The NFL’s “legal tampering” period of free agency is here and the news is coming fast, with multiple stars receiving the franchise tag ahead of Monday’s deadline. It’s going to be hard to keep track of the comings and goings once the market officially opens on Wednesday, so let’s set the table with five things I care about and five things I don’t think are worth much attention in free agency.
5 Things I care about
Which QB is left without a seat?
The 2020 quarterback market is one of the most robust crops we’ve seen in years. Veterans of varying stature are poised to change teams. In a typical year, there are fewer than three free agents available on the open market who can reasonably be expected to compete for a starting job. This year, even with Ryan Tannehill getting paid by the Titans, we’re overcrowded with such players. That’s not even considering the two draft prospects destined to go in the top five picks.
While the look of this market benefits the teams itching to add another body to their passer room, the upcoming game of musical chairs brings with it one inevitability: Some quarterback will be left without a seat.
Jameis Winston feels like a wild card in that vein. In a typical year, a 26-year-old former No. 1 overall pick with a career 7.7 yards per attempt mark would be one of the most desirable picks of the litter.
In the current quarterback market, there are too many other options.
For once, teams have the luxury of thoroughly examining each available player’s flaws. Putting Winston under that microscope will reveal far too many flaws for an organization to feel it can sell a fanbase this is their unquestioned guy, for the short or long term.
Things will get really interesting if the Buccaneers decide they’re truly ready move on from Winston, which looks like the case with Tampa Bay franchising Shaquil Barrett. If the notably frustrated Bruce Arians isn’t ready to keep a seat open for him, where does Winston go next? Odds are he’d end up in a Tannehill-type mold as a backup behind a shaky starter in the hopes he can emerge for his own redemption after a mid-season benching.
Can Teddy Bridgewater change the tide of a team?
A one-time first-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings, Teddy Bridgewater is on the cusp of writing a storybook ending to a tale filled with twists. Bridgewater showed last season in New Orleans that he is indeed all the way back from a gruesome knee injury that threatened to end his career. The Saints won all five of his starts in relief of Drew Brees. Bridgewater achieved a 7.5 adjusted yards per attempt mark during that span.
He looked every bit the part of the late 20s version of Alex Smith: a quarterback with enough individual talent to make plays on his own but at his best is an extension of a great offensive play-caller. We saw how Smith instantly brought credibility to a once-adrift Kansas City Chiefs franchise as their point guard simply by flawlessly operating Andy Reid’s system and limiting mistakes.
Bridgewater can be that player in the right spot.
A franchise might not secure their next five seasons of prosperity by signing Bridgewater. However, they can calm a storm before drafting a young player to develop in a few seasons. In the right situation, Bridgewater would bring a boost to the fantasy stock of players currently on his next roster while keeping the team closer to contention.
Quick top-five power rankings of spots for Teddy
Indianapolis Colts — Ideal fit as a facilitator paired with an excellent offensive innovator, but the team might be locked onto Philip Rivers.
New England Patriots — Have already implemented the quick-strike passing game he’s used to but need to restock weaponry.
Los Angeles Chargers — Depends on where L.A. views the trajectory of the team, but players like Keenan Allen and Austin Ekeler fit Bridgewater like a glove.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers — A bevy of weapons to work with, but while they could be looking for a contrast to Winston Bruce Arians’ downfield passing scheme may not be a match.
Chicago Bears — Matt Nagy worked with Smith in Kansas City, the scheme would fit and receivers like Allen Robinson and Anthony Miller would rejoice, but this feels like more of an end to the Trubisky era than Chicago is ready for.
Where Robby Anderson lands
If Amari Cooper does indeed stay in Dallas, we’re looking at Robby Anderson as the lone available proven high-quality starting wide receiver that’s under the age of 30. As such, expect his market to be robust.
From a pure projection standpoint, we care about where Anderson lands because he’s a good receiver that will shake up a team’s target-totem-pole. Anderson hasn’t always put it together in the stat sheet, but along with his established deep game prowess he’s a full-field route-runner who is especially dangerous on crossing patterns. However, Anderson’s own skills won’t be the only benefit he brings to a new team. Vertical threats like him also open up opportunities for other players all across the offense.
Recent comments from Anderson paint a mixed picture of what his future may hold. While he shared that the Jets are interested in bringing him back — and he’s far from closed that door — Anderson also told of a dream he had about playing with Tom Brady. Perhaps Anderson does return to keep building a strong cast around Sam Darnold. Maybe he follows Brady to a cap-flush team like Las Vegas. And yet, it may well be none of the above. Personally, I think a fit with the Cardinals seems ideal.
Veteran tackle market
Two left tackles in their late 30s, Andrew Whitworth and Jason Peters, will find themselves on the open market in the next few weeks. Philadelphia has already said it’ll let Peters walk. While younger and on the other side of the line, Bryan Bulaga (31 by start of season) could also shake free from Green Bay.
Few teams are going to want to open up the purse for a multi-year deal with an aging player. However, offensive tackle is such a difficult position to fill, a contender might be willing to kick the tires on these guys to get the last few miles out of this group of longtime star blockers.
An improved offensive line can change the fortunes of the entire offense. Just look at what Whitworth’s arrival did for the Rams offense when Sean McVay tapped him to be their left tackle. If these players have anything left in the tank, their additions will be consequential. If they don’t get a sniff, we’ll know the league thinks these guys are toast.
