NFL free agency predictions

Featuring the top 10 free agents of 2020

Michael Sicoli, Associate Opinion Editor

The NFL tampering period begins on March 16, and since COVID-19, better known as the coronavirus, has suspended almost every major sports league including the NBA, the NHL and the MLB, this is all sports fans have left.

Of course, with players all the more reluctant to fly into cities for meetings and physicals, who knows what could change at this point?

To clarify for those who may not know, the aforementioned tampering period allows teams to meet with free agents and discuss terms before deals can be made official when the new league year begins on March 18, which, as of now, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has stated that the pandemic will not change the date.

So, this is the final chance to predict and speculate where players will go in a star-studded free agency class, particularly at quarterback. Below, I list my top 10 free agents along with a “dream” landing spot where the player and team would both thrive as well as an “expected” landed spot where I believe the player will actually end up.

*Age is relative to when the season starts*

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Honorable Mentions: 

Drew Brees, quarterback, 41

It has been all but officially confirmed that Drew Brees will return to the New Orleans Saints for his 20th season to the point where it’s not worth speculating about.

Yannick Ngakoue, defensive end, 25

Ngakoue is technically no longer a free agent, and as a result he is no longer on the list. But despite the team franchise tagging him, Ngakoue has stated via Twitter that he has no interest in remaining a Jaguar. Expect a trade in the coming or weeks.

Dream landing spot: Seattle Seahawks

Letting Jadeveon Clowney walk and trading for Ngakoue to help the Seahawks improve on their pitiful 28 sacks would be a perfect fit for both sides. The team has over $44 million in cap room, giving it the option to pay for a player of Ngakoue’s caliber. The Seahawks would get a consistent pass rusher that would fill a position of need. The team can move past its 2019 Clowney trade and commit to a younger, more consistent pass rusher.

Expected landing: New York Giants

The Giants were rumored to be a contender for Ngakoue for months and with the sixth most cap room, they can afford him. That defense needs a pass rush after ranking 22nd in sacks, and Ngakoue has a shot to be the next elite pass rusher that the Giants have missed since the prime years of defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul.

10. A.J. Green, wide receiver, 32

Once one of the best wide receivers in the league, Green has battled injury after injury in recent years. The Cincinnati Bengals mainstay has missed 23 of the last 32 games, and at his age, people are worrying if he is washed up. Despite this, a wide receiver of his pedigree is sure to receive a short “prove-it” deal. 

Dream landing spot: New Orleans Saints

Green deserves to compete for a Super Bowl ring after suffering losses in his only four playoff games over a nine-year career. The Saints allow him to do that. The team is in win-now mode with Brees on what could be the last year of his legendary career. Wide receiver Michael Thomas is among the best in the league, setting the single season reception record in 2019. But breaking a volume-based record only highlights the need for additional weapons. Wide receiver Ted Ginn’s 30 receptions were fifth on the team, behind Thomas, tight end Jared Cook, running back Alvin Kamara and even backup running back Latavius Murray.  While tight on cap room, Green could possibly take a pay-cut to play for a contender. 

Expected landing spot: Cincinnati Bengals

Unfortunately for Green, the Bengals have discussed franchise tagging the wide receiver. This would allow LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, who the Bengals are expected to select with the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, to have a capable crew of weapons between Green, Tyler Boyd and John Ross. With over $45 million in cap room and the Bengals being historically stingy with outside free-agent spending, Green will likely be trapped in Cincinnati for yet another year.

9. Derrick Henry, running back, 26

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Nobody could stop Derrick Henry in 2019 as he was one of the league’s most effective backs. He ran for over 1,500 yards at 5.1 yards per carry. His dominance on the ground helped the Titans go to the AFC Championship game. He may have limitations in the passing game but his ability to become the offense is something most players cannot do.

Dream landing spot: Houston Texans

Combining Henry with quarterback Deshaun Watson’s rushing ability would be devastating for defenses. Read-options would force the defense to either allow one of the best rushers in the league to plow down the middle or the quarterback to slip outside for a huge gain. Of course, Watson is an incredible passer, so play-action would still be an incredibly efficient option just like it was in Tennessee. The Texans have plenty of cap room to afford the Alabama product and taking away the core of a divisional rival’s offense would be an added bonus. 

Expected landing spot: Tennessee Titans

The Titans, despite the regret that tends to come with large running back extensions, cannot afford to lose Henry. They were just one game from the Super Bowl last year, and Henry is in the prime of his career. No team was able to stop him last year as he led the league in rushing despite missing a game. Extending a running back with his physical playstyle is a risk the Titans have to take — Henry is that valuable to the team.

8. Shaquil Barrett, outside linebacker, 27

Who doesn’t love a late breakout player to confuse NFL coaches and general managers alike? The pass-rushing linebacker broke out this past season when he led the NFL with 19.5 sacks. At the late breakout age of 27, he had seven of his 19.5 sacks in two weeks. While he was great this past season, this was his first season with over six sacks.  

Dream landing spot: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Don’t fix what isn’t broken. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles clearly was able to trigger something in Barrett, and with both sides eager to remain together, this seems like the right decision. The only worry is the franchise tag. If used on quarterback Jameis Winston, the Buccaneers and Barrett might fail to agree to a long-term deal.

