On these lists, “difference makers” are players who can change the dynamic of an offense or defense in and of themselves, whereas the other players listed would have to be plugged into specific schemes or surrounded by the right kind of talent.
Kirk Cousins (29)—Intends to sign with Vikings (three-year deal)
It’s unusual to see a quality starting quarterback available in free agency, it’s unheard of for that quarterback to the hit the market in a year when multiple teams (Denver, Minnesota and Jacksonville) have powerhouse defenses that leave them just a QB away from Super Bowl contention. Ultimately, Cousins landed in the right spot, for him and the Vikings.
Case Keenum (30)—Intends to sign with Broncos (two years, $36 million)
His greatness in 2017 was legitimate—he made plays not just by executing Pat Shurmur’s shrewd designs, but also by improvising when those designs didn’t work. Can Keenum do it again, this time without Shurmur?
OTHER SIGNIFICANT FREE AGENTS
Josh McCown (39)—Re-signed with Jets (one year, $10 million)
Quietly, McCown had a stellar 2017 campaign in New York (94.5 passer rating). He’s still a viable bridge guy, and maybe even an inexpensive option for a “ready to win now” team that loses out on Cousins.
Tom Savage (27)—Intends to sign with Saints
He must get more consistent in all facets, but at least he’s willing to stand tall in the pocket. That gives him long-term value as a backup; coaches will believe he can keep their system afloat if he has to come off the bench.
AJ McCarron (27)—Intends to sign with Bills (two years, $10 million)
The dearth of quality NFL quarterbacks has created a misconception around him. Maybe he is a diamond in the rough. But what there is no maybe about is that he has been the backup behind a very average quarterback for several years.
Sam Bradford (30)—Intends to sign with Cardinals (one year, $20 million)
The most talented QB in free agency, but unfortunately the durability concerns have become overwhelming.
Jay Cutler (34), Dolphins
If he wasn’t great in an Adam Gase scheme that he’d thrived in before, what makes you think he’d thrive somewhere else?
Mike Glennon (28)—Intends to sign with Cardinals
Let’s not underestimate the value of a solid, qualified backup.
Brock Osweiler (27)—Signs with Dolphins (one-year deal)
His agents should dismiss his 2016 season in Houston and ’17 season in Cleveland/Denver and sell him as the high-end backup who helped keep the 2015 Broncos’ Super Bowl season on track. If they believe a starting job might still be in his future, then sign a one-year contract for 2018. If they want long-term stability, they’ll pursue a long-term contract as a No. 2.
Geno Smith (27), Giants
Smith is a capable deep-intermediate passer and serviceable enough athlete, but with backup QBs, dependability is more important than talent. That works against Smith.
Teddy Bridgewater (25)—Intends to sign with Jets (one-year deal)
He hasn’t played in two years and he had arm strength limitations before he got injured.
Matt Barkley (27)—Signs with Bengals
Turnovers are a concern, but he had some productive outings in Chicago two seasons ago.
Blaine Gabbert (28), Cardinals
When the pocket is clean, he looks the part. But when the pocket becomes the least bit dirty, or even just threatens to be dirty, he’s a wildcard.
Matt Moore (33), Dolphins
A proven backup, his landing spot could be decided by how teams view him as a mentor.
Ryan Fitzpatrick (35)—Re-signed with Bucs
He almost became just the fourth QB in history to play for a quarter of the NFL’s teams. (The others: Josh Johnson, Josh McCown and J.T. O’Sullivan.)
Potential Cap Casualties (in alphabetical order): Andy Dalton (Bengals), Matt Schaub (Falcons)
Le'Veon Bell (26), Steelers
Still the best out-of-backfield creator in football, but would you believe Bell’s longest run last year gained just 27 yards? (UPDATE: Bell has been franchise-tagged by the Steelers.)
Carlos Hyde (27)—Intends to sign with Browns (three years, $15 million)
Not a dynamic receiving threat, but Hyde is a good enough first- and second-down runner to warrant three-down starter money on the open market.
Isaiah Crowell (25)—Intends to sign with Jets (three-year deal)
A sustaining ballcarrier who has a touch more speed and power than you’d guess.
OTHER SIGNIFICANT FREE AGENTS
Dion Lewis (27)—Intends to sign with Titans (four-year deal)
Lewis is a reliable, professional runner. What will be interesting is whether teams see him as a potential receiving threat. He didn’t have to be that in New England thanks to James White, but Lewis’s shifty quickness suggests he could be that kind of threat for a different team.
Rex Burkhead (27)—Re-signed with Patriots (three-year deal)
His James White-style skillset can add dimension to an offense. That makes him more valuable to teams with smart veteran QBs who can take advantage.
Frank Gore (34)—Signs with Dolphins
He can still slither through small cracks as a first- and second-down runner, though that’s the extent of his abilities at this point.
