NFL free agency is upon us. Earlier this week, I examined the unprecedented QB movement that could unfold next week, with guys like Tom Brady and Philip Rivers hitting the market for the first time in their careers. Today, we’re taking a long look at the best non-QB offensive players set to enter free agency. This group may not be quite as stacked as the collection of talent on defense, but there are still plenty of quality options. Let’s dive in.
1. Amari Cooper, WR
The scouting report: Players with Cooper’s talent and résumé rarely come close to free agency. He’s a former top-five pick with four 1,000-yard seasons who was traded for a first-round pick a year and a half ago. The only reason Cooper might become available is that, after bungling Dak Prescott’s contract situation over the past year, the Cowboys may have to use their franchise tag on their QB instead of their star wideout. If Cooper isn’t tagged, his market should be north of the five-year, $96 million deal (with $60.6 million guaranteed) that Michael Thomas got from the Saints last summer.
Cooper has stretches when it looks like he belongs in that upper echelon of receivers. He’s a gifted route runner, with a great feel for how to decelerate, change speeds, and create separation late in routes. When he threatens a corner vertically only to throttle down and leave his man in the dust, it is a thing of beauty. He’s also capable of some nifty sideline work in tight spaces. If you turn on the tape from his game against the Packers this season—when Cooper finished with 11 catches for 226 yards—you might think he’s the best receiver in the league.
The problem with Cooper isn’t his ceiling—it’s his floor. He’s struggled with drops his entire career, and last season, he had a tendency to disappear for stretches. Cooper got worked by top corners like Darius Slay and Stephon Gilmore in their individual matchups, and he was a nonfactor in ugly losses to the Jets and Eagles. He’ll be only 26 at the start of next season and is arguably a top-10 receiver in the league, despite his inconsistencies. The guy is going to get paid, but Cooper’s ridiculous upside can make him a frustrating watch when he doesn’t get there.
Why he’s a free agent: I touched on it above, but Cooper’s current status has everything to do with the knotty situation unfolding in Dallas. You don’t trade a first-round pick for a player just to watch him leave in free agency. Before the CBA talks ramped up, many expected that even if Dallas franchised Prescott, it would use the transition tag on Cooper and match any offer another team made in free agency. But if the new CBA is passed, teams will no longer be able to use both tags this spring, which would leave the Cowboys in a precarious position. My hunch is that Cooper will wind up back in Dallas, but that’s looking more uncertain by the day.
Possible landing spots: Bills, Colts
Both Buffalo and Indianapolis have playoff-caliber rosters but could use an upgrade at wide receiver. Bills general manager Brandon Beane has said in the past that he won’t make a desperation play for a top-end receiver because he doesn’t feel many true no. 1 options exist. Cooper is one of those rare players, and the Bills have the cap space to offer him a market-setting deal. The Colts also have plenty of money to throw around, and Indy needs another outside receiving option to pair with T.Y. Hilton.
2. A.J. Green, WR
The scouting report: I’ll admit that I forgot how damn good Green really is. He missed the entire 2019 season with a foot injury, and as players like Michael Thomas ascended up the wide receiver pecking order, Green seemed to fade into the background. But when I turned on his 2018 tape, his dominance was impossible to ignore.
Evaluating Green isn’t complicated. He does everything well. He’s one of the league’s best vertical threats, creating instant separation off the line and using his long strides to run past individual defenders and through entire zone defenses. Green was a top-five pick in 2011 because of his incredible physical prowess, but he’s also a master of the little things. He does a great job separating at the top of routes. He makes contested catches look easy. He’s a beast after the catch. He’s A.J. freaking Green.
Why he’s a free agent: The version of A.J. Green that ripped through defenses for the first half of the 2018 season would never approach free agency. Even as the notoriously stingy Bengals hit rock bottom, Green probably would’ve gotten the Julio Jones–Larry Fitzgerald treatment as legacy receivers that become lifers with a single franchise. The concern is that we haven’t seen that A.J. Green for some time.
