By Keegan Hartman
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, come one, come all. The 2020 National Football League (NFL) holiday season is closing in and I can barely hold back my excitement. Things kick off this week, starting with the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine, as some of the promising, young, rookie talent is set to gather at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana to display their skills for all NFL coaches, scouts, and general managers to see in efforts to cement a future in the NFL. In fact, some Missouri Tigers football talent will be in attendance to display their talents for all of the NFL to see. Names such as: Tight End, Albert Okwuegbunam; Quarterback, Kelly Bryant; Linebacker, Cale Garrett; Center, Trystan Colon-Castillo; Defensive End, Jordan Elliott; and Offensive Tackle Yasir Durant … just to name a few.
Aside from the tremendous talent being displayed at this year’s NFL Draft Combine, within the NFL, the league is gearing for, what some are calling, the greatest NFL Free Agency class to date in… well… a while. NFL Free Agency will not officially begin until March 18th, 2020 at 4pm ET, when teams can officially agree to terms with players “hitting the market”. However, teams do have the luxury of “tampering” with unrestricted free agents beginning March 16th. This is the time in which teams can structure and negotiate contract agreements with free agents but CAN NOT “sign” a player on the market until March 18th. Again, you cannot emphasize the amounts of talent lingering throughout this Free Agency class. It kind of reminds me of my parents when they make enough food to feed the Salvation Army on Thanksgiving Day, but they only really have five bodies to feed in my family… there are plenty of seconds to go around for teams shopping in this free agency class! Names such as 6x Super Bowl Champion and 4x NFL MVP- New England Patriots’ quarterback and legend, Tom Brady. Not to mention, names such as star Dallas Cowboys’ Wideout (WR) Amari Cooper, reigning Super Bowl Champion, Kansas City Chiefs’ defensive tackle Chris Jones, and 2015 NFL MVP, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, and that’s just a taste of the top ten names hitting the market!
So, with the size of the draft class in mind, I took it upon myself to compose of a list of “Five Free Agency Fits/Matches that NEED to Happen,” and here is what I came up with. Keep in mind, this is just opinionated hooplah based off of team needs and fit… but, if these do become a reality over this free agency period (a very real scenario), I will gladly be taking “Predict my Future” requests via Twitter.
1: Eagles “Land” one of their arch-nemesis’ most prized possessions: Dallas Cowboys’ WR Amari Cooper
Sorry for those who thought that there were going to be tryouts for this gig in the offseason, given that the Philadelphia Eagles were an injury away from holding up cardboard signs with how thin their wide receiver depth went at the conclusion of the 2019 season. I can assure you: there will be NO search for the next modern day Vince Papale. In part to the fact that the Eagles have a lot to choose from in this year’s free agency class in terms of WR. Names like: Cincinnati Bengals’ AJ Green, Washington Redskins’ Paul Richardson, New York Jets Robby Anderson, etc. However, I feel the best solution for their needs is, in fact, in their own backyard. Amari Cooper is said to be sixth best free agent in this free agency class and the best wide receiver to be hitting the market. He was traded to Dallas from the Oakland Raiders back in October of 2018 for a first-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. He came in and played 9 games for the Cowboys to finish out the 2018 season, accounting for 53 receptions for over 725 yards, and 9 touchdowns. Cooper has been nothing but efficient for the passing game in Dallas. According to Pro Football Focus, an NFL analytics database which grades player performance, Cooper finished top 15 among current WRs in the 2019 season in all three major categories: receiving yards, touchdowns, and receptions.
Philadelphia Eagles Cap Space: The Eagles have a crisp $44.5 million saved up in the ol’ bacon box (cap space/piggy bank) to do some shopping in the 2020 off season. However, Cooper is due for a solid $14 million (per year) salary. With a solid fifteen plus names to take care of “in house” in free agency this season, for the Eagles, it might be a tad difficult to tend to a salary that takes up nearly 32% of your total cap space, but the thought is definitely intriguing if you can satisfy both.
