0 of 32
Rob Carr/Getty Images
We’re a little more than a month away from the frenzy, and the buzz is already growing.
This time around, we give you the opposite.
These 32 players are keepers.
1 of 32
Rick Scuteri/Associated Press
The jury might still be out on Arizona Cardinals left tackle D.J. Humphries, who has yet to make a Pro Bowl five years into his career. But the 2015 first-round pick turned 26 just a few weeks ago, and he’s coming off his first 16-start campaign.
Is he finally turning a corner after injuries plagued him in 2017 and 2018? He took 13 penalties but was responsible for only two sacks in 2019, according to Pro Football Focus. And at a high-demand position, he’s flashed enough to earn more time in Arizona.
Continuity is also critical for a team that is trying to make life as easy as possible on young quarterback Kyler Murray. With veteran offensive linemen Marcus Gilbert and A.Q. Shipley also scheduled to hit free agency, the Cards should at least pay up for Humphries on the blind side.
2 of 32
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
It doesn’t appear the Atlanta Falcons are confident they can re-sign emerging tight end Austin Hooper.
“I think he’s a young, ascending player, and he has performed at a very high level for us,” owner Arthur Blank told ESPN’s Vaughn McClure during Super Bowl week. “I think he’s worthy, certainly, of a new contract based on market. Whether that fits in with us and our salary cap remains to be seen.”
That’s not surprising because Atlanta is projected to possess very little cap space entering the offseason, but the Falcons would be hard-pressed to replace Hooper in the passing game. Despite missing three games, the 25-year-old established new career highs with 75 catches, 787 yards and six touchdowns in a Pro Bowl 2019 campaign. And there are no viable in-house candidates to replace him.
The good news: While Atlanta has already announced that it won’t bring back edge defender Vic Beasley Jr., it has yet to rule out a potential Hooper return.
3 of 32
Todd Olszewski/Getty Images
The Baltimore Ravens had the NFL’s best record in 2019, but 20 teams registered more sacks, 18 recorded higher sack rates and 17 had better adjusted sack rates at Football Outsiders. Now, the only player on the roster who compiled more than five sacks—Matthew Judon—is on track to hit the open market.
The 27-year-old will be expensive following a breakout season in which he amassed 33 quarterback hits (only three players in the league had more), 9.5 sacks and four forced fumbles, but the Ravens can’t afford to lose him as he ascends.
Baltimore survived the loss of key defensive players Za’Darius Smith, C.J. Mosley and Terrell Suggs last offseason, but the front office would be pushing it if it let Judon walk. With no other established, top-notch pass-rushers on the roster, he should be given priority over fellow impending free agents Patrick Onwuasor, Michael Pierce and Jimmy Smith.
4 of 32
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images
The Buffalo Bills’ top two 2019 sack artists, Jordan Phillips and Shaq Lawson, are both on track to hit free agency in March. While Phillips led the team with 9.5 sacks (compared to 6.5 for Lawson), the latter player should be a bigger priority entering the offseason.
That’s because the Bills, who already have Star Lotulelei and Ed Oliver at defensive tackle, are a lot less secure on the edge. The 25-year-old Lawson has yet to fully live up to expectations as a 2016 first-round pick, but his 6.5 sacks and 18 quarterback hits in 2019 were both career highs. And the team’s other two regular defensive ends—Jerry Hughes and Trent Murphy—are 31 and 29, respectively.
Those two have peaked, while Lawson continues to have growth potential. His ceiling remains high after his best season yet, and it would be silly for the Bills to give up on a player who cost them considerable draft currency just a few years ago.
5 of 32
Grant Halverson/Getty Images
The Carolina Panthers might be on the verge of a rebuild, so there’s no pressure to bring back any of their veteran impending free agents. But they still need to field a decent football team, and there are young and talented players on the roster who could be key cogs whenever they’re competitive again.
One such player is cornerback James Bradberry, who hasn’t fully come through as a 2016 second-round pick but recorded a career-high three interceptions along with 12 passes defensed as a starter in 2019.
