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NFL Free Agency Primer

by Patrick Daugherty
Updated On: March 16, 2020, 5:10 pm ET

The “legal tampering” period is set to begin on Monday, with free agency kicking off on Wednesday. The coronavirus pandemic, of course, has that in limbo, but the central facts of free agency will remain the same whenever it begins. Wash your hands, don’t touch your face and stay sane out there.  

Teams With The Most Cap Space (via the indispensable OverTheCap.com)

1. Dolphins — $88.075 million
2. Colts — $86.1 million
3. Bills — $81.986 million 
4. Buccaneers — $79.894 million
5. Giants — $78.481 million
6. Cowboys — $75.902 million
7. Browns — $67.679 million
8. Texans — $61.286 million
9. Redskins — $61.078 million
10. Broncos — $57.425 million 

Teams With The Least Cap Space 

32. Vikings — $1.389 million 
31. Steelers — $1.580 million 
30. Falcons — $4.152 million
29. Saints — $9.323 million
28. 49ers — $12.714 million
27. Chiefs — $13.674 million
26. Bears — $16.340 million 
25. Rams — $19.032 million
24. Packers — $20.460 million
23. Ravens — $30.740 million 


Teams In A Holding Pattern At Quarterback: The Patriots, Titans and Bucs.  

Teams That Could Address Quarterback In Free Agency: The Chargers, Colts, Bears and Raiders.

The Big Names 

Tom Brady. Maybe it was his age, maybe it was his supporting cast. Whatever it was, 2019 was Brady’s worst season since he was just getting started. Brady’s 3.9 touchdown percentage was a new career low, while his 6.6 yards per attempt were his fewest since 2002. Brady averaged 254 yards per game, a number he had bettered every year since 2010. It’s quite possible it was merely a down campaign, but it’s difficult to discern with a player who is now at the outer limits of athletic achievement. When Brady is under center Week 1, he will be just the fourth quarterback age 43 or older to start a game since the AFL/NFL merger in 1970. If it’s not the Patriots, whomever adds Brady might improve more in the ticket sales department than the win/loss column.    

Best Fit: The Patriots. Brady and Belichick need to stick this marriage out till the bitter end.  

Philip Rivers. No one was happier about Jameis Winston’s 30 interceptions than Rivers, whose 20 would have typically led the league. The 20-pick campaign was the third of Rivers’ now 17-year career, and was accompanied by a career-worst 3.9 touchdown percentage. Rivers looked like he was throwing dead ducks down the field, a perception borne out by Pro Football Focus’ advanced metrics, which rated Rivers as the third worst deep ball thrower in all of football. Rivers has bounced back before, but at age 38, he might have a terminal case of Eli Manning. 

Best Fit: The Colts. The best three-year stretch of Rivers’ career came under Frank Reich’s tutelage. Jacoby Brissett is a perfect backup plan should Rivers’ 2019 carry over.


The Plug-and-Plays   

Jameis Winston. It was a statline too beautiful for words, a 30-for-30 for these modern times. 2019 Jameis Winston: 1. Threw for the eighth most yards in NFL history (5,109). 2. Became the first player since Vinny Testaverde in 1988 to toss 30 picks. The interceptions are bad — real bad — but Winston was also essentially playing a different position than other quarterbacks. His 10.5 average intended air yards were 0.9 than any other signal caller. Winston paid the cost to be the deep-field boss. The problem, of course, is that turnovers were a problem long before Bruce Arians and his down-field mentality came to town. This is who Winston is. In an era of ever-increasing efficiency, that is not who teams want their quarterbacks to be.

Best Fit: The Bucs. At least give Winston one more year in this system. The Bucs aren’t a Philip Rivers away from contention. 

Ryan Tannehill. Listen, I have come to expect the unexpected in the 21st century, but … Ryan Tannehill literally galvanizing a team’s playoff run and leading the league in yards per attempt (9.6!!!!!) and QB rating (117.6)? A bit much! Tannehill was even more impressive when the Titans dialed up play action, which was all the time. There, his league-leading QB rating spiked to a nearly unfathomable — and also league leading — 143.3. The Titans’ coaching staff identified Tannehill’s strengths and ruthlessly exploited them. Amazingly, this is still a novel concept in the NFL. It is essential that whomever signs Tannehill follows the same blueprint. 

Best Fit: The Titans. Instead of fixing what’s not broken, the Titans should resist bigger names and give this experiment another season. 