Jerick McKinnon (25)—Intends to sign with 49ers
His production in Minnesota never quite matched his scat back attributes, but could the right team and system change that?
LeGarrette Blount (31)—Signs with Lions (one-year deal)
He’s like an old pickup truck that looks worn down but still runs and hauls just fine. Blount is much more valuable in an interior run scheme, which shortens his list of suitors.
Damien Williams (25)—Signs with Chiefs
A viable receiver who can align almost anywhere in the formation.
Chris Ivory (29)—Signed With Bills (two years, $5.5 million)
Still a tenacious, difficult-to-tackle runner, especially if he’s fresh in a No. 2 role.
Shane Vereen (29), Giants
A viable receiver, though mostly just out of the backfield (and maybe the slot).
Charles Sims (27), Bucs
Yet another pass-catching back, and with more lateral agility than Williams or Vereen. Sims is coming off a disconcertingly quiet 2017 campaign, though.
Terrance West (27), Ravens
His running style fits most systems, but occasional indecisiveness is a concern.
Danny Woodhead (33), Ravens
Injuries and age are now an issue, but he’s worth taking a low-risk flyer to see if he can help your passing game. He’s always been an excellent weapon on checkdowns.
Adrian Peterson (32), Cardinals
He can still pound the rock on traditional runs, but offers nothing as a blocker or receiver, which makes an offense predictable when he’s on the field.
DeMarco Murray (30), Titans
His limited change-of-direction quickness makes him more reliant on good blocking than most ballcarriers. The problem is you can find younger, cheaper guys like the current iteration of Murray in the draft’s later rounds.
Doug Martin (29)—Signed with Raiders (one-year contract)
He possess excellent short-area vision and movement skills, especially in heavy traffic. The question is what to make of his: (1) injuries, (2) off-field issues and (3) 2.9 YPC over each of the last two years?
Orleans Darkwa (26), Giants
He flashes intriguing short-area east-west movement and some stop-start ability, but it never quite came together in New York.
Jeremy Hill (25)—Signs with Patriots
Will his 1,124-yard, 5.1-ypc rookie season from 2014 lead a team to take a flyer? Or will that success only make eyebrows scrunch even further when looking at his disappointing 2015, ’16 and ’17 seasons?
Jonathan Stewart (30)—Signed with Giants
Maybe not what he once was physically, but he has always been a cerebral player who just knows how to run. With the right O-line and quarterback, he can be an effective in a No. 2 role.
Potential Cap Casualties (in alphabetical order): C.J. Anderson (Broncos), Mike Gillislee (Patriots), Marshawn Lynch (Raiders), Lamar Miller (Texans), Latavius Murray (Vikings), Bilal Powell (Jets), Robert Turbin (Colts), T.J. Yeldon (Jaguars)
SIGNIFICANT FREE AGENTS
Anthony Sherman (29)—Re-signed With Chiefs
He can handle the ball in select situations, giving some small, pleasantly surprising oomph to an offense’s two-back packages.
Mike Tolbert (32), Bills
He’s no longer the wrecking ball runner he was in the early 2010s, and he has never been a pure lead-blocker.
Zach Line (27), Saints
Prototypical plug-in fullback.
Derrick Coleman (27), Falcons
Another plug-in fullback, just not quite as strong or dependable as Line.
Jarvis Landry (25)—Traded to Browns under franchise tag
As an excellent short-area receiver who can also threaten intermediately inside, he can certainly enhance a quick-strike offense. The question is whether teams think he can upgrade a more traditional offense, sort of like Golden Tate did in Detroit. There are questions about maturity and route running discipline.
Sammy Watkins (24)—Intends to sign with Chiefs (three years, $48 million)
Certainly better than his 593 yards for the Rams in 2017 suggest, but he’s not a true No. 1 receiver.
Allen Robinson (24)—Intends to sign with Bears (three years, $42 million)
Two concerns: He’s coming off an ACL injury, and he was bad against press coverage in 2016. But prior to that, he was as intriguing of a downfield perimeter receiver as you’ll find. Someone will risk big money in hopes of capturing that.
John Brown (27)—Intends to sign with Ravens (one year, $5 million)
Speed and stop-start quickness can make him lethal … if he stays healthy enough to consistently display it.
OTHER SIGNIFICANT FREE AGENTS
Paul Richardson (25)—Intends to sign with Washington (five years, $40 million)
An acrobatic vertical receiver who is tough to evaluate as an every-down weapon given that he comes from an unusual Russell Wilson-led Seahawks offense.
Jeremy Maclin (29), Ravens
A solid intermediate route runner who can produce within the context of a scheme, but Maclin is not someone who influences coverages.
