October 8th, 2019 at 3:58pm CST by Andrew Ortenberg
The relaunched XFL is gearing up for its first season, and they’re starting to announce more and more of their initial player pool. There are a lot of ex-NFL guys in the mix, and we’ll get to that in just a bit, but at least one notable college player is looking to jump right in. Former West Virginia safety Kenny Robinson is entering the XFL draft pool, according to Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk. Robinson was dismissed from West Virginia for academic fraud earlier this year. Florio writes that he was “considered a likely draft choice,” but hadn’t been in school long enough to be eligible for the NFL, which requires you to be three years removed from high school graduation.
That left Robinson with the options of looking for a new school to play at, or entering an alternative pro league. “Now they can see how I hold up mentally and physically,” Robinson told Andy Staples of The Athletic. “They’ll see me playing against guys who have actually been in the NFL and done it.” Robinson will be an early test case for what the XFL is hoping more players opt to do. Ever since they announced they were coming back, the XFL has attempted to position itself as a league for talented high school and college players to consider as an alternative to the NCAA. As Florio notes, Robinson will be eligible for the 2020 NFL Draft. In 12 games for the Mountaineers last year he had 77 tackles and four interceptions, earning a first-team All-Big 12 nod.
And now, onto the NFL alums:
In the first group of players that the league announced on Twitter, a few names jumped out. Former Michigan State and Raiders quarterback Connor Cook is on the list. Cook was drafted by Oakland in the fourth-round back in 2016, and even ended up starting a playoff game for them that year after injuries to Derek Carr and Matt McGloin. He spent 2017 as a third-stringer and was released at final cuts the following year. He was briefly with the Lions earlier this offseason, but was waived back in June.
Everybody’s favorite kicker Roberto Aguayo was also on the list, as were running backs David Cobb and Jonas Gray. Aguayo, of course, was infamously drafted by the Buccaneers in the second-round back in 2016. He lasted only one year as the Bucs’ kicker despite his draft status, and has become a punchline ever since. Cobb had a brief run as the Titans’ lead back in 2015, but never did anything after that. He most recently played in the AAF with the San Antonio Commanders. Gray was with the Patriots in 2014, and won Super Bowl XLIX with the team. Gray randomly had an absurd week in November of that year, rushing for 201 yards and four touchdowns. He quickly fell out of favor, and was released by New England the following year. He hasn’t even been in a training camp since 2016.
Earlier Tuesday, the XFL posted to Twitter their second batch of players. Among the notable names was receiver Ryan Broyles, a second-round pick of the Lions back in 2012. Broyles, a legendary Oklahoma player, showed some promise as a rookie, but injuries derailed his career after that. He last appeared in a regular season game in 2014. There were also a few interesting specialists on the list in longsnapper Nate Boyer, punter Jeff Locke, and kicker Nick Novak. Boyer spent six years in the military and served in Afghanistan and Iraq before becoming a walk-on at Texas. He spent the 2015 offseason with the Seahawks, but was ultimately released. Notably, he is the player who advised Colin Kaepernick to kneel rather than sit during the national anthem. Locke spent four seasons as the Vikings’ punter. Novak is a veteran NFL kicker who spent over a decade in the league from 2005-20017. Ronald Ollie, one of the stars of the popular Netflix show ‘Last Chance U’, is also on the list.
The Bengals are counting on some new coaching roles making a major difference this season. Marvin Lewis survived another year on the hot seat but knew he would need to rearrange his staff after another disappointing season. Teryl Austin will succeed now-Raiders DC Paul Guenther in running Cincinnati’s defense, and Lewis made Bill Lazor the full-time OC. The team jettisoned longtime offensive line coach Paul Alexander as well, with other new staffers coming in to help a team that’s fallen in the AFC hierarchy the past two years.
“I made up my mind I wanted to coach,” Lewis said, via Jonathan Jones of SI.com. “So, do I want to go start over somewhere where I don’t know the people or coach these group of guys downstairs that no one else has? That’s an easy decision. You look at what’s open and these are the best players. And that’s what you want.