Teddy Bridgewater. Were it not for Tannehill, Bridgewater would have had the best relief campaign of 2019. Bridgewater won all five of his starts in place of Drew Brees, tossing nine touchdowns while turning the ball over only twice. What Bridgewater did not do was push the rock down the field. Just 7.1 percent of Bridgewater’s passes traveled more than 20 yards. Bridgewater affirmed his status as the consummate bridge quarterback but did not hint at more.

Best Fit: The Bears. With their defense still rolling, the Bears merely need competent play under center. 

Quarterbacks, Also Out There: Dak Prescott and Drew Brees will not reach the open market. … Andy Dalton should become available via trade. There is a chance the same is true of Cam Newton. Joe Flacco, lol. … After getting Ryan Tannehill’d, Marcus Mariota is the bet to Ryan Tannehill someone else with a fresh start elsewhere. ... Case Keenum is everything teams look for in a No. 2 quarterback. 


Teams That Could Address Running Back In Free Agency: The Dolphins, Titans, Texans, Chiefs, Chargers, Lions, Falcons, Bucs, 49ers, Seahawks and Cardinals. 

The Big Names 

Derrick Henry. Henry came as close to mattering as a running back can in 2019, becoming the first runner in league history to post three straight 180-yard performances. They happened to be a win-or-go-home Week 17 tilt, the Wild Card Round and the Divisional Round. Henry rumors have been surprisingly scarce this spring — blame the lack of a new CBA — but no one needs him more than the Titans, who have built their offense around Henry’s punishing running and pop-a-shot play-action passing. 

Best Fit: The Titans. Henry has bent this offense to his will. It’s surprising this hasn’t already gotten done. 

Melvin Gordon. The only difference between Gordon and Le’Veon Bell’s disastrous holdouts was that Gordon knew when to cut his losses. Awful his first and last months of the season, Gordon still appeared to be a worthy three-down back for the five games in between. With teams growing ever more realistic about the running back market, Gordon probably won’t have the benefit of a Jets-type franchise bidding against itself for his services. 

Best Fit: The Bucs. Bruce Arians loves three-down backs and Gordon would be three times as good as what Tampa trotted out in 2019. 

Kenyan Drake. Drake finally got his chance and it was yet another Adam Gase exposure. With David Johnson labored and Chase Edmonds sidelined, Drake easily seized control of the Cardinals’ creative backfield. The ex-Dolphin was fifth in raw rushing (652) from Week 9 forward, while his 5.3 yards per carry also tied for fifth during that timespan. Drake can be big-play reliant — PFF measured his “breakaway percentage” as third best after Week 9 while rating him just 20th independent of his blockers — but that’s not an either/or proposition. Many running backs are “neither/neither” when it comes to big plays and getting more than what’s blocked. Drake also smashed concerns about his “durability,” effortlessly handling bell-cow workloads. 

Best Fit: If Drake escapes Arizona, the Falcons could make a lot of sense. Matt Ryan has been hamstrung by a nearly nonexistent running game since Kyle Shanahan’s departure.      

Running Backs, Also Out There: Jordan Howard. Even in today’s NFL, plug-and-play two-down grinders are still surprisingly popular. … That’s how the Texans employed Carlos Hyde last season, though Hyde has a pair of 25-catch campaigns to his name. … Chris Thompson remained one of the league’s better pass-catching backs last season but once again missed five games with injury. Going on 30, this is the wrong time for Thompson to hit the market. … Although he’s proven to be a replacement-level talent, Lamar Miller’s three-down ability will make him attractive as a reserve. … DeAndre Washington is a lower-floor, lower-ceiling Lamar Miller.  


Teams That Could Address Wide Receiver In Free Agency: The Packers, Eagles, Patriots, Ravens, Bills, Colts, Chiefs, Giants, Raiders, Bears, 49ers and Cardinals.  

The Big Names

Amari Cooper. Going on 26, Cooper is fresh off new career highs in yards (1,189), touchdowns (eight) and yards per catch (15.1). He appeared to finally shake his career-long inconsistency last season before a second half knee injury greatly limited his effectiveness. Cooper had zero 100-yard games after Week 10, catching more than four passes twice in seven contests. You can debate whether Cooper is a legitimate No. 1 wideout, but he is a route tactician capable of making big plays anywhere on the field.   

Best Fit: The Ravens. Lamar Jackson badly needs an all-around threat to complement big-play specialists Marquise Brown and Mark Andrews. Willie Snead and Seth Roberts aren’t going to cut it. 

A.J. Green. Once a picture of durability and consistency, Green — who turns 32 in four months — has been limited to 35 of a possible 64 games over the past four years. Provided Green avoids injury and is ready for Week 1, it will have been 21 months since his last regular season contest. Green has posted only one 1,000-yard season since 2015. There were just 12 1,000-yard campaigns by players 32 or older last decade. Green’s gifts can’t be denied, but he is up against more than people probably realize as he seeks to reclaim his past glory. 

