One of the things I always examined during my time as an agent was the connections clients had with former coaches and team executives that were around the NFL when their contracts were set to expire. When meeting with players to discuss their upcoming free agency, these relationships would be explored. Since familiarity can bring comfort, a positive experience could make a potential destination more attractive to clients. The opposite was true with negative experiences.
Along those lines, hereâs a look at some of the key connections between players mostly from Pete Priscoâs top 50 free agents and high-ranking team executives, head coaches, offensive and defensive coordinators and position coaches. The players given or expected to receive franchise tags (Steelers running back LeâVeon Bell, Chargers outside linebacker Melvin Ingram, Cardinals outside linebacker Chandler Jones, Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul and Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short) with the exception of Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins are not included as free agents. Cousins has the best chance among the franchise tag candidates of being traded.
Wide receiver isnât the most pressing need, although 2017 is probably Larry Fitzgeraldâs final NFL season. Alshon Jefferyâs career year of 89 receptions for 1,421 yards and seven touchdowns came when wide receiver coach Daryl Drake was his position coach. Signing a big-ticket item offensive weapon like Jeffery may be difficult because salary cap space is at more of a premium after franchising linebacker Chandler Jones.
The NFC champions got a head start on free agency by re-signing cornerback Robert Alford and right tackle Ryan Schraeder. Although contract extensions for quarterback Matt Ryan, cornerback Desmond Trufant are possibly running back Devonta Freeman are on the offseason agenda, the interior of the defensive line could have a different look in 2017. Free agent Jonathan Babineaux may need to find a new home after spending his 12 NFL years in Atlanta. Assistant general manager Scott Pioli used the 11th pick in the 2012 NFL Draft on defensive tackle Dontari Poe when he was running the Chiefs.
Wide receiver Steve Smith putting the cap on a Hall of Fame career leaves a void at wide receiver. The hole will be bigger if the Ravens donât pick up Mike Wallaceâs 2017 option year for $5.75 million. DeSean Jackson had 1,000-yard receiving seasons in 2009 and 2010 when Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg held the same post with the Eagles. Jackson could be targeting a deal averaging twice as much as Wallaceâs option year, which decreases the chances of a reunion.
Another playmaker at wide receiver is needed because of Sammy Watkinsâ persistent foot problems. Kenny Britt, DeSean Jackson or Kenny Stills would be an upgrade over Robert Woods, who is an unrestricted free agent. Tight ends coach Rob Boras got the most out of Britt last season as the Rams offensive coordinator. Britt had his best NFL season in 2016 with 68 receptions, 1,002 receiving yards and five touchdowns. New head coach Sean McDermott was the Eaglesâ defensive coordinator during two of Jacksonâs first three seasons in Philadelphia. McDermott hired Phil McGeoghan, who was Stillsâ wide receiver coach in his first season with the Dolphins in 2015. Safety Aaron Williamsâ neck injury could force him to retire. Linebackers coach Bob Babich was in charge of Jacksonvilleâs defense from 2013 to 2015, which were Johnathan Cyprienâs first three seasons with the Jaguars.
General manager Dave Gettleman made a curious decision in rescinding cornerback Josh Normanâs franchise tag last April. It made the position a focus of the 2016 draft. Consequently, rookies James Bradbury and Daryl Worley got a baptism by fire but improved as the season progressed. Prince Amukamara would provide the Panthers a veteran presence at cornerback. Gettleman was a front office executive with the Giants when Amukamara was the teamâs first-round pick in 2011.
Letting Alshon Jeffery test free agency instead of using a franchise tag on him for a second straight year opens the door for him to leave. Since 2015 first-round pick Kevin White is still an unknown commodity because of injury, Kenny Britt would cushion the blow if Jeffery walks. Bears play caller Dowell Loggains was Brittâs offensive coordinator with the Titans in 2012 and 2013.
The Bengals typically arenât major players in free agency, especially early in the signing period. Chris Baker could be worth making an exception to that stance with defensive tackle Domato Peko hitting the open market. Linebackers coach Jim Haslett was Bakerâs defensive coordinator with the Redskins from 2011 to 2014 while defensive line coach Jacob Burney was his position coach during this same span.
More than $100 million in cap room gives the Browns plenty of resources to improve the leagueâs worst team in 2016. New defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is likely lobbying for the addition of players familiar with his scheme. Cornerback Trumaine Johnson and defensive tackle Nick Fairley played for Williams when he was running the Ramsâ defense. The offensive line was in disarray after the free agent departures of Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz and left guard Joel Bitonioâs inability to stay healthy. Head coach Hue Jackson could weaken the in-state rival Bengals by reuniting with right guard Kevin Zeitler. He was Zeitlerâs offensive coordinator in 2014 and 2015. Zeitler is expected to command top guard money, which could exceed the $10 million per year and $30 million of guarantees Kyle Long received from the Bears in a four-year extension right before the start of last season.
