NFL Starters Who Could Have Their Jobs Stolen by Free-Agent Signings
This is an exciting time of year for NFL fans and players alike. For fans, it's a chance to imagine impact free agents on their favorite teams. For players, it's an opportunity to dream about swimming in a gold-filled vault like Scrooge McDuck.
However, there's a flip side to all of the excitement. For every player who gains a starting role with a new team, there's another who loses one.
Maybe it's a quarterback who fell flat in his audition to be a starter. Or a young running back or wideout whose team is looking for an upgrade. Or a veteran edge-rusher or cornerback whose massive contract has become an anchor around his squad's neck.
For every player dreaming of a big payday and a change of scenery, there's another worried that a new arrival will take his spot in the starting lineup—or on the roster altogether.
And the players listed here have good reason to be concerned.
Indianapolis Colts QB Jacoby Brissett
The last eight months or so have been dizzying for Indianapolis Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett.
In July, Brissett was a well-regarded backup to Andrew Luck. After Luck's stunning retirement in August, Brissett was elevated to starter status and rewarded with a two-year, $30 million contract extension.
Over the first seven games of the 2019 season, Brissett earned that cabbage. The 27-year-old posted a passer rating north of 95 four times, threw 14 touchdown passes against just three interceptions and led the Colts to a 5-2 record.
Then the wheels fell off.
Over his last eight games, Brissett threw just four more scores. He didn't have a passer rating of 95 or higher after Week 8. That 5-2 start turned into a 2-6 free-fall. Losing T.Y. Hilton for a big part of the second half of the season didn't do him any favors, but there's no arguing that Brissett's level of play fell off big-time as the season wore on.
There's also no arguing that a Colts team with the second-most cap space in the NFL, per Over the Cap, has been linked to just about every big-name quarterback about to hit the open market.
As Mike Wells reported for ESPN, Colts general manager Chris Ballard didn't exactly throw cold water on the notion that the team could be shopping for a new starter.
"Anytime we have a chance to acquire a player that makes us better, at any position, we're going to do it. Any position," he said. "Whether it's wideout, quarterback, running back, linebacker—it doesn't matter. So, I wouldn't just single out the quarterback. Any chance we have to get better, we're going to do it."
Given Brissett's contract and the buyer's market under center in 2020, a trade involving the four-year veteran isn't likely.
His roller-coaster year may have one hill left—from backup to starter to off the team in less than a year.
Las Vegas Raiders QB Derek Carr
It's a lot less likely that Derek Carr will lose his job than Jacoby Brissett. By most objective measures, Carr wasn't close to being the Raiders' biggest problem in 2019—he set career highs in completion percentage (leading the AFC), yardage and passer rating.
But there's one person in Las Vegas who doesn't appear to hold Carr in especially high regard—and his opinion is the only one that counts.
For months, there have been rumblings that head coach Jon Gruden isn't that impressed with Carr, with The Athletic's Michael Lombardi—who worked with Gruden during his first stint in Oakland—predicting that the pair could be headed for a parting of ways.
"Carr and Gruden are expected to be neighbors in Las Vegas," Lombardi wrote in December. "Once the season is over, Gruden will fall deeply in love with another quarterback, someone more like himself, someone more capable of playing the position the way Gruden would play—with expressive leadership skills."
There has also been scuttlebutt that Gruden knows who he wants—and he's set his sights high. According to longtime media member Larry Fitzgerald Sr., the father of Arizona Cardinals wideout Larry Fitzgerald, the Raiders are prepared to offer Tom Brady a two-year, $60 million contract if he hits the open market (h/t Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk).
If you're gonna go, go big, I guess.
Is it likely that Brady will bail on the only NFL team he's ever known to take the big bucks in Sin City? No.
But if the six-time Super Bowl champion does, Carr will be jettisoned quicker than a high roller from a suite at the Bellagio after his cash runs out.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers RB Ronald Jones II
Compared to his miserable rookie year, Ronald Jones II had a great second season in Tampa. The former USC standout averaged a respectable 4.2 yards per carry (up from 1.9 yards per attempt), caught 31 passes, scored six touchdowns from scrimmage and topped 1,000 total yards.
And yet, it's just as possible as not that Jones will find himself in the same complementary role in 2020. The fact that said role was in a committee with plodder Peyton Barber last season is a huge red flag.
Simply put, Jones has been mostly terrible in blitz pickups over two campaigns in the pros. As head coach Bruce Arians told ESPN's Jenna Laine in December, it's not for lack of effort—Jones just isn't having much success in pass protection.
"He works his ass off," Arians said. "He's gonna get better at it. We need him running the football. But you can't run the football if you can't protect the quarterback."