Green was playing at an All-Pro level in 2018 before a toe injury essentially ended his season after eight full games. Then, on the first day of training camp last summer, a fluke injury on a makeshift practice field in Dayton torpedoed his 2019 campaign. Green will be 32 when next season begins. As a fellow 32-year-old hoping his best days aren’t behind him, I’d like to think that Green still has plenty left in the tank. But the truth is that pouring money into an aging receiver is dicey business. If Cooper is worth $20 million a year and someone like Robby Anderson will get $13 million per season, a contending team should gladly offer Green a $17 million salary. But that move carries some risk.
Possible landing spots: Packers, Saints
Green Bay feels like the most logical landing spot for Green if the Bengals let him hit the open market. The Packers’ most pressing need is at wide receiver, where they could seriously use an injection of speed opposite Davante Adams. Cutting Jimmy Graham freed up $8 million in cap space for general manager Brian Gutekunst, and the Packers could create even more room with a couple of other moves. Signing Green to help Aaron Rodgers make one last championship push makes almost too much sense.
The Saints don’t have as much cap flexibility as Green Bay, but when has that stopped them? New Orleans has been looking for a speed complement to Michael Thomas for some time, and like Green Bay, this team is operating on borrowed time as Drew Brees nears the end of his career.
3. Joe Thuney, G
The scouting report: Thuney has given the Patriots more in his first four seasons than the franchise could have ever dreamed. The 2016 third-round pick has started all 64 games of his pro career, and he’s improved every year. With only 308 pounds packed on his 6-foot-5 frame, Thuney’s lack of bulk and strength left him vulnerable to power rushers early in his career. Over time, though, he’s learned how to combat bigger players with a combination of leverage and excellent technique.
Thuney is one of the more sound pass-blocking guards in the entire league. His hand placement and timing are consistently great; he’s almost always on target inside the defender’s frame with his punch, and that accuracy allows him to stay balanced and in control. He also plays with a heightened awareness of twists and stunts, rarely getting caught out of place. Thuney isn’t a mauler in the run game, and Dante Scarnecchia pupils have previously struggled after leaving the watchful eye of the league’s best offensive line coach. But Thuney would be a low-risk addition for any team that needs a reliable presence at left guard.
Why he’s a free agent: The Patriots are two years removed from handing a sizable extension to their other guard, the oft underrated Shaq Mason. Mason and right tackle Marcus Cannon are both on reasonable second contracts from New England, but handing out a third extension would represent a disproportionate level of investment in a single position group. The Pats are projected to have about $50 million in cap room, but that figure is a bit misleading. Signing a starting quarterback—Tom Brady or otherwise—will take a huge chunk of cash, and a reunion with pending free agent Devin McCourty would eat up even more space. Based on recent extensions for guys like Ali Marpet and Cody Whitehair, Thuney will be looking for at least $11 million or 12 million a year, and that’s a bit too rich for the Patriots’ blood.
Possible landing spots: Bills, Jets
It turns out that two of the league’s most guard-needy teams happen to play in Thuney’s old division. Buffalo may be hesitant to give Thuney a monster deal after handing center Mitch Morse a market-setting contract last season, but the Bills have a ton of cap space and, with Quenton Spain hitting free agency, a hole at left guard. Aside from Morse, Buffalo rebuilt its line with short-term, low-cost additions last season, and Thuney would give that group a huge boost as general manager Brandon Beane tries to put his team over the top.
The Jets’ offensive line situation is bleak, man. General manager Joe Douglas has a monumental task ahead in his first full offseason with the franchise. Pretty much every spot along the Jets’ line could use an upgrade, and adding Thuney would be a solid first step.
4. Brandon Scherff, G
The scouting report: Scherff was the fifth pick in the 2015 draft, and he still flashes the special traits that made him the highest-drafted guard in 14 years. His movement skills in space are startling for a 315-pound man, and he casually dominates defenders at the point of attack. At times, Scherff relies on his overwhelming physical tools a bit too much. He’ll occasionally forego proper technique to simply toss a defender out of the way, or be too aggressive in pass protection as he tries to overpower people early in the down.
Scherff’s ceiling is tantalizing, but we haven’t seen him reach those heights much in his five seasons with Washington. He’s missed 13 games over the past two years, and even when he’s been on the field, he’s often been hurt. Despite the injuries and inconsistencies, though, at least one team will shell out market-setting money for Scherff. Mark it down. His draft status and highlight-reel plays will be enough to intoxicate a GM who’s looking to make a splash.
Why he’s a free agent: If Scherff had stayed healthy over the past couple of seasons, he’d have already earned a lucrative extension. A checkered injury history and the shifting sands in Washington’s front office have brought the two sides to this point, but I still expect Scherff to be in burgundy and gold this fall. Drafting a quality offensive lineman in the top five only to watch him walk in free agency would be pretty wild, even for this team. Whether it’s on the franchise tag or via a long-term deal, Scherff will probably be playing for Ron Rivera in 2020.
Possible landing spots: Browns, Rams
Offensive line remains the biggest need for the talented yet flawed Browns. Scherff would add a physical, established presence at right guard and form a stellar interior with left guard and center J.C. Tretter. Cleveland has the money to make the move happen (especially if first-year general manager Andrew Berry looks to the draft to upgrade one or both of his tackle spots), but it’s possible that the new regime will eschew any big-money deals this spring as the Browns attempt to reset their locker-room dynamic.
Adding another top-of-the-market contract to their books might not be smart, but Rams general manager Les Snead has shown that he’s willing to make bold moves. After fielding a top-five unit in 2018, the Rams line crumbled last season, and Snead has a $36 million quarterback to protect.
5. Hunter Henry, TE
The scouting report: The important question with any receiving tight end is, “Does he create plays in the passing game that wouldn’t otherwise exist?” With Henry, the answer is a resounding yes. He routinely turns off-target throws down the field into big plays. Even as an average athlete, Henry excels as a vertical threat because he tracks the ball in the air better than most wide receivers. Just check out this Week 17 play in which he’s working against Tyrann Mathieu.
Catches like this show up a lot on Henry’s film. Even some of the incompletions are impressive.
Henry finished fourth among tight ends in 2019 with an average of 10.2 air yards per target, and those deep passes didn’t hinder his efficiency. He notched a 72.4 percent catch rate, the 13th-highest mark in the league. Only three other players in the NFL finished with a catch rate above 70 percent while averaging more than 10 air yards per target: Tyler Lockett, Chris Godwin, and Kenny Stills. That is one hell of a list. Henry’s struggled with injuries over the past two seasons (sitting out the entire 2018 season with a torn ACL and missing four games last year with a fractured leg), but he’s only 25. If the Chargers don’t retain him (which they’re expected to do), some team will land a fantastic young player.
Why he’s a free agent: Henry’s torn ACL two years ago likely played a role in the Chargers’ thinking, and with Philip Rivers hitting free agency, there’s also plenty of uncertainty surrounding the offense. Aside from those factors, though, there isn’t much that would prevent the franchise from retaining Henry—either on the tag or with a long-term deal. He’s a player worth building around, and he may be available at a slight discount given his recent injury issues.
Possible landing spots: Patriots, Colts, Jaguars
With so many teams around the league utilizing more two-tight-end sets, the list of potential Henry suitors is long. But no team could use a playmaker at tight end more than New England. Following Rob Gronkowski’s retirement, the position was a wasteland for the Patriots last season, and a lack of talent at that spot had a profound effect on Tom Brady’s production. The Pats aren’t flush with cap space, but they’ve got more than enough room to bring Henry aboard if he hits the market. He’d be a perfect fit in that offense.
The same goes for the Colts, who will probably lose pass-catching tight end Eric Ebron in free agency. With Andrew Luck at the helm in 2018, Indy’s offense was at its best when throwing out of 12 personnel. The Colts have more than $80 million in projected cap space, and signing Henry and Rivers to play for former Chargers assistant (and current Colts offensive coordinator) Nick Sirianni would be a good fit for all parties involved.
