advance of March 9, the start of free agency in the NFL, Pro Football Rumors will detail each team’s three most glaring roster issues. We’ll continue this year’s series with the New Orleans Saints, who finished third in the NFC South after posting their third consecutive 7-9 record.

Depth Chart (via Roster Resource)

Pending Free Agents:

Top 10 Cap Hits for 2017:

  1. Drew Brees, QB: $19,000,000
  2. Cameron Jordan, DE: $12,047,000
  3. Terron Armstead, LT: $11,500,000
  4. Jairus Byrd, S: $11,200,000
  5. Coby Fleener, TE: $7,500,000
  6. Max Unger, C: $7,400,000
  7. Kenny Vaccaro, S: $5,676,000
  8. Mark Ingram, RB: $5,345,000
  9. Zach Strief, T: $5,100,000
  10. Thomas Morstead, P: $4,700,000

Other:

Three Needs:

1. Find an edge rusher to play opposite Cameron Jordan: The Saints ranked 29th in DVOA against the pass in 2016, and much of that poor showing can be attributed to the club’s lack of pass rush. Defensive end Cameron Jordan led the team with 7.5 sacks, defensive tackle — and pending free agent — Nick Fairley was second with 6.5, and no other New Orleans defender posted more than four quarterback takedowns. Overall, the Saints finished 27th in team sacks and 28th in adjusted sack percentage.

Edge rushers Darryl Tapp and Paul Kruger are both headed for the free agent market, and while one or both could be retained, neither should be viewed as a priority one item. Instead, the Saints are likely going to look towards free agency and the draft in order to bring in new talent, especially given that New Orleans head coach Sean Payton said adding pass rush help is a “must.” Typically up against the salary cap, the Saints have nearly $30MM with which to work this offseason, and could clear more room by cutting ties with veterans such as Jairus Byrd and Thomas Morstead.Melvin Ingram (Vertical)

Given that the Cardinals’ Chandler Jones and the Giants’ Jason Pierre-Paul seem increasingly likely to be franchised by their respective clubs, the top edge defender on the market could be Melvin Ingram, who’s managed 18.5 sacks over the past two seasons with the Chargers. Ingram, 27, is also a candidate for the tag, but it’s unclear if a rebuilding Los Angeles team is willing to tie up ~$15MM in cap space on a single player. If he does reach the open market, Ingram should be the number one target for the Saints, who should have some familiarity with him given that former Chargers linebackers coach Mike Nolan now holds the same role in New Orleans.

Outside of the top few options, the free agent defensive end class is relatively barren, and the Saints could be forced to go bargain hunting. Datone Jones is still only 26 years old and has never seemed to fit in the Packers’ 3-4 look, but he could look to restart his career as an end in New Orleans’ 4-3 scheme. Ryan Davis posted 10 sacks for the Jaguars in 2014-15, and though his performance stalled last year, a move back to end could help. Veterans such as Julius Peppers and Dwight Freeney could be targets on one-year deals, while Elvis Dumervil could also intrigue the Saints if he’s released by Baltimore.Sheldon Richardson

If the Saints don’t find what they’re looking for in free agency, the trade market might offer at least one interesting solution in the form of Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson. Although New Orleans wasn’t among the list of teams that reportedly inquired on Richardson last year, the 26-year-old could be a nice fit as a defensive end under coordinator Dennis Allen. A player-for-player trade might even make sense — former first-round pick Stephone Anthony has apparently fallen out of favor with the Saints, and it’s possible New York would have interest in resurrecting his young career.

When April rolls around, New Orleans will have yet another opportunity to add edge players when the draft begins. The Saints hold the 11th overall selection, and figure to target a pass rusher with that pick. ESPN draftniks Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay both see New Orleans drafting a defensive end, as Kiper recently mocked Michigan’s Taco Charlton to the Saints while McShay thinks Stanford’s Solomon Thomas will head east. Myles Garrett (Texas A&M) and Jonathan Allen (Alabama) won’t be available when the Saints’ turn comes up, but Derek Barnett (Tennessee), Charles Harris (Oklahoma), and Carl Lawson (Auburn) could be in consideration.

