Predicting the Landing Spot for the Top Free Agent at Every Position
Quarterback Kirk Cousins, guard Andrew Norwell, cornerback Trumaine Johnson and left tackle Nate Solder emerged as the top free-agent earners at their positions last year. One can argue those big-time acquisitions didn't pan out as expected for the NFL teams that signed them.
It's the reason there's an echo chamber that emphasizes building through the draft. The Los Angeles Rams went against the grain. The front office signed one high-profile free agent, Ndamukong Suh, and acquired multiple starters via trades. Now, the franchise is preparing for Super Bowl LIII on Sunday.
The Rams illustrated how veteran acquisitions can put a team over the top and in the title game. Though it's going to come at a cost, teams looking to contend in the postseason next year may be willing to sign star players on the open market to mimic Los Angeles in their own ways.
We'll determine ideal landing spots for the top impending free agents based on roster needs, schematic fit and production.
Quarterback: Teddy Bridgewater
Among the free-agent quarterbacks, Teddy Bridgewater stands out because of his early experience as a starter and his room for growth. He's played just 35 career games, and the arrow points up if he's able to build on his days in Minnesota prior to his serious knee injury.
After losing the NFC Championship Game to the Rams, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees voiced his desire to play another season. Bridgewater must weigh his options in the coming months. The 2019 term would mark the fourth year since he's opened a campaign as the lead signal-caller. He's thrown 25 regular-season passes since the 2015 season. If a team offers him the chance to start, he should take the shot.
The Washington Redskins have the No. 15 overall pick in April's draft, and the team doesn't believe Alex Smith will return from his broken leg next season, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. None of the quarterback prospects coming into the league stands head-and-shoulders above the rest. An attempt to acquire Joe Flacco from the Baltimore Ravens would cost the team draft capital.
Washington can look to Bridgewater as a stopgap for 2019 and maintain flexibility with a one-year deal. The 26-year-old would have a chance to show his ability to lead an offense. The Redskins can feel comfortable knowing they didn't give up assets for a rookie quarterback who isn't ready to play right away or a 34-year-old in the latter stages of his career.
If Bridgewater fares well, the Redskins can extend him. In the event of a disappointing year, the team can move on with hopes Smith returns or take a look at the quarterbacks in 2020 class. Both parties can reassess their positions next offseason, which benefits the player and club.
Landing Spot: Washington Redskins
Running Back: Le'Veon Bell
Le'Veon Bell's decision to sit out an entire season may come off as selfish to critics, but the 26-year-old running back will still garner interest from multiple teams because of his resume. He's a two-time first-team All-Pro who's recorded 1,800-plus yards from scrimmage in each of his last two terms. Now, after Bell's year of rest, the club that lands him should have a refreshed playmaker.
In 2018, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ranked 29th in rushing. Starter Peyton Barber averaged 3.7 yards per carry, and he's set to become a restricted free agent. The offense would probably rack up more yards with Bell as the lead running back. He offers more versatility as a pass-catcher out of the backfield, and his track record suggests he's a top performer at the position.
The Buccaneers selected Ronald Jones in the second round of the 2018 draft. Among active rookie running backs selected in the first three rounds, he logged the fewest yards from scrimmage—that excludes Derrius Guice, who suffered a torn ACL in August. Tampa Bay doesn't have to give up on Jones, but he can learn the position and contribute behind an established commodity.
If the Bucs value Bell and the dimension he'd add to their offense, they have the ability to pay him, and they could put the ball in his hands 25-30 times per game in a major role.
Landing Spot: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Wide Receiver: Golden Tate
Going into his age-31 season, wide receiver Golden Tate can see the light at the end of the tunnel of his career. He spoke to reporters after the Philadelphia Eagles' season ended in the NFC Divisional Round, per Geoff Mosher of Inside the Birds Podcast: "My time is limited. I want to go to a team that has a chance."
There's no issue with Tate looking out for himself. After winning Super Bowl XLVIII with the Seattle Seahawks, he went to the postseason twice with the Detroit Lions but didn't win another playoff game until the team traded him to Philadelphia. Now, as a free agent with much to offer as a solid No. 2 receiving option, the nine-year veteran can find a decent role on a contending squad.
The New England Patriots could lose wide receivers Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett and Cordarrelle Patterson during free agency. Josh Gordon isn't likely to return because of an indefinite suspension for multiple substance-abuse violations.
