The NFL's free-agency period opens at 4 p.m. ET on March 18, but to think teams, players and agents aren't already working behind the scenes to set up meetings and begin conversations about where the top of the market will land would be naive.
Tampering happens. The NFL knows it happens; it just doesn't want to hear about it publicly. But we hear about it privately, with most rumors starting at the Senior Bowl in late January and then becoming a roar at the NFL Scouting Combine.
At the point between Mobile, Alabama, and Indianapolis, beginning Feb. 23, rumors are taking shape. Where will Tom Brady land? What will happen to Philip Rivers? And don't forget about a free-agency class loaded with defensive playmakers ready to consume the largest salary-cap projections in NFL history.
With roughly $200 million per team projected in cap space, per NFL.com's Ian Rapoport, contracts will be ludicrous. And they'll happen fast. Here are six predicted landing spots I'm hearing from scouts and executives around the league.
For the first time in his surefire Hall of Fame career, Brady is truly a free agent. The Patriots cannot use the franchise tag on him, and he's unrestricted—meaning he can sign wherever he wants. Many are speculating about Tampa Bay or Las Vegas, but those around the league who know the Patriots believe Brady will be back in New England in 2020.
"[Bill] Belichick knows he can't win a title with the quarterbacks on the market, and he knows he can't draft one [where they are] in the first. And don't forget, Josh McDaniels came back. Brady will too," is how one former New England scouting staffer put it.
This has been echoed many times in the last 10 days. Brady is expected back in New England, but with more help than he's had recently.
The Patriots are notoriously cheap with adding targets for Brady, believing he was good enough to cover up a below-average support staff. That's been true, but at 42 years old, Brady can't carry a team like he once could. That's why league sources expect the Patriots to be aggressive about adding offensive help.
"Listen, man, they have like 12 picks [projected to be 11] in this draft. Bill is going to trade, maneuver and steal from everyone else to give TB12 some dudes," said a former general manager who has traded with Belichick in the past.
The predictions are all over the place on who the Patriots will target, but for weeks, two names have consistently been raised when talking about Brady and the 2020 team: A.J. Green and Hunter Henry.
Both Green and Henry are unrestricted free agents, and neither is expected to be franchise-tagged. Given that neither player is at the top of the market at their given positions, it's reasonable to think the Patriots can get a fair value on two impact playmakers for the offense without sacrificing draft picks they'll need to reload the defense.
Patrick Mahomes gets the credit—deservedly so—but the Kansas City Chiefs wouldn't have been able to throw a parade for the ages without Chris Jones' pass-rushing in the second half of Super Bowl LIV. Jones knows it, the Chiefs know it, and the rest of the league is waiting to see what happens.
The Chiefs are in a tough situation with limited cap space (projected $19 million) and a need to sign Mahomes to an extension as soon as the new CBA is worked out. One way to clear the books and acquire more draft picks, with only five in the team's possession, is to tag-and-trade Jones.
Tag-and-trade isn't used often in the NFL, but we've seen it work. Houston did it with Jadeveon Clowney last year, and the Seattle Seahawks even used the same strategy when trading Frank Clark to the Chiefs last offseason.
Tagging Jones and then dealing him—maybe even to Seattle, which has needs at defensive tackle and the cap space ($59.7 million) to sign Jones long term—would give Kansas City more draft picks and help the cap.
The biggest prediction from league insiders? That Jones, who is expected to want close to $20 million per season, has priced himself out of K.C. and will be traded to an NFC contender for a late-first-round pick.
The Seahawks, as mentioned, have holes to fill on the defensive line, but after they traded Jacob Martin, Barkevious Mingo and a 2020 third-round pick for Clowney, many believe they have to sign him.
If Clowney were to leave, the Seahawks would receive a 2021 third-round compensatory selection. So basically they traded two players who didn't have a future on the roster and move from a 2020 to a 2021 third-rounder. It's not great value, but it's doable.
Many around the league believe the Seahawks want Clowney back, but is the feeling mutual?
Sources around the league think Clowney will look to cash in with a market-setting contract—something the Seahawks aren't poised to offer. The prediction? Clowney goes to Miami, where the Dolphins lead the league in available cap space, or to Indianapolis, where general manager Chris Ballard has the second-most cap space and a big need to win in an AFC South that's suddenly very tough.
Justin Simmons might not have a household name where you're from, but he should. Simmons is already one of the NFL's best safeties and has just four years under his belt—showing more improvement each season.
