Big names highlight 2017 crop of NFL free agents

Big names highlight 2017 crop of NFL free agents

NEW YORK -- Free agency is not the lifeblood of NFL teams. The draft remains the most significant means by which to build and fortify a franchise.

Yet, as the salary cap increases exponentially each year under the 10-year labor agreement reached in 2011, the lure of veterans on the open market can be powerful. Not only do clubs who manage their financial structure wisely have increased funds to spend, they can get quick improvement that doesn't normally come from rookies.

To Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman, it's unusual to see how much money is available for spending, and not just in Carolina.

"Different since I got here," he said. "We had to cut guys to get under, then the next year I think we had to touch one or two contracts to get under, then the last three years we've been able to create separation, sort of.

"Meanwhile, you've got teams that have got crazy money under the cap. It gives you flexibility. It allows you, for lack of a better term, it allows you to expand your thought process."

The Falcons (Alex Mack, Mohamed Sanu), Giants (Damon Harrison, Olivier Vernon, Janoris Jenkins) and Raiders (Bruce Irvin, Kelechi Osemele, Donald Penn) scored in a big way in 2016. The Bears (Danny Trevathan), Dolphins (Arian Foster) and Texans (Brock Osweiler) not so much.

With the 2017 crop lacking big-time difference makers, that extra $12 million each team has to spend might get spread around a bit more. Then again, overspending has become second nature in free agency for far too many teams.

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HEAD OF THE CLASS

There were four All-Pros whose contracts were up after the 2015 season. Von Miller, Eric Berry and Doug Martin returned to their teams. Josh Norman had the franchise tag dropped by Carolina and scored big with a five-year, $75 million deal in Washington.

Four top guys who won't be going anywhere:

Le'Veon Bell , RB, Pittsburgh - The Steelers tagged their all-world back and he won't be leaving Steel City.

Eric Berry, S, Kansas City - He threatened to sit out 2017 rather than be tagged again and he won, getting a long-term deal as the league's highest-paid safety.

Kirk Cousins, QB, Washington - When a good but not great quarterback such as Cousins is making more than Super Bowl winners, it shows how valued (and overvalued) the position can be.

Jason Pierre-Paul , DE, New York Giants - The Giants are convinced he's found ways to be consistently dangerous despite his hand issues from 2015 fireworks accident.

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Still on teams' radars:

Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago - If he stays healthy, Jeffery can be a No. 1 target. In this pass-first league, that's a must-have commodity.

Latavius Murray, RB, Oakland - Teams outside of Dallas have discovered the need for two running backs. Murray pretty much would fit anywhere.

Andrew Whitworth, OT, Cincinnati - Veteran left tackles with versatility, leadership skills and intelligence are difficult to find.

Dont'a Hightower, LB, New England - Probably the best defender on the NFL champions, and a good locker room guy.

Dontari Poe, DT, Kansas City - If he isn't the best at his position in the NFL, he's close.

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Superstars without a home:

Adrian Peterson, RB: Surely the former Viking will get a nice, if short, deal from a club in dire need of a ground threat who could put it over the top.

Darrelle Revis, CB: He might have legal issues, and he slipped badly in his return to the Jets. If he has anything left, Revis is a find for someone - with a short-term contract.

Jamaal Charles, RB: One of the league's most gallant and versatile players, but his knee problems might be too much to overcome.

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NEXT IN LINE

These players are not far behind those above, but some come with significant questions marks. Listed alphabetically:

A.J. Bouye, CB, Houston; Calais Campbell, DE, Arizona; Pierre Garcon, WR, Washington; DeSean Jackson, WR, Washington; Tony Jefferson, S, Arizona; Trumaine Johnson (non-exclusive tag), CB, Los Angeles Rams; Chris Long, DE, New England; Brandon Marshall, WR, New York Jets; Alex Okafor, LB, Arizona; Nick Perry, LB, Green Bay; Terrelle Pryor, WR, Cleveland; Kawann Short (non-exclusive tag), DT, Carolina; Brandon Williams, DT, Baltimore; Kevin Zeitler, G, Cincinnati.

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SECOND WAVE

Some of these players might get quick deals more because of the position they play than their overall production. Some have excellent timing, hitting free agency after effective seasons. Listed alphabetically:

Kamar Aiken, WR, Baltimore; Martellus Bennett, TE, New England; Zach Brown, LB, Buffalo; Trent Cole, LB (edge rusher), Indianapolis; Jared Cook, TE, Green Bay; Patrick DiMarco, FB, Atlanta; Jack Doyle, TE, Indianapolis; Stephon Gilmore, CB, Buffalo; Mike Glennon, QB, Tampa Bay; Micah Hyde, S, Green Bay; Melvin Ingram (non-exclusive tag), LB, Los Angeles Chargers; Chandler Jones (non-exclusive tag), LB, Arizona; Matt Kalil, LT, Minnesota; Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Cincinnati; Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay; T.J. Lang, G, Green Bay; Kelvin Sheppard, LB, New York Giants; Logan Ryan, CB, New England; J.C. Tretter, C, Green Bay; Kendall Wright, WR, Tennessee.

