Star Lotulelei

AFC East Notes: Brady, Jenkins, Lotulelei

Patriots QB Tom Brady will play against the Cowboys this afternoon, but as Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network (video link) notes, the team will need to closely monitor Brady’s elbow moving forward. Brady was unable to finish practice on Friday due to elbow pain, and while he was able to take all necessary reps on Saturday, he will continue to get work on the elbow as the season goes on.

Now for more from the AFC East:

  • It’s not unusual for teams to distance themselves from certain prospects in the pre-draft process in order to hide their interest in those prospects, and that’s exactly what the Patriots did with punter Jake Bailey, as Mike Reiss of ESPN.com writes. New England neither interviewed nor held a workout with Bailey, but it traded up in the fifth round of this year’s draft to select him. That move paid off, as the rookie specialist has two AFC Special Teams Player of the Week nods and is currently a favorite for the Pro Bowl.
  • Rich Cimini of ESPN.com expects the Jets to make a concerted effort to re-sign linebacker Jordan Jenkins this offseason. Jenkins, who will be eligible for unrestricted free agency for the first time, has steadily improved during his first four years in the league, and despite missing two games this season with a calf injury, he has posted five sacks, just two shy of his career-high of seven (which he set last year). Jenkins will likely command a contract paying him over $10MM per year.
  • The Jets will have a lot of positions to address this offseason, but tight end isn’t one of them. As Cimini tweets, the club appears set at TE with Ryan Griffin — who agreed to a three-year extension on Saturday — Chris Herndon, and improving rookie Trevon Wesco.
  • Bills fans have been less than impressed with the performances of front-seven defenders Star Lotulelei and Trent Murphy, but Joe Buscaglia of The Athletic says (via Twitter) that Lotulelei will definitely be back with the team next year (the Bills could save $10.1MM against the 2020 cap by cutting Lotulelei after the season, but they would also take on a $7.8MM dead cap charge). Murphy’s status is a bit tougher to predict, but if the Bills move on from Shaq Lawson, Murphy is likely to be back for the final year of his contract.

Contract Details: Lotulelei, Bradham, Lewis

Let’s take a look at the details from the latest contracts signed in the NFL:

Bills To Sign DT Star Lotulelei To Five-Year Deal

The Bills have agreed to a five-year deal with free agent defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, according to Adam Schefter of ESPN.com (Twitter link).

Although he’s a former first-round pick, Lotulelei’s performance has slipped in every season since he entered the league in 2013. Last year, the 28-year-old appeared in all 16 games for the second consecutive season but managed only six tackles while grading as a bottom-15 interior defender, per Pro Football Focus.

Buffalo, meanwhile, clearly needs help on the interior of its defensive line after ranking just 21st in adjusted line yards a season ago. The Bills shipped malcontent defensive tackle Marcell Dareus to the Jaguars at midseason, while veteran Kyle Williams is now a free agent.

The Panthers, Lotulelei’s former squad, are already heavily invested at the defensive tackle position. Kawann Short is the NFL’s third-highest-paid defensive tackle with a $16.1MM annual salary, while the Panthers used a first-round pick on Vernon Butler in 2016. Veteran Kyle Loveis also under contract for the 2018 campaign.

Before signing with the Bills, Lotulelei also reportedly drew interest from the Chiefs and Texans. Lotulelei ranked as PFR’s No. 4 free agent interior defender.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

PFR’s Top 50 NFL Free Agents For 2018 1.0

There will be tons of free agents available in March, but only a some of them can be real difference makers for your favorite team. To help separate the wheat from the chaff, we’ve assembled our early list of the Top 50 NFL Free Agents for 2018.

Our early version of the NFL’s top 50 free agents may include players who will be re-signed between now and March 14. When we update this list next week, a few of the big names will be spoken for while new high-profile names will join the fray as veterans become cap casualties.

Recently, we broke down the top free agents by position on both offense and defense, but our rankings below may not have each player listed in the same order. Those position lists took the short-term value of a player into account more heavily, meaning many players in their 30s received prominent placement. Our overall top 50 list favors longer-term value, and is more about forecasting which players will be in highest demand when it comes to years and dollars.

