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Where Would the Top NFL Prospects Go If They Were All Free Agents?

In this thought experiment, the NFL draft is gone, and incoming rookies have all the bargaining power. Which teams would they choose if their employers weren’t chosen for them? Can anyone say Saquon Barkley to the Packers?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

No other industry in America operates the way the country’s sports leagues do.

The NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB tell incoming workers exactly where they will work, which organization they’ll work for, and the amount of money they’ll receive for their services. And if that incoming labor force doesn’t like the deal it’s being given, well, tough luck—the only alternative these new workers are given is the option to sit out a year and wait to enter the same system again, only this time after a year spent away from their craft and with a reputation for being uncooperative. For their first taste of professional life, incoming pro athletes are stripped of any bargaining power they have and are exempted from any market forces that might help them. Not only that, but the players who are the best at their trade often enter into situations that are the worst for them. We call this system a “draft,” and for the NFL, it’s one of the biggest spectacles of the year.

But what if these sports leagues didn’t pigeonhole their incoming talent in this way? What would the NFL, in particular, lose if it abolished the draft?

The draft is seen, by many fans of the league, as this great equalizing force that gives the worst squads the highest draft picks each year to keep them in the conversation. But that actually isn’t true—playing high draft picks shows little to no correlation with winning at all. Just look at the Seahawks: They have had only two first-round picks in the past six drafts and, despite missing the playoffs this season, are one of the league’s premier franchises. Then compare Seattle with Cleveland, which turned an incredible 11 first-round picks over that same span into an 0-16 season last year. The league’s vaunted parity isn’t produced by the draft, but by revenue sharing, restricted free agency, the franchise tag, and, most crucially, the salary cap.

So what would we really lose? The opportunity to speculate on and pour over mock drafts? Rookies still have to go somewhere, even without a draft, and the conversation about their futures wouldn’t go away. A chance to boo Roger Goodell? Well, yes … there’s no replacing the draft when it comes to finding a venue to tar-and-feather the commissioner. The true loss would come in the trade market: Without draft picks to deal out, NFL teams would have fewer assets to negotiate with, and the league’s worst squads would have little to entice other teams to make deals. The frequency of trades, which are fun and interesting, could therefore decrease. But I think that’s a fair price to pay for a league in which rookies have agency over their futures.

So, say the NFL eliminates the draft—the league would still need to develop a way to pair rookies with various teams. That mechanism is already in place: free agency. Just let the players pick which team they want to play for! Teams would still be subject to the salary cap, obviously, so one franchise couldn’t just round up all the best players. But incoming players wouldn’t be forced onto teams that, say, kept their 1-31 head coach, or converted a wide receiver into a cornerback and a quarterback into a wideout, or refused to reward their star quarterback with a market-value deal. Suddenly, teams would need to work to be player-friendly to attract the type of talent they want.

Of course, the NFL’s owners would never go for this plan. The current system allows them to employ young players at well below the rates the team would pay if those players could negotiate on the open market. There are possible compromises to make here—like a seperate pool of money for teams to use exclusively on rookies, with more cash going to bad teams, or a separate rookie salary cap entirely—but almost every other compromise retains the same flaws of the current system: players lose negotiating power, and teams have an incentive to be bad to grab a top prospect. For the purposes of this thought experiment, we need to throw reality out the window and pretend that rookies have the same bargaining power as unrestricted free agents, and that teams will have to compete for their services.

So let’s pretend we’re living in a world in which the draft has been abolished. Where would the top players end up? Taking into account each team’s cap space (sorry Eagles, Dolphins, and Steelers fans), here’s a look at some of the most fun situations for 21 of the best (or most interesting) prospects entering the league this year, ordered by a rough consensus of rankings from draft analysts:

Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State: Green Bay Packers

Though the Packers aren’t known for spending in free agency, that could change with new GM Brian Gutekunst in charge—and he would be wise to splurge on Barkley. Green Bay ran run-pass options at the third-highest rate in the NFL last season, per Pro Football Focus, and since Penn State leaned heavily on RPOs in 2017, the Packers and Barkley are natural fits for each other. Though Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams had impressive runs with the Packers to end the season, Barkley should be able to win the starting job over both of them. And once he does, the consensus top rookie prospect would get to work alongside Aaron Rodgers. It’s a dream for both sides.

Quenton Nelson, G, Notre Dame: Jacksonville Jaguars

In pre-draft analysis, one NFC executive told NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein that Nelson is “one of the best run blockers I’ve ever evaluated.” Just watch him push an LSU linebacker some 8 yards deep into the end zone on a goal-line play:

Jacksonville guard A.J. Cann is set to become a free agent this week, and he and fellow starter Patrick Omameh often failed to provide a push in the running game. With Nelson, the Jaguars would be getting a massive upgrade—someone who could open holes for Leonard Fournette. Meanwhile, Nelson gets to play for a team that was just a few minutes away from earning a Super Bowl appearance last season and is committed to game planning for what he does best: running the football.