In short, Eagles’ QB Carson Wentz needs weapons. According to Pro Football Reference, the Philadelphia Eagles finished a solid 11th in passing offense, not bad for a group of second and third string receivers at Wentz’s disposal in the final few games of the season. However, even with names like Desean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery, this team still has not seen a top ten passing offense performance since 2014! Adding Cooper would not only bring depth, but his ability in spreading the field with his speed underneath, allowing for the Eagles to utilize Jeffery as the deep threat. He brings another veteran mentality to the depth, and plus, he’s a Dallas Cowboy… a stab at Jerry Jones is a stab at Jerry Jones…
2: Texans snag yet another CB talent from the Denver Broncos: Denver Broncos CB Chris Harris
I am not going to sit here and type a lie, I am absolutely heartbroken to see one of my favorite players, from my favorite NFL organization, depart the team, depart the city that has known him and practically raised him in terms of his professional career. Sadly, all good things come to an end. Nevertheless, Harris has dominated the NFL, solidifying his name as, not only a living specimen/testimony to the talents found within undrafted NFL prospects, but also building his career into a Hall-of-Fame caliber of sorts in his time with the Denver Broncos. According to PFF, again, Harris has been arguably the man-coverage corners in his previous 8 seasons in the NFL, helping to catapult the Denver Broncos’ defense to a Super Bowl 50 win back in 2015 (‘16). Then, the nationally acclaimed “No Fly Zone” was a force to be reckoned with for opposing passing offenses. With the guidance of defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips, the Denver Broncos managed to hold “top dog” in passing defense, being #1 in the league both in 2015 and 2016. After the departure of Phillips 2017, and flashforward a crap-show later, the Broncos brought in another phenomenal defensive mind in Vic Fangio back in January of 2019. Fangio, another name who established a great defense in the 2018 Chicago Bears, also had a promising, efficient system for a successful passing defense. In 2018, the Bears finished 7th in the league in passing defense, allowing an opposing passer percentage of 61%. It was almost a destiny of sorts for the Broncos’ secondary.
The only caveat… Fangio’s system. Schematically, Harris and Fangio’s system do not mesh. Harris has primarily played the nickel corner position in his career, that is where he has made a name for himself in the league. Whereas, Fangio’s system calls for a his secondary to play a variation of positions since the defense is a combination of zone and man-coverage schemes, in which, I feel, has been a tough adjustment for Harris. According to PFF, Harris recorded his LOWEST overall PFF seasonal grade in his 8 seasons in the NFL, that score being 69.
Houston Texans Cap Space: Contrary to popular belief, I believe this is the second most realistic option for Harris’s future, unless the Broncos miraculously formulate a deal that is hard to pass up. At the trade deadline, the Denver Broncos did offer Harris a 3 yr./$36 million deal to make him $12 million per year. According to NFL Insider and Denver sports radio co-host, KOA 94.1FM, Benjamin Allbright, reported that the Houston Texans, in fact, did ask about Harris just before the trade deadline, but could not reach compensation. The Texans did bring in another former Broncos’ cornerback talent in Bradley Roby last offseason on a 1 yr./$10 million deal, in which Roby is set to hit the market as well. The Texans have a projected $61.2 million in their treasure chest this offseason, and 18 unrestricted free agents hitting the market, including three of their cornerbacks: Bradley Roby, Johnathan Joseph, and Phillip Gaines.
Chris Harris is a veteran of the 3-4 scheme, and the Texans’ secondary is deprived of leadership and communication among their current personnel. They ranked 24th in passing defense last year, but hold all of the qualities and familiarities that make this the right fit for Harris. Their highest PFF player grade held in their secondary was by CB Bradley Roby (68.9). Considering Harris’s lowest career grade is 69, which can be pegged to new schematics, he goes to a system that he thrives in, playing in man-coverage. If I am Bill O’Brien, I’m getting my Venmo ready to pay the first part of the blueprint in efforts of reestablishing the Texans’ secondary.
