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Get Ready for the Second Wave of NFL Free Agency

Tuesday is the first day that signings won’t count against compensatory picks, meaning these veterans could soon find homes

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If NFL free agency was a surprisingly fun movie, this week we are getting the lackluster sequel that goes straight to streaming. Le’Veon Bell, Earl Thomas, Nick Foles, and the other marquee free agents all signed with new teams nearly two months ago, but on Tuesday, forgotten players like Ndamukong Suh, Jay Ajayi, and Ezekiel Ansah will re-enter the fray. One Sunday afternoon you will flip on your TV, see Suh on the Cowboys, and think wait, when did this happen? with the same surprise you’d feel when you discovered Adam Sandler starred in a straight-to-Netflix movie called The Ridiculous 6.

Why have these guys waited so long to sign? It’s likely tied to the compensatory-pick system. After free agency ends, the league determines which teams lost the most talent and hands out free draft picks the way you might buy a beer for a friend who just got dumped. The catch is: If teams sign quality free agents (i.e., a rebound) they aren’t eligible for the free draft picks. A consequence of this compensatory-pick obsession is the market for midlevel veterans has frozen.

This week that market will heat up. Beginning on Tuesday, free-agent signings won’t affect whether teams get compensatory draft picks in 2020, creating a de facto free agency 2.0 starring a surprising amount of I know that guy! Guys. Just like The Ridiculous 6 had Sandler, Terry Crews, Jacob from Twilight, Vanilla Ice, and Danny Trejo, soon we’ll find out the fates of Eric Berry and Michael Crabtree. Let’s look at the nine best remaining free agents, why they’re still unsigned, where they should go, and where they will go. Call it the Ridiculous 9.

Ndamukong Suh

Why he remains unsigned: Suh wasn’t great for Los Angeles for the first three months of the season, but he flipped a switch for the Rams’ stretch run in December and January. The positive view is that he’s a veteran player who can save his best for when it counts most. The cynical perspective is he lollygagged for most of the year and then turned on the jets to get a profitable deal in 2019. Teams may not want to invest in Suh beyond a one-year contract.

Where he should go: If any executive is willing to take a flier on a veteran whom other teams consider past his prime, it’s Broncos president of football operations John Elway. The man loves his vets (see: Flacco, Joe). Suh could cause havoc and play from multiple spots on new head coach Vic Fangio’s defensive line, and he’d be bolstered by edge rushers Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, which might be even better than seeing him play alongside Aaron Donald.

Where he will go: Dallas needs to bolster its defensive tackle rotation, so bringing Suh on makes sense. The Cowboys don’t have the long-term cap flexibility to sign him beyond this year, but they are one of the more logical spots for a 2019 arrangement.

Ziggy Ansah

Why he remains unsigned:

Where he should go: The Raiders had 13 sacks in 2018. Since the NFL moved to a 16-game schedule in 1978, just five teams have had 13 or fewer sacks in an NFL season: the 1981 Baltimore Colts, the 1982 Baltimore Colts, the 1982 Buffalo Bills, the 2008 Kansas City Chiefs, and the 2018 Oakland Raiders. Ansah has 12.0 sacks in his past 16 games. The Raiders just drafted Clemson pass rusher Clelin Ferrell no. 4 overall, but Ferrell alone is not enough to drag the Raiders’ pass rush back to respectability. Ansah is reportedly on pace to be cleared by mid-August. Beggars can’t be choosers.

Where he will go: The only team that needs a pass rusher as badly as Oakland is Seattle, who just dealt defensive end Frank Clark to Kansas City. Ansah visited the Seahawks last week, and given Jon Gruden’s propensity for forcing people to walk the plank, the Seahawks seem like the better situation.

Nick Perry

Why he remains unsigned: Perry, the no. 28 pick in the 2012 draft, finished last year on injured reserve with a knee injury. He was released by Green Bay with a clean bill of health in March, but he has never played 16 games in a season. Perry had 18 sacks in 26 games in 2016 and 2017 but just 1.5 sacks in nine games last year before the knee injury.

Where he should go: Pete Carroll recruited Perry to play at USC, and they overlapped for one season before Carroll left for the Seahawks job in 2010. Carroll and the Seahawks brought Perry in for a visit in late March, and the reunion makes plenty of sense given their relationship and Seattle’s need for a pass rusher.

Where he will go: Carroll recruited Perry once before, and the Seahawks are so desperate for edge pressure that signing Ansah shouldn’t take them out of the market for Perry.

Muhammad Wilkerson

Why he remains unsigned: Wilkerson signed a one-year deal with the Packers last year but suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 3 that required immediate emergency surgery to stabilize “a bone that had burst through his skin,” The Athletic’s Michael Cohen reported in February.

Where he should go: Wilkerson grew up in North Jersey, played college football at Temple in Philadelphia, and was drafted by the Jets, so last year was the first of his life that he played football for a team based more than 90 minutes from his hometown. Yet Wilkerson told Cohen he wants to return to the Packers and that he enjoys playing in the city of Green Bay.

Where he will go: The Packers know Wilkerson best from a coaching standpoint and the renowned ankle surgeon who performed Wilkerson’s surgery, Dr. Robert Anderson, is on the Packers medical staff. If Wilkerson genuinely enjoys being in Wisconsin, another one-year contract seems mutually beneficial for both sides.