“I knew we were going to have a lot of change on the coaching staff. I knew I had to make changes and those are the things that (owner) Mike (Brown) and I had to discuss. I had to make changes on people that had been with me for a long time and had been friends, and it’s difficult.”
Lewis added that he didn’t want to make wholesale roster changes, pointing out the number of Pro Bowlers still on the team, but the Bengals aren’t receiving much attention as a contender this season. They’re hoping these staff moves can re-route them back to the AFC playoffs.
Here’s the latest from the football landscape:
The Eagles received a scare Thursday night when Super Bowl MVP and temporary starting quarterback Nick Foles went down with a shoulder injury. The shoulder sprain Foles suffered is believed to be a minor malady and not one that will require a significant rehab effort, Ian Rapoport of NFL.com reports. It’s looking like it will come down to the wire on whom the defending Super Bowl champions will start at quarterback on opening night, with Carson Wentz unlikely to play in the preseason. The Eagles not having Foles would throw a major wrench in their plans, despite third-stringer Nate Sudfeld having a nice offseason.
Steven Nelson will be a full-time outside cornerback this season, Lynn Worthy of the Kansas City Star notes. This change emerged in the offseason, one that featured breakout slot man Kendall Fuller’s arrival, but the Chiefs are evidently committed to trying Nelson – their most frequent slot corner over the past two seasons – as an outside man. The 2015 third-round pick is entering a contract year. While Kansas City has looked at other corners this month – Bashaud Breeland and Orlando Scandrick – the trio of Fuller, Nelson and David Amerson remains atop the depth chart. Nelson did leave the Chiefs’ game Friday night with a head injury, however.
Former Jets second-round pick Stephen Hill and ex-Titans backup quarterback Zach Mettenberger are two of the notable new names signed on to play for the Alliance of American Football. The AAF announced 100 more players will join. Ex-Rams running back Daryl Richardson, former Saints and Jets ball carrier Khiry Robinson, linebacker Deontae Skinner and running back Storm Johnson are among the new contingent. Former Giants and Ravens safety Will Hill and veteran kicker Nick Novak, who was with the Chargers last season, were among the first wave to sign.
Free agent kicker Nick Novak is healthy once again and ready to audition for teams, Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle tweets. This week, Novak won a kicking competition at the John Carney specialty camp over Nick Folk and others, so it sounds like he’s back to his old form.
Novak has enjoyed two separate stints with the Chargers: he first kicked for the club from 2011-14 before reuniting for a nine-game stretch in 2017. One of four kickers to appear in a game for Los Angeles last season, Novak converted only 9-of-13 field goal attempts and also missed an extra point. Towards the end of the year, Novak aggravated a back injury and was placed on IR. In 2016, Novak nailed 85.4% of his attempts with the Texans, which was a tick above his career average.
Novak, who will turn 37 in August, is hoping to get another shot in the NFL. There are no real kicker vacancies at this stage of the offseason, but it’s not uncommon for teams to bring in additional competition for the job.
Despite his struggles last year, Novak was once among the league’s best kickers. In 2013, he sank 91.9% of his attempts and connected on all eleven of his tries from 40-50 yards out.
NFL free agency will get underway on Wednesday, March 14th, and while the list of free agents will change between now and then, we do have some idea of who will be available when free agency kicks off. The frenzy is right around the corner and it’s time for us to break down the outlook for each position. After looking at offense on Monday, we’ll tackle defense and special teams today.
Listed below are our rankings for the top 15 free agents at each defensive position. These rankings aren’t necessarily determined by the value of the contracts – or the amount of guaranteed money – that each player is expected to land in free agency. These are simply the players we like the most at each position, with both short- and long-term value taken into account.
Restricted and exclusive-rights free agents, as well as players who received the franchise tag, aren’t listed here, since the roadblocks in place to hinder another team from actually acquiring most of those players prevent them from being true free agents.
