NFL Starters Who Could Have Their Jobs Stolen by Free-Agent Signings
It takes one notable free-agent signing to signal a predictive shift at a position. Every year, NFL teams ink players to lucrative deals with the hopes of bolstering weak areas on their rosters—sometimes at the expense of the incumbent starters.
Draft picks outside of the first round may take some time to develop, giving veterans an edge in training camp battles during the summer. Typically, an acquisition from the open market joins a team with immediate expectations. Front offices aren't paying a premium on established talents for delayed production.
Based on their track records as productive starters, wide receiver Golden Tate, defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, cornerback Ronald Darby and safety Earl Thomas will likely change the depth charts of whichever teams they sign with after the new league year begins March 13.
In some cases, journeymen and fledgling players will have to take a backseat in reserve roles or potentially lose their roster spots.
Which primary starters from last season have the weakest job security? Why might teams attempt to upgrade at their positions, and who are the potential targets?
WR Tajae Sharpe, Tennessee Titans
Wideout Tajae Sharpe entered the league as a fifth-rounder in the 2016 draft and started 10 games as a rookie. He suffered a foot injury that required surgery, and he was sidelined for the 2017 campaign after reinjuring himself in the preseason. Although the Massachusetts product returned to action in 2018, it's clear the 24-year-old doesn't provide a dynamic element to the passing attack.
Before his foot surgery, Sharpe recorded a 49.4 percent catch rate with only two touchdowns. He regained a starting role upon his return but remained subpar as a red-zone threat with two touchdowns, and he only slightly improved his catch rate to 55.3 percent.
As Marcus Mariota goes into a crucial fifth season with his fourth offensive coordinator, it's important for the front office to help the 25-year-old quarterback by giving him a deep threat who's capable of stretching the field. Tyrell Williams and John Brown aren't household names, but they have the ability to pick up yards in bulk.
In 2018, Williams averaged 15.9 yards per reception, while Brown logged a career high in the category with 17.0 yards per grab.
OT Chad Wheeler, New York Giants
The New York Giants shuffled their offensive line during the 2018 campaign. The front office signed left tackle Nate Solder, which pushed Ereck Flowers out of his starting position on the blind side. After Flowers made two starts at right tackle, the coaching staff benched him for Chad Wheeler, who manned the position for the remainder of the season.
Big Blue's spotty pass protection suggests general manager Dave Gettleman should target another offensive lineman during the offseason. In 2018, quarterback Eli Manning took 47 sacks—the most in his career—and much of that pressure came off the edges.
The Giants signed Solder to a massive four-year, $62 million deal last offseason. Despite his struggles as a perimeter blocker, he's probably going to have an opportunity to redeem himself because of the team's hefty investment in him.
New York can take another shot at a free-agent acquisition in March. Ja'Wuan James and Daryl Williams are the top names to follow within the position group. Gettleman selected Williams in the fourth round of the 2015 draft as the general manager of the Carolina Panthers. If the two reunite, the 26-year-old would certainly take over for Wheeler at right tackle.
OG Brian Winters, New York Jets
It's clear the New York Jets should focus on revamping their offensive line, but more importantly, the front office must elevate the ground attack to aid second-year quarterback Sam Darnold.
In 2018, Gang Green's ball-carriers were stuffed on 26.1 percent of carries, nearly 7.0 percent above the league average, per Football Outsiders. In the mid-guard areas, the Jets ranked 32nd in adjusted line yards gained (3.49).
Overall, New York's ball-carriers couldn't find interior lanes to run through; opponents often stopped them at or behind the line of scrimmage.
Looking at the free-agent guard pool, general manager Mike Maccagnan can pursue veterans such as D.J. Fluker and J.R. Sweezy if they don't re-sign with the Seattle Seahawks. On an offensive line that may undergo multiple changes this season, both project as better options than a rookie.
Assuming James Carpenter signs elsewhere, the Jets will need some veteran leadership as they battle to open running lanes and protect Darnold's interior space.
DT Trevon Coley, Cleveland Browns
Defensive tackle Trevon Coley didn't take a major leap between the 2017-18 terms. He played one fewer game in 2017, and his solo tackles (17) and tackles for a loss (four) dropped a bit last year. The Cleveland Browns can field a stronger pair inside with a more dynamic playmaker or a more consistent run-stopper next to Larry Ogunjobi.
General manager John Dorsey doesn't have to wait until April's draft to strengthen the defensive line. He can acquire an established name such as Sheldon Richardson or go after ascending players looking for their second contracts—Malcom Brown and Grady Jarrett if they hit the open market.