With those caveats out of the way, let’s dive in! Here are Pro Football Rumors’ top 50 NFL free agents for 2018:

1. Kirk Cousins, QB (Redskins): At long last, Kirk Cousins is headed towards unrestricted free agency. You may or may not regard Cousins as a star, but he is the best quarterback in recent history to reach the open market and QB-needy teams will be rolling out the red carpet for him. The Jets, Vikings, Broncos, and Cardinals have been named as the top suitors for his services, but the NFL is full of surprises this time of year and we would not be surprised to see other teams get involved. The cash-flush Browns are reportedly keen on signing a lower-cost vet and drafting a QB early, but who’s to say they won’t change course and get in on the Cousins sweepstakes? The Bills, Giants, Dolphins, Bucs, and Colts could also consider kicking the tires here, but there are obstacles in that bunch ranging from established starters already in place (Eli Manning, Ryan Tannehill, Jameis Winston, and Andrew Luck) to financial constraints. No matter where he goes, it’s almost certain that Cousins will become the league’s highest-paid player of all-time. That is, until another top-tier QB signs a contract extension soon after.

2. Drew Brees (Saints): There are multiple possibilities for Cousins but it’s hard to see a scenario in which Brees actually leaves the Saints. Brees has already said that he does not plan on testing free agency, so he’ll likely put pen to paper before things begin on March 14. As far as we can tell, the only way Brees will think about leaving is if he is lowballed to an extreme degree by the Saints, but that seems improbable based on his history with the team

3. Case Keenum (Vikings): One year ago, no one ever would have expected Keenum to be one of 2018’s most sought-after free agents. The Vikings signed the former Rams signal caller to a one-year, $2MM deal in March with the idea that he would back up Sam Bradford and, eventually slide down to third on the depth chart when/if Teddy Bridgewater returned to full health. When Bradford went down in September, Keenum exceeded all expectations and put together the best season of his career. The 30-year-old graded out as Pro Football Focus’ ninth-ranked QB in 2017, putting him above the likes of Jimmy Garoppolo, Aaron Rodgers, Marcus Mariota, Matthew Stafford, and Tyrod Taylor. With Keenum at the helm, the Vikings earned a first-round bye and beat the Saints in a playoff thriller before succumbing to the Eagles in the NFC championship game. Of course, after four seasons of mediocrity, teams are wondering whether this was an aberration or a real sign of things to come. Teams know that Keenum is not a lock, but he’s also the best Plan B for any team that loses out on Cousins or doesn’t have the means to sign him.

4. Andrew Norwell, G (Panthers): There was a time when tackles were the only offensive linemen to really cash in on the open market. That’s no longer the case, as evidenced by the contracts of Kevin Zeitler (five years, $60MM) and Kelechi Osemele (five years, $58.5MM). Osemele inked his free agent deal with the Raiders in 2016 and Zeitler signed his in the 2017 offseason. Given the cap increase and the natural progression of the market, Norwell figures to reset the market for interior linemen. Keenum figures to gross no less than $20MM/year on his next contract, so he’s slotted behind him, but an average annual value of $13-14MM is not out of the question for the former undrafted free agent.

5. Nate Solder, OT (Patriots): Solder isn’t coming off of his best season and he might be the least sexy name in the top ten. Still, there’s a dearth of tackles league-wide and Solder has been among the league’s best at his position for quite some time. The Patriots are bracing for Solder to leave as they fear he’ll garner offers of $12MM/year. No other tackle in this year’s free agent crop is even close to him in terms of ability, so we’re also buying into the hype. Injuries contributed to Solder’s up-and-down season, particularly early on, so teams will take that into account when evaluating him.

6. Allen Robinson, WR (Jaguars): The Jaguars opted against using the franchise tag on Robinson, which is understandable since they have limited cap space. Robinson missed almost all of 2017 with an ACL tear, but his 2015 season (and even his so-so 2016 campaign) gives teams reason to believe that he can be a quality WR1. Robinson is one of only two such players on the unrestricted market, so expect him to get paid. Robinson probably couldn’t do worse than Kenny Britt‘s four-year, $32MM deal with the Browns from last season (and he should do a whole lot better), but if he is underwhelmed by the multi-year offers he receives, he could always go the Alshon Jeffery route. Jeffery inked a one-year, $9.5MM prove-it deal with the Eagles and that turned out to be a smashing success for both parties. Jeffery was rewarded with a four-year, $52MM extension in December, so Robinson’s camp will surely be open to a pillow contract if necessary. 