We’ll almost certainly be higher or lower on some free agents than you are, so feel free to weigh in below in our comments section to let us know which players we’ve got wrong.
Here’s our breakdown of the current top 15 free agents by defensive position for 2018:
As a positional group, pass rushers comprise interesting market on the defensive side of the ball. It’s not often that a list of best available players is topped by a 38-year-old, but Peppers is the top free agent edge defender after the Cowboys and Lions deployed the franchise tag on Demarcus Lawrence and Ezekiel Ansah, respectively. As with quarterbacks, NFL clubs are extremely reluctant to allow pass rushers to hit the open market, so top-tier options are rarely ever truly “available.” Peppers, for his part, hasn’t even declared whether he’ll return in 2018, but indications are that he’ll suit up for a 17th campaign after posting 11 sacks last year.
Alongside Peppers, other veterans populate the edge market, and while William Hayes may not be a household name, he’ll be a contributor for whichever team signs him. A stout run defender, Hayes is also capable of generating pressure despite managing only one sack in 2017. The Dolphins used Hayes on only 271 defensive snaps a season ago, and have since replaced him by acquiring fellow defensive end Robert Quinn from the Rams. Now that he’s entering his age-33 season, Hayes should come cheap, but will almost assuredly outplay his contract.
Nearly every other available pass rusher has some sort of flaw which will likely limit his market next week. Trent Murphy is only 27 years old and put up nine sacks in 2016, but he missed the entirety of the 2017 campaign with injury. Pernell McPhee, Alex Okafor, Junior Galette, and Derrick Shelby have also been plagued by health questions in recent seasons. And Adrian Clayborn famously registered the majority of his 2017 sacks (and 20% of his career sack total) in one game against overwhelmed Cowboys backup Chaz Green.
The two names that I keep coming back to are Aaron Lynch (49ers) and Jeremiah Attaochu (Chargers). Yes, Lynch has been suspended for substance abuse, struggled with his weight, and was reportedly in danger of being waived prior to last season. He’s also extremely young (he won’t turn 25 years old until Thursday) and ranked fifth in the league with 34 pass pressures as recently as 2015. Attaochu, a 25-year-old former second-round pick, also has youth on his side, and while he hasn’t quite flashed as much as Lynch, he’s also been buried on LA’s depth chart for much of his career.
Interior rushers are getting more respect in today’s NFL, but that still hasn’t translated to them being paid on the level of edge defenders — the 2018 franchise tag for defensive tackles, for example, is roughly $3MM cheaper than the tender for edge rushers. While the 2018 crop of interior defenders boasts some impressive top-end talent, none of the available players figure to earn a double-digit annual salary. Sheldon Richardson may have the best chance to do so, but Seattle determined he wasn’t worth a one-year cost of $13.939MM, so is any other club going to pay him $10MM per year? I’d guess he comes in closer to $9MM annually, which would still place him among the 25 highest-paid defensive tackles.
Dontari Poe will be an intriguing free agent case after setting for a one-year deal last offseason, but the most interesting battle among defensive tackles will take place Star Lotulelei and Muhammad Wilkerson, and I’m curious to see which player earns more on the open market. Both are former first-round picks, and it’s difficult to argue Wilkerson hasn’t been the more productive player — or, at least, reached higher highs — than Lotulelei. Wilkerson also won’t affect his next team’s compensatory pick formula given that he was released, but his off-field issues, which include a reported lack of effort and problems with coaches, could limit his appeal.
