Ranking the 2019 Free-Agent Class by Position

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistMarch 1, 2019

Ranking the 2019 Free-Agent Class by Position

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    Cowboys DE Demarcus Lawrence
    Cowboys DE Demarcus LawrenceAssociated Press

    Free agency can be a difficult period for NFL teams to navigate. They have to fill needs—or at least supplement their rosters—without creating a dire salary-cap situation.

    One part of a successful plan comes down to planning, as drafting well and re-signing key players reduce the need for free-agent moves. One part, though, relies a little bit on luck and timing. A team is much more likely to get a quality player and a better deal when positions of need have deep and talented free-agent pools.

    When they do not, teams often end up giving high-end money to middle-tier players, and that rarely works out.

    With 2019 free agency approaching, now is a great time to examine where each major position group stands in terms of top-end talent and depth. You'll find them ranked here, along with some of the standout names of each group.

    Just keep in mind this is an early look, as the use of franchise tags—which must be placed by March 5—will take some quality players off the market.

           

12. Tight End

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    Raiders TE Jared Cook
    Raiders TE Jared CookAssociated Press

    If you're a team in need of a tight end, you're probably better off looking to the draft to fill the need. Jared Cook, who is coming off a Pro Bowl season, is the lone top-tier player at the position, and some team is going to overpay for his services.

    Cook had a career year in 2018, catching 68 passes for 896 yards and six touchdowns, but he's also 31 years old and is unlikely to bring much upside. Tyler Eifert, meanwhile, is 28 years old and offers quite a bit of upside. However, he's also a massive injury risk, as he's missed 53 games in six pro seasons.

    Antonio Gates might be worth a one-year deal to a contender, and there really isn't much of note after him. Guys like Tyler Kroft, Ricky Seals-Jones and Dion Sims are worth adding as role players, but they aren't likely to dramatically transform an offense.

11. Offensive Tackle

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    Dolphins OT Ja'Wuan James
    Dolphins OT Ja'Wuan JamesAssociated Press

    This year's crop of free-agent offensive tackles is almost as weak as the tight end group—and it's actually close. Miami Dolphins tackle Ja'Wuan James is the prize of the class, and he could get close to a $50 million deal because the class is weak.

    "Former NFL agent and CBS Sports salary-cap analyst Joel Corry said tackle Rick Wagner's five-year, $47.5 million deal with the Detroit Lions is an important data point for James," Cameron Wolfe of ESPN.com wrote. "That could ultimately be the mark his agent will aim to match or exceed."

    When James is at the top of the class, there's a problem. He's a starting-caliber tackle, but he isn't a Pro Bowl talent, he's finished two of his five seasons on injured reserve and has missed a total of 18 games.

    There are a couple of value options at tackle—like Trent Brown, Ty Nsekhe and Daryl Williams, but the group is underwhelming as a whole.

10. Quarterback

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    Eagles QB Nick Foles
    Eagles QB Nick FolesAssociated Press

    It's important to clarify that we're looking at potential starters when evaluating the quarterback position. High-end backups are certainly a commodity, but they aren't of much help to a team that doesn't have a quality starter.

    This year's quarterback class only features a couple of potential starters. The most notable is Super Bowl LII MVP Nick Foles, who will definitely be available now that the Philadelphia Eagles have decided not to try tagging and trading him.

    "He deserves an opportunity to lead a team," Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said, per Jeff Miller and Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times.

    Aside from Foles, former starters Tyrod Taylor and Teddy Bridgewater could be options. That's about it. The rest of the class is filled with journeymen, spot starters and backups, like Ryan Fitzpatrick, Geno Smith, Josh McCown, Brock Osweiler and Tom Savage.

9. Running Back

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    Steelers RB Le'Veon Bell
    Steelers RB Le'Veon BellAssociated Press

    The running back class is a little deeper than the quarterback group, but there isn't a ton at the top to tantalize teams—aside from big-money-seeker Le'Veon Bell. Because of Bell's likely price tag and his year away from football, only a select group of teams are going to be seriously interested in him. The rest are going to be picking from an assortment of varied backfield pieces.

    Adrian Peterson showed that he can still be a leading rusher, but he's also turning 34 soon.

    Mark Ingram, Tevin Coleman, Jay Ajayi and Latavius Murray are probably the other players closest to being workhorse backs, though they have really performed better as members of a committee backfield. Guys like Frank Gore, Marshawn Lynch, Doug Martin, LeGarrette Blount and Jonathan Stewart can be contributors, but they are on the older side and not long-term solutions.

    There are a couple of intriguing value options with upside—like Spencer Ware, T.J. Yeldon and Ameer Abdullah—but there just aren't many starting-caliber options.

8. Wide Receiver

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    Buccaneers WR Adam Humphries
    Buccaneers WR Adam HumphriesRonald Martinez/Getty Images

    While there isn't an established No. 1 receiver available in free agency, there are plenty of value options who will upgrade a passing attack. The group is even deeper now that the Baltimore Ravens have released Michael Crabtree.

    Crabtree headlines a group of potential No. 2 wideouts that also includes Golden Tate, John Brown, Devin Funchess and Cole Beasley. Adam Humphries is one of the league's rising slot receivers, and he has the potential to end up the steal of this receiver class—though new Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians would prefer to retain him.

    "He's done a great job in building a resume as a slot," Arians said, per Tyler Sullivan of 247Sports. "He does some really, really good things in there. I would love to have him back."

    Specialty receivers like speedster Tavon Austin and runner/receiver/returner Cordarrelle Patterson round out one of the strongest offensive groups in free agency.