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Top 3 Offseason Needs: Tampa Bay Bucs

In advance of March 9, the start of free agency in the NFL, Pro Football Rumors will detail each team’s three most glaring roster issues. We’ll continue this year’s series with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who added three wins to their 2015 record to finish 9-7 under first-year head coach Dirk Koetter.

Depth Chart (via Roster Resource)

Pending Free Agents:

Top 10 Cap Hits for 2017:

  1. Gerald McCoy, DT: $13,750,000
  2. Brent Grimes, CB: $8,000,000
  3. Doug Martin, RB: $7,000,000
  4. Jameis Winston, QB: $6,913,985
  5. Alterraun Verner, CB: $6,500,000
  6. Robert Ayers, DE: $6,250,000
  7. Lavonte David, LB: $6,000,000
  8. J.R. Sweezy, G: $5,000,000
  9. Mike Evans, WR: $4,655,478
  10. Evan Smith, OL: $4,500,000

Other:

Three Needs:

1. Grab a No. 2 wide receiver: The Buccaneers’ offense had its successes in 2016, as quarterback Jameis Winston took a leap in his sophomore campaign, wide receiver Mike Evans ranked among the NFL’s top-six receivers in receptions, yards, and touchdowns, and the offense as a whole finished 18th in DVOA. Tampa Bay’s running game struggled — we’ll address ways to fix that facet of the club a bit later — but the more pressing need for the Bucs is at receiver, where the team lacks depth beyond Evans.

Tight end Cameron Brate ranked second among Tampa receivers in catches, yards, and scores, and adds a solid dimension to the Buccaneers offense, while Adam Humphries managed 55 receptions for 622 yards and two touchdowns. Humphries, 24, garnered the second-most targets in Tampa Bay’s offense, and while he’s a reliable security blanket for Winston, Humphries is best served in the slot. Veteran Cecil Shorts, meanwhile, suffered a potentially career-ending injury last December and won’t be back, meaning the rest of the Buccaneers wide receiver depth chart is comprised of Josh Huff, Freddie Martino, Donteea Dye, and Bernard Reedy.

In addition to Shorts, other internal free agents exist at the wideout position. Veteran Vincent Jackson, now 34 years old, is coming off a partial ACL tear and could theoretically opt for retirement given that he’s only played in 15 games over the past two seasons. Jackson, though, is a respected presence in the Tampa Bay locker room, and a cheap re-signing isn’t out of the question, as Roy Cummings of FanRag Sports recently detailed. Russell Shepard, too, is heading for the open market, but is viewed as a “priority” free agent after another campaign as an excellent special-teamer.DeSean Jackson (Vertical)

Even if Jackson and Shepard return, though, the Buccaneers will still have a need for a standout No. 2 receiver who can help Evans threaten opposing defenses. In free agency, Redskins pass-catcher DeSean Jackson stands out as one option who could interest Tampa Bay. Jackson, 30, is expected to garner a double-digit yearly salary, but could add another feature to Tampa’s offense. While averaging 17.9 yards per reception, Jackson led the league in yards per catch for the second time in three seasons, evidence of his deep-ball acumen. Jackson’s teammate Pierre Garcon could also be on the Buccaneers’ radar, though he’s more of a possession receiver, and the Bucs weren’t among the recent list of teams expected to express interest in Garcon.

Elsewhere on the free agent market, Michael Floyd looks like an obvious fit for Tampa Bay, especially given that Bucs general manager Jason Licht was a member of the Cardinals’ front office when Arizona made Floyd a top-15 overall pick in 2012. Even with Floyd’s off-field concerns, the Buccaneers would face competition for Floyd’s services, including from the Patriots, who hope to re-sign the pending free agent. Tampa could eye Vikings’ wideout Cordarrelle Patterson as it looks to improve its special teams unit — the Bucs lost 8.7 points of field position on kick returns and 2.1 points of field position on punt returns in 2016 — while Terrance Williams, Kamar Aiken, and Robert Woods might also interest the club.

