An Early Look at the 2020 NFL Free-Agent Class

Ian Wharton@NFLFilmStudyFeatured Columnist IVMarch 21, 2019

An Early Look at the 2020 NFL Free-Agent Class

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    The first wave of the 2019 NFL free-agency period brought massive spending to a talented crop of impact players. There's value to be had the rest of the way now that the biggest names are off the market, and this cycle repeats itself on a yearly basis.

    The 2020 free-agent crop will surely experience the same thing. Next year's class has more headlining talent than we've ever seen before. While some will surely receive franchise tags, an early look at the players should have front offices drooling at the possibilities.

    We've ranked the top five potential free agents in the 2020 class at each position. Age, recent performance and upside all factored into the rankings.

        

Quarterback

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    1. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks

    2. Tom Brady, New England Patriots

    3. Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers

    4. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints

    5. Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys

    It's difficult to rank what looks like a deep quarterback class. While there are long-term bets such as Dak Prescott, Jacoby Brissett and Nate Sudfeld, the presence of elite names looms large as teams are attracted to big-ticket prizes. We could also see legends Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger retire instead of test the market.

    The average age of Brady, Rivers, Brees, and Roethlisberger will be a staggering 40 years old. Eli Manning, 38, is another veteran quarterback set to be a free agent next summer. 

    Maybe there will be a contender that swoops in to snag one of these future Hall of Famers on a short-term deal, but the more realistic quarterbacks to hit the market aren't in this top five.

    Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston must prove themselves in 2019, or they could find themselves elsewhere. Their inconsistencies could leave them as short-term fliers for teams unable to draft their future starters high in the 2020 class.

Running Back

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    1. Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers

    2. Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans

    3. Kenyan Drake, Miami Dolphins

    4. LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills

    5. Lamar Miller, Houston Texans

    Veteran running backs have had a difficult time cashing in over the last several years. The difference between a transcendent back and a solid starter hasn't been severe enough for teams to happily fork over huge paydays in free agency outside of the best playmakers.

    That's not great news for the 2020 running back class.

    The free-agent list is AFC-heavy, with just two clear lead backs in Melvin Gordon and Derrick Henry, and those two are routinely taken off the field in passing situations for more agile and versatile options. It's also a concern that Gordon will be 27 and Henry 26.

    The underutilized Kenyan Drake is the best potential value on the board. He's explosive in the open field and enters 2019 with only 286 career carries. Unlike the others, Drake is a legitimate receiving threat who can break off huge plays even with limited touches.

    It gets dicey after the top three thanks to age risks and role potential. LeSean McCoy is one of the NFL's oldest backs and turns 31 in July. He's slowed down in recent years, averaging a career-low 3.2 yards per carry in 2018. Lamar Miller will be 29 next offseason and should exceed 1,500 career carries this fall, so his tread is likely wearing thin.

Wide Receiver

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    1. Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints

    2. Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs

    3. Amari Cooper, Dallas Cowboys

    4. A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals

    5. Robby Anderson, New York Jets

    The 2020 wide receiver class appears to be deeply talented with unique playmakers. If a team needs a No. 1 receiver, it may be in luck. Michael Thomas, Tyreek Hill and Amari Cooper are all in the midst of their prime years. They won't be cheap, but they'll surely jump-start any offense.

    The aging A.J. Green is also set to explore free agency for the first time. He turns 32 next offseason, but his game should continue to be graceful even as some of his athletic prowess is zapped over time. He's likely a short-term fix for contenders only, however.

    Beyond those stars, there are several receivers who are specialists more than dominant talents. Robby Anderson is a high-upside deep threat who stretches defenses with his blazing speed (4.34 40-yard dash) and his ball-tracking ability.

    Slot stars Nelson Agholor and Tyler Boyd are also notable difference-makers. And watch for older but potentially solid options like Emmanuel Sanders (32 years old) and Julian Edelman (who turns 33 in May) to cash in one more time before Father Time calls.

Tight End

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    1. Eric Ebron, Indianapolis Colts

    2. Austin Hooper, Atlanta Falcons

    3. Hunter Henry, Los Angeles Chargers

    4. Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots

    5. Jack Doyle, Indianapolis Colts

    Finding valuable tight ends can be difficult since the position tends to take longer than others to develop. Teams can rarely count on rookies, and older veterans tend to lack the durability to make an impact for 16 games. For most squads, it makes more sense to address the position in free agency.

