“Elaine, breaking up is like knocking over a Coke machine. You can’t do it in one push. You gotta’ rock it back and forth a few times and then it goes over.” – Jerry Seinfeld
I like to think of this as the Coke machine phase of free agency. The first wave of signings has come and gone (A.J. Bouye, Stephon Gilmore, Mike Glennon, DeSean Jackson, Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall and various overpaid offensive linemen) but we’re still rocking the Coke machine back and forth, waiting for some of the lesser-known names to find homes. One exception is running back, where most of the heavy hitters remain unsigned.
That includes Adrian Peterson, who is testing the market for the first time in his career. The 31-year-old (32 next week) is limping into free agency after averaging a dismal 1.9 yards per carry during an injury-plagued 2016 campaign. AP’s past comebacks—winning the MVP a year after tearing his ACL and later leading the league in rushing following a messy child abuse scandal—give reason to believe that Peterson may have one more miracle left in him.
Despite his Hall of Fame credentials, interest in Peterson has been shockingly limited in the early part of free agency. Peterson himself has shown interest in New England and Oakland but neither team has reached out to him. So far only the Seahawks have brought Peterson in for a formal visit, and that meeting ended without a contract offer. It’s unclear if Seattle’s interest was genuine or if the Seahawks were simply doing their due diligence. Already we’ve seen the Seahawks cast a wide net at running back. Eddie Lacy, who visited over the weekend, Jamaal Charles and Latavius Murray have all been on Seattle’s radar.
Running back was a revolving door for the Seahawks last year with C.J. Prosise and Thomas Rawls missing significant time with injuries. The Seahawks appear to be targeting a power back, which seems to cast doubt on Rawls’ long-term future in Seattle. It would be surprising to see Seattle throw in the towel on Rawls so quickly after he led the league in yards per carry as a rookie in 2015. With that said, Rawls is a strict two-down back and not a particularly durable one. Since coming to Seattle as an undrafted rookie, Rawls has appeared in just 22 of 32 regular season games. Prosise’s role as a pass-catcher is applicable to any offense, so his duties won’t change much if the Seahawks add a veteran grinder like Peterson or Lacy.
If you’re looking for the perfect, do-it-all running back, you’re not going to find it in this year’s free agent class. Peterson and Charles are both north of 30 and coming off significant injuries. Lacy is younger and probably offers the most upside of any back available, but he’s also coming off a major injury and has battled weight issues throughout his career. Latavius Murray put up lofty touchdown numbers in Oakland last year, but he did it while averaging a less-than-stellar 4.0 yards per carry and was outplayed by rookies Jalen Richard (5.9 yards per carry) and DeAndre Washington (5.4).
LeGarrette Blount, who seems to return to the Patriots on cheap one-year deals every offseason, was hoping to cash in after steamrolling his way to career-highs in touchdowns (18) and rushing yards (1,161) in 2016. However, he’s been met by crickets on the open market, probably due to his age (30) and disastrous track record on passing downs (seven catches for 38 yards last season). The incoming class of rookie running backs is expected to be fairly strong—Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara, Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey have all been discussed as potential first-rounders at one time or another. That could be another reason why established veterans like Peterson and Charles are getting the cold shoulder.
The defensive line market has been similarly slow to develop with Dontari Poe and Johnathan Hankins still unsigned. Bennie Logan also had a long wait, finally putting pen to paper Monday on a one-year deal with Kansas City. Not that there was much momentum building toward a return, but Logan’s arrival in Kansas City makes it a near lock that Poe won’t be back with the team he spent his first five seasons with.
Lingering back issues have made some teams wary of Poe, though his list of suitors remains lengthy. It was a mild upset that Poe left his Indianapolis visit without a contract. Poe has history with GM Chris Ballard, who previously served as the Chiefs’ director of football operations. The Colts also have an immediate hole to fill at nose tackle with starter David Parry facing serious charges from an arrest in Arizona last month. Indy was offering a multi-year contract while other teams have presented Poe with one-year, prove-it type deals, though it wasn’t enough to swing a deal. Poe escaped Jacksonville without a contract on Monday and is now on his way to Atlanta. Miami and Oakland have also been suggested as possible landing spots for the two-time Pro Bowler.
Dont’a Hightower reigns supreme as the most coveted linebacker still on the market. The Patriots’ decision not to place the franchise tag on Hightower raised eyebrows at first, but now it looks like the right decision. New England was content to let the market dictate Hightower’s cost and now that he’s survived the first wave of signings, the Pats should be able to bring him back without breaking the bank. In the meantime, Hightower is trying to make the Patriots sweat by embarking on a free agent tour. Hightower ate birthday cupcakes as part of his visit with the Jets on Monday (he turned 27 on Sunday) and is off to Pittsburgh to meet with the Steelers on Tuesday.