Expected landing spot: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Hey, a match made in heaven. Barrett has already come out and said that he wants to remain in Tampa, primarily due to the state’s no income tax. He even told the Tampa Bay Times that he would be fine with the franchise tag — music to any team’s ears.

7. Jadeveon Clowney, defensive end, 27

Highlight machine Clowney is not the most consistent pass rusher. After being traded to the Seattle Seahawks, Clowney failed to make an impact on the team. He only had three sacks last year but due to his sheer athleticism and past production on the Houston Texans, he will receive a sizable contract as a pass rusher in the NFL.

Dream landing spot: Tennessee Titans

Titans head coach Mike Vrabel would work wonders with Clowney. Vrabel was the defensive coordinator for the Texans in 2017, Clowney’s best season. The Titans have an average defense but making it stronger behind a control-the-clock offense could put the Titans over the hump. With well over $50 million in cap room and the release of pass rusher Cameron Wake, the Titans can make this happen. Looming free agents, namely quarterback Ryan Tannehill and running back Derrick Henry, could box the team in, however.

Expected landing spot: Indianapolis Colts

Clowney told NBC Sports Northwest that he “wants to get that Super Bowl,” and despite an underwhelming 2019 season, the Colts have the second most cap room in the league and plenty of young talent. A defense featuring Clowney, Justin Houston and Darius Leonard would be feared around the league and much needed to defeat high-powered divisional opponents like the Texans and the Titans.

6. Byron Jones, defensive back, 27

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A year ago, Jones would be fetching top dollar for his services. But after yet another year of forcing zero interceptions, people are beginning to worry whether or not he can be a game changer at his position. He only has two career interceptions in 79 games. His pass deflections also sharply dropped to a mere six last year compared to 14 in 2018. Still, his ability in coverage is unlike most cornerbacks to hit free agency, allowing just 30 receptions in 2020, which means he will get paid handsomely.

Dream landing spot: Dallas Cowboys

Should the Cowboys make an offer, Jones should leap at any large offer given to him. The Cowboys, despite recent struggles, are still a strong enough team to reach the playoffs in a weak NFC East. The defense needs pass coverage and losing the team’s top coverage player in the secondary would hurt. The Cowboys may be loaded with cash, having over $77 million in cap room, but with guys like Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper hitting free agency for the Cowboys, Jones may not be a priority.

Expected landing spot: Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles secondary was among the worst in football last season. No draft pick will make an immediate difference for this team, and Jones would be an immediate plug-and-play for that unit. The Eagles have almost $42 million in cap room. They can afford to upgrade their secondary and stealing a player from a division rival is an added bonus.

5. Ryan Tannehill, quarterback, 32

Talk about coming out of nowhere. A backup quarterback entering 2019 after years of mediocrity with the Miami Dolphins, Tannehill was brilliant with the Titans after taking over for Marcus Mariota in Week 6. He led Titans to a 9-7 record and an AFC Championship berth. The Titans scored over 31 points per game with Tannehill as a starter during the regular season. Given that this was mostly on the back of Derrick Henry, some are hesitant to pay Tannehill.

Dream landing spot: Tennessee Titans

Bring back Henry, bring back Tannehill and run it back. The Titans were one game away from the Super Bowl, and letting Henry run the ball down a defense’s throat while Tannehill throws over the top is a remarkable combination. He led the league in passer-rating with a grade of 117.5 and an even higher rating of 140.6 when running play-action. Tannehill can run this offense better than most quarterbacks.

Expected landing spot: Tennessee Titans

Expect a short-term deal for the quarterback. Both sides know this is a match made in heaven, with it unlikely that other teams would value Tannehill’s scheme fit like the Titans do. Tannehill needs the Titans just like the Titans need Tannehill.

4. Amari Cooper, wide receiver, 27

After being traded to the Cowboys for a first-round pick, Cooper had high expectations. While he has been a 1,000-yard-wide receiver every year outside of 2017, Cooper has a bad tendency to disappear in key moments, showing his inconsistency. An 11-reception, 147-yard game against Minnesota Vikings in Week 10 was followed by a three-reception, 38-yard game against the Lions in Week 11 last season. He also put up an astounding 226 yards on 11 receptions with a touchdown against the Green Bay Packers in Week 5. But he also was shut down by cornerback Stephon Gilmore and the New England Patriots in Week 12, catching zero passes. He caught just 10 balls over the last three games when the Cowboys were in full playoff push. Regardless, a wide receiver of his caliber at his age is better than what most teams currently have.

Dream landing spot: Denver Broncos

The Broncos, according to CBS Sports’ Patrik Walker, would be among the strongest suitors for the wide receiver and for good reason. Pairing him with wide receiver Courtland Sutton while still having tight end Noah Fant and running back Phillip Lindsay as weapons would be the ideal situation for sophomore quarterback Drew Lock, who impressed towards the end of last season. After losing Emmanuel Sanders, Denver is in the market for wide receiver and can certainly afford Cooper with over $55 million in cap room.

