Despite the American sports world grappling with unprecedented uncertainty, the NFL’s 28th free-agency period remains set to begin Monday. The two-day legal tampering window will see historic paydays, with some low-end stars and high-second-tier talents likely to move positional markets north.
Some much bigger names reside in this free-agency class, namely a certain Patriot who has been in NFL and college football fans’ lives since the late 1990s, and depth exists at several positions. But like every year, teams will soon regret some big contracts. Here are the 2020 class’s top buyer-beware candidates.
Being trapped in the Jets' offense for four seasons, Anderson could provide nice production on his second contract. He averaged 14.9, 15.0 and 15.0 yards per catch in the past three seasons, respectively, and has missed only two games. Anderson, 26, also is a sub-4.4-second 40-yard dash wideout. The issue will be the price. It will likely cost between $13 million-$16 million to sign the Jet deep threat. That seems exorbitant considering this year’s historically deep receiver draft class, with said talents set to earn nowhere near that salary range until the mid-2020s.
Considering Anderson's off-the-field baggage and his zero seasons averaging 60 yards per game, that is a high price when this offseason teems with cheap labor.
This type of player usually receives the franchise tag, but the 49ers are up against the cap. Armstead finally delivered on his first-round investment, leading a loaded 49ers pass rush with 10 sacks, and he can rush from the inside on passing downs. But the 6-foot-7 D-lineman entered 2019 with nine sacks in 46 games and missed 18 games between 2016-17. Either something clicked when he played a career-high 913 snaps, or Nick Bosa joining him and Pro Bowler DeForest Buckner made life easier.
With quarterbacks’ release times quicker than ever, interior rushers’ value has never been higher. And Armstead is 26 and a plus run defender. Should the 49ers let him reach the market, Armstead will be paid in the $20 million-per-year range. He will be a dice roll at that price.
While Barrett has offered consistency throughout his five-year career, the former undrafted free agent comes with a 48-font “CONTRACT YEAR” warning label. Barrett was stuck behind Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware in 2015 and then Miller and Bradley Chubb in ’18, but he did have opportunities in between. More of a run defender in Denver, Barrett combined for 5.5 sacks in 32 games from 2016-17. Going from that to a Buccaneers-record 19.5 sacks, an NFL-leading 37 QB hits and six forced fumbles is astounding. Barrett legitimately delivered an all-time contract year.
The Bucs are likely to use their franchise tag on the 27-year-old standout. Tampa Bay has not seen any edge work like this since Simeon Rice in the early 2000s, so Barrett will be rewarded. But if the parties try to hammer out an extension by the July deadline, this will be one of the trickiest cases in memory.
NFL royalty, the six-time Super Bowl champion has earned every bit of this offseason attention. However, Brady spent 11 seasons with either the most dominant wide receiver (Randy Moss) or most dominant tight end (Rob Gronkowski) ever. Given a substandard supporting cast last season, Brady had the Pats at 15th in total offense -– the lowest its ranking has been since Brady started collecting rings in 2003 –- and ranked 16th in QBR. What exactly are you buying in an immobile, 43-year-old passer who has played for the NFL’s greatest coach, worked with the same offensive coordinator for most of his prime and played behind a perennially strong offensive line?
Brady will need plenty of amenities to excel at an age where no quarterback has, and he certainly deserves a raise from his Pats-friendly contracts. But this is not Peyton Manning at 36; a team that signs Brady is paying for past performance. It is hard to see the iconic passer trending up from here.
Bridgewater being connected to the Bucs is strange. His Saints work was efficient (67.9 completion rate, a 9-2 TD-INT ratio) and successful (5-0 record as a 2019 starter). But Drew Brees’ backup also ranked last in Next Gen Stats’ average intended air yards metric (6.2) and third to last in average completed air yards (4.6). Bridgewater’s last full season as a starter -– with the 2015 Vikings -– also produced the third-fewest touchdown passes (14) in a 16-start season in the 2010s. The Bucs would be making a big change from deep-passing INT maven Jameis Winston to the conservative Bridgewater.
