The NFL is not delaying free agency or the beginning of the new league year despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the league said on Thursday. Hours after the NFL made that announcement, Major League Baseball announced it will postpone the start of the 2020 season by at least two weeks, the NCAA announced that March Madness was canceled, the PGA Tour canceled tournaments for the next few weeks, and the NHL suspended activities indefinitely. Add to that the NBA’s suspending play for at least 30 days and the Masters’ postponement, and it all may be enough for the NFL to reconsider its stance. Free agency does not present a similar public health issue. There is no event for fans to attend, and the majority of big-money signings happen without face-to-face meetings between teams and players. But multiple NFL teams closed their facilities on Thursday, many have suspended travel for scouts and coaches, and the NFL canceled its league meeting at the end of the month, so that stance could always change.
The NFL offseason was complicated even before the global pandemic set in. Players are currently in the process of casting votes on a collective bargaining agreement that would govern NFL labor relations until 2030. The deadline for the vote is Saturday, and if the CBA passes, the league’s rules would be updated a mere 24 hours before the free-agency window opens (technically, deals cannot be signed until Wednesday, but in truth they can be sealed beginning on Monday, when contact between teams and free agents is permitted). Further complicating matters is the franchise tag deadline, which was extended until Monday to accommodate the delayed CBA talks. If the CBA passes, teams will get one franchise tag. If the CBA does not pass, teams will essentially get to use two franchise tags. This confusion over next week’s rules effectively froze NFL business. Many of the usual transactions that take place over February and early March have been dammed by the CBA process, and just as that dam is about to break, the league may be forced to further punt these transactions into the indefinite future.
But considering contracts can be hashed out on Skype chats and the dotted line can be signed on iPhones, there is a chance that next week’s sports news is dominated by NFL free agency. If it stays on schedule, here are the seven most interesting teams to watch during the free-agency window.
New England Patriots
Everyone knows that Tom Brady is scheduled to become a free agent next week. Not everyone knows that guard Joe Thuney, center Ted Karras, safety and team captain Devin McCourty, linebacker Kyle Van Noy, linebacker Jamie Collins, defensive tackle Danny Shelton, receiver Phillip Dorsett, and longtime special-teams captain Matthew Slater are also scheduled to hit the open market. New England might lose the greatest player in NFL history, and a third of its defensive starters and two of its five offensive linemen. Not only will the team have to address those positions, but also the ones fans have been screaming for the team to fill, like wide receiver and tight end. Whoever is at quarterback in New England in 2020, it’s hard to see the rest of the roster improving unless the team takes a dip into the free-agent pool.
New England doesn’t like making big splashes in that pool, but if it wants to dive in, it can. The Patriots have roughly $44 million of cap space, and cap space can always be created out of thin air. The question is how much money a Tom Brady contract would sap out of that number, or if Brady leaves how the Patriots would replace him. Signing a quarterback like Teddy Bridgewater might be expensive. Trading for Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, or signing Marcus Mariota, might be relatively cheap (by quarterback standards). But the same tricks that the Patriots use to churn out production at other positions may not be as effective this year. Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia is retiring, so replacing Thuney on the offensive line won’t be as easy as it has been for the Patriots the past 10 years. That means worse protection for their soon-to-be-43-year-old quarterback or whoever replaces him, which will make the lack of skill-team talent even more glaring. Whether or not Brady comes back, the Pats may have to spend.
It’s hard to imagine Brady returning to a team more destitute than the one he’s leaving. Much of the team’s success last year came thanks to its historically good defense in the first half of the season, and that defense will have a hard time playing at that level without McCourty, Collins, and Van Noy. The offense might be worse, and the defense is likely to drop off, too. Not only could a third of the Patriots’ starting roster turn over from 2019 to 2020, but the starters they are keeping might be the ones their fans wanted to replace. If Brady and their other key free agents leave, the team will have its weakest grip on the AFC East in 20 years. The Patriots have always overcome losing key players, but this offseason could be Bill Belichick’s biggest challenge yet.
