Ranking the NFL's Top 2019 Free Agents at Every Position

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistJanuary 14, 2019

Ranking the NFL's Top 2019 Free Agents at Every Position

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    The early outlook for the 2019 NFL free-agent class is simply one word—special.  

    Unlike some years, the class has a little bit of everything. There is a potential franchise passer tucked into its depths. There are droves of skill-position talent, headlined by Le'Veon Bell. The offensive line class is better than usual. 

    And on the opposite side of the ball, high-upside pass-rushers, disruptive interior forces and even some productive safeties top off a league-changing class about to hit the open market. 

    Before the tags come out to play, of course. 

    For now, these are the best players at each position judged by productivity, age and projected cost and future production. This won't include restricted free agents, as they usually end up on their current teams. 

          

Quarterback

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    Bill Feig/Associated Press

    1. Teddy Bridgewater

    2. Tyrod Taylor

    3. Robert Griffin III

    4. Ryan Fitzpatrick

    5. Geno Smith

    6. Josh Johnson

    7. Brock Osweiler

    8. Trevor Siemian

    9. Sean Mannion

    10. Kevin Hogan

    Teddy Bridgewater would be the quarterback hinted at in the intro. 

    Of a so-so free-agent class under center, Bridgewater is an intriguing option if he slips to market because he at one point looked like a potential franchise passer before going down with a serious injury. Still only 26 years old, Bridgewater is a career 64.6 percent passer who could excel with the right pieces around him. 

    For the most part, the rest of the class consists of game-managing free agents who could come in when necessary and provide some relief. Tyrod Taylor, for example, lasted four games in Cleveland last year while completing less than 50 percent of his passes and turns 30 years old before next season. 

    Robert Griffin III was a fun story in the preseason before he didn't even get much of a chance with the Baltimore Ravens, but he's still 28. Ryan Fitzpatrick had another typical Ryan Fitzpatrick outburst before crashing and burning and is 36. 

    Josh Johnson was one of the most interesting stories of the season's end. At 32 years old and without a start since 2011, Johnson got playing time after the Washington Redskins had a slew of injuries. He provided a brief spark, even winning a game and earning himself another look from NFL teams this offseason.

    Geno Smith, Brock Osweiler and the rest have locked down steady journeyman backup reputations or seem en route to such statuses. With a weak-looking rookie class inbound, teams have options when it comes to grabbing quality depth. 

    Note: Technically, Nick Foles could be a free agent and he'd rank first. But he has a mutual option with the Eagles. If they decline it, he's a free agent. If they pick it up and he voids, he has to pay money back to the team to go to free agency. The Eagles can simply choose to keep him and pay him or accept it and attempt a trade, so for now, he's a wild card. 

Running Back

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    Phelan M Ebenhack/Associated Press

    1. Le'Veon Bell

    2. Mark Ingram II

    3. Frank Gore

    4. Adrian Peterson

    5. Marshawn Lynch

    6. Tevin Coleman

    7. Bilal Powell

    8. Jay Ajayi

    9. Javorius Allen

    10. Latavius Murray

    Surprise—Le'Veon Bell leads the way. 

    With a split from the Pittsburgh Steelers seemingly a sure thing, the NFL will see a bidding war unfold for a running back coming off a year of rest who in 62 appearances has rushed for 5,336 yards and 35 touchdowns and tallied 2,660 yards and seven more scores as a receiver. Thoughts about Bell's stance against the franchise tag aside, he'll likely be the hottest name on the market and receive a monster deal. 

    The free-agent class naturally tapers off after that. Mark Ingram II turns the dreaded age of 30 next season, though he still averaged 4.7 yards per carry on 138 attempts this year while scoring six times—the fifth season in a row he's rushed for at least six scores. In a committee, Ingram figures to keep producing. 

    And does anyone want to count out Frank Gore or Adrian Peterson at this point? Gore joined the Miami Dolphins right before he turned 35 and ran for 722 yards on a 4.6 per-carry average. Peterson at the age of 33 went over the 1,000-yard mark in Washington. 

    Feel free to add in 32-year-old Marshawn Lynch, who averaged 4.2 yards per rush in Oakland before going down with an injury after six games. 

    Versatility plays a bigger role after those names. Tevin Coleman has rushed for 4.4 yards per carry and caught 92 passes over four years. Bilal Powell quietly has averaged 4.4 yards per rush and caught 204 balls in his career. 

    Point is, though the influx of rookie talent seems to always keep veteran players on the market, the NFL might have to rethink its approach to running back slightly. Versatility is still king, but the older guys can clearly still go. 