Jaron Brown (28)—Signs with Seahawks
Coaches love plugging in track star wideouts because of how they can control safeties. That opens up the rest of your designs.
Dontrelle Inman (29), Bears
From a mechanical standpoint, he’s one of football’s 10 best route runners.
Danny Amendola (32)—Intends to sign with Dolphins
At times he was invaluable in his slot role with New England. Many teams will fear that’s the extent of what he can offer, though.
Marqise Lee (26)—Re-signed with Jaguars
He can be very good underneath (especially on crossing patterns), but he needs clean access off the line of scrimmage. The fact that he’s not quite a pure slot receiver complicates things.
Taylor Gabriel (27)—Intends to sign with Bears
A worthwhile No. 4, and maybe a No. 3, since he infuses an offense with speed.
Michael Crabtree (30)—Signs with Ravens (three years, $21 million)
Once one of the premier ball-pluckers in NFL, he has struggled mightily with drops in recent years. Factor in rumblings about a diva persona and you’ve got baggage.
Jordy Nelson (33)—Signs with Raiders (two years, $15 million)
In a well-schemed offense, he can be one of the league’s best slot receivers.
Allen Hurns (26)—Signs with Cowboys (two years, $12 million)
He can be serviceable within the context of a well-built system, but he’s not someone defenses will design coverages around.
Donte Moncrief (24)—Intends to sign with Jaguars
Ultimately a disappointment in Indy, but he has a neat enough toolkit for someone to take a short-term gamble on.
Jordan Matthews (25), Bills
A big, slow interior possession target. There are places for him, but not as many as there were 20 years ago.
Albert Wilson (25)—Intends to sign with Dolphins (three years, $24 million)
Can run complimentary dig and corner routes as part of a multi-receiver design.
Mike Wallace (31)—Signs with Eagles
Presently only two things to defend: go routes (which he executes speedily but inconsistently) and shallow crossing routes.
Ryan Grant (27)—Signs with Colts (contract with Ravens was voided after failing physical)
He possesses subtle shiftiness, but not enough to be much more than a puzzle piece.
Terrelle Pryor (28)—Signs with N.Y. Jets
His regression in Washington was disappointing and off-putting. He’s at his best running in-breaking routes, but we haven’t’ seen that since his 2016 season in Cleveland.
Eric Decker (31), Titans
Every now and then he separates on the outside thanks to deceptive mechanics, but you sign him for his ability to beat zone coverage from the slot.
Kendall Wright (28), Bears
Not quite shifty enough to create matchup problems in the slot, and not quite big or polished enough to regularly contribute outside.
Potential Cap Casualties (in alphabetical order): Dez Bryant (Cowboys), Randall Cobb (Packers), Brandon LaFell (Bengals), Brandon Marshall (Giants), Emmanuel Sanders (Broncos)
Jimmy Graham (31)—Intends to sign with Packers (three years)
If teams believe he can still win out wide and from the slot, a contender could pay big money in hopes of pushing their offense over the edge.
OTHER SIGNIFICANT FREE AGENTS
Tyler Eifert (27)—Re-signed with the Bengals (one-year deal)
As athletic and versatile as almost any tight end, but 41 missed games in five seasons raise a big red flag.
Trey Burton (26)—Intends to sign with Bears (four years, $32 million)
He brings value to an offense that features multiple tight ends because he can operate from anywhere inside the painted field numbers.
Eric Ebron (24)—Signs with Colts (two-year deal)
He improved his route running in recent years, but he never quite became a dynamic enough flex receiver to make up for his awful blocking.
Martellus Bennett (30)—Announced his retirement
He's aging, but his game was never predicated on quickness anyway. Even if decline sets in, he’s equipped to prosper in a No. 2 role for another few years, especially given that he’s an above average run-blocker.
Antonio Gates (37), Chargers
Watching him run these days is not unlike watching frozen honey leave that plastic bear-shaped bottle, but remember: Defenders must react to his tempo. They all can, but not all of them can handle his savvy, nuanced mechanics.
Julius Thomas (29), Dolphins
He’s still in his athletic prime, but the harsh truth is he’s never been effective without Peyton Manning.
Luke Willson (28)—Signs with Lions (one year, $2.5 million)
A plug-and-play No. 2 tight end who can work in almost any package.
Virgil Green (29)—Intends to sign with Chargers
He has become much more of a blocker than receiver. Will teams see him as an H-back?
Levine Toilolo (26), Falcons
The question is whether teams will see his uniquely lanky size as a plus or a minus in his run-blocking. That size has not translated to great receiving prowess, which is why he reached the open market.
Richard Rodgers (26), Packers
Soft hands, but not much twitch or power.
Anthony Fasano (33), Dolphins
One of those guys who keeps getting on the field because coaches know he won’t make mistakes.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins (25)—Signs with Jaguars (two years, $10 million)
Don’t fall for his flirtations.
