By Matt Citak
The Super Bowl is the most exciting time of the NFL season. All of the work that’s been put in around the league for the last 12 months comes down to one final game. But unless you’re a fan of the Philadelphia Eagles or New England Patriots, your team’s season has already come to an end. For the other 30 teams in the National Football League, the next important date on the calendar is March 12th. On this day, clubs are permitted to contact and enter negotiations with players set to become unrestricted free agents when the 2018 league year officially begins at 4 PM on March 14th.
There are several notable players that could become unrestricted free agents come March 14th, depending on whether or not their current team decides to use the franchise tag on them. The biggest name that falls under this category is quarterback Kirk Cousins. It’s not often that a top QB in the prime of his career becomes available in free agency. The Washington Redskins have already applied the franchise tag on Cousins in each of the last two offseasons, meaning using the tag on him for a third time would cost the team about $34 million next season.
It remains to be seen whether or not Cousins, along with all of the other top free agents, will actually hit the free agent market. We won’t know for sure until we reach the deadline for teams to designate franchise or transition players on March 6th.
Until then, here are the top NFL free agents hitting the market in 2018 (as of now).
QB Kirk Cousins
Cousins is coming off yet another solid season as the starting quarterback for the Redskins. The 29-year-old completed 64.3 percent of his passes for 4,093 yards, 27 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions in 2017. It was the third consecutive season that Cousins threw for at least 4,090 yards and 25 touchdowns while playing all 16 games, and he has added at least four rushing touchdowns in each of those campaigns as well.
Redskins GM Bruce Allen is facing a big decision. Applying the franchise tag on Cousins could cost the team around $34 million, which is a very tough pill to swallow for one player. If the talented quarterback makes it to free agency, he is likely to reset the quarterback market and set a new bar for NFL contracts. Teams such as the Browns, Jets, Broncos, Cardinals and Jaguars could all pursue Cousins if he were to escape Washington. The future of Cousins will be the biggest storyline heading into the NFL offseason.
QB Jimmy Garoppolo
49ers GM John Lynch was able to acquire Garoppolo from the Patriots right before the trade deadline, and boy does he look like a genius for making the deal. The 26-year-old came to San Francisco and led the team to five consecutive wins to close out the regular season. Garoppolo threw for 1,560 yards, seven touchdowns and five interceptions, while completing 67.4 percent of his passes. In three of his five starts, the young quarterback had a completion percentage over 70 percent with at least 240 passing yards.
There is no question that Garoppolo is the quarterback of the future for the 49ers. His phenomenal debut as the team’s starting quarterback all but guaranteed him a huge payday. Lynch and the 49ers would love to lock Garoppolo down to a long-term deal, ensuring he sticks with the team for years to come. But if the two sides are unable to come to an agreement on a long-term deal, the franchise tag is also a possibility. One way or another, Garoppolo will be the 49ers starting quarterback in 2018.
RB Le’Veon Bell
Bell is by far the most talented non-quarterback that could hit the free-agent market this offseason. The shifty running back carried the ball 321 times for 1,291 yards (4.0 yards per carry) and nine touchdowns this season, while adding a whopping 85 receptions for 655 yards and two receiving touchdowns. His impressive 1,946 total yards from scrimmage ranked second in the league behind Todd Gurley’s 2,093 yards.
Bell played on the franchise tag in 2017 and made it very clear that he was not happy about it. The talented back did not sign the franchise tag until right before the start of the regular season, and has threatened to sit out the 2018 season if he is tagged again. Recent reports say Bell and the Steelers are making progress on an agreement for a long-term deal, something the two sides were unable to do last offseason. If Bell somehow does hit free agency, there will not be a shortage of teams lining up to try to sign the soon-to-be 26-year-old. Just a thought, but wouldn’t it be crazy if Bell left Pittsburgh to join their AFC North rivals in Cleveland? What about teaming up with Garoppolo in San Francisco? You can laugh, but the Browns and 49ers have the most cap space this offseason, and by a significant amount.
QB Drew Brees
Brees’ numbers were slightly lower in 2017 than we’re accustomed to seeing, thanks in large part to the emergence of New Orleans’ talented running back duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. Having said that, the future Hall of Fame quarterback still threw for 4,334 yards, 23 touchdowns, and only eight interceptions this past season. His 72.0 completion percentage was the highest of his career, while his eight interceptions were the least he has thrown since 2004. For the third consecutive season, Brees finished with a Passer Rating above 100.
