Today’s minor moves:
- Signed: LB Justin March-Lillard
Today’s minor moves:
The Texans’ Sunday night went from bad to worst, as the club not only lost superstar defensive lineman J.J. Watt, but edge rusher Whitney Mercilus. A torn pectoral will require surgery and end Mercilus’ 2017 campaign, tweets Mark Berman of FOX 28.
Houston ranked fourth in defensive DVOA and seventh in adjusted sack rate heading into Week 5, but have now seen two of their best defensive players go down in a single night. Without Watt and Mercilus available, the Texans could give more work to internal options Brennan Scarlett or Ufomba Kamalu, or potentially promote practice squad players LaTroy Lewis or Gimel President.
A free agent acquisition can’t be ruled out, as well, and there are a number of edge defenders who could make sense for the Texans. Dwight Freeney, Mario Williams, Paul Kruger, Jaye Howard, Arthur Jones, and Vance Walker are among the available players who could provide assistance on either the defensive line or at outside linebacker. Houston has auditioned linebackers such as Andrew Gachkar and Michael Mauti in recent weeks, but those veterans are more valuable on special teams than in defensive packages.
Mercilus will be difficult to replace, however, as the 27-year-old ‘backer has become an underrated asset over the past few seasons. From 2015-16, Mercilus put up 19.5 sacks for the Texans, and had managed one quarterback takedown in 2017. Pro Football Focus had graded Mercilus as just the No. 46 edge defender this season, but his marks had been significantly better in the prior two years.
Mercilus is signed through the 2019 campaign under the terms of an extension he signed in 2015. He’s due base salaries of $4.75MM and $5.75MM over the next two seasons.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
It’s free agency week! This year, thanks to the salary cap increase, the dollars will be flying and players will make more than you ever could have expected. Our lists for offense and defense rank free agents based on overall ability, but our Top 50 ranks players based on earning power. Here, you’ll get a good sense of what the market will be like this week and who the big fish are.
The league’s “legal tampering” window will open on Tuesday at 11:00am CT. Technically, teams and players aren’t permitted to finalize agreements on contracts during that legal tampering window, but that’s often treated as a guideline rather than a hard and fast rule. We will almost certainly see handshake agreements go down on Tuesday and Wednesday before they become official on Thursday, the technical beginning of free agency.
Our list of 2017’s top 50 free agents doesn’t include restricted free agents, or franchise tagged players, since they’re effectively restricted free agents as well.
With those caveats out of the way, let’s dive right in! Here are Pro Football Rumors’ top 50 NFL free agents for 2017, along with a few predictions on how much they might earn and what teams could be in the mix to sign them:
1. A.J. Bouye, CB (Texans): Bouye is an overnight sensation, going from unknown to elite talent in the blink of an eye. No one knows exactly what to make of Bouye, but his upside is too much for teams to pass up. The Texans declined to use the franchise tag on the 25-year-old (26 in August), but they’re still hoping to get a deal done this week. The Jets are said to have interest, but it’s not clear if they’ll have the room to get something done. Cornerback-needy teams like the Panthers, Saints, Jaguars, Titans, Bears, and Eagles can be expected to at least kick the tires on this year’s top player in the secondary. Could something like Janoris Jenkins‘ five year, $62.5MM contract ($28.8MM fully guaranteed) from last year be within reach? Jenkins had a longer history of success than Bouye, but consider these facts: Bouye nearly two years younger than Jenkins was at time of signing and the salary cap has risen by about $12MM.
Signed with Jaguars for five years, $67.5MM.
2. Alshon Jeffery, WR (Bears): He was hurt for most of 2015 and he slumped along with the entire Bears offense in 2016, but his natural ability is still evident and he is a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver. At one point, it seemed like Jeffery could wind up as the league’s highest-paid wide receiver. That won’t be the case, but he will likely get more cash than any other wide receiver in this year’s class. The Eagles and Titans have been hot on his tail for some time now. The 49ers could also get involved and a return to the Bears cannot be ruled out either. Ultimately, Jeffery should wind up fetching at least $10MM per year and perhaps as much as $12MM per year on his next deal.
