SportsPulse: Antonio Brown is now a Raider. Our NFL insider Mike Jones breaks down how Oakland was able to pull off the massive trade and what’s next for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The NFL’s 2019 free agent market doesn’t officially open until 4 p.m. ET Wednesday, however phone lines will begin buzzing Monday when players with expiring contracts can begin negotiations with new clubs.
With franchise tags dispensed, six high-quality players (Texans DE/OLB Jadeveon Clowney, Cowboys DE DeMarcus Lawrence, Falcons DT Grady Jarrett, Seahawks DE Frank Clark, Chiefs OLB Dee Ford and 49ers K Robbie Gould) are essentially off the board — though trade rumors continue to swirl around Ford, who doesn’t project as an ideal scheme fit for new Kansas City coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, and have even surfaced around Clark.
Otherwise, several big names remain available while even more good (but not great) performers stand to cash in handsomely over the next several weeks thanks to a salary cap ballooning beyond $188 million a team.
Here’s a look at the top players scheduled to go free (excludes street free agents like Justin Houston and Malik Jackson, who are eligible to sign new pacts immediately after their previous ones were terminated):
1. RB Le’Veon Bell: When he’s on the field, few players are as productive as the two-time all-pro, who’s exceeded 1,800 yards from scrimmage three times and is one of the few backs in the league who could probably be a Pro Bowl receiver, too. Of course, Bell took himself out of the lineup in 2018, refusing to play on a second consecutive franchise tag from the Steelers and raising questions about his value as a teammate after several Pittsburgh players said they felt they’d been left in a lurch. Still, while a year away might seem a negative for most, for Bell, who recently turned 27 and led the NFL with 406 touches in 2017, such a recuperative period could be viewed as beneficial. The only question now is the asking price of a player who was desperate to be a free agent but also views himself worthy of getting paid more like a receiver than a back.
2. DE Trey Flowers: The Patriots’ leader in sacks each of the past three seasons, Flowers, 25, has a modest total of 21 during that stretch but also possesses the varied skill set you’d expect from a New England defender — an every-down player who has averaged 55 tackles a season since 2016 and does some of his best work stifling the run. He’ll get a huge payout.
3. S Earl Thomas: Probably the league’s premier safety in the post-Polamalu/Reed era. A broken leg ended Thomas’ 2018 campaign after four games, and he’s missed 19 starts over the past three seasons after starting every game in his first six years. The bigger concern about Thomas, 29, could be some of the me-first business tactics he employed, similar to Bell in 2018, skipping Seattle’s offseason program, training camp and some practices even after the regular season began. Still, despite an ugly end to Thomas’ tenure in the Pacific Northwest, coach Pete Carroll was very complimentary of him at the scouting combine and opined he’s still at the “top of his game.”
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4. QB Nick Foles: The Eagles star bought his way into free agency, though it now appears his market will be limited due to a general lack of quarterback demand and the widely held assumption that Foles will reunite with former Philadelphia quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo, now Jacksonville’s offensive coordinator. For all his success as a de facto reliever, Foles, 30, flopped as a starter in St. Louis in 2015 and nearly retired before his resurrection as the Super Bowl LII MVP.
5. ILB C.J. Mosley: He’s not in the rarefied air of Luke Kuechly or Bobby Wagner, but Mosley, 26, is solidly in the next tier of inside linebackers — a leader and reliable player in every phase who has earned Pro Bowl nods in four of his five seasons. A dearth of stellar inside linebacker options in the draft could boost his market further.
6. OLB Preston Smith: A three-year starter in Washington, maybe he’s best described as Jadeveon Clowney-lite — the stat sheet won’t wow you (24½ sacks in four seasons), but Smith, 26, is a solid all-around edge presence who averaged one quarterback hit per game last season.
7. C Matt Paradis: In a year when few notable offensive linemen will be available, the NFL’s second-ranked pivot, per the analytics website Pro Football Focus, could be poised to cash in. A broken leg did prematurely end what was probably Paradis’ final season in Denver.
8. S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix: It was telling that the Packers exported the former Pro Bowler at the trade deadline rather than extend him. The 26-year-old may not quite qualify as elite at his position, but his effectiveness against the pass should make him quite valuable — figuratively and literally — to some defense.
9. DT Ndamukong Suh: At 32, he’s no longer among the league’s most-feared linemen. And though it certainly helped playing alongside defensive player of the year Aaron Donald in 2018, Suh also proved in his year with the Rams that he can be a valuable commodity on a three-man front after lining up as a three-technique in 4-3 defenses most of his career. His versatility could make him attractive to a team like New England.
