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Top 25 free agents of 2018: Quarterbacks top the board (for now)

Before getting to the preliminary list of the top 25 unrestricted free agents of 2018 below, there are a few disclaimers to cover.

Many of the biggest names won't ever make it to free agency because they'll get a long-term deal or the franchise tag. The trade market -- especially at quarterback -- figures to be more active than ever in a league where fewer teams have real salary-cap issues. There will inevitably also be a few surprise names added to the free-agent pool when teams begin to make roster cuts before the start of the new league year on March 14.

Add that all up and it's safe to expect a much different set of rankings by the time Chris Wesseling and I post our annual Top 101 Free Agents list in late February. The players are ranked below 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.

Now that 49ers general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan had a franchise quarterback fall in their laps, there is no chance they will let Jimmy GQ get away. He seems likely to get the franchise tag as a gateway to a long-term deal, which could make him one of the sport's highest-paid players after only seven career starts.

UPDATE: Jimmy Garoppolo and the San Francisco 49ers agreed Thursday to a five-year, $137.5 million contract that will make the quarterback the highest-paid player in NFL history.

Washington GM Bruce Allen will make the first move in answering the biggest question of this offseason: Will the Redskins allow Cousins to reset the QB market as a free agent?

UPDATE:The Washington Redskins are expected to let Kirk Cousins hit the market after agreeing to trade for Alex Smith.

It's hard to imagine Brees going anywhere after such a successful season in New Orleans, although his contract will be complicated, considering his age (39 on Jan. 15) and legendary franchise status. It's worth noting that Brees found his last protracted contract talks in 2012 " extremely frustrating" before he missed OTAs and mandatory minicamp.

After loading Bell up with 406 touches in the regular season, it's theoretically possible Pittsburgh will let Bell walk away like the Cowboys did with DeMarco Murray a few years back. Tagging Bell again at the price of $14.54 million makes more sense.

The 25-year-old timed his career season just right. There's no chance the Cowboys will allow the breakout pass rusher to leave, so a franchise tag appears likely here.

He's coming off a torn ACL, but Robinson had already established himself as one of the best young receivers in football before the injury. Considering how much money the Jaguars have spent on the defense, it would make no sense for them to let an offensive cornerstone get away.

The Minnesota front office knows so much more than any other team about Bridgewater's skill set, makeup and health. That's why a short-term deal to stay in Minnesota makes the most sense for a player who still has the high ceiling of a franchise quarterback, but who carries plenty of risk, too.

Seattle gave up a second-round pick to acquire Richardson in a win-now move. It will be telling to see if the Seahawks try to keep him after a good, not great, season. It's a little worrisome that Richardson's best play came way back in 2014.

He would have been better off hitting free agency before two injury-plagued years, but Ansah is still a strong every-down starter at a position with few quality options in free agency.

Only Antonio Brown and Julio Jones have caught more passes than Landry since the LSU product entered the league in 2014. He doesn't have the downfield chops to earn No. 1 receiver money, but a difference-maker in the slot is still plenty worthy, and it sounds like the Dolphins might be ready to say goodbye.

For all the potential here, Watkins has only produced 1,023 yards over the last two years combined. Jared Goff looked to Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp more often than he did to Watkins, but the Rams might use the franchise tag on the 24-year-old to see if they can get more out of him after a full offseason of work.

Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips knew just how to maximize Joyner as a safety/cornerback hybrid who loves to hit and can cover the slot. There are a lot of teams looking for a player just like Joyner, and the Rams have a long to-do list this offseason. Speaking of which ...

The best cornerback on one of the best teams in football often traveled with the opposition's best receiver. Johnson is just the type of quality starter/sub- Pro Bowl player who often gets paid like a superstar in free agency.

Keenum was available for nearly a month during free agency last year, settling for a $2 million deal to be Sam Bradford's backup in Minnesota. Now he's set to make life-changing money as a starting quarterback, whether it's with the Vikings or elsewhere.

An undrafted player in 2014, Norwell has been a rock-solid starter for three years before elevating his play to All-Pro status in 2017. (He remains so under-the-radar that he was lost in the shuffle on the original version of this list.) In a league awash with offensive-line issues, he's as safe a free agent bet as it gets and will get paid accordingly.

A hanging contract situation and the arrival of Stephon Gilmore has loomed over Butler's worst season as a starter, but he still plays the position with rare tenacity. It sure looks like Bill Belichick will let Butler's storybook career go elsewhere.

Unhappy with the offers in last year's market, Poe settled for a one-year "prove-it" deal. He proved he's a quality rotational player, but probably not worth the top-notch deal he's looking for.

He was one of the five best running backs in football in December, showing surprising power and rare ability to make defenders miss every snap. Durability questions, however, make him a risky bet.

Rock-solid starting guards with the flexibility to play tackle make a lot of money in free agency.

 Tom Brady's blind-side protector is probably a league-average starting left tackle, which will be worth plenty to some. His leadership and athleticism are both plusses, but the 
 Patriots might not want to give him big money entering his age-30 season. 

This is a cop-out ranking, either way. Too optimistic about Bradford's health or a little low, considering the value of a league-average starting quarterback. No one seems to know if his knees can withstand the rigors of another full season.

He hasn't quite lived up to his billing as a dominant run-stuffer, but there are only so many humans his size with his playing experience.

Breeland is not as steady as teams want a No. 1 cornerback to be, but his top-end ability will tempt some team to spend big money.

A reliable starting safety whose value often was best seen when he was out of the lineup for Green Bay.

Given Hyde's creativity and versatility as a runner and receiver, it's not a great sign that he was so uneven under 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan.

Notable omissions (in alphabetical order):

Nigel Bradham, LB, Eagles
Vontae Davis, CB, free agent
Tyler Eifert, TE, Bengals
Jimmy Graham, TE, Seahawks
Brent Grimes, CB, Buccaneers
Marqise Lee, WR, Jaguars
Jordan Matthews, WR, Bills
Jerick McKinnon, RB, Vikings
Julius Peppers, DE, Panthers
Terrelle Pryor, WR, Redskins
Eric Reid, S, 49ers
Weston Richburg, C, Giants
Kenny Vaccaro, S, Saints
Mike Wallace, WR, Ravens

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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