Top 25 free agents of 2017

NFL free agency always winds up looking drastically different in March than it does in January.

Most of the top players on my first crack at the "best of" list of pending free agents below will be re-signed or retained with the franchise tag before the new league year officially starts on March 9. The list of available players will also swell with veterans released for performance or salary reasons.

In short: Expect a much different set of rankings by the time Chris Wesseling and I post our annual Top 99 Free Agents list in late February. In the meantime, here's a quick first look at the upcoming market. The players are ranked by their ability to impact a team for the next two to three years -- this does not necessarily reflect who will make the most money.

Top 25 2017 Unrestricted Free Agents

1) Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers running back: NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reports that the Steelers will use the franchise tag on Bell, the author of an entirely unique style of running. A one-year deal is ideal for the Steelers, considering Bell's previous suspensions and injuries, but it could lead to offseason friction between the running back and team.

2) Eric Berry, Kansas City Chiefs safety: Berry checks every conceivable box. He's a superstar at a scarce position (practically every team is looking for a safety). He's a locker-room leader and squarely in his prime at 28 years old. Retained with a franchise tag that created acrimony before the 2016 season, it's time for the Chiefs to pay up.

3) Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins quarterback: In his "prove it" season, Cousins proved he's a mid-level starting quarterback. That's worth a lot in today's NFL. The Redskins would likely use the franchise tag on Cousins for a second consecutive season if they can't reach a long-term deal.

4) Kawann Short, Carolina Panthers defensive tackle: General manager Dave Gettleman unceremoniously booted cornerback Josh Norman last offseason, in theory because the team needed room to retain Short. Now it's time to pay up.

5) Chandler Jones, Arizona Cardinals outside linebacker: After being traded to Arizona, Jones did a better job than his former teammate PatriotsJamie Collins of proving he can thrive in any defensive system. Cardinals coach Bruce Arians already declared the team will retain Jones with the franchise tag if it can't sign him long-term.

6) Alshon Jeffery, Chicago Bears wide receiver: Jeffery could wind up No. 1 on this list by March 9 because he's the most likely player ranked in the top eight to hit free agency. Injuries marred his 2015 campaign, and his suspension in 2016 is a concern, but there's no denying his ball skills or production. True No. 1 receivers don't become available too often.

7) Melvin Ingram, Los Angeles Chargers outside linebacker: Don't just look at the sack total. Ingram slowly evolved into one of football's most disruptive, complete outside linebackers in 2016. His profile isn't so different from that of Olivier Vernon, who scored big in free agency last season.

8) Calais Campbell, Arizona Cardinals defensive end: There's no other player quite like Campbell, as thoughtful and savvy as he is physically overwhelming at 6-foot-8, 282 pounds. He would make a great "get over the hump" piece for a team looking for a title.

9) Brandon Williams, Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle: Williams is a one-man solution to your favorite team's run-stopping problems. Damon Harrisonpaved the way last season for nose tackles to get paid like pass rushers.

10) Jason Pierre-Paul, New York Giants defensive end: Before his recent sports hernia surgery, Pierre-Paul's incredible stamina and snap-to-snap effort was a calling card. He proved this season he can still finish plays despite having an amputated index finger. Just don't offer him a one-year contract.

11) Jamie Collins, Cleveland Browns outside linebacker: The hardest free agent to rank on the list. The Browns will be highly motivated to retain Collins after dealing a compensatory third-round pick for him. His time in Cleveland was unremarkable, and New England's willingness to trade him is a red flag for interested teams. While his production does not match his skill set or reputation, Collins should not fear. He may not get top-tier money as hoped, but any player this versatile will get paid somewhere.

UPDATE: Collins inked a four-year contract with the Browns. The new deal is worth $50 million ($26 million in guarantees), per Rapoport.

12) Kevin Zeitler, Cincinnati Bengals guard: After earning second-team honors on Pro Football Focus' 2016 All-Pro team at 26 years old, Zeitler is set to make a lot more money than many players with a lot more name-brand value.

13) Stephon Gilmore, Buffalo Bills cornerback: He has weeks, even months, on film where he looks like a true No. 1 cornerback. He had other weeks in 2016 where he looked lost, perhaps fearful of getting hurt in a contract year. If he makes it to the open market, some team will believe it can make him a star because of his skill set, although I suspect the Bills will use the franchise tag on him.

14) A.J. Bouye, Houston Texans cornerback: No player has made himself more money this season. While there is undeniable risk in signing a player with only 19 career starts, Bouye has played like a borderline Pro Bowler in his first full season as a starter. He looks the part of a former first-round pick, not a former undrafted player.

15) Dont'a Hightower, New England Patriots linebacker: After Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins were traded, the conventional wisdom in New England held that Hightower would be re-signed. Bill Belichick has talked up Hightower's leadership in the past, but Belichick rarely does what fans and writers expect.

16) Dontari Poe, Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle: The Chiefs may have to choose between Poe and Berry, resulting in Poe hitting the market. Though he's a solid starter, his career hasn't taken off as I expected after his terrific rookie season in 2012.

17) Martellus Bennett, New England Patriots tight end: He'd worn out his welcome with three different organizations before finding a home in New England. Bill Belichick should do what he can to retain the best Gronk insurance possible.

18) DeSean Jackson, Washington Redskins receiver: There is some risk that Jackson's explosive but limited skill set will erode now that he's 30, but it's hard to detect on the field. Few players can take the top off a defense better, and teams know to pay Jackson as a great puzzle piece, not a No. 1 threat.

19) Terrelle Pryor, Cleveland Browns receiver: Well, here's a ranking that would have looked ridiculous at this time a year ago. Maturity questions linger, but Pryor's 1,000-yard season hinted at an even higher ceiling ahead for the converted quarterback.

20) T.J. Lang, Green Bay Packers guard: A "criminally underrated" starter may have to leave Green Bay at age 29 to get his fair market value.

21) Nick Perry, Green Bay Packers outside linebacker: General manager Ted Thompson brought Perry back on a one-year, $5 million contract last offseason after a boffo playoff run. Perry will cost a lot more after collecting a team-high 11 sacks.

22) Trumaine Johnson, Los Angeles Rams cornerback:Given the franchise tag last season, Johnson turned in a relatively unremarkable campaign as a starter in coordinator Gregg Williams' system. Don't be surprised if Williams' new team, the Browns, go after Johnson.

23) Tony Jefferson, Arizona Cardinals safety: Was he a product of the Cardinals' aggressive system? Jefferson can make plays all over the field if he finds a coach who knows how to deploy him.

24) Ricky Wagner, Baltimore Ravens tackle: Consistent, quality play from a starting right tackle could be worth north of $10 million per season in this market.

25) Barry Church, Dallas Cowboys safety: As Conor Orr mentioned in his great piece this week, Church can up his value with a big playoff run. Church is a steady, tough, run-stopping constant in a Dallas secondary that overachieved this season. He's a glue guy.

Notable omissions:Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers; Riley Reiff, T, Detroit Lions; Kenny Britt, WR, Los Angeles Rams; Johnathan Hankins, DT, New York Giants; Mike Glennon, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Andrew Whitworth, T, Cincinnati Bengals; Chris Baker, DE, Washington Redskins; Larry Warford, G, Detroit Lions; DeMarcus Ware, OLB, Denver Broncos; Jabaal Sheard, DE, New England Patriots; LeGarrette Blount, RB, New England Patriots; T.J. McDonald, SS, Los Angeles Rams.

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