The 26-year-old has missed just four starts in four NFL seasons. He has the size and strength to continue to develop and has a star-level ceiling. He won’t be a cheap re-sign, but with fellow corners Ross Cockrell and Javien Elliott also set to hit free agency, they have to find a way to bring back Bradberry.
6 of 32
Rob Leiter/Getty Images
It would really hurt the Chicago Bears if they lost both Danny Trevathan and Nick Kwiatkoski at the linebacker position, but with Kevin Pierre-Louis and Roquan Smith also on the roster, they can afford to let one of those two get away.
They don’t have the same luxury with impending free agent Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at safety.
Eddie Jackson is a star, but they lost Adrian Amos in free agency last offseason, and 2016 fourth-round pick Deon Bush hasn’t emerged. Clinton-Dix delivered on a one-year prove-it contract in 2019 with 78 tackles, a pair of picks, a defensive touchdown and five passes defensed in 16 starts. Now the Bears will have to prioritize the 27-year-old former Green Bay Packers Pro Bowler.
That won’t be easy considering their potential cap crunch, but this is an experienced, talented roster, and they can’t take another step backward in the secondary.
7 of 32
Will Newton/Getty Images
The Cincinnati Bengals are so far from contending that nobody will blame them for letting go of older impending free agents like A.J. Green, Darqueze Dennard and Tyler Eifert. But defensive tackle Andrew Billings has yet to celebrate his 25th birthday, and he’s shown enough promise in his first few seasons to merit a second contract in Cincy.
The 2016 fourth-round pick has started 30 games alongside superstar Geno Atkins the last two seasons. His numbers (67 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 11 quarterback hits) in that span aren’t epic, but he’s a huge run-stuffer who eats up space and appears to be on the right trajectory after entering the league raw and then losing his rookie season to a knee injury.
Atkins turns 32 next month, and the Bengals don’t have any other Day 1 or Day 2 draft picks at the defensive tackle position. They have the cap space to retain Billings, so they should do exactly that.
8 of 32
Kirk Irwin/Getty Images
For the Cleveland Browns, this was basically a tie between safety Damarious Randall and linebacker Joe Schobert, both of whom are integral members of the defense.
In 26 starts at safety, Randall has four interceptions, 2.5 sacks, 146 tackles and 15 passes defensed. The 2015 first-round pick of the Packers might never become a Pro Bowl-caliber player, but he’s a solid starter who at least has a Pro Bowl-level ceiling at the age of 27.
Considering that 31-year-old Morgan Burnett is battling back from a torn Achilles, a Browns team that traded away Jabrill Peppers last offseason can’t let Randall leave as a free agent in March. He’s the only established, healthy safety remaining on the roster, and the talented Browns are in win-now mode.
But they do have plenty of salary-cap space, and they could replace Randall with an even better impending free agent like Justin Simmons of the Denver Broncos.
Replacing Schobert could be tougher. He’s arguably the heart and soul of the defense, and at 26, he’s slightly younger than Randall. The 2017 Pro Bowler is coming off a four-pick, 133-tackle season, and he’s missed just three games since becoming a starter in 2017.
There also isn’t an off-ball linebacker on track to hit free agency who is as good as Schobert, and the Browns have practically no other experience at the position.
9 of 32
Tom Pennington/Getty Images
No controversy here. Quarterback Dak Prescott has yet to become a superstar for the Dallas Cowboys, but he’s a 26-year-old two-time Pro Bowler who has 97 career touchdown passes to 36 interceptions. Even if you argue he’s not yet a franchise quarterback (whatever that means), the potential is certainly there.
You don’t give up on a player with that profile at the most important position in the game.
It won’t be easy for Dallas to re-sign or place the franchise tag on Prescott, star wide receiver Amari Cooper and top corner Byron Jones, but Prescott has to take priority. The Cowboys don’t rely on him too heavily, but he hasn’t missed a start in his four-year career, and they’d be in significant trouble if he got away.