The Broncos have major issues at offensive line. Kevin Zeitler would be a good start to fixing those woes provided GM John Elway is willing to make a big investment. Zeitler was on his way to becoming one of the NFLâs best young guards during Vance Josephâs two seasons with Cincinnati as defensive backs coach in 2014 and 2015.
Two splashy signings to improve a middle-of-the-pack defense would be inside linebacker Dontâa Hightower and defensive lineman Calais Campbell. General manager Bob Quinn was a front office executive with the Patriots when a 2012 first-round pick was used on Hightower. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin was defensive backs coach with the Cardinals in 2008 and 2009, Campbellâs first two NFL seasons. The Lions would like to keep right tackle Reilly Reiff. If he can find a team to pay him like a left tackle, Ravens right tackle Ricky Wagner might actually be an improvement. Head coach Jim Caldwell was Wagnerâs offensive coordinator during his 2013 rookie season.
Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork retiring would leave a hole in the middle of last seasonâs top-ranked defense. Dontari Poe playing once again for defensive assistant Romeo Crennel, who was his head coach in Kansas City during the 2012 season, could be a way to fill that hole.
An inability to surround quarterback Andrew Luck with great protection is one of the reasons why Ryan Grigson is no longer the general manager. Guard T.J. Lang could help shore up the right side of the offensive line. Offensive line coach Joe Philbin was Langâs offensive coordinator in Green Bay for three seasons before he became Dolphins head coach in 2012. The defense was ranked 30th in the NFL giving up 382.9 yards per game and 25th against the run (120.4 yards per game). New general manager Chris Ballard may look to try to raid the Chiefs, where he spent the last four years in the front office, which would put defensive tackle Dontari Poe on the radar screen.
Tight end becomes an area of need with Julius Thomas going to Miami when the trading period begins on March 9. Martellus Bennett, the best tight end available, played for new executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin in 2012 with the Giants. If those Giants roots donât lead to Prince Amukamara re-signing, Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore having Doug Marrone as head coach again is a possibility.
Los Angeles Chargers
Prince Amukamara has the type of size new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley prefers at cornerback. Amukamara held his own under Bradley playing on a one-year prove it deal in Jacksonville last season. A strong free agent market for safety Jahleel Addae could open a space for safety Johnathan Cyprien to follow Bradley from Jacksonville.
Los Angeles Rams
New coach Sean McVay needs to surround Jared Goff, the first overall pick in the 2016 draft, with more offensive weapons. Both of McVayâs starting wide receivers when he was with the Redskins, Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson, are available. Alshon Jeffery has ties to Rams offensive line coach Aaron Kromer. He had back-to-back 1,000- yard receiving seasons in 2013 and 2014 when Kromer was the Bearsâ offensive coordinator. Quarterbacks coach Greg Olson was Terrelle Pryorâs offensive coordinator in Oakland when he was throwing passes instead of catching them. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was leading the Cowboys for three seasons when Martellus Bennett was stuck behind perennial Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten at the beginning of his career. Bennett brings a lot more to the table than incumbent tight end Lance Kendricks.
The Dolphins could be looking at wide receivers if Kenny Stills prices himself out of town as anticipated. Head coach Adam Gase was Alshon Jefferyâs offensive coordinator in 2015, his lone season in Chicago. Jeffery should be more costly than Stills. Pierre Garcon, who was with offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen during his four years with the Colts (2008-2011), should be a cheaper option.
Injuries decimating an already shaky offensive line helped derail Minnesotaâs 5-0 start to the 2016 season. Right tackle Andre Smith not panning out last year shouldnât deter additional attempts by Mike Zimmer to reach back to his days as Cincinnatiâs defensive coordinator to take advantage of the connection. Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth and right tackle Kevin Zeitler are much more highly regarded as free agents than Smith was last year.
New Orleans Saints
Offensive line deficiencies necessitated bringing back right guard Jahri Evans, who was released last February because he refused a pay cut, after he didnât survive the Seahawksâ roster cutdowns. Right guard Larry Warford, who had quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi as his offensive coordinator with the Lions in 2014 and part of 2015, would bring youthful experience to the offensive line.
New York Giants
Pairing right guard T.J. Lang with Justin Pugh would give the Giants arguably the NFLâs best guard tandem. It would also be the NFLâs most expensive, since Pugh is probably in line for a $10 million per-year extension and Lang is likely seeking similar money in free agency. Head coach Ben McAdoo, who already was a part of Green Bayâs coaching staff when Lang was drafted in 2009, probably wonât mind sparing any expense to protect quarterback Eli Manning.
