Bryant, dubbed the “White Tiger” by coach Jon Gruden for his special ability and inability to stay on the field, appeared in only eight games this season, recording 19 catches for 266 yards and zero touchdowns. It was his weakest showing to date – even in his ten-game rookie campaign, Bryant managed 26 catches, 549 yards, and eight scores. Bryant is headed for free agency in March, but his PCL injury and mysterious suspension (or, non-suspension) for drug use will make him a tough sell on a multi-year deal.
Nelson’s season is through thanks to a shoulder injury suffered on Sunday against the Chiefs. The three-year captain’s season ends with 29 tackles and two interceptions in eleven games. The veteran is also headed towards free agency this offseason, but it’s not clear whether the 35-year-old will look to continue playing.
The Raiders are bringing back veteran safety Reggie Nelson on a one-year deal, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com (on Twitter). Rapoport notes that Nelson, who spent six seasons with the Bengals, can help teach new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther’s system. Guenther had been the Bengals’ defensive coordinator since 2014 before joining Jon Gruden’s staff this offseason.
Nelson, 34, started all 16 games at free safety for the Raiders last season and is the team’s second free-agent signing at safety this offseason, along with Marcus Gilchrist. It remains to be seen whether Oakland will opt to start Nelson or use him in a reserve capacity while having Karl Josephand Gilchrist work as the starting safeties. Joseph had a Pro Football Focus grade of 80.8 last season, which was the highest of any defender currently on the Raiders’ roster outside of Khalil Mack.
In two seasons with the Raiders, Nelson has yet to miss a start and was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2016 for the second time in his career. He was first selected to the Pro Bowl in 2015 while with the Bengals after recording a career-high eight interceptions.
The Raiders also have last year’s second-round pick Obi Melifonwu at safety after he appeared in just five games his rookie season. Entering Saturday, the Raiders had $17.87MM in available cap space, which put them at No. 14 in the NFL.
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.
Entering this season as a relative unknown, Texans fourth-year corner A.J. Bouye may have moved himself in position to sign a lucrative NFL contract for the first time. A UDFA in 2013 that started just eight games total before 2016, Bouye has stood out on a team that made far bigger investments at corner. A deal for Bouye could cost a team as much as $8MM-per-year in 2017, the Houston Chronicle’s Aaron Wilson notes.
The Texans have two corners who stand to make more than $7MM next season in Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph. Separating from Jackson would be more difficult financially than Joseph if Houston wished to retain Bouye since $4.5MM in dead money would match the amount the team could save by making that move. Houston stands to have $17MM-plus in cap space prior to making any offseason moves.
Browns quarterback Robert GriffinIII suffered a concussion on Saturday, as Adam Schefter of ESPN.com tweets. His status for Week 17 is not immediately clear. RG3 missed most of this season with a shoulder injury but did become the only Browns QB to start in a win. However, the Browns gave Cody Kessler — the expected Week 17 starter, per Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal — several starts this season and have a decision to make on Griffin. He’s due a relatively small $750K roster bonus in March and would count $9.25MM against Cleveland’s 2017 cap. The Browns could afford that, but Griffin didn’t give them much reason to trust him in 2016.
Bryce Petty also is uncertain for Week 17 after hearing a pop in his shoulder during the Jets‘ loss to the Patriots. The second-year passer left the stadium with his shoulder in a sling and will undergo a Christmas Day MRI, Daryl Slater of NJ.com reports. Ryan Fitzpatrick could be called on to make one more start for Gang Green in the event the team holds Petty out against the Bills. Todd Bowles didn’t dismiss a Christian Hackenberg start, but the rookie has not played in a game this season.
By intercepting his fifth pass of the season today, Raiders safety Reggie Nelson earned a $250K incentive bonus, Field Yates of ESPN.com tweets. In the first season of a two-year contract with Oakland, Nelson made the Pro Bowl for a second straight year and now has 13 INTs in the past two seasons.
December 20th, 2016 at 9:08pm CST by Dallas Robinson
The NFL announced the 2017 Pro Bowl rosters earlier tonight, and aside from determining which players will spend a week in Orlando early next year, the rosters also dictate several important bonuses and/or contract escalators for individual players. Former NFL agent and current CBSSports.com contributor Joel Corry has rounded up the notable incentives earned tonight, and we’ll pass those along below. As Corry notes (Twitterlinks), only first ballot Pro Bowlers who actually participate in the game (unless injured or playing in the Super Bowl) can earn bonuses, which are typically paid out by the end of March.
