The Biggest Questions Heading into 2019 NFL Free Agency

Ian Wharton@NFLFilmStudyFeatured Columnist IVMarch 6, 2019

The Biggest Questions Heading into 2019 NFL Free Agency

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    The 2019 offseason is well underway now that the NFL Scouting Combine has wrapped up. But before teams turn their full attention to the draft, they must take care of business in free agency.

    Free agency can be dangerous for franchises ill-equipped to deal with inflated contracts and disillusioned owners. While it's fair to lament past free-agent busts, the best front offices utilize this time to find market inefficiencies and will spend on the right fits.

    Last offseason, the Los Angeles Rams bolstered their defense by signing Ndamukong Suh and trading for Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, while the Kansas City Chiefs supplemented their offense by signing wide receiver Sammy Watkins. Those free-agent additions helped fuel deep playoff runs for both teams.

    Here, we've identified the biggest question marks around the NFL as free agency approaches. The answers to the following questions will have the greatest impact on the 2019 season and beyond.

How Does the Edge-Rusher Market Shake Out?

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    The edge-rusher market had the chance to be historically deep until the slew of franchise tags rolled in Tuesday. 

    The Dallas Cowboys, Houston Texans, Seattle Seahawks and Kansas City Chiefs used their tags on top pass-rushers Demarcus Lawrence, Jadeveon Clowney, Frank Clark and Dee Ford, respectively. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Eagles retained Brandon Graham with a new three-year deal Friday, taking another big name off the market.

    The New England Patriots did not use their tag on Trey Flowers, who now becomes the top edge-rusher on the market. Dante Fowler Jr., Vinny Curry, Za'Darius Smith, and Preston Smith are among the next-best options.

    With so much open cap space around the league, a number of teams figure to pounce on any pass-rusher who becomes available. Given their needs and amount of cap room, the Indianapolis Colts, New York Jets, Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Titans make sense as buyers.

Does Any Team Trade for Antonio Brown?

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Pittsburgh Steelers star receiver Antonio Brown formally requested a trade in mid-February, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, and it appears as though he may have a new home before long.

    The 30-year-old has hauled in at least 100 catches and tallied 1,200-plus receiving yards in each of the past six seasons, and his game should age well since he's more reliant on skill than physicality. However, the relationship between him and the team deteriorated to the point where both sides agreed that moving on would be best.

    According to Schefter, the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee Titans have shown the most interest so far in trading for Brown. While the Steelers may prefer to ship Brown out of the AFC if possible, the Raiders' plethora of extra picks make them an intriguing trade partner. Meanwhile, the Titans should do everything they can to surround quarterback Marcus Mariota with more weapons.

    On Tuesday, NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported the New York Jets would also be interested in trading for Brown, as they're flush with cap space. The Steelers owe Brown a $2.5 million roster bonus on March 17, so keep an eye out for a trade between now and then.   

How Is Landon Collins Valued?

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    The safety market hasn't aged well in recent years due to injuries and how efficient passing offenses have become. While a ball-hawking free safety has great value, almost half of the top 20 safety contracts look like relatively poor investments.

    That could significantly impact this year's top strong safety, Landon Collins.

    The 25-year-old is a downfield hammer, but his coverage skills have been inconsistent despite his three Pro Bowl appearances. He had five interceptions in 2016 and three in his other three seasons combined, and he struggles to hold up against slot receivers due to his bulk.

    Collins is similar to T.J. McDonald and Tony Jefferson, who have been somewhat marginalized since they're more like an extra linebacker than a coverage threat.

    Collins would be a significant upgrade for many teams, but his limited scope may cut down on interested parties. Considering how poorly huge deals for Reshad Jones and Eric Berry have aged, teams may be reluctant to offer Collins a similar amount of money.  

How Aggressive Are Teams Building Around Young Quarterbacks?

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    Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

    In recent years, the Los Angeles Rams, Chicago Bears, Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs have used free agency to build strong supporting casts around quarterbacks on their rookie contracts. 

    Which teams will follow suit this season?

    The New York Jets, Houston Texans, Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns all have signal-callers on a rookie deal and plenty of cap space to spend. Houston and Cleveland could win their respective divisions in 2019, while the Jets and Bills are chasing the New England Patriots once again.

    That shouldn't stop them from investing if they can take calculated risks.

    The Jets need more skill-position talent for Sam Darnold and could use more front-seven help on defense. The Texans must bolster their terrible offensive line to protect Deshaun Watson and must revamp their secondary. That won't come cheap for either team.

    Cleveland's improved roster depth lessens the pressure to spend wildly, but it could use more defensive line help, another receiver and a difference-making linebacker. The Bills also need to add offensive talent to help quarterback Josh Allen develop, but their defense is in great shape.  