10 of 32
Dustin Bradford/Getty Images
The Denver Broncos might lose expensive, aging cornerback Chris Harris Jr. in the secondary, and the only starting-caliber safety on the roster not named Justin Simmons is soon-to-be 32-year-old Kareem Jackson.
Under those circumstances, they have to bring back the 26-year-old Simmons, who broke out with four interceptions, 15 passes defensed and the second-best Pro Football Focus coverage grade at the safety position in 2019.
The 2016 third-round pick now has 11 picks in his four-year career, and he should have been a Pro Bowler this season. He’ll be in high demand as a result, but the Broncos are projected to enter the offseason with nearly $60 million in cap space.
If they don’t get a deal done soon, they have to use the franchise tag.
11 of 32
Paul Sancya/Associated Press
We promise we’re not getting a check from the NFL Safeties Association, but the Detroit Lions also should prioritize an impending free-agent safety over all other players slated to hit the open market in the Motor City.
In this case, it’s veteran Tavon Wilson, who ranked second on the team with 92 tackles in another strong season as both a cover man and a run defender.
He’ll be on the wrong side of 30 in 2020, and it’s arguably only a matter of time before youngsters Will Harris and Tracy Walker supplant him in the secondary. But with Quandre Diggs gone, Wilson is the only substantially accomplished safety on the roster.
The Lions need that experience.
12 of 32
Frederick Breedon/Getty Images
Experienced, high-quality offensive tackles so rarely hit the open market that the Green Bay Packers can’t afford to risk letting Bryan Bulaga get away.
The 10-year veteran will soon be 31, but Green Bay doesn’t have any obvious potential heirs apparent at either tackle position. This team is trying to remain competitive in a championship window that could be closing quickly. While Bulaga isn’t a superstar, he’s a reliable pass- and run-blocker who has worked closely with Aaron Rodgers for much of Rodgers’ career.
Bulaga has missed just two starts the last two years and has served as a steady starter since 2010.
It’d be nice if the Packers could upgrade and get younger by instead signing impending free agent Jack Conklin, but general manager Brian Gutekunst has already said the team will be more restricted on the open market this offseason.
The least they can do is make sure Bulaga returns to the right tackle spot.
13 of 32
Rob Leiter/Getty Images
The most important defensive player on the Houston Texans roster is no longer defensive end J.J. Watt, who will soon turn 31 and has missed 32 games the last four seasons because of injury. It’s also not Whitney Mercilus or Benardrick McKinney, both of whom are highly-touted and highly-paid linebackers. The former is about to hit 30, and the latter isn’t enough of a playmaker.
No, the most important Houston Texans defender is defensive tackle D.J. Reader. He continues to fly under the radar despite the fact he’s been a top-notch starter for three years and is coming off a breakout season in which he recorded 2.5 sacks and 13 quarterback hits.
The 2016 fifth-round pick is still only 25 years old, and in 2019 he was named to the PFF All-Pro second team.
Houston is a contending team that had the league’s seventh-worst defense in terms of DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) at Football Outsiders last season. It would have a lot of trouble surviving the loss of a critical defensive player like Reader.
14 of 32
Joe Sargent/Getty Images
The Indianapolis Colts like to stay out of the free-agent circus and take care of their own, which is why there’s little doubt they’ll try to bring back impending free-agent left tackle Anthony Castonzo.
After all, Castonzo has been manning the blind side in Indianapolis since 2011, and he’s a key member of one of the league’s best offensive lines. We all know how critical continuity is to the success of an offensive line, especially when there’s some shakiness at the quarterback position.
There’s no reason a team loaded with salary-cap space wouldn’t re-sign the 31-year-old. But while that’s a no-brainer considering there’s no obvious heir apparent on the roster, it appears there’s a chance Castonzo could retire this offseason.
That would make life a lot more difficult for an offense that continues to struggle in the post-Andrew Luck era.
