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Who joins Kirk Cousins among best available?

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USA TODAY Sports’ Lorenzo Reyes looks ahead to 2017 and what the New England Patriots must do in the offseason if they’re going to have a chance for another Super Bowl title.
USA TODAY Sports

NFL free agency doesn’t begin until March 9. Between now and then, teams will have the opportunity to re-sign or franchise (from Feb. 15-March 1) their best players. Plenty will happen in the coming weeks, but here’s an early look at some of the top talent that could be available:

1. RB Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers: He may be the league’s premier tailback — mostly because he’s so much more than a runner. Bell’s ability to accelerate behind his blocks, run receiver-crisp routes and generally take over a game (watch his performance in snowy Buffalo in Week 14) was showcased in the second half of the season and playoffs. In 2016, Bell became the first player ever to average 100 yards rushing and 50 yards receiving in the same season. His 157 yards per game from scrimmage was the third-highest mark in NFL history and would have equated to a single-season record 2,512 yards projected over 16 games. However the knocks on a player with MVP ability are durability and responsibility (Bell was suspended to start both the 2015 and 2016 seasons for substance abuse violations).

2. QB Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins: You don’t think the Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns, New York Jets or San Francisco 49ers wouldn’t love to solve their problems under center with a player of Cousins’ caliber? Of course the Redskins can deny any club from negotiating with him by simply slapping the exclusive franchise tag on him. Given the dearth of quality veteran passers available and a draft class considered weak at the position, that might be Washington’s wisest course for a player who’s thrown for 9,083 yards and 54 TDs (68.3% completion rate, 99.3 QB rating) since becoming the full-time starter in 2015.

3. S Eric Berry, Kansas City Chiefs: He covers, hits, changes momentum, leads and inspires. Not much more you could ask of a safety or team leader. However the Chiefs could have a problem if negotiations stall again as Berry has vowed not to play on the franchise tag for a second straight season.

4. OLB/DE Chandler Jones, Arizona Cardinals: He’s registered double-digit sacks three of the past four years and proven comfortable on the edge in both 4-3 and 3-4 schemes. Jones has also forced four fumbles each of the last two seasons.

5. DT Kawann Short, Carolina Panthers: His sack total dropped from 11 in 2015 to just six in Carolina’s forgettable 2016 season. Still, it’s hard to find 28-year-olds who can cause interior havoc and also pressure the passer.

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6. CB A.J. Bouye, Houston Texans: He’s basically this year’s version of Josh Norman, rising from anonymity to stardom while playing an important role for an elite defense. Still, Bouye will come with questions given he’s only started 19 games in four pro seasons while picking off just six passes in that time. Still, given the premium on his position, someone will pay Bouye handsomely if Houston won’t.

7. TE Martellus Bennett, New England Patriots: As he gleefully noted after the Super Bowl, teams love to overpay for championship-proven players. Bennett had a huge impact (55 catches, 701 yards, seven TDs) last season while stepping in for Rob Gronkowski while embracing the Patriot Way after the Bears got rid of him. Still, his huge personality and age (30 next season) will mean he’ll have to find the right situation.

8. WR Alshon Jeffery, Bears: He’s averaged nearly six catches and 80 yards per game over the last four seasons. The problem is his availability as he’s missed 11 contests over the last two years, including a four-game suspension in 2016. Jeffery is a borderline No. 1 option but could make a huge splash — think Eric Decker — if he joins a team with an established wideout.

9. DE Jason Pierre-Paul, New York Giants: After figuring out how to play with his disfigured hand in 2015, JPP resumed his game-wrecking ways last year, racking up seven sacks, eight pass break-ups and three forced fumbles in just 12 games. And he’s only 28, so a four- or five-year deal seems like a reasonable investment.

10. LB Dont’a Hightower, Patriots: The 6-3, 265-pounder’s versatility was showcased in Super Bowl LI, where his sack of Matt Ryan off the edge was widely credited by teammates as the turning point in New England’s comeback. Hightower, who will be 27 next season, is an every-down type who is solid against the run and even better defending the pass despite his size.

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Follow Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis

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