While Beau Allen and Denico Autry are potentially candidates to be overpaid based on their youth, there are bargains to be had at defensive tackle. Tom Johnson is 33 but he’s offered consistent pressure from the interior for years — his last contract was for three years and $7MM, so he shouldn’t cost much this time around. Haloti Ngata was injured in 2017 but plans to continue his career, and he can still stop the run. And Dominique Easley was outstanding as a 3-4 end in 2016 before missing last season with a torn ACL, meaning the former first-round pick could be a value play for any number of teams.Read more
Although there are a number of high-quality starting linebackers available in free agency this year, I predict most contracts signed by LBs over the next few weeks will come in lower that most expect. The linebacker market is relatively stagnant, and unless the player is a legitimate star or inking an extension with his original club, he’s usually disappointed with his annual value. The most expensive deal for an unrestricted free agent ‘backer who signed with a new team was Bruce Irvin‘s $9.25MM/year pact with the Raiders, and Irvin can almost be considered an edge rusher. After Irvin, it’s Danny Trevathan, whom the Bears signed for a $7MM annual value in 2016.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise if no linebacker listed above is able to top Trevathan’s two-year-old average, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t starting-caliber LBs on the market. Zach Brown, the poster boy for having to accept cheap contracts, is coming off another solid season, but is reportedly asking for top-three inside linebacker money. Good luck. Similarly, Demario Davis is looking for $8-10MM annually, while the Jets — who have interest in re-signing him — view him as a $3-4MM/year player.
Nigel Bradham and NaVorro Bowman should both come in around Trevathan’s $7MM average after posting excellent 2017 campaigns. While the Eagles would surely prefer to re-sign Bradham, the club’s dire cap situation may mean Bradham will hit the open market next Wednesday. Bowman, meanwhile, was traded from the 49ers to Raiders last season, and he seems like a good bet to stay with Oakland after new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther heaped lavish praise on the 29-year-old.
Top-to-bottom, the cornerback market is the deepest positional group on the defensive side of the ball. Need a No. 1 defensive back with experience in both man and zone? Trumaine Johnson is your guy. How about a top-end cornerback who, while admittedly up-and-down at times, has the ability to shut down opposing wide receivers? Malcolm Butler has you covered. A former first-round pick who has finally played up to his potential over the past two seasons? Take a look at Morris Claiborne. Or is a career journeyman who posted 10 excellent games last year more your speed? Look into Rashaan Melvin.
Slot cornerbacks are also prevalent in this year’s defensive back market, and while I ranked Aaron Colvin, T.J. Carrie, Patrick Robinson, and Nickell Robey-Coleman in order of my preference, they could each be plugged into a starting nickel package immediately. I originally though Robinson could land a disappointing deal given his age (31) and his track record of underwhelming play prior to 2017, but he’s already garnering interest from the Giants, Raiders, and Cardinals, so his market should allow him to reach at least $5MM annually. Colvin could garner even more than Robinson thanks his youth (26), and Ian Rapoport of NFL.com expects Colvin to have a “legit” market.
If teams are looking for a bargain at cornerback, they should target Ross Cockrell, whom the Steelers dealt to the Giants last year for a seventh-round pick. Cockrell has always been overlooked in the NFL, but he keeps producing results. In 2017, Cockrell finished first in Football Outsiders’ success rate, which measures cornerbacks on their ability to consistently stop opposing wideouts short of the sticks. In fact, Cockrell was one of only eight defenders who stopped a receiver short of a successful gain on over half their tackles a season ago, as FO’s Aaron Schatz recently tweeted, but the league consistently undervalues him and his skill-set.
The best free agent safety was taken off the board earlier today when the Rams used the franchise tag on Lamarcus Joyner, and the remaining market is extremely top-heavy. Eric Reid, Morgan Burnett, Tre Boston, and Kenny Vaccaro could all be in line for at least $5MM annually, but the rest of the class could struggle to find multi-year deals. Among the top-tier safeties, Vaccaro stands out as perhaps the most interesting name. A first-round pick in 2013, Vaccarro has posted three exemplary campaigns and two dreadful years; in 2017, Pro Football Focus ranked Vaccaro as the single-worst safety in the league among 87 qualifiers. But given his draft pedigree and his ability to man the slot, Vaccaro should land a solid deal.
