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Ron Jenkins/Associated Press
NFL free agency is often misunderstood.
First, it’s not about what players have done throughout their careers. Teams are paying them for what they’ll do next.
Second, teams aren’t fully built through free agency. The market is often overpriced, and there’s no guarantee of landing a particular talent. Instead, organizations should identify key personnel of interest to target and hopefully accentuate their rosters.
For those two reasons, the importance of signing free agents entering their prime years escalates since their new (or current) team expects to receive the most return from their investment.
In naming the top 10 available free agents, there are two conditions:
First, each individual will be 25 years old or younger at the start of the new league year (March 18). Second, all of those included are unrestricted free agents and completely free to test the market (unless the franchise tag comes into play).
Bigger names will be available once free agency begins. Forget household names like Tom Brady, A.J. Green and Ndamukong Suh; they’re on the decline.
The following 10 players are the ones fans should want their teams to sign, because they’re about to reach peak value.
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Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press
A certain amount of risk exists in every free-agent signing, but some signings are riskier than others.
Hunter Henry is easily one of the best available free agents. At the same time, his injury history makes him a significant risk.
Whoever pursues Henry must reconcile the fact he’s never played a full season in his four-year career. During the last three campaigns, the tight end missed 22 games, including the entire 2018 regular season, due to a lacerated kidney, torn ACL and tibia plateau fracture to his left knee.
Normally, extensive medical concerns will scare off suitors. Yet Henry’s standing as a top target speaks to his all-around skill set when he’s actually on the field.
“As long as I’ve been here he’s always made plays, even in the blocking game,” Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler said of Henry, per ESPN’s Eric D. Williams. “He can do it all; he’s a pretty good overall tight end and probably one of the best in the league as far as blocking, running routes and catching it.”
Complete tight ends are hard to find, and Henry has the ability to be one of the league’s best, which is exactly why his previous maladies will be overlooked—to a degree.
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Mark Tenally/Associated Press
Incremental improvement while working in relative anonymity doesn’t usually signal a top-flight free agent. But Jordan Jenkins went about his business while providing a valuable service as the New York Jets’ leading edge-rusher.
Jordan’s sack numbers have improved in each of his four seasons. He went from 2.5 sacks as a rookie to procuring a team-leading eight sacks in 2019.
“This year honestly was just a stress-free mindset for me,” Jenkins said, per Olivia Landis of the Jets’ official site. “I really changed the way I went about approaching this season and playing this season and I kept a level head. I didn’t worry about things I couldn’t control. I didn’t get on Twitter or anything like that. I just focused on football and being there for the guys.”
Jenkins isn’t the most explosive edge defender, and he’s not among the league leaders in overall pressures—which is why his name isn’t usually mentioned among the NFL’s better young pass-rushers. But teams shouldn’t overlook his consistency.
The 2016 third-round pick may not be a true difference-maker, but he’s played in 60 of 64 career games and plays the run relatively well with growth potential as a pass-rusher. Considering where Jenkins is at in his career, that’s a solid free-agent bet.
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Adam Hunger/Associated Press
Five years ago, many considered getting Leonard Williams with the sixth overall pick a steal for the New York Jets, but his career hasn’t gone exactly as expected.
At the time, a legitimate argument could be made that Williams was the top non-quarterback prospect in his class, and certainly the best defender. Yet three position players, including another defender, heard their names called first.
The Jets even traded the player once viewed as a franchise building block to the New York Giants prior to the 2019 deadline.
The Giants valued Williams differently than the Jets and moved him all along their defensive front to capitalize on his skill set as something more than a run defender.
“It means a lot when they want you to be one of those guys to make the plays,” Williams said, per ESPN’s Jordan Raanan.
Despite the renewed confidence, Williams didn’t produce to the level of his 2016 and ’18 campaigns. He may never develop into the player he was once projected to be, but that potential keeps him among the most intriguing options in this year’s free-agent class.
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Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press
Dante Fowler Jr. bet on himself when he signed a one-year, $12 million deal with the Los Angeles Rams last offseason.
“I really appreciate them for giving me the opportunity to show them that I am a player,” Fowler said, per the Tampa Bay Times‘ Gary Klein.