It’s wild to see a talented 25-year-old tight end with a resume of proven production on the open market. That’s exactly what we’re getting with Austin Hooper.
Hooper had a great season last year, and could have pushed to be the top tight end in fantasy had a knee injury not cost him some games. He is perfect for the modern NFL as a pass-catcher first, second and third. We just don’t find guys like this available for any team to pluck up.
Given how often fantasy managers are searching for a quality tight end, Hooper’s presence as a free agent is massive. Plenty of bigger names will get more attention. But Hooper’s move, whether it’s to the Cleveland Browns or someone else, may end being the most consequential for fake football and don’t be shocked when his pockets are lined with big bills in the near future.
5 Things I don’t care about
Any justification for the Vikings trading Stefon Diggs
With all the caveats needed about my not being in the building on a day-to-day basis and not knowing what that experience is like for the Vikings, there is no logical reason for shipping Stefon Diggs in a trade. Minnesota is pressed for salary cap space, but got some relief from extending Kirk Cousins. Trading Diggs would only free up $5 million in wiggle room, which is not enough to justify making your offense significantly worse.
Let’s not mince words here: Stefon Diggs is the best route-runner in the NFL. He possesses rare separation ability and a knack for the big play, and his presence as a threatening outside receiver opens up the field for others. He’s one of the top 10 to 12 receivers in the game and losing him would be problematic for a contending team watching its window close.
Stefon Diggs' 2019 #ReceptionPerception success rate vs. coverage scores:
vs. man: 76.5%
vs. zone: 84.3%
vs. press: 79.1% (career best)
He's now finished above the 93rd percentile against man coverage for three-straight years. He is the best route runner in the NFL.
— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) February 28, 2020
I spoke with Diggs in late January and he sounded more than fine with his role on the team and at peace with the idea that he won’t ever command league-high target figures with all the other options in Minnesota’s offense. He even noted their run-first philosophy. Perhaps that’s an act but I doubt it.
If the most Minnesota truly has to “deal with” is that he does a few things you think are weird on social media, then give me a break. I don’t even know what we’re doing here.
The running back movement
A weird thing for anyone who plays fantasy football to say, but that’s just the landscape we have here.
There are really only two potential top-of-depth-chart backs available this year: Melvin Gordon and Kenyan Drake. Derrick Henry would have been the top option on the market, but got the franchise tag. Considering how he performed in Arizona, Drake should find his way back to Kliff Kingsbury’s offense. The Cardinals took a step toward ensuring that by placing the transition tag on Drake. That just leaves Gordon, followed by a host of middling players who have washed out of at least one, if not multiple, teams right now. Like most running backs, they could thrive in the right spot but those are hard to find.
Gordon looks destined to move, but the trouble is finding a host of teams looking to make a big addition in their backfield via free agency. The Buccaneers are an obvious and appealing destination. The Falcons have an opening after cutting Devonta Freeman but along with the Dolphins, they feel like teams more likely to look to a cheap option in the draft.
With so many teams seemingly set at the position or ready to pluck from the ranks of draft prospects, it’s a tough time for Gordon to be hitting the market.
Non-top-flight players getting top-flight money
Byron Jones is not the best cornerback in the NFL. Jadeveon Clowney is not the best edge defender in the NFL. Jack Conklin is not the best tackle in the NFL.
Despite all that, each one of them has a chance to reset the market at their position. That is just how free agency works. Player salary isn’t about neatly filing each guy in order of where they rank within their position. It’s about the timing of the deal and the leverage of the player. Free agents like Jones, Clowney and Conklin — who are established good players at valuable positions — hitting the market under 28 years old are ideal candidates for massive contracts. The timing is perfect and they have leverage as proven assets at league-wide needed positions. All teams are looking for assistance in slowing down opposing passers and protecting their own.
So when the contract figures for Jones, Clowney, Conklin or any player in a similar boat make their way into the news in the coming weeks, try to keep it in perspective. It’s a reflection of so many factors beyond how good NFL decision-makers think they are.
Marcus Mariota as a ‘1B’
Of course, it’s ironic to wave away the idea that Marcus Mariota can revive his career with another team after he was usurped by a quarterback who did just that in Tennesee last year. But it is what it is.
After a promising first two seasons filled with excellent performances in the red zone, Mariota’s play has fallen off steadily in each of the last three years. Injuries and an overly cautious nature have turned Mariota into a mere shell of a quarterback. He avoids interceptions but takes brutal, drive-killing sacks far too often. His instincts as a runner have eroded to the point he rarely looks to take advantage of his speed.
Straight up, he just doesn’t move the offense. It’s the worst quality for any quarterback.
With so many quarterbacks available this offseason, it’s hard to sell Mariota as anything other than a pure backup option. I can buy him as a guy whom you place firmly in the No. 2 spot and hope he gets you through a rough patch for a game or two. Hoping for anything more than that is a problem.
He needs to be an option, not a part of a solution.
Jimmy Graham hitting the market
The Packers released Jimmy Graham. It probably doesn’t matter. Once one of the best tight ends to ever grace the field, an undeniable fantasy football force, Graham has been a mere shell of himself for at least the last year and a half. He is not going to suddenly become an asset with a new team.
It’s the friendliest of reminders that games over names is a crucial philosophy this time of year. Yes, it’s exciting to see a name you know out on the open market.
That doesn’t mean he’s going to do anything more than muck up projections if he lands with a new team.
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