Predicting Where Top Remaining NFL Free Agents Will Sign
The NFL is stuck in the doldrums of the dead period nearly four months after the start of its new league year, but pro football's version of free agency isn't complete.
Training camps are set to start later this month, and inevitably, attrition will occur. Injuries or disappointing performances will create opportunities for those still available.
Elite talents are no longer available, and every option still on the market has warts of some kind. Previous maladies, down years and retirement watered down free agency beyond the first and second waves of signings.
Yet, a select group of still-available options can impact regular-season lineups. The best available are all 30 years old or younger with the chance to be more than just one-year place holders.
Smart franchises will roll the dice on the following eight free agents, who can be more than roster-filler.
RB Jay Ajayi: Los Angeles Rams
Jay Ajayi is productive when he's healthy and on the field. But organizations should be wary of his injury history.
Prior to the last campaign, Ajayi led all backs in the Pro Football Focus era with the highest percentage of yards gained after contact. The 223-pound back is physical and always finishes his runs. He's going to get every single yard available to him.
Unfortunately, the rugged running style impacts his physical health. Since 2017, the 26-year-old has missed 14 games. Ajayi suffered a torn ACL in Week 5 against the Minnesota Vikings after starting three games for the Philadelphia Eagles.
As long as a team is comfortable with Ajayi's recovery and medical evaluation, he can be a valuable addition to any backfield.
"I'm a dynamic player, I believe competitive, I bring a spark to the game, and I love to win," Ajayi told Anthony R. Wood of USA Today's Texans Wire.
If/when Todd Gurley's knee begins to bother him again, Ajayi can serve as a physical downhill complement to Malcolm Brown and rookie Darrell Henderson with the Los Angeles Rams, much like C.J. Anderson did a year ago.
WR Dez Bryant: New York Giants
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones stated on his KRLD-FM radio show that his team lacked a true No. 1 wide receiver "for several years" after cutting Dez Bryant, the franchise's all-team leader in touchdown receptions, in spring 2018 (h/t Kate Hairopoulos of the Dallas Morning News).
Jones was right. The 30-year-old Bryant isn't a No. 1 receiver at this point in his career. But that's a far cry from actually being able to contribute.
The 6'2", 220-pound wideout still brings a particular skill set as a big-bodied, physical wide receiver an offense can target in the red zone. Bryant doesn't have to be any team's top option, but he can be a complementary piece.
The New Orleans Saints saw the value in Bryant and signed him, only to be disappointed and move on when he tore an Achilles tendon two days later.
If he gets a full bill of health, Bryant will be an interesting free-agent target for some team. He may not be the same receiver he once was, but he can still contribute.
The New York Giants took an interesting approach to their wide receiver corps by signing Golden Tate to play alongside Sterling Shepard, even though both are better working out of the slot. Bryant could give New York an experienced X receiver to work outside the numbers.
TE Ryan Griffin: New England Patriots
The Houston Texans are deep at tight end with Jordan Thomas, Jordan Akins, Darren Fells and the third-round rookie Kahale Warring.
As such, Ryan Griffin, who led Houston's tight ends with 305 receiving yards and finished third on the team in that category, became expendable. Of course, he didn't help his case when Nashville police arrested him during draft weekend on suspicion of public intoxication and vandalism. The Texans released Griffin less than a month later, though the charges were eventually dismissed.
The 29-year-old never served as a top option in Houston's offense yet managed 1,156 receiving yards and five touchdowns over the last four years on 177 targets. For comparison, the Philadelphia Eagles targeted Zach Ertz 156 times last season, and the Pro Bowl tight end produced 1,163 yards and eight touchdowns.
Obviously, Griffin isn't on Ertz's level, but he presents a different skill set while serving as a viable option in the passing game. Griffin is a true Y tight end and has been an above-average blocker throughout his career. As teams look for mismatches in the passing game, the 6'6", 255-pound option provides an alternative.
In New England, Rob Gronkowski retired. Ben Watson must serve a four-game suspension to open the 2019 campaign. Signing Griffin would create quality depth and an early-season alternative if Matt LaCosse struggles as the starting tight end for the Patriots.
DE Allen Bailey: Cleveland Browns
Allen Bailey drew legitimate free-agent interest yet didn't sign anywhere. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the defensive lineman visited the Atlanta Falcons, New England Patriots, Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks.
Bailey sits in an interesting position because he's still a capable starting-caliber defensive lineman who posted career highs in 2018 with 36 pressures and 30 defensive stops, according to Pro Football Focus. Yet, he also committed a career-high 10 missed tackles and turned 30 years old in March.
The eight-year veteran brings versatility as a potential 3-4 defensive end or defensive tackle. Bailey is powerful at the point of attack and can collapse the pocket, as noted.
Depth along the defensive line is crucial. The league's best teams often come at opposing quarterbacks in waves. Bailey is an experienced and capable option still available late in the process.
His asking price is a likely sticking point at this juncture, considering all four suitors mentioned have already addressed their defensive interior in some form.
