2019 NFL free agency: Here's an early look at six who'll provide the most bang for the buck
These soon-to-be free agents won't be signing record deals, but they'll bring significant value
The NFL offseason is suddenly upon us, which means the start of free agency is mere weeks away, and the combine is on the horizon. Teams are already having to make decisions on options for 2019, and the franchise-tag period is just ahead.
It's well documented what a crap shoot I believe the first wave of NFL free agency is, and how much fool's gold is out there. Inevitably, and invariably, the teams that run around setting the market at the onset of free agency tend to regret it quite quickly. The clubs that "win" free agency tend to lose come the fall. There are few quick fixes in this league.
We all know by now that virtually no NFL contract is truly binding beyond two years (with guaranteed money very rare beyond that span), and so I always like to look back three years at this time of year to see where all that money really went. And, generally, it ain't a pretty picture.
How did that massive splurge the Giants made in 2016 work out for them when they tried to purchase a new starting defense in March. How many playoff wins did it net them? What did they get for $106M in guaranteed contracts? Oh yeah, zero playoff wins, a fired coach and general manager, a fifth-round pick for Snacks Harrison and, now, a more sweeping purge potentially ahead, with Olivier Vernon and Janoris Jenkins having murky futures with the team as well.
The Jags spent the second-most in 2016 and over the next three years they did manage to reach to AFC title game in 2018 … but, well, the other two seasons were disasters. And they thought about firing their coach this year, and they are going to have to start moving on from many of those high-priced 2016 signings on their defense and, while they cling to what's left of their window, most execs in the league I talk to believe the only prudent move would be a full purge.
The Raiders spend over $70M in 2016, and have since fired their coach and general manager, and have zero wins to show for it, and traded away two of their best players this past season and they hold the fourth pick in the 2019 draft. The Texans spent $65M committed to salary in 2016, with half going to, gulp, Brock Osweiler. They have one playoff win in the last three years to show for it.
That's not to say there are not teams that manage to turn sharp, calculated moves into a boon. There are always prudent bargains and buy-low propositions that yield strong returns. That's the part of the process that fascinates me on an annual basis, as smart executives and coaches find shrewd scheme fits and former draft busts who end up making big strides after a change of scenery.
Undoubtedly, a bevy of teams will over-spend by a wide margin again this season, with precious little to show for it. How did, oh, say, Nate Solder, Jimmy Graham, Sam Bradford, Trumaine Johnson, Malcolm Butler, and, oh yeah, Kirk Cousins work out last year? There will be more of the same this March, but I would be focused on some of these other players who won't be signing record contracts for their position groups but who may end up bringing significant value.
He needs to get a chance to start games again. It's time. And anytime you can potentially buy low on a young QB – still just 26 – after watching teams waste $18M a year on guys like Bradford and Osweiler and Mike Glennon in recent years, QB-needy teams should go for it. Miami and Washington should be all over him, even if they are planning on drafting a quarterback. I want Bridgewater on a 2-3 year deal, so I have him for a while if his knee holds up to either keep or trade. He was a winning QB for the Vikings before that horrific knee injury and coaches and players absolutely love him as a human being.
New England has some big-money decisions to make – with the tag and otherwise – on left tackle Trent Brown and pass rusher Trey Flowers. So they may be vulnerable here, and while they love Patterson, other teams should too. Might be the best return man on the planet and Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels found out how to unlock him on offense, toggling between receiver and running back. So much speed. An RPO-heavy team like the Ravens should be all over adding him to the backfield/out in space to compliment Lamar Jackson.
He needs to get out of Chicago, badly, after barely seeing the field since being drafted seventh overall in 2015. He can't stay healthy, but has world-class speed and I will always take a flier on that. The metrics that made him so attractive coming out of West Virginia should still be there. He remains raw, but should come cheap and this just smells like the kind of guy Bill Belichick would be all over. Perhaps even as a replacement for Patterson, who, what do you know, was a buy-cheap guy for the Pats after being labeled a first-round bust with the Vikings.
This team has a lot of money tied into its offense already; the emerging 26-year old receiver will find greener pastures. He won't be cheap at all – I mean, Donte Moncrief got $10M a year ago – but I believe there could still be value here. At 6-4, he's a huge target with a great catching radius, and someone who could truly break out as a primary option on an less star-studded offense. In the weeks where his role expanded due to injuries to others, you got a glimpse of what could be to come. Williams already has a 1,000-yard season to his name (2015) and hasn't missed a game the last three years. Again, he will be much more expensive than the other guys on this list, but given top WRs now pushing $18M a year, I believe you can still get bang for your buck with him.
I don't believe in spending big for backs these days, but Ware is probably not going to break the bank. The Chiefs extended the contract of Damien Williams, who became the main guy after Kareem Hunt was released. But Ware can run and catch and was an excellent third-down back in 2017 before Hunt became more of a factor in the pass game last season. Ware has an incredibly high catch-rate on his targets (59 receptions on 71 passes; 83 percent). He is a very young 27, with just 340 career carries. Now further removed from his 2017 knee surgery, he averages a robust 4.6 yards per carry in his career in that secondary role and would be a boon to the rotation of many NFL backfields.
This outside linebacker can do a little bit of everything and was a valuable part of the league's best defense. Frankly, if I was Baltimore, I would be more willing to buy in on him rather than perhaps spend egregiously to keep more-heralded middle linebacker C.J. Mosley. Smith came on with 8.5 sacks last year and, with older edge players like Brandon Graham set to possibly get $14M a year in free agency, perhaps Smith will be a relative bargain after just one season in a starting role. Still untapped potential here.
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