By Barry Wilner
NEW YORK — Free agency is not the lifeblood of NFL teams. The draft remains the most significant means by which to build and fortify a franchise.
Yet, as the salary cap increases exponentially each year under the 10-year labor agreement reached in 2011, the lure of veterans on the open market can be powerful. Not only do clubs who manage their financial structure wisely have increased funds to spend, they can get quick improvement that doesn’t normally come from rookies.
To Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman, it’s unusual to see how much money is available for spending, and not just in Carolina.
“Different since I got here,” he said. “We had to cut guys to get under, then the next year I think we had to touch one or two contracts to get under, then the last three years we’ve been able to create separation, sort of.
“Meanwhile, you’ve got teams that have got crazy money under the cap. It gives you flexibility. It allows you, for lack of a better term, it allows you to expand your thought process.”
The Falcons (Alex Mack, Mohamed Sanu), Giants (Damon Harrison, Olivier Vernon, Janoris Jenkins) and Raiders (Bruce Irvin, Kelechi Osemele, Donald Penn) scored in a big way in 2016. The Bears (Danny Trevathan), Dolphins (Arian Foster) and Texans (Brock Osweiler) not so much.
With the 2017 crop lacking big-time difference makers, that extra $12 million each team has to spend might get spread around a bit more. Then again, overspending has become second nature in free agency for far too many teams.
Head of the class
There were four All-Pros whose contracts were up after the 2015 season. Von Miller, Eric Berry and Doug Martin returned to their teams. Josh Norman had the franchise tag dropped by Carolina and scored big with a five-year, $75 million deal in Washington.
Four top guys who won’t be going anywhere:
Le’Veon Bell , RB, Pittsburgh — The Steelers tagged their all-world back and he won’t be leaving Steel City.
Eric Berry, S, Kansas City — He threatened to sit out 2017 rather than be tagged again and he won, getting a long-term deal as the league’s highest-paid safety.
Kirk Cousins, QB, Washington — When a good but not great quarterback such as Cousins is making more than Super Bowl winners, it shows how valued (and overvalued) the position can be.
Jason Pierre-Paul , DE, New York Giants — The Giants are convinced he’s found ways to be consistently dangerous despite his hand issues from 2015 fireworks accident.
Still on teams’ radars
Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago — If he stays healthy, Jeffery can be a No. 1 target. In this pass-first league, that’s a must-have commodity.
Latavius Murray, RB, Oakland — Teams outside of Dallas have discovered the need for two running backs. Murray pretty much would fit anywhere.
Andrew Whitworth, OT, Cincinnati — Veteran left tackles with versatility, leadership skills and intelligence are difficult to find.
Dont’a Hightower, LB, New England — Probably the best defender on the NFL champions, and a good locker room guy.
Dontari Poe, DT, Kansas City — If he isn’t the best at his position in the NFL, he’s close.
Superstars without a home
Adrian Peterson, RB: Surely the former Viking will get a nice, if short, deal from a club in dire need of a ground threat who could put it over the top.
Darrelle Revis, CB: He might have legal issues, and he slipped badly in his return to the Jets. If he has anything left, Revis is a find for someone — with a short-term contract.
Jamaal Charles, RB: One of the league’s most gallant and versatile players, but his knee problems might be too much to overcome.
Next in line
These players are not far behind those above, but some come with significant questions marks. Listed alphabetically:
A.J. Bouye, CB, Houston; Calais Campbell, DE, Arizona; Pierre Garcon, WR, Washington; DeSean Jackson, WR, Washington; Tony Jefferson, S, Arizona; Trumaine Johnson (non-exclusive tag), CB, Los Angeles Rams; Chris Long, DE, New England; Brandon Marshall, WR, New York Jets; Alex Okafor, LB, Arizona; Nick Perry, LB, Green Bay; Terrelle Pryor, WR, Cleveland; Kawann Short (non-exclusive tag), DT, Carolina; Brandon Williams, DT, Baltimore; Kevin Zeitler, G, Cincinnati.
Some of these players might get quick deals more because of the position they play than their overall production. Some have excellent timing, hitting free agency after effective seasons. Listed alphabetically:
Kamar Aiken, WR, Baltimore; Martellus Bennett, TE, New England; Zach Brown, LB, Buffalo; Trent Cole, LB (edge rusher), Indianapolis; Jared Cook, TE, Green Bay; Patrick DiMarco, FB, Atlanta; Jack Doyle, TE, Indianapolis; Stephon Gilmore, CB, Buffalo; Mike Glennon, QB, Tampa Bay; Micah Hyde, S, Green Bay; Melvin Ingram (non-exclusive tag), LB, Los Angeles Chargers; Chandler Jones (non-exclusive tag), LB, Arizona; Matt Kalil, LT, Minnesota; Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Cincinnati; Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay; T.J. Lang, G, Green Bay; Kelvin Sheppard, LB, New York Giants; Logan Ryan, CB, New England; J.C. Tretter, C, Green Bay; Kendall Wright, WR, Tennessee.