That's why the consensus around the league is Simmons is in line for the franchise tag if he and the Broncos can't come to a long-term agreement.
Two years after the safety market went down like the stock market on Black Tuesday, teams are again valuing defensive backs. We saw that last year when Tyrann Mathieu (three years, $42 million) and Earl Thomas (four years, $55 million) got big deals. Simmons could do even better given his age (26) and upside.
The Broncos have the eighth-most cap space available heading into 2020 and can easily make Simmons the NFL's top-paid safety.
Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry
These are two players who get grouped because many believe their fates are tied together.
Should the Tennessee Titans fight like hell to keep this team together and look to punish opposing defenses again in 2020, or should they blow it up while they have the goodwill of an improbable AFC title run? There isn't a consensus answer from sources around the NFL.
The free-agent quarterback class is good but old, with incumbent Ryan Tannehill, 31, the best of the younger options. The Titans are slotted at No. 29 overall in the first round of the 2020 draft, so selecting the next franchise quarterback in Round 1 isn't a feasible move either. For this reason, I think Tannehill and Henry will come back.
Why fix what isn't broken?
Tannehill, entering his age-32 season, won't get a bank-breaking contract, but he'll be taken care of. A deal similar to what Alex Smith signed with Washington is a template (four years, $94 million with big guarantees but an out after two years).
With Henry, who made news during Super Bowl media week when he told The Rich Eisen Show that Ezekiel Elliott's contract is "the floor" for negotiations, the Titans have to be smart. Running backs on second contracts aren't exactly tearing it up in the NFL lately.
That's why Tennessee should do what the Rams (Todd Gurley II) and Cowboys (Elliott) should have done: use the franchise tag to control Henry for two more years and then let him walk.
The NFLPA won't like hearing this, but the Titans should not sign Henry long term. They should do what they've done the last year-and-a-half: run him as hard and as often as they want and then draft his replacement.
Running backs are valuable, but they're replaceable. Henry's last season-and-a-half has been magical, but his first season-and-a-half was forgettable. Betting that his body will hold up and that his success will continue should be on a year-to-year basis.
The Scout's Report
—What will the Los Angeles Chargers do at quarterback? All signs from league sources indicate the team will draft a signal-caller—either Justin Herbert or Tua Tagovailoa—in the first round, but within the last three days there have been a number of unsolicited calls and texts about a trade for Cam Newton.
This makes sense.
The Chargers need a quarterback, but they also need to sell tickets. Bringing in a household name and marketable option is business savvy and football smart if Newton is healthy. The most likely move is still to draft the next franchise quarterback at No. 6 overall, but there's enough buzz surrounding a Newton trade to mention it here.
—Speaking of Mr. Tua Tagovailoa...everyone expects him to be a Miami Dolphin when the draft is done. And by "everyone," I mean everyone I talk to who has worked or works in the NFL. It's either the worst-kept secret in league history or the best smoke screen ever.
The Dolphins own the No. 5 overall selection and could be in prime position to draft the former Alabama quarterback, but they also have the draft capital, with six selections in the top 70, to trade up if needed.
—Our annual NFL Draft 400 series will begin rolling out next month, but already the work is being done to finalize grades and player comparisons for the 2020 class. One comparison I've fallen in love with: Josh Jones (Houston) to Andre Dillard.
Dillard, who went No. 22 overall last year to the Philadelphia Eagles, and Jones have identical body types, and both are such smooth athletes at left tackle. As Dillard did last year, I expect Jones to have a nice rise to the middle of Round 1.
—Alabama pass-rusher Terrell Lewis is one of my favorite players in this class to watch, but already teams are worrying about the medicals for a guy who had at least two surgeries in college. I say "at least" because medicals from college players are protected under HIPAA rules, so they're only available to the media if a player tells us or a team leaks them—and that's becoming less common.
Lewis is a fantastic player, but if he falls down the board when the draft gets here, remember this blurb.
—And finally, congrats to the Kansas City Chiefs on their Super Bowl win. The work, unfortunately, never stops for a team that is now the target of 31 other franchises. As the Chiefs' offseason planning gets underway, one thing I've heard often is: General manager Brett Veach will do whatever it takes to surround Mahomes with the best possible offensive weapons. Keep that in mind as mock-draft season kicks off.
