T.J. Lang (GB, OG, 29) – You can make an excellent argument that Lang – and not Kevin Zeitler – is the best free agent OL on the market, but he’s two years older than the Cincy guard. And for what it’s worth, Lang has shown more versatility than Zeitler in his career, having played every OL spot but center (he has spent almost the entirety of his last four years at RG, however). Noted for his physicality, Lang can fit just about anywhere there is a need for an interior lineman, and he could be cheaper than Zeitler. Keep in mind ProFootballFocus rated Lang as an elite pass protector, and “merely” a strong run blocker.
Jason Pierre-Paul (NYG, DE, 28) – JPP had “just” 7 sacks in 2016 (in 12 games, before sports hernia surgery), but he showed a consistently high motor, and proved that his tragic hand injury wasn’t going to limit him severely. He’s now hitting the open market (it may be tough for the Giants to re-sign him) coming off a mostly productive year, and he proved that he can fight through adversity in a huge way. JPP is a three-down player who defends the run as well – if not better – than he rushes the passer, so he will be a hot commodity. He’s an excellent IDP DL, so it’s clearly worth following him.
Kawann Short (Car, DT, 28) – Like the rest of the Panthers, Short’s production took a hit in 2016, as he fell from 11 sacks to 6, but he still made 55 combined tackles and was a rock-solid DT IDP. Regarded as one of the best interior defensive lineman in the NFL, Short will probably be looking for a contract in the $100 million range given the one Fletcher Cox signed last year, but could also play on the franchise tag – the Panther could well apply the tag, but as we saw last year with Josh Norman, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be in a Panther uniform next year.
Melvin Ingram (LAC, OLB, 28) – Ingram finally started to live up to his first-round pedigree the last two seasons – he went #18 overall in 2012. He registered 18.5 sacks the last two years, including 8 sacks in 2016, but he might not be in the plans for the Chargers. Ingram has played a 3-4 OLB spot in John Pagano’s defense to start his career, but the Chargers are switching to a 4-3 under new DC Gus Bradley. Ingram developed in coverage and finished the year with 60 total tackles (46 solo, 14 assists) and averaged 5.3 FPG in 16 games. The Chargers could let Ingram test the market in free agency since he’ll be in high demand, and the Colts and Saints are two teams reportedly interested in his services to beef up there pass rushing.
Dont’a Hightower (NE, ILB, 27) – The Patriots were looking at two-high profile free agents at LB this off-season, and they prioritized keeping Hightower by trading away Jamie Collins to the Browns in season. Hightower finished with 65 tackles (31 solo, 34 assists) and 2.5 sacks, averaging 4.4 FPG in 13 games. He dealt with shoulder and knee issues last season, but he’ll avoid off-season surgery. ESPN’s Mike Reiss believes Hightower is the best candidate to get the Patriots franchise tag, if they do decide to use it. The Patriots may be tentative about giving Hightower a long-term deal because of durability concerns, as he’s missed 11 games the last three seasons. He doesn’t necessarily excel in one area, but he does everything pretty well in coverage, as a run stopper, and as a pass rusher. Hightower reportedly turned down $10 million per year before the 2016 season, and he could be looking to get somewhere close to the $26.4 million in guaranteed money that Collins just got from the Browns.
Nick Perry (GB, OLB, 27) – Perry is coming off a break-out, career season in his fifth year as a former first-round pick back in 2012. He finished with 11 sacks and 52 tackles (35 solo, 17 assists), averaging 5.1 FPG in 14 games. Perry might be better off as a DE, but he’s shown plenty of versatility as a 3-4 OLB for the Packers. He’s had a fairly disappointing career before 2016, but he finally lived up to the hype and will earn a fat contract this off-season.
Zach Brown (Buf, ILB, 27) – Any IDP fantasy players know just how good of a season Brown had in the middle of this Bills defense. He finished the year with 149 tackles (97 solo, 52 assists) and 4 sacks, averaging 8.8 FPG in 16 games, good for 5th among linebackers. Brown was an afterthought when he signed a one-year deal with the Bills last off-season after spending his first four seasons with the Titans. But he stepped up big time after rookie Reggie Ragland suffered a season-ending knee injury in August. However, Brown might not be the best fit for new HC Sean McDermott’s 4-3 defense, and he would likely have to move outside with Ragland staying inside.
John Simon (Hou, OLB, 26) – The Texans needed Simon more a pass rusher this season with J.J. Watt (back) out of the lineup. He’s always been a good run defender, but he was an efficient rusher with 26 QB pressures on 205 pass-rushing snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. He finished the year with 51 tackles (32 solo, 19 assists) and 3.5 sacks, averaging 4.8 FPG in 11 games. He did miss five games and the Wild Card Round with a chest injury, but the Texans would like to keep him around if they can.
Trumaine Johnson (LAR, CB, 27) – The Rams made the wrong choice when they used their franchise tag on Johnson last off-season and let the much better Janoris Jenkins walk, who played great in his first season with the Giants. Johnson has an ideal build for a CB at 6’2” and 208 pounds, but he hasn’t played consistently to be considered a top CB because he gives up too many big plays. He finished the year with 57 tackles (47 solo, 10 assists), 1 INT, and 1 fumble recovery, averaging 4.8 FPG in 14 games. GM Les Snead declined to say if they will re-sign Johnson. New DC Wade Phillips has a history of having strong corners in his defenses, but he’ll need to evaluate Johnson quickly to decide if they want to give him a long-term deal.