8 Ways Free Agency Has Reshaped the 2020 NFL Draft

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistMarch 22, 2020

8 Ways Free Agency Has Reshaped the 2020 NFL Draft

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    Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

    We can forget those pre-free-agency mock drafts. NFL teams used their cash to fill holes during the first wave of the transaction period, which gives franchises flexibility in how they approach April's selection process.

    Some veteran pickups won't change a team's draft plans, but a major acquisition or loss will move certain prospects up or down the big board.

    While the projected top two picks may not change, the rest of the first round remains fluid. This year's draft features a strong group at wide receiver—yet we saw two major deals involving big names at the position. The clubs involved will most certainly adjust because of those moves. 

    We'll take a look at how early action during free agency changed the outlook of the 2020 draft and provide potential targets for each highlighted team.

             

Arizona Cardinals' Trade for DeAndre Hopkins Weakens Link to CeeDee Lamb

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    Arizona Cardinals wideout DeAndre Hopkins
    Arizona Cardinals wideout DeAndre HopkinsAssociated Press

    It's no surprise that Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray wanted to reunite with his former Oklahoma teammate CeeDee Lamb. The pair formed a strong tandem in 2018.

    Lamb caught 65 passes for 1,158 yards and 11 touchdowns, while Murray threw for 4,361 yards, 42 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. They were key stars on a team that qualified for the College Football Playoff. 

    In late February, Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury supported the idea of drafting Lamb, per Kyle Odegard of the team's official website. 

    "He's his biggest proponent; that's for sure," Kingsbury said of Murray and Lamb. "He would take him No. 1, hands down. We like that. We like that Kyler's invested. He thinks very highly of CeeDee, and we do too. He's a great player. We'll see how it all plays out."

    The unthinkable happened on the first day of the league's legal tampering period, though. Arizona acquired star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and a fourth-round pick from the Houston Texans for running back David Johnson, a second-round pick and a 2021 fourth-rounder, per John McClain of the Houston Chronicle

    With Hopkins in the fold, the Cardinals have a deep group at wide receiver. Early in the offseason, Larry Fitzgerald announced he'd suit up for another year. Christian Kirk, a 2018 second-rounder, has been a solid No. 2 wideout, logging 111 receptions, 1,299 yards and six touchdowns. Last year, Arizona drafted three players at the position: Andy Isabella, Hakeem Butler and KeeSean Johnson. 

    So the Cardinals could look to address a need rather than pair Murray with Lamb again, per Jeremy Cluff of the Arizona Republic

    "The Cardinals have long been linked to wide receivers CeeDee Lamb of Oklahoma and Jerry Jeudy of Alabama but might now take an offensive lineman or look for help on the defense with their first selection at No. 8 overall with Hopkins now in the fold," Cluff wrote.

    In a strong draft for tackles, the Cardinals should look at Tristan Wirfs and Jedrick Wills Jr. to protect Murray rather than add a luxury to the passing attack.

Atlanta Falcons Don't Have to Draft Vic Beasley Jr.'s Replacement at No. 16

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    Atlanta Falcons defensive end Dante Fowler Jr.
    Atlanta Falcons defensive end Dante Fowler Jr.Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

    Going into free agency, we knew the Atlanta Falcons wouldn't re-sign edge-rusher Vic Beasley Jr. Despite limited cap space, the front office came to terms on a three-year, $48 million deal with defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. 

    He broke out with the Los Angeles Rams in 2019, recording 58 solo tackles, 16 for loss, 11.5 sacks and six pass breakups—all career highs.

    Coming off a strong season and averaging $16 million on his new deal, Fowler will probably take the majority of snaps opposite Takkarist McKinley on the defensive line. As a result, the Falcons won't have to address their pass rush on Day 1 of the draft. 

    Before Atlanta acquired Fowler, A.J. Epenesa, who logged 26.5 sacks in three years at Iowa, was a popular draft projection for the club at No. 16. 

    General manager Thomas Dimitroff might target a cornerback after the team released Desmond Trufant, who signed with the Detroit Lions. In seven seasons, he started in all of his 97 appearances for the Falcons. Perhaps an incoming draft pick will fill his spot on the boundary.

    The Falcons could also target C.J. Henderson, who's an athletic cornerback with fluid hips and a tracker for the football. He logged six interceptions and 20 pass breakups through three years at Florida.

Detroit Lions Deal Darius Slay; Strong Possibility for Jeffrey Okudah at No. 3

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    Cornerback Jeffrey Okudah
    Cornerback Jeffrey OkudahJustin Casterline/Getty Images

    In most mock drafts, quarterback Joe Burrow and defensive end Chase Young are slotted in the first two spots for the Cincinnati Bengals and Washington Redskins, respectively. Now, we may be able to write Jeffrey Okudah's name in pen at No. 3.

    The Detroit Lions traded lead cornerback Darius Slay to the Philadelphia Eagles for third- and fifth-round picks, per Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

    Slay wanted a new deal, which likely factored into the Lions' decision to trade him. The Eagles signed the All-Pro cornerback to a three-year, $50 million extension.

