Given that we're in the thick of the NFL season, free agency seems especially far away. But the franchise-shaping decisions that will come this offseason will be based in large part on what's transpiring on the field right now. So in the interest of looking at both the future and the present simultaneously, I've compiled a list of six pending free agents who must be retained by their current teams -- and six who should be allowed to walk away.
BRING THEM BACK
1) Josh Norman, CB, Carolina Panthers
I never would have thought Norman would be topping a list like this back when I first got a good look at him in the 2012 East-West Shrine Game. He's made remarkable progress in his four years in the NFL, emerging as a confident defender with great competitiveness and instincts who reminds me of former Cowboys great Everson Walls. Norman doesn't have great straight-ahead speed, but he sure knows where the ball is going and how to get there, and he's a good tackler. He has four picks (tied for third in the NFL) and has been burned on just 40.4 percent of the passes thrown his way -- among defenders who have been targeted 50 or more times, only Darrelle Revis (40.0 percent) is better. The 27-year-old is absolutely worth locking up with a long-term deal.
2) Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos
The 26-year-old pass-rushing machine is a cornerstone of the Broncos' defense, which ranks first overall and first against the pass. He has long arms, great speed and a potent first step; he's very quick off the ball and extremely difficult to block. Miller has produced at a high level, piling up 54 sacks since going second overall in the 2011 NFL Draft -- the third-most in the NFL in that span. Miller also makes everyone around him better, and not just up front; Denver's defensive backs know they won't get beat deep too often, because Miller's going to make the quarterback get rid of the ball in a hurry. Locking him up long-term is key for Denver, especially if the team is due for an offensive transition.
3) Kirk Cousins, QB, Washington Redskins
Cousins is a system quarterback who compares favorably to Andy Dalton and Alex Smith; he might not have the strongest arm, but he brings great accuracy and good intangibles. Yes, he's thrown his share of picks over the years, but his interception rate is way down this year, from 4.7 percent entering to 2015 to 2.7 percent through nine starts. He's played especially well of late, putting up a perfect passer rating (158.3) last week and compiling a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 8:1 over his past three games. I'm guessing he'll only continue to settle in as he realizes he doesn't have to try to force plays. I'd like to see him perform better on the road, where seven of his nine picks this year have come, and boost his yards-per-attempt number (6.8) closer to the neighborhood of 7.5 or 8.0. But if Washington is going to return to its winning ways -- and I wouldn't count this team out this season yet -- Cousins has to be brought back, to the point that I'd even overpay him slightly to keep him around.
4) Brock Osweiler, QB, Denver Broncos
Osweiler entered the NFL in 2012 as a live-armed developmental prospect who needed to learn not to throw full-speed all the time. He possesses good athletic skills and a ton of potential; his ceiling as an NFL quarterback is very high. And I saw improvement both this preseason and when he stepped in for Peyton Manninglast Sunday. Facing Chicago -- and his former coach, John Fox, who presumably knows his faults well -- on the road for his first career start is a tall order, and I wouldn't really hold what happens this weekend against him. I think he'll prove capable of taking over in Denver, and while I'd prefer to sign him to a one-year "prove-it" deal, I'd be willing to overpay a bit.
5) Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
We're seeing the real Doug Martin again. After bursting onto the scene with a 1,400-yard, 11-touchdown rookie campaign in 2012, Martin struggled with injuries and poor line play in 2013 and 2014, finishing with just 950 total rushing yards over that two-season span. He's nearly equaled that total this season alone, racking up 706 rushing yards (fifth-most in the NFL) in nine games. He's very strong, changes direction well, can run inside or outside and has great hands -- he's like Mark Ingram, only a little bit better. And he's still just 26 years old. In fact, I think there's even some room for him to improve going forward, as Jameis Winston and the young O-line gather more experience.
6) Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago Bears
Yes, Jeffery was among the players I wrote should be traded away ahead of this season's trade deadline -- but only because I thought the Bears should try to get something back for him rather than risk losing him for nothing. With that route no longer an option, Chicago definitely should try to retain Jeffery, who can play a ball in the air as well as anybody in the NFL. I love offensive coordinator Adam Gase as a coach, and I think he can get the most out of Jeffery. With Chicago still waiting to see what injured first-round pick Kevin White can do on the field, the Bears should do what they can to keep Jeffery around.
LET THEM WALK
1) Greg Hardy, DE, Dallas Cowboys
Hardy has some things going for him on the football field, between his long arms and his history as a sack producer (15 in 2013, 11 in 2012). But he's obviouslya potentially disruptive presence off the field. And while he has compiled 4.0 sacks in five games thus far, I don't think he's done enough to help this team. Consider that the Cowboys have zero fourth-quarter sacks this season, or the fact that Hardy contributed just one tackle last week despite playing 85 percent of the team's defensive snaps against an inexperienced Bucs O-line. Hardy's not a consistent enough player to justify a long-term deal, especially when you consider the big picture of what it means to have him on the roster.
2) Alfred Morris, RB, Washington Redskins
Morris has a lot of miles -- his 986 career carries are the second-most in the NFL by any player over the past four seasons -- on his legs. His yards-per-carry mark has declined each year, from 4.8 in 2012 to 3.7 in 2015. And Washington has a younger, faster, bigger back on the roster in rookie Matt Jones. I think Morris' early success was largely a product of former coach Mike Shanahan's system. He looks like more of a backup-type player going forward.
3) Tamba Hali, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs
Hali has 83.0 career sacks, placing him third among the Chiefs' all-time sack leaders -- but he's logged just 3.5 through nine starts this season. He's a 32-year-old, 10th-year pro who has already restructured his contract once to stay in Kansas City. I think he can contribute somewhere on a one-year deal in 2016, but I don't think it'll be with the Chiefs, who have former first-round pick Dee Ford waiting in the wings.
4) Russell Okung, LT, Seattle Seahawks
Okung probably will be able to get a long-term deal with somebody, because he's just 28 years old and has long arms and huge hands. But he should be playing better than he has on a Seattle line that's allowed 33 sacks, second-most in the NFL. Okung has the tools, but he just doesn't dominate. He should be more of a factor as the left tackle.
5) Matt Forte, RB, Chicago Bears
Since entering the NFL in 2008, Forte has amassed 2,421 total touches -- easily the most in the league in that span. He still has some skills, but his age (29) and that workload have combined to slow him down. In 2013, his yards-per-carry mark was 4.6, but in the two seasons since, it's dipped to 3.9. Like Hali, Forte can still contribute somewhere on a one-year deal, but probably not with his current team, which has a promising young rookie in Jeremy Langford ready to take over the running back position.
6) Eric Weddle, S, San Diego Chargers
Weddle had a monster 2011, when he picked off a career-high seven passes. But he's collected a total of just six picks since. And he's notched just two pass breakups this season -- he simply isn't making the plays he once did. I think he's slowed down and seems to have trouble keeping up with people in coverage.