What if free agency were handled like the draft, with the worst teams getting first dibs?
Even though 2020 NFL free agency is right around the corner, we pundits love to jump the gun and predict what’ll happen down the road via mock drafts — even though we all know full well that the veteran market can sway what teams target on draft day.
In anticipation of both free agency and the 2020 NFL Draft, however, what if we got crazy for a minute? What if we pretended free agency was handled like the draft? You know, with the worst teams getting first dibs on the best talent?
Keeping the 2020 draft order intact, we decided to take a stab at how the “first round” of free agency might play out.
Keep in mind that if there were still a real draft around the corner (and there is), certain teams might prioritize different needs — hence our No. 1 team opting to steer clear of the veteran quarterback market in favor of a rookie.
The only other rule for our exercise? All unrestricted free agents were eligible for picks, but the following were excluded because they’re either sure bets to re-sign with their current teams or expected to be franchise tagged: QB Dak Prescott, QB Drew Brees, RB Derrick Henry, WR Amari Cooper, WR A.J. Green, TE Hunter Henry, OT Anthony Castonzo, OG Brandon Scherff, DE Shaquil Barrett, DE Yannick Ngakoue, DT Chris Jones, OLB Bud Dupree, OLB Matt Judon, S Justin Simmons.
DE Jadeveon Clowney, Seahawks: A proven quarterback might be tempting for Zac Taylor, but with Joe Burrow waiting around the corner, Cincy just needs a difference-maker. Clowney might not put up gaudy numbers, but he’s a presence, which the Bengals defense most definitely lack. His rugged physicality would instantly improve the trenches.
CB Byron Jones, Cowboys: Whenever you can swipe a star from a rival and bring him to your own team in the process, you do it. Especially when you have a dire need at the position he plays. Jones is the market’s top cover man, and Ron Rivera needs somebody to replace Josh Norman. This one’s a no-brainer.
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LB Cory Littleton, Rams: The Lions need a lot of things, especially on defense, where they’ve drastically under-performed for a guy with a defensive pedigree. There’d be no better way for Matt Patricia to shore up the unit than by putting a bonafide playmaker right at the core of the “D.” Littleton doesn’t play a premier position, but he puts up premier numbers.
OT Jack Conklin, Titans: With apologies to Nate Solder, this kind of move would finally give the Big Apple a bookend worth paying for. The only reason he’s set to hit the market is because Tennessee has too many other big names to secure. A 25-year-old former All-Pro left tackle to plug in alongside Daniel Jones? Yeah, the Giants wouldn’t hesitate.
OG Joe Thuney, Patriots: Like the Bengals, the Dolphins know they can draft a top rookie QB if they want to. And beefing up the interior should still be high up on their priority list. At 27, Thuney could grow alongside whomever they target under center. He’s also got an advocate in coach Brian Flores, who hails from Thuney’s current squad.
QB Tom Brady, Patriots: Boom goes the dynamite. Anthony Lynn might have a genuine interest in reigniting his Tyrod Taylor flame, but if Brady’s on the board, he’s not going to pass. Brady is everything Lynn sees in Taylor — efficient, safe, smart — except worlds better and with six Super Bowl rings. Here comes the 90-catch season for Austin Ekeler!
DT Javon Hargrave, Steelers: What Hargrave lacks in national recognition he makes up for in production as a gap-clogging regular on Pittsburgh’s dominant front. Carolina will be looking for building blocks under new coach Matt Rhule, so at 27, Hargrave fits the bill. Ex-Steelers exec and current Panthers owner David Tepper would sign off, especially with Carolina in desperate need of DL help.
DT D.J. Reader, Texans: Were Brandon Scherff a lock to hit the open market, he would’ve fit in nicely as interior protection for Kyler Murray. Instead, Arizona addresses a glaring weakness on the other side of the trenches, where a soon-to-be 32-year-old Corey Peters struggled in 2019. At 25, Reader would be an instant and long-term upgrade at nose tackle.
