Offseason Lowdown

NFL Free Agency Primer: Quarterback, Running back

by Patrick Daugherty
Updated On: March 14, 2022, 1:25 pm ET

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Wide Receiver and Tight End Primer

The “legal tampering” period begins Monday, with free agency formally kicking off on Wednesday. As we have learned in recent years, deals should begin to flood in on Monday, with the official Wednesday kickoff more of a suggestion than a rule. With the salary cap back on the rise after last year’s COVID pause, the money spigot will once again be set to full flow.    

Teams With The Most Cap Space (via the indispensable as of 3/8)

1. Chargers — $56.316 million
2. Dolphins — $51.317 million
3. Jets — $48.816 million
4. Colts — $42.217 million
5. Jaguars — $38.987 million
6. Seahawks — $35.534 million
7. Bengals — $34.640 million
8. Commanders — $33.383 million
9. Steelers — $28.811 million
10. Lions — $26.503 million

Teams With The Least Cap Space 

32. Packers — -$45.844 million
31. Saints — -$45.242 million
30. Cowboys — -$23.649 million
29. Rams — -$20.273 million
28. Bucs — -$16.473 million
27. Vikings — -$15.004 million
26. Titans — -$7.867 million
25. Giants — -$7.647 million
24. Chiefs — -$5.420 million
23. Bills — -$2.037 million

Teams That Could Address Quarterback In Free Agency: Commanders, Steelers, Broncos, Saints, Bucs, Panthers, Colts, Texans, Giants, Dolphins. 

The Big Names At Quarterback

Jameis Winston. That Winston leads this list — again — tells you all you need to know about the quarterback market, both this year and as a general state of being. The last time Winston started a full season he threw for 5,109 yards. And 30 interceptions. The last time he played at all, he tore his ACL. At one point perennially young, Winston is finally creeping closer to no longer understanding TikTok or pop radio. He turned 28 in January. Winston can start and generate instant offense. He has also never sustained it without a hail of turnovers. If the light did not turn on under either Bruce Arians or Sean Payton, don’t count on it happening elsewhere.   

Winston's Best Fit: The Saints. Although Winston’s uninspiring pre-injury numbers in 2021 were more about his supporting cast than his own play, it is doubtful Winston convinced the remaining Saints brass he is capable of being a multi-year solution. They also know that in a shaky draft class, a veteran bridge will be a must. Winston’s New Orleans fit doesn’t need to be explained beyond that. 

Marcus Mariota. Mariota improved his league standing with this One Weird Trick: Barely playing over the past two years. On the rare occasions Mariota was on the field, he was a different player than we saw during his Titans days, displaying more overt aggression as both a passer and runner, as well as more emotion after the fact. It was a necessary adjustment from a former No. 2 overall pick who was timid down field and reticent as a rusher.  

Mariota's Best Fit: The Steelers. No team is simply going to hand Mariota the keys, Pittsburgh included. Outgoing GM Kevin Colbert seems likely to select Ben Roethliserbger’s replacement at No. 20 overall, or in a trade up. But Colbert knows as well as anyone that this is not a polished quarterback draft class. An interim option will be required. The “new Mariota” from Las Vegas would fit perfectly with coach Mike Tomlin’s stated desire for a more athletic signal caller.  

Mitchell Trubisky. Here we have this year’s Rorschach test. When you look into the Mitchell Trubisky mirror, what do you see? A 27-year-old who deserves a second chance after years in the Matt Nagy meat grinder? Or a soon-to-be 28-year-old whose only 2021 accomplishment was not playing? Trubisky’s Bears setups were not great, though the rosters did make the playoffs twice in four years. How bad could they have really been? And even if Trubisky was held down, good quarterbacks tend to rise above their poor circumstances. Someone will take a chance on Trubisky’s athletic profile. They should not expect more than a 6-7 game starter who can pair with a rookie.  

