Ideal Replacements for Big-Name 2020 NFL Free-Agency Departures

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistMarch 19, 2020

Ideal Replacements for Big-Name 2020 NFL Free-Agency Departures

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    During NFL free agency, blockbuster trades and key signings can elevate a roster toward playoff contention. On the flip side, one team's gain could result in a major loss for another club. Top-tier players leave huge voids in their wakes.

    The New England Patriots' post-Tom Brady era will carry the most intriguing storyline of the offseason, but we saw several notable playmakers on the move since the start of the legal tampering period.

    Teams will have to find replacements for star wide receivers, first-string offensive linemen, boundary cornerbacks, pass-rushers and leaders on defense, but it's not too late to address gaping holes in the roster. 

    We'll focus on top veterans who will suit up for new teams next season and what their former clubs can do to replace them. The solutions will include free agents, potential trade targets and draft prospects.


Atlanta Falcons: TE Austin Hooper

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    Tight end Austin Hooper cashed in on his recent production, agreeing to a four-year deal with the Cleveland Browns, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. He developed into a key component of the Atlanta Falcons aerial attack, increasing his catch and receiving yard totals every year since entering the league in 2016.

    Over the last two seasons, Hooper ranked second on the team in receptions, hauling in at least 71 passes in both campaigns. Although wideout Calvin Ridley can pick up some of the slack in the passing game, another big-bodied target could bolster the team's red-zone offense, which ranked 25th in touchdown conversion rate (51.7 percent) last year.

    The Falcons acquired Hayden Hurst and a fourth-round pick from the Baltimore Ravens in exchange for a second- and fifth-round picks, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.

    Hurst hasn't performed at the level of a former first-rounder (2018), but he showed some flashes last year, recording 30 catches for 349 yards and two touchdowns.

    If the Falcons choose to hedge their bets on Hurst's development, they can target a prospect early in the draft.

    The 2020 class doesn't have a star tight end, but the Falcons can pick up a potential starter in the second round. Purdue's Brycen Hopkins and Washington's Hunter Bryant had strong 2019 campaigns, registering 830 and 825 receiving yards, respectively. The former provided more impact in the red zone with seven touchdown grabs.

    The Falcons could select Hopkins with the 55th overall pick and groom him into an immediate starter and playmaker on passing downs.

Dallas Cowboys: CB Byron Jones

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    Byron Jones reset the cornerback market, coming to an agreement on a five-year, $82.5 million deal with the Miami Dolphins, per ESPN's Adam Schefter. He's not a ball hawk who forces turnovers, but the 27-year-old allowed completion percentages of 52.5 and 53.1 percent when targeted during the 2018 and 2019 terms, respectively.

    Dallas has $26.5 million in cap space, and it's still exchanging contract offers with quarterback Dak Prescott, per ESPN's Todd Archer. Yet, there's no need to panic. The Cowboys re-signed cornerback Anthony Brown. They could mold him into a more consistent starter or use one of their two top-51 draft picks.

    Over the last two seasons, Brown has played the majority of his snaps in the slot, but he does have extensive experience lining up out wide. While serving as a part-time starter, the 26-year-old recorded 32 pass breakups and four interceptions in 56 contests. He could progress in a steady role. 

    With the No. 17 overall pick, the Cowboys could acquire Alabama's Trevon Diggs, a bigger cornerback (6'1", 205 lbs) capable of pressing wideouts off the line of scrimmage. He also played wide receiver as a freshman at the collegiate level. That experience may help him read routes and force turnovers in coverage. 

    In 79 games, Jones logged two interceptions. Diggs' ball skills can lead to more takeaways, which would give the offense more scoring opportunities. He registered three interceptions during his senior campaign at Alabama.

Houston Texans: WR DeAndre Hopkins

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    In a blockbuster trade, the Houston Texans dealt wideout DeAndre Hopkins and a fourth-round pick to the Arizona Cardinals for running back David Johnson, a second-round pick and a 2021 fourth-rounder, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.

    According to James Jones of NFL Network, the Texans agreed to terms with Randall Cobb, who can rack up receiving yards, but he's primarily a slot wideout. Houston needs a go-to playmaker capable of lining up on the perimeter as a lead threat in the passing game. 