Assuming the front office adds new faces at the position, Tate seems like a solid fit. He's one of the most productive wide receivers with an established resume among impending unrestricted free agents. The veteran thrives in space and extends plays on intermediate passes—two qualities that suit quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots offense.
Landing Spot: New England Patriots
Tight End: Jared Cook
In his 10th season, tight end Jared Cook notched career highs in receptions (68), yards (896) and receiving touchdowns (six) as a bright spot in the Oakland Raiders' 23rd-ranked offense. While it's a good idea for the team to re-sign him as a reliable option for quarterback Derek Carr, head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock may have other plans to land a cheaper option.
According to NBC Sports Bay Area's Scott Bair, Gruden would like Cook to return but understands the veteran tight end may have a competitive market after his best season as a pass-catcher. The Raiders have a projected $73.8 million to spend, though it's unclear how far they would go to re-sign a player on the back end of his career. Gruden's tendency to rely on veterans could keep the 31-year-old in silver and black.
But the rookie tight end class features a group with solid hands from top to bottom.
Cook would fit with a contending team that's ready to win now and needs a big-body pass-catcher to close out drives in the end zone. The 6'5" tight end can sign with the Saints, who missed out on Jimmy Graham last year and only have Josh Hill on the books at the position in 2019.
Cook can add an immediate impact in the passing game, and New Orleans needs a consistent downfield option other than wideout Michael Thomas.
Landing Spot: New Orleans Saints
Offensive Lineman: Rodger Saffold
Even though he'll turn 31 years old in June, Rodger Saffold has two factors working in his favor as he prepares for free agency.
For starters, he's a versatile asset who can play four different positions across the offensive line. In addition, the veteran has been a key cog in a Rams ground attack that ranks first in average second-level rushing yards (1.58) and second in stuff rank, with its ball-carriers tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage just 14.6 percent of the time, per Football Outsiders.
Last year, the Rams spent big, and they can double down on that approach with quarterback Jared Goff still on his rookie deal. However, the front office may look to add younger talent at guard to save cash for premium positions.
In 2018, the Atlanta Falcons lost starting guards Brandon Fusco (ankle) and Andy Levitre (torn triceps) for the season. The latter suited up for two games in his contract year. He's been sidelined for 17 contests over the last two terms because of his triceps.
If the Falcons move on from Levitre, Saffold would be an upgrade and an ideal acquisition to bolster a ground attack that ranked 27th last year. For the big bucks, he's also capable of plugging holes in the trenches in case of injury.
Landing Spot: Atlanta Falcons
Defensive Lineman: Demarcus Lawrence
On the surface, it's an easy decision: Re-sign the team's top pass-rusher to a long-term deal. Demarcus Lawrence is tied with Calais Campbell and Cameron Jordan for fourth among all defenders in sacks (25) over the last two years. He brings attitude and a source of power up front. But should the Dallas Cowboys invest in a player with a history of significant injuries?
During his tenure in Dallas, Lawrence has suffered a broken foot, underwent two back surgeries and needs to go under the knife to address a shoulder ailment in the offseason, per the Dallas Mornings News' Jon Machota. Despite the procedures, he's only missed seven games in the last four seasons. Four absences were due to a substance-abuse policy violation in 2016.
Dallas has a projected $48.5 million in cap space for the new calendar year. The front office isn't strapped for cash. In addition to re-signing Lawrence, extensions for quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott and wide receiver Amari Cooper are priorities, per Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Clarence E. Hill Jr.
Assuming the Cowboys exercise Elliott's fifth-year option, there's more time (through 2020) to negotiate with his camp. Prescott and Cooper have another year left on their respective rookie deals. Even if one of them signs an early extension, the Cowboys should have enough to ink their star defensive end to a multiyear contract.
Typically, high-end pass-rushers don't hit the open market. Though it may cost the Cowboys $20-plus million per year to retain Lawrence, expect the two-time Pro Bowler to remain in Dallas on a massive deal.
Landing Spot: Dallas Cowboys
Linebacker: C.J. Mosley
Although inside linebackers generate less interest than pass-rushers and top-notch cornerbacks during free agency, teams still value quality assets on the defensive side of the ball. That's especially true of the Baltimore Ravens. Last year, they finished first in total defense and second in points allowed.
According to The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec, Mosley is at the top of Baltimore's offseason priority list.
"The Ravens have a history of keeping top defensive players in their prime," he wrote. "They've already been in negotiations with Mosley's agent, Jimmy Sexton, and they have seemingly identified the middle linebacker as their top free-agent priority. Mosley has made it clear that he doesn't want to play elsewhere."
