News & Analysis

20 highest-graded unrestricted free agents available

Miami Dolphins running back Lamar Miller (26) runs with the ball against the New York Jets during an NFL game at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2015. (AP Photo/Brad Penner)

For all but two NFL teams, the 2015-16 season has come to a conclusion, and it is time to start planning for the offseason. While the free agent pool is bound to change between now and March between franchise tags and re-signings, here is an early look at PFF’s 20 highest-graded players currently set to hit the open market.

To see every 2016 free agent, be sure to check out PFF's free agency tracker.

(Editor's note: Each players' overall season grade is noted next to his name; grades fall within PFF's new 1–100 scale. Only unrestricted free agents included in this list, not restricted free agents.)

1. Alshon Jeffery, WR (94.2)

2015 team: Chicago Bears

Jeffery missed half of the 2015 season sidelined with several injuries, but that did not stop him from leading the Bears in receiving yards by a large margin. Should Chicago let the 25-year-old hit the open market, he will easily be the most sought after skill player in free agency, with the potential to totally transform a passing offense. Jeffery finished the year as PFF's third-highest graded wide receiver, behind only Antonio Brown and Julio Jones.

2. Von Miller, ED (92.9)

2015 team: Denver Broncos

Having led his position group in total pressure four of his five years in the league, (2013 being the exception, when he missed seven games), Miller’s reputation as an elite pass rusher speaks for itself. Far from a one-trick-pony, however, Miller has graded out very strongly in run defense every season, and positively in pass coverage four of his five seasons in the NFL. Denver has a number of difficult decisions to make this offseason, but the question of whether to retain Miller’s services seems obvious. If he does hit the market, he’s a good bet to be the league’s highest-paid defender.

3. Olivier Vernon, ED, (92.2)

2015 team: Miami Dolphins

If you want an example of a player turning it on right before free agency, look no further than Olivier Vernon. Halfway through the season, Vernon looked like just one of many under-performers in Miami this season; that changed drastically in the second half. PFF’s second-highest graded overall edge defender in the regular season, Vernon earned positive game grades in each of the last eight weeks. Leading all 4-3 ends in QB hits, with 30, he would accumulate 24 of those in those final eight games, in addition to eight of his 10 sacks and 25 of his 41 hurries.

4. Damon Harrison, ID (91.3)

2015 team: New York Jets

The highly-paid nose tackle may be a dying breed, but Damon Harrison has a great chance to buck the trend. Harrison is the classic two-down, run-plugging tackle in a league that has geared itself more and more toward defending the pass, but Harrison’s work against the run has been dominant enough to warrant special attention. As a three-year starter for the Jets, Harrison has led all defensive tackles in run stop percentage each of those three seasons.

5. Jerrell Freeman, LB (90.6)

2015 team: Indianapolis Colts

The 29-year-old former CFL star had the best year of his NFL career with the Colts this season. Freeman was third in the league amongst inside linebackers in run-stop percentage, and also sat comfortably in the top five in tackling efficiency. Only Derrick Johnson bested him in the metric yards-per-cover-snap. As far as the hierarchy of inside linebackers goes, it is Luke Kuechly’s world, and everyone else is living in it, but Freeman is the only ILB that came close to Kuechly’s run defense grade.

6. Richie Incognito, OG (90.0)

2015 team: Buffalo Bills

Incognito’s off-field reputation preceded him heading into 2015, but he has always been one of the better guards in the league, and his signing always seemed a shrewd piece of business by Rex Ryan from an on-field perspective. It would appear the year out of the league did him a world of good, as he never had a season as strong as 2015 with Buffalo. Baltimore's Marshal Yanda held the top spot in PFF’s guard grades for the second straight year, but right behind him was Richie Incognito, buoyed by an excellent performance in the run game.

7. Muhammad Wilkerson, ID (89.2)

2015 team: New York Jets

If it weren’t for coming into the league with J.J. Watt, Muhammad Wilkerson would have the argument for being the league’s top 3-4 defensive end. This year, he took it to the next level as a pass rusher, setting career highs in sacks, hits and hurries. His 78 total pressures trailed only Watt at the position. Always stout against the run additionally (second in run-stop percentage in 2014), Wilkerson is poised for a major payday, whether with the Jets or another franchise.

8. Evan Mathis, OG (88.6)

2015 team: Denver Broncos

The 34-year-old Mathis did not get the big payday he was hoping for following his release from Philadelphia, but he will get another crack at one after yet another excellent year. Despite new surroundings in Denver, he found himself in the familiar position of being PFF’s top-graded run blocking guard.

9. Robert Ayers, ED (88.5)

2015 team: New York Giants

One of the more slept-on pass rushers since his move from Denver to New York in 2014, Ayers has joined Odell Beckham Jr. in being one of the few bright spots for the Giants the past two seasons. Going back to his final season in Denver, Ayers has hovered around the top 10 in pass-rush productivity for 4-3 defensive ends, including leading the league in 2014. Injuries have been an issue with Ayers, but if healthy, he will certainly be a boost to a team’s pass-rush in 2016.