10. S Landon Collins: He’s been a Pro Bowler each of the last three seasons, but his impact has diminished since 2016, when he was a legitimate defensive MVP candidate with four sacks and five interceptions. The Giants were obviously unwilling to tag Collins, likely because he’s more a box safety than center fielder and now part of a crowded group at his position.
11. RB Mark Ingram: It’s not easy for 29-year-old backs to command top dollar. But Ingram remains an effective and multi-faceted performer, his receiving skills especially undervalued given how well Alvin Kamara handles pass-catching duties in New Orleans. The timeshare with the Saints and a four-game suspension to start the season meant his touches dropped by nearly half (from 288 to 159) after his 2017 Pro Bowl campaign — though reduced use last season might actually be a selling point for a fresher Ingram.
12. WR Golden Tate: Yes, he’s 30, but was still playing like a 1A kind of receiver in Detroit prior to his midseason trade to the Eagles. He can line up wide or in the slot and will also do dirty work like blocking. With so few pass catchers available, guys like Tate and TE Jared Cook, 31, could benefit due to supply/demand factors.
13. CB Bryce Callahan: High-end slot corners are very hard to find, and he was one of the best in the league while playing for the Bears before a broken foot ended his 2018 season.
14. T Trent Brown: He’s unique in many ways. Start with the gargantuan 6-8, 380-pound frame, plus the ability Brown showed in New England last season to perform on the blind side despite his mass. It’s hard to find solid tackles in free agency, but it is worth noting Brown seems headed to his third team in three years, and his predecessor in New England, Nate Solder, so far hasn’t lived up to the huge contract he signed with the Giants a year ago after leaving Foxborough.
15. RB Tevin Coleman: He won’t be mistaken for Bell, but Coleman’s market seems to be building given he won’t cost nearly as much. He topped 1,000 yards from scrimmage for the first time in 2018 after stepping in for injured Falcons starter Devonta Freeman, but Coleman seems best utilized as part of a timeshare whether he’s starting or in a third-down role.
16. LB Anthony Barr: Similar to Collins, he’s got a glowing résumé (four Pro Bowls in five seasons) even if it doesn’t necessarily align with the performance. Barr only has 13½ career sacks and struggles in pass coverage. However he might transform into a much bigger force if unleashed in a 3-4 front after operating in Mike Zimmer’s defense in Minnesota.
17. WR Adam Humphries: A nifty slot receiver who averaged 64 receptions over the past three seasons in Tampa Bay, he could pull down more dough than better known counterparts like Randall Cobb and Cole Beasley.
18. S Tyrann Mathieu: He may never recover his all-pro form of 2015, but he continues to be a versatile and disruptive defensive back who hasn’t missed a game since 2016.
19. WR Tyrell Williams: A big guy (6-4, 205 pounds) who consistently made big plays for the Chargers, Williams won’t ever be a 100-catch type of receiver. But he is the kind of No. 2 wideout who will burn defenses committed to stopping the run or elite pass catchers.
20. QB Teddy Bridgewater: He looked so good in preseason with the Jets that New Orleans spent a third-round pick to acquire him to be Drew Brees’ backup in 2018. Bridgewater still only has one regular-season start since suffering his horrific knee injury in Minnesota just prior to the 2016 season. But he could be a valuable alternative in a city like Miami, Bridgewater’s hometown, as a relatively low-risk investment who could pay off given his pre-injury Pro Bowl track record and age (he’s only 26).
21. OLB Za’Darius Smith: He had 8½ sacks and 25 quarterback hits for the Ravens in 2018. Kinda hard to believe he’s reaching the market.
22. DL Sheldon Richardson: He’s certainly talented, but he’s also about to join his fourth team in four seasons and hasn’t made much of a splash lately despite playing with some talented fronts.
23. T Daryl Williams: A knee injury ruined what was probably his final season in Carolina. But if Williams, 26, can recapture his 2017 form, he could be a steal at one of the most difficult positions to fill.
24. DE Ziggy Ansah: He’s had at least a dozen sacks in two of the past four seasons. But inconsistency and injuries marred the other two campaigns (six combined sacks in 2016 and 2018). Classic boom-or-bust proposition.
25. RB Adrian Peterson: Is he really going to languish until August again? AD, 33, proved (once again) in 2018 that he can still be a 1,000-yard performers whose reps will be naturally curbed when he comes out on passing downs.
Follow Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis