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The Shadow
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Welcome to a new year and a new decade in both the NFL and the real world.

Many are focused first and foremost on the 11 NFL games that will take place between now and the evening of February 2, but fans of the majority of the league's 32 teams are already looking forward to free agency and the draft. 

The first step toward becoming a better team in 2020 takes place in 11 weeks' time, when more than 500 players will become unrestricted free agents at the start of the new league year. 

Here's an initial position-by-position rundown of the top names slated to hit the open market on March 18.

     

Quarterback

1. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints

2. Tom Brady, New England Patriots

3. Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys

4. Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers

5. Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

6. Ryan Tannehill, Tennessee Titans

7. Teddy Bridgewater, Saints

Don't get your hopes up. We listed seven quarterbacks, but most of these guys are unlikely to hit free agency. For various reasons, it's hard to imagine Brees, Brady or Rivers playing anywhere else. Prescott and the Cowboys have been negotiating for what feels like forever, and it's possible that Prescott, Winston and Tannehill all get hit by franchise tags before sniffing the open market. 

So it's possible—maybe even likely—that Bridgewater is the top quarterback to actually become available, although there's also an outside chance that a veteran like Cam Newton or Nick Foles becomes unemployed between now and the start of free agency. 

But for now, we'll focus on these seven, none of whom are under contract beyond this spring. Brees and Brady, who rank first and second on the all-time passing touchdowns list, will both have the last two years of their current deals void on the eve of the new league year. But they're the two oldest position players in pro football, and new contracts in New Orleans and New England are likely. And even if those deals don't come together, it's possible either (or both) could retire. 

Rivers has said he's open to playing elsewhere, and an argument can be made that the Chargers should move on after another disappointing season with the offense under his tutelage. However, his numbers plummeted in 2019, so it's difficult to imagine another team taking a risk on the 38-year-old. 

The Cowboys don't sound as though they're willing to part with Prescott, so after a 30-touchdown season, the franchise tag is there if needed. Ditto for the Bucs and Winston, especially after NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported last week that the plan is to bring him back for 2020. Tannehill is coming off the fourth-highest-rated season in NFL history, and ESPN's Dianna Russini reported in December that the Titans were "internally discussing a new contract for" the 31-year-old. 

But unless Brees does move on or retire, you'd have to think a team like the Miami Dolphins, Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts or Jacksonville Jaguars would be willing to outspend the Saints for Bridgewater, who won all five of his starts this season in place of an injured Brees.

Running Back

1. Derrick Henry, Titans

2. Kenyan Drake, Arizona Cardinals

3. Carlos Hyde, Houston Texans

4. Melvin Gordon, Chargers

5. LeSean McCoy, Kansas City Chiefs

Be careful here. None of the league's nine highest-paid running backs will participate in this year's NFL playoffs. The position has been severely devalued for a reason, but this offseason's free-agent class still looks quite special.  

It of course starts with Henry, who led the league in rushing yards, was tied for the NFL lead with 16 rushing touchdowns and ranked second among all backs who had at least 150 carries with an average of 5.1 yards per attempt. He finished strong, too, and there should be plenty of tread left on his soon-to-be 26-year-old tires because this was really his first season as a workhorse. 

Drake averaged 5.2 yards per carry and scored eight touchdowns in eight games after a midseason trade from the Miami Dolphins. Like Henry, he turns 26 this month but has been gently used, so he should cash in.

Hyde and Gordon likely have less left in the tank but are quality veteran options, and the former certainly revived his career with a 1,000-yard season in Houston. And then there's McCoy, who keeps trucking as he approaches his 32nd birthday. The six-time Pro Bowler is no longer an offensive focal point, but he quietly averaged 4.6 yards per carry this year with the Chiefs. He might be worth a one-year flier. 

Wide Receiver

1. Amari Cooper, Cowboys

2. Robby Anderson, New York Jets

3. Emmanuel Sanders, San Francisco 49ers

4. A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals

5. Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals

It's hard to imagine the Cowboys would let Cooper get away just 17 months after surrendering a first-round pick in exchange for his services, but with the team likely to prioritize Prescott, it's entirely possible. They might not have the franchise tag for the 25-year-old, who is coming off a second consecutive 1,000-yard season and could fetch a contract worth as much as $20 million a year on the free-agent market. 

There's a clear drop-off from Cooper to everyone else in the top tier at this position, but Anderson has the most upside after the 26-year-old put together a third consecutive season with at least 50 catches, 700 yards and five touchdowns in New York. Some team is going to convince itself it can take his game to the next level, and it'll spend a lot of money in that pursuit. That is, unless the Jets don't let him hit the market. 