15 of 32
James Gilbert/Getty Images
The cap-strapped Jacksonville Jaguars won’t be able to improve much on the free-agent market and will likely struggle to keep most of their notable in-house free agents. But Jacksonville has to find a way to bring back its only game-changing impending free agent, defensive end Yannick Ngakoue.
It won’t be easy considering the cap crunch, but the bleeding has to stop. The Jags’ formerly vaunted defense ranked 29th in DVOA in 2019, and it’d be a lot worse off without Ngakoue.
The 2017 Pro Bowler is still only 24 years old, and he’s recorded at least eight sacks in each of his first four NFL campaigns. He’s also forced 14 fumbles in 63 career games (only three players have more in that span).
How can the Jags make it happen? They can save $15 million by parting ways with Calais Campbell ahead of his age-34 season, they’ll save $20 million when they inevitably cut a fading Marcell Dareus, and they can pocket nearly $17 million more if they move on from A.J. Bouye and Marqise Lee.
At this point, Ngakoue is more important than all four of those guys.
16 of 32
Steve Luciano/Associated Press
This might be the easiest blurb of my sportswriting career. The Kansas City Chiefs almost certainly wouldn’t have won Super Bowl LIV without Chris Jones, and they’ll be a lot less likely to repeat if they let one of the game’s best defensive tackles escape on the open market.
Jones was a Pro Bowler in 2019, and he’s a year removed from a 15.5-sack season as an interior defensive lineman. The Chiefs defense often looked helpless when he was dealing with a groin injury midway through the season, and it was at its best when he returned to form down the stretch. An argument could also be made that he deserved to be Super Bowl MVP after tearing it up in Miami on Sunday night.
The Chiefs would probably love another year with Terrell Suggs, and they’d probably prefer to avoid having to replace cornerbacks Bashaud Breeland and Kendall Fuller. But if they re-sign or tag Jones, it’ll be a satisfactory offseason regardless of what happens with the rest of those guys.
17 of 32
Daniel Shirey/Getty Images
Daryl Worley has yet to emerge as a star for the Raiders, but the Carolina Panthers’ 2016 third-round pick is coming off his steadiest season yet in coverage. He struggled at times early and late in the year but went a long stretch without giving up many big plays in October and November.
He’s still only 24, and with great size, speed and athleticism, it’s easy to imagine he can become a strong No. 1 corner in the coming years.
The Raiders obviously have a lot of hope for 2019 second-round pick Trayvon Mullen at that position, but with Gareon Conley gone, the vision for the future would be for Mullen and Worley to work outside while Lamarcus Joyner holds things down in the slot.
The Raiders surrendered a tied-for-league-worst 8.3 yards per pass attempt and an AFC-worst 103.8 passer rating last year, and their pass defense ranked 30th in DVOA. With his growth potential, letting Worley go would be silly.
18 of 32
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
This is arguably more interesting for who isn’t listed. As they begin a new era at a new venue, it’s time for the Los Angeles Chargers to move on from big-name impending free agents Philip Rivers and Melvin Gordon III at quarterback and running back, respectively.
Rivers’ play fell off a cliff in his age-38 season, and after a 20-interception campaign in which his passer rating declined by 17 points from 2018, it’s fair to wonder if he’s got anything left. The Chargers might be better off with backup Tyrod Taylor in the short term, and they can draft a quarterback early with the No. 6 overall pick.
Gordon, who held out to start the 2019 campaign, averaged just 3.8 yards per carry in 12 games. He’s a two-time Pro Bowler, but he’s averaged more than 4.0 yards per attempt just once in five NFL seasons. With Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson already on the roster, there’s no point in keeping the soon-to-be 27-year-old.
Tight end Hunter Henry would be a lot tougher to replace. The 2016 second-round pick has experienced injury hiccups, but he’s still only 25 years old and coming off his best season yet with 55 catches for 652 yards (in just 12 games).
If the Chargers lose him, unless they sign Austin Hooper away from the Falcons, they get worse. It’s that simple.