10. Derrick Johnson, LB (88.3)

2015 team: Kansas City Chiefs

Having torn his Achilles tendon in Week 1 of 2014, nobody would have blamed the now 33-year-old Johnson for being a shell of his former self. On the contrary, Johnson worked himself back to full strength and had one of his best seasons in 2015. Johnson was one of the very best overall players at the position, leading the league amongst ILBs in yards-per-cover-snap and grading out highly in run defense, as well.

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11. Doug Martin, RB (87.8)

2015 team: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Doug Martin is the cream of the crop in what is shaping up to be the deepest free agent running back class of the last few seasons. In addition to proving his worth once again as a workhorse and pushing Adrian Peterson for the rushing title, Martin led the league in elusive rating, yards-after-contact, and 15+ yard runs. Only Peterson and Melvin Gordon had more fumbles than Martin, however, which could scare off some suitors.

12. Danny Trevathan, LB (87.6)

2015 team: Denver Broncos

Injuries ruled Danny Trevathan out for much of 2014, but his 2015 campaign built on his solid 2013 season, as he flourished in Wade Phillips’ 3-4 scheme. Trevathan finished in the top five for ILBs in both run-stop percentage and tackling efficiency, while also having PFF’s sixth-highest coverage grade amongst ILBs. With Trevathan one of four Broncos on this list, and several more starters set to become free agents, linebacker-needy teams should like their chances of Trevathan hitting the market.

13. Eric Berry, S (87.5)

2015 team: Kansas City Chiefs

For Eric Berry to have played football again so soon after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma is a remarkable story. For Berry to return from successfully battling the disease and immediately return to being one of the best safeties in the entire league is nothing short of incredible. The former top-five pick finished in PFF’s grades as a top-five safety, particularly shining in coverage.

14. Mitchell Schwartz, OT (86.6)

2015 team: Cleveland Browns

PFF’s highest-graded right tackle in the league in 2015, Schwartz has not missed a start for Cleveland since entering the league as a second-round pick in 2012. Hue Jackson will surely want Schwartz back in order to keep one of the league’s best lines in tact, but it is going to take a nice pay bump in order to do so. Young, durable, and consistent, Schwartz stands to make a comfortable sum if he hits the market.

15. Manuel Ramirez, C (86.3)

2015 team: Detroit Lions

Despite starting only seven games, Ramirez was Detroit’s highest graded lineman and third-highest graded offensive player overall. He held up particularly well in pass protection, giving up just eight combined pressures in his 502 total snaps. Teams will also value his versatility—Ramirez has plenty of starting experience at both guard positions, as well as center.

16. Malik Jackson, ID (86.1)

2015 team: Denver Broncos

The pair of Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe had excellent years in Denver’s defensive front, but the likelihood of Jackson returning to the Broncos took a hit when Denver recently gave Wolfe a big extension. Jackson will surely cash in somewhere as a disruptive interior pass rusher, even if it’s not with the Broncos. Amongst 3-4 defensive ends, only J.J. Watt, Muhammad Wilkerson, and Fletcher Cox had more total pressure.

17. William Hayes, ED (85.8)

2015 team: St. Louis Rams

Despite all of the first-round talent on the Rams' defensive line, the second-best lineman after Dwight Stephenson Award winner Aaron Donald was William Hayes. Having nearly identically-effective grades against the run and as a pass rusher, Hayes has set himself up nicely for one last payday. He had the best run-stop percentage of any 4-3 end, in addition to a pass-rush productivity score comfortably in the top 10.

18. Ian Williams, ID (85.6)

2015 team: San Francisco 49ers

The team that loses out in the Damon Harrison sweepstakes could do a lot worse than signing Ian Williams. His first full season as a starter was one of the few bright spots in San Francisco’s otherwise disastrous year. Only Harrison and Philadelphia’s Bennie Logan made more stops in the run game amongst defensive tackles.

19. Lamar Miller, RB (85.2)

2015 team: Miami Dolphins

If PFF gave an award for the most underutilized player in the league, Lamar Miller would have been a frontrunner. In what was admittedly an overall down year for running backs, Miller finished fifth in PFF’s overall RB grades. His average of 2.76 yards-after-contact, 96.6 pass blocking efficiency score, and drop rate of 4.08 percent all placed him within the top five of running backs. At just 24-years-old, Miller will have plenty of suitors and the opportunity to pick a franchise he know for sure will commit to running the football.

20. Cordy Glenn, OT (85.0)

2015 team: Buffalo Bills

The Bills' offensive line, as a whole, had a huge turnaround from the largely disastrous performance of the 2014 season, but it’s a testament to Glenn’s consistency that he was the highest-graded Bills offensive player in 2014, despite the poor play of his fellow linemen. Having been in the top-15 in pass-blocking efficiency each of the last three seasons, and starting every game, Glenn stands to see a large pay increase as the market’s top pure left tackle.

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