Ben Watson (37), Ravens
If a team needs a No. 2 receiving tight end who can learn a playbook quickly, his career will continue.
Marcedes Lewis (33), Jaguars
Size and blocking aptitude are the selling points. His market will depend on how badly teams need these things.
Brent Celek (33), Eagles
Remains an adequate blocker, but might not be enough of a receiving threat to justify a roster spot.
Potential Cap Casualties (in alphabetical order): Dwayne Allen (Patriots), James Hanna (Cowboys), Vance McDonald (Steelers)
Nate Solder (29)—Intends to sign with Giants (four years, $60 million)
He’s too up-and-down in pass protection to be elite, but has the nimbleness to continue being a quality starting left tackle.
Justin Pugh (27)—Signs with Cardinals (five years, $45 million)
His stubbier body type lends itself better to guard, but he brings decent athleticism to the right tackle position, which is better than what most teams have.
OTHER SIGNIFICANT FREE AGENTS
Chris Hubbard (26)—Intends to sign with Browns
The Steelers did not miss a beat when he filled in for injured/suspended right tackle Marcus Gilbert for 10 games last season.
Cameron Fleming (25)—Signs with Cowboys
He improved steadily as a backup the last few years in New England. Will someone take a flyer hoping he’s the next Marcus Cannon?
LaAdrian Waddle (26), Patriots
He’s too lumbering to ever be more than a plug-in right tackle, but to his immense credit, he was a very reliable plug-in right tackle for the Pats in 2017.
James Hurst (26), Ravens
He has the body of a tackle, but not the body control. Ideally, you’re signing him to be a utility backup.
Andre Smith (31)—Intends to sign with Cardinals (two years, $8 million)
You have to assume he’ll play no more than 10 games. But hey, at least he can play those games at any position (except center).
Potential Cap Casualties (in alphabetical order): Duane Brown (Seahawks), Bryan Bulaga (Packers), Jared Veldheer (Cardinals), Menelik Watson (Broncos)
Andrew Norwell (26)—Signed With Jaguars (five years, $66.5 million)
Not as good as his befuddling first-team All-Pro accolade suggests, but he plays with the balance, dexterity and physical strength to improve a team’s man-blocking running game.
OTHER SIGNIFICANT FREE AGENTS
Jack Mewhort (26)—Re-signed with Colts (one year, $1.5 million)
A solid, reliable starter … if he can stay on the field. He has missed 17 games over the last two years.
Josh Kline (28)—Re-signed with Titans (two-year deal)
He’ll be as good as the guys around him.
Josh Sitton (31)—Signed with Dolphins (two-year deal)
He’s in decline but not washed up, and his ability to play anywhere along the interior expands his market.
Shawn Lauvao (30), Washington
He can be vulnerable in pass protection, but is a decent mover for his size, which boosts a zone-running game and backfield screen game.
Zach Fulton (26)—Intends to sign with Texans
He quietly started 46 games in four years with the Chiefs. Some team that’s solid up front but has been shaky at one of its guard spots will want him.
D.J. Fluker (27)—Signs with Seahawks
It’s hard to understand how a player with his size and north/south plowing ability hasn’t had a better career.
Jonathan Cooper (28)—Signs with 49ers
He was surprisingly sturdy in Dallas, where he played between superstars Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick. History says he’ll disappoint if not playing under such favorable circumstances.
Kevin Pamphile (27), Bucs
Last season he had several highlight reel plays, both for the offense and defense.
Senio Kelemete (27)—Intends to sign with Texans
He held up admirably as a fill-in guy for many years in New Orleans.
Potential Cap Casualties (in alphabetical order): Jeff Allen (Texans), Zane Beadles (49ers), Ronald Leary (Broncos), Andy Levitre (Falcons)
Weston Richburg (26)—Intends to sign with 49ers
A very good second-level blocker, and he has the necessary athleticism to get out in front on most screens.
OTHER SIGNIFICANT FREE AGENTS
Mike Pouncey (28)—Signs two-year deal with Chargers
When healthy (which hasn’t been often enough) he has the athleticism to expand your zone running game and entire screen game.
Spencer Long (27)—Intends to sign with Jets
One of the league’s better-moving centers. Can be a quality starter in an outside zone run-based offense?
John Sullivan (32)—Re-signs with Rams (two-year deal)
His football IQ is off the charts, which was huge for the Rams and young QB Jared Goff last year.
Travis Swanson (27), Lions
He has the tools of a first-stringer, but has missed two, four and five games over the last three seasons.
Ryan Jensen (26)—Signs with Bucs (four years, $42 million)
He’s a fighter, which some believe is enough to make you a quality interior O-line starter.
