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Setting the Market for the NFL’s Five Most Interesting Free Agent Position Groups

This spring may not see a blockbuster deal like Kirk Cousins’s or massive contracts for multiple superstars, but at positions like pass rusher, QB, safety, offensive line, and running back, there will be plenty of options for teams to consider

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The NFL’s 2019 free agent class doesn’t inspire the same level of intrigue as last year’s crop. There will be no history-making quarterback deals like the one given to Kirk Cousins, and there aren’t many former superstars like Ndamukong Suh or big-name cornerbacks like Malcolm Butler. And since several teams decided to use the franchise tag earlier this week, the pool of available talent is lacking compared to years past. Still, that won’t dissuade teams from dipping a toe into the waters when the legal tampering period opens on Monday. To help prepare for the start of free agency, let’s step back to consider the landscape at this class’s five most compelling position groups.

Edge Rusher

Coming into the offseason, this year’s potential batch of free-agent pass rushers looked like it could be one of the most talented groups in league history. With Demarcus Lawrence (Dallas), Frank Clark (Seattle), Dee Ford (Kansas City), and Jadeveon Clowney (Houston) all scheduled to hit the open market, a flurry of spending activity seemed to be on the horizon. Sadly, all four players were hit with the franchise tag earlier this week, snatching the most talented young pass rushers off the board and taking a good portion of the air out of the balloon in the process.

But even with the top options out of play, the available pass rushers still make up arguably the best collection of talent at any position in free agency this year. Defensive end Trey Flowers, whom the Patriots elected not to tag this week, is one of the top players available at any position. And behind him are options like the Lions’ Ziggy Ansah, the Rams’ Dante Fowler Jr., and the Ravens’ Za’Darius Smith. Even Minnesota’s Anthony Barr, who’s nominally an off-ball linebacker, could provide help as an outside pass rusher in the right scheme. With these guys set to hit the market, teams must consider whether to shell out cash on a long-term deal for one of these players or go with another alternative.

One of those alternatives could involve swinging a trade for one of the two pass rushers currently under contract with the Chiefs. Earlier this week, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that Kansas City could be willing to part with Ford for the reasonable price of a second-round pick. The 28-year-old had a career year last season: He piled up 77 pressures—the highest total in the league among edge rushers, according to Pro Football Focus—and had almost as many sacks (13) as he did in his first four seasons combined (17.5). That outlier year has made Kansas City hesitant about handing him a long-term deal, which is why another team could land him for reasonable price. A cheaper option, though, would be Ford’s teammate Justin Houston, who’s currently on the trade block and will likely be released if Kansas City can’t find a proper trade partner. Houston is set to earn a base salary in 2019 of $15.3 million, which will make him hard to deal. If he is released, an interested team could probably secure his services for less on a per-year basis than a younger player like Fowler, while also not adversely affecting that team’s compensatory pick formula for 2020.

Complicating the market more is a draft class that’s absolutely loaded with edge-rushing talent. Players like Nick Bosa, Josh Allen, Brian Burns, and Montez Sweat all figure to hear their names called in the first round next month. Teams seeking pass-rush help are going to have to decide whether to overpay for established talent or use high-end draft capital on an unproven commodity with a much cheaper contract.

Quarterback

Free agency and the draft will also impact one another when it comes to the quarterback market. Unlike last offseason, when teams were vying for the services of quality options like Cousins and Case Keenum in free agency, there just aren’t many franchises that are currently in the mix for QBs on expensive veteran deals.

It’s become an open secret that the Jaguars expect to sign former Eagles hero Nick Foles, but Jacksonville is virtually the only team looking to pay upward of $15 million to $20 million a year for a quarterback this offseason. That’s why the market for players like Teddy Bridgewater and Keenum (who’s likely on his way out of Denver after the team traded for Joe Flacco last month) may be much cooler than it would have been in years past. For the Dolphins—who may be moving on from Ryan Tannehill and would seemingly be prime candidates to go after Bridgewater or Keenum—the most appealing route probably involves finding a QB in the draft and paying him a rookie deal rather than making a lateral move and sinking eight figures into the position in 2019. Teams like the Giants, Raiders, and Broncos could also be motivated to snag QBs high in the draft, but for now, all three seem committed to kick off the season with their veteran starters.

The one team other than Jacksonville that’s desperate for a starter right now is Washington, and that situation will be a fascinating case study in all the ways a hole at the position can be addressed this spring. The Redskins could try to land Bridgewater, Keenum, or Tannehill as stopgap options to replace Alex Smith (who will almost certainly miss the entire season after suffering a devastating broken leg late last year), but all three would likely command deals that would push the team’s cap spending on QBs over $30 million in 2019. Rather than burn cash on a temporary solution, the Redskins could use the no. 15 pick and reach for a QB like Duke’s Daniel Jones or Missouri’s Drew Lock. They could also try to pry Josh Rosen away from the Cardinals if Arizona truly has its sights set on Kyler Murray with the no. 1 pick. If Rosen is actually available for a third-rounder, like NBC’s Peter King reported earlier this week, then the former top-10 pick would give Washington a potential QB of the future on a rookie deal without the team having to burn a first-round pick. There may not be many massive QB deals in free agency this year, but there’s still going to be plenty of movement by the time the offseason is over.