19 of 32
Gregory Payan/Associated Press
The Los Angeles Rams are going to have to fight to bring back three key defensive players who are on the verge of hitting free agency. Dante Fowler Jr. is their top pass-rushing edge defender, Michael Brockers is their only accomplished defensive lineman not named Aaron Donald, and Cory Littleton is undoubtedly their best linebacker.
You could make a case for any of those three here, but Brockers will be 30 this season, and they might have something in 2018 sixth-round pick Sebastian Joseph-Day. Meanwhile, Donald’s presence takes a lot of pressure off Fowler, and they’ve at least got other options in Clay Matthews and Samson Ebukam on the edge.
There’s nobody to replace Littleton, who made the Pro Bowl in 2018, recorded a team-high 134 tackles in 2019 and has emerged as one of the best coverage linebackers in the NFL. The 26-year-old has five interceptions, 7.5 sacks, 259 tackles and 22 passes defensed since becoming a full-time starter in 2018.
That makes him franchise tag-worthy for the cap-strapped Rams.
20 of 32
Mark Brown/Getty Images
OK, we might be pushing it by suggesting that the Miami Dolphins need to re-sign impending free-agent linebacker Vince Biegel. The 26-year-old isn’t a bad player, but he’s essentially a journeyman who was a spare part on his third roster in as many seasons in 2019.
But there are no in-house free agents the rebuilding Dolphins truly need to bring back. Frankly, considering Aqib Talib’s age and J’Marcus Webb’s unbelievably poor play, Miami could forget about this entire free-agent class and nobody would complain.
But Biegel, who was a fourth-round pick by the Packers in 2017, had some promising moments in 2019. He wound up starting 10 games and recording 2.5 sacks and 13 quarterback hits. Now he’ll be a restricted free agent, but there’s some evidence he can play a role with the Dolphins for years to come.
They should at least hit him with a qualifying offer.
21 of 32
Sean Gardner/Getty Images
The Minnesota Vikings undoubtedly would like to bring back key defenders Everson Griffen and Anthony Harris, along with at least one of their two impending free-agent cornerbacks, Mackensie Alexander and Trae Waynes.
But all of their corners disappointed in 2019, and Griffen might be too expensive as a premium pass-rusher entering his age-33 season.
Thus, a team with practically no salary-cap space should prioritize Harris. The late-blooming free safety has nine interceptions in his last two seasons next to star Harrison Smith, he had the top PFF coverage grade among safeties in 2019, and his tackling is also excellent.
There aren’t any viable in-house candidates to replace him, with the best option probably 32-year-old Andrew Sendejo. Losing Harris would really hurt.
22 of 32
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
As he approaches his 43rd birthday, Tom Brady is toast. Re-signing him would be a fool’s errand for the New England Patriots.
Not only is he coming off a terrible season in which he averaged just 6.6 yards per attempt and saw the rest of his rate-based numbers plummet, but Jay Glazer of Fox Sports also reported last month that he won’t be offering the Pats a hometown discount this time around.
Bringing back Brady without said discount could prevent the Pats from re-signing key defensive free agents Devin McCourty, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins Sr. and Danny Shelton, and it would likely also inhibit their ability to bring in more offensive weapons. If so, Brady’s supporting cast will be even weaker in 2020 than it was in 2019.
What’s the point?
The Patriots would be better off spending less money on Philip Rivers, Teddy Bridgewater, Marcus Mariota or even Andy Dalton (if he becomes available) and then hoping Bill Belichick can work his magic.
Among the defensive players, the priority should go to Van Noy, who is 28 but barely saw the field in his first two seasons with the Lions. The 2014 second-round pick has since emerged as a reliable, versatile force in the New England linebacker corps.
23 of 32
Chris Graythen/Getty Images
While Brady appears to have hit a wall in New England, the same can’t yet be said of the New Orleans Saints’ quadragenarian quarterback, Drew Brees.
Brees, who like Brady is headed toward free agency, was still the NFC’s highest-rated qualified passer with a completion percentage of 74.3 and a 27-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2019. And he’s got a lot more support than Brady on offense.