Russell Bodine (25)—Signs with Bills
Over the last two years he had too many negative plays, particularly in the running game and against designer pass-rush tactics.
Demarcus Lawrence (25)—Signed franchise tag tender with Cowboys (one year, $17 million)
There’s almost zero chance he gets past the franchise tag. Too bad for teams needing a proven edge guy—the gap between Lawrence and No. 2 (Ziggy Ansah) is substantial.
Ezekiel Ansah (28), Lions
Long and talented, but also injury-prone and enigmatic. In 2016 he was excellent but had only two sacks. In 2017, he was subpar (by star standards) but had 12 sacks. It will be fascinating to see what kind of offers he draws. (UPDATE: Ansah has been franchise-tagged by the Lions.)
Vinny Curry (29)—Signs with Bucs (three years, $27 million)
He has the short area lateral movement skills to be a dynamic pass-rusher inside or outside, and is much better than his statistics indicate.
OTHER SIGNIFICANT FREE AGENTS
Julius Peppers (38)—Re-signed with Panthers (one-year deal)
According to his age, he should be washed up. But that’s been true for five years now. As a situational pass rusher, he’s still in the NFL’s upper echelon.
Alex Okafor (27)—Re-signed with Saints (two-year deal)
He was having a career year in New Orleans before tearing his Achilles last November.
Trent Murphy (27), Washington
He needs to be in a hybrid 3-4 style scheme that allows him to align in different positions, a la Jarret Johnson for the Ravens in the 2000s.
Barkevious Mingo (27)—Intends to sign with Seahawks (two years, $6.8 million)
Warning to potential suitors: Don’t think you can be the one who finally turns him into a true edge rusher. He found his home as a move-around joker piece for the Colts last year, where he had responsibilities as a blitzer, spy and occasional zone coverage dropper. That must be his permanent role.
Adrian Clayborn (29)—Signs with Patriots (two years, $12 million)
A disruptive in-line run defender who can also make noise as a pass rusher (especially against an overmatched backup left tackle!).
Connor Barwin (31), Rams
At this point he’s the duct tape or WD-40 of football players. As a complementary short-term problem-solving piece, and he’s excellent, both in a 4-3 and a 3-4. But if you need a building block (even a short-term one), look elsewhere.
Jerry Attaochu (25)—Signs with 49ers (one-year deal)
He never fully blossomed as a Charger, in part due to injury. He has loose hips, a long frame and supple body control. Could he be a Jerry Hughes-type who finds his footing midway through his career?
Kony Ealy (26), Jets
Or could he be a Jerry Hughes type? The Patriots and Jets already took a chance on Ealy, and determined no. He’s hoping one more team will give it a shot.
Willie Young (31), Bears
Last October’s season-ending triceps injury shouldn’t impact his physical status much for 2018. He’s still spry enough to bend the edge playing 15-20 snaps a game. Young was a handful at times in the few games he did play last season.
Pernell McPhee (29)—Signs with Washington
A viable rotational piece who can attack inside or outside, especially on designer pass rush tactics like stunts and twists. Durability is a concern.
Tamba Hali (34), Chiefs
He has always amplified his burst with good leverage and tenacity. Can that carry him for another year or two?
Elvis Dumervil (34), 49ers
Roster spaces rarely go to guys who play 10-15 defensive snaps but zero special teams. His reputation as an on-field teacher could earn him one more stint, though.
Potential Cap Casualties (in alphabetical order): Cliff Avril (Seahawks), Robert Ayers (Bucs), Allen Bailey (Chiefs), Clay Matthews (Packers), Shea McClellin (Patriots), Brooks Reed (Falcons), Terrell Suggs (Ravens), Cameron Wake (Dolphins)
Ndamukong Suh (31)—Signs with Rams (one year, $14 million)
He wasn’t dominant in 2017, but he didn’t look washed up either. Still, 31-year-old, one-gap defensive tackles don’t often garner big bucks. His best fit remains in a true gap-shooting 4-3 scheme. Several teams who run this scheme have cap space: Indy, Tampa Bay, San Francisco, Jacksonville, Cincinnati and Buffalo, to name a few. It’ll be fascinating to see what he gets on the open market.
Star Lotulelei (28)—Signing with Bills
He possesses excellent short-area power and the athleticism to shoot gaps as a pass rusher. He’s not Fletcher Cox or Aaron Donald, but he could be the missing piece that makes a good defensive line great.
Sheldon Richardson (27)—Signs with Vikings to one-year contract
The talent is irrefutable. The question is, given his history, who wants to make him uber-rich and then hope he grows up?
OTHER SIGNIFICANT FREE AGENTS
Muhammad Wilkerson (28)—Intends to sign with Packers
The question is: Did he fall off in New York because he got injured, or because he got paid? Or was it both? Does it even matter? Immense talent makes him worth the gamble, but only at a reasonable price.