New York Jets
The Jets desperately need a shutdown cornerback now that Revis Island is known for its hospitality. General manager Mike Maccagnan could look to his former employer, the Texans, to address the need with A.J. Bouye. The Jets really donât generate enough of a pass rush from the edge. Nick Perry, the Packersâ 2012 first-round pick, worked under new outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene during his first two seasons in the NFL. After generating 11 sacks in a breakout 2016 season, Perry is probably going to be more expensive than Bouye. Safety is also an area of need. Head coach Todd Bowles was Cardinals safety Tony Jeffersonâs defensive coordinator in 2013 and 2014.
There has been a lot of speculation about DeSean Jackson returning to the team that drafted him. The Eagles have plenty of familiar wide receiver options. Director of Pro Personnel Dwayne Joseph was a front office executive with the Bears during Alshon Jefferyâs first four seasons. Newly hired wide receivers coach Mike Groh served in that same capacity with the Bears from 2013-15. He was also Kenny Brittâs position coach with the Rams last season. Offensive coordinator Frank Reich was Pierre Garconâs position coach with the Indianapolis Colts in 2011. Quarterbacks coach John DeFlippo was Clevelandâs offensive coordinator in 2015 when Terrelle Pryor was first making his transition to wide receiver.
Cornerback also needs to be addressed. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz was in charge of the Billsâ defense in 2014, which was Stephon Gilmoreâs third NFL season.
San Francisco 49ers
Head coach Kyle Shanahanâs strong affinity for quarterback Kirk Cousins, who he had for the last two of his four years as the Redskinsâ offensive coordinator, could lead to the acquisition of the biggest building block in San Franciscoâs rebuilding process. Vikings for defensive end Jared Allen in 2008, even though quarterbacks are generally more valuable than pass rushers. In that swap, the Chiefs got the Vikingsâ first-round pick (15th overall) and two third-round picks in the 2008 draft after Allen had been given a franchise tag. A swap of 2008 sixth-round picks was also a part of the trade. A contract in the same ballpark as the five-year extension Andrew Luck received from the Colts last offseason, which re-set the NFL pay scale, would probably be necessary for Cousins. Luckâs extension averages $24.594 million per year and contains $87 million in guarantees, of which $47 million was fully guaranteed at signing., a trade would be necessary. A fair approximation of Cousinsâ trade value could be the draft capital that the Chiefs received from the
Pierre Garconâs familiarity with Shanahanâs offense could come in handy. He probably isnât looking to take a pay cut from the $8.5 million per year deal he got in 2012 when he joined the Redskins.
Former Lions general manager Martin Mayhew was brought into the front office because of new general manager John Lynchâs inexperience. Cousins or whomever is under center needs a clean pocket. Guard Larry Warford would be help in that regard. Mayhew took Warford with the 65th pick in the 2013 draft for the Lions.
Shanahan is making a switch to a 4-3 defense similar to what the Falcons ran over the last two years when he was their offensive coordinator. Chris Baker ending his six-year run in Washington would improve a porous defense. The 49ers ranked last in total defense (406.4 yards per game), run defense (165.9 yards per game) and points allowed (30 points per game) last season.
The Seahawks allocated the least amount of resources in the NFL to offensive line in 2016. General manager John Schneider, a former Packers front office executive, pursuing guard T.J. Lang would be a huge departure from Seattleâs approach to building the offensive line.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
General manager Jason Licht might look to the Cardinals, where he was a front office exec in 2012 and 2013, for defensive help. It may be difficult for Arizona to keep safety Tony Jefferson after a breakout 2016 season with cornerback Patrick Peterson and safety Tyrann Mathieu getting top dollar at their respective positions. The Cardinals have been bracing for defensive lineman Calais Campbellâs departure.
The free agents of Super Bowl champions are typically in high demand. Fortunately for Titans general manager Jon Robinson, New England players at areas of need that were acquired during his long tenure with the Patriots are hitting the open market. Most notably, Dontâa Hightower could be a way for Robinson to use some the $60 plus million cap space the Titans have. Itâs probably going to require more than the $12.5 million per year and $26.4 million fully guaranteed that former Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins recently received from the Browns to forego free agency. Cornerback Logan Ryan and safety Duron Harmon could help shore up a secondary that ranked 30th against the pass last season, giving up 259.2 yards per game.
An offensive line thatâs already pretty good would be even better with an upgrade at left guard. Ronald Leary isnât expected back with the Cowboys because Laâel Collins, who missed most of the season with a right toe injury, returns and right guard Zack Martin should receive an extension before the 2017 season starts that sets a new salary standard for guards. Offensive line coach Bill Callahan was offensive coordinator and offensive line with the Cowboys for three years right before joining the Redskins in 2015.