Tahir Whitehead got a look from the Texans earlier this week. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reports (via Twitter) that Houston hosted the free agent linebacker. The veteran presumably left the team without a deal.
The 2012 fifth-round pick had a productive stint with the Lions to begin his career. Whitehead spent six seasons in Detroit, and he averaged 70 tackles and 5.8 tackles for loss between the 2014 and 2017 seasons. That four-year stint earned Whitehead a three-year, $19MM deal from the Raiders, and the linebacker started all 32 games for the organization before getting his walking papers in 2020.
The 31-year-old caught on with the Panthers last offseason, and he started each of his first eight games for his new squad. However, Whitehead saw a reduced role as the season went on, and he only saw 15 defensive snaps from Week 11 to the end of the season. The linebacker finished his lone season in Carolina with 51 tackles and one interception.
The Texans were busy revamping their linebackers corps this offseason, bringing in eight free agents and one rookie. However, Zach Cunningham and (perhaps) free agent acquisition Christian Kirksey are the only sure things on the depth chart, meaning a free agent like Whitehead could still come in and claim a roster spot.
Released by the Raiders earlier this month, Tahir Whitehead will have another opportunity to be a starter. The Panthers are signing the free agent linebacker, Ian Rapoport of NFL.com tweets.
It’s a one-year deal worth $2.5MM, Tom Pelissero of NFL.com tweets. Whitehead will receive a $1.45MM signing bonus.
Whitehead played in all 32 games during his two-season Raider tenure and was the team’s runaway tackles leader during its final two Oakland seasons. The Panthers saw Luke Kuechly retire earlier this offseason; Whitehead will be in line to move into the starting lineup alongside Shaq Thompson.
Carolina has lost Kuechly and all-time tackles leader Thomas Davis in consecutive offseasons. The team extended Thompson late last season but has a need for another three-down linebacker. Whitehead saw by far the most snaps among Raiders ‘backers from 2018-19 and was a Lions starter in the years prior.
Whitehead, who will turn 30 next week, has only missed three games in an eight-year career. He has produced four straight 100-plus-tackle seasons, leading the Lions in that department during his final two years in Detroit.
Tahir Whitehead‘s Raiders run will end after two seasons. The team released the veteran linebacker on Monday, Field Yates of ESPN.com tweets. The Raiders have since announced the move.
One season remained on Whitehead’s three-year, $19MM deal. The Raiders cutting Whitehead will save them $6.25MM, bumping their cap-space figure up north of $56MM.
Set to turn 30 in two weeks, Whitehead provided durability in Oakland. Part of Jon Gruden‘s initial free agency class upon coming back to the NFL, Whitehead started all 32 Raiders games during his tenure. He has not missed a start since the 2016 season and has only missed three games in his eight-year career. The former Lions starter also extended his streak of 100-tackle seasons to four during the Raiders’ Oakland swansong, posting 108 stops.
Whitehead was by far Oakland’s tackles leader in each of his two seasons there, registering 126 in 2018. But he is no longer in line to be part of the franchise’s Las Vegas run.
This will leave the Raiders in need at multiple linebacker spots. They relied on Whitehead last year after signings of Vontaze Burfict and Brandon Marshall did not work out. Although Burfict has since been reinstated from his suspension, the perpetual suspension risk is certainly no lock to come back. No Gruden-era draftee resides on Las Vegas’ roster at linebacker, pointing the Raiders toward addressing this area in both free agency and the draft.
It sounds like Tahir Whitehead‘s time with the Raiders has come to an end. In his review of the Raiders’ linebackers corps, Vic Tafur of The Athletic writes that “[i]t doesn’t appear” the veteran will return next year.
While Whitehead may have been a team captain last season, this wouldn’t be overly surprising. The 29-year-old put up some of his worst numbers since becoming a full-time starter in 2016, finishing with 108 tackles, six tackles for loss, and one pass defended.
The Raiders can also save north of $6MM against the cap by cutting Whitehead. The former Lions draft pick signed a three-year, $19MM contract (including $6.27MM guaranteed) with the Raiders back in 2018.
As Tafur writes, it’s been a while since the Raiders got top production out of the linebackers position. This includes 2019, when eight players “combined for zero sacks, zero forced fumbles, zero fumble recoveries and nine passes broken up.” MarquelLee is likely the only linebacker who will return next season, leading Tafur to surmise that the front office will either turn to free agency or select a linebacker in one of the first three rounds of the draft.
Jordy Nelson appears to have a second Raiders season on tap. The longtime Packers wide receiver signed a two-year deal with the Raiders, but some speculation existed about the rebuilding team moving on after one season.
Jon Gruden confirmed Friday that Nelson will return next season. The Raiders also moved up a $3.6MM Nelson roster bonus to be paid today rather than in 2019, Field Yates of ESPN.com tweets.