Dontari Poe (27)—Signs with Panthers (three years, $27 million)
The Falcons sold him on their team last year by arguing that their scheme would increase his opportunities to get upfield and accumulate value-rising sacks. It didn’t quite go that way—he had 2.5 sacks on the season—but plenty of teams will still want his combination of size and light feet.
Johnathan Hankins (25), Colts
He’s available because the Colts didn’t want to carry the hefty contract that they gave him last year. He’s a quality early down player who can also boost your pass rush from time to time.
Shamar Stephen (27)—Signs with Seahawks (one-year deal)
An above-average run defender who blended in along Minnesota’s rich defensive line, someone could pay him surprisingly big money to become a fulltime starter.
Bennie Logan (28), Chiefs
His quiet season in Kansas City suggests he’s better suited for a 4-3 nose-shade role, as opposed to a true nose tackle or 3-4 defensive end role. For multiple years as a nose shade, his lateral movement ability brought unique playmaking prowess to Philly’s run defense.
DaQuan Jones (26)—Re-signed with Titans (three years, $21 million)
He can beat bad blockers off the snap, and at times he has flashed as a run defender.
Kyle Williams (34)—Re-signed with Bills
The wear and tear of 12 outstanding seasons will make some leery, but the Bills trust that his tenacity and technique can produce a 13th outstanding season.
Sylvester Williams (29)—Signs with Lions
A terrific running down force but nearly irrelevant as a pass rusher.
Brent Urban (26)—Re-signed with Ravens (one-year deal)
He was quietly one of football’s better run-stoppers before his Week 3 Lisfranc injury last year.
Denico Autry (27)—Intends to sign with Colts
Has shown intriguing traits as a pass rusher, though not often enough to warrant big long-term money. If the market proves soft, would he bet on himself with a one-year deal? One thing’s certain: He’ll maximize his value wherever he goes. His effort always stands out on film.
Tyrunn Walker (28), Rams
He only played 15-20 snaps a game off the bench, but always stood out on film.
Haloti Ngata (34)—Intends to sign with Eagles (one-year deal)
The Lions run defense went kerplunk after he tore his biceps in Week 5. Durability and age are a concern, but all it takes is one team to believe he can compensate with his considerable football IQ.
Chris Baker (30)—Signed With Bengals (one year, $3 million)
A better pass rusher than his body type suggests, though didn’t produce nearly enough here in Tampa Bay.
Jay Bromley (25), Giants
He was a steady puzzle piece along a strong run-stopping interior Giants D-line.
Justin Ellis (27)—Re-signed with Raiders (three years, $15 million)
Little more than a space-eater.
Potential Cap Casualties (in alphabetical order): Tyson Alualu (Steelers), Sharrif Floyd (Vikings), Abry Jones (Jaguars), Brandon Mebane (Chargers), Domata Peko (Broncos)
Nigel Bradham (28)—Re-signed with Eagles (five years, $40 million)
He has developed into a quality three-down contributor with some playmaking prowess, both in run and pass D.
OTHER SIGNIFICANT FREE AGENTS
Tahir Whitehead (27)—Signed with Raiders
He can be very disruptive when pinning his ears back and pursuing the ball—needs to be a piece in a linebacking unit, not its headliner.
Avery Williamson (26)—Intends to sign with Jets
He rarely came off the field in Tennessee thanks to his gap-soundness in run D and serviceability against the pass.
NaVorro Bowman (29), Raiders
It’s hard to imagine the Raiders not making a strong run at re-signing him given the way he saved their decrepit linebacking corps last year. It is, however, a new coaching staff there…
Zach Brown (28)—Re-signs with Washington (three years, $24 million)
His pursuit speed is excellent, but he’s not immune to misreads.
Paul Posluszny (33)—Will announce his retirement.
He doesn’t run like he used to, but is so smart and fundamentally sound (flawless?) that it often doesn’t matter.
Todd Davis (25)—Re-signed with Broncos
He’s higher on this list because he’s so stingy against the run, but his vulnerability in coverage could leave him with less money than guys below him (like Hitchens, Pierre-Louis and maybe even Bynes).
Jerell Freeman (31), Bears
His flashing downhill burst can, at times, make him look almost as good as any ‘backer in the league.
Anthony Hitchens (25)—Intends to sign with Chiefs
The talent is evident, but he couldn’t secure an every-down role last season. Why?
Preston Brown (25)—Signs with Bengals (one-year deal)
Average in every sense of the word.
Demario Davis (29)—Intends to sign with Saints
He’s too young to be washing up, but where was he down the stretch?
Karlos Dansby (36), Cardinals
One of those guys who does everything right, which makes coaches comfortable. That’s why he’ll always crack the starting lineup if he’s on the roster.
