The most direct path to Super Bowl contention has always been the draft – but the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles proved in 2017 you can take a few shortcuts with free agency.
The Patriots signed Pro Bowl cornerback Stephon Gilmore away from the Buffalo Bills and running back Rex Burkhead away from the Cincinnati Bengals in free agency last offseason. Gilmore intercepted two passes and Burkhead scored eight touchdowns for the AFC champions.
The Eagles signed running back LaGarrette Blount away from the Patriots, quarterback Nick Foles from the Kansas City Chiefs and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery from the Chicago Bears. Blount led the Eagles in rushing, Jeffery led in touchdowns and Foles was the Super Bowl MVP.
So free agency is the subject of our Talk of Fame Network poll this week. Who is the most attractive player in the market place? We offer up quarterbacks, receivers, pass rusher and blockers as options. As a footnote, we did not include Le’Veon Bell or Drew Brees on the list because the Talk of Fame Network does not believe they will see the marketplace this offseason:
Ezekiel Ansah, DE. Passers and pass rushers are premium commodities in the NFL’s open market. Ansah, 28, is an elite pass rusher, collecting 12 sacks in 2017 and 14 ½ in 2015. Injuries limited him to two sacks in 2016. He’s a physical specimen at 6-6, 275 pounds who ran a 4.56 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine.
Malcolm Butler, CB. One of the key story lines of the Super Bowl was Bill Belichick’s decision not to use Butler on defense. But this also was a player who led all Patriots in defensive snaps during the regular season. Butler, 27, also led the team in passes broken up (12) and forced fumbles (3). He’s young (27) and owns the play that won the Patriots a Super Bowl on his resume – that goal-line interception of Russell Wilson in 2015.
Kirk Cousins, QB. What’s the value of a quarterback coming off three consecutive 4,000-yard passing seasons -- a quarterback who threw more touchdown passes (27) last season than past NFL MVP Drew Brees (23) and Matt Ryan (20)? Cousins, 29, played under a franchise tag the last two seasons but Washington’s acquisition of Alex Smith in a trade this offseason finally gives Cousins his path to free agency.
Trumaine Johnson, CB. The Rams asked Johnson to track the opposition’s top target and he led the team with 16 passes defensed. He intercepted two passes but returned one of them 39 yards for a touchdown against the Colts. Johnson, 28, also has the size at 6-2, 213 pounds to physically go head-up with the game’s biggest wide receivers.
Jarvis Landry, WR. What’s the value of the NFL receiving champion? Landry is about to find out. He set a franchise record with 112 catches in becoming the first Dolphin to win an NFL receiving crown since O.J. McDuffie in 1998. Landry, 26, also scored nine touchdowns but averaged only 8.8 yards per catch, the lowest of any NFL starting wide receiver.
DeMarcus Lawrence, DE. What’s the top pass rusher in the marketplace worth? If the Cowboys don’t slap a franchise tag on Lawrence, he’s about to find out. Lawrence, 25, finished second in the NFL last season with 14 ½ sacks. He also forced four fumbles and recovered two of them.
Andrew Norwell, G. The Eagles proved in 2017 that you win games up front – and that should benefit Norwell this offseason. He did not allow a sack last season as a starting guard on the Carolina Panthers and was voted first-team all-pro. Norwell, 26, signed with the Panthers as an undrafted college free agent in 2014 and became a starter midway through his rookie season.
Dontari Poe, DT. The strength of the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia defense was the defensive tackle tandem of Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan. They formed a brick wall up front, helping the Eagles lead the NFL in run defense. That should benefit all the wide bodies in free agency, and Poe is among the best. Poe, 27, goes 6-3, 345 pounds and is a veteran of two Pro Bowls. He was the 11th overall pick of the 2012 draft by Kansas City but moved to Atlanta in free agency in 2017.
Sheldon Richardson, DT. Richardson also should benefit in any free-agency push to sign size. He was the 13th overall pick of the 2013 draft by the Jets and became the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year. He then went to his first Pro Bowl in 2014. Richardson, 27, spent his first four seasons with the Jets before his trade to the Seattle Seahawks last September. He goes 6-3, 295 pounds.
Sammy Watkins, WR. A summer addition by the Rams, Watkins caught 39 passes for 593 yards and a team-leading eight touchdowns operating in a new offense with a new quarterback for the NFC West champions. He turns 25 in June and would give any offense vertical stretch. His best season came with the Buffalo Bills in 2015 when he caught 60 passes for 1,047 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging 17.5 yards per catch.