"We've had conversations, a number of conversations," Dimitroff said. "We still have a ways to go, of course, but again, we're confident he's going to be here for years to come."
If Jarrett re-signs with the Falcons, Mario Edwards may emerge as a less costly option with some upside. He's logged 31 solo tackles and 5.5 sacks over the last two seasons. The 24-year-old served in a reserve role last year with the Giants.
The Browns will have $78.6 million to spend in the offseason, per Spotrac. That's enough cash to add an upgrade in the middle who can impact all three downs in new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks' downhill attack-style defense.
LB Josh Bynes, Arizona Cardinals
Linebacker Josh Bynes moved into a starting role in a 4-3 base scheme under Wilks' regime last season. The Arizona Cardinals decided to turn the page on their coaching staff and hired Kliff Kingsbury as their new head coach; he added defensive play-caller Vance Joseph to his staff.
Joseph will employ a 3-4 base alignment, which will likely result in moving parts across the front seven. Haason Reddick, a 2017 first-rounder, will likely claim one of the starting inside linebacker spots. Bynes isn't a surefire lock to line up next him. Before the 2017 campaign, he started 28 contests in six seasons with the Baltimore Ravens and Detroit Lions.
The Cardinals will have solid options to cycle through on the free-agent market. Keep an eye on Brandon Marshall, who played under Joseph over the last two seasons in Denver. The front office can re-sign Deone Bucannon, who didn't fare well under Wilks but made 50 starts for this team before the schematic shift. Preston Brown could also emerge as a viable option.
There's a good chance C.J. Mosley re-signs with the Ravens, but if he hits the market, several teams, including Arizona, should have interest in the four-time Pro Bowler.
CB Nevin Lawson, Detroit Lions
The Detroit Lions pass defense allowed 29 touchdowns, which tied for 19th in 2018. The front office initiated a restructuring project on the secondary Friday, releasing safety Glover Quin, who logged just three pass breakups without an interception in 16 starts last term.
The Lions should continue to signal change on the back end of their defense during free agency. Detroit needs a playmaker opposite Darius Slay. The front office re-signed cornerback Nevin Lawson on a two-year deal last offseason, but he finished with just five pass breakups during the 2018 campaign. The 27-year-old has yet to snag an interception in 62 games with the team.
In order to compete with Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Minnesota Vikings' pass-heavy offense in the NFC North, the Lions must bolster their perimeter defense with another cornerback able to flip the field with takeaways. Detroit should have a target on established veterans such as Ronald Darby, Bashaud Breeland and Kareem Jackson.
S Kentrell Brice, Green Bay Packers
Safety Kentrell Brice underwhelmed during the 2018 campaign, recording 40 solo tackles and two pass breakups. He saw a decline in his role through the second half of the season, lining up for fewer than 25 snaps in four of his six games after Week 9. At that point, Josh Jones started to see more action.
Ultimately, attrition at the safety spot allowed Jones to play significant snaps. The Packers traded Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to the Washington Redskins and waived Jermaine Whitehead after he committed a costly penalty in Week 9 against the New England Patriots.
It's mind-boggling that Jones, a 2017 second-round pick, needed Green Bay to jettison two players before he took the field in a sizable role. Perhaps he's not an ideal fit under Mike Pettine, who took over the defensive coordinator job last year.
General manager Brian Gutekunst can land a heavy-hitting box safety in Landon Collins if Collins hits the open market or a cover man such as Tre Boston. Brice isn't a playmaker in space and missed assignments as a downhill defender. He's best in a backup role.
S Jeff Heath, Dallas Cowboys
Before the start of the 2018 term, the Dallas Cowboys inquired about Earl Thomas. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the front office made an offer for the three-time first-team All-Pro in September but came up empty-handed.
It's not a foregone conclusion that Thomas will sign with the Cowboys when he's a free agent in March, but team brass should look for a ball-tracking safety to strengthen the secondary. Jeff Heath has been solid, and Xavier Woods showed improvement in his second season, logging nine pass breakups and two interceptions.
The Cowboys fielded a decent pass defense that ranked 13th in yards allowed and surrendered 22 touchdowns (tied for eighth). Dallas only notched nine interceptions, though. Only Woods and rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch recorded multiple picks (two each).
Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie and Anthony Brown form a solid trio at cornerback. The Cowboys can add a safety who has a knack for forcing turnovers and slot him next to Woods. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Tre Boston would fit the description if Thomas signs elsewhere. The addition would push Heath into a rotational role.