    Wide receiver Will Fuller V has big-play ability, averaging 14.3 yards per catch for his career, but he's struggled to stay healthy. The four-year veteran has missed 22 games in four seasons. Although the 25-year-old is productive on the perimeter, his durability issues raise some concerns. 

    With $47.7 million in cap space, the Texans have the financial resources to sign free agent Emmanuel Sanders. In 2019, the 33-year-old hauled in 66 catches for 869 yards and five touchdowns in a season split between the Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers.

    Even at his age, Sanders could perform at the level of a low-end lead wideout with a stable offense. The 10-year veteran recorded a reliable 68 percent catch rate last year.

    The Texans can also roll the dice on a deep incoming wide receiver class. At No. 40, team brass could acquire a playmaker who compares to Hopkins in size (6'3", 207 lbs) and strength.

    Denzel Mims has the tools to develop into a high-end contributor at the pro level. He has strong hands and battles for contested targets on the perimeter. The Baylor product also ran a 4.38 40-yard dash, which may translate to big plays in yards after the catch.

Minnesota Vikings: WR Stefon Diggs

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    The Houston Texans weren't the only team to trade a top-notch wide receiver on the first day of the legal tampering period. The Minnesota Vikings dealt Stefon Diggs and a seventh-round pick to the Buffalo Bills for first-, fifth- and sixth-round picks along with a 2021 fourth-rounder, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.

    Without Diggs in the fold, wide receiver Adam Thielen will likely see more targets, but the Vikings need someone to step into a bigger role on the opposite side of the field to even the coverage. If not, Minnesota's lead wideout may face constant double-teams and a safety over the top.

    Minnesota doesn't have an in-house replacement who stands out. The front office has just $13.9 million to spend on free agents.

    Nonetheless, the Vikings recouped an extra first-round selection in the Diggs deal, netting the Bills' 22nd overall pick to go along with their own selection at No. 25. The Vikings should acquire a wideout with one of those selections.

    Minnesota can target Justin Jefferson who's coming off a breakout campaign at LSU, recording 111 receptions for 1,540 yards and 18 touchdowns. He's versatile with the ability to play inside and outside but saw a major boost in production out of the slot last year.

    At 6'4", 216 pounds, Tee Higgins is a large target. Quarterback Kirk Cousins would be able to toss the ball up and allow the Clemson product to track it down with his wide-ranging reach. The big-bodied wideout averaged 18.1 yards per reception through three collegiate terms. The Vikings could produce plenty of chunk plays with him on the perimeter.

New England Patriots: Tom Brady

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    Early Tuesday, Tom Brady announced his decision to leave the New England Patriots. By the end of the day, NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported the 42-year-old quarterback's intention to sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on a deal worth approximately $30 million annually. 

    According to Rapoport, the Patriots won't make a big investment in a quarterback this offseason, and the team "really likes" 2019 fourth-rounder Jarrett Stidham. However, it's extremely risky to turn the offense over to a second-year signal-caller who's thrown four regular-season passes, one of which was a pick-six.

    Fortunately for the Patriots, there's a veteran option who can steady the ship in Foxborough.

    New England can go with a conservative arm like Andy Dalton, who will work with the Cincinnati Bengals to facilitate a trade to his preferred destination, per Rapoport. ESPN's Patriots beat reporter Mike Reiss appeared on the morning show Get Up and suggested Dalton could be appealing to the club (h/t Lindsay Patterson of Enquirer Sports).

    Dalton doesn't have a big arm. He's not a major threat with his legs. With that said, the three-time Pro Bowler plays with poise, throws with decent accuracy (62 percent career completion rate) and doesn't turn over the ball at a high rate. He's thrown for 204 touchdowns and 118 interceptions in nine seasons.

    Dalton doesn't have a flashy skill set, but he helped lead the Bengals to five playoff berths and four double-digit-win seasons. Under head coach Bill Belichick, with a talented roster around him, the 32-year-old could lead the Patriots to the postseason as well.

    As an alternative option, New England can attempt to reunite with a familiar face. Quarterback Philip Rivers will sign a one-year, $25 million deal with the Indianapolis Colts, per ESPN's Adam Schefter. The Patriots should inquire about Jacoby Brissett.

    New England selected Brissett in the third round of the 2016 draft. He only started two games for the club, throwing for 400 yards as a rookie, but the Patriots brain trust obviously saw something in him as a Day 2 pick.