CB James Bradberry, Panthers: The Jags traded Jalen Ramsey in 2019 and A.J. Bouye in 2020. Do they just hate cornerbacks, or were they more concerned with offloading salary? Let’s go with the latter. Jacksonville’s top priority should be building around Gardner Minshew, but Bradberry would give them a high-quality, long-term CB reinforcement.
10. Cleveland Browns
S Anthony Harris, Vikings: Morgan Burnett is aging and oft-injured, and Damarious Randall is hitting the market. They need a safety. Who better than Harris, a breakout star of 2019 who’s already familiar with new coach Kevin Stefanski, a lifelong Vikings assistant? Cleveland’s back end would gain some instant playmaking ability.
11. New York Jets
DE Arik Armstead, 49ers: When’s the last time the Jets had anyone who could rush the passer with authority? Armstead may have benefited from Nick Bosa’s explosive debut in 2019, but he’s still a physical phenom with the experience to play all over the D-line. Alongside Quinnen Williams, he’d produce.
CB Chris Harris Jr., Broncos: The Raiders gave up on Gareon Conley before his 25th birthday, so they’ll conceivably be looking for a quick, surefire fix in the secondary. Harris is just that. Jon Gruden has had to scheme against the vet four times over the last two years, and he’d surely welcome such an experienced starter to his defense.
QB Philip Rivers, Chargers: This one makes so much sense that it will now be mildly stunning if it doesn’t happen in real life. Are the Colts built to challenge for a title in the next two years? Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, Frank Reich will convince himself Rivers, with a change of scenery, is enough of an upgrade on Jacoby Brissett to make magic.
QB Teddy Bridgewater, Saints: The Bucs need a QB, and given the choice between Bridgewater and Jameis Winston, is it any secret which way Bruce Arians would lean? You don’t publicly campaign for a wait-and-see approach to filling out the QB room unless you’re actively looking to upgrade, and Arians is on record as loving Teddy’s style (i.e. not throwing 30 picks).
15. Denver Broncos
WR Robby Anderson, Jets: A proven offensive tackle might be atop their wish list, but receiver should be up there, too. Now that John Elway has declared Drew Lock the future at QB, Denver needs to get him another weapon. Courtland Sutton broke out in 2019, but Anderson’s speed would be a perfect complement on the other side of the field.
16. Atlanta Falcons
DE Dante Fowler Jr., Rams: Atlanta would have no problem trading one initial draft bust (Vic Beasley) for another if it means making their pass rush better. Fresh off a career year in Los Angeles, Fowler is the kind of edge defender the Falcons can build around.
17. Dallas Cowboys
CB Trae Waynes, Vikings: With Byron Jones gone and two other corners hitting the market, Dallas needs a starting-caliber body in the secondary. Waynes is arguably their best hope there, with Bradberry and Harris also scooped up. He’s also spent his entire NFL career under Cowboys assistant George Edwards, Minnesota’s former defensive coordinator.
18. Miami Dolphins
RB Melvin Gordon, Chargers: It might be a reach at No. 18, but when’s the last time you looked at the Dolphins’ running backfield? Gordon is streaky and doesn’t necessarily deserve top dollar, but he’s still a young, multifaceted weapon when on his game. He’d easily be the best ball-carrier they’ve had in years.
19. Las Vegas Raiders
QB Jameis Winston, Buccaneers: Another proven defensive vet would be right up their alley (think Devin McCourty), but would Jon Gruden actually pass up on the opportunity to work with Winston’s live arm? After two years of Derek Carr dink-and-dunk, he’s itching to spread it out. And Winston just seems like a guy who could wear the silver and black.
20. Jacksonville Jaguars
TE Austin Hooper, Jaguars: Gardner Minshew needs people to throw to. Austin Hooper is young enough to grow with him. And new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has a history of utilizing tight ends, with both Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis flashing under his direction in Washington. This would be a dream come true for the Jags.
WR Breshad Perriman, Buccaneers: A CB would be really nice, but Perriman is both solidly built and, more importantly, built to run. The Eagles need at least one starting wideout, and while he’s not the most proven in terms of a full-time workload, the upside would be enough for a Howie Roseman gamble. Anything to help Carson Wentz.
