Free-agent forecast: 20 players ranging from big risks to big winners

·NFL columnist

With two games left on the NFL slate and many teams out of the postseason mix, front offices around the league are preparing the blowtorches for roster alterations. Scouting reports are piling up from pro personnel men, capologists are considering the impact of extensions or contract restructures, and coaches are mulling which holes require top priority heading into the offseason.

Before long, free-agent boards will fill up with potential offseason acquisitions, and a plan of attack will be drawn up. Without a doubt, 2016 could be an interesting class. At least, that's the way it looks before the franchise tags and long-term deals trickle in. Chances are many of the most talented players on the current free-agent lists will never see the open market. But heading into late December, it's worth examining some of the players who are slated to be shopped around in March.

Here are 20 intriguing talents still unsigned beyond 2015 …

Greg Hardy (AP)
Greg Hardy (AP)

10 Big Names, 10 Big Risks

Greg Hardy, DE, Dallas Cowboys: Let's start with the talent and how it has played out this season. Hardy began his season hot as a pass rusher but has been a better run-defender the past few weeks. He is still getting pressures and drawing plenty of attention from offenses, but Hardy was a bigger factor when Dallas was still fighting for something. That can be said about many NFL players. From a talent standpoint, he's still an elite player. The flipside of that is the attitude and distraction factors, along with a domestic violence record that will stick with him as long as he is in the spotlight. He says tone-deaf things, and there have been reports of him being late to team meetings. He is the same mixed bag he was when Dallas gave him his one-year "show me" deal. Any long-term deal figures to be heavily incentive-laden and easy to exit. And while Dallas hasn't said much about a new contract of late, the Cowboys have the least risk in signing him again, as they've already absorbed the public criticism that comes with Hardy.

Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants: Despite having one good hand at this stage, Pierre-Paul is still rating high on the pass rush scale, largely because of his quarterback hurries (Pro Football Focus counts 29), which have been among the league's best during his first six weeks. He has, however, five quarterback hits and only one sack in that same span, which suggests he is having trouble finishing off those pressures. He also has had some issues wrapping on tackles versus the run. Teams will have to determine if these problems are just Pierre-Paul shaking off rust or if his right hand injury will permanently hinder his ability to win close engagements. The remainder of the season could still impact future negotiations, so this one is tricky.

Kirk Cousins, QB, Washington Redskins: He's a starting quarterback hitting free agency at 27. The Redskins will surely use the franchise tag on him if they can't work out a long-term deal. That tag will cost at least $18.4 million next season (final figures aren't settled). But Cousins' realized value may depend partially on the remainder of the season (think: playoff performance) and how much the Redskins believe in him. It's unclear how many teams would see Cousins as a $100 million quarterback right now. But that doesn't mean the Redskins don't. And if Cousins continues his current hot streak into the postseason, outside opinions will change.

Sam Bradford, QB, Philadelphia Eagles: This might be the most entertaining free-agent dance in the offseason, largely because nobody seems to know what Bradford is worth – including the Eagles. Perhaps with a larger sample size in Philadelphia, the picture would be clearer. Instead, the consistency of Bradford's health and ability to perform at the highest levels in coach Chip Kelly's offense remain murky. Here's what executives do know: in two stops, six years and five seasons as a starting quarterback, Bradford hasn't lived up to expectations. That tends to stunt a player in free agency.

Brock Osweiler (AP)
Brock Osweiler (AP)

Brock Osweiler, QB, Denver Broncos: The fact that Osweiler is a free agent makes it all the more likely that Peyton Manning is 100 percent done in Denver. There's no way the Broncos let Osweiler get to the market, and they can't afford to pay both. Like Cousins, Osweiler has arguably shown enough to be given the nod as a still-growing starter. His body of work is even more limited than Cousins, but he's also younger (he turned 25 in November) and hasn't exposed as much of his flaws up to this point. And as we all know, there are a lot of NFL teams that give big contracts to prototype quarterbacks who have yet to show all their flaws. Osweiler is a risk, but he's one that someone would pay. Highly unlikely anyone ever gets the chance … but Denver will still be taking on the risk by paying him.

Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago Bears: Given his talent, he will be a highly sought skill-position player on the market. But his injuries this year, particularly the hamstring, may give some teams pause. And there have been a litany of wideouts who have failed to live up to previous billing after signing new deals in free agency. That said, Jeffery's elite combination of size and downfield playmaking ability (and being on the market at 26) will surely draw a No. 1 wideout contract. That's an average starting point of $11 million these days.

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Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Anyone who has followed Martin knows his story: a rookie explosion … two seasons of injury and disappointment … and a (healthy) fantastic flourish in 2015. At his best, he's arguably a top-five running back. But at a position where even the most talented have durability issues, injuries dampen contract offers. That's particularly true with the amount of platooning that happens in backfields nowadays. There's no doubt Martin has the talent, but anyone who signs him better have a respectable No. 2 behind him.