    Now with one year of full-time starting experience in Indianapolis, Brissett knows how to run an offense. In 2019, he threw for 2,942 yards, 18 touchdowns and six interceptions. Like Dalton, the 27-year-old doesn't make a lot of mistakes with the football.

    If Brissett plays with a decent supporting cast, he has room to grow into a solid starter under offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

Philadelphia Eagles: S Malcolm Jenkins

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    The Philadelphia Eagles didn't exercise Malcolm Jenkins' 2020 contract option, allowing him to test free agency. He agreed to terms with the New Orleans Saints, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport

    In addition to 11 total interceptions between 2014 and 2019, Jenkins recorded at least eight pass breakups in all six of his seasons with the Eagles. He's also personified consistency, suiting up for every contest since signing with the club. 

    Philadelphia will transition Jalen Mills from cornerback to safety, but the front office will keep its free-agent market options open, per's Mike Kaye

    According to ESPN's Josina Anderson, the Eagles signed Mills to a one-year deal, so his trial run at safety may be short-lived if he struggles early next season.

    Philadelphia should target Karl Joseph, who's a versatile safety but didn't have the opportunity to show his skill set in limited roles with the Las Vegas Raiders. The four-year veteran played fewer than 58 percent of defensive snaps in three out of four seasons despite coming out of West Virginia as a first-round pick in 2016. 

    Last year, Joseph went down with a season-ending foot injury after a game-sealing interception in Week 10 against the Los Angeles Chargers. If healthy, he can thump near the box and use his speed on designed blitzes. Despite his restricted workload, the 26-year-old recorded an interception in each season with 15 career pass breakups.

San Francisco 49ers: DT DeForest Buckner

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    The San Francisco 49ers agreed to trade DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts, and he'll sign an extension that will make him the second-highest-paid defensive tackle at $21 million annually, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.

    Last year, the 49ers pounded teams with their defensive line, which stood out as the strongest group on the roster because of the fierce pass-rushers across the front four. Buckner accounted for 7.5 of the team's 48 sacks. In his 2018 Pro Bowl campaign, he recorded a team-leading 12 sacks. 

    Although San Francisco will miss Buckner's ability to pressure the pocket, general manager John Lynch can attempt to replace him with the Colts' draft pick from the trade.

    The Colts sent their 13th overall selection to the 49ers, which saves Lynch the trouble of scrambling for a cheap replacement on the open market with just $10.9 million in cap space. 

    Instead, San Francisco can use the Colts' first-rounder or its own Day 1 pick at No. 31 to target an interior pass-rusher like Justin Madubuike or Marlon Davidson.

    Over the last two years, Madubuike provided a steady pass-rushing presence at Texas A&M, finishing with 5.5 sacks in consecutive terms.

    As a pass-rusher, Davidson had a breakout 2019 campaign, logging 6.5 sacks after registering eight in his first three years at Auburn.

    Typically, defensive tackles don't fly off the board on Day 1. Madubuike and Davidson should be available at the end of the first round.

Tennessee Titans: OT Jack Conklin

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    Jack Conklin's departure leaves a major void on the perimeter of the Tennessee Titans offensive line. With him, the club ranked last in pass protection, per Football Outsiders.

    Nonetheless, Conklin served as a high-quality run-blocker. He deserves some credit for the Titans' third-ranked ground attack, which featured the reigning rushing champion, Derrick Henry. Secondly, the 25-year-old allowed just three sacks, per Stats Perform (via the Washington Post).

    After Conklin agreed to terms with the Cleveland Browns, the Titans re-signed Dennis Kelly to a three-year, $21 million deal, per ESPN's Field Yates

    Earning $7 million annually, Kelly should have a shot to replace Conklin at right tackle. Furthermore, the 30-year-old has filled in admirably as a backup in Tennessee, allowing three or fewer sacks in each of the last four seasons, per Stats Perform (via the Washington Post). 

    If the Titans have some concern about Kelly's performance in a full-time starting role, the front office can fill the position during the draft. 

    With a deep incoming offensive tackle group, the Titans could land a starter with the No. 29 or 61 overall pick. Tennessee should focus on Georgia's Isaiah Wilson, a natural right tackle who tips the scales at 6'6", 350 pounds.

    Wilson's massive body and long 35½-inch arms will pose a tough challenge to edge-rushers.


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