It appears the 27-year-old passer who once suffered a career-threatening knee injury is primed for another chance at a starting job. But the Bucs, or another suitor, need to tread lightly. This formula might only work if a team possesses a strong defense capable of keeping scores down.
Picked three spots ahead of Khalil Mack and 12 in front of Aaron Donald in 2014, Clowney is not on their level as a pass rusher. The former consensus No. 1 overall selection’s 32 sacks are 29.5 behind Mack and 40 behind Donald, and with the Seahawks, Clowney added just three to this total. However, the ex-Texan Pro Bowler is a versatile player who is adept at inside rushes and is one of the league’s top run defenders. But rumors point to it costing Mack- and Donald-level money ($23 million-plus per year) to sign the 27-year-old outside linebacker in free agency. That is a tough sell.
When Clowney’s knee and now core injuries are factored into this equation, it will be almost impossible for the former prized South Carolina recruit to live up to the deal. Good on Clowney for maximizing his value, though, after having to wait longer than any pass rusher in this era to land a second contract.
The super-athletic outside linebacker seems like he should thrive regardless of who is pulling the strings, but Collins faltered in Cleveland after signing a then-record $12.5 million-per-year contract. The Browns cut him after two seasons, only to see him reborn under Bill Belichick on a $3M Patriots pact. Collins’ seven-sack, three-interception, three-forced fumble season was IDP fantasy gold, but he will turn 31 next season and has not put it together away from New England.
Still, Collins has 24.5 career sacks –- third-most among off-ball linebackers since 2012 –- and 16 forced fumbles (first, by a lot). That will generate value. Collins will need to land with a strong defensive mind to make this work, however.
Will the Cowboys pay Cooper at the new A-list receiver rate or send him to the market for a feeding frenzy? Cooper has four Pro Bowls on his resume; three of those came as an alternate. He also has zero 1,200-yard receiving seasons and is prone to inconsistency. The Cowboys kept him on the sideline for their fourth-and-the-season play in Philadelphia. But a player like this almost never hits the market. The 25-year-old wideout reaching free agency would put him in position to be the second-highest-paid receiver –- in between Julio Jones ($22M annually) and Michael Thomas ($19.25M).
Cooper is 11th in receiving yardage since 2015. Twenty-five wideouts produced a 1,200-yard season in that span. A strong case exists the team that pays the talented pass-catcher will be disappointed soon.
Despite perennially terrible Chargers offensive lines, Gordon rushed for 4,240 yards in five seasons and totaled 47 touchdowns en route to two Pro Bowls. But the price must be right. Gordon’s second contract should not approach the Ezekiel Elliott-Todd Gurley-Le’Veon Bell-David Johnson tier (north of $13M annually). While Gordon has never missed more than four games in a season, he has encountered nagging injuries throughout his career. That stands to lower his price tag, despite his 1,283 career touches being lower than Bell through five years and Elliott through four.
Gordon on an eight-figure-per-year contract, as most of the top-tier running back deals have been, stands to disappoint. Fortunately for the potential buyers (and unfortunately for the soon-to-be 27-year-old back), the collective failures of Bell, Gurley and Johnson will drive down running back prices.
What a perfect time for Hooper to hit free agency. This wide receiver draft class has generated historic buzz, but as college passing attacks continue to innovate and produce record numbers, tight end production at that level has not taken off. This year’s class does not look promising. Meanwhile, the Chargers are rumored to have their franchise tag ready for Hunter Henry. With Hooper, 25, being the one who will hit the market, he is in line to become the league’s highest-paid tight end.
But said buyer will be acquiring an above-average tight end -– one closer to Tier 3 than the Travis Kelce-George Kittle aristocracy. When targeted in single coverage in his career, Hooper’s Pro Football Focus grade plummeted considerably. He also played in a Falcons offense with three or four superior weapons for most of his career. At $11 million-$13 million per year, Hooper seems primed to underwhelm.