The Rams originally traded for Fowler prior to the league’s 2018 deadline, but the 2015 third overall pick managed only two sacks in eight games.
Fowler’s career got off to a slow start in general when he suffered a torn ACL during his very first professional practice. It took a few years before he looked like the same explosive pass-rusher who was once worth a top pick.
“Really wasn’t feeling myself until I got here,” he said last summer, per ESPN’s Lindsey Thiry. “… the coaches put me in a very great position, just like letting me be me, let me be the Dante Fowler that basically got me here.”
Finally, everything came together in 2019 when Fowler registered a career-high 11.5 sacks (after 16 total through his first four seasons).
How he’s viewed will be interesting considering his history. Teams may invest in him as an elite pass-rusher, while others might be wary. Either way, edge-rushers carry a premium.
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Tim Warner/Getty Images
Certain positions, such as massive interior defenders, have been devalued as the game evolves. Mountainous people-movers have yet to reach dinosaur status, though.
D.J. Reader isn’t just a great run defender; he’s also capable of collapsing the pocket. The 6’3″, 347-pound nose tackle often moves up and down the line as a 3-, 4i- and 5-technique.
“Trying to move forward, always progressing,” Reader said of his continual improvement with the Houston Texans, per Deepi Sidhu of the team’s official site. “If you’re not progressing you’re dying. I feel like I was just trying to turn forward as a player, seeing guys that came in with me, this defense, our team being better, all of us growing up. Just trying to contribute my part and I feel like I was able to do that.”
The final point is exciting considering the depth of the class.
Chris Jones, Javon Hargrave, Leonard Williams, Michael Brockers, Jarran Reed, Jordan Phillips, A’Shawn Robinson, Timmy Jernigan, Michael Pierce, Andrew Billings, Sheldon Day and Danny Shelton will flood the market with quality defensive tackles. Yet only one interior defender rates higher on this list than Reader heading into free agency, but more on that later.
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Todd Kirkland/Getty Images
Super Bowl LIV featured the game’s two best tight ends, and the value of the position has never been higher.
Whether a tight end creates mismatches in the passing game, more than holds his own as a blocker or everything between those two points, the position’s flexibility allows play-callers to do more within their scheme.
Austin Hooper isn’t George Kittle or Travis Kelce, but he’s a two-time Pro Bowl tight end with impressive production over the last two seasons. The 6’4″, 254-pound target amassed 146 receptions for 1,447 yards and 10 touchdowns during that stretch.
“Well, I think he’s a great receiving tight end,” Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank said of Hooper, per ESPN’s Vaughn McClure. “He plays hard. He plays well. He plays under pressure well. He doesn’t normally get injured, although this year we lost him for three games. He’s been a consistent performer for us since we drafted him [third round, 2016].”
Blank’s final comment is important, because it best encapsulates Hooper’s skill set. He’s not going to dominate in the passing game as a physical mismatch. He’s more of a security blanket for a quarterback since he’s adept at finding soft spots in zones and running proper routes.
There’s nothing wrong with Hooper being that type of player. He’s exactly what some teams will need in an offense to round out their skill positions.
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Jack Conklin’s foray into free agency is a perfect example of being in the right place at the right time.
The offensive line market has been reset in recent years, even by those not considered elite performers.
In back-to-back offseasons, Nate Solder and Trent Brown became the highest-paid offensive linemen in NFL history. The two former New England Patriots left tackles combined for zero Pro Bowl nods prior to their signings.
Scarcity is a significant problem throughout the league regarding quality offensive linemen. The position is harder than ever to develop at the collegiate level due to schematic and logistical limitations. Organizations now place a much higher value on proven veteran commodities since they can’t guarantee an instant contributor through the draft.
Also, well-run franchises have learned to lock up their top blockers before they can even test the market. Zack Martin, Taylor Lewan, Jake Matthews, Lane Johnson, Brandon Brooks, Ali Marpet and Cody Whitehair all signed contract extensions within the last two years.
Conklin never quite lived up to the hype created after being named a first-team All-Pro as a rookie. In reality, he received a lot of help that year, and his play regressed the following two seasons. But he’s now trending in the right direction with a strong 2019 campaign.
