Each year, NFL teams engage in bidding contests for the top free agents, but some clubs will be taking care of internal business before the legal tampering period begins on March 13.
Typically, a couple of weeks before the start of the new league year, front offices will look to re-sign key veterans – both marquee and role players.
This week, at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, general managers and head coaches answered questions about players who may be in active negotiations with the team and offseason plans to retain certain impending free agents.
Instead of highlighting the star players who may not hit the open market, we’re going to shine a spotlight on eight underrated veterans who should earn a raise with their respective teams before free agency.
D’Onta Foreman played a big role in the Carolina Panthers’ backfield after the team traded Christian McCaffrey to the San Francisco 49ers in October.
In Carolina’s first game without McCaffrey, Foreman recorded 15 carries for 118 yards in a 21-3 upset win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In the following week, he had his best game of the 2022 season, recording 26 carries for 118 yards and three touchdowns in a 37–34 overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
Although Foreman shared touches with Chuba Hubbard, he finished as the Panthers’ leading rusher with 914 yards and five touchdowns. With the former starring out of the backfield, Carolina established a physical offensive identity under former interim head coach Steve Wilks, ranking 10th in rushing yards for the season.
Early in his career, Foreman struggled with injuries, although the Houston Texans waived him in part because the team felt he needed to “grow up.” Filling in for an injured Derrick Henry, the 6’0″, 235-pound bruising back had a few 108-plus-yard rushing performances with the Tennessee Titans during the 2021 season. Then he found his way into a starting role last season.
General manager Scott Fitterer will prioritize re-signing Foreman, meaning the big ball carrier should have a shot to hold down the rushing role in Carolina.
Jamaal Williams is another underrated running back who is unlikely to hit the open market. Coming off his most productive campaign, he embodies a tough Detroit Lions team under head coach Dan Campbell.
While ranking the Lions’ top free agents, The Athletics put Colton Pouncy Williams at No. 2, writing that he “set the tone for the rebuild and is the heart and soul of the Lions.”
Lions general manager Brad Holmes told reporters Williams has been in discussions with the team about a new deal.
On Wednesday, Campbell talked about the team’s plan to keep D’Andre Swift on the field. The dynamic running back battled injuries early in the 2022 season and took on a limited workload for most of the campaign. So, he can continue to play in a change-of-pace role as a ball carrier behind Williams, who saw the lion’s share of carries (262) last season.
In 2022, Williams gained 1,066 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground. While he may not match his scoring output from last campaign, the 27-year-old running back is likely to remain part of a rising offense under play-caller Ben Johnson.
After an underwhelming three-year stint with the Oakland and Las Vegas Raiders, Arden Key benefited from a change of scenery. Over the past two years with the San Francisco 49ers and Jacksonville Jaguars, he has developed into a solid edge defender, posting 39 pressures, 11 sacks and 10 tackles for loss in that span.
Although Key had his most productive campaign with the 49ers in terms of sacks and quarterback hits, he established himself as a leader in the Jaguars locker room this past season. SI.com’s John Shipley praised him for his intangibles and versatility.
“The veteran signed with the Jaguars on a one-year deal last offseason and made the most of it, proving to be one of the top leadership voices on defense while making an impact as a pass rusher from a variety of lines,” Shipley wrote .
With 2022 No. 1 overall pick Travon Walker and 2019 No. 7 overall pick Josh Allen on the fringes, Key would continue to play in a backup role in Jacksonville, though his guidance could be helpful for Walker while he faces increased expectations due to his draft status.
In 2022, the Jaguars tied with the Philadelphia Eagles for the second-most pressures (168), but they were 25th in sacks. Jacksonville should try their best to keep Key under contract for the short term future. Still 26 years old, he has more room for growth.
In his first season as a full-time starter, Jermaine Eluemunor proved he’s a good pass-blocking tackle, allowing just three sacks through 940 snaps, per Pro Football Focus.
Although Eluemunor struggled with penalties (10), he held himself in prime position against prime pass rushers. The Athletic’s Tim Kawakami noted the right tackle’s one-on-one performance against 2022 Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa in Week 17.
“Eluemunor does a nice job of blocking Bosa – didn’t even see many chips or double teams. Just staying in front of him snap after snap,” Kawakami tweeted.