The Bills seem poised to take the AFC East crown from the Patriots. They lost to the Pats twice last season by a combined 13 points, though they made the playoffs for just the second time in the 21st century. With the right offseason, the Bills could make their move to finally topple the Patriots’ hegemony.
Buffalo is in the rare position of having plenty of cap space (nearly $80 million, one of the five highest figures in the league) while also retaining most of its 2019 team. This week, Buffalo agreed to a three-year contract with guard Quinton Spain, ensuring the team will bring back all five of its starters on the offensive line, in addition to key contributors everywhere else on offense. Buffalo’s main concern on offense is at receiver, but with such a deep draft class for receivers the Bills are likely to look at free agency for defenders.
The Bills could lose several key contributors along the defensive line, where starters Jordan Phillips and Shaq Lawson are free agents and defensive end Trent Murphy could be released to save money. But the Bills can keep those guys if they want them around and still have plenty of money to splurge on improvements. Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. would be an excellent fit in Buffalo’s secondary. The Bills already have perhaps the best safety combo in football with Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde, plus an elite cornerback in Tre’Davious White. Adding Harris to that secondary could improve what’s already one of the best pass defenses in football. The team has already taken a one-year flier on former All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman, who signed this week after being cut by Washington earlier. Harris would give them four defensive backs capable of All-Pro-caliber play, and the team is hoping Norman could return to that level. The Bills could realistically have the best roster in the AFC East for the first time in decades.
If the Bills are situated to take over the AFC East in the short term, the Dolphins might be best set up in the medium term. Miami was dreadful in the first half of 2019, when they at times looked like an expansion team. But head coach Brian Flores rallied the team to a 5-4 finish, and Miami is in good shape for 2020 and beyond. The Dolphins have the most cap space in football after clearing every player who wasn’t bolted down in 2019 (and trading a couple who were). Using free agency to jump-start a team is not usually a good idea. The Dolphins know this because they’ve tried. As owner Stephen Ross said at his year-end press conference in 2018, “We’ve been operating under a philosophy that we had a good young roster and it needed maybe free agents and draft choices and we’d be very competitive. To keep operating under that philosophy would be like the definition of insanity: doing the same thing and really expecting a different result.”
The Dolphins have five of the first 56 picks in this draft, including the no. 5 pick, which they may use to snag a quarterback. Considering they also have Houston’s first- and second-rounder in 2021, the Dolphins can use the next two drafts to build the core of their team for the 2020s.
The Dolphins have heaps of cap space and are required to hit the salary cap floor, so they have spend that money somehow. They might as well sign the right veteran free agents to set the tone for a young locker room. This doesn’t mean giving Ndamukong Suh a $60 million deal, but it does mean overpaying a few players who can serve as role models and help the team on the field. Short-term, front-loaded deals won’t affect the Dolphins’ spreadsheets by the time they would need to sign their core players to extensions. Perhaps that means overpaying Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who could be a key piece in protecting their next franchise quarterback.
Like the Dolphins, the Colts have a lot of money to burn. But the Colts have been practicing austerity for longer than the Dolphins and may be loath to begin spending. Indianapolis has more than $85 million to spend, and if there were ever a time for the Colts to begin making a splash it’s 2020. Indianapolis is in quarterback no-man’s-land after Andrew Luck’s retirement and a mediocre season from Jacoby Brissett. Everybody has pointed out that Philip Rivers could be a good fit with head coach Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni, who both coached Rivers in San Diego. Free-agent left tackle Anthony Castonzo looks likely to return to the Colts. But beyond those moves, Indy can upgrade some key positions in free agency.
The Colts’ pass rush is in dire need of another playmaker aside from Justin Houston and Kemoko Turay. Signing a veteran like Jason Pierre-Paul could be a perfect match. Pierre-Paul had 8.5 sacks in eight games for Tampa Bay last year after returning midseason from a neck injury he suffered in an offseason car crash. The Colts pressured the quarterback on just 21 percent of plays last season, a bottom-10 mark. Pierre-Paul could help take them to above average.
