Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NFL prohibited in-person free-agency visits, and now there are more big-name veterans still searching for work as we near summer than in any year in recent memory.
The pandemic isn't the only reason running back Devonta Freeman doesn't have a new team—he reportedly already turned down at least one offer. But for the 28-year-old, a "prove it" deal is as good as things are going to get.
And contending teams with holes in their backfields should be prepared to sweeten the pot a little if it means having the chance to add a running back who not that long ago was a consistent producer as a runner and receiver.
That offer Freeman turned down, per Michael Silver of NFL Network, was a one-year pact with the Seattle Seahawks worth up to $4 million. The Seahawks moved on to sign Carlos Hyde, so that door closed for good.
But the Tampa Bay Buccaneers reportedly may get involved. Head coach Bruce Arians indicated the team would be interested in signing Freeman "if his price tag was reasonable," Jon Ledyard of Pewter Report wrote.
Ledyard reported Arians said Freeman is "asking for a lot of money, and we don't have a lot of money."
For his part, Freeman said that if the Buccaneers are serious, they should contact him.
After six years with the Atlanta Falcons, Freeman was released in March. He had signed a five-year, $41.3 million extension in 2017 that made him the highest-paid back in the NFL. That contract included $22 million in guarantees. In May, Silver reported Freeman was willing to sit out the 2020 season if he doesn't get what he considers a fair offer.
That report led to speculation that Freeman might retire, which Freeman denied. But as things stand, there appears to be a considerable gap between what Freeman believes he's worth and what teams are willing to pay.
Unless Freeman really is willing to sit out the season (a move that will probably hurt his stock more than help it), he's going to have to lower his asking price—for a couple of reasons.
The first (and biggest) is that we haven't seen the Freeman who earned that contract extension in a while. Freeman was a Pro Bowler in 2015 and 2016, topping 1,000 rushing yards and 1,500 total yards each year. He tied for the league lead with 11 rushing touchdowns in 2015. But Freeman hasn't reached even 900 yards on the ground since 2016. In 2018, injuries cost him 14 games. Last year, he averaged a career-low 3.6 yards per carry.
The second reason is a financial matter. Running backs who get big contracts are much more exception than rule in 2020. Freeman's replacement in Atlanta, Todd Gurley, signed a one-year, $5.5 million deal—and he's two-plus years younger and led the league in rushing touchdowns in two of the past three seasons.
The likelihood that a better offer than Seattle's is going to come along isn't good. After Freeman's two down seasons, teams aren't willing to make a significant financial investment in him. His career is at a crossroads—if he wants to avoid becoming yet another chapter in the cautionary tale of the brief careers of professional running backs, he has to prove he can still get the job done.
That means a short-term, modest contract. A "prove it" deal. It's certainly not an ideal situation from Freeman's perspective, but if a long-term or lucrative offer was going to come, it already would have.
Yes, Freeman's last two seasons haven't been especially impressive. But even in that down 2019 campaign, he still topped 1,000 total yards for the fourth time in five seasons—largely because he topped 50 receptions for the third time. In his career, Freeman has averaged a respectable 4.2 yards per carry. And while his whiff on a blocking assignment led to what might have been the single biggest play of Super Bowl LI, he's a capable pass protector.
Freeman is well-rounded, and there are teams that can most assuredly use him—especially if they feel like a playoff run is a possibility.
The aforementioned Buccaneers didn't have a player rush for even 725 yards in 2019. Ronald Jones II has shown flashes, and the Bucs added Ke'Shawn Vaughn in the draft. But neither is a proven option—especially in blitz pickup.
That could be rather important with Tom Brady in town.
The Philadelphia Eagles have a promising young back in Miles Sanders. But there's not a lot behind him on the depth chart—which may be why there has been speculation that the Eagles are interested in Freeman.
The San Francisco 49ers have Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman and Jerick McKinnon. But McKinnon hasn't played since he joined the team in 2018, and Freeman enjoyed his greatest success under Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta in 2015 and 2016.
Each of those three teams makes a measure of sense for Freeman. And he makes sense for them. There are fringe contenders such as the Chicago Bears that could use more depth in the backfield. Ditto for rebuilding teams like the Miami Dolphins.
But the Buccaneers, Eagles and 49ers would at least provide Freeman a silver lining of sorts for having to take less money: an opportunity to play in a second Super Bowl while reestablishing his NFL stock.
There's no state income tax in Florida, either. Just saying.
This is a chance for a squad with aspirations of playing in Tampa on Feb. 7 to add talent and depth to its backfield. A chance to make the sort of signing that can save a season if an injury happens or put a running game over the top if it doesn't.
Now it's just a matter of finding a figure everyone can agree on.