The Big Board
1. Chase Young, EDGE, Ohio State
2. Joe Burrow, QB, LSU
3. Jeff Okudah, CB, Ohio State
4. Jerry Jeudy, WR, Alabama
5. Isaiah Simmons, LB/S, Clemson
6. Derrick Brown, DL, Auburn
7. Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama
8. Jedrick Wills Jr., OT, Alabama
9. CeeDee Lamb, WR, Oklahoma
10. Javon Kinlaw, DL, South Carolina
11. A.J. Epenesa, DL, Iowa
12. Henry Ruggs III, WR, Alabama
13. Tee Higgins, WR, Clemson
14. Tristan Wirfs, OT, Iowa
15. Patrick Queen, LB, LSU
16. Mekhi Becton, OT, Louisville
17. Jordan Love, QB, Utah State
18. Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon
19. K'Lavon Chaisson, EDGE, LSU
20. J.K. Dobbins, RB, Ohio State
21. D'Andre Swift, RB, Georgia
22. CJ Henderson, CB, Florida
23. Andrew Thomas, OT, Georgia
24. Xavier McKinney, S, Alabama
25. Kenneth Murray, LB, Oklahoma
26. Kristian Fulton, CB, LSU
27. Marlon Davidson, DL, Auburn
28. Justin Jefferson, WR, LSU
29. Grant Delpit, S, LSU
30. Josh Jones, OT, Houston
31. Ross Blacklock, DL, TCU
32. Zack Baun, LB, Wisconsin
6. Quarterback comparisons are always tough. Ideally, they come to you organically. But even then people will get upset if one little characteristic doesn't match up.
Comparisons aren't predictions. They're literally just that: comparisons. "This player reminds me of this other player." For me, comparisons are a way to explain to the casual fan what a player moves like or plays like. You want to match the NFL player's best trait to the prospect's best trait.
With that in mind, here's my first pass at the 2020 quarterback class and their NFL comparisons.
Joe Burrow: Andrew Luck
- Athletic; poised; accurate; average arm strength; great football IQ
Tua Tagovailoa: Drew Brees
- Below-average height; accurate; wins on roll-outs; climbs the pocket; beautiful touch
Justin Herbert: Carson Wentz
- Body beautiful; mobile and powerful; above-average arm strength; slow processors reading the field
Jordan Love: Colin Kaepernick
- Lean, athletic frame; strong arm; mobile as runner/escape artist; decision-making questionable
Jacob Eason: Jameis Winston
- Strong arm; big body; tons of potential; struggles on progressions and tends to overthrow
Jake Fromm: Kirk Cousins
- Smaller frame; accurate without big power; sees the entire field; decision-making is rhythmic
5. Stock Down
With time to go back and reevaluate Senior Bowl practices, it's been disappointing to see the struggles from Tennessee wide receiver Jauan Jennings in Mobile also surface on tape. He's just not explosive or fast enough to separate from defenders.
Jennings could have a wonderful NFL career, but his lack of burst and looseness in his routes are concerning. He moves like a tight end but is built like a receiver (6'3", 208 lbs). There just aren't many guys winning like that in the NFL these days.
4. Stock Up
Similarly, more time for tape study pushes up some players.
Dayton's Adam Trautman (6'6", 253 lbs) dominated in college but needed to show up against bigger and better competition. He did, daily, at the Senior Bowl. Because of his ability to stretch the field vertically and beat defenders from multiple alignments, and his sticky hands, Trautman moves way up my board this week.
The tight end class stands as: Cole Kmet (Notre Dame), Brycen Hopkins (Purdue) and Trautman.
3. Sleeper of the Week
It's getting harder and harder to find true sleepers with the flood of awesome draft coverage each year and this column now running weekly. Digging deep in this week's rankings, let's look at Auburn safety Daniel Thomas.
Rocking No. 24 for the Tigers, Thomas was excellent coming downhill against Alabama and taking away crossing routes. He didn't pick up an invite to the Senior Bowl, and I haven't seen his name on combine lists, but Thomas' tape was good enough against the Crimson Tide to have me watching all of his final six games.
This isn't to say he'll be a top-100 draft pick, but Thomas has the goods to make an NFL roster.
2. Tailgate Tour
Come hang out with Mello, Connor and me on Tailgate Tour throughout the 2020 draft process. Here are the details:
- HoneyFire BBQ in Nashville on March 13 at noon
1. Stick to Football is all over the place this week. We finished posting our Super Bowl interviews—Kenny Vaccaro, Aaron Jones, Marlon Mack, Jerry Jeudy and the McCourty twins—and finished the week back in the studio and breaking down the 2020 draft.
Check out all our podcast episodes, which are also available on YouTube as a video series, and subscribe if you haven't already. We will also post a ton of behind-the-scenes content on our Instagram page.