7. Sammy Watkins, WR (Rams): Some may view Robinson and Watkins as 1A and 1B in this year’s wide receiver class, particularly since Robinson missed all of 2017 and Watkins, despite his own injury history, played in all but one of the Rams’ games. Unfortunately, Watkins did not have the platform year he was hoping for as he caught just 39 passes for 593 yards. If we strike Robinson’s lost year and Watkins’ down year from the record, the breakdown favors the Jags receiver – Robinson averaged 77 receptions for 1,078 yards and eight touchdowns per 16 games in that set versus Watkins’ 66 grabs for 1,063 yards and seven scores. These two should come pretty close in average annual value, but we give the edge to Robinson.

8. Trumaine Johnson, CB (Rams): Players often bemoan the franchise tag, but Johnson can’t really complain after receiving two consecutive tags from the Rams and earning more than $30MM between 2016 and 2017. The Rams, rightfully, did not consider a third consecutive tag for Johnson at a cost of ~$20MM and they already have his replacement in Marcus Peters. That’s one suitor down, but plenty of other teams will be eager to speak with Johnson, who profiles as the best cornerback in a deep class.

9. Sheldon Richardson, DT (Seahawks): Richardson gave the Jets lots of headaches, but he also gave them high-end production. He didn’t quite match that production in Seattle, but Richardson is positioned for a massive payday anyway since impactful defensive linemen are at a premium. Our own Dallas Robinson estimates that Richardson will garner about $9MM/year, but I would say that is his floor. The top-end of free agency rarely yields team-friendly deals, so Richardson could easily creep into eight figures in AAV, particularly since he does not turn 28 until November.

10. Dontari Poe, DT (Falcons): Poe thought he was in for a monster contract last offseason, but concerns about his lingering back issues forced him to take a one-year, $8MM deal with Atlanta. Teams may still worry about his back being a ticking time bomb, but perhaps they’ll view him in a different light now that he has played back-to-back 16 game seasons and has only missed two regular season contests over the course of his career.

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Chiefs, Texans Interested In Star Lotulelei

The Chiefs and Texans have both expressed early interest in pending free agent defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, according to Tony Pauline of DraftAnalyst.com.

While there’s been no word as to whether the Panthers are interested in re-signing Lotulelei, Carolina is already heavily invested at the defensive tackle position. Kawann Short is the NFL’s third-highest-paid defensive tackle with a $16.1MM annual salary, while the Panthers used a first-round pick on Vernon Butler in 2016. Veteran Kyle Love is also under contract for the 2018 campaign.

Although he’s a former first-round pick, Lotulelei’s performance has slipped in every season since he entered the league in 2013. Last year, the 28-year-old appeared in all 16 games for the second consecutive season but managed only six tackles while grading as a bottom-15 interior defender, per Pro Football Focus.

Kansas City and Houston, meanwhile, can use all the defensive line help they can get, as both clubs ranked in the bottom half of the NFL in Football Outsiders‘ adjusted sack rate (the Chiefs were a bottom-10 team in adjusted line yards, as well). Lotulelei could serve as a reinforcement if the Chiefs aren’t able to re-sign Bennie Logan, while joining either KC or Houston would entail Lotulelei playing in a 3-4 scheme for the first time in his career.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Top 2018 Free Agents By Position: Defense

NFL free agency will get underway on Wednesday, March 14th, and while the list of free agents will change between now and then, we do have some idea of who will be available when free agency kicks off. The frenzy is right around the corner and it’s time for us to break down the outlook for each position. After looking at offense on Monday, we’ll tackle defense and special teams today.

Listed below are our rankings for the top 15 free agents at each defensive position. These rankings aren’t necessarily determined by the value of the contracts – or the amount of guaranteed money – that each player is expected to land in free agency. These are simply the players we like the most at each position, with both short- and long-term value taken into account.

Restricted and exclusive-rights free agents, as well as players who received the franchise tag, aren’t listed here, since the roadblocks in place to hinder another team from actually acquiring most of those players prevent them from being true free agents.

We’ll almost certainly be higher or lower on some free agents than you are, so feel free to weigh in below in our comments section to let us know which players we’ve got wrong.

Here’s our breakdown of the current top 15 free agents by defensive position for 2018:

Edge defender:

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

As a positional group, pass rushers comprise interesting market on the defensive side of the ball. It’s not often that a list of best available players is topped by a 38-year-old, but Peppers is the top free agent edge defender after the Cowboys and Lions deployed the franchise tag on Demarcus Lawrence and Ezekiel Ansah, respectively. As with quarterbacks, NFL clubs are extremely reluctant to allow pass rushers to hit the open market, so top-tier options are rarely ever truly “available.” Peppers, for his part, hasn’t even declared whether he’ll return in 2018, but indications are that he’ll suit up for a 17th campaign after posting 11 sacks last year.