Signed with Eagles for one year, $9.5MM.
3. Kenny Stills, WR (Dolphins): Jeffery isn’t the only wide receiver who could fetch $12MM per year. Stills isn’t necessarily the best wide receiver on his own team, but he is just on the cusp of his 25th birthday and his ability to stretch the field is tantalizing. It doesn’t sound like the Dolphins are ready to be the highest bidder for his services and it’s not hard to imagine a team like the Eagles landing him. Naturally, there’s quite a bit of overlap between the potential suitors for Jeffery and Stills: the Eagles, Titans, Bears, and 49ers will probably come calling. The Rams may not have enough room to squeeze in Stills, but they could certainly use a playmaker like him if they do not re-sign Kenny Britt. Stills reportedly likes the West Coast (who doesn’t?) so the Niners and Rams could have a leg up on the others if the bidding is close.
Re-signed with Dolphins for four years, $32MM.
4. Dont’a Hightower, LB (Patriots): The market is capped for non-rush linebackers, but Hightower is pretty much the best at what he does and is also lauded for his intangibles. The Patriots have always embraced the “next man up” philosophy, so it is possible they will allow him to go elsewhere. The Dolphins have been frequently connected to Hightower, but that might be too ambitious for a team that has multiple major needs to address. The Colts might also make sense, but the price might be too rich for their blood. A Patriots return appears to be the most likely outcome, but anything is possible.
Re-signed with Patriots for four years, $35.5MM.
5. Kevin Zeitler, G (Bengals): Zeitler has age on his side and he’s one of the safest free agents in the top ten after three consecutive years of dominance. Interior offensive linemen don’t get as much love as their counterparts on the outside, but they are still incredibly vital and Zeitler’s next contract will reflect that. If he doesn’t circle back to the Bengals, the Jaguars, Cardinals, Packers, and Seahawks all make varying degrees of sense for Zeitler. From a football standpoint, you can add the Jets to that group too, but I’m not sure they can meet a ~$12MM/year asking price.
Signed with Browns for five years, $60MM.
6. Logan Ryan, CB (Patriots): There are bigger names available at the cornerback position, but Ryan slots ahead of many of them after a career year. It also doesn’t hurt that this fresh-faced Super Bowl champ only just turned 26 in February. If the Patriots don’t tie him down, Ryan’s earning power could conceivably vault him past Trumaine Johnson in terms of guaranteed cash. The Jaguars and Titans would be wise to zero in on Ryan if they can’t land Bouye and it’s possible that some of their evaluators might even prefer Ryan over the Houston standout. Ryan’s next deal will probably pay him eight figures per year and it should be a lengthy pact.
Signed with Titans for three years, $30MM.
7. Terrelle Pryor, WR (Browns): There is strong mutual interest in a new deal between Pryor and the Browns. Still, the Browns passed on the opportunity to franchise tag the Ohio State product and he now appears poised to test the open market. With pretty much just one year to show, how will Pryor fare in free agency? His next deal should pay him at least $10MM/year and he could get up to $12MM/year. In addition to the Browns, the usual suspects for this year’s high-end WRs will explore signing Pryor (say it with me): Eagles, Titans, and 49ers. There’s conflicting word about whether the Steelers will get involved. The Giants are known to have interest, but I don’t think they’ll be splurging on free agents like they did one year ago.
Signed with Redskins for one year, $6MM.
8 .Ricky Wagner, OT (Ravens): There’s already talk of Wagner fetching around $10MM/year and it’s not like this year’s free agent market is flush with young, quality tackles. When you also consider the lack of quality tackles in the draft, it’s apparent that Wagner is about to get PAID, in all caps.Believe it or not, $10MM/year might be his floor. When all is said and done, he’ll be the league’s biggest earner at right tackle. The Bears are particularly interested in Wagner, so he could go from the AFC North to the NFC North this week.
