As Joseph Person of The Athletic (subscription required) writes, the Panthers are likely to part ways with center Matt Paradis, who is eligible for free agency. Pat Elflein, who opened the 2021 season as Carolina’s left guard but who moved over to center following Paradis’ injury, is likely to continue as the starting pivot despite his struggles in that role.
Paradis, 32, signed a three-year, $27MM contract with the Panthers in March 2019, and he started every game for the club from Week 1 of the 2019 season through Week 9 of the 2021 campaign. Unfortunately, a torn ACL suffered in that Week 9 contest ended his walk year prematurely, and it leaves him in a less-than-desirable position as he hits the open market for the second time in his career (interestingly, when he hooked on with the Panthers in 2019, he was coming off a serious leg injury that he sustained in November 2018, which may have limited his earnings then in the same way that his recent ACL tear will limit his earnings now).
Still, given his track record as a solid starter and the fact that he has been quite durable except when he’s playing out a contract year, he should garner a fair amount of attention from teams in need of a center. The Bengals, Jets, and Jaguars are all rumored to be interested in Bucs center Ryan Jensen, and Tampa Bay wants to retain its four-year starter. The losers of the Jensen sweepstakes could turn to Paradis, and the Ravens, who may be unable to afford a new contract for Bradley Bozeman, could also be in play.
The Panthers, meanwhile, will have plenty of work to do on the O-line. Luckily for them, this year’s college class is deep at the LT position, and Carolina could net a high-quality prospect even if it trades down from its No. 6 overall selection. In a separate piece (subscription required), Person opines that the Panthers will not be in the market for a high-priced free agent like longtime division-rival Terron Armstead, so the draft would be the place to nab a blindside blocker. Person does expect the team to sign a free agent guard, and while Brandon Scherff and Laken Tomlinson may be too pricey, old friend Andrew Norwell or Bears OL James Daniels could be viable targets.
In related news, Person says the Panthers do want edge defender Haason Reddick back, but only if the price is right. We recently heard that Reddick is likely to test the open market for the second year in a row. And while the club has not shut the door on a new contract for CB Stephon Gilmore, Person hears that the team is prioritizing a deal with fellow corner Donte Jackson, who is five years younger than Gilmore (both players are also eligible for free agency). GM Scott Fitterer is also doing his due diligence on available safeties.
The Bears will ensure punter continuity remains in 2021. They agreed to terms with longtime specialist Pat O’Donnell on Friday, Mike Garafolo of NFL.com tweets.
Unlike O’Donnell’s 2019 pact, this is a one-year deal. The Bears have retainedCairo Santos and now O’Donnell on back-to-back days.
While Chicago went through a rather publicized kicker rough patch, the team has not had similar issues at punter. O’Donnell arrived as a 2014 sixth-round pick and has maintained his job since Week 1 of his rookie season. The 45.7 yards per punt O’Donnell averaged last season marked his best since the 2017 season.
O’Donnell, now 30, played on a two-year, $3.5MM contract previously. He also signed a one-year deal that covered the 2018 season. This will be his fourth Bears accord.
Pat O’Donnell is returning to Chicago. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports (via Twitter) that the punter will sign a two-year, $4MM deal with the Bears.
The 28-year-old has spent his entire five-year career with Chicago, missing only a single regular season game during that span. Despite finishing with a career-low 62 punts in 2018, O’Donnell still managed to tie a career-high with 28 punts inside of the 20. The former sixth-rounder’s 45-yards-per-punt was also on-par with his career numbers.
O’Donnell is now the third punter to ink a relatively lucrative deal this offseason. BradleyPinion signed a four-year deal with the Buccaneers while JordanBerry inked a two-year deal to stay with the Steelers.
The Bears have re-signed punter Pat O’Donnell to a one-year deal, tweets Adam Schefter of ESPN.com. The pact is worth $1.5MM, per Mike Garafolo of NFL.com (Twitter link).
O’Donnell, 26, has spent his entire career in Chicago after being selected in the sixth round of the 2014 draft. Last season, O’Donnell managed 39.7 net yards per punt, which ranked just 24th in the league. As a unit, the Bears ranked second-to-last in Football Outsiders‘ punt rankings by giving up 12.3 points.
Both the Eagles and Giants reportedly expressed interest in O’Donnell before he re-upped with the Bears.
The Raiders are in the mix to sign Jordy Nelson, but it’s not a done deal just yet. Ian Rapoport of NFL.com (on Twitter) cautions not to count out the Seahawks in the Nelson chase, given John Schneider‘s history with the wide receiver.
In 2008, the Packers traded back with the Jets in the second round in order to select Nelson. Schneider was a big reason for that deal as he advocated for Nelson in the war room. Now,Schneider is at the helm in Seattle with a very real chance at signing the veteran.
The Saints, reportedly, are also pushing to sign Nelson.
Here’s more from around the NFL:
Browns GM John Dorsey said he released cornerback Jason McCourty because he wasn’t sure he’d make the roster and, given his veteran status, wanted to give him a chance to catch on with another team (Twitter link via ESPN.com’s Pat McManamon). McCourty had a solid bounce back year with the Browns, so it’s surprising to hear that Dorsey wasn’t sure if McCourty would quality for the 53-man roster. In any event, he figures to have a ripe market.
Meanwhile, Browns coach Hue Jackson confirmed that Tyrod Taylor is the Browns starting quarterback for 2018. “He’s going to be the starting quarterback. There is no competition,” Jackson said (Twitter link via NFL.com’s James Palmer). The Browns hold the No. 1 and No. 4 overall picks in this year’s draft and one of those selections will almost certainly be used on a QB. Whoever that rookie is, apparently, will be learning from the bench at the outset.