7. Cornerback

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    Eagles CB Ronald Darby
    Eagles CB Ronald DarbyAssociated Press

    With cornerback, we're finally starting to get into strong position groups. There are starting-caliber corners, like Morris Claiborne, Jason McCourty, Bradley Roby, Pierre Desir and Buster Skrine. There are solid depth players like Davon House, E.J. Gaines, Bene Benwikere and Eric Rowe.

    There are also players coming off injuries worth taking a flier on—primarily Ronald Darby and Jason Verrett. These are players who could come at a lower cost because of the uncertainty yet reward teams in a big way if they return at 100 percent.

    There might not be a legitimate lockdown corner in the group, but teams can never have too many good cornerbacks, and plenty are there for the taking in 2019 free agency.

6. Interior Offensive Line

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    Chiefs C Mitch Morse
    Chiefs C Mitch MorseAssociated Press

    Teams with a need on the interior of the offensive line find themselves in a more favorable position than those weak at tackle.

    Starting at center, two premier options from the AFC West are available in Matt Paradis of the Denver Broncos and the Kansas City Chiefs' Mitch Morse. Both should command a lot of attention—and a fair bit of cash—on the open market.

    The guard position is even deeper, with starting-caliber players like Mike Iupati, Andy Levitre, Rodger Saffold, John Greco, J.R. Sweezy and James Carpenter available. This year's crop of free-agent interior linemen is talented enough and deep enough that it is likely to push players down draft boards and further create value at guard and center.

5. Specialist

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    Jets K Jason Myers
    Jets K Jason MyersAssociated Press

    Specialists—notably, kickers and punters—don't often receive much fanfare. However, they're an essential part of the game, just like a quarterback. Also like a quarterback, good specialists usually stick with a team for a long time and great ones rarely hit the open market.

    This year, however, there are quite a few high-end specialists available—even with the San Francisco 49ers giving Robbie Gould the franchise tag. 

    From kickers Stephen Gostkowski, Jason Myers, Will Lutz and Matt Bryant to punters like Ryan Allen, Donnie Jones and Bradley Pinion, there are starting-caliber specialists aplenty.

4. Linebacker

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    Ravens ILB C.J. Mosley
    Ravens ILB C.J. MosleyAssociated Press

    While pass-rushers have long gotten attention, non-rushing linebackers are just as important. In the modern, pass-driven NFL, having guys who can run, cover and tackle in space is critical to a defense's success. Fortunately, there are several such players available.

    Teams looking for a savvy veteran can target Thomas Davis. Teams looking for a young centerpiece defender can target C.J. Mosley. Starting-caliber linebackers like K.J. Wright, Preston Smith, Craig Robertson and Manti Te'o are also available.

    Essentially, if a team has a need at the second level, it has zero excuses for not strengthening its linebacker group in free agency this year.

3. Defensive Line

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    Rams DT Ndamukong Suh
    Rams DT Ndamukong SuhAssociated Press

    As we get into the top three position groups, there is a little bit of congestion, and after franchise tags and extensions are finalized, there could be some swapping at the top.

    For teams looking to add defensive linemen—not including edge-rushing ends—there is a lot to choose from. Interior defenders like Grady Jarrett, Muhammad Wilkerson, Domata Peko, Danny Shelton, Ndamukong Suh and Brandon Mebane can help solidify the middle of a defensive line. There are options at defensive tackle for 4-3 and 3-4 defensive schemes.

    Ends like Trey Flowers, Sheldon Richardson and Markus Golden, meanwhile, can help fortify a defense's edge.

    Strong defensive lines helped fuel the New England Patriots' and Los Angeles Rams' runs to Super Bow LIII. Teams looking to play copycat this offseason will have plenty of free-agent ammunition.

2. Safety

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    Seahawks S Earl Thomas
    Seahawks S Earl ThomasAssociated Press

    If your favorite team is in need of safety help, you're in luck. This might not be the deepest group in 2019, but it is deep and full of star power.

    Earl Thomas and Landon Collins are the top two names of note, though Thomas is coming off a broken leg and Collins very well may be given the franchise tag by the New York Giants—New York is still weighing its options with him.

    "We're still evaluating," Giants general manager Dave Gettleman said during his combine press conference.

    However, there are other high-caliber starters heading to market, including Lamarcus Joyner, Adrian Phillips, Tyrann Mathieu, Marcus Gilchrist, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Chris Conte.

    The beauty of this year's safety class is there are several flavors of safety to be had. Whether a team needs a true back-end safety like Thomas, a hybrid slot/safety like Mathieu, a hybrid linebacker/safety like Phillips or a true box safety like Collins, there are options.

1. Edge-Rusher

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    Cowboys DE Demarcus Lawrence
    Cowboys DE Demarcus LawrenceAssociated Press

    Good pass-rushers don't often hit the market, but this year could see things go a little differently.

    There are some really big names at the top of the free-agent class—like Demarcus Lawrence, Dee Ford and Jadeveon Clowney. These guys are likely to receive the franchise tag and/or long-term deals before the signing period actually begins, and they're certainly going to command cash.

    "I need you, money," Lawrence said in a social media video (h/t Sports Illustrated).

    Even if these big three don't hit the market or are unaffordable, there will be capable pass-rushers available. Players like Frank Clark, Ezekiel Ansah, Brandon Graham, Dante Folwer Jr. and Za'Darius Smith can immediately aid a team in its quest to pressure the quarterback.

    This group is loaded with talent and deep, and it's likely to be the defining class of 2019 free agency.

           

    *All contract statuses via Spotrac.

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