3: ‘9ers “Strike Gold” (sort of); sign their top Target: Cinncinnatti Bengals WR AJ Green
AJ Green is a phenomenal player… on one condition: when he is 100%. In which, injuries have plagued the 32-year old’s career thus far. Green hasn’t played a regular season down since December of 2018, when he sustained a toe injury in week 13 against the Baltimore Ravens. The San Francisco 49ers are in a situation where they need more size at the receiver position to compliment the explosiveness of their offense. Plus, adding a bigger body to the receiver arsenal is practically an insurance to Jimmy Garoppolo’s “iffy” passes. Over his career, the former 4th overall pick out of Georgia has solidified himself as one of the best wideouts when healthy. In his near nine seasons in the NFL, Green has accounted for six 1,000 yard seasons, three seasons of putting up double digits in the “touchdowns” category, and for five seasons, Green has started/played all 16 regular season games (before 2018).
Now, Jimmy G can get footballs to his receiver- ‘s vicinity, and that was about as good as it got for the 49ers passing game. Likewise, the 49ers did select Jalen Hurd in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Hurd is also a dominant big body, a 6’4”, 230 lb frame -turned receiver out of Baylor. However, a back injury plagued Hurd from playing his rookie season. Adding Green gives the 49ers two big bodies to work with, plus, it’s veteran depth that might be willing to go cheaper if it means success, given Green has yet to play with a winning/successful franchise.
San Francisco Cap Space: Where do you start if you’re the San Francisco 49ers. You come off of a crushing loss on the biggest stage of them all, now you go into an offseason with a lot of free agents and not a lot of cap space to work with. The 49ers have nearly $13.1 million to work with in cap space and 14 unrestricted free agents. Names including: Emmanuel Sanders, Arik Armstead, Jimmie Ward, Jordan Matthews, etc. The wide receiver market is abundant, but the price range might be a tad bit of weight for the 49ers to handle with their current situation.
Bottom Line: At the beginning of writing this one, I was thinking, “Oh, hell yeah, what a perfect fit for both parties!” But the more I think about Green’s injuries in his past, the more I think about the 9ers being limited in what they can do in free agency due to in-house priority, the more you see this possibility becoming more distant. I believe the chance is there still IF the 49ers manage their money accordingly.
4: The shock of the 2020 Decade – Tennessee is the only “ten” Brady “sees:” New England Patriots’ QB Tom Brady
According to NFL Analyst/Insider, Jeff Darlington, who hopped on NFL Insider Adam Schefter’s podcast last Tuesday, told Schefter that, essentially, Tom Brady’s career with the Patriots is essentially looking, as though, his time is coming to a conclusion in New England. So how does Jeff Darlington know, you ask? Darlington has been notorious for being a close source/contributor involving anything New England Patriots’ news, having covered them various times during the regular season in his career. Now, Tom Brady, age 42, will be entering his 20th season in the NFL, it just might not be with the team that we’ve seen him thrive and excel with for his entire career.
Two teams have shown the most interest, this, according to NFL ESPN Insider, Jeff Darlington, those two teams being the Tennessee Titans and the Las Vegas Raiders. The Titans becoming even more intriguing as, on Saturday, February, 29th, Tom Brady was spotted on the phone, in which he seemed to be talking with former teammate, now head coach for the Titans, Mike Vrabel. Vrabel played thirteen seasons in the league, having played as a New England Patriots fullback for seven of those seasons. Vrabel even helped Brady and the Pats to snag 3 Super Bowls in his career. Now… flush this match down the toilet: why? The Tennessee Titans are very much “invested” in the direction that Ryan Tannehill has taken the team. Tannehill stepped up in a BIG way for the Titans this past season, stepping in, replacing a strand of porous Marcus Mariota performances at the beginning of the 2019 regular season. Tannehill would step in and help the team to go 9-7 with an appearance in the AFC Championship… the first time since 2008. Tannehill is very well in the mix to receive the team’s franchise tag and get an extension with the Titans given his performance. Additionally, the Titans are dealing with 15 unrestricted free agents with $50 million in cap space, nearly half of those free agents being “priority” free agents. Names such as: OL Jack Conklin, CB Logan Ryan, CB Chris Milton, QB Ryan Tannehill, and RB Derrick Henry.
As for the Raiders, it looks as though this team will be soul-searching, as there has been speculation surrounding Derek Carr’s future with the team. Carr, 28, is entering the third season of his 5 yr./$125 million contract that he agreed to in June of 2017, so if they do decide to trade, the team picking him up will also be eating roughly $60 million of Carr’s remaining salary.