The Buccaneers could also pursue a few pass-catchers who aren’t actually on the open market just yet: if the Jets release either of Brandon Marshall or Eric Decker, Tampa might jump at the chance to add a dependable veteran to play opposite Evans in “12” personnel. Jason Fitzgerald of Over the Cap recently placed both Marshall and Decker on his list of potential wide receiver cuts, and while Marshall says he hasn’t heard anything from New York about his future with the team, he could certainly hit free agency in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, the 49ers may be willing to trade Torrey Smith, who could offer a Jackson-like deep threat to the Bucs’ offense.Corey Davis (vertical)

The draft represents yet another avenue by which Tampa Bay can acquire wide receiver talent, and while the club likely won’t be able to land Clemson’s Mike Williams barring a trade up in the first round, Western Michigan’s Corey Davis is a legitimate target at pick No. 19, and was recently mocked to the Buccaneers by Mel Kiper Jr. of ESPN.com. Davis will miss the scouting combine after undergoing ankle surgery, while fellow Round 1 option John Ross (Washington) is expected to go under the knife after the combine, but both receivers should be ready for training camp. Cooper Kupp (Eastern Washington), Zay Jones (East Carolina), and JuJu Smith-Schuster (USC) could figure into Tampa’s Day 2 plans.

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Top 3 Offseason Needs: Detroit Lions

In advance of March 9, the start of free agency in the NFL, Pro Football Rumors will detail each team’s three most glaring roster issues. We’ll continue this year’s series with the Detroit Lions, who managed to make the playoffs for the second time in three years and third time this decade. But the team backed into the NFC bracket, closing the regular season with three losses, and did not fare well in a wild-card loss to the Seahawks. This leaves many offseason questions ahead.

Depth Chart (via Roster Resource)

Pending Free Agents:

Top 10 Cap Hits for 2017:

Other:

  • Projected cap space (via OverTheCap): $32,797,575
  • Twenty-first pick in draft
  • Must exercise or decline 2018 fifth-year option for TE Eric Ebron

Three Needs:

1.) Stock the second level: Since signing the four-year, $33.74MM extension prior to the 2015 season, DeAndre Levy has contributed staggeringly little to the Lions’ cause. Playing in just six games and making only 21 tackles the past two seasons, Levy can no longer be counted on to be available. But he’s still Detroit’s best linebacker and has three years and almost $19MM remaining on his deal. The Lions will likely see if Levy can retain the form that led the team to extend him, but Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press notes a Levy pay cut request could be forthcoming after the soon-to-be 30-year-old weak-side man’s observed his value depreciate. Levy, however, won’t need further surgery on his right knee, which plagued him in 2016 after a hip injury harpooned his 2015 slate. Just $1.75MM of Levy’s 2017 salary ($5.75MM) is guaranteed against injury for 2017, becoming fully guaranteed on the third day of the league year. But thoughts of cutting the previous outside standout would basically mean starting over at linebacker, because the Lions are reeling here.

Levy’s extension thus far burning the Lions gives them no surefire answers on their defensive second level. Despite his 122 tackles far and away leading the team, Tahir Whitehead encountered mixed reviews. Pro Football Focus did not think the statistics gelled with Whitehead’s play level, ranking the 26-year-old as the league’s second-worst full-time linebacker last season. Whitehead is signed through 2017 after inking a two-year, $8MM extension last March. The Lions’ second-leading tackler among linebackers, Josh Bynes, is a pending UFA. A fifth-round pick from 2016, Antwione Williams, and a former waiver claim (Thurston Armbrister) represent the only other ‘backers under contract.

A group that appeared solid a couple of seasons ago, with Levy and the since-released Stephen Tulloch manning positions, could use reinforcements. Football Outsiders ranked the Lions last in defensive DVOA in 2016, and although Detroit’s defense ranked 18th in terms of rushing yards allowed, this is a primary need area.