Trubisky's Best Fit: The Giants. This one is already being telegraphed in the media, and that’s because it makes too much sense. Trubisky was in Brian Daboll’s system last year, and the Giants could have a quick hook with Daniel Jones after his injury/ineffectiveness issues.  

Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater has bumped up against his hard ceiling for two different teams over the past two years. He also kept his floor nice and tidy, upholding his reputation as a top-notch bridge quarterback. Your franchise will have no future if Bridgewater is the long-term starter, but he might brighten the present if there is enough talent. There, of course, was not enough talent in Carolina or Denver. That will probably remain the case in Bridgewater's next landing spot. Hopefully he isn't needed for more than keeping the car ready for a rookie teammate. 

Bridgewater's Best Fit: The Colts. The teams that make the most sense — the Saints and Panthers — have already gotten off the Bridgewater merry-go-round. The Commanders would be the next best thing, but they seem to be thinking bigger. That leaves the Colts, who are running short on easy ways to upgrade Carson Wentz.  

Quarterbacks, Also Out There: The Vikings may want to deal Kirk Cousins, but their roster situation is such that running it back one more year probably makes the most sense. … The quarterback most likely to be dealt now that Russell Wilson is in Denver could be Derek Carr, though like Cousins in Minnesota, Vegas will probably decide they lack better options. … Like Bridgewater, Andy Dalton has erased all doubt that he is anything other than a short-term starter. If you are signing him in free agency, it better be in the second wave. … Tyrod Taylor won’t embarrass your franchise if forced to start a few games, and like Bridgewater in the past, he could even oversee a winning streak if the roster is good enough. … Jacoby Brissett is a decent backup who can help out in the red zone. … Ryan Fitzpatrick will keep his arm warm, but he is almost 40 and has a hip issue. … Cam Newton’s shoulder is making the decision for the league.  

Teams That Could Address Running Back In Free Agency: Dolphins, Bucs, Texans, Falcons, Cardinals, Chiefs, Seahawks, Chargers, Jets, Saints, Bills.  

The Big Names At Running Back

Melvin Gordon. Hello, I’m Melvin Gordon. You may remember me from such backfields as “why don’t they give the ball more to Austin Ekeler?” and “Why can’t Javonte Williams be the 1A instead of 1B?” Everywhere Gordon goes, the folks are clamoring for someone else. Which is understandable in Ekeler and Williams’ cases but overlooks the fact that Gordon is … still pretty good? Although you could argue he is a master of none, Gordon is a jack of all trades. The only reason to take him off the field is if you drafted a more dynamic change-of-pace back. A career committeeman, Gordon probably won’t get a backfield to himself at this point. He will still be ready if that duty calls.  

Gordon's Best Fit: The Chiefs. Kansas City has been spinning its tires in the backfield for several years. Gordon can do it all but won’t have to with Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the fold. Gordon is used to committees and CEH is best suited to one. 

Leonard Fournette. When they rattle off Tom Brady’s list of career achievements, near the top will be: Made Leonard Fournette a pass-catching back … is what I wanted to write before I remembered Fournette actually caught 76 balls his final season in Jacksonville. Fournette’s 181 receptions over the past three years are third amongst running backs. They’re 11 more than Christian McCaffrey. It’s been quite the career turn, especially since Fournette has remained replacement level as a runner. In fact, aside from the volume, he’s been replacement level as a pass catcher, too. He was simply out there, alongside the greatest player of all time. How will those achievements be viewed on the open market? Fournette’s deal will tell us a lot about the NFL’s evolving relationship with the running back position.   

Fournette's Best Fit: The Bucs. Tampa suddenly has too many needs to use serious draft resources on the backfield. The competition for Fournette’s services is unlikely to be that fierce. Run it back at this spot and worry about an upgrade in 2023. 

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James Conner. Conner did his best work around the rim in 2021, dunking a career — and conference — best 15 touchdowns. Beyond that, he left the playmaking to Chase Edmonds, though he did have his best season as a pass catcher since 2018. You should not be relying on Conner as an every-down bell-cow, though he provides real value as a player who is proficient on all three downs and can handle major workloads in a pinch.

