NFL free agency: 10 names to watch and quarterbacks on the move

NFL Free Agency officially begins at 8pm UK time on Wednesday March 17 and this is a deadline day in reverse, if you will. Teams come racing out of the blocks to ratify deals that can actually be negotiated and agreed with out-of-contract players from 4pm UK time on Monday March 15.

The opening of free agency also marks the start of the new NFL league year and means trades can also start to occur. That will see the formalising of previously-agreed deals that saw the Detroit Lions and Los Angeles Rams swap quarterbacks with Matthew Stafford heading to California and Jared Goff moving to Michigan. Carson Wentz will also officially be unveiled as the quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts after being traded away from the Philadelphia Eagles.

It is sure to be a fascinating week or so across the NFL with the headlines coming fast and furious as big-name players will be on the move, via free agency or trade.

The Landscape

While free agency always creates a media frenzy, this is not a good year to be a free agent… or a veteran player who commands a decent salary on the NFL’s player wage scale which escalates with each season spent in the league.

The NFL’s salary cap is tied to league revenues and last year the figure was just north of $198m per team. This year, the cap has been affected by the global pandemic and sits at $182.5m. In 2020, the average each team had to spend on free agents was $43m. In 2021, that has fallen to around $13m. If you think of a good-level starter costing $10m per year, that’s three fewer players you can sign in 2021 compared to the year previous.

And some teams are having to kick really good players to the curb due to their salary cap troubles. Already in this offseason, the New Orleans Saints have off-loaded very productive veterans such as tight end Jared Cook, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, linebacker Kwon Alexander and punter Thomas Morestead. The Saints are a perfect example of how NFL teams feel the need to get younger and cheaper, at the expense of some star names.

Quarterbacks on the move?

Quarterbacks have more power than ever in today’s NFL and they want to be loved and listened to by their existing teams. Tom Brady winning the Super Bowl with Tampa Bay – where he had a big say in players brought in via free agency – has only emboldened others who want to enjoy similar success.

Two of the very best in the game could be on the move via trades this offseason. Deshaun Watson has made it crystal clear that he wants nothing more to do with the Houston Texans and I don’t think bridges have been burned here… I think they have been blown up to smithereens and are beyond repair. If a team offers up the right deal, I see no way out of this for the Texans – they have to give up on their star man.

It seems that the rift between Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks is also real. Wilson has been battered behind a poor offensive line his entire time in Seattle and he seems at odds with a head coach – Pete Carroll – who would rather run the ball and play defense than let his superstar quarterback throw the rock. A Wilson return to Seattle is not out of the equation, but he does seem to have had enough and has reportedly thrown out four trade destinations he would approve – the Chicago Bears, the Las Vegas Raiders, the New Orleans Saints and the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys are off the table having signed Dak Prescott to a new $160m deal.

It used to be that franchise quarterbacks in their prime never moved teams. We could see two of the biggest send shockwaves through the NFL in the coming weeks.

Keeping the champs intact

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been taking care of business in the days leading up to the new league year to make sure they are not raided like so many previous Super Bowl champions.

Heading into this offseason, the Bucs had some serious players up for grabs. Genuine stars of the team in wide receiver Chris Godwin, tight end Rob Gronkowski, edge rusher Shaq Barrett and linebacker Lavonte David. It was looking ominous for Bruce Arians’ team.

But they have placed the franchise tag on Godwin, securing him for the 2021 season at least, Gronk won’t play anywhere without Brady and will likely re-sign and the Bucs have inked David – one half of a key linebacker duo alongside Devin White – to a two-year deal worth $25m.

That just leaves Barrett, who led the NFL in sacks in 2019 and showed his worth once again with a dominating playoff run to conclude the 2020 season. If the Bucs re-sign Barrett and keep all their main players on the roster, that is a huge win and a major step towards being able to repeat as Super Bowl champs. Even if they lose Barrett, the situation is not quite as dire as it could have been.

Quality receivers available

In a passing league, there will be no shortage of aerial targets available when free agency opens. Top wide receivers such as Godwin and Allen Robinson, of the Chicago Bears, are off the market due to the franchise tag (could Robinson have been kept to tempt Wilson from Seattle?) but there are many other options.

Detroit’s big-play pairing of Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay are up for grabs and stretch-the-field speedsters such as Will Fuller (Houston), Nelson Agholor (Las Vegas) and John Brown (Buffalo) are sure to have some suitors.

There are receivers to fit every need. JuJu Smith-Schuster (Pittsburgh) can do the dirty work inside, while Curtis Samuel (Carolina) is a swiss army knife player who can run and catch. Add in Corey Davis (Tennessee), T.Y. Hilton (Indianapolis) and top-end tight ends such as Hunter Henry (LA Chargers) and Jonnu Smith (Tennessee) and this is a very strong group.

My top 10 free agents to watch

1. Shaq Barrett – Edge Rusher – Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Barrett led the league with 19.5 sacks in 2019 and while those numbers dropped to eight in 2020, he was a beast in the playoffs, recording four sacks and making Patrick Mahomes miserable in the Super Bowl.

2. Tent Williams – Offensive Tackle – San Francisco 49ers

It’s likely that this potential future Hall of Famer re-signs with the 49ers. He is too good and too valuable to let walk. While he is 33, Williams could easily play at an elite level for three or four more years.

3. Aaron Jones – Running Back – Green Bay Packers

I’m surprised the Packers didn’t keep Jones in house with the franchise tag. Jones is the perfect modern-day running back, racking up 3,017 yards from scrimmage over the past two seasons. And he is a touchdown machine, finding the end zone 30 times during that span.

4. Corey Linsley – Center – Green Bay Packers

For a team that has been 60 minutes from the Super Bowl in each of the past two seasons, the Packers don’t seem too concerned with keeping their roster intact. Linsley – the NFL’s All-Pro center in 2020 – could also have been tagged but can now test the open market.

5. Bud Dupree – Edge Rusher- Pittsburgh Steelers

This free agent class is loaded with edge rushers who can improve teams and change fortunes. Dupree recorded eight sacks in 11 games before suffering a torn ACL in 2020. He had 11.5 sacks in 2019 and is explosive off the edge.

6. Kenny Golladay – Wide Receiver – Detroit Lions

While he has had some injury issues, Golladay has been explosive and dangerous when on the field. In 47 career games, this tall and acrobatic receiver has averaged 16.8 yards per catch.

7. Trey Hendrickson – Edge Rusher – New Orleans Saints

It is unlikely the cash-strapped Saints will keep Hendrickson on their roster. Hendrickson used an array of pass-rush moves to record 13.5 sacks in 15 games in 2020. It feels like he is just getting started and could regularly put up such numbers.

8. Carl Lawson – Edge Rusher – Cincinnati Bengals

One of the few bright spots on Cincinnati’s 26th-ranked defense, it was a surprise to see Lawson allowed to reach free agency. Maybe it should not have been that surprising given Cincinnati’s years-long aversion to spending big bucks.

9. Joe Thuney – Guard – New England Patriots

The ever-reliable Thuney has started all 80 games in his NFL career to date. His toughness is only matched by his athletic ability – his greatest value is in the passing game, negating the league’s best interior rushers.

10. Will Fuller – Wide Receiver – Houston Texans

More edge rushers such as Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue (both of Baltimore) could have made this top 10, but the final spot goes to Fuller, who displayed game-breaking speed and playmaking ability in Houston in 2020 before being suspended for a performance-enhancing-drugs violation towards the end of the year.

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