It’s not a great year to need a non-rush linebacker, particularly if a team is seeking outside help in a 4-3. Assuming Levy returns to commandeer the weak-side spot (big if, obviously), the Lions may need two new starters. As far as 4-3 OLBs go, it’s an incredibly thin contingent.

Malcolm Smith now profiles as player with significant starting experience compared to his initial free agency foray in 2015, when he was coming off a stay as a Seahawks contributor. Smith, though, did not impress much in Oakland despite being the Raiders’ most-used pure linebacker the past two seasons. Beyond that, Bynes, Keenan Robinson and Barkevious Mingo loom as undesirable options. Bob Quinn‘s former team traded for Mingo last year, but the former No. 6 overall pick made little impact. The 27-year-old Bynes could conceivably be back on a cheap deal. He signed a two-year pact with Detroit in 2015 but saw an injury lead to his release. The Kyle Van Noy trade re-routed Bynes to the Motor City, where he started eight games last season and earned a middling PFF grade — but tops among Lions linebackers. The Lions still may be better off targeting a rookie in the early rounds to fill this need.

If the team would be open to converting a 3-4 inside man to the outside, more options are available. Zach Brown and Kevin Minter are each coming off quality seasons and will be looking to cash in, Brown (149 tackles with the Bills in 2016) especially after settling for a one-year deal as a UFA last year. A middle linebacker in the Raiders’ base 4-3 set but a player used on passing downs as well, Perry Riley stands to be available after re-emerging last season. Settling for one of the other talents here — unless it’s Lawrence Timmons, whom the Steelers are considering keeping — doesn’t make much sense. It could be time for an early-round investment.

The Lions have mostly avoided linebackers in Round 1, with Ernie Sims (2006) representing the last such selection. They went for Van Noy in Round 2 three years ago, but he’s the only second-rounder the franchise has used on this position in the past nine years. A 2009 third-round choice, Levy joins many modern non-rush linebackers in showing that filling this spot with later-round draft picks can work. However, his own standing with the team presently could induce an early selection to help tilt the odds in the Lions’ favor.

Most mainstream mock drafts do not have the Lions going for a linebacker with their No. 1 pick, but Detroit has talent at every other level of its defense that will return. Be it Ziggy Ansah, Darius Slay, or Glover Quin. This defense needs help at multiple spots, but if Levy can’t return to regular duty, no such cornerstone cog exists at linebacker. And even if the ninth-year player does return to form, counting on it to last may be asking too much.

A chasm exists between Reuben Foster and the rest of the traditional linebackers in this rookie class. Jarrad Davis could be the No. 2 pure ‘backer on the board by the time No. 21 comes around, and the ex-Florida talent’s ankle troubles — which will force him to miss Combine workouts — could scare off teams in the teens from making that pick. Of course, the Lions themselves dealing with a chronically injured linebacker may make drafting Davis a difficult proposition. He of 125 tackles (16.5 for loss) in 13 games, Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham is viewed as a late-first-round talent as well. It’s doubtful Ohio State’s Raekwon McMillan will be there when the Lions’ second-round window opens. Foster’s lesser-regarded teammate, Ryan Anderson, could be, however.

This is not a bad need to have when it comes to bringing in young talent, as recent Day 2 picks Deion Jones and Jordan Hicks showed in becoming instant contributors the past two years.

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PFR Originals: 2/12/17 – 2/19/17

The original content and analysis produced by the PFR staff during the past week:

Poll: Will Chiefs Re-Sign Eric Berry, Dontari Poe?

Two defenders responsible for helping the Chiefs revitalize their operation in the mid-2010s are now two of the NFL’s most impactful free agents-to-be, and the major question involving Kansas City’s offseason will be if the team can retain both Eric Berry and Dontari Poe.

Each resides either at or near the top of his respective positional hierarchy as far as 2017 UFAs go, and the Chiefs do not stand to possess much in terms of cap space. While the team is expected to pass on Nick Foles‘ option to free up $6.75MM and will likely move on from Jamaal Charles ($6.19MM saved), the prospect of retaining both Berry and Poe will still be daunting.