Whether the Buccaneers give Jameis Winston one more go as the starter under center or target a veteran like Philip Rivers in free agency, they are going to have a bundle of cash invested at the position—likely north of $25 million in 2020.
And with Barber set to hit free agency, the Buccaneers could pursue the likes of Melvin Gordon III or Carlos Hyde to help ensure their quarterback isn't lying in a heap on the field.
Green Bay Packers WR Allen Lazard
Superstar Green Bay Packers wideout Davante Adams told Wes Hodkiewicz of the team's website that young wide receiver Allen Lazard has steadily improved since joining the team in December 2018.
"There haven't been too many people since I've been in the league that I've legitimately seen get better at football, over the course of when he got here at the end of last season up to this point. His growth in route-running, the questions that he asks me about releases and different things that weren't even necessarily a part of his game to start, I think he's starting to open that up."
Lazard is a true Cinderella story. The 24-year-old went from being on Jacksonville's practice squad to Green Bay's No. 2 receiver in the NFC Championship Game in just over a year. There's no question that the Packers will bring back the exclusive rights free agent in 2020.
Whether Lazard will open the season as a starter in Titletown is another matter.
The fact that Lazard was on the Jaguars practice squad so recently tells you everything you need to know about the state of Green Bay's wideout corps. Lazard had his moments, racking up 35 catches for 477 yards and three scores in 2019, but he didn't do much to dissuade opponents from bracketing Adams in coverage constantly.
The Packers badly need an upgrade. And with players like A.J. Green, Emmanuel Sanders, Robby Anderson and even Amari Cooper potentially available and an aggressive general manager calling the shots in Brian Gutekunst, it's not hard to envision the team getting one.
Cleveland Browns OT Chris Hubbard
The Cleveland Browns are undergoing some major changes in 2020—which makes it a lot like 2019. And 2018. And 2017. And 2016.
That list is as long as it is depressing.
Outside of tailback Nick Chubb and the wide receiver tandem of Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, there weren't many offensive players who didn't underperform in 2019. But at least some of the blame for the Year 2 struggles of quarterback Baker Mayfield can be placed at the feet of an offensive line that ranked in the bottom half of the league in pass protection, per Football Outsiders.
The biggest culprits were tackles Greg Robinson and Chris Hubbard.
Dan Labbe of cleveland.com listed tackle as the team's biggest offseason priority—there's a reason there have been so many Trent Williams rumors and mock drafts that have the Browns selecting a tackle.
With Robinson about to hit free agency, Cleveland will almost assuredly have one new starter on the end. But it's possible that new general manager Andrew Berry will look to completely remake the outside of the O-line.
Should that be the case, it would be much easier to upgrade on the right side in free agency. As is usually the case, a class of right tackles headlined by Jack Conklin is quite a bit deeper than at left tackle.
Cleveland doesn't have the mountain of cap space it has had in recent seasons, but there's enough at $48.9 million to make a splash.
And Hubbard has done little in two seasons in Cleveland to dissuade Berry from trying to do just that.
Houston Texans OG Zach Fulton
Two things are true about a Houston Texans team that made it clear in 2019 that the franchise is in win-now mode.
The first is that improving the protection in front of Deshaun Watson is a priority.
The other is that there's a lot of work to do in that regard.
Additions like left tackle Laremy Tunsil did improve a line that led the NFL with 62 sacks allowed in 2018. But the team still let Watson get sacked over three times per game and ranked among the 10-worst teams in that category.
The pending megadeal for Watson hovers over the Texans' available cap space like the Mega Maid from Spaceballs, but Houston has enough salary-cap space ($64.3 million, per Over the Cap) to be aggressive in free agency.
That means hitting the offensive front. And right guard Zach Fulton was the weak link on that revamped line in 2019. Fulton has done little for the Texans since joining the team in 2018, and if the team parts ways with the 28-year-old, his entire $7 million cap hit will be wiped off the books.
Of course, a squad with Super Bowl aspirations isn't going to do that without a Plan B at the ready, so Houston could easily be a market-setter at guard and be in play for the likes of Brandon Scherff and Graham Glasgow.
Buffalo Bills DE Trent Murphy
Buffalo Bills defensive end Trent Murphy isn't a bad football player. When last we saw the 29-year-old, he was piling up six combined tackles and two sacks in Buffalo's playoff loss to the Texans.
But that postseason explosion came at the end of a 36-tackle, five-sack campaign. Murphy remains a physical player and a capable run defender, but the impact edge-rusher we saw in Washington disappeared with the injury that cost him the entire 2017 season.
Murphy is good, but he isn't great—at least not great enough to warrant a cap number of nearly $10 million in 2020.
The problem is that he isn't Buffalo's only issue at defensive end. Shaq Lawson is set hit free agency next month. Behind Murphy and veteran Jerry Hughes (who is on the downslope of his career at 31), there's…well, there isn't much.
The Bills need to add pop off the edge. And they can clear just over $8 million (most of Murphy's salary) by releasing the six-year veteran. Accomplishing both means going after one of the premium positions in free agency.
With the third-most cap space in the league ($82.2 million), the Bills could pursue high-end free agent ends like Yannick Ngakoue and Robert Quinn. Or they could aim a little lower at a Jabaal Sheard or Benson Mayowa and re-up Lawson.
Whatever the team does, Murphy's chances of being in Buffalo's starting lineup in Week 1 are negligible.
Los Angeles Chargers LB Thomas Davis Sr.
Over 15 seasons, Thomas Davis Sr. has been the model of toughness. The three-time Pro Bowler accomplished something that no one in the NFL ever had before him—return to play at the game's highest level after tearing his ACL three times.
Davis has already suggested that he will return for a 16th season in 2020, per ESPN's Eric D. Williams (h/t CBS Sports), and that should surprise no one. He'll all but surely be inducted into the Carolina Panthers Ring of Honor one day.
Any team would be glad to have him as a role player and an on-field coach of sorts to mentor younger linebackers. And at first glance, Davis' 112 combined tackles in 2019 would appear to show he's still capable of producing.
But his tackle numbers are more of an indictment of the linebackers around him in Los Angeles than an endorsement of Davis. At age 36 and after three major knee injuries, he just doesn't have the range he once did. And in today's league, a lack of range is an absolute killer at the position.
All of the talk in La-La Land this offseason has centered around the team's issues at quarterback in the opening stages of the post-Philip Rivers era. But the Bolts have all but ignored the linebacker spot the past several years—and it shows.
There are a number of options available who would reverse that trend and take pressure off Davis, whether it's elite-level options like Joe Schobert, Cory Littleton and Blake Martinez or players with a lower sticker prices like Todd Davis, Danny Trevathan and Nick Kwiatkoski.
Minnesota Vikings CB Xavier Rhodes
The fact that Xavier Rhodes of the Minnesota Vikings was named to the 2019 Pro Bowl tells you just about everything you need about what a farce the event has become.
It's not that he hasn't been a good player before. The 29-year-old entered this past season widely regarded as one of the best cover corners in the game. He was a first-team All-Pro as recently as 2017.
Rhodes saw his level of play drop a bit in 2018. But as Ben Linsey wrote for Pro Football Focus, Rhodes hit terminal velocity in 2019:
"His decline began to rear its head in 2018, but this past season, it reached full-fledged free fall. 87 different cornerbacks saw 50 targets into their coverage in 2019, and none of them allowed a higher completion rate into their coverage than Rhodes did. His 84.3% completion rate allowed was the worst of that bunch by over 4%. Rhodes was never as dominant as the league-wide reputation that he commanded, but he regressed significantly to borderline unplayable this season. If the Vikings are unable to strike a trade, cutting Rhodes and pocketing the $8 million in cap space is the right move."
Those numbers are…yikes.
The Vikings are going to be hard-pressed to find a trade partner for a horrific cornerback set to count nearly $13 million against the cap in 2020. Given their aspirations of spending February 2021 in Tampa, Florida, the Vikings can't necessarily move on without another option at the ready.
And with the worst situation in the NFL in regard to the salary cap, Minnesota isn't in position to go bananas on the opening days of free agency.
Things in the Twin Cities are about to get very interesting.
But somehow, the Vikings have to get better on the back end.
New York Giants S Antoine Bethea
This last one pains me a little. I have been a fan of New York Giants safety Antoine Bethea dating back to his days with Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.
Yes, Bethea's been around that long. And the 35-year-old can still rack up tackles and help out against the run. His 110 combined tackles in 2019 marked the third time in the past four seasons that he hit that benchmark and the eighth time in 14 campaigns that he hit triple digits.
As Tom Rock wrote for Newsday, Bethea said he wants to return for 2020 after playing the most snaps of any player on the roster in 2019.
"There's a lot that goes into bringing a guy back for Year 15 who is 36 years old," he said. "But I still feel like I can go out there and do it. If it's in my court, I'll be playing next year."
Bethea's contract isn't prohibitively expensive ($2.9 million in 2020). With the eighth-most cap space at roughly $62 million, per Over the Cap, the Giants can afford to bring Bethea back.
What the team can't afford is trotting him out there as a full-time player.
He was a massive liability in coverage last year and a big part of the reason the Giants had the fifth-worst pass defense in the NFL.
If general manager Dave Gettleman wants to keep his job, he needs to invest some of that cap space in an upgrade opposite Jabrill Peppers on the back end.