Conner's Best Fit: The Chargers. The Bolts badly need a competent complement to Austin Ekeler. With former running mate Melvin Gordon probably a little too expensive, Conner would be the next best thing for a backfield that never had a legit No. 2 in 2021. 

Rashaad Penny. Penny has played 37 career games. We only want to talk about the past five. Penny rushed for 671 yards after taking over as the Seahawks’ starter in Week 14. That yardage total was 208 more than any other back, as well as 42.6 percent of Penny’s career total. Penny's production came after he finally lived up to his college pedigree as a home run hitter, with an enormous percentage of his rushing coming on carries of 20-plus yards. That might scare some teams, but it was always the way Penny was supposed to produce. Only 26 years old, Penny is an open market X-factor.  

Penny's Best Fit: The Seahawks. Russell Wilson is gone. Chris Carson is on fumes. Penny reminded how much better this offense is when there is a legitimate backfield threat. If Penny’s injury history scares the open market, the Seahawks need to double down on what previously appeared to be a sunk cost. 

Chase Edmonds. Edmonds finally got a bigger piece of Arizona’s backfield pie in 2021, though he remained the 1B to free agent James Conner’s 1A. It required rounding up, but Edmonds did reach 10 carries per game for the first time in his career and averaged a career-best 3.5 grabs per week. Good and well, yet not enough for a player likely to be forever typecast as a third-down back in the Duke Johnson mold.  

Edmonds' Best Fit: The Texans need some semblance of talent in their backfield. They are likely to draft a rookie. Why not pair them with Edmonds? 

Cordarrelle Patterson. Just confirming … that actually happened? Patterson’s 2021 was a testament to proper usage and how few players truly experience it. The downside was, Patterson had never handled those kinds of workloads before and was badly worn down by the end of the year. He openly admitted so. Although C-Patt proved he could be much more than an ace return man who offers the occasional change-of-pace touch, last season was likely lightning in a bottle not to be repeated. Even splitting the difference between his 2021 and pre-’21 production would be a nice get on the open market.

Patterson's Best Fit: The Dolphins. This is a talentless backfield. Give new coach Mike McDaniel a movable chess piece as he mourns his loss of Deebo Samuel

Sony Michel. The Sean McVay stamp of approval was ultimately not enough to lead to a sea change in 27-year-old Michel’s fortunes. Although the coaching staff trusted him more between the tackles than Darrell Henderson, McVay turned to Cam Akers as soon as he was able. When Darrell Henderson returned for the Super Bowl, he leapfrogged passing-game zero Michel for No. 2 duties. While Michel remained replacement level as a runner, he did not miss a game with injury for the first time in his four-year career. 

Michel's Best Fit: The Saints. Someone needs to take early-down pressure off of Alvin Kamara, who will probably break down if forced to handle a 2021-sized workload again. 

Running Backs, Also Out There: J.D. McKissic’s pass-catching might be the most intriguing trait from the “best of the rest” at running back. … Jerick McKinnon was the surprise player of the 2021 postseason. Like all the best surprises, it’s a memory that will remain fond but likely fade quickly. … Raheem Mostert — all nine games over the past two seasons of him — should probably just go home to San Francisco. … James White — all 61 catches of him over the past two seasons — should probably just go home to New England. … Jalen Richard might be better suited for the role of James White than James White at this point. … D’Onta Foreman is still only 26 years old. … Boston Scott, ready to haunt the deepest recesses of a 53-man roster near you. … The Ronald Jones dream is dead after even Tom Brady couldn’t make it waking life. … Salvon Ahmed can get you 3.7 yards per carry. No more, sometimes less. … In theory, Justin Jackson could offer big-play ability off your bench. … The Colts probably should have traded Marlon Mack when they had the chance. … Devontae Booker, reporting for Devonta Freeman duty. … If you are a nail, Jeff Wilson might hammer you on the fourth try.