Dark-Horse Destinations for NFL's Biggest Free Agents
NFL free agency always seems to feature a few surprises.
A year ago, it was easy to see a rebuilder like the Miami Dolphins spending big on a cornerback like Byron Jones. But not many expected the normally frugal Cincinnati Bengals to make D.J. Reader the highest-paid nose tackle in football.
Free agency figures to offer unexpected turns once again this offseason. While some of the market's top players, such as Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, will have predictable destinations, the same can't be said for all of the top names.
Some aren't necessarily in danger of receiving franchise tags. They could end up in dark-horse destinations depending on a team's cap room, their fit on the squad and misconceptions about what they and/or their organization wants once the market opens.
Cam Newton, QB
Dark-horse destination: New England Patriots
With Dallas expected to re-sign Prescott and Philip Rivers likely retiring or re-upping with the Indianapolis Colts for a single season, all eyes are on Cam Newton at the quarterback spot.
Newton signed with the Patriots in June and started 15 games in 2020, completing 65.8 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He added another 592 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground.
At first glance, Newton seems unlikely to be back at Gillette Stadium. ESPN's Mike Reiss put the odds at "25 percent," and the 31-year-old quarterback has fielded questions about signing as a backup somewhere.
But Newton is arguably the best of the available free-agent passers this offseason, and the Patriots sit 15th in the draft order, well out of range of the top prospects.
Head coach Bill Belichick and Co. might end up liking the idea of bringing back the 2015 league MVP, who has a year of experience in their system—especially if Newton doesn't have a ton of starting opportunities elsewhere.
Allen Robinson II, WR
Dark-horse destination: Washington Football Team
Allen Robinson II has been a marvel of a player considering the miserable quarterback situations he's faced since he entered the league in 2014.
Take his 2020 season with the Chicago Bears: He caught 67.5 percent of his targets for 1,250 yards and six touchdowns while dealing with the combination of Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles under center. Before his days in the Windy City, he played four years in Jacksonville while mostly catching passes from Blake Bortles.
One might think Robinson will want to seek a better quarterback situation. Or at least go to a team like the Miami Dolphins or Los Angeles Chargers, who have up-and-coming passers in Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert, respectively.
But Robinson might be interested in inking a big contract with a rebuilding squad with a question mark under center as he heads into his age-28 campaign. Think the Washington Football Team, a franchise that is projected to have top-five cap space and has a desperate need to get No. 1 wideout Terry McLaurin a running mate.
It isn't often top-tier free agents go to D.C., but playing for a coach like Ron Rivera could be appealing.
Aaron Jones, RB
Dark-horse destination: New York Jets
Aaron Jones isn't a lock to re-up with the Green Bay Packers this offseason.
Green Bay, after all, ranks 29th in projected cap space at $24.4 million over the cap. That leaves wiggle room for a team to swoop in and make Jones one of the highest-paid backs in football.
And Jones would deserve it. Over his first four seasons in the league, he's rushed for 3,364 yards and 37 touchdowns while averaging 5.2 yards per carry. He's also caught 131 passes as one of the most dynamic players in the game.
But the running back position is never predictable. Remember last offseason, when Melvin Gordon III had to settle for a short deal on a Denver Broncos team that already had Phillip Lindsay as its lead back?
Luckily for Jones, he's quite a bit more dynamic, and a team would be happy to have him as a workhorse back, including a rebuilder like the Jets, who won two games in 2020 and are looking for a head coach after the firing of Adam Gase. They are also expected to have the second-most cap space in the league at $62.9 million and need to improve their 23rd-ranked rushing attack.
The Jets were burnt after paying up for Le'Veon Bell in March 2019, and Jones might prefer a squad with a serious chance of contending next year. But both parties might be willing to take a chance to see what they get in return.
Hunter Henry, TE
Dark-horse destination: Green Bay Packers
At one point, Hunter Henry looked like the next big name at tight end, scoring 12 touchdowns over his first two seasons.
This past year, though, Henry played on the franchise tag and only hauled in 60 of his 93 targets over 14 games, amassing 613 yards and four touchdowns. Those aren't terrible numbers, but Henry hasn't matched his pre-injury production and efficiency after missing all of 2018.
It's hard not to wonder what he might be able to do in a more explosive offense.
It might seem like the Chargers will do whatever it takes to retain Henry for the sake of Justin Herbert's development, but Henry has negotiating leverage because teams don't generally like to apply a second tag to players given the cost.
The Packers might want to take advantage. Green Bay has a negative cap space, but moves like cuts, restructured contracts and possibly losing Aaron Jones will help create room. Robert Tonyan was the team's leading tight end with 586 yards and 11 touchdowns this season. The 6'5", 250-pound Henry is more dynamic and would allow Green Bay to utilize two-tight end sets with Aaron Rodgers under center.
While Henry might seem destined to stay put, the upside could be hard for both parties to ignore.
Brandon Scherff, OL
Dark-horse destination: Cincinnati Bengals
Washington Football Team guard Brandon Scherff is one of the biggest names headed for free agency this offseason, especially with Trent Williams expected to stay with the San Francisco 49ers.
Scherff has been good, if not criminally underrated for years in Washington, and the team hit him with the franchise tag last offseason.
In fact, the 29-year-old has never registered a Pro Football Focus grade lower than 72.5, recording a career-high 84.1 this season.
The fifth pick in the 2015 draft is so good and the league is so starved for quality offensive linemen that Scherff could seemingly have his pick of teams on the open market. That means his dark-horse squad would have to be one that doesn't usually spend big.
On that front, the Bengals come to mind. Cincinnati has the sixth-most projected cap space this offseason and has a dramatic need at guard, with franchise quarterback Joe Burrow working his way back from reconstructive knee surgery. It can use its fifth overall pick in 2021 on an offensive tackle to address that hole.
Should the Bengals break out of their conservative shell once more, Scherff could be the big beneficiary.
Shaquil Barrett, Edge
Dark-horse destination: Jacksonville Jaguars
Of the defensive pressure creators set to hit free agency, Shaquil Barrett is by far the wild card.
Barrett turned a one-year deal worth $4 million with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers into a $15.8 million franchise tag after recording a league-high 19.5 sacks in 2019. He predictably regressed in 2020 with eight sacks over 15 games, yet he put up 41 pressures, just 10 fewer than the prior season.
It could make sense for Barrett to sign a multiyear deal with Tampa. But while the Buccaneers have a top-seven projected cap mark, that only checks in at $28.2 million.
A team like the Jacksonville Jaguars—with a league-leading $77.4 million in projected space—could swoop in and outbid the rest of the market. It's the type of gamble a team picking first overall won't mind as it looks to rebuild its 31st-ranked defense while taking on what should be a first-round rookie contract at quarterback.
In Jacksonville, Barrett could continue to play the hybrid role where he stands up and can drop into coverage often when he's not applying pressure. It'd be a win for both parties.