Wide Receiver

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    David Banks/Associated Press

    1. Golden Tate

    2. Larry Fitzgerald

    3. Adam Humphries

    4. Tyrell Williams

    5. Donte Moncrief

    6. Devin Funchess

    7. Jordan Matthews

    8. John Brown

    9. Tavon Austin

    10. Randall Cobb

    One of the NFL's most criminally underrated players, Golden Tate heads to market coming out of his age-30 season after essentially splitting time between the Detroit Lions and Philadelphia Eagles. While the split ruined his run of 1,000-plus yards in three of four seasons, Tate rarely misses time with injury and is as reliable as it gets, hence catching 90 or more of his 120-plus targets in four consecutive seasons starting in 2014. 

    That said, Larry Fitzgerald is probably the biggest name. It is nearly impossible to see him leaving the Arizona Cardinals after being with the organization since 2004, but if he does end up leaving, his new team would get a guy who hasn't missed a game since 2014 and has caught 60 or more passes in every season since...2004. 

    Adam Humphries might surprise some, but the 25-year-old wideout just had his first 100-plus-target season and put up 816 yards and five scores. Doesn't sound like much until taking into account the miserable surroundings he had to deal with in Tampa Bay. 

    Tyrell Williams is similar to Tate in the underrated department. He's caught 17 touchdowns over his last three seasons without missing a game, averaging a superb 15-plus yards per catch each year. Only 26, Williams might be one of the biggest steals on the market. 

    Donte Moncrief, Devin Funchess and Jordan Matthews at least have some upside. The first is still 25 years old and has a seven-touchdown season on his resume. The second is 24 and has an eight-touchdown season on his resume. The third is 26 and has done the eight-touchdown thing twice, though he's had problems staying on the field. 

    The rest are known commodities at this point, though John Brown might be the most notable after excelling in a different offense with 715 yards and five scores while averaging 17 yards per catch. He's a good example of the mostly underappreciated but productive class heading to market. 

Tight End

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    Frank Victores/Associated Press

    1. Tyler Eifert

    2. Jared Cook

    3. Luke Willson

    4. Maxx Williams

    5. Jeff Heuerman

    6. Luke Stocker

    7. Lance Kendricks

    8. Demetrius Harris

    9. Tyler Kroft

    10. C.J. Uzomah

    Right at the top, it is a one-two punch of risk and consistency. 

    Tyler Eifert is the risk, of course. He's only 28 years old and should be in the conversation as one of the league's best, yet he's only been able to play in eight, two and four games over the past three years. He also has a one-game season to his name, so he is likely only looking at a short prove-it deal again. 

    Jared Cook is the consistency after exceeding expectations in Oakland. He caught a career-high 68 passes that led to a career-high 896 yards and six touchdowns, a total that was—indeed—a career high. His being 31 should be a non-factor for teams who want a sure thing.

    The rest of the class is a mixed bag even in the top 10, which is putting it nicely. 

    Luke Willson is a steady player who only caught 13 passes in 2018. Maxx Williams was a massive second-round bust in Baltimore who should get the typical chance to prove he can excel in new surroundings. Jeff Heuerman is like Wilson and only 26, but he hasn't completed a full season yet. 

    The hits keep coming. Luke Stocker is also steady but since joining the league in 2011 has caught five touchdown passes. Lance Kendricks has an ironman-like reputation since 2011 as well, but hasn't caught more than 19 passes in two seasons. Demetrius Harris caught a career-high three touchdown passes in 2018...but overall caught 12 passes. 

    Cincinnati Bengals tight ends in Tyler Kroft and C.J. Uzomah round out the position group. The former is a solid in-line player who can block, and the latter has some interesting playmaking upside but has never had a chance to show it. Besides Cook, that seems to be the story of tight ends in free agency this year.

Offensive Line

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    1. Donovan Smith

    2. Trent Brown

    3. Matt Paradis

    4. Daryl Williams

    5. Rodger Saffold

    6. Mitch Morse

    7. Seantrel Henderson

    8. Andy Levitre

    9. Jared Veldheer

    10. Mike Iupati

    For the most part, NFL teams aren't letting high-quality offensive tackles slip to market anymore. Teams have to draft well and cough up the money to keep them or good luck—which is what made the New York Giants gambling on Nate Solder last year so risky. 

    At least for now, Donovan Smith is the top tackle headed to market. The 25-year-old former second-round pick was part of the league's worst offensive line and gave up a career-high mark in sacks, but the upside and consistency in past years are things teams should want to pay for. 

    Solder's current replacement on the edge in New England, Trent Brown, is also 25 and checks in at a whopping 380 pounds. The versatility is more interesting than the weight, but it is worth pointing out he has upside. 