    There are potentially three building-block tight ends available in 2020, led by Eric Ebron, Austin Hooper and Hunter Henry. Ebron's coming off a career-year with 750 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. Hooper and Henry are younger (both 24) but have less production, and Henry suffered a torn ACL last year.

    The potential wild card is Rob Gronkowski, who turns 30 in May. Though Gronkowski is a fantastic player, though his body has broken down a bit, and he's flirted with retirement a few times. He'd be viewed as a short-term fix if he were to leave the Patriots.

Offensive Line

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    Tackle

    1. Bryan Bulaga, Green Bay Packers

    2. Andrew Whitworth, Los Angeles Rams

    3. George Fant, Seattle Seahawks

    4. Anthony Castonzo, Indianapolis Colts

    5. Joe Staley, San Francisco 49ers

    Like the quarterbacks, most of the offensive tackles are older veterans who aren't long-term fixes. Contenders needing bridge options should be intrigued with Andrew Whitworth (37) and Joe Staley (turns 35 in August) should they come available despite their advanced ages. Both have remained effective through excellent technique and intelligence.

    The youngest option in the top five, George Fant, took a solid leap in 2018 after Mike Solari replaced Tom Cable as Seattle's offensive line coach. Fant will be turning 28 next year and has great athleticism at right tackle. He could get money similar to Ja'Wuan James, who signed a four-year, $51 million deal with the Denver Broncos this month.

    There are potential sleepers in the class. La'el Collins hasn't yet proved himself to be reliable, but he could turn the corner in 2019 as he continues to gain experience at right tackle. The Carolina Panthers' Daryl Williams can also cash in if he stays healthy after tearing his MCL in training camp last season and repeats his 2017 play.

                                          

    Guard

    1. Brandon Scherff, Washington Redskins

    2. Joe Thuney, New England Patriots

    3. Clint Boling, Cincinnati Bengals

    4. Marshal Yanda, Baltimore Ravens

    5. Andrus Peat, New Orleans Saints

    The top of the guard market looks primed to do well in free agency. Both Brandon Scherff, 27, and Joe Thuney, 26, are excellent interior blockers in their primes. Scherff is especially good in the running game, and Thuney has become a masterful pass-blocker.

    Veterans Clint Boling (who turns 30 in May) and Marshal Yanda (34) are two former elites at the position, but age has left them less reliable. Neither can be viewed as more than a one-year starter who will need to be replaced sooner rather than later.

    The guard market dies after those four, as the inconsistent Andrus Peat headlines the rest. If an unheralded backup steps into a bigger role in 2019, the class would benefit. Otherwise, there's not a clear starter in the remaining names.

                                                 

    Center

    1. Cody Whitehair, Chicago Bears

    2. JC Tretter, Cleveland Browns

    3. Rodney Hudson, Oakland Raiders

    4. Mike Pouncey, Los Angeles Chargers

    5. Ben Jones, Tennessee Titans

    Teams needing an upgrade at center could be looking at a solid group that has a variety of strengths. The two youngest options are Cody Whitehair (turns 27 in July) and JC Tretter (28). Though the center position theoretically ages well because of the limited range needed compared to other line spots, adding a potential long-term upgrade is ideal.

    Both Rodney Hudson and Mike Pouncey will be 31 next offseason but bring different talents. Hudson is reliable, missing just three regular-season games since 2013. He fits best in a power-blocking scheme. Pouncey's durability issues led to his release from Miami following the 2017 campaign, but he's a solid zone-blocking center.

    Jones will be 31 next summer but has brought stability to the Titans in his three seasons in Tennessee. He strikes a good balance between power and zone teams, so he could be the best value of the group.

Edge-Rusher

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    1. Demarcus Lawrence, Dallas Cowboys

    2. Frank Clark, Seattle Seahawks

    3. Yannick Ngakoue, Jacksonville Jaguars

    4. Jadeveon Clowney, Houston Texans

    5. Vic Beasley, Atlanta Falcons

    There are three familiar faces from the 2019 free-agent class: Demarcus Lawrence, Frank Clark and Jadeveon Clowney, who are trying to iron out long-term pacts. If they can't and have to play on their lucrative franchise tags, each could be on the open market next offseason.

    First-time free agents Yannick Ngakoue and Vic Beasley are especially intriguing. Ngakoue, a 2016 third-round pick, should be paid well—despite not being much of a run defender—after racking up 29.5 sacks in his first three seasons. 

