It’s the month of January, and with that comes the start of the NFL playoffs. An exciting time for some fans, others (such as Jags fans) may not have sniffed the playoffs for quite some time. While the playoffs can seem like the highlight of every fan’s season, for others, they may start to find themselves getting more excited for the free agency period of any given season.
Free agency is a wonderful time because no matter how your team finished the past season, you can always have the hope that you’ll be able to retool during the offseason. An amazing team is not always going to be built through the free agent market, but it can be a great place to find that last key member of your championship aspirations.
Unfortunately, one thing that becomes incredibly evident at the start of every free agent period is that these players do not come cheap. It seems like every year that the NFL salary cap increases, and with it, comes the demands that the players are able to make. It is hard to blame the players for trying to maximize their earnings while they still can. Many athletes go broke after retirement, and many suffer from chronic pain for the rest of their lives.
One thing that can be even more disappointing is overpaying for a player who fails to do anything significant for your franchise. The history of the NFL is littered with free agents that signed with a new team and cost the franchise money, as well as time, while also ruining the joy of their fanbase. Washington thought they were getting a dominant pass-rusher when they signed Albert Haynesworth for over $100 million back in 2009. Only downfall was that Haynesworth clearly stopped caring about football once he got to Washington, and he was one of the many reasons for the Redskins' struggles over the past decade.
But as fun as it is to sit here and be pessimistic about potential free agent signings, it’s even more fun to be optimistic! There’s no shortage of amazingly talented players that are going to hit the free agent market this upcoming season. Even if they end up doing absolutely nothing, or signing with another team at the last minute, that doesn’t stop your hype train that can now start rolling full force into the 2016 season!
10 Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago Bears: Earned $1.4 million in 2015
One of the most exciting young wide receivers in football, Jeffery helped establish himself alongside Brandon Marshall before Marshall left for the Jets. While his 2015 season was marred by injuries, there is no doubting the talent of Jeffery, who has shown an ability to bring in the deep ball with the best of them. Given that the Bears drafted Kevin White, with the 6th overall pick in last year's draft, the hope was that the two players would grow alongside one another. If Jeffrey leaves for another team in free agency (such as the Carolina Panthers), it will not only hurt the Bears, but White as well.
9 Josh Norman, CB, Carolina Panthers: Earned $1.5 million in 2015
As amazing as Cam Newton has been this year, Josh Norman has been every bit as amazing on the defensive side of the ball. Coming off of a less the lucrative contract that paid him under $2 million in the 2015-2016 season, Norman is making the case for himself as being the best cornerback in football. With a great ability to force turnovers, and shut down some of the best wide receivers in football, you better believe the Panthers are well aware of just how valuable Norman is. As the spotlight continues to get bigger for Norman going into the playoffs, his payday could only continue to skyrocket. Cornerbacks have been paid well lately, Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson, and Byron Maxwell just some of the names who have been well rewarded for their efforts.
8 Eric Weddle, FS, San Diego Charges: Earned $10.1 million in 2015
Eric Weddle was an outstanding player for the San Diego Chargers. Not only could he grow a beard with the best of them, but his play on the field earned him several All-Pro nominations. With Weddle becoming a UFA this upcoming offseason, there is absolutely no doubt in his mind that his time is done in San Diego. The Chargers and Weddle have been publicly feuding, including an incident where Weddle was fined $10,000 because he watched his daughter perform during the halftime show. There is no doubting that Weddle can play, and there is no doubt that it won’t be happening in San Diego (or wherever the Chargers end up). Given that the Raiders are losing their long time safety in Charles Woodson, it would not be a stretch to see Weddle suiting up for the Silver and Black in 2016.
7 Ryan Fitzpatrick/Chris Ivory, QB and RB, New York Jets: Earned $3.25 and $2.75 million in 2015.
Similar to the Washington Redskins, the New York Jets face the weird situation where both their quarterback and running back are going to become free agents. For Fitzpatrick, nobody (maybe not even himself) saw this past year coming. Signed with the intention to perhaps backup Geno Smith, Fitzpatrick took over the starting role after Smith had his jaw fractured. The Jets missed the playoffs, but had 10 wins, and Fitzpatrick was integral in helping the production of both Eric Decker and Brandon Marshall. Head coach Todd Bowles has come out and said that if Fitzpatrick returns in 2016, he will be the starter. The Jets also face the interesting dilemma of Chris Ivory hitting free agency. Ivory was one of the best running backs in football, but the Jets also need to deal with fellow running back Bilial Powell, who was also a huge help for them down the stretch and also hits free agency in 2016. One way or the other, the Jets are a huge team to watch this offseason.