Signed with Lions for five years, $47.5MM.
9. Calais Campbell, DL (Cardinals): Campbell was supposed to be an afterthought in Arizona after the addition of Chandler Jones. Perhaps motivated by a perceived slight, Campbell turned in a stellar year. Now, the Cardinals would very much like to keep him, but they can only go so far as they back up the Brinks truck for Jones and look into retaining other key free agents. If Jones does not agree to a cap-smoothing long-term deal between now and March 9th, the odds of Campbell leaving increase. The Jaguars are said to be a leading contender for Campbell while the Titans, Broncos, Colts, and Bears could also use a force like him. His age (31 in September) gives him a bit of a ceiling in terms of overall compensation, but he should still do nicely this month.
Signed with Jaguars for four years, $60MM.
10. Stephon Gilmore, CB (Bills): In terms of pure talent, Gilmore might be the best cornerback available. Trouble is, no one knows what to make of him after a down 2016. Some have openly theorized that Gilmore was playing it safe to avoid injury in his pivotal contract year. It’s also possible that Buffalo’s injuries in the front seven put undue stress on the secondary. The Bears are reportedly high on Gilmore and he may represent a cheaper option than Bouye or Ryan. A Bills return would also make sense here.
Signed with Patriots for five years, $65MM.
There will be oodles of free agents available in March, but only a certain percentage of them can be real difference makers for your team. To help separate the wheat from the chaff, we’ve assembled our early list of the Top 50 Free Agents for 2017.
Our early version of the NFL’s top 50 free agents may include players who will be re-signed between now and March 9. 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.
Last month, 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 2017:
Honorable mention (in no particular order): LeGarrette Blount, Nick Mangold, Colin Kaepernick, Nick Fairley, D.J. Swearinger, Bradley McDougald, DeMarcus Ware, Stefen Wisniewski, Lawrence Timmons, Captain Munnerlyn, Jairus Byrd, Darrelle Revis, Jared Odrick, Alterraun Verner, Kelvin Beachum, Lorenzo Alexander, Brandon Carr, Charles Johnson
5:48pm: The deal includes $10.8MM in guaranteed money with a $5.25MM signing bonus, McClain tweets.
5;36pm: The Texans and outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus have agreed to a four-year extension, according to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle (on Twitter). Mercilus was eligible for a fifth-year option this year and it’s now apparent that Houston declined the option in order to work out a longer pact.
It’s a four-year, $26MM deal, according to Tania Ganguli of ESPN.com (via Twitter). The deal will keep the linebacker in a Texans jersey through the 2019 season. Mercilus, 25 in July, has played in all but one of the Texans’ regular season games across the last three seasons. Playing primarily as a starter for the last two, Mercilus has racked up a combined 12 sacks, 97 tackles, and two forced fumbles.
The Texans obviously are happy with Mercilus, but the advanced metrics aren’t so wild about him. In 2014, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranked him as just the 35th best outside linebacker in a 3-4 set out of 46 qualified players. In 2013, his overall rating of -18.1 put him dead last (42nd out of 42) amongst 3-4 OLBs.
Multiple reports and mock drafts in recent weeks have suggested the Bengals could use their first-round pick to add a young tackle, perhaps envisioning that player as an eventual replacement for Andrew Whitworth. As he tells Paul Dehner Jr. of the Cincinnati Enquirer though, the idea of the team adding his potential replacement doesn’t worry Whitworth.
“I’ve always had the opposite mentality,” Whitworth said. “Mess up and draft somebody at my position because you are going to sit around and watch him sit the bench. That’s always been my mentality. I see it as a challenge.”
While we wait to see which direction the Bengals decide to go on Thursday, let’s check out a few more notes from around the AFC….
Zach Links contributed to this post.
Texans’ defensive end Jadeveon Clowney exited the game during the team’s 17-6 victory over the Redskins. The first overall pick injured his knee during his NFL debut.
