The NFL’s annual free agent spending bonanza and trading season kicks off on Mar. 18, and we’re setting the stage now for the start of what promises to be another explosive offseason, if not one for the ages.The current free-agent talent pool, of course, is much deeper and top heavier now than it will be by Mar. 10, the deadline to assign franchise and transition tags. Among the most likely candidates to receive one this year if long-term deals aren’t getting done: Dallas Cowboys QB Dak Prescott, Kansas City Chiefs DT Chris Jones, Jacksonville Jaguars DE Yannick Ngakoue and Los Angeles Chargers TE Hunter Henry.
The salary cap this season of $188.2 million can be expected to climb as it has by at least $10 million in each of the past six years. Yet it remains to be seen whether teams will stray from their standard spending habits in the final year of the collective bargaining agreement, with a 2021 work stoppage potentially on the horizon.
And if they weren’t clear 2019 “offseason winners,” it should be noted that Super Bowl LIV participants San Francisco and Kansas City ranked among the NFL’s top 10 spenders last spring. The Niners acquired via trade Dee Ford, their bookend for eventual Defensive Rookie of the Year Nick Bosa, as well as a team leader in LB Kwon Alexander and speedy tailback Tevin Coleman as part of their $333-plus million offseason, per spotrac.com. The Chiefs doled out more than $89 million guaranteed to signee and top playmaking defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, and trade-and-sign acquisition Frank Clark, their most disruptive pass rusher, en route to eclipsing the $301 million overall spending mark.
Indeed, gone are the days of contenders building almost exclusively through the draft.
Teams looking this March for QB help potentially will find an unprecedented four future Hall of Famers (Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers and Eli Manning), the NFL’s reigning leader in passer rating (Ryan Tannehill) and passing yards (Jameis Winston).
Additional starter-caliber and/or fringe starters also abound in free agency with former first-rounders Teddy Bridgewater (depending on Brees’ status) and Marcus Mariota seeking fresh starts, and Case Keenum still only 32 and a few seasons removed from his miracle work in Minnesota.
The QB trade market could be nearly as robust, with former MVP Cam Newton and Bengals franchise passing TD leader Andy Dalton seemingly available as Carolina starts anew with Matt Rhule and Joe Brady and Cincinnati’s second-year coach Zac Taylor is armed with the first overall pick inevitably ticketed for Heisman-winning National champion Joe Burrow.
Pressuring, not procuring the quarterback a bigger need? Four of the NFL’s top 10 leaders in sacks this season (Shaq Barrett, Bud Dupree, Dante Fowler and Robert Quinn), and six double-digit sack artists in all (Markus Golden and Arik Armstead), are potential free agents. Just missing the 10-sack threshold but also with a crack at the open market soon are Matt Judon, Mario Addison, Everson Griffen, Jones and Ngakoue.
After seeing the sneaky signings of Barrett in Tampa and Golden in New York, and the shrewd trade acquisitions of Quinn in Dallas and DT Jordan Phillips in Buffalo, in a copycat league, expect teams to leave no stone unturned to seek upgrades in this vital and unusually deep position, also boasting elite run stuffer Jadeveon Clowney. Inside (and alongside Jones and Phillips), Jarran Reed, D.J. Reader, Maliek Collins and Leonard Williams will be highly sought.
Unfortunately, the pickings are a bit slimmer at two additional “premium positions” — wide receiver and cornerback — and almost entirely barren at left tackle, where the two most accomplished blockers, Jason Peters and Andrew Whitworth, are NFL institutions but undoubtedly in their career twilights.
The top talent still in his prime blocking the blind side is Anthony Castonzo, but the former Colts first-rounder could follow in the footsteps of former teammate Andrew Luck to early retirement. D.J. Humphries rounds out the LT options with bonafide starting experience and pedigree, but on the right side, two more former first-rounders in Bryan Bulaga and Jack Conklin come with high-risk, high-reward asterisks — Bulaga’s durability issues and Conklin’s inconsistencies, especially in pass protection.
There are more dependable blocking alternatives along the interior, including mauling Brandon Scherff in Washington, steady Graham Glasgow in Detroit and New England’s best, Joe Thuney. Center Ben Garland has made himself some money in San Francisco pinch hitting for the NFL’s highest-paid pivot, injured Weston Richburg.
There are a few game-changing receivers available, albeit none without red flags. Amari Cooper is a 25-year-old former No. 4 overall pick who, other than Prescott, is most responsible for his quarterback’s career revival. Cooper also has a tendency to disappear for stretches and dealt with some serious drops during his Raiders tenure.
A.J. Green was on a Canton trajectory — and might still be — but he turns 32 in June and has missed a combined 29 games with injuries since 2016, including all of this season with a bum ankle. Would the Bengals use the tag in lieu of a longer, riskier investment, giving Burrow the ultimate rookie resource? Robby Anderson can absolutely fly — and speed kills, commanding big bucks — but his off-field character requires much vetting.
Emmanuel Sanders is a known quantity whose arrival by the Bay created almost a Cooper-Prescott-like effect on his guy, Jimmy G., while Devin Funchess and Nelson Agholor could benefit from fresh starts. Atlanta’s Austin Hooper and Indianapolis’ Eric Ebron are the two available tight ends with the most dynamic receiving chops after Henry.
Rounding out the premium positions, CBs Chris Harris, Byron Jones, Logan Ryan, Brian Poole, Mackensie Alexander and Troy Brown offer proven versatility at a variety of price points, while Jimmy Smith, Trae Waynes and Bradley Roby have endured ups and downs but enter the market with former first-round pedigree and tread on their tires.
Running backs, off-ball linebackers and safeties often to the dirty work at a relative discount. NFL rushing champion Derrick Henry and former first-rounder Melvin Gordon headline the available backs, with Joe Schobert, Jamie Collins, Cory Littleton, Kyle Van Noy and Nick Kwiatkoski among the top second-level defenders, and ball-hawking safeties Justin Simmons, Anthony Harris, Devin McCourty and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix standing out among the available safeties along the last line of defense.