It’s incredibly difficult to imagine Brees leaving New Orleans after the legacy he has built there over the last 12 seasons. The quarterback himself stated recently that he doesn’t see himself testing the open market, while Saints GM Mickey Looms told reporters just yesterday that the team wants Brees back. A reunion makes too much sense for both sides. For the Saints, they aren’t going to be able to acquire a more talented quarterback than Brees to start for them in 2018. For Brees, the Saints, with all of their young weapons on both sides of the ball, represent the 39-year-old quarterback’s best chance at winning one more Super Bowl before hanging up his cleats.
DE Demarcus Lawrence
Finally some defense. Lawrence enjoyed a breakout season in 2017. His 14.5 sacks were tied with Calais Campbell for the second-most in the league during the regular season, and it could not have come at a better time, as Lawrence is set to enter free agency for the first time in his career. The 25-year-old pass rusher finished the year with 58 combined tackles, four forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries to go along with his 14.5 sacks. His 79 total pressures from 425 pass-rush snaps gave him a pass-rush productivity of 14.8 (according to Pro Football Focus), which served as the best mark among all edge rushers in the NFL with at least 130 pass-rush snaps.
In all likelihood, Lawrence will be returning to Dallas next season. There is no way the Cowboys can let their most talented defender from this past season leave, which makes the franchise tag a likely outcome for the defensive end. Similar to Bell, if Lawrence were to somehow hit the open market, he would spark a frenzy among teams looking for edge defenders. And let’s be real, there are few teams that can legitimately say they are comfortable with their pass rush.
OG Andrew Norwell
Norwell picked the most ideal time to have his best NFL season. The 6-foot-6 guard started all 16 games for the Carolina Panthers this season, marking his second consecutive year in which he started every game. Norwell ranked third among all guards this season with an overall grade of 88.8 from PFF, and earned a first-team All-Pro selection. In 564 pass-blocking snaps, the fourth-year guard allowed just 13 hurries, giving him the second-best mark among qualifying guards. He was also the only offensive lineman in the league to be on the field for at least 500 pass-blocking snaps without allowing a sack or quarterback hit, making him just the fourth guard to achieve this feat since 2006.
There is no doubt Carolina will want Norwell back next season. However after signing RG Trai Turner and LT Matt Kalil to big contracts last offseason, the Panthers will not have too much cap space to work with. Norwell came into the league as an undrafted free agent, and will be looking to get paid for his success on the field this past season. If he does hit free agency, keep an eye out on the Giants, as new GM Dave Gettleman was the general manager that signed the undrafted Norwell to the Panthers four years ago.
WR Jarvis Landry
Since entering the league in 2014, Landry has racked up 400 receptions. To put that into perspective, Antonio Brown (472) and Julio Jones (411) are the only two wide receivers who have caught more passes during that span. Landry has also been the best slot receiver in the league during the last four seasons, as his 267 receptions for 2,880 yards from the slot rank first among receivers since 2014. The 5-foot-11 Landry put together a strong 2017 campaign, catching a career-high 112 passes for 987 yards and another career-best nine touchdowns. Yet the most impressive stat about the former LSU Tiger could be his production in the red zone. Landry has generated a passer rating of 124.1 when targeted in the red zone over the last two seasons, which represents the second-best mark among WRs with at least 25 red zone targets since 2016.
Landry’s free agency journey should be one of the most interesting to follow. Landry wants to be paid as a No. 1 receiver (and probably deserves it), but the fact that most of his success came as a slot receiver is sure to drive down his price a bit. However it is obvious that he is still a difference-maker on offense. If the Dolphins do decide to let Landry go (which looks more and more likely to happen after each passing day), don’t be surprised to see the Bears, Redskins, and 49ers pursue the talented receiver.
Other notable free agents: CB Malcolm Butler, WR Allen Robinson, QB Case Keenum, DT Sheldon Richardson, DE Ezekiel Ansah, LT Nate Solder, TE Jimmy Graham, OG Justin Pugh, CB Trumaine Johnson, DT Star Lotulelei, S Lamarcus Joyner, WR Sammy Watkins, DT Dontari Poe, RB Dion Lewis, C Ryan Jensen.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.