The Titans have good problems. They just made the AFC championship game, materialized a starting quarterback out of almost nowhere, and produced one of the most dominant stretches from an individual running back in the final two months of the season. But three of their key offensive pieces are all set for free agency. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill, running back Derrick Henry, and right tackle Jack Conklin are all on expiring contracts. Tennessee is likely to keep Tannehill and Henry and let Conklin go, but Tannehill’s and Henry’s eventual price tags will affect the rest of the roster. The Titans released pass rusher Cameron Wake and running back Dion Lewis on Thursday to clear cap space and now have more than $50 million to spend, but once they take care of the quarterback position and Henry, that number will drop a lot.
Tennessee head coach Mike Vrabel and general manager Jon Robinson are both former Patriots employees, and when in doubt, they bring in former Patriots. Aside from the obvious Tom Brady connection (Facetiming some old pals!), New England free agents like Kyle Van Noy might be perfect fits for Tennessee’s defense and culture. If not Van Noy, special teams ace Matthew Slater could be, well, slated for a special teams/leadership role on a team that has been trying to blend its own identity with New England’s tried-and-true principles.
The Cowboys are in a squeeze. They already have the league’s most expensive offensive line and most expensive running back. Now they’ll likely have to make quarterback Dak Prescott the most expensive player in the league. But if the proposed collective bargaining agreement passes, teams will get only one franchise tag to use, and the Cowboys will be hit the hardest. With only one tag available, they’ll be in an even worse negotiating spot with Amari Cooper. Letting their best receiver leave in free agency after trading a first-rounder for him in 2018 and handing Prescott the league’s richest contract is almost unthinkable. Not only is Cooper a free agent, but so is Randall Cobb and Tavon Austin. Will Dak earn $36 million a year to throw at Michael Gallup? Cooper has so much leverage that retaining him for his expected price—maybe $20 million a year—could also be imprudent. Is Dallas going to spend a fortune on their offense when their players disappeared in clutch moments last year? Perhaps the bet is that new head coach Mike McCarthy can fix everything, including the team’s expected decline on defense with the loss of defensive end Robert Quinn and cornerback Byron Jones, whom Dallas did not prioritize re-signing.
Dallas will have to fill a few holes, and they’ll have to be smart doing so. One worthy gamble could be tight end Eric Ebron, who had 13 touchdowns for the Colts in 2018 but might be available at a discount after finishing with injuries to both ankles in 2019. That would provide Prescott a better tight end target than Blake Jarwin or Jason Witten.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers are reportedly going to use their franchise tag on outside linebacker Shaq Barrett. Tagging Barrett shows their faith in him, and also suggests the Bucs’ lack of faith in Jameis Winston at quarterback. Tampa Bay has one of the five biggest cap space figures this offseason, so the Buccaneers could easily bring both Winston and Barrett back.
If they don’t bring Winston back, they might be wise to double down on defense. After a couple of years as a laughingstock, the Bucs defense got surprisingly stout under coordinator Todd Bowles last year. Tampa Bay went from the least efficient defense in 2018 to the no. 5 most efficient defense in 2019, according to Football Outsiders. That includes the no. 1 run defense by DVOA, aided by the emergence of defensive tackle Vita Vea, who rebounded from a disappointing rookie campaign in 2018. The Bucs may lose defensive ends Jason Pierre-Paul and Carl Nassib plus defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh in free agency, which would be a real blow to their unit. Retaining one of those three defenders plus improving their secondary could soften those losses. Vikings safety Anthony Harris, the best safety likely to hit the market, could be an answer and fill one of the team’s biggest holes from last year. One of the simplest reasons Winston led the league in interceptions (30) was because he tied for the league lead in pass attempts (626). Replacing Winston may mitigate some baffling interceptions, but an improvement in Tampa Bay’s pass defense will limit how many risky throws their next quarterback will need to make.