Ten intriguing players on the NFL free-agent market
If there’s one thing we’ve learned since unrestricted free agency was introduced in 1993, you can’t simply buy your way into Super Bowl contention. As the 30th season of the system begins this week, that’s still the case.
Yes, you can strike gold the way the Buccaneers did two years ago by signing Tom Brady after his 20-year career in New England ended. But that was a once-in-a-generation — if not a once-in-a-lifetime — situation. But even the best players whose contracts are up don’t always hit the market, as evidenced by Packers wide receiver Davante Adams, Bengals safety Jessie Bates and Kansas City offensive tackle Orlando Brown being retained via the franchise tag.
And with more and more teams being aggressive on the trade front — the Broncos with Russell Wilson and the 2020 Rams with Matthew Stafford — the free-agent options often are limited even further.
That said, there are worthwhile choices on this year’s open market. And it’s not just the big-name players who can make a difference with a new team; under-the-radar choices often are just as enticing.
Here are 10 of the most intriguing players:
1. Von Miller, edge, Rams: The Rams went for broke last season, dealing for Stafford and Miller. He’s not what he was during his prime, but he was good enough to help the Rams win Super Bowl LVI. He’s now making it known that he’s ready to return to the Broncos, who again are playoff contenders with Wilson at quarterback.
2. Bobby Wagner, LB, Seahawks: The Seahawks parted ways with Wagner after a decade. He’s still terrific, but with the Seahawks in rebuilding mode, they couldn’t justify his $20.35M salary cap number. He might be the game’s best pure tackler. The Patriots, Cowboys or Ravens could have interest.
3. J.C. Jackson, CB, Patriots: Jackson is ready to hit the open market and might come away with one of the biggest financial hauls of anyone. Bill Belichick declined to use the franchise tag.
4. Terron Armstead, T, Saints: There’s some elite talent along the offensive line in the draft, but Armstead is one of just a handful of quality veteran blockers. The Bengals sure could use some help after their offensive line meltdown in the Super Bowl.
5. Tyrann Mathieu, S, Kansas City: Looking for a playmaking safety who has a Super Bowl championship and outstanding leadership skills? Mathieu is your guy. He has been a huge contributor for Kansas City but is looking to move on at age 29. The Saints and Ravens are potential landing spots.
6. Chandler Jones, edge, Cardinals: Jones has been one of the NFL’s most consistent pass rushers in the last seven seasons, and even at age 32, he’ll attract plenty of attention. It’s possible the Broncos, Ravens or Steelers will have interest.
7. Mitchell Trubisky, QB, Bills. The veteran market is so thin that Trubisky, a former Bears first-round pick, will draw serious interest, and not just as a capable veteran backup. The Colts, who dealt Carson Wentz to the Commanders, are an option, and there could be interest in Carolina and Pittsburgh. The Giants? In a perfect world, Brian Daboll would bring in Trubisky to compete with Daniel Jones, but the Giants don’t have much salary cap space.
8. Emmanuel Ogbah, edge, Dolphins. The 28-year-old pass rusher has proved to be a capable defender with nine sacks in each of his last two seasons. Miami is interested in retaining him, but Kansas City might be targeting him.
9. Allen Robinson, WR, Bears. After two straight 1,000-yard seasons and a combined 13 TD catches in 2019-20, he was limited by injuries last year. But at 28, he certainly can add to an offense. Teams with potential interest: the Eagles, Colts, Jaguars, Raiders and Browns.
10. Rob Gronkowski, tight end, Buccaneers: Gronk has considered retirement — again — but also floated the possibility of joining Joe Burrow in Cincinnati. Even if he’s past his prime, the future Hall of Fame tight end would be an enticing consideration for a team coming off a Super Bowl run.
Wilson gets his wish
Despite a flurry of speculation last season that Wilson wanted out of Seattle, it appeared he was fine with returning in 2022. He even suggested he’d like to spend the rest of his career with the Seahawks.
Then came the Broncos.
Denver had been desperate to find a big-time quarterback since Peyton Manning retired after winning Super Bowl L, and Aaron Rodgers kept bubbling up as the guy who could do for the Broncos what Manning had done. But with Rodgers remaining in Green Bay, the Broncos found their guy in Wilson.
And now it’s time to anoint the Broncos as legitimate Super Bowl contenders and to proclaim the AFC West as the most intriguing division in the NFL.
Wilson can be the missing piece for a team that has plenty of strong pieces. There is a trio of quality receivers in Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick. The offensive line is improved. The defense includes blue-chip pass rusher Bradley Chubb and standout backs Patrick Surtain II and Justin Simmons. And there is speculation that soon-to-be free agent Von Miller will look to return to the team that drafted him in the first round in 2011.