Typically, teams have to pay a premium for starting offensive tackles even if they aren’t Pro Bowl-caliber players. Spotrac estimates that Kaleb McGary, Mike McGlinchey and Jawaan Taylor will all cost $14-plus million, while Eluemunor is slated to chip in around $5.6 million.
Prior to 2022, Las Vegas Raiders head coach Josh McDaniels worked with Eluemunor for two stints during their time in New England. The six-year veteran knows the team’s system, and he’s trending in the right direction as a starter with a potentially modest market value.
After running back Josh Jacobs, Eluemunor should be the No. 2 impending free agent on the Raiders’ priority list because of his position.
Like D’Onta Foreman and Jamaal Williams, Jeff Wilson Jr. arguably his best season in 2022, playing eight games each with the San Francisco 49ers and Miami Dolphins. He amassed 1,045 yards and six touchdowns from scrimmage overall.
Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel, who served as the running game and offensive coordinator for the 49ers between 2017 and 2021, acquired Wilson from his former team via trade on November 1.
Obviously, Wilson’s familiarity with McDaniel helped him transition to Miami’s offense. In his second outing with the Dolphins, he recorded 17 carries for 119 yards and a touchdown and hauled in a pair of receptions for 24 yards.
The Dolphins only gave up a fifth-round pick to acquire Wilson, and he can hold his own in a prominent role out of the backfield.
Speaking to the media on Wednesday, General Manager Chris Grier mentioned the possibility of re-signing Wilson and Raheem Mostert, who is also a former 49er. Between the two running backs, the former is three years younger, which makes him a more appealing asset at the position.
Julian Love made significant developmental progress in a full-time starting role this past season.
According to The Athletic’s Charlotte Carroll, Love wore the green dot as the one member of the defense in contact with the coaching staff between games, showing the confidence that defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale has in him. The four-year defensive back recorded a team-leading 124 tackles, six for loss, five pass breakups and two interceptions while allowing an 89.8 passer rating in coverage.
The Giants should make a strong effort to keep Love, who can line up in the slot, in the box and in center field. Together, he and Xavier McKinney are possibly the most versatile starting safety duo across the league.
After quarterback Daniel Jones and running back Saquon Barkley, Love is arguably the Big Blue’s third most important impending free agent because of his leadership role on the back end of Martindale’s defense.
At an opportune time ahead of free agency, Cameron Sutton claimed he is the Pittsburgh Steelers’ top cornerback.
Although Levi Wallace also had an outstanding campaign in his first season with the team, Sutton led the Steelers in pass breakups (15) and allowed a 47.9 percent completion rate and a 65.3 passer rating in coverage. With the ability to line up on the perimeter or in the slot, he is an invaluable asset in the secondary.
After a breakout season, Sutton appears poised to sign a third deal with the Steelers. General manager Omar Khan commented on negotiations with the six-year cornerback.
“We love and think very highly of Cam,” Khan said. “Talks (on an extension) have started and we’ll see where it goes. Just like all of our other free agents, everything is on the table.”
According to Spotrac, Sutton could command $7.6 million in annual salary, which may be an understatement for a starting cover man with inside-out versatility. The Steelers should prepare to pay him close to $10 million per year, and he’s certainly worth that amount.
Pittsburgh is $58,582 over the cap, but Khan can cut cornerback William Jackson (saves $12.2 million) and restructure edge rusher TJ Watt’s deal (saves $12.6 million) to create more cap space.
Under new general manager Ran Carthon, the Tennessee Titans have already made notable cuts, releasing three-time Pro Bowl tackle Taylor Lewan, wide receiver Robert Woods, linebacker Zach Cunningham and kicker Randy Bullock.
As the Titans’ new regime figures out how to shore up the defense, especially through the air, it should retain three-down linebacker David Long Jr.
As a 2019 sixth-round pick out of West Virginia, Long has seen his snap count increase each season and earned a gradual promotion to a starting role. He has played at least 89 percent of the defensive snaps in each of the previous two campaigns.
In 2022, Long recorded career highs in tackles (86) and tackles for loss (seven) with five pass breakups and two interceptions in 12 contests.
With Cunningham out of the picture, Long should return on a new deal starting alongside 2021 third-rounder Monty Rice. Tennessee needs a reliable center for a defense that ranked 23rd in yards allowed last season.
The Titans have $12.4 million in cap space, and Spotrac projects Long would only cost them $4.9 million.
Salary limit information courtesy of Over The Cap Unless otherwise stated.
Maurice Moton covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @MoeMoton.