Neither team is considered a serious suitor for Hightower, particularly the division-rival Jets, who are headed for a full-on rebuild after dumping half their roster as part of a salary cap purge. Hightower and his agent are likely using the visits as leverage to drive up his price. That tactic might work on some teams, but Bill Belichick is smart enough to see through it. Hightower is aiming to be the highest-paid inside linebacker in football, an honor currently held by Carolina’s Luke Kuechly. While Hightower may have to settle for slightly less than Kuechly’s $12 million annual salary, he certainly deserves a raise after being selected to his first All-Pro team in 2016. Hightower was also instrumental in New England’s historic comeback against the Falcons in Super Bowl LI, sacking Matt Ryan to force a turnover during the Patriots’ run of 31 unanswered points.
New England has pushed all the right buttons in free agency, securing talent both through signings (Alan Branch, Duron Harmon, Stephon Gilmore) and trades (Dwayne Allen, Brandin Cooks and Kony Ealy). But in doing so, they may have alienated one of their key players. All-Pro cornerback Malcolm Butler was understandably miffed that New England failed to address his contract while emptying the vault for Gilmore, who earned middling grades from Pro Football Focus last season (No. 60 out of 120 qualifiers at cornerback). The Patriots beat seems to be split on what this means for Butler’s future in Foxboro. CSNNE’s Mike Giardi is hearing that Butler wants out while Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald is under the impression that Butler still “wants to make it work.” Perhaps the Patriots don’t want it to work. The Pats nearly traded Butler to the Saints last week but weren’t able to because he has yet to sign his first-round tender, which will pay him a modest $3.91 million in 2017.
The elephant in the room is still Tony Romo. The Cowboys are trying to trade Romo but the rest of the league is calling their bluff. Romo will eventually be released and will then have his pick of the litter. The Texans are especially well-positioned to make a run at Romo after trading Brock Osweiler in an NBA-style salary dump last week. Playing indoors at NRG Stadium and giving Romo the ability to stay in Texas are also selling points that could favor Houston. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Denver entered the fray, but GM John Elway doesn’t consider quarterback a major need for the Broncos with Trevor Siemian keeping the seat warm for first-round pick Paxton Lynch. Houston’s situation is far bleaker with Tom Savage and Brandon Weeden occupying the top two spots on the team’s quarterback depth chart. For the Texans, it’s Romo or bust.
Quick Hits: Meet the newest Oakland Raider, Cordarrelle Patterson. The former Viking agreed to a deal late Monday night. Patterson has made the All-Pro team as a return specialist in three of his four seasons … It was a busy Monday in Philadelphia. The Eagles signed Nick Foles to a two-year deal while cutting the cord on backup quarterback Chase Daniel. Foles, as you may remember, began his career with the Eagles and made a Pro Bowl appearance for them in 2013. Philadelphia also restructured Zach Ertz’s contract by converting $3.225 million of his base salary into a signing bonus. That saves the Eagles $2.58 million against the cap … Speaking of the Jets, Gang Green has reportedly checked in on Josh McCown. The Cowboys brought McCown in for a visit last week but didn’t end up signing him. Other quarterback possibilities for the Jets include Jay Cutler, Chase Daniel, Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III, A.J. McCarron, Brock Osweiler, Trevor Siemian and these guys … Former Jets quarterback Geno Smith is drawing interest from the Browns and Chargers. He also visited with the Giants over the weekend … Rex Burkhead visited the Patriots on Monday. It’s his second known visit after meeting with the Falcons on Saturday … A broken tailbone sent Julius Thomas to injured reserve last season but he claims to be 100 percent healthy. Thomas was traded to the Dolphins last month following a disappointing two-year stay in Jacksonville … The Chargers cut King Dunlap on Monday, five days before he was due a $500,000 roster bonus. Dunlap’s fate was sealed last week when the Bolts signed Russell Okung to a four-year, $53 million contract, making him the highest-paid tackle in football … It looked like the Giants might move on from John Jerry after signing D.J. Fluker to a one-year deal, but now Jerry is coming back on a three-year, $10 million contract. Including the playoffs, Jerry started all 17 games for the Giants last season … Shane Vereen will be back for another season in New York after receiving a $500,000 roster bonus from the Giants on Monday. A torn triceps limited Vereen to five games last season … Le’Veon Bell will need six weeks to recover from core muscle surgery but is hoping to be ready for OTAs. The Steelers assigned the franchise tag to Bell last month … Anquan Boldin will return for a 15th NFL season in 2017. The 36-year-old free agent led the Lions with eight touchdowns in 2016 … DeMarcus Ware is calling it quits after a 12-year career that included nine Pro Bowls, seven All-Pro selections and a Super Bowl with Denver in 2015. Ware ranks eighth on the NFL’s all-time sack list.