What Happens with Free Agents Coming Off Major Injuries?

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Free agents fresh off significant injuries come with a big "buyer beware" sticker.

    Since most unrestricted free agents are in their physical prime, it's imperative to avoid paying for the downside of a player's career. Injuries can quickly avalanche and erase what makes someone special.

    Earl Thomas is a transcendent safety, but he's coming off a fractured leg and turns 30 in May. If he loses even 10 percent of his speed, his new team may not be getting the impact player it expects.

    His former teammate, K.J. Wright, is in a similar situation. He played only five games in 2018 because of a knee injury and is turning 30 in July.

    Fellow free agents Ziggy Ansah, Ronald Darby, Daryl Williams, Kwon Alexander, Mitch Morse, Bryce Callahan and Matt Paradis all missed time last season as well. They've all been at least adequate starters in the past, but the uncertainty about their availability and upside moving forward may lead to short-term deals.  

Which Teams Splurge on Weak OL Class?

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Teams always need to build a strong and deep offensive line group, as one key injury can decimate a unit. However, there isn't much talent on which to splurge in this year's class.

    The two best tackles are Trent Brown and Ja'Wuan James. Brown is a massive 6'8", 380-pounder who has athletic limitations due to his size. James has developed into a finesse right tackle, but he's only an option for a zone-blocking scheme.

    The interior options lack zeal as well. Rams guard Rodger Saffold is the best of the bunch, but he's turning 31 in June. The other top guard, Ramon Foster of the Steelers, turned 33 in January. Neither of them project as long-term fixes, particularly if their health deteriorates as they age.

    Centers Matt Paradis and Mitch Morse are both talented, but Morse's injury and concussion history may scare away significant offers.

    In all, there isn't much immediate help available. The Jets, Texans and Bills should aggressively pursue the top-tier options to avoid overspending on the average talent behind them.  

How Does the Veteran QB Carousel Play Out?

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    Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

    The Denver Broncos have already agreed to trade for Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, per Schefter, but the quarterback carousel won't stop spinning there.

    Super Bowl LII MVP Nick Foles is expected to sign with the Jacksonville Jaguars once free agency begins, according to Les Bowen of the Philadelphia Inquirer. The Miami Dolphins plan to move on from Ryan Tannehill, per Armando Salguero of the Miami HeraldTeddy Bridgewater, Case Keenum and Tyrod Taylor should all find new homes as well. 

    And the Colts may have the best quarterback to dangle on the trade market in Jacoby Brissett.

    The openings are sparse in terms of starting jobs, so some familiar faces will be backups in 2019. Miami, Jacksonville and Washington have openings this season, and the Cincinnati Bengals may follow suit depending on how new head coach Zac Taylor feels about Andy Dalton.  

Which AFC South Team Wins the Arms Race?

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    The AFC South arms race should be the most exciting divisional storyline this offseason.

    The division was unexciting and dormant for a few years, but the Colts and Texans revitalized it in 2018. Along with the Titans and Jaguars, each team should be aggressive in free agency.

    The Colts and Texans have so much cap room available, they won't be able to spend it all. The Titans are closer to the middle of the pack with money, but they must fill significant roster needs to make a playoff push in 2019. And all three must upgrade their offensive talent around their quarterbacks.

    Meanwhile, the Jaguars are expected to land quarterback Nick Foles despite having limited cap room.

    With more than $220 million in available cap space spread out across the AFC South, this division may control how free agency plays out. It could become the most hotly contested division in 2019 if all four teams are aggressive in upgrading their roster.  

Which Team Pays Le'Veon Bell?

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    Marc Serota/Associated Press

    As soon as Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert announced the team wouldn't tag running back Le'Veon Bell, the 27-year-old became the top offensive playmaker on the free-agent market.

    Bell sat out the 2018 season in pursuit of long-term guaranteed money, which will either be rewarded or prove to be a mistake in the coming days. But in three of his past four seasons, Bell finished with at least 1,800 yards from scrimmage and nine touchdowns, cementing him as one of the NFL's top running backs.

    Recent extensions for Todd Gurley and David Johnson seemingly bode well for Bell's quest to land a deal worth more than $17 million annually and with $45 million guaranteed (via Rapoport). But his age and wear-and-tear could make teams hesitant to meet that asking price.

    Bell's patience, quickness, balance, and receiving ability set him apart from his peers, which should appeal both to both contenders and franchises needing to fast-track an offensive rebuild. Teams flush with cap space like the Jets and Raiders are obvious fits, but so are contenders like the Baltimore Ravens.

          

    All salary-cap information via Spotrac.

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