A word of caution: free agency is a tricky trade. Players often reach this status because they're overpriced to begin with; if they weren't, they'd be re-signed by their own team (and some here will, including via the franchise tag). But we've seen plenty of cases in recent years of free agent acquisitions paying off. The Giants hit three home runs on defense last offseason: cornerback Janoris Jenkins, defensive end Olivier Vernon and defensive tackle Damon Harrison. The Falcons probably wouldn't have become the NFC champions without adding center Alex Mack. Whoever 2017’s mega free agent difference-maker is, he's almost certainly on this list.
1. LE’VEON BELL, RB, STEELERS
His patient running style won’t revolutionize the running back position because few, if any, players have his quickness and agility when changing pace. Factor in his receiving ability, and you have the best back in football.
Match: PIT, WAS, NYG
2. BRANDON WILLIAMS, DT, RAVENS
He’s built to be a nose, but he’s shown the athleticism and tenacity to thrive at 3-technique. If he’s not one of the five highest-paid DTs this year, it’s because some team got a steal.
Match: BAL, IND, DET
3. ERIC BERRY, SS, CHIEFS
A true multipurpose safety, he can play the run as a box linebacker or cover tight ends man-to-man, and he’s adept in zone coverage both shallow or downfield.
Match: KC, CLE, WAS
4. A.J. BOUYE, CB, TEXANS
This safety-corner hybrid became a lockdown perimeter mugger against receivers on the defense’s right side in 2016. No corner improved more over the last 12 months.
Match: TEN, GB, CHI
5. KAWANN SHORT, DT, PANTHERS
He offers burst off the snap, the strength to shed blocks and the nimble feet to get through chaotic trench warfare. Whichever team signs him will generate consistent interior pass-rush pressure.
Match: CAR, DET, CLE
6. CHANDLER JONES, DE, CARDINALS
He’s not an explosive edge bender, but he compensates for that with his high football IQ, lanky build and refined mechanics.
Match Game: CLE, ARI, TB
7. MELVIN INGRAM, OLB, CHARGERS
Few players have his kind of explosive lateral movement, and that presents significant value on designer pass-rush concepts like stunts and twists.
Match Game: CIN, CLE, LAC
8. CALAIS CAMPBELL, DT, CARDINALS
He has the wingspan of a pterodactyl and the strength of a stegosaurus. Rare is the D-lineman who is as steadily destructive.
Match Game: ARI, CLE, IND
9. DESEAN JACKSON, WR, REDSKINS
He has the speed to change an entire passing attack: Safeties must roll their coverage over the top to him; ‘backers and corners have to respect his run-after-the-catch speed.
Match Game: LAR, PHI, BUF
10. JARED COOK, TE, PACKERS
Green Bay was 10-3 in games he played in ’16 and 2-4 in games he didn’t. His ability to align anywhere creates a valuable domino effect of versatility for an offense.
Match: GB, NE, SF
11. KIRK COUSINS, QB, REDSKINS
He’s not exactly elite—he needs a well-constructed system with defined reads in order to thrive. But how often do you find a quality starting QB on the open market? Almost never.
Match: WAS, SF, DEN
12. ALSHON JEFFERY, WR, BEARS
His availability is a concern—he’s missed 17 games over the last five years, four to a PED ban in ‘16—but when he’s on the field, he’s as potent a downfield weapon as you’ll find.
Match Game: CLE, SF, TEN
13. T.J. LANG, G, PACKERS
A sturdy multidimensional run blocker, he’s also rock-solid in pass protection.
Match Game: LAR, GB, ARI
14. JASON PIERRE-PAUL, DE, GIANTS
JPP is a powerful pass rusher, capable of getting eight to 10 sacks, and he’s even better against the run. His three mutilated fingers (from a ‘15 fireworks accident) are a concern, but he adjusted his game in ‘16 to compensate.
Match: NYG, WAS, IND
15. TRUMAINE JOHNSON, CB, RAMS
He has an excellent feel for defending off-coverage, especially against big receivers, and he’s capable of tightening up to play straight man-to-man.
Match Game: LAR, TEN, GB
16. STEPHON GILMORE, CB, BILLS
Gilmore’s long arms and physicality serve him very well outside. He lacked consistency in ‘16, but the raw talent is there.
Match Game: TEN, BUF, SF
17. DRE KIRKPATRICK, CB, BENGALS
He’s prone to the occasional mistake, though those have been fewer and further between over time. Not many corners have his combination of length and hip fluidity.
Match Game: CIN, TEN, TB
18. DONT’A HIGHTOWER, LB, PATRIOTS
He’s as sturdy as they come against the run, both in space and up on the line of scrimmage. He’s also one of the game’s best blitzers.
Match Game: NE, IND, WAS
19. TONY JEFFERSON, SS, CARDINALS
A hidden gem, he’s one of the best blitzing safeties in football, and he was terrific in man coverage against tight ends in ‘16, even when he was isolated on the perimeter.
Match Game: ARI, CLE, IND
20. RICKY WAGNER, T, RAVENS
Right tackle is a problematic position for many teams. Some team will see Wagner as an expensive but worthy insurance policy on its quarterback.
Match Game: BAL, TB, DET
21. TERRELLE PRYOR, WR, BROWNS
He improved in critical areas in year one as a wideout. He’s no sure thing, but he has the size and athleticism to develop into a WR1.
Match Game: CLE, SF, TEN
22. MARTELLUS BENNETT, TE, PATRIOTS
His goofy disposition can distract from the fact that he’s been in the league for nine years. A proven veteran, he remains a versatile receiver and a very willing run blocker.
Match Game: NE, GB, DET
23. SYLVESTER WILLIAMS, DT, BRONCOS
He’s been kept out of the Denver spotlight by the likes of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, but this agile gap-plugger has been a big part of that D’s success, particularly on early downs.
Match Game: DEN, DET, NO
24. BENNIE LOGAN, DT, EAGLES
He moves laterally with tremendous aplomb for a man of his size (6’2", 309). In the right scheme, he can help make a run D elite.
Match Game: PHI, NO, HOU
25. MICAH HYDE, DB, PACKERS
Great at nothing but sound at everything (including punt returns)—that kind of versatility can change a D’s makeup, especially when you consider he can bring it from the slot, too.
Match Game: GB, WAS, IND
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