The upcoming free agent-class is littered with aging and/or underwhelming offensive tackles. Conklin is entering his prime after arguably his best season. Considering all of the aforementioned circumstances, demand will be significantly higher for the lineman’s services than most.
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Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press
Numerous suitors will pursue Yannick Ngakoue with only one thought in mind: He’s going to seriously upgrade the pass rush.
Ngakoue, whom the Jacksonville Jaguars originally drafted in the third round in 2016, quickly established himself as a legitimate presence off the edge. He has 37.5 sacks through four seasons. For comparison, Jadeveon Clowney is a well-known name in this year’s free-agent class, yet the 2014 No. 1 overall pick produced 5.5 fewer career sacks while playing in 12 more games.
Obviously, that particular comparison doesn’t tell the entire story. Clowney is a superior run defender. But organizations will pursue Ngakoue knowing his value derives from his pass-rushing skills since he’s a mediocre run defender at best.
That’s OK. Ngakoue is the only player over the past decade with 37.5 sacks and 13 forced fumbles through 65 or fewer career games, and he’s improved against opposing ground games.
“We challenged him early in the year, in the offseason when he was here, about playing the run,” Jaguars defensive coordinator Todd Wash said in December, per the Florida Times-Union‘s John Reid. “I think he has improved statistically against the run, and he is rushing the passer well. He has a bright future wherever it may be, but for the organization’s sake, I hope he is a Jaguar for a long time.”
Sources told FanSided’s Matt Verderame the Jaguars are “increasingly likely” to place the franchise tag on the defensive end. If that doesn’t occur, expect a bidding war for Ngakoue’s services.
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The idea of Amari Cooper being a disappointment who was unable to serve as an offense’s No. 1 receiving threat seems so long ago. But that’s exactly where his career stood in 2018 before being traded to the Dallas Cowboys.
Prior to that point, Cooper managed just 960 yards during his final 20 games with the Oakland Raiders. Drops and mental errors plagued his game, and his first two Pro Bowl seasons seemed like a distant memory.
But a player’s comfort level with the system, his teammates, coaches, personal life off the field and so much more factor hugely into his performance.
“I’m definitely more comfortable. I know and understand the offense more,” Cooper said two weeks after being traded, per Rob Phillips of the Cowboys’ official site. “The guys around here have made me comfortable. They’re so cool and everything like that.”
During his 25 games with the Cowboys, Cooper has 132 receptions for 1,914 yards and 14 touchdowns. His route-running has been exceptional while simultaneously creating significant separation. His impact is obvious.
Since Cooper joined Dallas, quarterback Dak Prescott’s yards per attempt have improved from 7.4 to 8.2, because defenses have to account for the receiver, and his presence creates a cascading effect throughout the Cowboys offense.
Other franchises in search of offensive weapons can see how Cooper affects the game and opens up the field for his teammates to operate. The four-time Pro Bowler is a difference-maker in a passing league.
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Steve Luciano/Associated Press
Chris Jones is an elite performer with the rarest of NFL skill sets.
When someone says quarterback is the hardest position in all of sports to play, they’re correct simply because of the responsibility and precision necessary to perform at the highest level. But the position’s physical skill set isn’t uncommon.
The same can’t be said of an interior pass-rusher. There are only a handful of men walking the planet big enough, athletic enough and skilled enough to consistently collapse the pocket while simultaneously performing all of the regular tasks required of an interior defender.
Elite interior pass-rushers can be counted on one hand. Only four interior defenders managed nine or more sacks this season, and Jones was one of them.
According to CBS Sports’ Jeff Kerr, Jones registered 33 sacks and 72 quarterback hits in his four seasons. Those numbers don’t take into account the dozens of pressures the 6’6″, 310-pound defender adds on a yearly basis.
His value was never more apparent than during Super Bowl LIV. Statistically, Jones’ performance wasn’t one to write home about, but his impact can’t be overlooked. Jones batted three passes at the line of scrimmage and made life difficult for San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo during crucial plays.
The Los Angeles Rams’ Aaron Donald is the only player more successful in pass-rush win rate (under 2.5 seconds) than Jones based on the percentage of double-teams faced, as ESPN’s Seth Walder noted.
Donald signed a $135 million contract two years ago. Jones’ play demands similar numbers.