While I like Reid and Burnett a bit more as players, it wouldn’t be a shock if Boston actually lands the largest contract. Reid and Burnett spend a lot of time close to the line of scrimmage, and both have been used as de factor linebackers from time to time. Boston, on the other hand, is a deep safety who can play coverage, and that repertoire is much more difficult to find on the open market. Similarly, Tyvon Branch has been great in coverage during his career with the Raiders, Chiefs, and Cardinals, so he could also see a nice pay bump next week.
After Branch, the crop of available safeties steeply drops off. Every other free agent we’ve listed above will be at at least 29 years old when the 2018 gets underway except for the Lions’ Tavon Wilson, and he was one of the NFL’s worst starting defensive backs last season. Veterans like Corey Graham or Ron Parker can still play as third safeties who see time in “big nickel” packages, but if you’re looking for a starting safety, you’ll want to bring in one of the top six defensive backs on the board.
February 22nd, 2018 at 9:11pm CST by Dallas Robinson
While the Chargers are open to re-signing kicker Nick Novak, they intend to let him hit the free agent market first, according to Jason La Canfora of CBSSports.com (Twitter link).
As I wrote earlier this month when assessing Los Angeles’ top offseason needs, the Chargers desperately need to upgrade their special teams unit in 2018. LA ranked 31st in special teams DVOA a season ago, and was (by far) the worst kicking team in the league. Not only did the Chargers give up 22.2 points through their paltry field goal/extra point attempts, but the club’s first two losses of the season were direct results of poor kicking efforts.
Novak, for his part, has enjoyed two separate stints with the Chargers: he first kicked for the club from 20111-14 before reuniting for a nine-game stretch in 2017. One of four kickers to appear in a game for Los Angeles last season, Novak converted only 9-of-13 field goal attempts and also missed an extra point.
The Chargers won’t go with a two-kicker setup on Sunday, choosing instead to place Nick Novak on IR.
The team announced the move, one that will make room on the roster for practice squad promotion Travis Coons, who begin his Bolts game tenure by kicking against his former team. Coons’ upcoming Browns work will make him the fourth kicker to participate for the Chargers this season, with Novak replacing YoungHoe Koo and punter Drew Kaser stepping in for an injured Novak on Thanksgiving.
Novak aggravated a back injury against the Cowboys, and it will almost certainly end his season. Coons has not kicked in a game since the 2015 season. Novak finished his 13th NFL campaign going 9-for-13 on field goal tries and making 17 of his 18 extra points.
Novak spent training camp with the Texans, with whom the 36-year-old specialist kicked for the previous two seasons. But the Texans cut him. Once Koo’s struggles became too much for the Bolts, they turned to Novak — their kicker from 2011-14.
The Chargers worked out veteran kickers on Tuesday and are planning to sign Travis Coons to their practice squad, Field Yates of ESPN.com reports (on Twitter).
This will serve as a Nick Novak insurance policy. Novak is dealing with a back injury, one that caused him to kick through noticeable pain against the Cowboys. Eric Williams of ESPN.com tweets the Chargers believe Novak can kick against the Browns on Sunday, but Coons will be a backup plan.
Williams reported the Bolts were holding a kicker workout, and veteran NFL reporter Howard Balzer reports (on Twitter) Sam Ficken, Marshall Koehn and Jason Myers joined Coons for the showcase. The Bolts appeared to have called in a long snapper, Jeff Overbaugh, to work with them as well, per Balzer.
Coons will take his place on the Chargers’ 10-man taxi squad.
He worked out for the Lions earlier this season after spending time with the Rams during training camp. The Raiders also rostered Coons, who last kicked for the 2015 Browns. The 25-year-old served as Cleveland’s kicker for all 16 games that season. He made 28 of 32 field goals as a rookie, but Patrick Murray beat him out for the job during the 2016 preseason.
This workout featured different kickers than the October gathering in L.A., arranged because of a Novak ankle ailment. At that point, the Bolts hosted initial 2017 kicking option Younghoe Koo, along with Andrew Franks. Myers attended both workouts. Former Charger specialist Josh Lambo replaced Myers in Jacksonville.