    Although the Lions signed Trufant, the secondary needs a solid starter on the opposite boundary. Justin Coleman primarily mans the slot. Amani Oruwariye, a 2019 fifth-rounder, recorded three pass breakups and two interceptions but only played 19 percent of the Lions' defensive snaps, partially because of an October knee injury.

    The Lions could select Okudah, the top cornerback in the draft class, to replace Slay. He recorded three interceptions and nine pass breakups last year at Ohio State. At the combine, the 6'1", 205-pound cover man showed exceptional footwork during the on-field drills before going down with an injury to his head-neck area.

    Okudah's fluid movement and ball skills would strengthen a pass defense that allowed the most yards and 33 touchdowns in 2019.

Indianapolis Colts Move Out of Range for Top Quarterback Prospect

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    Indianapolis Colts defensive lineman DeForest Buckner
    Indianapolis Colts defensive lineman DeForest BucknerTony Avelar/Associated Press

    In late February, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said "all options are open" at quarterback. The front office then made two moves that took the team out of the running for the draft's top signal-callers.

    First, the Colts sent the 13th overall pick to the San Francisco 49ers for defensive lineman DeForest Buckner, per ESPN's Adam Schefter. Then, the club agreed to terms on a one-year, $25 million pact with quarterback Philip Rivers.

    Barring a move back into the first round, all signs indicate the Colts will go into the 2020 campaign with Rivers under center and Jacoby Brissett as his backup. That arrangement could flip if the 38-year-old signal-caller struggles early. 

    The Colts have their first pick at No. 34, which would mean they'd have to give up a lot of 2020 and 2021 draft capital to move up for any of the top quarterback prospects. 

    GM Chris Ballard will likely stock up on wide receiver talent to complement T.Y. Hilton or acquire another tight end to pair with Jack Doyle following Eric Ebron's departure to Pittsburgh via free agency. 

    Early in the second round, Baylor's Denzel Mims should draw attention with his 6'3", 207-pound frame, physical play and above-average straight-line speed (4.38-second 40-yard dash). In four collegiate seasons, he eclipsed 1,019 yards twice and logged at least eight touchdowns in three consecutive campaigns.

    In 2019, Hunter Bryant flashed his pass-catching skills, logging 52 receptions for 825 yards and three touchdowns at Washington. Colts head coach Frank Reich could use him in a similar fashion to Ebron—a pass-catching tight end who's a mismatch for linebackers and safeties in the middle of the field or outside the numbers.   

Las Vegas Raiders Overhaul Linebacker Group, Strike Out with Top Cornerbacks

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    Miami Dolphins cornerback Byron Jones
    Miami Dolphins cornerback Byron JonesPatrick Smith/Getty Images

    On one hand, the Las Vegas Raiders revamped their linebacker corps, which was arguably the weakest position on the roster. Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski are much-needed additions.

    Yet, the Raiders struck out swinging while aiming to hit a home run at cornerback.

    The Silver and Black pursued Byron Jones, per The Athletic's Vic Tafur, but the former Dallas Cowboys cover man signed with the Miami Dolphins—strike one.

    The front office offered a three-year contract to Chris Harris Jr., but he inked a two-year deal with the Los Angeles Chargers because of the supporting cast, per Tafur.

    "I had a three-year deal from (the Raiders), but I just didn't feel comfortable with them," Harris said. "I liked the Chargers defense." 

    Strike two. 

    According to Jerry McDonald of the Bay Area News Group, the Raiders engaged in talks with the Detroit Lions about Slay, but team brass deemed the price too high.

    The Eagles executed the deal for Slay, while the Raiders took a third strike on their pursuit of the market's top corners.

    Vegas signed cornerback Eli Apple, but as Tafur points out, the 24-year-old isn't a lock to start opposite Trayvon Mullen. The Raiders will kick the tires on the 2016 first-rounder to see if he can steady his play after five inconsistent seasons.

    Based on the Raiders' push for the biggest free-agent cornerbacks, they're in play for a top prospect at the position, with first-round picks at Nos. 12 and 19.

    Like Mullen (6'1", 199 lbs and 31-inch arms), a 2019 second-rounder, C.J. Henderson has the length and athleticism the Raiders covet in their cornerbacks. At 6'1", 204 pounds, with 31-inch arms, the Florida prospect seems like a solid fit. He also ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash, which would help the secondary against the Kansas City Chiefs' high-powered offense, which features speedy wideout Tyreek Hill.    

Los Angeles Chargers in Position to Draft a Quarterback at No. 6

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    Quarterback Justin Herbert
    Quarterback Justin HerbertTony Avelar/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Chargers moved on from Rivers and reportedly support Tyrod Taylor as the starter over any veterans available via trade or on the market, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.

