/The Most Intriguing NFL Free Agents on the Market This Offseason

The Most Intriguing NFL Free Agents on the Market This Offseason

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    In one month, the NFL calendar will officially turn to the 2020 season—and the annual feeding frenzy that is free agency will begin in earnest.

    Free agency technically begins with the “legal tampering” period on March 16, but come 4 p.m. ET on March 18, pen can be put to paper and players can start switching teams.

    Over the next month there will be no shortage of stories about this year’s crop of free agents. There will be rumors. Scuttlebutt. Misinformation. And intrigue galore.

    But what makes one free agent more intriguing than another? Is it the size of his potential contract? His resume prior to free agency?

    There’s really no pat answer to that question. For one veteran quarterback, it could be closing his career with a new team after over a decade-and-a-half with another. For another one, it’s the chance to get back to starting after a long hiatus caused by a brutal injury.

    For a young wide receiver and a not-so-young corner, it’s being the top option at a sought-after position. Or perhaps an offensive tackle with the opportunity to step out from behind two big shadows and shine in his own right.

    Whatever the reason, these are some of the most intriguing upcoming free agents of the 2020 offseason.

    And how things play out for them could have a massive impact on the season to come.

    NOTE: You aren’t going to find Tom Brady listed here. Or Derrick Henry. Or Amari Cooper. Or any of the other huge names who will as likely as not be staying put. Every one of the players in this article are good bets to be wearing a different helmet in 2020.

          

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    The free-agent quarterback market in 2020 is the deepest we’ve seen in years, and after 16 seasons guiding the San Diego and Los Angeles Chargers, the team indicated that eight-time Pro Bowler Philip Rivers will enter free agency and be playing for a new team in 2020.

    “After stepping back a bit from last season, we reconnected with Philip and his representatives to look at how 2019 played out, assess our future goals, evaluate the current state of the roster and see if there was a path forward that made sense for both parties,” said general manager Tom Telesco, via the team’s website. “As we talked through various scenarios, it became apparent that it would be best for Philip and the Chargers to turn the page on what has truly been a remarkable run.”

    Rivers’ last season with the Bolts was admittedly not his best—he threw his most interceptions (20) and posted his lowest passer rating (88.5) since 2016. At 38 years old, Rivers is a lot closer to the end of his career than the beginning.

    But it’s not every year that a player with almost 60,000 passing yards, 397 career touchdown passes and a passer rating north of 95 hits the open market.

    There’s going to be no shortage of teams that will offer Rivers a hefty salary to finish his career with them—especially if said team believes that an upgrade under center is the only thing standing between it and a deep playoff run.

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Teddy Bridgewater’s NFL career has had more twists and turns than a Hollywood movie.

    After starring at Louisville, Bridgewater was a first-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings in the 2014 NFL draft. By the end of his second season, Bridgewater had made a Pro Bowl and led the Vikes to the playoffs.

    Then disaster struck. While on the practice field in August of 2016, Bridgewater suffered a horrific (and life-threatening) knee injury. In the blink of an eye, a promising career had been turned into a tragic reminder of how quickly fortunes can fade in the NFL.

    However, Bridgewater had a plot twist of his own up his sleeve. After a forgettable stint with the New York Jets, Bridgewater landed in New Orleans as Drew Brees‘ backup. When Brees went down with a thumb injury early in the 2019 season, Bridgewater was thrust into the starting role for a Saints team desperate to keep their playoff aspirations alive while Brees was on the mend.

    Bridgewater did much more than that, peeling off five straight wins as the team’s starter.

    Now it’s time for the next chapter in the Teddy B saga. With Brees coming back in 2020 and Taysom Hill a restricted free agent, a Saints team with precious little cap space simply can’t afford to bring Bridgewater back.

    And while Bridgewater’s stats as the starter in New Orleans were hardly jaw-dropping (he averaged fewer than 250 passing yards a game), he’s a 27-year-old quarterback who has shown that he can lead an NFL team to the postseason.

    Bridgewater is going to get that opportunity in 2020.

    He’s also going to get paid.

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    James Kenney/Associated Press

    Five short seasons ago, Marcus Mariota was the second overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft by the Tennessee Titans.

    Fast forward to 2020, and after the midseason emergence of Ryan Tannehill in Nashville and the run to the AFC Championship game that ensued, it looks like Mariota will be plying his trade on a new team next year.

    In many respects, Mariota has no one to blame but himself for his uncertain future. Back in 2016, Mariota threw for over 3,400 yards and 26 touchdowns against nine picks with a passer rating north of 95. But in the three seasons since, the former Oregon standout has just 31 touchdowns and 25 interceptions. He threw for over 3,000 yards just once and missed time due to injuries in all three years.

    Still, as Jim Wyatt reported for the Titans website, Mariota remains convinced that he’s capable of being a plus starter in the NFL.

    “I have no doubts at all, no doubts at all,” Mariota said. “I’m just hopeful and ready for whatever that next opportunity is.”

