By Steve Silverman
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The NFL is in a different world than the one you and I live in, hence the phrase “league year.”
That is how the NFL notes the start of the 2017 season and the end of the 2016 season, and the new league year starts March 9. Teams can start signing free agents to upgrade their rosters then, and while the consensus is that those general managers who attempt to build their teams through free agency will fail, it is time to readjust that thinking.
Start with the Giants, who last year signed defensive end Olivier Vernon, defensive tackle Damon Harrison and cornerback Janoris Jenkins. Those three, along with second-year safety Landon Collins, were responsible for a defensive turnaround that helped the Giants become a playoff team after having the worst defense in the league the previous season. Give defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo some credit as well.
It wasn’t just the Giants, either. The Oakland Raiders signed four key free agents in linebacker Bruce Irvin, safety Reggie Nelson, guard Kelechi Osemele and cornerback Sean Smith, and they helped the Raiders challenge the New England Patriots for the No. 1 slot in the AFC most of the season.
The Raiders ended up settling for a wild-card spot when quarterback Derek Carr was injured late in the season, but they returned to relevance in 2016 and should remain there for the foreseeable future.
This year’s free agent class is strong and deep, but nobody can simply look at the drawing board and make their offers. Teams can slap franchise tags on players, and that will impact offseason plans.
The Pittsburgh Steelers will undoubtedly use that tag on running back Le’Veon Bell if they can’t sign him to a new contract. The same seems likely for Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins.
It’s not so simple, however, for Kansas City safety Eric Berry, who was tagged by the Chiefs last year and had an excellent season for head coach Andy Reid. Berry has said he won’t play under the tag again this season, and if the Chiefs can’t get his name on a new contract, it could get ugly this summer.
Here’s my look at 10 more free agents who could turn out to be impact players for the teams that sign them.
• Edge rusher Chandler Jones of the Arizona Cardinals is in the prime of his career and has hit double-digit sacks in three of his five previous seasons. Jones, who turns 27 on Feb. 27, has the size, length, speed and know-how to cause havoc in the backfield when the game is on the line. The Cardinals will undoubtedly make a huge offer to keep him and could hit him with the franchise tag, but that is not assured. The former Patriot will be an attractive player for a number of teams, but the Raiders, Chiefs, Jets, Lions and Ravens could use the most help based on last year’s sack figures.
• Defensive tackle Kawann Short of the Carolina Panthers was one of the main reasons that team was able to dominate in the 2015 regular season and reach Super Bowl 50. However, he fell off last year and did not play with the same kind of consistency. But Short is a 6-foot-3, 299-pound bull of a man who can destroy the interior run and rush the passer effectively. After registering 11 sacks in 2015, he had just six last year. A bounce-back season seems reasonable. The Raiders and Steelers could use his help.
• Defensive end Calais Campbell is another stud on the Arizona defensive line. The 30-year-old Campbell is a brilliant technician who has the long arms and quick first step needed to turn the corner and get to the quarterback. Campbell, who had eight sacks last season, is one of the many attractive free agents on the Arizona roster. He is the kind of consistent player who appeals to Ravens coach John Harbaugh.
• Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul made an excellent recovery last year from the self-inflicted fireworks injury that ruined his 2015 season. Pierre-Paul will never be the dominant superstar he was prior to the injury, but he had seven sacks in 12 games before his season came to an end because of sports hernia surgery. The Giants have to decide if they need to bring him back, and based on the way he played last year, he would be a solid signing. If the Giants decide JPP doesn’t fit in their future plans or isn’t worth a bidding war, look for the up-and-coming Tampa Bay Buccaneers to give him strong consideration.
• Guard Kevin Zeitler of the Cincinnati Bengals may not be a household name – that’s not going to happen for interior linemen not named Gene Upshaw, John Hannah or Dwight Stephenson (all Hall of Famers) – but he is one of the best blockers in the league and should do quite well for himself in free agency. Zeitler is 26 and should be approaching the prime of his career. The Bengals are not known for rewarding offensive linemen, and he will almost certainly be available. The Minnesota Vikings, who had the worst rushing offense in the league last season, could upgrade with Zeitler.
In addition to those five free agents, here are five more who should command big raises at the start of the league year.
Team: New England
Best Fit(s): San Francisco, Buffalo
Team: Kansas City
Best Fit(s): Miami, Detroit
Best Fit(s): N.Y. Jets
Best Fit(s): Kansas City, Philadelphia
Best Fit(s): N.Y. Giants, Detroit
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