6. Emmanuel Sanders, WR
The scouting report: I’m done underrating Emmanuel Sanders. Every summer for the past few years, Sanders seems to drift into obscurity as we pump up other, younger receivers around the league. Last year, his future seemed to be in doubt because of the torn Achilles he suffered late in the 2018 season. He quelled those concerns the moment he stepped onto the field in the preseason. His final numbers from 2019—66 catches for 869 yards in 17 combined games for the Broncos and 49ers—won’t blow anybody away, but there’s some important context missing. Before being traded, Sanders played seven games with a mannequin wearing a Joe Flacco jersey at quarterback. After the deal, he saw only 53 targets in 10 games for the run-heavy 49ers, but in those games, Sanders averaged 1.92 yards per route run. That ranked 26th among receivers during that stretch—and he managed that after showing up in the middle of the season.
No aspect of Sanders’s game leaps off the screen, but he does everything well. He knows how to attack zone coverage, he’s a nightmare against cornerbacks when manned up in space, and he makes acrobatic catches that most 5-foot-11 guys can’t. What stands out most about Sanders is that he always seems to do the right thing. He has a fantastic feel for cornerback leverage and how to set guys up to get where he wants to go. Sanders also has a keen sense for how his assignment fits into the larger play concept. He’s the sort of receiver any team would be lucky to have.
Why he’s a free agent: He’s 32, the Broncos were shuffling their roster, and Courtland Sutton had emerged as a legitimate no. 1 target. Sanders was a popular trade candidate heading into the deadline last season, and he was a great fit for the Niners as they made their run to the Super Bowl. San Francisco has a lot of tough decisions to make this offseason, with guys like Arik Armstead and Jimmie Ward also hitting free agency. Bringing back a receiver on the wrong side of 30 and letting go of young, homegrown players in the process probably isn’t in the cards. The Niners are up against the cap, and their best bet for pass-catching help is to find a cost-controlled rookie in a loaded receiver class.
Possible landing spots: Raiders, Colts
Sanders is precisely the kind of target that Oakland is missing after losing Antonio Brown. He’s a polished outside option that would pair well with burner Tyrell Williams and promising slot option Hunter Renfrow. Given his age and some of the Raiders’ other recent free-agent moves, Sanders might not fit Oakland’s timeline, but this is a team that wants to compete right now. The same goes for the Colts, who could use a player like Sanders opposite T.Y. Hilton. General manager Chris Ballard has been cautious about diving into the free-agency waters in years past, but Sanders will likely be available for a reasonable price, and he fits what Indy wants to do offensively.
7. Austin Hooper, TE
The scouting report: Hooper’s production over the past two seasons is undeniably impressive. He’s tallied 146 receptions during that span. Among tight ends, only Zach Ertz, Travis Kelce, and George Kittle have more. That’s pretty good company! Hooper also ranks fifth among tight ends with 1,447 receiving yards over that stretch, and he’s hauled in 10 touchdowns. His volume stats put him in the top tier at the position, but digging a little deeper, I’m not sure he should be paid that way.
Hooper has a great feel for finding voids in zone coverage and exploiting them. He knows where to sit down and how to adjust his routes, and he’s adept at making contested catches in traffic. But almost all his production comes via short, high-percentage throws against zone defenses. Hooper rarely beats a single defender in man coverage, and he isn’t a vertical threat. He averaged 6.8 air yards per target last season, the 14th-lowest mark in the NFL. Tight ends typically see more targets near the line of scrimmage than receivers, but even among tight ends, Hooper was a nonfactor down the field. He saw deep targets on just 4.3 percent of his snaps. Only 37-year-old Jason Witten, whose 40 time can be measured by a sundial, was targeted deep less often. Hooper had three catches of 30-plus yards last season. One was a screen pass that he took down the field without much resistance. The other two were leak concepts that left Hooper wide open on the backside of a play. Hooper is a dependable target who will catch what you throw his way, but he’s not a dynamic pass catcher.
