March 18 will usher in NFL free agency, often a forum for clubs to overhaul themselves, but often a market where the best franchises shop selectively. A lot will happen before teams can begin signing players – franchise tags will be dispensed, the combine will occur – but eventually, what should be one of the most compelling offseasons in recent memory will commence.
Here are the top 20 (plus) players who are currently unsigned heading into the 2020 season.
1. Veteran quarterbacks: It’s exceedingly rare to have one name passer available. But this year, there’s a veritable buffet. Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers are all unsigned – Brady, 42, and Brees, 41, both having stipulations that they cannot be franchised, while Rivers, 38, has uprooted his family from Southern California, quite a sign that he’ll be a Charger no longer. All have already descended from their physical peak, but any might be capable of another couple years of solid to sterling performances. Teams like the Chargers, Colts and Buccaneers might feel like they’re just one veteran quarterback away from serious contention.
1a. Younger, potential franchise quarterbacks: The Dallas Cowboys will almost surely tag Dak Prescott if they can’t hammer out an agreement over the next month and a half, so don’t expect him to be on the move. However, Jameis Winston and Ryan Tannehill could very well be available, especially since their respective teams, the Bucs and Titans, may have to franchise other players. Tannehill, 31, led the league with a 117.5 passer rating, helping lead Tennessee to the AFC championship game after he was promoted ahead of Marcus Mariota (another likely free agent). Winston continues to be a mixed bag of titillating potential (33 TD passes, league-high 5,109 passing yards) and maddening carelessness (league-worst 30 interceptions). Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians seems squarely on the fence regarding his future. One other player who deserves a serious look, winning all five of his 2019 starts while Brees was hurt, is 2014 first-rounder Teddy Bridgewater, who’s still only 27.
2. DE Jadeveon Clowney: Stats have never accurately illustrated his value. Clowney had just three sacks in 2019 for the Seahawks and has never exceeded double digits. But he’s an every-down player who’s scheme-diverse and almost always commands a double team. He’s expressed a desire to stay in Seattle, but the ‘Hawks could have some hard decisions ahead.
3. DT Chris Jones: He only had one tackle for the Chiefs in the Super Bowl but caused plenty of havoc, knocking down three passes. Jones is very good against the run and exceptionally disruptive up the middle, racking up 27½ sacks in his past 33 regular-season games.
4. RB Derrick Henry: He dominated on the ground in 2019, leading the league in rushing yards (1,540) and TDs (16). But Henry was at his best when it mattered most, rushing for 211 yards in the regular-season finale, a performance that put Tennessee into the playoffs, before he went off in postseason upsets of New England and Baltimore, totaling 377 yards in those two wins. The 6-3, 247-pound monster is still only 26, so it seems likely the Titans would tag him ahead of Tannehill. But spending big on running backs, no matter how young, is always a dicey proposition.
5. DL Arik Armstead: The 2015 first rounder finally had a breakout season for the 49ers, his team-high 10 sacks exceeding his total (9) from 2015 to 2018. The 6-7, 292-pounder can play inside or out and also forced a pair of fumbles this season. Naysayers will cite the talented line rotation Armstead was a part of, but Super Bowl champions also tend to command premium dollars during free agency.
6. WR Amari Cooper: He’s only missed the Pro Bowl once in his five-year career yet established career highs in 2019 with 1,189 receiving yards, 15.1 yards per catch and eight TDs. If the Cowboys are forced to franchise Prescott, then Cooper should immediately become a hot commodity.
7. OLB Shaquil Barrett: He had a hard time getting on the field in Denver, where he was stuck behind Von Miller and Bradley Chubb in 2018. But Barrett was a breakout star in 2019, recording an NFL-high 19½ sacks for the Bucs – which could make him more attractive than Winston if the team has to use its tag. Barrett will fit better on 3-4 schemes.
8. S Anthony Harris: The blossoming Viking was Pro Football Focus’ top-rated safety in 2019 and tied for the league lead with six interceptions. Capable center fielders in a passing league are always in demand.
9. OLB Bud Dupree: Lining up opposite T.J. Watt, he registered a career-best 11½ sacks yet was also effective against the run. Not the type of edge tandem the Steelers will want to break up.
10. NT Javon Hargrave: Capable nose tackles are hard to find, but Hargrave is among the best at one of the game’s unsung positions. With 10½ sacks over the past two seasons for Pittsburgh, he can also do more than tie up blocks and gobble up running backs.
11. S Justin Simmons: According to PFF, only Harris was better among safeties in 2019. Harris is a better blitzer, however Simmons is better against the run, so take your pick. Drafted four years ago by Denver, Simmons, 26, is also two years Harris’ junior.
12. TE Hunter Henry: Coming off a torn ACL in 2018, he had a pretty good season (55 catches, 652 yards, 5 TDs). The Super Bowl was the latest reminder of the increasing value of tight ends who can move, so good bet the Chargers won’t let Henry get away.
13. DE Yannick Ngakoue: He’s an undersized (6-2, 246) one-trick pony … but it’s a pretty good trick. Ngakoue has 37½ sacks in four seasons with Jacksonville.
14. WR A.J. Green: A training camp ankle injury wound up costing him the entire 2019 campaign. Green will be 32 this season, but his résumé (7 Pro Bowls, 80.2 receiving yards per game during his nine-year career) is hard to ignore – especially if he’ll take less than top dollar to be a “1A” receiver somewhere other than Cincinnati.
15. S Jimmie Ward: Like Armstead, he’s a former San Francisco first-rounder who had his best year in 2019. Ward is quite a chess piece, able to play deep parts of the field, cover the slot or operate in the box. Quite valuable in the age of base nickel defenses.
16. TE Austin Hooper: A similar player to Henry, Hooper is a two-time Pro Bowler coming off his best season in Atlanta (75 catches, 787 yards, 6 TDs).
17. OT Jack Conklin: An all-pro as a rookie in 2016, he’s battled multiple knee injuries during his career with Tennessee but responded with a strong 2019 effort. Premier run blocker off the right side.
18. DL Leonard Williams: He can play anywhere along the defensive line, which makes him valuable – even if he’s not an elite pass rusher. Hard to imagine the Giants letting him get away after surrendering a package that included a third-round pick to get him from the Jets at last year’s trade deadline.
19. DB Byron Jones: Exceptional athlete has played both safety and corner during his career with Dallas. He seems to have settled in on the outside, though only has two career INTs. Hard to imagine him returning to the Cowboys with Prescott and Cooper probably getting priority.
20. OLB/DE Dante Fowler: Still only 25, the No. 3 overall pick of the 2015 draft seemed to settle in at linebacker for the Rams this year, posting a career-best 11½ sacks.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.
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