Berry, of course, played the 2016 season on the franchise tag after the sides couldn’t come close to an agreement last July. The safety delivered maybe his best year, operating as a full-time defender throughout a season for the first time since 2013, and earned first-team All-Pro honors for the third time. Among active safeties, only Earl Thomas has achieved that status as often as Berry.

The safety landscape has also changed since Berry and the Chiefs were last at the bargaining table, with Tyrann Mathieu resetting the market with an extension that pays him $12.5MM annually. So, this could be a complex negotiation, especially considering the 28-year-old safety vowed he won’t play another season on a tag. Nevertheless, PFR’s Zach Links pegs Berry as a strong candidate to be tagged again.

Despite entering his eighth season, Berry has not signed a veteran contract. He played on an old-CBA rookie deal from 2010-15, and after making a triumphant cancer conquest en route to 2015 comeback player of the year acclaim, the Chiefs used the franchise tag to retain him for $10.806MM. Another tag, even as a means to an extension, would cost Kansas City $12.967MM and limit the team regarding Poe or the pursuit of higher-end outside free agents. John Dorsey confirmed the team is discussing re-ups for both players, but Berry’s agent pumped the brakes on Dorsey’s notion the talks are progressing positively. Dorsey’s signed numerous players to extensions, including several drafted by previous regimes, which Berry and Poe were. But being set for the last full season of his 20s, Berry figures to drive hard for a lucrative deal now.

Berry would certainly be the top safety available, while Poe might become the No. 1 defensive tackle on the market. The Panthers plan to use the franchise tag on Kawann Short, and with the Ravens prioritizing a Brandon Williams extension, Poe would induce a nice competition for his services if the Chiefs let the mammoth defender reach free agency. Although he’s a 3-4 nose tackle by trade, it’s likely Poe’s camp will be targeting a deal closer to Fletcher Cox or Marcell Dareus — or at least second-tier 4-3 DTs Michael Brockers ($11MM AAV) or Damon Harrison ($9.25MM AAV) — than traditional 3-4 inside men. A two-time Pro Bowler, Poe will turn 27 before the season begins. While his feelings about the tag aren’t yet known, it’s unlikely he’ll see it as a non-starter the way Berry does. The Chiefs and their largest player weren’t especially close on an extension in 2016. On a fifth-year option last season, Poe made just more than $6MM. A franchise tag would pay the former first-round pick approximately $13.47MM.

Unlike Berry, Poe has not delivered his best work over the past two seasons. A back surgery hampered his 2015 season, and Pro Football Focus graded Poe as its No. 59 interior defender a year later. The Chiefs also may have been planning for a future without their nose guard when they selected Chris Jones in the second round last year. Jones flashed often last season, looking like a long-term starter. Kansas City also has two starting defensive ends — Allen Bailey and Jaye Howard — tethered to the 2017 payroll at $6.16MM and $6.38MM, respectively. So, a Poe accord would stack that unit with veteran salaries and limit the team to some degree at other spots. However, both Bailey and Howard went down with season-ending injuries in 2016, further complicating this equation.

Kansas City stands to possess barely $4MM in cap space before making decisions on Foles and Charles. Due to a run of recent extensions and re-signings, the Chiefs don’t have a lot of other ways to create a quick cash influx. The Chiefs like to backload their deals, a tactic which helped them afford Jeremy Maclin two years ago despite scant cap room. But that strategy will see spikes in some players’ 2017 wages. An offseason featuring a backloaded Berry pact and a Poe tag would leave the team thin in space, and despite the Chiefs not possessing a host of glaring needs, these deals would prevent them from addressing them seriously in free agency.

So, do you see the Chiefs paying to keep both of these players? If so, how will the franchise tag come into play? How much will Berry’s standing as a cornerstone Kansas City athlete and inspirational figure impact his deal? Vote in PFR’s latest poll.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Top 3 Offseason Needs: San Francisco 49ers

In advance of March 9, the start of free agency in the NFL, Pro Football Rumors will detail each team’s three most glaring roster issues. We’ll continue this year’s series with the San Francisco 49ers, who managed only two wins in 2016 and have since hired a new general manager (John Lynch) and a new head coach (Kyle Shanahan).