    Centers are also getting harder to come by these days, making Matt Paradis quite important. He only appeared in nine games this year, but the sixth-round success story from 2014 hadn't missed a game over the three prior seasons. 

    These days, right tackle is almost as important as left thanks to the budding frequency of versatile pass-rushers attacking either side of the line. Though an injury risk, 26-year-old Daryl Williams is an attractive top option for the right side. But he only appeared in one game last season before tearing an MCL and dislocating a kneecap. 

    Rodger Saffold is finally getting some of the national credit he deserves, but it will be interesting to see how much NFL teams are willing to pay up for a soon-to-be-31-year-old guard. 

    There is a rather significant drop-off after the top four or five names. Jared Veldheer is a solid get at tackle for the right price, but he's 31 and hasn't played 16 games since 2015. Mitch Morse is a quality center with injury concerns. Seantrel Henderson is 26 with upside but another injury risk on the right side after playing seven or fewer games in each of the past three seasons. Andy Levitre is a decent guard option but will be 33 in May coming off being placed on injured reserve. Then there is Mike Iupati, who still plays decently when healthy. 

    Desperation could drive teams to overpay on the hopes some of these guys can stay healthy again, which speaks to the torrid state of affairs in the offensive trenches around the league. 

Defensive End

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    1. Demarcus Lawrence

    2. Ezekiel Ansah

    3. Trey Flowers

    4. Frank Clark

    5. Bruce Irvin

    6. Chris Long

    7. Brandon Graham

    8. Cameron Wake

    9. Dante Fowler Jr.

    10. Julius Peppers

    Top-tier pass-rushers don't often get to market either, which would explain why the best names here played under the franchise tag in 2018. 

    Demarcus Lawrence made good on the tag situation by recording 10.5 sacks in 2018. It didn't match the 14.5 from 2017, but teams aren't going to blink much at the difference considering they are getting a 26-year-old pass-rusher in the heart of his prime who has rarely missed time lately. 

    The outlook isn't as pretty for Ezekiel Ansah, who has double-digit sacks in two of his last four seasons. The problem is the two other seasons in that span, when he only tallied six combined sacks while missing 12 games. Despite being a slight injury risk and turning 30 in May, Ansah figures to get a boatload of money.

    Quietly, Trey Flowers has been one of the most consistently improving defenders in the NFL on a year-to-year basis. He's not only a solid edge-setter in his fourth season at the age of 25, but he has also recorded at least 6.5 sacks in three consecutive seasons. 

    Then there is Frank Clark, who has only missed one game over four seasons, recording at least nine sacks in each of his last three campaigns. If he isn't franchise-tagged, there is an outside chance he receives the biggest contract of any name here. 

    After the top four or so, things get risky from an age or injury standpoint, but the players could provide solid value if a team gambles correctly. 

    Bruce Irvin, for example, is now going on 32 years old in November but has 6.5 or more sacks in three consecutive seasons. Chris Long will be 34 in March but hasn't missed a game since 2015 and remains productive. Brandon Graham, 31 in April, had his lowest sack count since 2013 but could still be a solid rotational get. Dante Fowler Jr. put up four sacks between two teams in 2018 and still hasn't met the bill of being the third overall pick in 2015. 

    Then there are the old guys. If Cameron Wake wants to keep playing, he's sitting on six or more sacks in all but his rookie season dating back to 2009 and only missed two games last year. He's turning 37 in January. Julius Peppers registered five sacks in 2018, down from 11 in 2017, but has five or more in every season since 2007 and hasn't missed a game since 2007, too. He'll be 39 in January. 

    Rookie class inbound or not, there is some superb value for teams looking to either gamble on a blue-chip piece or simply add some veteran depth to a rotation, which these days sometimes feels more important than anything after quarterback itself. 

Defensive Tackle

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    1. Grady Jarrett

    2. Sheldon Richardson

    3. Ndamukong Suh

    4. Darius Philon

    5. David Irving

    6. Bennie Logan

    7. Brandon Mebane

    8. Johnathan Hankins

    9. Domata Peko

    10. Rodney Gunter

    Whether nationally known or not, Grady Jarrett is one of the NFL' s best interior disruptors and will easily be paid as such in free agency. He is only 25 years old and already has 14 sacks to his name, a number he's improved upon each year. 

    There is a significant drop after Jarrett, which speaks both to his talent and the strength of the class. Sheldon Richardson might be the most interesting name after Jarrett. At 28 years old, Richardson showed up in Minnesota and recorded 4.5 sacks, his best mark since he had five in 2015. Still in his prime and clearly thriving in a better situation, there should be renewed interest and more cash in it for Richardson. 