Considering the Saints also don’t have as many key in-house free agents as New England and a lot of other teams, re-signing the 41-year-old legend should be a no-brainer for a team that doesn’t have many holes to fill either.
It’ll be pricey, but they have to swing the bat for at least one more year with Drew.
24 of 32
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
The New York Giants surrendered a 2020 third-round pick and a 2021 fifth-round pick to the New York Jets in exchange for defensive lineman Leonard Williams. While that’s now a sunk cost, the Giants would look silly if they let Williams walk just eight games after making that trade.
Besides, while many of the Giants’ in-house free agents are disposable because of their age (Mike Remmers, Michael Thomas) or because a rebuilding team with oodles of cap space can do better (Markus Golden, Cody Latimer), Williams has tremendous growth potential at the age of 25.
The 2015 No. 6 overall pick already has a Pro Bowl on his resume, and he performed well down the stretch in a fresh environment. In eight games with the G-Men, he recorded 11 quarterback hits, 26 tackles and a forced fumble.
The Giants have to double down on their investment and see if Williams can become a star alongside Dalvin Tomlinson, Dexter Lawrence and B.J. Hill.
25 of 32
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
An argument could be made that the New York Jets have to prioritize impending free-agent left tackle Kelvin Beachum over all other in-house free agents, mainly because the veteran has manned Sam Darnold’s blind side for the first two years of Darnold’s career and offensive line continuity is critical for a young quarterback.
But Beachum will be 31 this offseason, and the Jets could use one of their five Day 1 or Day 2 draft picks on a high-potential offensive tackle who would come a lot cheaper.
Instead, the focus should be on retaining Darnold’s top wide receiver, Robby Anderson.
Demaryius Thomas isn’t the same player he used to be now that he’s 32, Jamison Crowder plays mainly in the slot and Quincy Enunwa hasn’t been the same since suffering a neck injury in 2017. The Jets don’t have anyone else of note at wideout, and the 26-year-old Anderson has at least put together three consecutive 700-plus-yard seasons as part of a bad offense.
He’ll intrigue enough teams to command big bucks in free agency, but the Jets can outspend most of their competition, and they have the franchise tag in their back pocket. They should use it if need be.
26 of 32
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
This one involved more deliberation than any other choice on this list. The Philadelphia Eagles could justify prioritizing linebacker Nigel Bradham, who is easily the most skilled and accomplished player on the roster at that position. They could focus on safety Rodney McLeod, who performed well down the stretch and is a key player at a thin position that could become thinner if Malcolm Jenkins departs. Ronald Darby and Jordan Howard could get a lot of attention too.
But instead, we’re rolling with continually underrated cornerback Jalen Mills, who appears have the strong support of defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and has established himself as a uniquely feisty cover man. Mills has yet to turn 26, and while he’ll never be the most talented player in an NFL locker room, he’s got starting-caliber ability and leadership potential.
The Eagles seem to embrace players like that, which is why keeping Mills might make more sense than paying larger premiums for older players like Bradham (30) or McLeod (29), or less reliable players like Darby or Howard.
27 of 32
Steven Ryan/Getty Images
The Pittsburgh Steelers would certainly love to re-sign Bud Dupree and Javon Hargrave, both of whom played major roles in the front seven last season. But considering their salary-cap situation, they might have to decide which 27-year-old (they were born five days apart in 1993) means more to them.
While Hargrave has steadily improved and become a significant asset in the interior defensive line, Pittsburgh should prioritize Dupree.
The 2015 first-round pick had more clout than Hargrave coming into the league. Although he hasn’t fully delivered at the NFL level yet, he’s coming off a breakout fifth season in which he was one of just four players in football to record more than 10 sacks and more than three forced fumbles.
What’s more, he and T.J. Watt are the only legit starting-caliber edge-rushers on the Steelers roster, and they won’t owe Watt big money for a couple more years. Meanwhile, defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward are already two of their six highest-paid players.