22. Buffalo Bills
DE Robert Quinn, Cowboys: The Bills could secure their own pass rusher in Shaq Lawson, but they’ve also got a defense built to contend right now. At 29, Quinn’s been around long enough to come in and make an immediate impact as part of Sean McDermott’s line. As one of this year’s , he’d be a big get for Buffalo’s already stingy “D.”
23. New England Patriots
QB Ryan Tannehill, Titans: With Brady drafted to the West Coast, the Patriots are left no choice but to embark on a new era at QB. Why not with Tannehill, the guy who knocked Brady out of the playoffs in 2019? Bill Belichick knows his ins and outs from scouting the AFC East, and he’d make for an athletic field manager in New England, even if just as a stopgap.
24. New Orleans Saints
LB Joe Schobert, Browns: Demario Davis has been productive, but the Saints miss the days of having a consistent playmaker at the heart of their “D.” With four LBs headed for free agency and Kiko Alonso potentially joining them, Schobert would be right up their alley. Adding his range would go a long way toward New Orleans making another run.
25. Minnesota Vikings
CB Jimmie Ward, 49ers: The O-line will obviously be a top priority in the real draft, but they need bodies in the secondary like nobody’s business. Xavier Rhodes is a near-lock to be axed, and in this exercise, both Trae Waynes and Anthony Harris have also been swiped. Ward is an injury risk, but he offers CB/S versatility and flashed against them in the playoffs.
26. Miami Dolphins
LB Kyle Van Noy, Patriots: Another Brian Flores guy from New England, Van Noy wouldn’t just satisfy Miami’s need for LB and pass rusher help; his positional flexibility would enable Flores to deploy him as a core chess piece of the “D.”
27. Seattle Seahawks
OT Bryan Bulaga, Packers: Duane Brown remains installed as Seattle’s left tackle, but on the other side, they’ve got a big need with the polarizing Germain Ifedi set to hit free agency. Bulaga isn’t a long-term solution at age 30, but he’s been around long enough to step in and immediately boost Russell Wilson’s protection for another deep playoff run.
28. Baltimore Ravens
WR Emmanuel Sanders, 49ers: Just imagine what Lamar Jackson might do with a deeper WR corps. Sanders is a rock-solid route runner with plenty of game left in the tank, but he’s experienced enough to make an instant adjustment and serve as Jackson’s go-to man in crunch time. Baltimore would be elated to bring him in.
29. Tennessee Titans
LB Jamie Collins, Patriots: Titans acquire QB Derek Carr from Las Vegas Raiders in exchange for LB Jamie Collins and a 2021 third-round draft pick. If Tannehill is off to New England, the Titans can’t afford to ride with a mid-tier free agent like Case Keenum or — gulp — Marcus Mariota if they want to make another playoff run. Enter Carr, who won’t be needed in Vegas with Jameis Winston hopping conferences. Carr can be efficient like Tannehill for Mike Vrabel, and he once thrived under current Titans assistant Todd Downing with the Raiders. Collins, meanwhile, would give the Raiders even more veteran help on “D.”
30. Green Bay Packers
TE Eric Ebron, Colts: Out goes Jimmy Graham; in comes Ebron. The latter might have some of the same issues (drops!), but he’s also seven years younger with lots of football in front of him. He’d be a Day One upgrade for Aaron Rodgers in the red zone.
31. San Francisco 49ers
CB Logan Ryan, Titans: With Jimmie Ward off the board, they need a solid cover man to plug in alongside Richard Sherman. Ryan isn’t the flashiest name, and he’s probably more of a short-term fix. Then again, he’s also pretty much only ever played for contenders and is coming off one of the best seasons of his career.
CB Kendall Fuller, Chiefs: Boring? Maybe. But as frustrating as Fuller may have been before converting to more of a full-time safety role in 2019, he stood tall when it mattered most, proving invaluable in place of Juan Thornhill and helping seal the Chiefs’ Super Bowl win. He also just turned 25. Why not gamble on his continued upside, especially with two other CBs hitting the market?
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