McDonald toasts Shanahan for communication of trade talks

McDonald toasts Shanahan for communication of trade talks

SANTA CLARA -- Tight end Vance McDonald became aware of a report the 49ers had engaged in trade talks involving him at his brother’s wedding in Austin, Texas.

But McDonald said he did not give it much thought because he had another immediate priority.

“I still had my best man’s speech to do,” McDonald said.

Later that evening during last month's draft, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan called McDonald to keep him in the loop. There was no trade, and McDonald returned to Santa Clara on Monday to continue participation in the 49ers’ offseason program.

“The first thing I told him was, ‘Man, there aren’t a lot of coaches that would do this,’” McDonald said of his talk with Shanahan. “He just wanted to fill me in.”

Nearly four weeks later, it is as if nothing ever happened.

“The only trade discussions we had was when another team asked us about Vance on draft day,” Shanahan said this week. “And after a team asked us about Vance then we asked other teams if they’d be interested in that same thing.”

McDonald said he completely understood why the 49ers would check with other teams around the league to see what they could acquire in a trade.

“Basically, it’s just like any other team in the NFL would do,” McDonald said. “If you’re a 2-14 team, obviously, there are a lot of things you can improve on, a lot of spots that need to be filled. There are a lot of things you need to improve upon in the offseason. So if teams are going to call and inquire about you, then obviously the next step is to … call around to every other team.

“So that’s exactly what happened to me. It isn’t like they don’t want me here. There was never a lack of communication on any level.”

Even before he knew his immediate future with the 49ers, McDonald said he tried to maintain the proper state of mind.

“I had the mindset this isn’t going to change anything,” McDonald said. “I’m going to end up where I end up and I’m just going to continue doing what I’m doing, which is do everything to be a better football player.”

McDonald enters the fifth year of his NFL career after signing a new deal in December that amounts to a three-year, $19.7 million extension. Three days later, the 49ers placed McDonald on injured reserve with a shoulder injury.

McDonald was on pace for his best season as a pass-catcher. In 11 games, he had 24 receptions for 391 yards and four touchdowns.

Now, he is competition for a spot in the 49ers’ offense, along with fifth-round draft pick George Kittle, undrafted rookie Cole Hikutini, and veterans Logan Paulsen, Garrett Celek and Blake Bell.

McDonald said he likes what Shanahan has brought to the 49ers, including added responsibilities of the tight end position.

“Last year, all we talked about was how fast our pace was,” McDonald said. “With Kyle, it’s insanely quick. He’s a very detailed guy. It’s interesting to hear him present information. You try to apply it and play with the same mindset that he has. It’s a task that we all enjoy doing.

“We (tight ends) are the end of the line. There’s communication with us and the wide receivers and running backs. We’re also in command with receiving corps. There are a lot of things on our plate. Hopefully, this doesn’t get back to the wide receivers, but we’re supposed to be smarter than them. It’s a fun job to have. We don’t try to rub it in too much.”

Chip Kelly returns to college football -- as analyst

Chip Kelly returns to college football -- as analyst

Chip Kelly is back in college football.

The former Oregon coach, who served as 49ers head coach last season, signed a multiyear deal as an ESPN analyst, the network announced Friday morning. He will work predominantly on pre-games, halftimes and in studio wraps each Saturday on ESPN2.

“Over the last 30 years, I have experienced football from one perspective – as a coach,” Kelly said in a statement. “Working in television will allow me to see the game from a different angle; simultaneously, I‘ll provide viewers an insight to the mindset of a coach and team while offering alternative views of various situations.

“Once I decided to make the move to TV, my familiarity with ESPN, combined with their high-quality production and vital role in college football, it was easily the best network suited for me.”

Kelly, 53, was fired on the evening of the 49ers’ season finale. The 49ers went 2-14 under Kelly and set the franchise record with 13 consecutive losses. Their only victories came against the Los Angeles Rams. Kelly also auditioned with FOX for the analyst job vacated when John Lynch became 49ers general manager, sources told NBC Sports Bay Area.

Kelly served as Oregon’s head coach from 2009 to ’12. His teams compiled a record of 46-7. Under Kelly, the Ducks advanced to the 2011 national championship game, losing to Auburn 22-19.

Kelly won the AP College Football Coach of the Year. He twice won the Pac-10 coach of the year. He left Oregon to become head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013. After his first two NFL teams went 10-6, Kelly was fired in 2015 with one game remaining in the season. The Eagles were 6-9 at the time of Kelly's firing.

“Chip is one of the most innovative football minds of our generation,” ESPN senior coordinating producer Lee Fitting said. “As a coach, he saw the game from a unique perspective, never afraid to take an unconventional approach. We want him to bring that mentality to our college football coverage each week, offering fans a varying viewpoint outside of the conventional thought process.”