Sam Darnold, QB, USC: Denver Broncos

I’d love if Darnold stayed local and went to the Chargers, where he could sit behind 36-year-old Philip Rivers and wait for his time to take over a talent-laden offense. Darnold will be the youngest quarterback drafted in the first round (assuming he’s taken there) since Michael Vick in 2001, so he shouldn’t be in a rush to get his career started. He also has kinks in his throwing motion and errors in decision-making that need to be worked through. But I can’t imagine Darnold choosing to ride the pine, and I can’t imagine the Chargers paying for a top-tier quarterback prospect only to have him serve as a backup for an unknown number of years. So Darnold heads to Denver, where he gets to start right away and work with Demaryius Thomas and C.J. Anderson.

Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA: Minnesota Vikings

Rosen has said he wants to go to the “right team,” and the Vikings are the most talented squad with a hole at quarterback. It makes sense for both sides to pursue each other. Rosen would be primed for immediate success in Minnesota, with wideouts Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen to throw to and running back Dalvin Cook (and backup Latavius Murray) to take some pressure off. The Vikings are one of the few teams that could both start Rosen right away and immediately contend for a Super Bowl.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama: Cleveland Browns

While I doubt any player would pick Cleveland as his top choice, the Browns’ $82 million in cap space is the second most in the league after the Jets, and Cleveland will be able to throw money around until someone bites. Even with former Green Bay cornerback Damarious Randall in Cleveland now, the Browns could use Fitzpatrick, who is the most highly regarded all-around defensive back in the class. The Browns ranked 27th in pass defense DVOA last year, and Fitzpatrick could pair with former top overall pick Myles Garrett to begin repairing that unit.

Bradley Chubb, DE, NC State: Los Angeles Rams

The Rams shipped Robert Quinn to the Dolphins earlier this month, making Chubb an excellent fit in Los Angeles. Chubb is a scheme-transcendent pass rusher who may just be the best player entering the league this year, and his transition to the NFL would be even easier with a chance to start alongside Aaron Donald in Wade Phillips’s aggressive defense. While the Rams have positions of greater need, Chubb is too talented of an edge rusher to pass up.

Derwin James, S, Florida State: Tennessee Titans

Many of the teams that could use James—like the Steelers and Chiefs—don’t have the cap space that would likely be necessary to land him. But the Titans do, with some $60 million available. Jonathan Cyprien was never the right fit in Tennessee and had a down year last season, so the Titans need a player who is better at pass coverage (as opposed to run support) to help their 24th-ranked pass defense by DVOA. Enter James: a do-it-all safety who would pair well with free safety Kevin Byard.

Tremaine Edmunds, OLB, Virginia Tech: New York Jets

The Jets currently have the most money to throw around in free agency, and they need to replace outside linebacker Darron Lee, the former first-round pick who in two seasons has failed to live up to his potential. Lee was the 86th-ranked linebacker by Pro Football Focus last season, and in December was benched for a game for violating team rules. Some analysts, like Lance Zierlein, have noted that Edmunds is prone to making some mistakes on the field, but everyone agrees that he is a special athlete. Edmunds’s potential is sky-high, and that’s the type of player the Jets have no reason not to gamble on.

Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State: New England Patriots

New England appears to be done with Malcolm Butler after mysteriously benching him for the Super Bowl, and as we saw all season, the team’s defense needs upgrading all over the field. With just over $21 million in cap space, the Patriots aren’t exactly flush with cash, but I think some incoming players would take a pay cut for a chance to begin their careers with Bill Belichick. Ward is slightly undersized, but he should excel in zone and man schemes.

Roquan Smith, OLB, Georgia: Oakland Raiders

Smith is a popular choice for the Raiders in mock drafts, and I think they’d go out of their way to get him if he were a free agent, too. Though he doesn’t have the exact size teams usually want for a linebacker, he’s quick and can cover the full field.

Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma: New Orleans Saints

If there is anyone who can make Mayfield’s style of play work in the NFL, it’s Sean Payton. Mayfield is one of the most efficient quarterbacks in college football history, and the real knocks against him are a lack of height (Mayfield is a hair over 6-foot), and maturity concerns stemming from a 2017 arrest for public intoxication and disorderly conduct and several instances of on-field taunting. Those are real concerns, but seem like things an NFL team can work through. Though he’d likely have to sit behind Drew Brees for a year or two, Mayfield in New Orleans is too tantalizing to pass up.

Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming: New York Giants

Allen may not want to sit on the bench to start his career, but it would be unwise for any team to throw him to the wolves as a rookie. He’s one of the least-polished first-round quarterback prospects in recent memory, with serious accuracy issues that plagued him throughout his thoroughly mediocre college career. His upside lies in his cannon of an arm (seriously, it may be one of the strongest ever) and his mobility, but he’ll need to iron out plenty of wrinkles in his game before he’s ready to start in the NFL. In New York, he can do just that, backing up 37-year-old Eli Manning while waiting for his turn to throw to Odell Beckham Jr.

Vita Vea, DT, Washington: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Vea would be a great fit in Kansas City, but the Chiefs have next to no cap space, so it’s unlikely they could afford him. Instead, he can slide in next to defensive tackle Gerald McCoy in Tampa Bay to form a truly terrifying defensive front. The Bucs had a middle-of-the-road run defense in 2017, ranking 19th by Football Outsiders, and Vea would provide an immediate boost to both that aspect of their team and Tampa Bay’s defense as a whole.

Joshua Jackson, CB, Iowa: Seattle Seahawks

Jackson didn’t test as well at the combine as many thought he might, and his 4.56 40-yard dash time could hurt his stock. But he’s still a lengthy corner, and Pete Carroll famously values size in the defensive backfield. With Richard Sherman headed to San Francisco, Jackson could be the perfect first piece for a Seattle team that needs to rebuild its secondary.

Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama: San Francisco 49ers

Though the exact cap hit of Richard Sherman’s three-year, $39 million deal with the 49ers isn’t yet available, the team will still have an incredible amount of money left to spend even with that on the books. Now they can go out and get a shiny new toy for their shiny new quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo. Ridley is an accomplished route runner with excellent speed who should develop quickly into a no. 1 option for Garoppolo. And he’s great after the catch, too:

Ridley’s production was somewhat limited in three years at Alabama, but in San Francisco he’d get to play for one of the most exciting offenses in football.

Harold Landry, EDGE, Boston College: Chicago Bears

Landry was slowed for much of the 2017 season after he sustained an ankle injury in October against Virginia. But he’s an incredible athlete who should be able to find immediate success as a pass rusher in the NFL. The Bears ranked 26th in the pass rush last season, per Pro Football Focus, so they could use Landry’s help.

Marcus Davenport, DE, UTSA: New England Patriots

Davenport played standing up as an edge rusher at UTSA, but many analysts—including NFL.com’s Daniel Jeremiah—believe he projects better as a defensive end lining up with his hand in the dirt. He’d have the opportunity to do either in New England—assuming the team doesn’t vastly alter its scheme after the departure of defensive coordinator Matt Patricia—and he’ll fill an immediate area of need. Last season the Patriots’ pass-rush unit earned the worst Pro Football Focus grade in the league, and their defense as a whole was mediocre, giving up big chunks of yards at a time. Davenport can help fill some of the gaps in New England’s defense immediately.

Connor Williams, OT, Texas: Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks should go all in to land their favorite offensive line prospect. Russell Wilson faced pressure on 41.4 percent of his dropbacks last season, per PFF, and while he doesn’t need a pocket to work out of, having some protection is paramount. Some analysts think Williams may need to play at guard in the pros, but that’s why the Seahawks could be a good fit for him: Their entire offensive line needs help.

Da’Ron Payne, DT, Alabama: Washington Redskins

Washington had one of the worst defenses against the rush in the NFL last year, and NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein has called Payne the “premier run-stuffer” in the draft. Payne put on a show in the college football playoff, regularly pressuring the quarterback and stuffing running lanes. Oh, and against Clemson, the big man caught a touchdown pass:

Washington owner Dan Snyder has never been shy about throwing around free-agent money, and the team has about $31 million to spend. Payne would be a worthwhile investment in an area of need.

Mike McGlinchey, OT, Notre Dame: Houston Texans

Deshaun Watson was amazing in 2017, but he can’t block for himself. The rookie passer faced pressure on a whopping 47.7 percent of his dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus, the highest of any quarterback who played at least 25 percent of his team’s snaps. And before anyone says that Watson created that pressure for himself by holding onto the football too long, Watson’s backup, Tom Savage, had the second-highest rate at 46.7. McGlinchey might become a right tackle in the pros, but the distinction isn’t too important; Houston needs offensive line help at both tackle positions.

Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville: Arizona Cardinals

The dream is for Jackson to play on the Jaguars, but with Blake Bortles looking like the team’s quarterback for at least the next two seasons, Jacksonville probably wouldn’t stretch its cap situation to add Jackson. But the Cardinals need to fully overhaul their offense, and new coach Steve Wilks has said the team will be aggressive in pursuing a new quarterback. Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy was the OC in Denver when the Broncos drafted Tim Tebow, so he’s shown the ability to be creative with unconventional quarterbacks in the past. Jackson is an excellent passer who doubles as one of the best athletes, regardless of position, coming into the NFL this year. Though Jackson has some flaws in his game, Arizona could build around him (and returning running back David Johnson) and thrive.