Why he’s a free agent: You can’t pay everybody. For all the talk about cap space in the NFL, personnel decisions are still dictated by cash. Some general managers aren’t allowed to spend to the cap because their owners don’t have the liquidity to shell out that much money in salary. Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff has the distinct advantage of maxing out his resources pretty much every year, but the well runs dry eventually. After giving extensions to Devonta Freeman, Julio Jones, Grady Jarrett, Jake Matthews, and Deion Jones, Atlanta made it clear that Hooper was the odd man out. He was not going to be part of their long-term plans, no matter how well he produced in 2019.
Possible landing spots: Jaguars, Patriots
We already established how badly New England needs a reboot at tight end, and considering there’s no chance Hooper will be tagged, he might be a more realistic target than Hunter Henry. The Jags are also in serious need of new blood at the position. Jacksonville will have a decent amount of cap space once it’s done purging the roster, and Hooper would provide a nice security blanket for Gardner Minshew II as the Jags evaluate his long-term future.
8. Jack Conklin, OT
The scouting report: My hunch is that there’s a slight disconnect between the public’s opinion of Conklin and his actual profile as a player. That gap in perception began with Conklin’s (mostly undeserved) first-team All Pro nod as a rookie in 2016. In that year and the ones since, the Titans have done a wonderful job of providing Conklin with help in the passing game. He rarely takes true pass sets while matched up one-on-one with a pass rusher. Tennessee uses tight end chips and slot receiver alignments toward Conklin’s side to slow down opposing rushers, and the Titans’ heavy reliance on play-action also helps mask Conklin’s deficiencies in traditional pass protection. On the rare occasions when Conklin is matched up with a quality pass rusher on the outside, he struggles with speed. Because he has to work so hard to cut off the corner, he’s often left vulnerable when rushers use speed-to-power counter moves. Case in point: this play against the Broncos from last season. There’s no shame in getting bullied by Von Miller, but this type of stuff happens against lesser players too.
I’m probably being a bit too critical here. Conklin is a solid right tackle and a physical presence in the run game. But as a former top-10 pick with an All-Pro selection on his résumé, Conklin’s pedigree will inflate his price much higher than I’d be willing to go. If I were Conklin’s agent, the number would start at the $12.8 million average annual value that Ja’Wuan James got from the Broncos last offseason. And after the huge deals that Trent Brown and Lane Johnson signed over the past year, even that might be low.
Why he’s a free agent: If I were on the other side of that negotiating table, my first question would be why the Titans declined Conklin’s fifth-year option if he’s such a valuable player. Conklin tore his ACL during Tennessee’s divisional-round loss to the Patriots in 2018, and that issue lingered for most of the following season. That lackluster, injury-plagued campaign likely gave the Titans pause about picking up his option last spring. There’s no doubt that Conklin had a bounceback season in 2019, but I’d let another team pay him top-of-the-market money.
Another factor could be that Tennessee has spent a ton of money on its offensive line already. The Titans are shelling out $39.6 million on their line this year without Conklin in the fold. That’s the ninth-highest mark in the NFL.
Possible landing spots: Dolphins, Chargers, Jets
Miami is projected to have a league-leading $88 million in cap space this year, and its offensive line is almost completely bereft of NFL talent. The Dolphins may not be willing to wade deep into the free agency waters at this point in their rebuild, but there are worse places to invest than the offensive line—especially if they plan on making a play for Tua Tagovailoa in the draft.
The Chargers are perpetually in need of offensive line help. General manager Tom Telesco dealt left tackle Russell Okung to Carolina earlier this month in exchange for Trai Turner, but that move filled one hole while creating another. Conklin would provide a massive upgrade over current right tackle Sam Tevi, and much like the Dolphins, the Chargers might have a top-10 quarterback they need to protect.
9. Derrick Henry, RB
The scouting report: Everyone saw the carnage that Henry brought during the playoffs. He was a human sledgehammer, crushing opposing defenses as the Titans jumped into a time machine and leaned on archaic, smashmouth tactics on their way to the AFC championship game. Down the stretch, Henry was about as valuable as a runner can be in today’s NFL, carrying the Titans offense to a fifth-place finish in Football Outsiders’ rushing DVOA. Despite facing eight or more defenders on 35.3 percent of his carries (the fifth-highest mark in the league), Henry averaged 5.1 yards per carry, led the league in rushing with 1,540 yards, and ran for more than 100 yards in seven of Tennessee’s final nine games.