Here are the notable Pro Bowl bonuses and escalators that were preliminarily netted this evening (all links to Corry’s Twitter):
Raiders G Kelechi Osemele, $300K (link): Under general manager Reggie McKenzie, the Raiders have employed what is often referred to as an “all cash” salary cap management system, wherein prorated signing bonuses are rarely used while base salary guarantees, roster bonuses, and — as evidenced by the number of Oakland players on this list — incentive clauses are heavily employed. Osemele, the league’s highest-paid interior offensive lineman, is signed through 2020 with cap charges north of $10MM in each season.
Colts P Pat McAfee, $250K (link): McAfee, who signed a five-year extension with the Colts in 2014, ranks third in the NFL in net punting average at 42.8 yards. The Indy special teams unit ranks fourth in the league in DVOA, while McAfee himself has been worth four points of field position on punts, third-best in the AFC.
Raiders S Reggie Nelson, $250K (link): Nelson sat on the free agent market until April, but has rewarded the Raiders for signing him by earning his second consecutive Pro Bowl season. The 33-year-old Nelson, who’s posted four interceptions after leading the NFL with eight picks in 2015, is in the middle of a two-year, $8.5MM deal.
Raiders T Donald Penn, $200K (link): Penn is the definition of stability, as the veteran left tackle hasn’t missed a game since becoming a starter during his rookie season in 2007. Penn signed a two-year, $11.9MM contract with the Raiders this spring, and is set to count $6.1MM against Oakland’s cap in 2017.
Raiders C Rodney Hudson, $100K (link): The third member of the Raiders’ offensive line to earn a Pro Bowl bonus, Hudson is the fourth-highest paid center in the league, earning $8.9MM annually. The No. 4 center in the NFL this year according to Pro Football Focus, Hudson is signed through the 2019 campaign.
Titans RB DeMarco Murray, $100K (link): After a putrid season in Philadelphia during which he barely topped 700 yards rushing, Murray has rebounded since being traded to the Titans, and is currently second in the league with 1.224 yards on the ground. He’s scored nine rushing touchdowns, and has added three more scores thorugh the air.
Browns T Joe Thomas, $1.5MM 2017 roster bonus escalator (link): Thomas is due a roster bonus on the fifth day of the league year, and that bonus’ value has now increased from $1MM to $2.5MM. That bonus could factor in (in a minimal way) to any trade talks the Browns might have with other clubs, but Cleveland head coach Hue Jackson has been adamant that the Browns won’t deal Thomas.
Titans LB Brian Orakpo, $200K 2017 base salary escalator (link): Orakpo’s 2017 base salary will increase to $5.95MM after he was selected to the Pro Bowl and played in more than 65% of the Titans’ defensive snaps. Orakpo, who has posted 11 sacks during his second season with Tennessee, is signed through 2018.
Titans DT Jurrell Casey, $100K 2017 base salary escalator (link): Casey, 27, is arguably one of the more underpaid defenders in the league, as he’s due only $36MM from 2014-2018. His 2017 base salary will now increase to $5.9MM in 2017, and he’s also due a $200K roster bonus next spring.
Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle has several details on a handful of the latest contracts to be agreed upon or signed from around the NFL. Let’s dive in and check out the specifics….
Reggie Nelson, S (Raiders): Two years, $8.5MM. $4MM guaranteed. $2MM roster bonus due next Friday. Salaries of $2MM (guaranteed) and $2.75MM. $1.25MM roster bonus due on third day of 2017 league year (becomes guaranteed if Nelson plays 65% of Raiders’ defensive snaps in 2016). Annual $250K workout bonus. Up to $1.75MM annually in incentives for INTs, playing time, and Pro Bowl (Twitterlinks).
Will Johnson, FB (Giants): Two years, $2.3MM. $400K signing bonus. $100K of $800K 2016 salary is guaranteed. $100K roster bonus due on third day of 2017 league year. Up to $600K in incentives for playing time, receptions, and Pro Bowl (Twitterlinks).
Ted Larsen, OL (Bears): One year, $1.65MM. $350K signing bonus. Up to $200K in per-game roster bonuses. $50K workout bonus. Up to $750K in playing time incentives (Twitter link).
Stevan Ridley, RB (Lions): One year, minimum salary benefit. $50K signing bonus. $30K workout bonus. $200K of $760K base salary is guaranteed (Twitter link).
2:48pm: Nelson’s new two-year deal is worth $8.5MM, with an additional $3.5MM available in incentives, tweets Ben Volin of the Boston Globe. According to Volin, Nelson will get $4.25MM in guaranteed money, and his roster bonus for 2017 will become guaranteed if he plays 65% of Oakland’s defensive snaps in 2016.
THURSDAY, 12:30pm: The Raiders announced the deal.
WEDNESDAY, 6:34pm: The Raiders will continue their offseason defensive fortification by signing Reggie Nelson to a two-year deal, Adam Schefter of ESPN.com reports (on Twitter).