    During the 2015 and 2016 seasons, Taylor worked with head coach Anthony Lynn when the latter served in various coaching roles with the Buffalo Bills. In that two-year stretch, the 30-year-old signal-caller threw for 6,058 yards, 37 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

    The Chargers strengthened their offensive line, trading tackle Russell Okung to the Carolina Panthers for five-time Pro Bowl guard Trai Turner and signing tackle Bryan Bulaga. The front office used the franchise tag on tight end Hunter Henry, added cornerback Chris Harris Jr. to a top-five pass defense and signed interior tackle Linval Joseph to bolster the defensive front. 

    Los Angeles made moves to balance the roster and help Taylor succeed, but ESPN's Eric D. Williams mentioned the team's focus on quarterback prospects in February.

    "The Chargers will attempt to find someone in this year's draft to fill the huge leadership void left by Rivers' absence and to compete for the starting job with Taylor," Williams wrote. 

    Although the Chargers seem confident in Taylor's ability to run the offense, he may be a placeholder for an incoming prospect.

    General manager Tom Telesco addressed pressing offensive line needs and kept a quality pass-catcher in the fold. If tackle Trey Pipkins, a 2019 third-rounder, is in the mix to push for a starting spot, Los Angeles doesn't have any glaring holes on the roster.

    Assuming the Cincinnati Bengals take Burrow with the first pick, Telesco could use the sixth overall selection to take Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert or Jordan Love to carry the torch after Taylor or compete with him next season.

    Tagovailoa has an accurate arm, completing 69.3 percent of his passes through three years at Alabama, and great mobility in the pocket. Nonetheless, he could sit out his rookie season while recovering from hip surgery. Herbert has a strong arm and the ability to evade pressure. Love needs to work on anticipatory throws, but he can find receivers on short, intermediate and deep passes with accuracy. 

Minnesota Vikings Have a Need at Wide Receiver After Trading Stefon Diggs

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    Buffalo Bills wideout Stefon Diggs
    Buffalo Bills wideout Stefon DiggsBrett Duke/Associated Press

    Following a cryptic tweet March 16, Stefon Diggs was involved in a blockbuster deal that sent him to the Buffalo Bills. According to the Minnesota Vikings' official website, the team received first-, fifth-, and sixth-round picks along with a 2021 fourth-rounder for the five-year wideout, who led the team in receiving yards (1,130) last season.

    Even though the Vikings saw Olabisi Johnson contribute in a starting role last year, the team needs a high-end playmaker to take pressure off Adam Thielen, who could see a lot of double-coverage looks next season.

    Johnson, a 2019 seventh-rounder, caught 31 passes for 294 yards, but the Vikings will likely fill Diggs' old spot with one of their first-round picks at Nos. 22 or 25.

    With a strong group of wide receiver prospects available, Minnesota can snag one and groom him into a quality contributor.

    Justin Jefferson has an appealing size (6'1", 202 lbs) and speed (4.43-second 40-yard dash) combination and had a breakout 2019 at LSU, registering 111 receptions for 1,540 yards and 18 touchdowns. If general manager Rick Spielman wants a big-bodied possession receiver and viable red-zone target, Tee Higgins (6'4", 216 lbs) fits the bill. He caught 25 touchdown passes over the last two seasons at Clemson.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers Need to Build Around QB Tom Brady

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    Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady
    Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom BradyCharles Krupa/Associated Press

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed prized free agent quarterback Tom Brady. On paper, he'll step into a top-three offense that racked up the most passing yards, even with quarterback Jameis Winston's inconsistent play. The 26-year-old threw 33 touchdowns and 30 interceptions last season.

    Brady hasn't thrown more than 14 interceptions in a single campaign. Because of his efficiency, he won't likely become a turnover-prone signal-caller with Pro Bowl wideouts Mike Evans and Chris Godwin in tow. O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate aren't Rob Gronkowski, but the tight ends combined for 70 receptions, 770 yards and five touchdowns last year.

    Nonetheless, the Buccaneers shouldn't expect Brady to win shootouts every week to compensate for a leaky defense. The 42-year-old needs to preserve his arm for the long haul.

    Last year, the Buccaneers invested six out of eight draft picks into their defense, but the unit ranked 29th in points allowed. Even if 2019 picks Devin White, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean and Mike Edwards make significant sophomores strides, the club needs reinforcements in case that group takes a step back or suffers injuries. 

    Furthermore, the Buccaneers have yet to re-sign interior tackle Ndamukong Suh. Perhaps general manager Jason Licht will use the 14th pick on a less costly replacement. 

    Brady can't find his receivers downfield if he's on his back. In 2019, Tampa Bay's offensive line ranked 22nd in pass protection, per Football Outsiders. Tackle Demar Dotson's contract expired. He's still available on the open market but turns 35 years old in October. The front office signed tackle Joe Haeg, but he served as a backup with the Colts last year. 

    The Buccaneers can take a deep dive into the rookie tackle group and land a top-five player at the position. Andrew Thomas, a 6'5", 315-pounder out of Georgia, could fall out of the top 10. He's not fluid on foot, but the 21-year-old can plow over defenders and possibly benefit from a move to the right side.

                     

    All signings and extensions via Spotrac.