Safety

Unlike the QBs, there’s no shortage of star power among this year’s group of safeties. The Seahawks’ Earl Thomas and the Giants’ Landon Collins are both among the top players hitting free agency. But the list doesn’t stop there. Chicago’s Adrian Amos is only 25 and coming off a career year for the league’s best defense; Tyrann Mathieu is looking to secure a sizable long-term deal after playing well on a one-year, prove-it contract with the Texans; and after being released by the Ravens on Tuesday, Eric Weddle also could provide a team with a Justin Houston–like cheaper alternative that doesn’t play into the comp-pick equation.

While other positions will require a fair bit of calculus this spring, there’s not much to be done with the safeties. Teams aren’t likely to find talent at Thomas and Collins’s level through cheaper alternatives or the draft. Thomas may be almost 30 with a recent history of lower-body injuries, but he’s also a future Hall of Fame player and the best safety of his generation. Collins turned 25 less than two months ago, and he’s only three years removed from being voted first-team All-Pro. His play has waned a bit since 2016, but he’s still the sort of player who is rarely available in free agency. The Giants’ decision to let him walk for nothing (assuming they’ll be spending enough in free agency to negate any comp pick they might get in 2020) is a puzzling one. The goal in the draft is to find talented players worth retaining, and Collins is exactly that.

At safety, the 2019 market should follow a fairly traditional series of events: teams looking for high-end help at the position will do their best to woo Thomas or Collins, and the ones who miss out (or couldn’t afford them to begin with) will turn their attention to Amos, Mathieu, and other options like Lamarcus Joyner, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and Tre Boston.

Offensive Linemen

Tampa Bay’s decision to extend left tackle Donovan Smith on Tuesday with a three-year, $41.25 million deal (including $27 million guaranteed) took a viable starting option off the market before free agency opened up—but it also provided some insight into what kind of deals will be available at the position this year. Smith has been a starter since his rookie season in 2015, but aside from his durability (he’s never missed an NFL start), there hasn’t been anything remarkable about his first four years in the league. Trent Brown, Ja’Wuan James, and Daryl Williams may not provide the same reliability that Smith has so far in his career, but all three have played better at their peaks than Smith has at any point during his Tampa Bay tenure. Like quarterback, offensive tackle is a spot where competence comes at a premium. Teams are willing to overpay for guys who merely allow their offenses to function. If Smith warrants a contract with an average annual value of over $13 million, then Brown, James, and Williams are going to get contracts that might shock some people.

That same philosophy extended to the interior of the offensive line. Rams guard Rodger Saffold and Broncos center Matt Paradis headline this group, but Chiefs center Mitch Morse, former first-round pick D.J. Fluker, and Steelers guard Ramon Foster (despite being 33 years old) should also garner interest. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see both Saffold and Paradis land deals with some of the highest average annual values at their respective positions.

Running Back

The free-agent running back class may not be very deep overall this year, but it will include the biggest name hitting the market: Le’Veon Bell. Judging by recent returns on veteran running backs, though, the former Steelers back may find that the level of interest in him doesn’t match his star power.

Time hasn’t been kind to many of the big contracts that were handed out to running backs over the past year. Todd Gurley signed a historic contract last summer, then was a nonfactor in the Super Bowl. David Johnson landed a monster deal in September but was basically invisible for the Cardinals last season. And Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman spent almost all of 2018 sidelined with an injury after landing his huge extension. Beyond the specific concerns about Bell (which include him sitting out an entire season and gaining significant weight), almost every aspect of modern team building has shown that spending big on running backs isn’t a savvy way to allocate resources.

Bell’s asking price—which will almost certainly be north of $12 million per season—makes him the most frightening proposition among the free-agent backs. But even less expensive options are giving teams pause. Most years, a player like Tevin Coleman—a proven commodity with excellent receiving skills and minimum tread off his tires at age 25—would have a robust market, but the climate for pricey running backs has never been chillier. Coleman will still have his suitors, but after you get past the former Falcons speedster, it’s difficult to justify spending money on any of the remaining available backs. Take Chris Ivory for example: Ivory signed a two-year, $5.5 million deal with Buffalo last offseason after getting released by Jacksonville (as a way for the Jaguars to escape the awful deal they handed Ivory before the 2016 season). It’s difficult to justify handing Ivory an average of $2.5 million per season when a fourth-round pick at the position will carry a cap hit of about $650,000 in 2019. Last summer, it felt as if the market for running backs might be shifting, but all of this year’s free agents—including Bell—might be disappointed.