    What makes Mariota such an intriguing free agent is the question of whether NFL teams feel the same way—and if so, how many. After all, Mariota has shown he can perform at a high level. He possesses the mobility that more and more teams covet under center. And he’s still only 26 years old.

    Mariota probably won’t be the first quarterback signed in free agency. Or the most expensive.

    But it’s not completely outside the realm of possibility that the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner might wind up being the best value of the lot.

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Over the first four years of Melvin Gordon’s career with the Chargers, the 26-year-old developed a reputation as one of the better young tailbacks in the NFL. In three straight seasons from 2016 to 2018, Gordon amassed at least 1,300 total yards in each.

    That reputation took a beating in 2019.

    Just as Ezekiel Elliott did, Gordon held out last year in the hopes of forcing the Chargers to extend him long-term. But while Elliott got his mega-deal, Gordon eventually blinked, reporting to the team after missing four games.

    Things got worse from there. Gordon proceeded to have his worst season since his rookie year. His 612 rushing yards were a career-low. Gordon averaged just 3.8 yards per carry, failed to pile up 300 receiving yards and missed the 10-touchdown mark for the first time since 2015.

    Gordon’s goal-line fumble against the Titans in Week 7 sums up his 2019 campaign pretty well.

    It doesn’t help that the market for running backs is trending down. The huge contracts given to Le’Veon Bell in New York and Todd Gurley II in Los Angeles appear to have been massive boondoggles. Many NFL teams just aren’t willing to make a significant financial investment in the position.

    With that said, Gordon’s the top running back who will have a new home in 2020 (assuming Derrick Henry remains in Tennessee). As fascinating as it will be to find out where Gordon will get a chance to turn things around, it’s equally intriguing to wonder just what Gordon’s contract is going to look like.

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Robby Anderson isn’t the biggest name among this year’s free-agent wide receivers—that title belongs to either Amari Cooper or A.J. Green. He likely won’t get the biggest contract, either—at least in terms of average annual salary.

    But Anderson is perhaps the most interesting case among wide receivers hitting the market, for a few reasons.

    The first is Anderson’s age. Once you get past the fantasy of Cooper playing anywhere but Dallas in 2020, the high-end potential free agents start piling up birthdays. Green is 31. Emmanuel Sanders is 32. Anderson, by comparison, is just 26—in theory, his best football lies ahead of him.

    The second is Anderson’s not inconsiderable talents. Anderson has yet to hit the 1,000-yard mark in a season, but as one AFC scout told Ralph Vacchiano of SNY, Anderson’s combination of size and speed has him on the radar of a number of wideout-needy NFL teams.

    “I don’t know if he’ll ever be a No. 1 receiver, but he’s 6-3 and can fly,” the scout said. “He’s not really just a deep threat anymore. He’s got the size and hands to do a lot more. He’s shown he can. He’s been about a 50-catch, 800-yard guy, but he’s only 26 and there’s a feeling that he can do a lot more in the right scheme.”

    The third is that while Cooper isn’t going anywhere and Green may not either, Anderson has made it clear (per Vacchiano) that he wants to see what he’s worth on the open market before making any decisions about his future.

    Anderson may not get the biggest wide receiver deal of 2020, but among pass-catchers who switch teams, he’s a good bet to set the pace at the position.

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    It’s not often that a 26-year-old offensive tackle who has shown flashes of considerable talent gets anywhere near the open market. And to be fair, it’s possible Halapoulivaati Vaitai won’t either. But if longtime stalwart Jason Peters comes back to the Philadelphia Eagles in 2020, then Vaitai may decide he’s had enough of serving as the third tackle in Philly.

    If that’s the case, there will be no shortage of suitors for the four-year veteran—and not just because any offensive tackle with half a pulse generates interest in free agency.

    Yes, Vaitai doesn’t have the lengthy resume or individual accolades of veteran stars like Peters, Bryan Bulaga and Anthony Castonzo. But to no small extent, that’s not Vaitai’s fault—he’s simply been stuck behind two greats in Peters and Lane Johnson with the Eagles. When Vaitai has had the opportunity, he’s done so at a high level—20 starts in four seasons.

    There’s a flip side to that coin. It will depend a lot on how many tackles actually hit the market, but Vaitai may not carry the jaw-dropping asking price of the bigger names in free agency.

    This isn’t to say Vaitai will come cheaply, as starter-caliber offensive linemen most assuredly do not in free agency. But relatively speaking, Vaitai could present teams with a real opportunity to get value up front in free agency.

    That’s of great interest to every single team in the NFL.

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    By the end of his third NFL season, Robert Quinn looked like one of the best young edge-rushers in the NFL. He exploded for 50 solo tackles and 19 sacks. But after racking up 10.5 sacks the following season, the wheels came off.

    From 2015 to 2018, Quinn missed 16 games and failed to hit even nine sacks in a year. He moved from the Rams to the Miami Dolphins, and then on to the Dallas Cowboys in 2019.