All that was missing was a big-time quarterback, and now the Broncos have one in Wilson. He may not be at the level of Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes or Matthew Stafford, but he certainly is good enough to get Denver on a more even footing with AFC West rivals Kansas City, Las Vegas and the Chargers.
The Seahawks appear headed for a rebuild with the two first-round picks and two second-rounders they acquired in the deal. Quarterback Drew Lock might be a placeholder for a younger quarterback; don’t discount the Seahawks looking at Liberty’s Malik Willis after his strong performances in the Senior Bowl and the NFL Combine. And with Seattle parting ways with perennial All-Pro linebacker Wagner, there will be some major changes on defense.
Rodgers rewrites history
This had all the makings of Brett Favre 2.0.
Just as the Packers had drafted Favre’s eventual replacement, Aaron Rodgers, in the first round in 2005, Green Bay did the same with Jordan Love in 2020. The Packers not only drafted Love at 26 overall but traded into the first round to get him.
There was no way this would end differently. Favre was traded to the Jets in 2008, and Rodgers would surely be next, right?
Well, credit Rodgers with changing the course of Packers history by playing his way into a contract extension that will keep him with the Packers and almost certainly mean the eventual end of Love’s time in Green Bay. Rodgers delivered a second consecutive MVP season, and even after a stunning divisional-round loss to the 49ers at home, the Packers went all-in on their 38-year-old quarterback.
Rodgers’ reported deal was for four years and $200 million (although there’s some question as to whether he has signed it). It makes him the NFL’s highest-paid player and offers continuity for a team that had faced the possibility of doing away with one of its best players ever. And while Love may or may not be traded — he is an affordably priced backup still on his rookie contract — there is no question the Packers will ride with Rodgers until he decides to retire.
It’s the smart play for Rodgers, who would have had to start over with a new team. And even if he went to Denver, the most frequently mentioned suitor, competing in a division that already includes quarterbacks Mahomes, Derek Carr and Justin Herbert was a far cry from the NFC North. The Bears’ Justin Fields, the Lions’ Jared Goff and the Vikings’ Kirk Cousins are not in the same class.
It’s also a chance for Rodgers to achieve a rarity in today’s NFL — playing his entire career with one team.
Wentz is consolation prize
In a perfect world, the Washington Commanders would have completed a trade for Wilson to dramatically upgrade their quarterback. Instead, Wilson went to the Broncos, leaving Washington with Carson Wentz as the alternative — and a very disappointing alternative at that.
Commanders coach Ron Rivera made no secret of his desire to acquire a new quarterback after last season.
"When you get that guy, it makes things a lot easier," he said about having a franchise-caliber quarterback. "We are being very proactive, looking, searching, doing things. We are trying to truly cover every base."
Last year, the Commanders made a strong bid for Stafford, but it was the Rams who parlayed Stafford’s acquisition into a Super Bowl run. This year, it was Denver that wound up with Wilson, who opted out of his no-trade clause to join the Broncos, his preferred destination.
Washington settled for Wentz, who was a one-and-done with the Colts after being traded by the Eagles.
Wentz’s numbers weren’t awful last season: 27 touchdown passes and seven interceptions. But he lost his last two starts, including a season-ending matchup against the woeful Jaguars, and missed the playoffs.
The Colts were not sold on Wentz’s leadership, and he disappointed coach Frank Reich, general manager Chris Ballard and, most of all, team owner Jim Irsay, with his decision to not be vaccinated for COVID-19. He wound up on the COVID-19 list and missed a week’s worth of practice before the team’s next-to-last game against the Raiders.
Even with Wentz’s acquisition, the Commanders might not be done at quarterback. Rivera acknowledged he’s looking at the draft.
"It’s a different type of group," he said of this year’s quarterbacks. "You’ve got everything from pure passers to guys that have pure athleticism. You’ve got to look at how it’s going to fit the type of players you have. We’re picking at No. 11, and I promise you, these are all the things that we’re looking at."
Watson on the move?
A Harris County grand jury’s decision not to charge Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson after allegations of harassment and sexual misconduct ultimately might lead to Watson being traded. But it doesn’t automatically leave him in the clear.
Watson still faces 22 civil lawsuits stemming from his involvement with massage therapists, some of whom allege he sexually assaulted them. Attorney Tony Buzbee, who represents the nearly two dozen women who have filed civil claims, said his cases will continue.
Despite not being criminally charged, Watson still might face sanctions from the league, which could suspend him after its ongoing investigation has been completed. The league has not yet interviewed Watson.
Some teams remain interested in trading for Watson, and Friday’s decision not to criminally charge him could make them less reluctant to engage in discussions with the Texans about a deal. The Panthers are strongly considering him, and he has been connected with the Seahawks, Eagles and Bucs. Other teams needing upgrades at quarterback include the Colts and Steelers. The Browns also have been mentioned as a possibility.