Mosley's 2018 production dropped compared to his 2017 figures, but he did battle a bone bruise in his knee early in the season. Still, the 26-year-old earned an invite to the Pro Bowl for a third consecutive term. When a team and a player already on the roster want to finalize a deal, there's little reason to think the two sides won't come to an agreement.
Landing Spot: Baltimore Ravens
Cornerback: Ronald Darby
When talking about the coaching staff transition, Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. gave his stamp of approval to head coach Vic Fangio and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell. He also felt like the previous regime's schemes left much to be desired, per 9 News reporter Mike Klis.
"I'm definitely happy with what we're doing," he said, per Mike Klis of 9News. "We've definitely made progress. Because we have the talent. We just needed better game plans."
Perhaps the Broncos will allow Bradley Roby, who experienced his ups and downs in coverage last season, to walk in free agency in favor of a proven starter on the perimeter. Rookie cornerback Isaac Yiadom took the field for just 263 defensive snaps during the 2018 term.
With Harris locked in as the primary slot defender, Ronald Darby can seal the outside. He's missed 15 games over the last two seasons in Philadelphia because of a dislocated ankle and torn ACL, but he's a solid cover man when available. His recent injuries may drop the asking price on the open market, and that bodes well for Denver (projected $37.7 million in cap space).
Still, the 25-year-old is in the prime of his career with a strong resume.
In 46 games, Darby has been a source of consistency in coverage, logging 54 pass breakups and six interceptions. Assuming Darby stays healthy, Denver would acquire a solid starter to strengthen the secondary after it allowed the 13th-most passing yards per game last season.
Landing Spot: Denver Broncos
Safety: Earl Thomas
Before safety Earl Thomas went down with a broken leg, he performed at an All-Pro level, recording three interceptions and five pass breakups in four games. Here's another tidbit: The Kansas City Chiefs had interest in him prior to the injury, per ESPN.com's Chris Mortensen.
It makes sense considering safety Eric Berry's rare availability. Since signing a six-year, $78 million contract during the 2017 offseason, he's appeared in just three games because of an Achilles injury. The three-time All-Pro safety took the field for the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots but may undergo surgery in the near future, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.
Berry's status, though uncertain, is a bit frustrating with his costly salary tied to the team's cap space. He's averaging $13 million per year—the most among players at his position. Even if the 30-year-old remains on the team for the 2019 season, the front office may revisit Thomas as an option to bolster the pass defense, which ranked 31st last term.
Thomas would probably cost the Chiefs top dollar, but general manager Brett Veach has a major void to fill as Berry gets treatment for a Haglund's deformity on his heel and with rookie fourth-rounder Armani Watts still in the early stages of his development. He only played 62 snaps before landing on injured reserve with a groin injury.
Landing Spot: Kansas City Chiefs
Kicker: Jason Myers
When a team finds a kicker who's splitting the uprights on a consistent basis, it's best to keep him on the roster. Through a rough 2018 season, the New York Jets may have found their long-term starter at the position. Jason Myers converted a career-high 91.7 percent of his field-goal attempts, which included six of seven from 50-plus yards out. He deservedly earned a spot on the AFC Pro Bowl roster.
As new head coach Adam Gase installs his offensive system with signal-caller Sam Darnold, expect some bumps in the road. Like last season, the Jets will need a reliable kicker to put points on the scoreboard in case their drives constantly stall in their opponent's territory.
General manager Mike Maccagnan can lock up Myers on a multiyear deal to stabilize an important component of his special teams group.
Landing Spot: New York Jets
Punter: Pat O'Donnell
General manager Ryan Pace has to make a decision on punter Pat O'Donnell, who's been with the Chicago Bears since they selected him in the sixth round of the 2014 draft.
Last year, the Bears signed O'Donnell to a one-year deal after he averaged 47 yards per punt, which tied for eighth in the league. That number dropped to 45 yards (tied for 18th) in 2018. His production slipped in the wrong direction in a contract year, which may encourage Chicago to draft or sign a replacement.
The 49ers could move on from impending free-agent Bradley Pinion, who averaged 43.7 yards per punt (tied for 28th) and only pinned his opponents inside the 20-yard line 22 times in 2018.
Even though O'Donnell's punting yards dropped, he managed to corner his opponents inside the 20-yard line 28 times (10th among punters). The 27-year-old didn't elevate his game to warrant a new deal in Chicago, but he's good enough to fill a vacancy in San Francisco.
Landing Spot: San Francisco 49ers