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By Andy Benoit
February 15, 2017

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

AGE: 24

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

AGE: 27

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

AGE: 28

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

AGE: 25

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

AGE: 28

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

AGE: 26

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

AGE: 27

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

AGE: 30

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

AGE: 30

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

AGE: 29

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

AGE: 28

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

AGE: 26

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

AGE: 29

A sturdy multidimensional run blocker, he’s also rock-solid in pass protection.

Match Game: LAR, GB, ARI

14. JASON PIERRE-PAUL, DE, GIANTS

AGE: 28

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

AGE: 27

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

AGE: 26

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

AGE: 27

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

AGE: 26

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

AGE 25

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

AGE: 27

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

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21. TERRELLE PRYOR, WR, BROWNS

AGE: 27

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

AGE: 29

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

AGE: 28

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

AGE: 27

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

AGE: 26

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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