    Ndamukong Suh is probably the biggest name a widespread audience will recognize, but at this point he's 32 years old and only had 4.5 sacks in 2018 despite playing on a stacked roster, not to mention next to Aaron Donald. 

    Name recognition goes out the window from there—but value doesn't. Darius Philon is a 24-year-old disruptor who has 8.5 sacks over his last two seasons, and the former sixth-round pick is clearly starter material. David Irving is only 25 and has a seven-sack season to his name, though he's a red flag from a medical standpoint and otherwise after only playing in 10 games over the past two seasons. 

    Bennie Logan and Brandon Mebane are productive rotational guys at 29 years or older and Domata Peko is still going strong at the age of 34. Johnathan Hankins, a former second-round pick, latched on in Oakland and appeared in 15 games. Rodney Gunter is an upside-looking name at 26 years old coming off a 4.5-sack season in Arizona. 

Linebacker

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    1. Jadeveon Clowney

    2. Dee Ford

    3. C.J. Mosley

    4. Terrell Suggs

    5. K.J. Wright

    6. Lorenzo Alexander

    7. Preston Smith

    8. Za'Darius Smith

    9. Eli Harold

    10. Shaquil Barrett

    It's all about pressure. 

    Jadeveon Clowney is the biggest name among linebackers and rightfully so. He is going to cash in on a significant second contract after missing just three games over the last three seasons, recording 24.5 sacks over that span. 

    Dee Ford is two years older at the age of 27 but has 25 sacks over his last three seasons—while missing 11 games. Improving and smack in the middle of his prime, Ford is going to probably drive up a bidding war and get the same amount as Clowney. 

    An inside linebacker like C.J. Mosley is one of the only guys capable of breaking into the pass-rusher frenzy. Only 26 years old, Mosley has recorded 105 or more tackles in four of his five seasons in the league, the exception a 92-tackle campaign in which he missed two of the three games he's missed over the course of his elite career. 

    Mosley's teammate, Terrell Suggs, is 36 years old—but he casually put up another seven sacks in 2018. He's at seven or more in each of his last five seasons and hasn't shown any signs of slowing and he says he wants to keep playing

    K.J. Wright is probably one of the bigger under-the-radar guys in free agency as a whole. He'll turn 30 over the summer and only appeared in five regular-season games in 2018, but he had four straight seasons with 100-plus tackles before that and has otherwise never tallied fewer than 65. 

    Lorenzo Alexander had 6.5 sacks at the age of 35 in Buffalo last year and sits in Suggs territory, whereas Preston Smith has 12 over his last two seasons with room to grow in a situation that will give him more playing time. Za'Darius Smith is another younger (26) option, though his 8.5 in a contract year were more than he's posted in any season. 

    Eli Harold is at least an interesting experiment at this point after playing for two different teams over four seasons and recording a career high in sacks (four) last year. Shaquil Barrett has seven over his past two seasons as a solid situational option. 

    There isn't any excuse for teams with cap space and in need of an improved pressure rate to avoid spending on free agents this year. 

Cornerback

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    1. Ronald Darby

    2. Darqueze Dennard

    3. Bryce Callahan

    4. Pierre Desir

    5. Jason McCourty

    6. Kareem Jackson

    7. Morris Claiborne

    8. Bradley Roby

    9. Jimmie Ward

    10. Jason Verrett

    Unfortunately, cornerback is one of the weaker positions in the upcoming class. 

    Ronald Darby is one of the better nickel guys in the league, but anyone taking a gamble on him has to hope he can play more. The 2015 second-round pick hasn't appeared in more than nine games over his past two seasons and has yet to play a full 16. 

    Cincinnati slot man Darqueze Dennard carries similar concerns. He's quietly one of the better cover slot guys in the league and aggressive against the run (153 total tackles over his last two seasons). But the 2014 first-round pick has also missed 12 games since entering the league in 2014. 

    See the trend by now? Bryce Callahan is an uber-talented slot guy as well, but he hasn't played in more than 13 games in a season and played as few as nine over four years in the league. 

    Pierre Desir is a bigger boundary player at 6'1" who just played in his first full 16-game season and was always considered a developmental guy coming out of Lindenwood. Teams could go with upside there or throw cash at Jason McCourty, who can play all over the place. Kareem Jackson is another starter around the age of 30 with the ability to start almost anywhere. 

