It seems as if the only way to get an elite free agent to the open market in his prime is for the player to take successive franchise tags, and then reach free agency when the team can't afford another.
That's how we got Kirk Cousins as a free agent last offseason, and that's why Le'Veon Bell is, in his words, free at last.
This isn't a great free-agent class if you're looking for big-time difference makers who score touchdowns (we looked at the top 10 quarterbacks earlier in our preview). But Bell, a two-time All-Pro and arguably the most talented back in the NFL, certainly stands out.
Here are our top 20 running backs, receivers and tight ends in this free-agent class:
1. RB Le'Veon Bell
The way Bell became a free agent, holding out all last season on his second franchise tag, turned off some people. They wondered how he could turn down a $14.5 million payday for 2018. We're about to find out if the endgame was worth it.
Bell had a drop in production in 2017 under a heavy workload, and there have been rumors about his weight — teams will find out quickly if those were accurate. He's not without risk, but he's still a great back. The question for Bell becomes, what's a great back worth in the NFL these days?
2. RB Tevin Coleman
Coleman had a great opportunity to shine with Devonta Freeman missing most of the season, yet posted just 800 rushing yards despite starting 14 of 16 games. However, he averaged 4.8 yards per carry and has looked like a potential featured back at times over his career. Coleman has blazing speed, good pass-catching ability and only 528 carries over four seasons so he should be fresh.
3. WR Golden Tate
Tate was traded during the season by the Lions to the Eagles, and he didn't put up great numbers in either place. He also will be 31 next season. Still, he's a three-time 1,000-yard receiver, and there aren't many good pass catchers in free agency this year.
4. WR Tyrell Williams
Williams' 2016 season, when he had 1,059 yards and seven touchdowns in a featured role, could help his value. Most of his time with the Chargers, he was behind Keenan Allen for targets. But he has size, big-play ability and just turned 27.
5. WR John Brown
In Baltimore's first nine games, Brown had a 34-601-4 line. Then Lamar Jackson became the quarterback and the Ravens became a run-first offense. Still, Brown proved he's back after some injury-filled seasons with the Cardinals. He's a fine deep threat.
6. WR Adam Humphries
If you want a reliable slot receiver, here's your guy. Humphries posted a 76-816-5 line last season in an offense with many receiving options. Humphries fills a role and does it quite well.
7. RB Mark Ingram
Ingram had a fine eight years with the Saints, and it still seems like that's his best fit. Ingram is productive, with 1,000 yards in 2016 and 2017, but he's 29 years old with 1,549 regular-season touches, and a four-game suspension last year complicates things.
8. TE Jared Cook
Cook has two things going for him: There are very few reliable tight ends in this class, and Cook is coming off a career year. He might have been the Raiders' best player last season, with 896 yards and six touchdowns. He'll be 32 in April but can still produce at a high level.
9. WR Devin Funchess
Funchess has size and a second-round draft pedigree. What he doesn't have is an impressive NFL resume. There have been flashes. like a 840-yard, eight-touchdown 2017, but mostly it has been underwhelming. He's still young (25 in May).
10. WR Jamison Crowder
Crowder, who turns 26 in March, had a good 2017 season. He posted 847 yards and seven touchdowns. Then last season he was injured much of the season. Crowder is a small slot receiver, but some team would be smart to judge him based off his 2017.
11. RB C.J. Anderson
Anderson would not have been on this list early last December. In 2018 he was cut by the Broncos, Panthers and then ... the lowly Raiders. But he memorably had a great finish to the season with the Rams. He's a great professional and leader, and some team should sign him.
12. WR Cole Beasley
Beasley is a little older version of Humphries. You know what you're getting: a reliable slot receiver who can help move the chains. Beasley has a 75-catch season and a 65-catch season, and he can keep doing that even though he turns 30 in April.
13. RB Jay Ajayi
Ajayi would probably be higher if not for his ACL injury last season. For a player with a history of knee injuries, it's concerning. But if Ajayi is healthy, he's an explosive runner who can be a lead back.
14. RB Spencer Ware
In 2016, Ware had 921 yards with a 4.3-yard average, added 447 receiving yards and looked like a fairly good lead back to the Chiefs. Then Kareem Hunt was drafted, Ware suffered a season-ending injury in the 2017 preseason and got buried. A team could see it as a buying opportunity.
15. TE Jesse James
In other years, James might not be a prize catch. But teams looking for a tight end won't find much this offseason. James is a competent pass catcher, a good blocker and benefits from being one of the most attractive tight ends in a thin field.
16. RB T.J. Yeldon
Yeldon was a disappointment as a Jaguars second-round pick, but he still has value. He had 171 catches over four seasons and a 4.0-yard average as a runner. He isn't a starter, but can be a part of a committee.
17. WR Randall Cobb
Cobb is just 28, though it seems he has been around much longer than that. Cobb's production tanked the past few years, partially because of injury, and it's not good that he couldn't put up big numbers with Aaron Rodgers. But his exceptional 2014 Pro Bowl season got him one big contract, and could land him another smaller deal this offseason.
18. WR Donte Moncrief
Moncrief once looked like a promising young receiver, but his career has stagnated. His one-year gamble in Jacksonville didn't really work out, though poor quarterback play didn't help.
19. WR Chris Hogan
Hogan had a real shot to break out early this season with the Patriots missing some key pieces, and had a very quiet year. He still has shown some big-play ability and even in his 30s can help an offense, as long as expectations are realistic.
20. TE Tyler Eifert
Investing in Eifert is not for the faint of heart. His games played the past five seasons: 1, 13, 8, 2, 4. Injuries have hit him hard, but over those 13 games in 2015 he scored 13 touchdowns and made a Pro Bowl. Assuming a discount for all the injuries, at least Eifert has an upside worth chasing.
NOTABLE RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
WR Robby Anderson
Most teams seem to have a gentleman's agreement against signing restricted free agents. It's hard to explain the lack of movement of RFAs otherwise. Anderson still could get an offer sheet. He's a tall receiver with great big-play ability, averaging 15 yards per catch over the past two seasons with 13 scores. At age 25, he'd be a good investment, though a tougher sell since the Jets will reportedly offer him a second-round tender.
RB Peyton Barber
Barber is a good inside runner, gaining 871 yards for the Buccaneers last season. His upside isn't tremendous, but he's a capable back. He seems very likely to return to Tampa Bay.
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