Alongside Peppers, other veterans populate the edge market, and while William Hayes may not be a household name, he’ll be a contributor for whichever team signs him. A stout run defender, Hayes is also capable of generating pressure despite managing only one sack in 2017. The Dolphins used Hayes on only 271 defensive snaps a season ago, and have since replaced him by acquiring fellow defensive end Robert Quinn from the Rams. Now that he’s entering his age-33 season, Hayes should come cheap, but will almost assuredly outplay his contract.

Nearly every other available pass rusher has some sort of flaw which will likely limit his market next week. Trent Murphy is only 27 years old and put up nine sacks in 2016, but he missed the entirety of the 2017 campaign with injury. Pernell McPhee, Alex Okafor, Junior Galette, and Derrick Shelby have also been plagued by health questions in recent seasons. And Adrian Clayborn famously registered the majority of his 2017 sacks (and 20% of his career sack total) in one game against overwhelmed Cowboys backup Chaz Green.

The two names that I keep coming back to are Aaron Lynch (49ers) and Jeremiah Attaochu (Chargers). Yes, Lynch has been suspended for substance abuse, struggled with his weight, and was reportedly in danger of being waived prior to last season. He’s also extremely young (he won’t turn 25 years old until Thursday) and ranked fifth in the league with 34 pass pressures as recently as 2015. Attaochu, a 25-year-old former second-round pick, also has youth on his side, and while he hasn’t quite flashed as much as Lynch, he’s also been buried on LA’s depth chart for much of his career.

Interior defensive line:

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

Interior rushers are getting more respect in today’s NFL, but that still hasn’t translated to them being paid on the level of edge defenders — the 2018 franchise tag for defensive tackles, for example, is roughly $3MM cheaper than the tender for edge rushers. While the 2018 crop of interior defenders boasts some impressive top-end talent, none of the available players figure to earn a double-digit annual salary. Sheldon Richardson may have the best chance to do so, but Seattle determined he wasn’t worth a one-year cost of $13.939MM, so is any other club going to pay him $10MM per year? I’d guess he comes in closer to $9MM annually, which would still place him among the 25 highest-paid defensive tackles.

Dontari Poe will be an intriguing free agent case after setting for a one-year deal last offseason, but the most interesting battle among defensive tackles will take place Star Lotulelei and Muhammad Wilkerson, and I’m curious to see which player earns more on the open market. Both are former first-round picks, and it’s difficult to argue Wilkerson hasn’t been the more productive player — or, at least, reached higher highs — than Lotulelei. Wilkerson also won’t affect his next team’s compensatory pick formula given that he was released, but his off-field issues, which include a reported lack of effort and problems with coaches, could limit his appeal.

While Beau Allen and Denico Autry are potentially candidates to be overpaid based on their youth, there are bargains to be had at defensive tackle. Tom Johnson is 33 but he’s offered consistent pressure from the interior for years — his last contract was for three years and $7MM, so he shouldn’t cost much this time around. Haloti Ngata was injured in 2017 but plans to continue his career, and he can still stop the run. And Dominique Easley was outstanding as a 3-4 end in 2016 before missing last season with a torn ACL, meaning the former first-round pick could be a value play for any number of teams.Read more

Panthers Not Expected To Use Franchise Tag

In 2016, the Panthers placed the franchise tag on cornerback Josh Norman before rescinding it, allowing him to sign with the Redskins. The following year, they placed the tag on Kawann Short and signed him to a long-term deal the following month. "<strong

They are not expected to use it this year, however, writes Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer.

The most obvious candidate on the roster to receive the tag was Andrew Norwell, the undrafted free agent in 2014 who earned All-Pro honors in 2017. With the team signing Pro Bowl guard Trai Turner to a four-year extension in the 2017 offseason, it is not likely to invest the $14.3 MM tag on another guard. Person also notes guards are typically not franchise tag candidates, with Logan Mankins in 2011 with the Patriots being the last guard to receive the distinction.

Other candidates included defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and kicker Graham Gano. After signing Short to a long-term deal in the previous offseason, the Panthers can let Lotulelei head to free agency and give more playing time to 2016 first-round pick Vernon Butler, Person writes.

