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Kirk Cousins, Eric Berry among players who must be re-signed

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Free agency might seem far away, but what's happening now can have a big impact on what happens in March.

So though many of us have our eyes on the playoff picture heading down the stretch of this season, I thought it would be worth taking a look at the list of players expected to become free agents in 2017. Below, you'll find six pending free agents who should be re-signed and six whose teams can comfortably let them walk away.

BRING THEM BACK

1) Kirk Cousins, QB, Washington Redskins

Cousins bet on himself this offseason -- and he's doing everything he can to make that bet pay off. After a slow start, he's posted a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 19:4 and a passer rating of 107.3 over his last nine games, and he's thrown for a league-best 362 yards per game over his last three contests. The fifth-year pro benefited from a much-improved offensive line and the seasoning that comes with experience. While Cousins' roll is reminiscent of how he closed out 2015, I think he's getting rid of the ball more quickly and running the team with a bit more authority this year.

Cousins is the long-term answer at the position for Washington, having far surpassed the relatively low expectations that accompanied his entry to the NFL as a fourth-round pick to grow into an above-average quarterback. He is a must-sign for the Redskins. In fact, if they can't reach an agreement with him (I've been told that he's asking for $26 million per year), it would make sense for them to apply the franchise tag to him for a second straight year. It's easy for me to say, because I don't have to pay him, but I think Cousins is deserving of a financial reward, given the way he took a risk and showed his bosses definitively that he can play.

2) Eric Berry, SS, Kansas City Chiefs

Another player playing out 2016 on the franchise tag, Berry ties the Chiefs' defensive back seven together. He's a smart player who also serves as the emotional leader of the defense. Berry gets 'em lined up correctly and makes plays all over the field, against both the pass and the run. He can also play slot corner if needed. And, of course, he reached the Pro Bowl, earned a first-team All-Pro nod and won the Comeback Player of the Year award last season after fighting back from Hodgkin's lymphoma. This season, he's got 57 tackles, seven passes defensed and two interceptions. At just 27 years old, Berry is deserving of a new contract in Kansas City. I realize Dontari Poe is also primed to hit the market, but if I were the Chiefs, I'd try to get something done with Berry and keep Poe via the tag.

3) Dont'a Hightower, MLB, New England Patriots

I don't think the Patriots could afford to keep both Hightower and Jamie Collins, so when they traded Collins to the Browns in October, they were essentially choosing Hightower -- and I think that's the right call. Hightower can play in space, he can blitz, he can play the run. He can cover running backs out of the backfield or a tight end or receiver that is split out. He has speed and outstanding ability; he's kind of a defensive catalyst. He's also a more consistent player than Collins.

4) Terrelle Pryor, WR, Cleveland Browns

In his first full year as a wide receiver, the former quarterback has caught 62 passes for 855 yards in 12 games. It's amazing, especially because that transition is not an easy one to make. Granted, he's a great athlete and talented guy -- you can't excel at high school and Ohio State without being a good football player. But it's important to note he's not relying solely on his size and speed; he's catching passes because he's learned how to run routes and get open. Just consider his touchdown against the Cowboys: Pryor ran that route like a savvy veteran.

Pryor should be a very popular player if he hits the open market -- he's in line to make much more money as a receiver than he ever would have as a quarterback in the NFL. The Browns might have to overpay a bit to keep Pryor (unless they use the franchise tag on him), but then, he's really one of the only stars they have. Beyond his ability to make an impact on an otherwise talent-poor roster, he's the kind of attraction that can help Cleveland fill seats as the rebuilding process continues. Letting someone like Pryor walk away will not help the Browns sell tickets. From that standpoint, I think he'll provide good value, even if Cleveland pays a premium to keep him.

5) Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants

Signed to a one-year deal to stay in New York this season, Pierre-Paul has reverted back to his All-Pro, pre-accident form, collecting seven sacks, three forced fumbles and 50 tackles in 11 games. After a feeling-out period last season, he seems to have learned what he can and can't do after a fireworks accident that led to the amputation of his right index finger, along with a broken thumb. In fact, in terms of his on-field impact, it's like the accident never happened. As a pass rusher who can also defend the run, JPP is a special player at a position of need for a lot of people.

6) Le'Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Bell is one of the best running backs in the NFL, a nightmare matchup who has excellent vision and unbelievable receiving skills. The question is, do you trust him enough to hand him a long-term deal? This is the second consecutive season that has been shortened by a suspension for Bell, which would worry me if I were a team thinking about paying out a big chunk of guaranteed money. There's also an injury history, though that's only a relatively minor concern at this point. Ultimately, I'd give Bell the franchise tag before signing him.

Also considered: Morris Claiborne, CB, Dallas Cowboys (among the most improved players in 2016); Chandler Jones, DE, Arizona Cardinals (eight sacks so far this season); Brandon Williams, NT, Baltimore Ravens (one of the best nose tackles around, Williams has keyed Baltimore's top-notch run defense).

LET THEM WALK

1) Pierre Garcon, WR, Washington Redskins

2) DeSean Jackson, WR, Washington Redskins

Jackson (30) has been held back by injuries and is no longer the threat he once was; neither is the 30-year-old Garcon. The Redskins have up-and-coming pass-catching weapons in Jamison Crowder, Jordan Reed and rookie Josh Doctson. Washington should use some of the money they'd give to one or both of these players and put it toward improving the defense. If I were going to keep one, it'd be Jackson, but I think it's OK to let both walk away.

One factor to note that could potentially impact all of the players on this list: Teams that must increase their spending to meet the NFL's spending-floor requirements will be more willing to overpay for someone who otherwise would not merit a big contract.

3) Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers

The 26-year-old Lacy hasn't been a truly effective back since 2014, with weight problems and injuries -- the latest an ankle injury that sent him to injured reserve in October -- getting in the way. It might seem hard to let go of a player who won the 2013 Offensive Rookie of the Year award and earned a Pro Bowl nod that season, but I wonder if he'll ever get back to what he was. The 2017 NFL Draft is set to include an unbelievable group of running backs, and if I were the Packers, I'd turn my attention that way, given that I think teams will be able to get a good back as late as the third or fourth round.

4) Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago Bears

I just don't think Jeffery -- who was given the tag this year -- is an elite receiver, and I don't think the four-game suspension he was hit with in November will help his case on the open market. I would sign him at a relatively steep discount, but I don't see him playing like the No. 1 receiver he'd have to be to justify a big contract.

5) Michael Floyd, WR, Arizona Cardinals

Floyd has had promise ever since his days in high school and at Notre Dame, but in five pro seasons, he's been very inconsistent and has yet to fulfill that potential. You're always hoping you'll see something click with him, but it never does. Floyd hasn't started consistently since 2014, and he has just 28 catches for 410 yards and three scores this season. If I were the Cardinals, I'd let someone else overpay to take a shot on him.

6) Kawann Short, DT, Carolina Panthers

Short was a force in 2015 (collecting 55 tackles, 11 sacks and three forced fumbles en route to making the Pro Bowl) but has fallen off considerably this season (36 tackles and three sacks), which is something of a surprise, considering this is a contract year. He just hasn't been a consistent player. Of course, he's a young guy (27), and sometimes young guys need a wake-up call. But if I were the Panthers, I wouldn't sign Short to a big-money deal at this point.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.

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