Kevin Pierre-Louis (26), Chiefs
Kansas City’s defense at times looked better when he rotated in for an aging Derrick Johnson.
Jon Bostic (26)—Signs with Steelers (two-year deal)
He’s by no means dynamic, but has developed good awareness in zone coverage.
Josh Bynes (28)—Re-signed with Cardinals
Multiple times for the Lions and Cardinals he did a stellar job as a fill-in first-teamer. He’s worth considering as a passing-down specialist.
Will Compton (28), Washington
A few times he’s earned playing time ahead of more talented players. He’s worth signing as a source of quality depth.
Christian Jones (27)—Intends to sign with Lions (two-year deal)
Most of his snaps have come as a passing-down specialist. Given how much nickel teams play these days, could he garner low-end starter money?
Devon Kennard (26)—Intends to sign with Lions (three years, $18.75 million)
Brings value as a strong-side ’backer who can get physical with tight ends off the snap.
Derrick Johnson (35), Chiefs
Age and injuries have finally caught up. A tip of the cap for a wonderful career, and an inclusion on this list because he has risen from the dead enough times that completely writing him off feels unwise.
Lawrence Timmons (31), Dolphins
He turns 32 in May, and the age started to show last year. That’s a problem because he’s never been an especially cerebral player.
Potential Cap Casualties (in alphabetical order): Ray-Ray Armstrong (Giants), Vincent Rey (Bengals)
Trumaine Johnson (28)—Intends to sign with Jets
He has traveled with No. 1 receivers at times in recent years and won more battles than he’s lost. That he can travel in man and zone coverage should raise his value.
Malcolm Butler (28)—Intends to sign with Titans
Did you know he didn’t play in Super Bowl LII? Teams will find out what’s behind that and shape their offer accordingly. If he has a clean image, he’ll get top-10 corner money.
OTHER SIGNIFICANT FREE AGENTS
Vontae Davis (29)—Signed With Bills (one year, $5 million)
Injuries have become so routine that it’s hard to envision anyone offering him more than No. 2 money, even though, when he’s healthy, his physical nature can contest with many No. 1s.
Aaron Colvin (26)—Intends to sign with Texans (four-year deal)
He was overshadowed by the litany of stars on Jacksonville’s defense, but a closer look reveals him as one of the league’s best slot corners. That’s an important—and difficult—position to fill.
Kyle Fuller (26)—Signed offer sheet with Packers, matched by Bears (four years, $56 million)
His first year in Chicago was tremendous, and so was much of his last. It’s those years in between that might make teams slow to pull the trigger. Whoever signs him will be getting a quality ball-in-air outside defender. (Fuller has received the transition tag from the Bears.)
Richard Sherman (29)—Signed With 49ers (three years, $39.15 million)
He was still a high-level perimeter press corner last fall, but signs of decline and an Achilles injury as he enters his age-30 season are legitimate causes for concern.
Patrick Robinson (30)—Signed with Saints (four-year deal)
He was one of football’s best slot defenders. The Eagles have youth and depth at corner, but they may want to think lontag and hard before letting him go.
Morris Claiborne (28)—Re-signs with Jets (one year, $7 million)
Had some nice stretches as the Jets’ top cover corner last season. A team in need of a No. 2, especially if it runs a mostly zone-based scheme, will want him.
Rashaan Melvin (28)—Signs with Raiders (one year, $6.5 million)
He performed admirably in difficult circumstances for the Colts last season. He did that down the stretch for Baltimore a few years ago, too.
E.J. Gaines (26)—Signs with Browns
He’s experienced in a wide range of schemes, both outside and in the slot.
David Amerson (26)—Signed With Chiefs (one year, $2.25 million)
He had a great stretch in the second half of 2016, but has been erratic for much of his six-year career.
Nickell Robey-Coleman (26)—Re-signed with Rams (three years, $15.75 million)
He’s at his best in attack-mode, including on slot blitzes. Considering this and his adequacy in man coverage, a pressure-based defense should want him.
Prince Amukamara (28)—Re-signing with Bears
glIdeally, he’s your No. 4 corner, giving you confidence that your defense could survive if a starting outside corner were out for a few weeks.
Nevin Lawson (26)—Re-signed with Lions
Another nice plug-in guy who could add valuable depth, especially given that he has the body to play outside or in the slot.
Bashaud Breeland (26)—UPDATE: Contract with Panthers voided after failing physical
About as up-and-down as they come. What that means for his open market value remains to be seen.
Jason McCourty (30)—Traded from Browns to Patriots for a 2018 sixth-round pick
Used as a No. 1 at times in Cleveland but got picked on. He is an adequate starter still, but ideally, you are signing him for depth purposes.
D.J. Hayden (27)—Intends to sign with Jaguars (three years, $19 million)
Jacksonville brought in Hayden to replace Aaron Colvin in the slot—that’s iffy, it would be a major downgrade inside.