Browns receiver Josh Gordon declared himself ready to go despite having another week before he is ready to be activated, according to ESPN’s Tony Grossi.
“It’s been awesome. It’s been a joy. It’s been fun. It’s been exciting,” Gordon said Friday. “I think I knocked that rust off prior to getting back to the building. I think I accomplished that. First day of practice, [I was] able to adjust pretty quickly.”
Anyone worried about Gordon needing time to round into shape hasn’t kept up with his comeback. The former All-Pro receiver has been working out constantly and looks ready to go when the team can activate him in Week 13.
Here’s more from around the AFC:
The Chargers did not escape their Thanksgiving Day bout with the Cowboys unscathed. Kicker Nick Novak sustained a back injury and his status has led the team to possibly tryout kickers next week, Eric Williams of ESPN reports (Twitter link).
The Dolphins have ruled out Jay Cutler (concussion) for Week 12 vs. New England, ESPN’s James Walker reports (Twitter link). The team will turn to Matt Moore for the divisional bout.
Steelers rookie wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster has been ruled out of the team’s Sunday night matchup with Green Bay, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports. (Twitter link). The first-year receiver from USC has been impressive in recent weeks, averaging 17.2 yards per reception and logging five touchdowns on the season. He will miss the game due to a hamstring injury.
The Raiders switched out defensive coordinators in firing Ken Norton Jr. and promoting John Pagano. Jack Del Rio said this week no one should feel comfortable about their statuses, but Pagano may be secure moving into 2018. Del Rio expects Pagano to have a role on the ’18 Raiders, Michael Gehlken of the Las Vegas Review-Journal notes (on Twitter). Of course, this would likely hinge on Del Rio being retained for a fourth season. After guiding the team to major improvements in 2015 and last season, Del Rio has overseen the Raiders become arguably the NFL’s most disappointing team this season. But he signed a contract extension earlier this year; that would point to the current HC receiving another year to attempt to make good on this Reggie McKenzie-assembled nucleus. Pagano will inherit a defense that ranks 26th. The Del Rio- and Norton-helmed units of the past two seasons ranked 26th in each.
Here’s the latest from the West divisions on Thanksgiving.
For those unable to watch Chargers-Cowboys, Nick Novak suffered a back injury but has returned to the game, limping back onto the field for a 22-yard field goal. Punter Drew Kaser was practicing kicks into a net on the sideline, but the Bolts eschewed a 30-yard field goal for a fourth-and-13 early in the second quarter prior to Novak’s return. Novak returned to the Chargers earlier this year after being cut by the Texans. The Bolts have struggled at kicker this season, with Novak already missing a kick today. This gives Los Angeles a 12-for-19 make ratio — worst in the NFL.
The Bolts have announced Mike Williams won’t return to their Thanksgiving game because of a knee injury. Williams now has another malady to surmount after a back ailment dogged him for much of the offseason.
The 49ers aren’t planning to part with Joe Staley in the near future. Despite the 11th-year player toiling for a rebuilding team in his age-33 season and being the annual subject of trade rumors, John Lynch said (via Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle) he and right tackle Trent Brown will be cornerstones for the next “couple, few” years. Brown is under contract through 2018 but can be extended after this season. Lynch’s comments appear to point to the team wanting to go that route. Staley’s deal runs through 2019 on incredibly team-friendly cap numbers ($7.7MM in 2018 and ’19).
Lynch said Joshua Garnett has changed his “body composition” in order to better function in Kyle Shanahan‘s zone-blocking scheme. Branch notes the 321-pound guard, who was known as a power blocker previously, could have returned from IR this season. Perhaps the 49ers wanted to use this year, once Garnett suffered a preseason injury, as an intentional redshirt for the purposes of the 2016 first-round pick adjusting to the new offense. Lynch said the 49ers encouraged the 6-foot-5 lineman to adjust accordingly, physically speaking, for Shanahan’s scheme, so it appears he will be in the picture in 2018 despite arriving under the Trent Baalke regime. Branch notes he figures to compete for a starting job next season.