The NFL’s offseason schedule is in full swing, beginning the countdown to free agency and the 2019 NFL Draft.
And the 2019 list of free agents available is a good one. Names like Jadeveon Clowney, DeMarcus Lawrence, Le’Veon Bell, Tyrell Williams, Landon Collins and Frank Clark will be available for signing as unrestricted free agents, assuming they’re not hit with a franchise tag.
There are more than 700 players slated for free agency according to Spotrac. These are the six who will have the biggest impact on the league this offseason and when the season begins.
Demarcus Lawrence, defensive end, Dallas Cowboys
Lawrence played under the franchise tag last fall, and another explosive season has put him in position to earn a mega-deal in 2019. The 6’3, 265-pound pass rusher has 25 sacks over the past two seasons, more than every player in the league but Aaron Donald, Chandler Jones, and Ryan Kerrigan. That’s elite company to keep, and it’ll likely make the Cowboys standout 2019’s highest-paid free agent.
The Cowboys weren’t willing to hand him a nine-figure contract after his breakout 14.5-sack 2017, but that may be their only way to keep him. He proved in 2018 he can be a consistent power with a second straight double-digit sack performance (he’d totaled nine in his first three seasons in the league).
The Cowboys have $45.7 million to spend this offseason, so keeping Lawrence even with a massive $30 million-ish cap hit is feasible. Rather than make a splash in free agency, Jerry Jones could opt to spend his money on locking down Lawrence and working out an extension for Amari Cooper before sifting through the lower half of this year’s market.
Jadeveon Clowney, linebacker, Houston Texans
The odds Clowney hits the open market are slim; Houston is likely to lock him into the franchise tag in order to take another season to assess whether he can harness his once-in-a-lifetime potential over the course of a full, healthy season or merely remain locked into a Pro Bowl level. The soon-to-be 26-year-old has 24.5 sacks and 59 QB hits over the past three seasons, numbers that firmly establish him as a top-20 pass rusher in the NFL.
He has yet to fulfill the promise that made him the No. 1 overall pick in 2014, even if he’s still been pretty great. Part of that is due to the litany of injuries that derailed his early NFL career, and part is due to the fact it’s tough to stand out on a defense as loaded with playmakers as the Texans are.
That won’t stop him from getting paid, whether that’s in 2019 or 2020. The Texans can tag him and extend the contract talks that led nowhere last year, knowing that, worst case scenario, they’d pay Clowney a top-five salary for what could be top-five production. If they don’t, rebuilding teams will line up for the chance to throw money at a versatile freak athlete who can revamp their pass rush.
Le’Veon Bell, running back, Pittsburgh Steelers
Bell probably earned his freedom from Pittsburgh, and all he had to do was sit out an entire year and give up $12.12 million in game checks. He’ll return to the league this year, and while the Steelers could still place the transition tag on him, that won’t do much to dissuade teams from eventually signing him.
What might, however, is the 2017 decline that saw his yards per carry average drop from 4.9 to 4.0. Bell was still an All-Pro in his last active season, but 15 games of extreme wear and tear — his 321 carries were most in the league, and that doesn’t even factor in his 106 targets — wore down the dynamic playmaker. Now he’s coming back after an entire season away from the game, recharged and only 27 years old.
We saw a good tailback, James Conner, replicate roughly 80 percent of what Bell brought to the table in Pittsburgh, but the Steelers’ inconsistency helped showcase just what Bell brings to the table, for better or worse. His ability to move the chains as a runner and as a wheel-route devastator is nearly unparalleled, and was sorely missed in low-wattage defeats to the Ravens, Broncos, and (gulp) Raiders. But his completely justifiable holdout also ratcheted up the drama in a locker room with no shortage of it to begin with.
The good news for any team interested in signing Bell is it should get a happy worker. A big, front-loaded deal for Bell will allow him to play out his next three seasons for whomever is willing to foot the bill while carrying little dead cap money onto the more dicey age 30+ years of his career.
Who would be interested? Almost everyone in the league. The Texans could make him the ultimate safety valve for Deshaun Watson. The Eagles could recharge their offense after fielding the league’s second-least efficient rushing attack in 2018. The Titans could offer him the chance to do what free agent signee Dion Lewis couldn’t.