Phillips is on the cusp of a rare vault from the 2018 in-season waiver wire to commanding a lucrative contract. The 2015 second-round pick showed occasional promise in Miami but erupted with a 9.5-sack 2019 season in Buffalo. The top sacker on the Bills’ No. 6 DVOA defense, Phillips possesses the size (341 pounds) and recent production to support a nice payday. But those 9.5 sacks came on just 25 pressures, and PFF graded him as its No. 104 interior defender (out of 114 qualified players).
The 27-year-old defensive tackle deserves credit for spearheading a Bills pass rush lacking a consistent edge threat, but this is a prime overpay candidate.
The start of Roby’s career seemed to place him on track to be a deservedly well-paid cornerback by this point. When the 2015 Broncos deployed their historically dominant nickel package, Roby held his own on the right side. But by 2018, after the team broke up its Roby-Chris Harris-Aqib Talib troika, Roby started to struggle. The Texans signed Roby to a prove-it deal last year, and he became their most reliable cover man. For the teams that miss out on this market’s alphas -– Harris, Byron Jones, James Bradberry -– Roby, Logan Ryan and Trae Waynes may serve as the consolation prizes.
Roby has yet to show he can be a consistently strong cover man on his own. He would make a reasonable CB2, but even that will be costly. Teams need to be careful here. The 27-year-old former first-rounder will be one of the market’s more unpredictable stocks.
Tannehill delivered a stunning mid-career breakout for the Titans in 2019. His 9.6 yards-per-attempt figure ranked eighth all time and sparked a sinking team to the AFC championship game. He led the NFL in just about every “yards per” stat there is and was fifth in Football Outsiders’ QB DVOA metric (which measures success per play). Tannehill’s Dolphins-best Y/A number was 7.7; his 117.5 Titans passer rating was 25 points better than his best Dolphins season. A belated breakout in favorable circumstances is a better bet, however, than the soon-to-be 32-year-old passer’s knees holding up. Tannehill missed 19 games because of knee trouble from 2016-18.
With both Derrick Henry and right tackle Jack Conklin bound for free agency, the Titans are entering crunch time with Tannehill. A short-term deal would work best for Tennessee, because Tannehill’s recent injury history is scary enough it is nearly impossible to authorize a franchise-QB-level guarantee.
Kyle Van Noy
Like Collins, Van Noy profiles as a hybrid player who may not function as effectively outside of New England. The off-ball linebacker/edge defender was a crucial piece of a few high-end Patriots defenses. He led the 2018 Super Bowl champion Pats with 92 tackles and came through with 6.5 sacks for 2019’s No. 1 DVOA defense. Van Noy profiles as one of the market’s most intriguing players, but also like Collins, he was off the radar when not in a Patriots uniform. Van Noy spent two-and-a-half anonymous years with the Lions, and it is fair to wonder if a lesser coach can find a role for a ‘tweener of sorts.
Van Noy will turn 29 later this month and has never recorded seven sacks or 100 tackles in a season. He’s not a major overpay candidate, but it is not difficult to envision another team paying starter-level money and failing to coax what Belichick did out of this late bloomer.
Thanks to trading for a contract-year defensive lineman when they were 2-6, the Giants are on the brink of overpaying for draft status. The 2015 No. 6 overall pick has not justified his draft slot, bottoming out with a half-sack 2019 season. Williams also registered two tackles for loss last season and just three in 2017. While Williams’ QB-hit numbers are solid (four 19-plus-hit seasons in five years), the ex-Jet’s lack of production should make teams skittish. But that draft position, 2016 Pro Bowl season and the fact he’s only 25 will drive up his market –- to a regrettable place.
Had he been a lower-regarded third- or fourth-rounder, Williams may profile as an intriguing mid-level signing. Anything in that Fletcher Cox-Geno Atkins-Jurrell Casey tier ($15-$17M annually) is unreasonable, though it may require something in that ballpark to win this bidding battle.
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