“If you watched Jordy play carefully the last four weeks when he’s been healthy, you see what he’s capable of doing, … I think you can even see better and better days ahead,” Gruden said, via Scott Bair of NBC Sports Bay Area (Twitterlinks). “So yeah, he’ll be back. … Normally when you hand out a bonus for next year’s season, there’s a pretty good chance those guys are coming back.”
That puts Tahir Whitehead, tight end Lee Smith and linebacker Kyle Wilber in line to be Raiders in their to-be-determined city next season. The Raiders paid Whitehead his $3.325MM bonus, with Smith collecting $1.1MM and Wilber $500K, Yates adds. These moves will spread out said bonuses’ cap hits across 2018 and ’19.
Nelson will be 34 when next season starts. He said earlier this week (via Bair, on Twitter) he wanted to play at least one more season. Jared Cook leads the Raiders in receiving, but Nelson has, to some degree, bounced back from a dismal 2017 with 661 receiving yards on one of the NFL’s worst offenses, bumping his yards-per-catch average from a career-low 9.1 (in the largely Aaron Rodgers-less ’17 Packers slate) to 12.2 with Derek Carr. While the latter figure is still below his prime work, Nelson is one of the NFL’s oldest wideouts.
Having funneled their pass offense through Travis Kelce for several seasons and having not invested much in their No. 2 wide receiver job in many years, the Chiefs surprised most observers by authorizing a monster contract for Sammy Watkins. The fifth-year wideout’s three-year, $48MM deal — with $30MM guaranteed — is having a league-wide effect, Joel Corry of CBS Sports writes. Julio Jones, who is signed to a $14.25MM-per-year deal, is now seeking additional dollars. And Corry adds Odell Beckham Jr.‘s hopes to become the league’s first $20MM-AAV wide receiver is not a crazy demand anymore now that Watkins has signed a top-five contract without supplying production to justify it. Corry adds that Watkins’ $16MM-AAV contract will become Brandin Cooks‘ floor, assuming he fares well in Los Angeles this season.
As for the Chiefs, Watkins justifying the contract could be difficult, as Corry writes, since the newcomer may be the No. 4 option in his next offense. Kelce and Kareem Hunt are entrenched as the top components of Kansas City’s attack, and Tyreek Hill put together a strong 2017 featuring 1,183 air yards and seven touchdowns. Watkins caught 39 passes for 583 yards last season, and his career-best numbers were 1,047 and nine with the 2015 Bills. Hill becomes extension-eligible after this season and his contract expires after 2019. Those talks could be tricky if he outproduces Watkins this season. Only two teams — the Packers and Broncos — are paying two wideouts eight figures annually, and the Chiefs could be set to encounter an interesting dilemma once Hill talks begin.
Here’s the latest from the AFC West:
Melvin Ingram may not be attending the Chargers‘ OTA sessions. The star pass rusher missed Tuesday’s session and is training in Florida, Eric Williams of ESPN.com reports, adding that Ingram cleared his absence with Anthony Lynn. Ingram skipped the start of these workouts last year, but he was not under contract because he had yet to sign his franchise tender. He’s now signed a long-term Bolts deal.
Bruce Irvin played as a 4-3 outside linebacker the past two seasons with the Raiders, but new DC Paul Guenther is moving him to defensive end, Paul Gutierrez of ESPN.com notes (on Twitter). Irvin often played end during his first two seasons in Oakland, but did so in sub-packages while lining up as a stand-up ‘backer in most base sets, similar to the Broncos’ usage of Von Miller from 2011-14. Irvin began his career as a defensive end before the Seahawks relocated him. Now that Irvin is at end, Gutierrez notesTahir Whitehead and Emmanuel Lamur lined up as outside linebackers with the Raiders’ first-stringers at Tuesday’s OTA session.
Also at Raiders OTAs, Gareon Conley participated fully, per Gutierrez. A shin injury wiped out most of the 2017 first-rounder’s rookie season, and only recently did the former Ohio State standout receive full clearance.
Donald Penn will be limited during these workouts, with Gutierrez noting the longtime Oakland left tackle is still recovering from Lisfranc surgery. Penn is not expected to be ready to participate fully until training camp. For now, second-year player David Sharpe took the reps in 11-on-11 work while Breno Giacomini opened with the starters at right tackle. The Raiders are planning to have Kolton Millertrain as a left tackle to start his career.
The Chiefs will be without their backup tight end in Week 1. Demetrius Harris received a one-game suspension for a 2017 marijuana arrest that induced a multi-day jail stay, Ian Rapoport of NFL.com tweets. Harris established new career-high marks last season with 18 receptions for 224 yards. The Chiefs added former Jets second-rounder Jace Amaro this offseason, but Harris has been with the team for the past four seasons. Amaro hasn’t played since 2016.
Clinton McDonald did not participate in Broncos OTAs on Tuesday, and Mike Klis of 9News notes the veteran defensive lineman is still recovering from a March shoulder operation. The Broncos knew of this procedure when they signed him in March, per Klis. He adds McDonald is expected to be ready for camp.