The bigger question will be whether he can still play at the All-Pro level he reached in Pittsburgh.
C.J. Mosley, linebacker, Baltimore Ravens
Mosley has been the glue keeping one of the league’s toughest defenses together since 2014. The rangy inside linebacker has been a consistent force for Baltimore, emerging as a worthy successor to a legendary mantle that’s included players like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Terrell Suggs.
Mosley has failed to reach 100 tackles only once in his five-year career, a 14-game 2016 season that still included four interceptions and a Pro Bowl invitation. Lewis has called him “the best middle linebacker in the game.” Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale has referred to him as the quarterback of his unit.
But Patrick Onwuasor and Kenny Young overcame a rocky start to the season to give the Ravens useful snaps, and their presence could be enough to keep the Ravens from spending big on retaining their homegrown linebacker. Mosley is due for something like $11 million annually after five years of consistent, dynamic play in the middle of the field — considerably less than an elite pass rusher, but still a decent chunk of change for a linebacker.
Releasing Joe Flacco would create $10.5 million in 2019 cap space savings for Baltimore. Would new general manager Eric DeCosta push those savings on to re-signing his defensive leader? Or would he rely on less expensive talent in order to spend elsewhere (wide receiver, offensive line) and allow a tackling machine like Mosley to latch on with another contender this spring?
Trent Brown, left tackle, New England Patriots
Brown had his ups and downs in 2018, locking down the blind side for the league’s second-most effective offensive line but also picking up seven holding penalties in the process. That performance was enough to prevent a dropoff after longtime left tackle Nate Solder departed New England, while proving the biggest man in football was capable of handling duties at the most valued position on the line.
That means he’s due for a substantial raise, and if Solder’s 2018 departure is any indication, the Patriots may not be willing to pay it. New England could instead turn to 2018 first-round pick Isaiah Wynn and re-sign swing tackle LaAdrian Waddle to absorb Brown’s snaps, leaving the 6’8, 380-pound mountain of a blocker to seek his fortune elsewhere.
Brown’s departure will leave a major question mark for one of the league’s best units. Protecting Tom Brady, who will be 42 years old next season, is paramount to New England’s success. The Patriots’ most recent championship was the product of a group of blockers who allowed their QB to be sacked just once in the entire postseason. If Brown leaves and creates a vacuum at left tackle, his absence could be the difference between a good and a great season in New England — especially when you consider the success powerful pass rushes (the Broncos, the Super Bowl Giants) have had against Brady in big games.
(Trey Flowers, the vitally important keystone to the Patriots’ pass rush, is also a free agent. Like Clowney, I don’t think he’ll make it to the open market.)
Nick Foles, quarterback, Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles opted in for Foles’ 2019 mutual option. Foles opted out, which would make him a free agent. Well, it would, except the club is expected to franchise tag him while looking for a trading partner, working to glean a return for the player who led Philadelphia to its first Super Bowl victory last year.
Foles’ playoff magic may have worn off after 2018 — he threw four interceptions in two games this January — but his regular-season work proved he’s still a useful NFL starting quarterback. He set career highs by completing 72.3 percent of his passes and throwing for more than 280 yards per game. Including the playoffs, he went 5-2 as a starter and rallied his team from 6-7 to a spot in the Divisional Round.
How many teams will be looking for a 30-year-old who has been good enough to win a Super Bowl and bad enough to consider retirement within the same 12-month span? Free agent quarterback solutions didn’t work out in Denver or Minnesota last fall, and Kyler Murray’s addition to 2019’s draft class adds a little extra intrigue to this year’s quarterback market. Washington and the Jaguars would both be interested in plug-and-play passers — would either be interested in giving up draft capital to acquire him that could be used to target a young QB?
If the Eagles tag Foles and fail to find a suitable trade partner, they’ll keep Foles and Wentz for approximately $34 million in 2019. That’s an expensive but reasonable cost for a valuable platoon, but Philadelphia isn’t exactly flush with cash. The Eagles have the second-worst salary cap situation in the league and may have to part with players like Nelson Agholor, Timmy Jernigan, Michael Bennett, and Chris Long to create the room for the two passers.