The Cleveland Browns went hard after Gerald McCoy yet fell short when the six-time Pro Bowler signed with the Panthers. Cleveland's defensive tackle depth is suspect at best. If the coaching staff isn't happy with the maturation of its young options, Bailey should come into play.
LB Josh Bynes: Baltimore Ravens
Josh Bynes ended up on injured reserve at the worst possible time. The veteran linebacker finally established himself as a credible starter and performed better than he had at any point in his eight-year career before a thumb injury derailed his season in late November.
The 29-year-old ranked 11th among linebackers with an 81.1 run defense grade and made 34 defensive stops, per Pro Football Focus. Only the Seattle Seahawks' Bobby Wagner, a four-time first-team All-Pro, graded better among NFC West linebackers last season.
Yet, Bynes can't find a home.
The 6'1", 235-pounder isn't the most athletic option, but he isn't terrible in coverage. Granted, Bynes is better while working between the tackles. However, he posted five deflected passes in both seasons he started 10 or more games.
Furthermore, Bynes provides special teams depth. If he's not in a starting role, he has experience as a core-four special teams performer.
C.J. Mosley left the Baltimore Ravens in free agency, and the team didn't make any significant investment at inside linebacker. Instead, the organization plans to rely on Patrick Onwuasor and Kenny Young. Bynes should return home (where he originally signed) to provide veteran depth or to start depending on how the duo performs.
CB Morris Claiborne: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
How often does a former top-10 draft pick with multiple years of starting experience sit on the open market for months without getting a deal?
Ndamukong Suh is an outlier because he's often quite selective about his potential destinations. More often than not, organizations are willing to take a risk on talent.
Morris Claiborne never lived up to expectations as the sixth overall pick in the 2012 draft, but he slowly developed into a solid starting cornerback. Claiborne played very well through the first 10 weeks last year before he struggled down the stretch.
He's started 30 games over the last two seasons and proved he could stay healthy during his stint with the Jets. At 29 years old and now a reliable option, Claiborne can slide into nearly any lineup and contribute as an outside corner with some experience playing over the slot.
A team can never have too many cornerbacks. Claiborne is an intriguing possibility if a squad suffers an injury in the secondary or simply needs more depth.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have used five early-round (first through third) picks on cornerbacks since 2016. Vernon Hargreaves III, M.J. Stewart, Carlton Davis and rookies Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean form the core of Tampa Bay's secondary. The Bucs can hedge their bets with a quality veteran like Claiborne, who played for defensive coordinator Todd Bowles in New York.
S Eric Berry: Dallas Cowboys
Any team can go out today and sign a five-time Pro Bowler and three-time first-team All-Pro. Eric Berry is the biggest remaining name on the free-agent market. Two factors determine his availability.
First, Berry's injury history is concerning. The safety missed all but three games over the last two seasons because of a torn Achilles tendon and heel pain. The 30-year-old also has a Haglund's deformity, which is a bone spur pushing against the Achilles tendon. The issue didn't require offseason surgery, according to The Athletic's Nate Davis.
Pain management will define Berry's future in football. At the same time, no team met the veteran's price tag, and he'll likely sign closer to training camps, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.
The 2015 Comeback Player of the Year has already showed he's a difference-maker when healthy. Unfortunately, Berry is now three years removed from playing a 16-game slate. So, some risk is involved.
Berry could return to form and change the complexion of a team's defense, or he won't be the same player he once was. The latter is not necessarily a bad thing, but that's dependent on the price a suitor eventually pays for Berry's services. The price tag is too much if a team is expected to sign him to a multiyear, multimillion-dollar deal instead of a short-term, prove-it contract.
The Cowboys missed out on their preferred safety target when Earl Thomas chose to play for the Ravens. Berry doesn't present the same skill set as Thomas, but he's a potential upgrade over Jeff Heath, who performed poorly in 2018 with numerous missed tackles and average coverage skills.
S Tre Boston: San Francisco 49ers
Tre Boston knows what he wants and is willing to wait for a contract offer that reflects his valuation.
"It's all about knowing your worth," Boston told Adam Fisher of the Fort Myers News-Press. "I know I'm going to go out (this season) and do something I did last year—play well with the opportunity I'm given."
To Boston's credit, his play over the last two seasons made him into one of the game's best pure free safeties. According to Pro Football Focus, opponents targeted Boston 30 times in pass coverage last season, and he defended (breakups or interceptions) 10 of those. Boston ranks fourth in the PFF era with a 41.5 percent defensive success rating among safeties.
Boston told Fisher he already turned down "many, many" contract offers.
According to a recent interview on Sirius XM NFL Radio (h/t Fisher), the 27-year-old defender expects a deal similar to those of Adrian Amos and Lamarcus Joyner—both of whom signed free-agent contracts this offseason at $36 and $42 million in total value, respectively.
"I waited last year," he said. "I can do it all over again."
The San Francisco 49ers are an ideal fit for three reasons. First, they need help at free safety since Jimmie Ward is injured again. Second, Boston is the type of sideline-to-sideline backline defender required in coordinator Robert Saleh's Seattle Seahawks-inspired scheme. Finally, the 49ers' $31.6 million in available salary-cap space gives the franchise more than enough wiggle room to meet Boston's demands.