28 of 32
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
Because they’ve got Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, the San Francisco 49ers can survive without impending free-agent defensive end Arik Armstead. And because they’ve got Deebo Samuel, Kendrick Bourne, Marquise Goodwin and Dante Pettis, they can survive without impending free-agent wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders.
But safety Jimmie Ward would be a lot harder to replace.
The 28-year-old had a strong season in coverage and run defense alongside fellow starter Jaquiski Tartt. The only other safety to get significant work was second-year third-round pick Tarvarius Moore, but Moore was hardly a factor after struggling early in place of an injured Ward.
The vaunted San Francisco defense wasn’t excellent in those games, but the unit really took off when Ward returned in October. Losing him permanently would hurt quite a bit.
29 of 32
Chris Szagola/Associated Press
The Seattle Seahawks probably didn’t trade two players and a third-round pick to the Texans with the intention of just borrowing defensive end Jadeveon Clowney for one season. The 2014 No. 1 overall pick has to be in Seattle’s long-term plans, especially since the Seahawks have few other established, reliable edge defenders on the roster.
There’s Ezekiel Ansah, but that one-year experiment didn’t pan out, and it looks like the former Lion is on his last legs. There’s 2018 third-round pick Rasheem Green, but he had just five quarterback hits on 546 defensive snaps in 2019. And there’s 2019 first-round pick L.J. Collier, but he hardly saw the field as a rookie after an ankle injury spoiled his first NFL offseason.
Since the start of the 2017 season, only 10 edge defenders have higher PFF grades than Clowney, who is one of the best all-around 4-3 defensive ends in the NFL. While the sack numbers leave a lot to be desired, there’s room for the three-time Pro Bowler to grow. He’s only 27 this month.
The franchise tag doesn’t appear to be on the table for Seattle, though, so this could get tricky.
30 of 32
Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave edge defender Shaquil Barrett a one-year prove-it contract in 2019, and the former Denver Bronco proved it. Emphatically.
Barrett put up a league-high 19.5 sacks along with six forced fumbles and an interception in a Pro Bowl age-27 campaign. He even earned a couple of Defensive Player of the Year votes. The sky has to be considered the limit considering his light usage in Denver.
The Bucs can’t afford to lose a player who accounted for 41 percent of their sacks in 2019. They’d probably also like to bring back impending free-agent front-seven defenders Ndamukong Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul and Carl Nassib, but those guys aren’t game-changers like Barrett is (at least not anymore).
The good news is the Bucs can easily afford the franchise tag and can outspend pretty much everyone else in football if they so choose.
31 of 32
Wade Payne/Associated Press
While the Tennessee Titans will likely look to bring back key impending free agents Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry and Jack Conklin, Conklin stands out as the only obvious re-sign.
Henry could be grossly overpaid coming off a career year at a position that rarely makes a championship-level difference. And while the Titans should probably at least use the franchise tag on Tannehill following a breakout season in which he was the league’s highest-rated passer, a jump instead to Teddy Bridgewater or Cam Newton could turn out to be an upgrade.
There’s no way to upgrade over Conklin, who was PFF’s sixth-highest-graded right tackle despite coming off a torn ACL in 2019. That outlet also ranks him as the best 20-something-year-old offensive lineman slated to hit the open market in March.
He’s yet to become completely elite, but he’s still only 25. The Titans can’t lose him.
32 of 32
Scott Taetsch/Getty Images
We conclude with a “No duh!” entry for the Washington Redskins, whose offensive line was oftentimes a bloody mess in 2019.
They need to do more to support young quarterback Dwayne Haskins in 2020, and that starts with determining Trent Williams’ future at left tackle. But Williams, who held out because of his frustration with the organization in 2019, isn’t a free agent. From an open-market perspective, the focus has to be on stud guard Brandon Scherff, who made his third Pro Bowl in an oft-dominant-yet-abbreviated 2019 campaign.
The 28-year-old has run into some injury problems the last two seasons, but he’s still one of the most destructive run-blockers in the game. Haskins needs him. And with more than $40 million in projected salary-cap space, the Redskins have no excuse to let him walk.