Expected landing spot: Dallas Cowboys

While it’s fun to dream, Jerry Jones is a prideful man. Cooper still impressed last season and after giving up a first-round pick for him in 2019, Jones is not going to let Cooper walk. With a new coach in Mike McCarthy, Jones will pay Cooper to be his No.1 target which allows wide receiver Michael Gallup to remain a very good No. 2 option.

3. Tom Brady, quarterback, 43

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I felt silly even writing Tom Brady’s position here. We all know the six-time Super Bowl champion, the man who has been a 14-time Pro Bowl player and a three-time MVP. Come September, the sixth oldest quarterback ever will test free agency for the first time in his illustrious career. Rumors are flying — will TB12 leave Foxborough?

Dream landing spot: Tennessee Titans

Reuniting the old teammate turned head coach Mike Vrabel would be a clear motivator for Brady if he has finally grown tired of Belichick’s “tough love” approach. Tannehill would walk out and in would walk Brady, executing the run-first offense to perfection. Him and wide receiver A.J. Brown would be a feared duo as Derrick Henry continues to punish defenses. Brady’s playoff experience would be the difference maker between the 2019 Titans and the 2020 Titans.

Expected landing spot: Los Angeles Chargers

While I cannot shake the feeling that this is an elaborate prank between Brady and Belichick, both fully knowing that TB12 will return, my gut says he will join the Los Angeles Chargers. The team has to find some way of finding some fans, right? The Chargers, despite their bad 2019 season, can be a win-now team. Pieces like tight end Hunter Henry, wide receiver Keenan Allen, running back Austin Ekeler, safety Derwin James and defensive end Joey Bosa are capable of being among the best at their position. Losing quarterback Phillip Rivers in free agency puts the team in an interesting spot, and Brady could step right in. 

The Chargers could be contenders once more, as they appeared to be in 2018, while Brady gets a chance at a seventh ring in L.A., a place where Brady is sure to have plenty of business opportunities off the field. Brady is even launching his own production company in Hollywood called 199 Productions. The ability to contend, warm weather and the L.A. culture will pull Brady away from New England after decades of dominance. This also sounds like the “revenge” storyline Brady would love to have, as the Chargers are slated to play the Patriots in 2020.

2. Chris Jones, defensive tackle, 26

Chris Jones, like most defensive tackles, is critically underrated. Coming off of a Super Bowl victory, he is one of the most disruptive players at his position, and as a 26-year-old, he will be one of the most sought-after players in free agency this year. The 2019 season was a down year by his standards, but his 15.5 sack season in 2018 showed his unique pass-rushing potential as more than the traditional run stuffer. But given the cap-strapped nature in Kansas City, he may be priced out.

Dream landing spot: Indianapolis Colts

Send everyone to Indianapolis! General manager Chris Ballard has the money to splurge on this year’s free agency crop, and he should do so, assuming he lands a quarterback. Jones is not someone that comes around often, and the ability to take him from an AFC frontrunner is an added bonus. The Colts need a pass rush, and Jones can be a game-changer with Justin Houston and Darius Leonard.

Expected landing spot: Kansas City Chiefs

This comes with an asterisk. Jones will not receive the contract of his dreams unless he takes a pay cut, and the Chiefs will not let him walk into the arms of the Indianapolis Colts, a major suitor for Jones. The Chiefs should and will franchise tag the defensive tackle, which will let Jones compete for another ring while still getting paid around $15.5 million. The Chiefs can elect to release wide receiver Sammy Watkins to clear more cap room for Jones’ contract as well as a league-altering Patrick Mahomes deal.

1. Dak Prescott, quarterback, 27

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The 2016 fourth rounder has certainly exceeded all expectations as he has become the face of America’s team. The two-time Pro Bowler offers rushing ability in addition to his arm and would easily be the most sought-after quarterback if Dallas doesn’t resign him before the tampering period begins. People have knocked him for his lack of playoff success given the apparent talent around him, but quarterbacks of his ability do not come around often. Prescott has been asking for $40 million a year annually and recently turned down a $33 million dollar a year with $105 million guaranteed, leading to speculation that he may have priced himself out of Jerry’s World.

Dream landing spot: Los Angeles Chargers

Phillip Rivers and the Chargers have parted amicably. And while the Chargers have touted their in-house options, featuring quarterback Tyrod Taylor, they should reconsider if Prescott hit the market. Prescott would throw to wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, a dominant duo while dumping down to recently resigned running back Austin Ekeler. This would allow the Chargers to use the No. 6 pick in the draft on a guy like versatile linebacker Isaiah Simmons or offensive tackle Jedrick Wills, depending on where they want to go. With over $55 million of cap room, the team can afford to bring in a franchise quarterback like Prescott.

Expected landing spot: Dallas Cowboys

 But alas, Jerry Jones cannot be priced out if he actually wants to resign Prescott. Jones “discovered” Prescott in the fourth round, and you can bet that he will retain his gem of a pick. Prescott is an excellent fit in the Cowboys’ offense, led by running back Ezekiel Elliot. He can manage the offense while still having the ability to take over if need be. I would be shocked if the Cowboys did not come to an agreement with their franchise quarterback.