The former Bengals safety who was one of the top free agents remaining on the market will fill a void created by Charles Woodson‘s retirement. As far as veterans go, the Raiders previously had only Nate Allen — whom they cut and re-signed to more team-friendly terms in March — and a host of inexperienced cogs at safety.
A 10th-year pro, Nelson is coming off his lone Pro Bowl berth after intercepting a league-high eight passes in 2015. He’ll join Bruce Irvin, Sean Smith and Aldon Smith as part of Oakland’s revamped defense this fall.
Nelson visited Oakland earlier this week but left the Bay Area without a deal in place, but the Raiders were in need of veteran assistance on their back line after Woodson’s retirement. The former Jaguars safety ranked as the No. 41 overall free agent on PFR’s Top 50 free agents list when the new league year began. Nelson will turn 33 in September.
Even with Woodson in the fold, the Raiders ranked 26th in defending the pass last season. Aside from Woodson, the team didn’t possess much experience at either corner or safety. Allen missed most of the season due to an MCL injury, and the Silver and Black was forced to rely on inexperienced contributors, converted cornerbacks or journeyman Taylor Mays alongside Woodson.
The Raiders entered Wednesday with $14.79MM in cap space after filling several of the voids that plagued their defense last season. Nelson has 30 career interceptions to his credit and has been a full-time starter since the Jaguars took him in the first round in 2007.
The Giants also had interest in Nelson, according to Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News (on Twitter), but nothing past the inquiry stage.
Just a few days ago, it seemed like an inevitability that Reggie Nelson would sign with the Raiders. However, the safety left his Oakland visit without an agreement between the two sides, as Adam Caplan of ESPN.com tweets. While a deal could still get done, a pact is not necessarily likely.
The Raiders have a need at safety and Nelson stands as the best available option left on the open market, so it’s not quite clear what has gotten in the way of a potential deal. Nelson is 33 and coming off of one of his best seasons to date, so he could be looking for a sizable payday on a multi-year deal. However, given his age, a team like the Raiders might be more comfortable with a one-year deal that includes incentives.
Vic Tafur of The San Francisco Chronicle (on Twitter) expects the Raiders to get a deal done with free agent safety Reggie Nelson, who is in Oakland tonight to meet with team brass and will continue his visit with the team on Tuesday. After Nelson is wined and dined and briefed on the team’s plans for him, Tafur is expecting the Raiders to ink the veteran defender, who stands as one of the best available free agents still on the board.
Here’s more from the AFC:
The Chiefs worked out defensive end Da’Quan Bowers and cornerback Phillip Adams yesterday, according to Adam Caplan of ESPN.com (on Twitter). Bowers, a former second-round pick of the Buccaneers, returned to Tampa Bay late last season. Adams has been with six NFL teams and could be on his way to joining his seventh.
Linebacker Myles Jack is among the players visiting the Jaguars today, as Michael DiRocco of ESPN.com tweets. The 6’1”, 225-pounder saw time at both inside and outside linebacker, safety, nickel corner, and running back, and even returned the occasional kick for UCLA. He’s widely regarded as one of the best players in this year’s class.
Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle has the details on Darryl Morris‘ one-year deal with the Jets, tweeting that the cornerback signed a minimum salary contract with a $75K signing bonus.
Jarvis Jenkins‘ two-year contract with the Jets calls for him to earn $6MM with $3MM ($1.5MM signing bonus + $1.5MM base) guaranteed, according to Rich Cimini of ESPN.com. Jenkins will carry a cap charge of $2.25MM in year one and $3.75MM in year two of the deal.
Oregon State defensive tackle Kyle Peko is visiting with the Chiefs today, according to Terez A. Paylor of the Kansas City Star (on Twitter).
Free agent safety Reggie Nelson is on his way to visit the Raiders, Adam Schefter of ESPN.com tweets. Nelson will meet with Oakland later today and tomorrow.
Nelson placed No. 41 on our Top 50 NFL Free Agents List and stands as one of the best available players of the offseason. The tenth-year veteran had 77 tackles and a league-leading 8 interceptions last year for Cincinnati. Still, while he had a strong 2015, his earning power is somewhat limited as he enters his age-33 season.
We haven’t heard much about Nelson since the opening of free agency when the Vikings, Buccaneers, and Washington were all connected to him. Surprisingly, the Bengals did not make much of an effort to retain Nelson after offering him a two-year deal in early March. Here at PFR, we had Nelson ranked as the offseason’s No. 5 free agent safety behind George Iloka, Eric Weddle, Rodney McLeod, Tashaun Gipson. All four of those players signed lucrative deals last month.