While there are still seven weeks of regular season football left, it’s never too early to look ahead to the offseason. Plenty of teams will be looking to make big splashes in free agency in 2017, and there could be many big-name players available when the market opens. It’s entirely possible that all of the players below are re-signed by their current teams, but as in years past, it seems likely that a few of them will hit the unrestricted-free-agent market.
Below are the 10 best players currently destined for free agency following the conclusion of the 2016 season.
[Editor's note: This list does not include restricted free agents, such as Patriots CB Malcolm Butler.]
1. Dont’a Hightower, LB, Patriots, 88.1 overall grade
The list of inside linebackers that have been more consistently dominant than Hightower over the course of his career is very small. Both his run-defense and pass-coverage grades this season are above 80.0, showcasing the kind of three-down ability required from top-flight inside linebackers. He’s also the best pass-rushing inside linebacker in the NFL, leading the league with a 78.7 pass-rush grade. Hightower has averaged over four sacks and 23 pressures per season through his career. It would be a surprise to see him leave the Patriots, as he’s unquestionably their defensive leader, but if he did, nearly every NFL team would be likely be calling his agent.
2. Kawann Short, DT, Panthers, 84.6
Simply put, Kawaan Short is one of the best interior defenders in the NFL. Last season, he was one of the best pass-rushers in the league at his position, racking up 12 sacks and 68 total pressures. His pass-rushing has dropped off a little bit, but not too much, as his 24 total QB pressures still rank eighth in the NFL among defensive tackles. Short is also a fantastic run stopper, currently ranking fifth in the NFL at his position with an 11.8 run-stop percentage. Interior defenders who can play the run and rush the passer as effectively as Short can are few and far between; he will be a coveted free agent if not re-signed by Carolina.
3. Jamie Collins, OLB, Browns, 83.2
Despite reports to the contrary, Jamie Collins was not playing poorly before his trade from the Patriots. He’s currently the 14th-highest-graded edge rusher in the league, and would be the 13th-highest-graded inside linebacker if he was still playing that position. Collins possesses the athletic ability to excel in any role he’s put in, whether that’s coverage or pass-rushing. His coverage grade of 84.2 ranks near the top among all linebackers. However, Collins can also rush the passer when asked, as evidenced by the five QB pressures he has in Cleveland since being moved to the edge. He’s arguably one of the most athletically-gifted defenders in the league, and if he decides not to stick around in Cleveland, he’ll be highly coveted.
4. Chandler Jones, OLB, Cardinals, 86.6
While Chandler Jones' production in New England never quite matched the hype he often received, he was still a good player. But in his first season with the Cardinals, his performance has reached another level. Jones' 43 total QB pressures rank second only to Von Miller among 3-4 outside linebackers. He also adds 13 solo run stops, which is the fourth-most at his position. At times this season, Jones has completely taken over games from the edge. He will still occasionally have games where he doesn’t contribute much, but those are far fewer than they once were. Jones is a top-flight pass-rusher at this point, and he’ll generate a heap of interest this offseason.
5. Melvin Ingram, OLB, Chargers, 85.9
Melvin Ingram is an edge defender in the midst of his prime years right now. Last season, he ranked 18th at his position, with an 84.2 overall grade; in 2016, he ranks eighth. Among 3-4 outside linebackers, Ingram has a pass-rushing productivity score of 10.7, and his 39 total pressures ranks fifth. But he also adds the ability to defend the run well, and can drop into coverage if need be. His 76.0 coverage grade ranks third among edge defenders (one of the players above him is Jamie Collins, who played inside linebacker most of the season). Ingram a young player in his prime, and should command a lot of interest if indeed he were to hit the market as an unrestricted free agent.
6. Le’Veon Bell, RB, Steelers, 76.8
While Le'Veon Bell isn’t quite yet playing up to the level we’ve come to expect from him, he’s still one of—if not the best—running backs in football. Last season, Bell was PFF's highest-graded RB, at 90.0, despite playing just six games. This season, his elusive rating of 54.0 ranks 11th in the NFL. He’s an all-around back who is just as effective catching the ball as he is running it. Since he came into the league in 2013, Bell’s 1,755 receiving yards rank second among RBs, while his 3,210 rushing yards rank third. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game, as he can attack defenses from anywhere on the field. It would be downright shocking if he leaves Pittsburgh, but crazier things have happened.
7. Eric Berry, S, Chiefs, 85.6
Berry continues to be one of the best cover safeties in the NFL, and if he hits free agency, there will be a lot of teams looking for him to come lock down their secondary. Berry has coverage earned grades of 92.1, 84.9, and 85.9 his past three seasons (not including his injury-riddled 2014 season). He rarely messes up his deep-coverage zones, and is a huge reason why quarterbacks have a passer rating of just 82.4 when throwing against the Chiefs. Berry isn’t a liability in the run game, either, as his 11 run stops rank eighth among all safeties this season.
8. Alshon Jeffery, WR, Bears, 76.3
Alshon Jeffery—currently serving a four-game suspension—is having a down year, but that may have more to do with playing on a hapless Chicago offense than it does with his own performance. Last season, Jeffery earned a 91.9 overall grade, good for third among all receivers. His 2.87 yards per route run ranked fourth. Since 2013, Jeffery’s averaged 14.89 yards per reception, which ranks fourth among active receivers with at least 200 catches in that span. Of all the potential free agents on this list, Jeffery seems the likeliest to actually hit the open market. If he does, there will likely be a line of teams looking for him to join their offense.
9. Calais Campbell, DT, Cardinals, 87.7
If this were a few years ago, Campbell would be much, much higher on this list. Campbell has been a dominant force in the middle of the Cardinals' defensive line for the past half-decade now. His lowest season grade since 2010 was last year’s 84.8, which is still a very good grade. So far this season, he has 28 total QB pressures, and a seventh-best 8.2 pass-rushing productivity score. The only issue with Campbell is that he’ll be 31 years old by the start of next season. While that doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t be good going forward, his advancing age is something to consider for an interior defender like Campbell.
10. Andrew Whitworth, LT, Bengals, 89.8
Andrew Whitworth turns 35 in December, and is in his 11th professional season, but the fact of the matter is that he still continues to be one of the best tackles in the game. Whitworth hasn’t graded below 85.0 in a season since 2008, and has seasons with grades above 90.0. His pass-0blocking efficiency of 97.8 ranks third in the league, thanks to just nine total QB pressures surrendered this season. If this were four years ago, Whitworth would likely be No. 1 on this list. It’s fair to wonder how many years the Bengals' OT has left, but he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down this season.