    Beasley needs to look more like his 2016 self who notched a league-leading 15.5 sacks. He's totaled only 49 tackles and 10 sacks since then, which is a sharp decline in effectiveness. But he'll be only 28 at the start of the 2020 campaign, so he has time for his stock to rise dramatically.     

Defensive Linemen

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    1. Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs

    2. Grady Jarrett, Atlanta Falcons

    3. Michael Brockers, Los Angeles Rams

    4. Leonard Williams, New York Jets

    5. Jarran Reed, Seattle Seahawks

    This is a nearly unprecedented collection of talent along the defensive line. Chris Jones and Grady Jarrett are elite performers and should be paid near the top of the market. But the class has depth too.

    Michael Brockers and Leonard Williams are excellent and can play at multiple spots along the line. Their raw stats aren't the best, but they're capable of creating opportunities for others. Both should be valued, with Williams the better long-term player. He'll be just 26 next summer.

    Jarran Reed might be the biggest potential riser. He had 10.5 sacks last year and improved against the run. Frank Clark opened some of Reed's sack opportunities, but he'd become a top-three tackle in this group with another performance like 2018.

Linebacker

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    1. Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks

    2. Deion Jones, Atlanta Falcons

    3. Shaq Thompson, Carolina Panthers

    4. Joe Schobert, Cleveland Browns

    5. Blake Martinez, Green Bay Packers

    It may finally be time for the linebacker market to reset itself since some of the most talented and dynamic players at the position are set to be free agents. Four-time All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner headlines the group—even though he'll be 30 in 2020—because of his amazing skill set. It could be argued that Deion Jones will be the crown jewel, though.

    Jones is coming off an injury-shortened season, but he represents the perfect modern-day middle linebacker thanks to his coverage ability. With 297 tackles and 27 pass deflections in his first 37 games, he's distinguished himself as a unique weapon. He won't turn 25 until November.

    Athletic linebacker Shaq Thompson is another oddity because of his versatility and capability in coverage. Myles Jack isn't listed, but he's in a similar mold to Thompson except not as impactful.

    Tackle machines Joe Schobert (103 combined tackles in 2018) and Blake Martinez (144) fill the stat sheets, but it's debatable as to whether either is as good as his gaudy number indicates. They are young enough (both 25) and have amassed the numbers to receive significant interest, at least.

Cornerback

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    1. Marcus Peters, Los Angeles Rams

    2. Byron Jones, Dallas Cowboys

    3. Xavien Howard, Miami Dolphins

    4. Kendall Fuller, Kansas City Chiefs

    5. Chris Harris Jr., Denver Broncos

    The cornerback class looks loaded as well, boasting flavors and styles for every scheme. If a team needs elite production and turnover upside, then Marcus Peters has established a potential Hall of Fame pace, even as some were disappointed with his first season in Los Angeles.

    The two most consistent corners still in their primes are Byron Jones (turns 27 in September) and Kendall Fuller (24). Jones burst onto the scene in 2018 in his first season at corner. He has great length and anticipation in coverage. Fuller's primarily a slot corner but is as good as anyone at the position with his foot speed and physicality throughout routes.

    Xavien Howard has major ups and downs but is as dangerous as any zone corner in the league with his knack for playing the ball and forcing turnovers. His 2018 season saw him develop into a great playmaker who overcame his lack of discipline in man assignments.

    There's a number of older free-agents-to-be. Chris Harris Jr. is incredible but will be 31 years old in 2020. Bradley Roby, Logan Ryan and Trae Waynes would be next in line. Jimmy Smith of the Baltimore Ravens is a terrific player but will already be 31 for this upcoming season.

Safety

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    1. Kevin Byard, Tennessee Titans

    2. Devin McCourty, New England Patriots

    3. Rodney McLeod, Philadelphia Eagles

    4. Damarious Randall, Cleveland Browns

    5. Vonn Bell, New Orleans Saints

    Like the cornerback market, the safety position appears to be flush with notable contributors. Schematic needs and budget will determine how much interest some of the bigger names receive, but there are as many as a dozen useful players set to score paydays in 2020.

    True free safety Kevin Byard (turns 26 in August) is the lone superstar in his prime on an expiring deal in 2019. While Devin McCourty is still very good and effective, he's aged and will be 33 next year. The only other worthwhile and capable roaming presence is Damarious Randall, but he must prove his cache in 2019.

    The strong safety market is deeper. Rodney McLeod, Vonn Bell, Tavon Wilson, Justin Simmons and Derrick Kindred are all quality talents. It'll be interesting to see if the market flattens again with so much supply.