Prior to the start of the new league year in March, NFL teams make out their free agent wish list and check it twice. Some teams must make tough decisions on their own free agents, while others are looking to upgrade the talent on their roster.
Starting on Feb. 15, teams could begin using the franchise or transition tag on one player before the start of the new league year. If a player isn’t tagged by 4 p.m. ET on March 1, they will become an unrestricted free agent at 4 p.m. on March 9.
The franchise tag will guarantee that player a one-year salary for the average of the top-five players at his position or 120 percent of that player’s previous year’s salary, whichever one is greater. The transition tag guarantees the player’s original team the first opportunity to match any deal he may make with another team.
Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell, Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins and Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Kawaan Short are three players that will most likely receive the franchise tag, so they were not considered among the top 10 available free agents. Arizona Cardinals president Michael Bidwell and head coach Bruce Arians have said multiple times that linebacker Chandler Jones also will be tagged if they cannot come to an agreement by March 1, so he also was not included in this exercise.
So which players will likely be the most sought-after in free agency? Here are the top 10 unrestricted free agents this offseason.
1. Eric Berry, safety, Kansas City Chiefs
It is hard to imagine the Chiefs letting their five-time Pro Bowl safety leave in free agency for nothing, but it is possible. The team used the franchise tag on Berry last year and he has already stated that he will not play under those circumstance again in 2017.
At 28 years old, Berry is in the prime of his career and is coming off of an All-Pro season in which he recorded 77 tackles, four interceptions and nine pass breakups. The Chiefs need to lock up Berry not only so he doesn’t go to another team, but also so that they can use the franchise tag on defensive tackle Dontari Poe if they so choose.
Editor's note: Berry and the Chiefs agreed to a six-year, $78 million contract ($40 million guaranteed) on Feb. 28.
2. Dont’a Hightower, inside linebacker, New England Patriots
Hightower emerged as one of the anchors of the Patriots’ defense last season, recording 65 tackles, 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble in 13 games. His strip sack of Matt Ryan in Super Bowl LI was a huge play that helped spark New England’s historic comeback.
The Patriots have a history of not overpaying for players, but perhaps they will take a different stance with Hightower. After trading fellow linebacker Jamie Collins midway through last season, New England needs to find a way to keep Hightower in the fold although you never know what Bill Belichick is going to do.
3. Brandon Williams, defensive tackle, Baltimore Ravens
Williams’ 2016 stats aren’t exactly attention-grabbing as he recorded 51 tackles and one sack. But he is an excellent nose tackle to help anchor a 3-4 defense, whose contributions don’t always show up on the stat sheet. Last offseason, Damon Harrison signed a five-year, $46.2 million contract with the New York Giants and Williams is a similar type of player. There are several teams that could use help up front so the 28-year-old Williams will not lack for suitors.
4. Melvin Ingram, outside linebacker, Los Angeles Chargers
Somewhat quietly last season, Ingram put together an impressive, all-around season with 46 tackles, eight sacks and four forced fumbles. He posted similar numbers in 2015 (52 tackles, 10.5 sacks, three forced fumbles), so Ingram has established himself as one of the more productive pass rushers in the league and shouldn’t struggle to find a team willing to match his contract demands.
5. Alshon Jeffery, wide receiver, Chicago Bears
If the Bears don’t use the franchise tag on Jeffery, he will be the clear-cut top wide receiver on the market. When healthy, Jeffery is one of the league’s top pass catchers, although he has not been at his best the past two seasons. A combination of injuries and a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances could impact Jeffery’s perceived value in free agency. But again Chicago may not let him get there and either way, Jeffery won’t be without a job for long.
6. Kevin Zeitler, guard, Cincinnati Bengals
Zeitler is one of the NFL’s best guards and it isn’t likely the Bengals will offer him enough money to return in 2017. He has been an anchor on the right side of Cincinnati’s offensive line the past three seasons, playing every snap during that span. Zeitler figures to be the No. 1 free agent offensive linemen on the market and some team will pay him as such once free agency starts.
7. Jason Pierre-Paul, defensive end, New York Giants
Last March, the Giants signed Pierre-Paul to a one-year, $10 million prove-it contract. In 12 games, JPP produced to the tune of 53 tackles, seven sacks and three forced fumbles. New York’s spending spree on defense last season may prevent them from bringing him back, especially if another team is willing to offer the 28-year-old pass rusher more.
Pierre-Paul does have some injury concerns, as he’s missed 12 games the past two seasons combined, but he’s already overcome plenty in returning from the extensive hand injuries he received in the July 4 fireworks-related accident from July 2015 and showed last season he has plenty left in the tank.
8. A.J. Bouye, cornerback, Houston Texans
Bouye has said he would like to return to the Texans, but Houston will have plenty of competition for his services. A former undrafted free agent out of UCF, Bouye enjoyed a breakthrough 2016 season in which he recorded 63 tackles, 16 pass breakups, an interception and a sack. The 6-foot, 191-pound cornerback has developed into an all-around defensive back with the ability to shut down an opponent’s top receiver. Look for Bouye to cash in this offseason.
9. Stephon Gilmore, cornerback, Buffalo Bills
New Bills head coach Sean McDermott must hope the team can find a way to bring back Gilmore this fall, but it could get expensive. According to a report by Sal Capaccio of WGR 560 Sports Radio in Buffalo, Gilmore is seeking a contract that would make him one of the top five cornerbacks in the league, which is around $14 million a year.
Gilmore had a stellar 2016 season as he recorded 48 tackles, five interceptions and 12 pass breakups.
Gillmore has the combination of size (6-1, 190), skills and stats that could result in some team giving him the lucrative contract he’s seeking.
10. Calais Campbell, defensive lineman, Arizona Cardinals
Campbell is a nine-year veteran coming off one of his more productive seasons. Last season he had 53 tackles, eight sacks, a career-best three forced fumbles and also recorded an interception. Campbell has shown he’s effective as both a pass rusher and when it comes to stopping the run.
Arizona has used Campbell in a number of ways in its defensive game plan, so that versatility to play both on the edge and in the middle will increase his value. Campbell’s age (turns 31 on Sept. 1) may prevent him from securing a long-term deal, but some team will be happy to add him to their defense.
Other notable potential free agents:OG T.J. Lang, DT Dontari Poe, WR Terrelle Pryor, TE Martellus Bennett, CB Trumaine Johnson, DE Jabaal Sheard, OT Andrew Whitworth, WR DeSean Jackson
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.