Eric Berry

Why he remains unsigned: Berry ruptured his Achilles against the Patriots in Week 1 of the 2017 season and did not return until Week 15 in 2018. Berry played three games last season, including the AFC championship game against the Patriots, but the Chiefs released him in March shortly after signing former Cardinals and Texans safety Tyrann Mathieu. Berry’s release meant he didn’t count against any team’s compensatory formula from the moment he was cut, and his continued unemployment suggests teams are concerned about his Achilles. In addition to the usual challenges associated with an Achilles recovery, NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo reported Berry was diagnosed with Haglund’s deformity, a bone spur that digs into the Achilles tendon that creates a pain-tolerance issue, on his other leg.

Where he should go: At this stage of his career, Berry may be more valuable as a veteran locker room leader and mentor than a reliable week-to-week option.

The Chargers have two of the most promising young safeties in football in 2018 first-round pick Derwin James and 2019 second-round selection Nasir Adderley. Berry could step into a part-coach, part-teammate role in Los Angeles.

Where he will go: Berry was the highest-paid safety in football entering this offseason, so perhaps the Chiefs would bring him back on a cheaper contract and he could finish his career with the team that drafted him.

Michael Crabtree

Why he remains unsigned: The Ravens released Crabtree one year and $8 million into a three-year, $21 million deal after he dipped under 40 receiving yards per game for the first time in his career. Like Berry, Crabtree wouldn’t have counted against teams’ compensatory formula because he was released, and his continued availability suggests that teams have deeper reservations about his play.

Where he should go: Joey Galloway, Torry Holt, Chad Ochocinco, Reggie Wayne, and Eric Decker. The Patriots are the go-to destination for receivers the rest of the league has given up on, and often the Patriots give up on those players shortly after giving them their last chance. They signed receiver Demaryius Thomas this offseason, but Crabtree would be right up their alley. New England is also one of the few destinations where he may be able to earn serious snaps. Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman and first-round pick N’Keal Harry figure to be the top two options, but Crabtree could beat out Phillip Dorsett and Thomas for the no. 3 gig.

Where he will go: If Crabtree is willing to accept a part-time role or compete for a roster spot, he can find a place on a team for training camp. But if one of the most decorated college receivers of all time—one who’s earned north of $60 million in his career—decides he’ll play only if he is guaranteed a starting spot, he may end up retiring.

His health isn’t an issue—he has played 14 or more games every season except 2009 and 2013—but he turns 32 in September and may not be amenable to a reduced role at this stage of his career.

Jamie Collins

Why he remains unsigned: The Browns traded a third-round pick for Collins in 2016 and promptly gave him a contract extension—an unwise move considering Bill Belichick wanted him gone. Collins is immensely talented but has a reputation for freelancing. Collins played all 16 games for the Browns last year but did not play up to his $12.5 million average annual salary, the seventh-highest among all linebackers. On top of his inconsistent play, general manager John Dorsey said at the NFL scouting combine that Collins may not fit with new defensive coordinator’s switch to a 4-3 defensive scheme.

Where he should go: The most logical spot for Collins is the team that believes they can coach away all of a players’ flaws. Giants general manager Dave Gettleman traded for Rams inside linebacker Alec Ogletree last year, but Collins is a better run defender (he was graded 35 spots higher than Ogletree against the run among off-ball linebackers by Pro Football Focus). For most GMs, acquiring two linebackers who occasionally get lost on assignments would be painful, but Gettleman may love to have a player at the position athletic enough to play on all three downs.

Where he will go: The Athletic’s Jeff Howe reported in October that the Patriots had discussed trading for Collins. It would be a stark turnaround for the team that dealt him three seasons ago, but perhaps New England will take the gamble now that the price of keeping him has fallen sharply.

Jay Ajayi

Why he remains unsigned: Ajayi’s season ended with a torn ACL against Minnesota in October, and he missed time with a back injury in September. He turns 26 in June, so he’s a good investment as a part-time difference-maker in short-yardage situations.

Where he should go: Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer wants to run the ball more often, and he convinced Gary Kubiak to come out of retirement to oversee the team’s run game. The hitch is the Vikings may not have the horses. Dalvin Cook, 2017 second-rounder and the starting running back, has played 15 games in two seasons. Latavius Murray, a backup who’s filled in so often that he had the 15th-most rushing attempts combined in the past two years, left for New Orleans this offseason. In Murray’s place, the Vikings have assembled an unproven group that includes Detroit washout Ameer Abdullah, 2019 third-rounder Alex Mattison, and 2018 undrafted free agent Mike Boone. Ajayi isn’t a great receiver, but he has better hands than Murray and could fill a similar running style.

Where he will go: Minnesota. Four years after the Dolphins took him with the fifth-rounder they’d gotten from the Vikings, he’ll finally play in Minneapolis.

Tre Boston

Why he remains unsigned: Great question. He is only 26 years old and has missed just three games in the past four years, so neither age nor injury is keeping him from signing. Boston himself has expressed frustration with the lack of interest he’s received in free agency the past two years.

Where he should go: Dallas. The Cowboys are tied for the 25th-most takeaways in the past 10 seasons. In the past two seasons combined, Dallas has 19 interceptions, tied for 29th in the league, while Boston has eight interceptions in that span, tied for the sixth most for all players in that period and twice as many as the nearest Cowboy, Jeff Heath.

Where he will go: Dallas. The team didn’t seriously pursue Earl Thomas in free agency despite his “come get me” pleas, missed on Eric Weddle, and passed on the promising safeties on the board with the no. 58 overall pick (Delaware’s Nasir Adderley, Virginia’s Juan Thornhill, and Washington’s Taylor Rapp) to draft defensive tackle Trysten Hill. Safety is the biggest hole Dallas has left, and Boston could be the difference between Dallas winning the NFC East or not.