Trey Flowers Might Be the NFL's Top Free Agent on the Market This Year

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistFebruary 25, 2019

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - DECEMBER 30: Trey Flowers #98 of the New England Patriots reacts during the third quarter of a game against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium on December 30, 2018 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

We live in an NFL world dominated by fifth-year options, franchise tags and a sky-high salary cap, which is why special players rarely hit the free-agent market.

And generally speaking, this year won't be much different. NBC Sports' Peter King reported that the Houston Texans will likely tag three-time Pro Bowl pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney, while the Dallas Cowboys have made it clear they have no interest in letting two-time Pro Bowl sack artist Demarcus Lawrence hit the open market.

Emerging Seattle Seahawks edge-rusher Frank Clark doesn't appear to be going anywhere, and ESPN's Adam Schefter listed defensive linemen Grady Jarrett and Dee Ford as strong candidates for franchise tags from the Atlanta Falcons and Kansas City Chiefs, respectively.  

But then there's Trey Flowers, who isn't as famous as Clowney, Lawrence, Le'Veon Bell or Earl Thomas but might be the most attractive eligible bachelor come the start of the legal tampering period March 11. 

ESPN.com's Mike Reiss doesn't expect the New England Patriots to use the franchise tag on Flowers. But that's not because he isn't worth the approximate $17 million price tag, and it's not because Flowers isn't a stud player. 

It's because New England, which is projected to possess less than $15 million in salary-cap space, per Spotrac, likely won't be willing to pay that kind of money. The Patriots also love compensatory draft picks and might have some hubris regarding in-house free agents after winning a Super Bowl despite losing key UFAs Nate Solder and Malcolm Butler. 

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Maybe New England feels it can afford to lose the 25-year-old, but that could be a mistake. The University of Arkansas product will make somebody very happy in 2019 and beyond. 

Flowers has never been to a Pro Bowl, and he has just 21 sacks since coming into the league as a fourth-round pick in 2015. He lacks big-time numbers, and he doesn't have a particularly high profile in a New England environment that makes it hard to stand out consistently within an ever-changing defense. 

But the 6'2", 265-pound Flowers improved markedly in each of his first four NFL seasons, and he's been taking off well short of his 26th birthday in August. 

Bell is a running back with tires that have lost plenty of tread. Thomas is coming off another major injury with his 30th birthday looming in May. But Flowers has the type of stock you want to buy.

He's been healthy the last three years, he's never played more than 76 percent of New England's defensive snaps over the course of a season, and he's established himself as one of the most versatile and reliable young players in the NFL. 

Flowers is a significantly stronger pass-rusher than his sack numbers indicate. He's become a constantly disruptive presence on the edge, but his tremendous tackling and his prowess defending the run enable the Patriots to kick him inside or flex him outside regardless of the down or distance. 

Flowers rushes effectively from either side, and head coach Bill Belichick and Co. have groomed him to excel regardless of alignment. He lines up literally everywhere up front.

His grades from Pro Football Focus have risen every year, and his 89.7 mark in 2018 ranked sixth among qualified pass-rushers. Even though Flowers was on the field for just 70.2 percent of New England's defensive snaps, only Ford had more total pressures among edge defenders, per PFF's Michael Renner.

And according to Austin Gayle from the same outlet, only three players had higher pass-rushing win percentages last season. 

"As great as Flowers has been as a pass-rusher," PFF's Mike Johnson wrote earlier this month, "he's been just as good against the run, with his 10.5 percent run-stop rate ranking fourth at the position."

It's also a good sign that Flowers finished his fourth season strong, recording seven sacks across the eight games prior to New England's Super Bowl LIII victory over the Los Angeles Rams in Atlanta. He also forced a pair of fumbles in December and had multiple quarterback hits in all three of New England's postseason outings. 

Speaking of postseason outings, Flowers now has 5.5 sacks, eight tackles for loss and 22 quarterback hits in nine career playoff games. Two-and-a-half of those sacks came in a heroic performance as New England came back to beat the Atlanta Falcons 34-28 in Super Bowl LI—a game the Pats probably wouldn't have won without Flowers. 

The man has big-play ability and big-game know-how. He's helped the Patriots reach the Super Bowl in all three of his healthy seasons. That's the kind of experience young teams cherish in free-agent acquisitions, and they can get that in Flowers without paying for a player whose prime is in the rearview mirror.  

Flowers is the complete package, and he's yet to come close to cruising altitude. He's an ascending star, and when free agency officially launches March 13, there might not be a better player on the open market. 

                                        

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Snap counts courtesy of Pro Football Reference.