With both Josh Allen and Josh Rosen still on the board when the Broncos picked at No. 5, Denver bypassed the draft’s top-tier quarterback contingent and instead took a player in Bradley ChubbJohn Elway wanted enough to nullify a trade with the Bills. Paxton Lynch likely factored into that decision. The No. 26 overall pick in 2016, Lynch has struggled with performance and injuries in his two-year career. And after he lost a one-sided competition to Trevor Siemian last year, Lynch is no longer competing for the starting job. But Elway is not ready to throw in the towel on the former Memphis standout. Picking another quarterback would have essentially doomed Lynch’s Denver tenure. The Broncos are not going to bring in another QB for OTAs, and while Elway didn’t rule out a possible addition later in the offseason, Denver’s QB room could well be Case Keenum, Chad Kelly and Lynch by the time camp commences.
“We are not kicking him to the curb. He can still develop,” Elway said, via Mike Klis of 9News. “When we drafted him two years ago, as I said, we knew it was going to take some time. We are not going to bring another one in for OTAs. We will take a peek at that. It will be those two and Case. We are going to OTAs with those guys and go from there.”
The Broncos are clearly betting big on Keenum’s 2017 being a legitimate turning point and not an aberration, and the respective showings of Allen and Rosen may be tied, to some degree, to the Broncos’ decision to go with Keenum instead. And the Broncos now have a season to further evaluate Lynch before his fifth-year option decision — regarding a steep 2019 salary that will likely be north of $15MM — comes next May.
Here’s the latest from some other Western-division headquarters.
The Seahawks are going to experiment with two rookies at different positions. Fifth-round pick Tre Flowers will shift from safety to cornerback, per Brady Henderson of ESPN.com. The 6-foot-3 Oklahoma State product fits the profile of a player the Seahawks would prefer at corner, although he played mostly safety at the Big 12 program. Seattle made a similar move last May in shuttling Mike Tyson from safety to corner. Additionally, the team will try fifth-round offensive lineman Jamarco Jones at both tackle and guard, Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times notes. Jones started the past two seasons as Ohio State’s left tackle. Condotta adds the Hawks have Ethan Pocic and newcomer D.J. Fluker tentatively tabbed as starters at left and right guard, respectively.
Speaking of positional preferences, the Raiders may view Derrick Johnson as a middle linebacker, per Scott Bair of NBC Sports Bay Area. While this would make sense because of Johnson’s extensive experience as a Chiefs inside linebacker, the last time he played in a 4-3 scheme he served as an outside ‘backer. Prior to the Chiefs moving to a 3-4 look in 2009, Johnson spent most of his time on the outside. He started for four seasons in that role. Bair adds that it appears Tahir Whitehead is slated to play on the outside, noting that Marquel Lee and Nicholas Morrow may be competing for the middle ‘backer job. Whitehead has experience at both middle and outside linebacker in a 4-3 setup.
Seattle may look to add wide receiver Damore’ea Stringfellow, per Condotta. Despite being a 2017 UDFA, Stringfellow came to the Seahawks’ rookie minicamp and fared well. Pete Carroll indicated Stringfellow’s 6-foot-2, 218-pound frame is something the team is intrigued by. The Seahawks would have to waive a player from their 90-man offseason roster to make room for the former Ole Miss Rebel and Washington Husky.
The Raiders have signed free agent linebacker Tahir Whitehead, the club announced tonight. It’s a three-year deal worth more than $6MM annually, per Michael Gehlken of the Las Vegas Review Journal (Twitter link).
Oakland has been on the lookout for linebackers for several seasons, and last year acquired veteran NaVorro Bowman from the 49ers. Although the Raiders still had interest in re-signing Bowman as of earlier this week, it’s possible the club’s addition of Whitehead will end Bowman’s tenure. However, Bowman plays on the inside while Whitehead is best at outside ‘backer, so there is certainly room for both in the Bay Area.
Whitehead was drafted by the Lions as a fifth-rounder in 2012, but he didn’t become a fixture on the club’s defense until 2014. Since that time, he’s started 55 games and racked up 283 tackles. Whitehead, 27, has hit the open market before, but ended up re-signing with the Lions on a two-year deal.
Whitehead has been with the Lions since 2012 and has been a fixture in their front seven since 2014. This past season, he started in all 16 games and totaled 110 tackles plus one sack.
The 27-year-old (28 in April) is coming off of a two-year deal worth more than $8MM. This time around, he’s probably due for a pay bump considering the contracts that have been given to other non-rush linebackers this offseason. The Jets scoffed at Demario Davis‘ request for $8MM per year, but he got that with his three-year, $24MM deal with the Saints. Meanwhile, Nigel Bradham re-upped with the Eagles on a five-year, $40MM deal and Anthony Hitchens scored a five-year, $45MM deal with the Chiefs.
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.