5 Predictions for NFL's Early Free-Agent Cycle

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistFebruary 26, 2021

5 Predictions for NFL's Early Free-Agent Cycle

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    Steve Luciano/Associated Press

    The approach of the NFL's legal tampering window ahead of free agency means some shocking developments could be in store. 

    One year ago, some of the bigger stories around that time were easy to see coming, such as the Miami Dolphins making Byron Jones one of football's highest-paid cornerbacks or the Indianapolis Colts getting Philip Rivers. Others, not so much—like the Houston Texans trading DeAndre Hopkins. 

    This year figures to be more of the same with headliners like Dak Prescott leading heavyweight names. Some shockers will happen, and so will some more obvious deals that still register as surprising because of the sheer money involved, even during a year with a reduced salary cap. 

    These are five predictions for that early tampering window and official market opening this offseason.

Washington Breaks the Bank for Allen Robinson II

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    One of the more obvious items on the offseason checklist would seem to be Washington gunning for a big-name wideout to pair with breakout star Terry McLaurin. 

    The Washington Football Team sits with the eighth-most projected cap space at $31.6 million and once again didn't get much after McLaurin on the receiving charts. He finished with 1,118 yards while the next receiver couldn't top 500. 

    It feels like more a matter of who than if for Washington as it looks to build around a question mark of a quarterback position in an NFC East that just sent the team to the playoffs with seven wins. 

    Presuming the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lock down Chris Godwin, the answer is likely Allen Robinson II, a No. 1 wideout who turns 28 in August and is coming off consecutive 1,100-plus-yard seasons. A bidding war likely puts Robinson's price near the $20 million average annual value Amari Cooper got in Dallas, though it will be money well spent for a Washington team that routinely makes big plays in free agency.

Joe Thuney Becomes NFL's Highest-Paid Guard

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    A needy team is about to make Joe Thuney a very, very well-paid offensive lineman. 

    Thuney, a third-round pick in 2016, played last year under the franchise tag and provided more of the same for the New England Patriots. He graded 74.2 at Pro Football Focus, allowing just two sacks and getting called for three penalties. 

    That superb production was right in line with his usual numbers, like his zero-penalty and one-sack performance over 1,140 snaps in 2019. The next top guard always seems to reset the market, and Thuney won't be any different, so he's looking at a little more than Zack Martin's $14 million AAV in Dallas with his next team. 

    Arguably no franchise is needier and in a position to pay up for Thuney than the Cincinnati Bengals. The team has $43.4 million in free cap space, fifth-most in football, and will welcome back No. 1 pick Joe Burrow on a reconstructed knee after failing him as a rookie, as he suffered 32 sacks over 10 games. 

    While the fit might seem obvious, normally conservative Cincinnati breaking the bank for the second offseason in a row (D.J. Reader and Trae Waynes last year) would go down as quite the shocker.

J.J. Watt Goes Ring-Chasing with Pittsburgh

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    Matt Patterson/Associated Press

    J.J. Watt could technically sign with a team right now. 

    But the 2011 first-rounder and three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year is taking his sweet time with his first foray into free agency. He's even suggested as much on social media to fans. 

    Of course, Watt is the type of player who can afford to wait and doesn't need to get ahead of the market once the floodgates open. He might be 31 years old and slowing down, but "slowing down" is completely relative when it comes to Watt. Last season, he was still wildly productive with an 85.4 PFF grade, registering five sacks, two forced fumbles and 29 pressures

    While Watt could go to a glitzy would-be contender like Cleveland or Tennessee, what makes the most sense is a feel-good team-up with his brother T.J. in Pittsburgh. The Steelers will likely sort out any cap issues via contract creativity with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and it's easy to forget the team won 12 games last year despite bowing out in the AFC Wild Card Round. Swapping out franchise player Bud Dupree for Watt in the front seven would make plenty of sense, too. 

    Presuming Watt doesn't want to break the bank while pursuing a title, Pittsburgh's front seven would get an incredible boost, to say the least.

Shaquil Barrett Becomes NFL's Second-Highest-Paid Pass-Rusher

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    Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

    Speaking of feel-good stories, Shaquil Barrett of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is one of the NFL's best. 

    Barrett fought through his undrafted status over five seasons in Denver before landing a one-year, prove-it deal in 2019 with Tampa Bay worth $4 million. He erupted with 19.5 sacks, earning a franchise tag, and then posted another eight while lifting the Buccaneers to the Super Bowl this year. 

    While Barrett's tally in the sack column understandably regressed back to something normal, he still put up 42 pressures compared to 51 the year prior. Teams won't put too much stock in a single number, not for a 28-year-old pass-rusher in the middle of his prime. 

    Tampa Bay, 11th in projected cap space before likely restructures or pay cuts by big names to keep the championship core together, shouldn't let Barrett get away. But he's got no reason to settle for less than what a bidding war might produce, so look for him to earn roughly $26 million AAV, just below Joey Bosa's $27 million AAV.

Dak Prescott Earns a Second Franchise Tag with Cowboys

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Free agency's biggest fish would appear to have all the leverage. 

    Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys haven't been on the same page when it comes to an extension for years now. The star quarterback's season-ending injury in 2020 proved just how desperately the Cowboys need him back for the long term while the team sputtered with Andy Dalton et al., under center. 

    But time has passed the Cowboys by, with names like Deshaun Watson resetting the quarterback market. Watson is second behind the ridiculous 10-year, $450 million deal Kansas City gave Patrick Mahomes. He's the new gold standard at four years and a $39 million AAV. 

    For context, the Dallas Morning News' Calvin Watkins reported last March that the Cowboys offered a $33 million AAV on an extension, and Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk reported in June that one of the big hang-ups in talks was that Prescott wanted four years, not five. 

    With Dallas sitting on just $16.3 million in free cap space and plenty of defensive problems to fix, a long-term extension that moves cap hits around would be in the team's best interest. But Prescott doesn't have to settle, which could lead to a second tag at a cap hit of $37.7 million.