Bottom Line: Either team, honestly, being Las Vegas or Tennessee, sit at better odds to land Brady’s services than the Pats. Result, however: Titans. At this point, if the Patriots wanted to keep Brady apart of the franchise, it would’ve already happened. It can very well be a relationship issue between Brady and Pats’ OC Josh McDaniels. The two have worked with each other for a near total of two decades, with McDaniels leaving once for an HC vacancy with the Denver Broncos back in 2009, and as an OC for the, then, St. Louis Rams back in 2011. Last season, as well as the season before, the two had shown evident tensions on the sidelines in terms of certain playcalling situations/decisions. Likewise, last season, in the AFC Playoffs, it was the first season since 2009 that Brady and the Patriots made a first round exit as the Titans went into Gillette Stadium and defeated New England 20-13.
In a sense, if Brady DID decide to go to the Titans, I guess we could consider him the NFL equivalence of NBA All-Star, 2x NBA Champion PG Kevin Durant. Of course, we cannot forget when him and the 2016 Oklahoma City Thunder went up 3-1 against the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 Western Conference Finals just to kiss their 2016 NBA Finals hopes goodbye as Steph Curry and the Warriors came back to win the series. The aftermath: in what we thought would motivate Durant to return to the Thunder the following season only led to the departure of
Durant’s services from the Thunder in efforts to some place in where he can “compete” for a title. I mean, Brady does have the titles and accolades to his name already, so that’s not the case. However, you could still see this as a “if you can’t beat em, join em” scenario.
5: Cowboy meets Horses – The Denver Broncos restock their secondary: Dallas Cowboys CB Byron Jones
If nothing else, Denver restocks in one SPECIFIC area this off-season: their secondary. The Broncos will have a total of five players testing the market as unrestricted free agents. Names such as: CB Chris Harris, CB DeVante Bausby, and S Will Parks just to name a few of those pieces. Denver has ranked outside the top 10 in terms of passing defense the past two seasons. Granted, HC Vic Fangio has implemented a new system in which is a far more different scheme in comparison to years’ past. The good thing about Jones is he comes in and fits perfectly, in the sense that Jones has played both safety and cornerback in his professional career.
Jones, who was drafted out of UConn in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft as a FS, was switched over to CB in his third year as a Dallas Cowboy (2018). In 2016, inconsistency as the FS position led to Jones being played more in the box at the SS (strong safety) position in 2017. Both had shown slight regression for Jones. Then, in 2018, along with the addition of former Seattle Seahawks secondary coach, Kris Richard, the goal was to, then, place Jones in the CB position, as Richard normally preferred played with big corners in Seattle (IE Richard Sherman). Jones found his permanent home in 2018 when the Cowboys decided to move Byron to cover, this time, on the line.
In 2019, Jones ranked as one of the best coverage corners in the NFL. Jones finished with a PFF (Pro Football Focus) grade of 83.1, which was the 7th highest grade of 131 qualifying CBs in the NFL. Jones allowed a catching percentage of 53.6% from opposing receivers, which was 14th among corners. Additionally, as if Jones stats do not get any more ludicrous, Jones, when targeted, allowed one reception every 16.5 snaps. At just 27, Jones is just now about to enter his second contract, which, in football terms, that’s young and promising.
Dallas Cowboys Cap Space: It comes down to nine simple words… what is a want, and what is a need? The Cowboys are one of those teams that will be faced with a lot of responsibility in terms of BIG TIME UDFAs this offseason. Names include: WR Amari Cooper, RB Ezekiel Elliott, QB Dak Prescott, CB Byron Jones. On the bright side, the Dallas Cowboys have $81 million in cap to address their offseason needs. Downside: Dallas will most likely be investing half of that into their QB, Dak Prescott, who will be looking for an upwards of $35+. Jones market value, as it stands, will be in the ballpark of $15-$17 million given the demand in the CB market.
Bottom Line: According to sources, Byron Jones is the #1 priority for the Broncos this offseason with the departure of Chris Harris. Additionally, the match just makes sense with how versatile Jones has been in his career. Expect him to trade his blue and white for blue and orange this offseason.
Edited by Emma Moloney | firstname.lastname@example.org