6 Sam Bradford, QB, Philadelphia Eagles: Earned $12.985 million in 2015.
Well the good news for Sam Bradford, is that he was able to make it through an entire NFL season without tearing his ACL again. The bad news for Bradford, is that his play was inconsistent (though improving towards the end). He still missed time with injury and his head coach, Chip Kelly, who was instrumental in bringing Bradford to Philadelphia, got fired. All of these things add up to a quarterback that may be looking for a change of scenery come the 2016 season. Bradford can definitely play, but he needs to be in a system that can show consistency. Keep an eye on who Philadelphia signs as their new head coach, as I am sure that will be a monumental factor in determining Bradford’s future.
5 Matt Forte, RB, Chicago Bears: Earned $9.2 million in 2015
It is never easy when you have to see the face of a franchise sign with a new team. For all the ups and downs that have come in the past decade for the Chicago Bears, Forte has been there for all of it. A consummate professional, Forte excels in all the areas necessary to be an outstanding running back in the NFL. Forte is unfortunately getting older, and the Bears were ecstatic with the play of Jeremy Langford who stepped in when Forte suffered an injury this year. The writing was already on the wall, but it is hard to imagine Forte lines up with Chicago again. He may not get a contract that warrants eye popping numbers, but he could be the final piece in many teams' search for the championship.
4 Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants: Earned $7.35 million in 2015
Now I do not know if I am more intelligent than Jason Pierre-Paul, but I am damn sure that I am much more careful when I am around fireworks. JPP had the chance to perhaps lock down a long-term deal with the Giants this past offseason, but then he went ahead and blew up part of his hand on the 4th of July. The incident cost JPP several games this year, and while he returned wearing some form of modified club on the injured hand, it definitely isn’t helping his case. That being said, the league is always looking for a pass rusher and JPP has shown that he can be as good as anyone in football. You better believe that there will be some strict “no fireworks” clause built into any contract he signs going forward though!
3 Kirk Cousins/Alfred Morris, QB and RB, Washington Redskins: Earned $778,172 and $1.5 million in 2015
Oh, how a year can change things. When the 2015 season started, Kirk Cousins was the starting quarterback in Washington but a lot of people did not know if that was just because RG3 was awful, or because Cousins was actually a good football player. Cousins silenced the haters this past season, leading the Washington Redskins to the top of the NFC East division. Cousins' season is best remembered by his emphatic “You like that?!” which he yelled at a TV camera, following a comeback win against the Bucs. Since that moment, the Redskins went on a tear, and despite their loss in the playoffs it does not discredit the impact Cousins has had. While their running back, Alfred Morris has also been disappointing this year, he also hits free agency this offseason and if both members walk away from the Redskins, things could go from optimistic to real ugly, real quick.
2 Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Earned $2.15 million in 2015
One of the most exciting storylines of the 2015-2016 season, was the turnaround of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Sure, they didn’t make the playoffs, but with the great play of rookie quarterback Jameis Winston, the Bucs seem to be on the up and up. One of the biggest positives for their season was the bounce-back play of Doug Martin, who rushed for over 1,200 yards from scrimmage. While Martin did not achieve the rushing title, his season was still huge in helping Winston develop, and could not have come at a better time for the UFA. If the Bucs want Winston, Mike Evans, and other young talents to keep developing, they’re going to need to pay some serious coin to keep Doug Martin in town.
1 Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos: Earned $9.75 million in 2015
Things may start to turn ugly in Denver if they are not able to bring back Von Miller for the 2016 campaign. Earning a little under $10 million in 2015, you need to believe that Miller will be expecting an even bigger payday as he gets to the 2nd stage of his career. Denver is also looking at having C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman (their two running backs) also becoming UFAs in the 2016 offseason. Given that next year may also be run by Brock Osweiler, it further increases Denver’s need to lock down their dominant pass rusher. If they don’t, there will be no shortage of teams lining up at the door to offer Miller exactly what he wants.