Free agent lists in January are teases. Fans see the big names and dream of offseason purchases their favorite team should acquire. In reality, most of the names on our top-20 free agent list below won’t become available.
From now until March, teams will begin to re-sign the players they truly want to keep. If a long-term deal can’t get done, the franchise tag will be used. Green Bay’s four-year, $42 million deal for Mike Daniels was a great example of this trend. He would have been a top-10 player on our list.
With the salary cap expected to soar this offseason, we suspect that deal will wind up looking like an absolute bargain.
Without further adieu, the list below is our early rough list of the top-20 unrestricted free agents set to hit the market. We will expand our free agency coverage dramatically in the coming month, with our annual Top 101 list coming out in February.
Top 20 2016 Unrestricted free agents
1. Von Miller, Denver Broncos linebacker: Miller has been one of the best overall defensive players in the league since he was drafted. He’s as strong stopping the run as he is coming off the edge. There’s no way the Broncos will let him hit the market.
2. Josh Norman, Carolina Panthers cornerback: There’s nothing like having your breakout season in a contract year. Norman has been the best cornerback in football this year and is a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate. He’s not going anywhere.
3. Muhammad Wilkerson, New York Jets defensive end: Sheldon Richardson and Leonard Williams were splashy draft pick additions, but Wilkerson is still the best defensive lineman on the Jets. New York has played hardball in negotiations thus far with Wilkerson, but the franchise tag has to be an option here.
4. Alshon Jeffery, Chicago Bears wide receiver: He might not be the most refined receiver in the league, but few are better at catching deep balls. He’s fourth in the league in receiving yards-per-game and topped 1,400 yards in 2013.
5. Cordy Glenn, Buffalo Bills offensive tackle: True franchise left tackles are awfully hard to find. That’s why he’s a strong candidate for the franchise tag.
6. Jason Pierre-Paul, New York Giants defensive end: He’s still disruptive despite playing with a club over his injured hand. There has to be a chance JPP will only get better as he learns how best to play with his disadvantage, and the ceiling here is tremendous. Still, he has struggled to wrap up opposing running backs. Can he finish plays?
7. Eric Berry, Kansas City Chiefs safety: Berry has come back from his cancer scare better than ever. Strong safety play is hard to find and Berry has the versatility teams are looking for.
8. Malik Jackson, Broncos defensive tackle: Like Norman, he’s having a career year in a contract season. It’s hard to find interior pass rushers like Jackson just entering his prime.
9. Olivier Vernon, Dolphins defensive end: The other Dolphins pass rusher opposite Cameron Wake has dialed up a lot of pressure over the last three years, even if he doesn’t always finish the play with a sack. He’s clearly an above average pass rush starter, which is going to make him a very rich man. Expectations are he’ll leave Miami, who can only afford to pay so much on their defensive line.
10. Doug Martin, Buccaneers running back: He won’t make the same money as the guys listed above (and below) him here because of the position he plays, but no one has helped their value more this season. Martin has gone from an afterthought to the No. 2 rusher in the NFL.
11. Bruce Irvin, Seattle Seahawks linebacker: He isn’t a defense-changing talent, but he’s also better than you think. Irvin is a quality versatile starter.
12. Russell Okung, Seahawks tackle: Even if Okung is only an average starter, he’s going to get paid in this market. If he makes it there.
13. Eric Weddle, San Diego Chargers safety: Weddle has a skill set that tons of teams are looking for to shore up the back end of their defenses. His age (30) works against him, but few safeties have been better over the last five years.
14. Sam Bradford, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback: This season has not helped Bradford’s value, yet there would be no shortage of teams willing to give Bradford a try if the Eagles don’t want to re-sign him.
15. Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins quarterback: Replacement level starting quarterbacks are worth plenty, and that appears to be Cousins’ floor. At worst, he’s a poor man’s Andy Dalton with room to improve over time. He has more value to the Redskins than anyone else.
16. Matt Forte, Bears running back: One of the league’s most complete backs has not shown many signs of age yet. Perhaps he should be paired with another quality option, but there’s no doubt he could upgrade many backfields.
17. Andre Smith, Cincinnati Bengals right tackle: How will Smith react to getting paid big bucks (again)? While his career has included some ups and downs, Smith has often been a top-shelf starter.
18. Danny Trevathan, Broncos linebacker: Trevathan is a three-down linebacker entering his prime that can hold up in pass coverage. We’re big fans of his skill set and he’s just the type of above-average starter that gets paid like a superstar in free agency.
19. Janoris Jenkins, St. Louis Rams cornerback: He’s steadily improved each season in the league and now is a playmaking starter.
20. Brock Osweiler, Broncos quarterback: It’s hard to imagine John Elway letting his promising young starter hit the market, although this will be a tricky contract to pull off.
Just missed: Derrick Johnson, Chris Ivory, Kelvin Beachum, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Haloti Ngata, Lamar Miller, Prince Amukamara, Anquan Boldin.