The challenge with establishing Henry’s value is that he doesn’t provide much in the passing game, and a pure runner can have only so much impact with the way the game is currently played. Henry caught just 18 passes during the regular season, and most of those receptions were dump-offs or screens. Henry’s market—if the Titans don’t hit him with the tag—could be the latest referendum on what runners are currently worth.
Why he’s a free agent: Lest I slog through another debate about running back value, let’s not belabor the point here. Recent big running back extensions have been a disaster, with no exceptions. Deals for Todd Gurley, David Johnson, and Devonta Freeman have all led to buyer’s remorse. There’s just no way to justify a market-setting deal for a running back right now. There are too many external factors that play into their success, and even the best players have a marginal impact on the long-term efficiency of an offense. The Titans could choose to franchise-tag Henry this season in order to avoid the pitfalls of an extension, but even that seems like a risk, given the quality of their offensive line and how well a replacement-level back would likely perform in that offense.
Possible landing spots: Texans, Bucs
Houston projects to be loaded with cap space over the next couple of years, but that pool of cash will shrink as the Texans hand out extensions to Deshaun Watson and Laremy Tunsil. The Texans also need to add multiple pieces to their defense and address the interior of the offensive line. That being said, head coach/general manager/football czar Bill O’Brien now has the keys to the organization, and after losing Carlos Hyde, the Texans don’t have an early-down back on the roster. Paying Henry wouldn’t be smart, but I wouldn’t put it past Houston.
The Bucs are flush with cash for the first time in a while as they prepare to (possibly) transition to a post–Jameis Winston world. Tampa Bay has lacked a quality back for years, and it’s possible that general manager Jason Licht and head coach Bruce Arians could center an offense around Henry while the franchise figures out its quarterback plan.
10. Robby Anderson, WR
The scouting report: Anderson’s best trait is that he makes NFL cornerbacks look slow. The undrafted Temple product has easy speed on the outside, and he’d be a fit for any team that needs a field stretcher. My main hesitation about paying sticker price for Anderson in free agency is that he just doesn’t do much else. The Jets used him on some crossing routes designed to exploit slower defensive backs in man coverage, but aside from vertical routes and drags, Anderson’s arsenal is lacking. He’s not a nuanced receiver, and it feels like there’d be cheaper speed available on the market. I’d rather pay recently cut Taylor Gabriel $4 million this year and not affect my compensatory picks than hand Anderson a deal similar to the four-year, $44 million one that fellow speedster Tyrell Williams got from the Raiders last offseason. The pro-Anderson crowd will probably claim that he was held back in the Jets’ anemic offense and could thrive in a better system with better weapons around him, but that’s a premium to pay for a receiver with a limited range of skills.
Why he’s a free agent: Draft status tends to follow players throughout their careers, and the fact that Anderson came into the league undrafted has probably played a role in the Jets’ hesitation to give him a new deal. But he hasn’t done himself any favors, either. Anderson was arrested for resisting arrest at a Florida music festival in May 2017, and he was arrested again in January 2018 for driving 105 mph in a 45-mph zone, running two red lights, and eluding police. Anderson wasn’t suspended for either incident, and the felony charges against him for the traffic stop were eventually dropped. But as the Jets try to start fresh under new general manager Joe Douglas, it’s not surprising that they’re letting Anderson walk.
Possible landing spots: Packers, Cardinals
If the Packers miss on Green or decide that the aging All Pro is too much of a risk, the 26-year-old Anderson would make sense in Green Bay. Aaron Rodgers seems to have an affinity for former undrafted free agent Allen Lazard, who stepped in as the Packers’ secondary receiving option last season. But bringing Anderson in to fill that role would provide a speed threat that the Packers simply don’t have right now. Arizona has spent a lot of resources on receivers in recent years, but if general manager Steve Keim decides that 2019 second-round pick Andy Isabella can’t develop into the player the Cardinals envisioned, Anderson would give Arizona a solid vertical element.