    Last year, however, Quinn experienced a renaissance of sorts. He outplayed DeMarcus Lawrence with the Cowboys, racking up 11.5 sacks. And as Mike Fisher wrote for Cowboy Maven, Quinn thinks he can better that number in 2020.

    “Overall, I guess I proved to people I’ve still got it,” Quinn told Fisher. “Personally, my standards are a little bit higher than what I achieved this year. I expect more out of myself. But I guess you can look at the pluses. In some way, it was a pretty good season. But I’m hard on myself. I always want more.”

    The question now is whether NFL teams feel the same way. The financial realities in Dallas make it unlikely that Quinn will be back with the Cowboys if another team offers him a huge contract.

    But will a team be willing to do that for a player who turns 30 this season who has just one double-digit-sack season over the past five years? Is Quinn back on track or was 2019 just a one-year aberration?

    Given that Quinn could command upward of $20 million a season, that last question could be a franchise-definer.

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Back in 2015, the Atlanta Falcons made Vic Beasley Jr. the eighth overall pick in the NFL draft. One year later, Beasley paced the league with 15.5 sacks.

    A couple weeks ago, the Falcons made it clear that they were moving on without him in 2020.

    “As we continue to craft our 2020 roster, we’d like to thank Vic for five years of effort on behalf of our organization,” general manager Thomas Dimitroff said via the team’s website.

    What caused the falling out? Numbers—or the lack thereof. In 2017, Beasley’s sack production free-fell by double digits. He again managed just five sacks in 2018. Over the first 13 weeks of the 2019 campaign, Beasley had four sacks.

    But the 27-year-old gave a tease of that 2015 explosion down the stretch, adding four more sacks over the season’s last four games to finish with eight for the season. He also had arguably the best season of his career against the run, posting a career-high 42 total tackles.

    It’s that duality that makes Beasley such a fascinating case to consider this offseason. Will there be an NFL team or two with cap space to burn and a need on the edge willing to pay Beasley like the player he was last December and in 2015? Will he have to settle for a much smaller deal and the chance to prove he isn’t the player who had fewer sacks in 2.75 seasons than in 2015 alone?

    Beasley is equal parts upside and uncertainty—at a premium position.

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    As Nicki Jhabvala wrote for The Athletic, given that he hasn’t heard from the team in some time, veteran cornerback Chris Harris Jr. believes he’ll at the very least test the open market when free agency opens in March.

    “I think that’s the direction right now,” Harris said. “I think everybody deserves to see what they’re worth, and I deserve it at this point. I think I worked my tail off for nine years, I gave the city every ounce of effort that I could give and, shoot, it’s time to see what everybody else thinks about me.”

    Harris also went so far as to say that uncertainties about his role and future with the Broncos led to a ninth season with the team in 2019 that was (by the four-time Pro Bowler’s standards) a relative disappointment.

    “The whole thing — I was put in a situation with a team that, I didn’t know if they wanted a future with me. You see what I’m saying?” he said. “So you’re playing ball, but you don’t know if the team really wants you or if I’m going to be traded. Do I have a future with this team?”

    Were it not for that down season (and Harris’ 30th birthday), he wouldn’t be sniffing free agency at all. It’s fair to wonder (at least a little) whether 2019 was less a blip and more the beginning of a downturn caused by age.

    But as arguably the best player about to hit free agency at one of the game’s most important positions, there will be plenty of NFL teams willing to talk themselves into believing that a change of scenery will turn Harris around.

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    Steve Luciano/Associated Press

    By the time the NFL draft rolls around in April, San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch is going to need a hug.

    It’s not just that Lynch had to watch the Niners blow a 10-point lead in the last seven minutes of Super Bowl LIV. Now the 49ers face a number of difficult personnel decisions. Defensive lineman Arik Armstead and defensive back Jimmie Ward are both coming off career years and about to hit free agency. Both will command hefty salaries. Given San Francisco’s precarious cap situation, neither is likely to be back in 2020.

    The 49ers have the depth to absorb the loss of Armstead—at least much more easily than that of Ward. It’s not just that Ward piled up a career-high 65 tackles in 2019. It’s how he did it. There isn’t a position on the back end that Ward can’t play. He can man centerfield as a deep safety. Step up into the box and chip in against the run. Cover receivers out of the slot.

    And he does it all well.

    That versatility in the secondary is very popular in the NFL in 2020. But as Grant Cohn reported for the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, while Ward isn’t sure what his future holds, he knows that it will be as a safety first and foremost.

    “I haven’t talked to anybody yet. I talked to my coach. My coach definitely said he wants to keep me here, but it’s not up to him. It’s further up, it’s upstairs. They have the upper hand right now because I do want to be in California. But if not, I’ll go to any team that wants me to play safety. That’s the only way I’ll sign with a team. I’m a safety first.”

    You heard the man.