Richie Incognito, OG, Buffalo Bills: Start with the downside. Incognito will be 33 this offseason and has 116 games of NFL mileage. How much gas is still in the tank? He also has the whole bullying affair in his past, although he has met that ordeal and answered questions head-on for a while now. The upside is the Bills took a chance on Incognito this season and he rewarded them with arguably the best football of his career. Despite a few bumps in the road, he has been one of the best guards in the NFL while giving the Bills some toughness on their line. Like Greg Hardy in Dallas, the Bills have the best upside in signing Incognito, as they've already jumped through the public relations hoops. But he could still be a valuable veteran addition elsewhere.

Derrick Johnson, ILB, Kansas City Chiefs: From an off-field standpoint, Johnson poses zero risk. His big factors are age (he turned 33 in November) and injury. A large part of his game is his ability to cover ground quickly, so there is some question about how much longer that lasts. Especially after suffering a torn Achilles in 2014. But Johnson experienced a stunning rebound from that injury, and has easily been one of the best inside linebackers in the NFL this season. His value would seem to be highest in Kansas City, where he's a beloved player and leader on defense. If there is another team out there running a 3-4 defense and making a Super Bowl push with some veteran talent, Johnson would be attractive.

Russell Okung, OT, Seattle Seahawks: Okung's age (28) and 2012 Pro Bowl nod make him attractive. He's a brand name at tackle who has won a Super Bowl and at the end of 2012 looked like he'd develop into one of the consistently elite players at his position. In reality, he's never been the same since missing games in 2013 with a toe injury. Much of his career since returning has been up and down at best. He had penalty issues and failed to dominate opponents the way franchise left tackles are expected to. He doesn't give up a ton of sacks, but he struggles at times in both pass and run blocking. Maybe a team gives him a big long-term deal and he rebounds as a pass blocker. Okung is representing himself in negotiations, and likely will be seeking elite money. If he gets it, someone will have been putting a lot of faith in Okung rebounding.

Five Bank Breakers

Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos: Hands-down one of top three pass rushing outside linebackers in the NFL. His sack numbers are down and penalties are up this season, but he's been a game-changer since he stepping on an NFL field.

Josh Norman, CB, Carolina Panthers: One of the best cover corners in the NFL (despite what Atlanta Falcons wideout Roddy White says) who is adequate in run support. He'll be paid like one of the best defensive players in the league.

Josh Norman (Getty Images)
Josh Norman (Getty Images)

Muhammad Wilkerson, DE, New York Jets: A dominant defensive end who has a career-high 12 sacks in 14 games, Wilkerson will land one of the biggest deals in free agency this offseason. He's not J.J. Watt, but he's on that very next (and still elite) level of 3-4 pass rushers who can also play the run at a high level.

Eric Berry, FS, Kansas City Chiefs: He bounced back from his 2014 bout with cancer to become one of the best coverage safeties in the NFL. Has the versatility to play both safety spots, but moving to free safety is going to make him more attractive and well compensated.

Olivier Vernon, DE, Miami Dolphins: He turns 26 in October and has pass rushing skills that are going to land him a massive deal. Has some penalty issues, but his numbers recorded by Pro Football Focus have been All-Pro caliber the last six weeks (six sacks, 20 quarterback hits, 22 quarterback pressures).

Five Lesser-Knowns Who Will Cash In

Cordy Glenn, OT, Buffalo Bills: Despite some growing pains here and there, Glenn has ranked among the best offensive tackles in football and just turned 26 in September. He can block in both the pass and run capably, and is just entering his prime. These guys don't hit the market, so he's getting paid a lot – either via franchise tag or a long-term deal.

Malik Jackson, DE, Denver Broncos: He turns 26 in January and is another 3-4 defensive end who is adept at putting heat on quarterbacks while capably handling the run. He is getting better and is playing some of the best football of his career the past three games.

Derek Wolfe, DE, Denver Broncos: Like his defensive line teammate and fellow free agent Malik Jackson, Wolfe also turns 26 in a few months. Also like Jackson, he's one of the stronger young 3-4 defensive ends in the league. Unlike Jackson, Wolfe's strength is against the run, while he is still improving as a pass rusher.

Mitchell Schwartz, OT, Cleveland Browns: At 26, he's a right tackle just hitting his prime and has played respectably against some of the NFL's best pass rushers this season. Browns fans may not know that they have a good starting right tackle, but other NFL executives certainly do. If Cleveland doesn't pay him, someone else will.

Trumaine Johnson, CB, St. Louis Rams: He turns 26 on New Year's Day, has great length (6-foot-2) and is emerging as a very good cover cornerback. He also has better upside than hyped teammate Janoris Jenkins. You don't see many young, tall, rangy cover corners hit free agency as they are coming into their own. When they do, they cost a mint.

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