Depth Chart (via Roster Resource)

Pending Free Agents:

Top 10 Cap Hits for 2017:

  1. Colin Kaepernick, QB: $19,365,753
  2. Joe Staley, T: $11,056,250
  3. NaVorro Bowman, LB: $9,591,500
  4. Torrey Smith, WR: $9,475,000
  5. Antoine Bethea, S: $7,000,000
  6. Ahmad Brooks, LB: $6,148,750
  7. Eric Reid, S: $5,676,000
  8. Tramaine Brock, CB: $4,300,000
  9. Vance McDonald, TE: $4,165,625
  10. DeForest Buckner, DL: $4,134,316

Other:

Three Needs:

1. Solve the quarterback position: The 49ers may have the most needs of any club in the NFL, but the most important void is still at the top of the roster, where San Francisco needs to find a franchise quarterback. Colin Kaepernick is still on the team’s books for now, but he’s considering an opt-out provision that would allow him to reach free agency this spring. Even if he doesn’t opt out, the 49ers could still cut Kaepernick — a move that would save nearly $17MM in cap space — and seek to negotiate a less expensive contract.Kirk Cousins

While Kaepernick’s fate is still up in the air, new head coach Kyle Shanahan likely wants to put his stamp on the 49ers roster in the form of a new signal-caller, and his No. 1 target figures to be Washington’s Kirk Cousins. Cousins is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March, but the Redskins aren’t going to let him get away without compensation. If Washington deploys the franchise tag on Cousins, San Francisco would be forced to sacrifice two first-round picks (including the second overall selection in 2017) to sign the sixth-year quarterback.

The Redskins prefer to reach a long-term agreement with Cousins, but recent reports have indicated little progress between the two sides. The franchise tender looms as the most likely option, then, and though Shanahan has exhibited an affinity for Cousins ever since he served as Washington’s offensive coordinator, the 49ers aren’t going to give up two first-rounders given all the holes on their roster. A more conventional trade is possible, as the Redskins could franchise Cousins and then consummate a deal for a something fewer than two first-round picks, but San Francisco is probably going to have to look elsewhere to find its next quarterback.

Elsewhere on the trade market, the Patriots’ Jimmy Garoppolo is thought to be next-up on the 49ers’ wishlist, although the price tag could be steep. San Francisco is extremely unlikely to package the No. 2 pick for Garoppolo, so any deal would likely include the club’s early second-rounder. Shanahan was interested in Garoppolo during the 2014 draft, but the 49ers won’t be the only club pushing to acquire the New England backup, as both the Browns and Bears will likely be in the running, as well.Matt Schaub (Vertical)

Other veterans that could end up on San Francisco’s radar include the Bengals’ A.J. McCarron (who is open to being traded), the Bills’ Tyrod Taylor (who is likely to be released), or the Falcons’ Matt Schaub, who spent last season as a backup in Atlanta under Shanahan’s tutelage. Schaub, 35, also worked with Shanahan during the pair’s run with the Texans, and is said to be seeking a starting job this offseason. That opportunity could come in San Francisco, where Schaub would likely act as something of a bridge quarterback while the Niners develop a long-term passer.

If the 49ers bring in a late-career veteran like Schaub, Brian Hoyer, or Jay Cutler (to whom the club has already been linked), general manager John Lynch & Co. figure to select a young QB early in the draft. The 2017 class doesn’t feature an outstanding crop of quarterbacks, but San Francisco will have its choice of several signal-callers at the top of Round 1 or even Round 2. Mock drafts have been all over the place, as Mel Kiper Jr. of ESPN.com projects the 49ers to draft UNC’s Mitch Trubisky while fellow ESPN scribe Todd McShay sees San Francisco going after Clemson’s Deshaun Watson. DeShone Kizer (Notre Dame) could also be in consideration, while Patrick Mahomes (Texas Tech) might even be a surprise top pick.

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