    The rest of the top 10 is all about upside. Morris Claiborne was the sixth overall pick in 2012 and has rewritten the narrative about his career a bit with the New York Jets after never being able to stay on the field. Bradley Roby was the 31st pick in 2014 who might need a similar change of scenery. Jimmie Ward came off the board one pick before Roby yet hasn't appeared in more than nine games since 2016. 

    Jason Verrett could end up being the biggest steal of free agency if his body can handle the rigors of the game. He suffered a torn Achilles in July, costing him the entire year. The 25th pick in 2014, Verrett is one of the NFL's best when healthy, but he's played in no more than four games over the past three seasons.

Safety

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    John Froschauer/Associated Press

    1. Earl Thomas

    2. Tyrann Mathieu

    3. Lamarcus Joyner

    4. Landon Collins

    5. Adrian Amos

    6. Tre Boston

    7. Eric Reid

    8. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix

    9. Ron Parker

    10. Kenny Vaccaro

    Luckily for those in need of defensive backs, the safety class is one of the best this year. A renaissance of sorts for the position helps, with guys like Derwin James, Jessie Bates, Jamal Adams and Malik Hooker joining the pro ranks in the last two years alone. 

    With the position seemingly catching up to the pro game again, pricey guys like Earl Thomas are slipping to market. Turning 30 next season, Thomas boasts 28 career interceptions and some of the league's best instincts in the middle of the field, though he did only play in four games in 2018. 

    Tyrann Mathieu is only 26 coming off his first year in Houston after betting on himself. He did it big with 89 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions over 16 games. Lamarcus Joyner is similarly a Swiss army knife of sorts who played under the franchise tag in 2018 and put up 78 tackles with a sack and interception. Versatility is one of the most appealing points of both guys. 

    In most years, Landon Collins would be ranked higher. He's had 100-plus tackles in three of four seasons, missing the mark by four while missing four games in 2018. Collins is only 25 and the definition of an enforcer. 

    Adrian Amos improved along with Chicago's entire defense in 2018, picking off a career-high two passes and cementing himself as a potential starter no matter where he lands. 

    Tre Boston and Eric Reid were good examples of the unnecessary devaluation of the position lately. The former had a hard time landing a gig but put up 79 tackles and three interceptions over 14 games in Arizona. The latter was late to find a home too but went for 71, one and one in the same categories over 13 appearances in Carolina. Feel free to slot Ron Parker into this category as well, as he put up 77 and picked off two passes in 15 games. 

    Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is a bit of a renovation project with plenty of upside. The 21st pick in 2014 got traded to Washington and had a hard time fitting in there over nine games, but upside remains. Kenny Vaccaro, a first-round pick in 2013, caught on with a new team and showed some signs of life over 13 games in Tennessee. 

    Point is, buying up safety production might be more expensive this year after free agents proved so productive last year. 

Special Teams

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    1. Stephen Gostkowski

    2. Robbie Gould

    3. Jason Myers

    4. Matt Wile

    5. Bradley Pinion

    6. Adam Vinatieri

    7. Sebastian Janikowski

    8. Dan Bailey

    9. Josh Lambo

    10. Chandler Catanzaro

    Teams in hunt of help when it comes to players who boot footballs around won't come away too impressed with this year's class. 

    Stephen Gostkowski, 34, is the best eligible for the open market after converting on 84.4 percent of his 32 attempts, which is right under his career average of 87.4. Given the lack of a dip in performance, he's a surefire franchise-tag candidate. 

    Robbie Gould was one of the year's more interesting stories. Chicago's kicker for a decade, Gould has made 82 of his last 85 field-goal attempts, including 97.1 percent of his 34 attempts in 2018, good for the best mark of his career when attempting more than 10 kicks in a season. The 36-year-old will have several suitors. 

    Jason Myers is a tad younger at 27 and had a wild ride as well, getting cut midseason in 2017 before struggling to make other teams. He won the job with the New York Jets this preseason and went on to hit 91.7 percent of his 36 attempts while going 6-of-7 from 50-plus yards, a stunning turnaround sure to earn him a nice contract on the market. 

    Matt Wile is arguably the top punter available, though he's a fun, if not risky, story—just like Myers. The 26-year-old appeared with a few different teams in 2016, missed a year and then rebounded in 2018 with Minnesota, landing 27 of his 72 attempts inside the 20-yard line (ranked tied for 13th). 

    Old reliables are still going strong as well, with Adam Vinatieri (age 46) hitting 85.2 percent of his 27 attempts and Sebastian Janikowski (40) hitting 81.5 percent of his 27 tries, which is still above his career average of 80.4. 

        

    Free-agent data and contract info courtesy of SpotracStats courtesy of ESPN