Leonard Johnson (28), Bills
It seems like he’s become an off-the-street midseason slot starter every year of his career. Was his solid 2017 season in Buffalo enough to get him a permanent home?
Dontae Johnson (26), 49ers
He had too many bad plays in downfield coverage last season. He should consider taking a one-year “prove it” deal and hope to bounce back.
Ross Cockrell (26), Giants
He has played significant snaps in matchup zone schemes for the Steelers and Giants. That’s enough to secure a No. 4 job, with a chance to compete at No. 3.
Davon House (28), Packers
After watching almost every snap of his seven-year career on film, it’s still hard to declare whether he’s good or bad.
T.J. Carrie (27)—Intends to sign with Browns (four years, $31 million)
His experience in the slot and as a punt returner will bolster his value as a backup.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (31), Giants
He has long been a player with exaggerated highs and lows. His value hinges on what teams think of his film from the second half of 2018, when he played a variety of positions for the Giants, including sub-package linebacker.
Jeremy Lane (27), Seahawks
He's too young to write off, but durability is a concern. Another negative (for him): His ability to play inside would normally set him apart, but this year’s cornerback market is unusually flush with slot defenders.
Lardarius Webb (32), Ravens
His ability to play safety makes him a viable dime back option—and he’s still a capable slot defender in a zone scheme. Someone will get a good deal on him.
Adam Jones (34), Bengals
He lost playing time to recent first-round pick Willie Jackson last year—and it was surprising that Jones didn’t lose more. (That might be a commentary on Jackson's strong play, though.) Jones can still play, but given his decline and notorious temperament, teams might not bother.
Brent Grimes (34)—Re-signed with Bucs (one-year deal)
Many of us thought he would wash up a few years ago, but then he went to Tampa Bay and prospered. So we say, with a sprinkle of caution: He showed signs of decline last season.
Eric Reid (26), 49ers
Teams would be foolish to pass on him because of the anthem protests. He’s a playmaker and one of the better multi-tool defenders in football, with significant experience at both safety spots, in the slot and at linebacker.
Lamarcus Joyner (27), Rams
A rangy centerfielder who can cover certain slot receivers in base defense; he’s undersized, but he’s also one of football’s nastiest hitters. (UPDATE: Joyner received the non-exclusive franchise tag from Rams.)
Tyrann Mathieu (25)—Signs with Texans (one-year deal)
He still has a unique blend of versatility and explosiveness, but his once-incredible change-of-direction ability has dulled after multiple knee injuries.
Morgan Burnett (29)—Will reportedly sign with Steelers
He started 102 games in Green Bay, so the perception is that he’s old. But 29 is middle-age for a smart safety. Adding to his value is that he’s proven to be every bit as versatile as Eric Reid.
OTHER SIGNIFICANT FREE AGENTS
Kenny Vaccaro (27), Saints
He never quite developed the cover skills to fulfill his first-round billing with the Saints, but teams that want to play with three safeties on first and second down will be very interested.
Tavon Wilson (28)—Re-signed with Lions (two years, $7 million)
He’s at his best in the box, particularly when rotating down into it after the snap.
Kurt Coleman (29)—Signed With Saints (three years, $18 million)
An aggressive zone defender who has a knack for disguising his coverage.
Corey Graham (32), Eagles
The former corner’s coverage versatility was critical for Philly. Teams with expansive schemes should look closely at the veteran.
T.J. Ward (31), Bucs
He disappointed last season in Tampa Bay’s zone-based scheme. At 31, can he still cover tight ends man-to-man? That answer could determine his fate on the free-agent market.
Tre Boston (25), Chargers
Not particularly strong or physical, but he has become a reliable-enough centerfielder, assuming he’s playing with good cornerbacks.
Ron Parker (30), Chiefs
His cornerbacking ability makes him valuable in matchup-zone based defenses that ask safeties to pick up man coverage assignments downfield. With more teams playing nickel and dime packages, he could be a hidden gem off the bench, not unlike Corey Graham with the Eagles last year.
Bradley McDougald (27)—Re-signed with Seahawks
He held up decently in the Kam Chancellor role with Seattle. He could very well be signed as a backup and wind up winning a starting job.
Mike Mitchell (30), Steelers
He isn’t a great reactionary defender, which is why he played with exaggerated depth as Pittsburgh’s free safety. Remember, though, he played for years in Carolina as an attack-minded box safety. He’s worth signing as a hybrid backup.
Da’Norris Searcy (29)—Signs with Panthers (two-year deal)
He saw his role diminish last season, but he’s still capable as an add-in, unblocked run defender. Plus, he is experienced in a variety of schemes, which will make coaches more comfortable with him in coverage.
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