The Raiders were a close second for Johnathan Joseph before he agreed to re-sign with the Texans, according to Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle (on Twitter). Joseph re-upped with Houston on Thursday with a two-year deal.
The Eagles and Giants are showing interest in Bears free agent punter Pat O’Donnell, Adam Schefter of ESPN.com tweets.
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.
We’ll round up Monday’s minor transactions from around the NFL below, with the latest moves added throughout the day to the top of the list:
The Bears announced (via Twitter) that they have also signed KR/WR Darius Reynaud and have released LS Chad Rempel and P Tress Way. As Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune tweets, the release of Way means that sixth-round pick Pat O’Donnell has won the team’s punting competition.
Cornerback Peyton Thompson, who was cut by the Redskins earlier this month, has agreed to sign with the Bears, according to his agent, Doug Hendrickson (via Twitter). Chicago will have to make a move to clear room on the roster for Thompson.
The Vikings have claimed former Lions linebacker Justin Jackson off waivers, a source tells Field Yates of ESPN.com (Twitter link). According to Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun (via Twitter), Minnesota waived-injured linebacker Dom DeCicco in a corresponding roster move.
In a series of threetweets, Wilson passes along a list of players who have been removed from their teams’ injured reserve lists: Korey Lindsey (Cowboys), David Snow (Steelers), and Steve Hull (Saints). Per Wilson (via Twitter), the Saints also terminated Richard Quinn‘s contract from their reserve-retired list. Lindsey and Snow both received settlements, while Hull and Quinn are ending their careers.
Having officially moved tackle Sam Baker to injured reserve, the Falcons have brought aboard another veteran lineman, announcing today (via Twitter) that they’ve signed Pat McQuistan, who has played for five NFL teams and has 11 career starts.
After recently being cut by the Redskins, defensive lineman Doug Worthington has signed with the Chargers, who announced today that defensive end Damik Scafe will be waived-injured to make room (Twitter link).
The Steelers completed a series of roster moves today, signing offensive tackle Graham Pocic and cornerback Dayonne Nunley. The team also cut wideout James Shaw and waived-injured guard Bryant Browning. The team’s PR man, Burt Lauten, has the details via Twitter.
Running back Cameron Marshall has been waived by the Dolphins to clear a roster spot for the team to sign defensive end Rakim Cox, the team announced today (via Twitter).
The safety position remains a jumble, though Chris Conte is expected to be cleared for action in next week’s third preseason game, and the best estimation for the starting combination come opening day might be Conte and veteran Ryan Mundy.
In keeping with the question mark theme, the job of kick returner is also up for grabs because Chris Williams is hurt, and Eric Weems has done nothing to take ownership. “The Bears have gone from Devin Hester to who-knows-what entering the third preseason game,” says Biggs.
A week after starring in the first preseason game, tight end Zach Miller went down with a left foot injury. The team will get details on the injury today.
Defensive end Trevor Scott is emerging as the fourth defensive end, says Biggs: “[Scott] looked good again. He’s got legit speed and is being used with the first unit on special teams by Joe DeCamillis.”
Sixth-rounder Pat O’Donnell has all but locked up the punting job.
Shea McClellin, who is being scrutinized in Chicago, struggled again last night in his second game as a linebacker, says ESPN’s Michael C. Wright: “The Bears want to remain patient with Shea McClellin as he transitions to linebacker, but his play against the Jaguars seemed just about on par with his shoddy showing last week. McClellin did stuff the run once early on but continues to struggle at shedding blocks and making tackles in space.”
With the NFL Draft and the majority of free agency in the rearview mirror, former Bears tight end and coach Mike Ditka explores the weeks from now until in his weekly writing, “Four downs with Ditka,” for the Chicago Sun-Times. Among the topics touched on by the Hall of Famer were the Bears’ new punter, the disappearance of the elite running back and Michael Sam.
On what the coaches will be looking for from rookies in minicamp:
“The coaches have done their homework and watched all the film on these guys. Now they are looking for how they adapt to what the Bears are doing. They have to fit them in to the way the Bears play their system on offense and defense. What happens now, it’s more or less an educational system for these players to understand they have to play in a certain system that’ll likely be different than the one they played in college.”
On the days of the featured running back being over:
“The game has evolved now to where it’s more of a passing game, and teams look at the running back as not being that instrumental. But I know this: If you don’t have a good one, you have a problem. I know we had a good one in Walter Payton, who was the greatest one I have ever seen. All the great teams over the years, except for the Patriots, usually had a pretty good running back — the Steelers, Cowboys, Rams. The good teams have always had a bell cow running back. I don’t know why teams are suddenly going away from this. It’s probably because they feel it’s a position they can get lower in the draft.”
On the Bears taking punter Pat O’Donnell in the sixth round:
“I don’t see any problem with that. Here’s why they did it, I think: They didn’t have anyone else on their board that really jumped out at them. And they wanted a punter because they needed one for competition and they don’t have one. I think you have to be realistic at that point of the draft and say, ‘How many of those guys will really make your team?’ A few do, but it’s not a high percentage. I don’t see any problem with taking a punter at that point.”
On if Michael Sam was drafted lower because of his sexuality:
“Look, if a guy is a good football player — and I assume he is; he had a pretty good track record at Missouri — you would think that people would have taken him earlier. So now, when you get to that point in the draft and [Rams coach] Jeff [Fisher] sees him sitting there, and he knows he has talent, and he knows he has the ability to rush the passer and everything else, he jumps up and takes him. You have to look at it this way: Either Jeff got a steal, or the rest of the teams dropped him for other reasons.”