Best Fit: The Colts. Can you even remember the last time the Colts had a legitimate No. 2 receiver? 

Robby Anderson. A December warrior, Anderson has annually spent September-November under-utilized before inevitably flashing during the season’s final month. He’s averaged 72 yards over 10 December contests the past two years compared to just 41 across his 20 other appearances. Is this coaching staff malfeasance or deep threat inconsistency? Despite his burner reputation, Anderson has a more varied skill-set. His featherweight frame has also not prevented him from periods of target dominance. 

Best Fit: The Packers. This needs to happen. Anderson is everything the Pack desperately need opposite Davante Adams

Emmanuel Sanders. Turning 33 the week of free agency, Sanders made a remarkable comeback from a torn Achilles’ tendon last season, appearing in a league-high 17 games thanks to the timing of his trade from the Broncos. Not that his year was injury-free, as Sanders struggled to produce as he played through a painful rib ailment. Sanders was effective enough to remain a starter, but he caught more than four balls just twice in 13 games as a Niner. That includes the playoffs. Despite his advanced age and recent injury issues, Sanders will still draw interest as a savvy veteran capable of playing both inside and out.  

Best Fit: Sanders would be a much-needed stabilizing force for either the Eagles or Raiders’ receiver corps. 

Wide Receivers, Also Out There: Breshad Perriman has quietly become one of the better situational deep threats in the league. It’s something every team needs and few teams have. … Fresh off a surprisingly robust revival with the Cowboys, Randall Cobb heads into his age-30 campaign as someone who could probably remain useful as a No. 3 receiver. … It has been two major steps back for Nelson Agholor since his 2017 step forward. A Frank Reich reunion in Indianapolis would be a best-case scenario. … The bad news: Devin Funchess missed 15 games last season. The good news: It was only a broken collarbone. The ex-Panther has still somehow yet to turn 26 years old. … Demarcus Robinson is basking in the Chiefs’ afterglow, but the reality is he’s a league-average deep threat, at best. … Phillip Dorsett is like if Nelson Agholor had put even less on film.   


Teams That Could Address Tight End In Free Agency: The Patriots, Jets, Bengals, Titans, Jaguars, Chargers, Cowboys, Redskins, Packers, Bears, Falcons, Panthers and Cardinals.     

The Big Names 

Hunter Henry(Editor's Note: Since the publication of this article, Henry has, unsurprisingly, been franchise tagged.) There is no way to sugarcoat Henry’s injury history. He’s also a three-down talent capable of making big plays down the seam and being a force in the red zone. Amazingly, Henry just turned 25 in December. A solid blocker, tight ends like Henry don’t hit the market often. The bidding could get out of hand in a hurry. 

Best Fit: The Patriots. The Pats missed Rob Gronkowski even more than expected in 2019. Henry would be a massive addition for the target-starved team, though his price might be outside Bill Belichick’s comfort range. 

Austin Hooper. Hooper is a catch-first seam stretcher, but he does not embarrass himself as a blocker. Not amazing at anything, he is solid enough at everything to approach three-down status. Hooper is essentially a poor man’s Zach Ertz, something that is not easy to find. With the Falcons nearly maxed out on their skill corps spending, there is a strong chance Hooper moves on. 

Best Fit: The Packers are rumored to be making a run, and Hooper would be a badly needed pair of reliable hands for an offense that had only one outside the backfield last season. 

Eric Ebron. Injury and quarterback concerns made Ebron’s 2019 regression even more severe than expected. He now gets a shot at his second reset in three years. We are more used to Ebron being a disappointment than a fantasy factor, but he would be far from the first tight end to make slow but steady progress as his career advances. Martellus Bennett and Jared Cook come to mind. Even if Ebron maxes out as a Kyle Rudolph type, that would be good, too.   

Best Fit: If the Packers strikeout on Hooper, Ebron makes too much sense not to happen. 

Tight Ends, Also Out There: Jordan Reed is expected to continue his playing career despite his continued concussion issues. … Tyler Eifert finally stayed healthy last season as the Bengals took extreme measures to limit his snaps. He could easily double his 2019 touchdown total of four if he ends up in the right offense. … Jimmy Graham appeared to have close to nothing left last season, but his size and resume will get him another chance. … It appears the Cowboys are letting Jason Witten walk. It is unclear if the failed T.V. commentator would consider playing for anyone else.