Albert Breer of NFL Network was first to report that the injury sustained was to Clowney’s MCL (via Twitter). The injury could sideline the pass rusher for between four and six weeks, reports Jason Cole of Bleacher Report (via Twitter).
While more will be known after an MRI tomorrow, according to Ed Werder of ESPN (via Twitter), Werder’s colleague Adam Schefter reports that the team fears that Clowney has suffered a meniscus tear that will require arthroscopic surgery (via Twitter).
Ian Rapoport of NFL.com confirms that the injury is indeed a torn meniscus, and reports that Clowney will have surgery on Monday (via Twitter).
Clowney had a tackle in the backfield in his first NFL game, but failed to make it to halftime healthy. Fortunately for the Texans, they have 2012 first-round pick Whitney Mercilus to replace Clowney in the starting lineup. Mercilus had six sacks as a rookie in 2012, and seven sacks last season during his sophomore campaign.
ESPN’s staff put together a list of each team’s starter whose job is in jeopardy. Among the most notable are 49ers running back Frank Gore, Texans outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus and Packers safety Morgan Burnett. On Burnett, ESPN’s Rob Demovsky says, “When the Packers drafted Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the first round, the thinking was that he would start alongside Burnett. Now, there’s a chance he could start instead of Burnett. Coach Mike McCarthy likes what Micah Hyde has done at free safety, and when Burnett strained his oblique muscle this week, he put Clinton-Dix in Burnett’s strong safety spot. The Packers made a major investment in Burnett last summer with an $8.25 million signing bonus as part of a four-year extension, but he followed it with an unproductive season.”
Here’s a few miscellaneous links from around the league:
Bears GM Phil Emery has been on the job two and a half years, and with a series of bold moves, has positioned the Bears as a legitimate Super Bowl contender entering the 2014 season. That’s noteworthy status given the fact Emery’s first draft class (2012) has been fruitless with the exception of rising star Alshon Jeffery.
Buried in an article about the Bears’ kick coverage units, CSN Chicago’s John Mullin notes that 2012 19th overall selection Shea McClellin, a disappointment through two NFL seasons, has been used on special teams this offseason. Unable to hold up against the run, the Bears have converted him from defensive end to linebacker, where he’s competing with John Bostic for the starting job on the strong side. Position changes and special-teams impact are things typically associated with rookies, not third-year pros, especially ones drafted as highly as McClellin. His backward career trajectory doesn’t bode well for his future in Chicago.
If McClellin can’t find a way to make an impact this season, he’ll be stamped with the bust label, which prompts a more macroscopic concern. Emery, whose background is rooted in scouting, was hired to replace Jerry Angelo, whose first-round failures still resonate with Bears fans who cringe at the memories of names such as Rex Grossman, Michael Haynes, Cedric Benson, Chris Williams and Gabe Carimi. Emery is supposed to reverse that debilitating trend, but aside from Jeffery in the second round, his 2012 draft class has failed to live up to expectations:
In McClellin’s case, the Bears might have misevaluated his utility, as many draft scouts projected the Boise State pass rusher as a 3-4 rush rush linebacker. Nolan Nawrocki’s 2012 Draft Preview graded McClellin as a mid-round talent with tweener traits, strength deficiency and an inability to defend the run: “Functional, character football player who plays better than he tests and could warrant consideration as a stand-up, upfield 3-4 rush ‘backer. Versatility and dependability increase comfort level and could drive up draft status.”
Nawrocki’s assessment proved accurate, as McClellin ascended all the way to the 19th pick, where Emery pounced on him with 3-4 teams such as the Patriots (who took Chandler Jones 21st), Texans (who took Whitney Mercilus 26th) and Packers (who took Nick Perry 28th) lurking in subsequent picks. McClellin’s versatility was key to the selection, with the thinking at the time being if he doesn’t pan out as a defensive end, he could be a starter-caliber linebacker, be it as Brian Urlacher‘s long-term replacement in the middle, or on the outside. The time is now for McClellin to reward Emery’s confidence before Chicago’s all-too-familiar first-round failure worries are stirred up.