Teams can officially put the franchise tag on players beginning on February 20. They have until March 6, about a week before the start of free agency, to decide to use the tag.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Star Lotulelei Likely To Play Out 2017

The Panthers are expected to allow defensive tackle Star Lotulelei to play out the 2017 season before deciding whether to negotiate a long-term extension, reprots Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer.Star Lotulelei

Lotulelei, 27, hasn’t been very effective over the past two campaigns, at least according to Pro Football Focus‘ grades — last year, Lotulelei ranked as just the No. 74 interior defender among 127 qualifiers. He’s been extremely durable, however, as he’s missed only four games during four NFL seasons (and played all 16 contests in 2016).

While Lotulelei is expected to return as a starter in 2017, his playing time could be reduced as 2016 first-round pick Vernon Butler sees more action. Lotulelei played on roughly two-thirds of Carolina’s defensive snaps last season, while Butler hovered around 20%. As Person details, Butler’s development will play a key role in how the Panthers move forward with Lotulelei.

A former first-round pick, Lotulelei is under contract in 2017 via the fifth-year option, which will pay him $6.757MM. The Panthers have already financially committed to fellow defensive tackle Kawann Short, who landed a five-year, $80.5MM extension in April, so it’s unclear if the club wants to commit even more cap space to the interior of its defensive line.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

NFC Notes: Lotulelei, Brees, Greenway

Here’s a look at the NFC:

  • Panthers defensive tackle Star Lotulelei says the Panthers have not approached him about a long-term extension, Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer writes. However, he made it known in his own way that he wants to stay. “It’s a great organization and a great team. I’ve grown to love this place,” said Lotulelei, who had his ~$6MM fifth-year option exercised for the 2017 season. “I’m going to play as hard as I can, work as hard as I can and we’ll see what happens.”
  • Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com took a stab at projecting the NFL’s next big-money contracts, including that of Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Brees, who turned 37 in January, would cost the team a whopping $43.09MM if they were to use the franchise tag on him next offseason. Unless the Saints want to move on from the veteran in 2017, they have to do a multiyear extension. The two sides have been discussing a deal for some time and recently, two league sources told Charles Robinson of Yahoo Sports that Brees could see in excess of $65MM in guarantees on a four-year contract worth between $95MM and $100MM in total.
  • This season will almost certainly be Chad Greenway‘s farewell tour with the Vikings and with that in mind, one reader asked Ben Goessling of ESPN.com about the team’s plan to replace him at weakside linebacker. Emmanuel Lamur would seem to be the in-house solution and Goessling says he might not have to wait until 2017 to get that chance. Lamur joined Minnesota on a two-year, $5.5MM deal this spring. The former Cincinnati outside linebacker is a favorite of coach Mike Zimmer. Of course, if the team feels the need to use Lamur elsewhere or things don’t work out, they could be in the market for a different WLB solution next year.

Panthers Pick Up Star Lotulelei’s 2017 Option

APRIL 26, 9:24am: The Panthers have formally exercised Lotulelei’s fifth-year option for 2017, the team announced today via Panthers.com.

MARCH 23, 11:25am: Lotulelei’s fifth-year option will be worth $6.757MM, according to former agent Joel Corry of CBSSports.com (via Twitter).

MARCH 22, 2:18pm: The Panthers will exercise the fifth-year option on defensive tackle Star Lotulelei‘s contract, general manager Dave Gettleman confirmed today (Twitter link via David Newton of ESPN.com). The move will keep Lotulelei under contract with the Panthers through the 2017 season.Star Lotulelei

Lotulelei, the 14th overall pick in 2013, has been a full-time starter for the Panthers since joining the team three years ago. In 14 games in 2015, the 26-year-old recorded 22 tackles to go along with a sack, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery.

While Lotulelei has been a solid addition to Carolina’s defensive line, he struggled last season, and PFR’s Dallas Robinson speculated in his Panthers offseason preview that the lingering effects of a foot injury may have hampered the Utah product to a certain extent. Although Dallas fully expected the team to pick up Lotulelei’s option, he noted that a potential extension may be put on the back-burner as Carolina prioritizes a new deal for another defensive lineman, Kawann Short.

The exact value of Lotulelei’s fifth-year option isn’t yet known. A year ago, the fifth-year option figure for defensive tackles was set at $6.146MM, but it will increase a little this time around.

In other Panthers news, Gettleman confirmed that the team still has interest in re-signing free agent defensive tackle Kyle Love, and remain in talks with him, tweets Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.