This group lacks depth, which is why the other three top potential targets are all beyond their prime. Sanders is coming off a strong season but will soon turn 33, Green is "only" 31 but has missed all but nine games the last two years as a result of injuries, and the 36-year-old Fitzgerald has aged like fine wine but isn't the playmaker he used to be. 

Plus, you get the impression the future Hall of Famer is much more likely to retire than to play for anyone except Arizona in 2020.

Tight End

1. Austin Hooper, Atlanta Falcons

2. Hunter Henry, Chargers

3. Eric Ebron, Indianapolis Colts

4. Tyler Eifert, Bengals 

5. Jason Witten, Cowboys

Hooper's a classic case of a free agent riding a promising trajectory, as his production has consistently risen throughout his four-year career in Atlanta. He peaked as a 25-year-old this season with 75 catches for 787 yards and six touchdowns (all career highs), and an argument can now be made that he's at least a top-10 tight end. He could easily become the first tight end to land a contract worth more than $10 million per year.

Every other tight end slated to hit the open market carries a lot more risk, starting with the injury-prone Henry, who has missed 20 games the last two seasons but has been extremely productive when healthy. He just turned 25 and should strike gold anyway, but some teams will want him to prove it, so he could end up taking a one-year deal. 

Ebron, who was a top-10 pick in 2014, was essentially a bust with the Detroit Lions before exploding in a Pro Bowl 2018 campaign in Indy that included 13 touchdowns. But he couldn't stay healthy, and his production declined in his age-26 season. Now he's a wild card with an expiring contract. 

Eifert finally put together a healthy 2019 season in Cincy, but he caught just 43 passes and scored just three touchdowns in 16 games. Somebody will figure that he can be more productive with more support and pay him on the brink of his 30th birthday. 

Meanwhile, the only real question with Witten is whether he'll retire again. Beyond that, the tight end free-agent market is pretty cold. 

Offensive Line

1. Anthony Castonzo, Colts

2. Brandon Scherff, Washington Redskins

3. Jack Conklin, Titans

4. Joe Thuney, Patriots

5. Bryan Bulaga, Green Bay Packers

Pillar left tackles almost never hit free agency, and this offseason likely won't be an exception. The Colts can easily afford to bring Castonzo back, and it would be silly to let the 31-year-old go after yet another strong season. But it also appears the nine-year veteran is mulling retirement, which would be another blow to the Colts and to a shallow pool of top-notch NFL offensive tackles. 

Four other tackles—Conklin, Bulaga, Kelvin Beachum of the Jets and Andrew Whitworth of the Los Angeles Rams—are also worth monitoring, but Conklin stands out. The Titans declined his fifth-year option last offseason, and then he went out and put together a superb campaign. Bulaga is older and less durable, Beachum is older and less reliable, and Whitworth might be running on fumes at age 38. 

We have seen more interior offensive linemen hit the market and break the bank in recent years, and both Scherff and Thuney are well-positioned to do so considering both are legitimate All-Pro candidates at guard. The former just turned 28 and has already made three Pro Bowls, while the latter has never missed a start in four years under the tutelage of the legendary Dante Scarnecchia. 

Edge Defender

1. Shaquil Barrett, Buccaneers

2. Yannick Ngakoue, Jacksonville Jaguars

3. Jadeveon Clowney, Seattle Seahawks 

4. Bud Dupree, Pittsburgh Steelers

5. Dante Fowler Jr., Los Angeles Rams 

Tags are coming!

While this group looks stacked, keep in mind that the franchise tag is especially popular with edge defenders. Four premium pass-rushers were hit with the tag last offseason, and several will either re-sign or get slapped with the tag in February or March. 

However, a Clowney tag doesn't appear to be on the table for Seattle. ESPN's Adam Schefter reported prior to the season that the Seahawks "promised" not to apply the tag to Clowney in 2020 (no word on if it was a pinkie swear), and a tag would be super expensive anyway since the three-time Pro Bowler was tagged by Houston last offseason. Still, it's doubtful they'd let the 26-year-old walk just six months after trading for him. 

Barrett, however, is the most intriguing name on the list. He led the NFL with 19.5 sacks in an impressive season in Tampa Bay, and now he's on track to land a massive payday. That situation is further complicated by the fact the Buccaneers might decide to use the franchise tag on Winston. 

And there'll likely be options beyond that. Ngakoue has registered at least eight sacks in all four of his NFL seasons. Dupree is coming off a breakout option year in which he compiled 11.5 sacks, and Fowler also had 11.5 sacks in his age-25 season with the Rams. Matt Judon of the Baltimore Ravens made the Pro Bowl with 9.5 sacks, and San Francisco's Arik Armstead finally broke through with a 10-sack season in 2019. 

Look for at least a couple of those guys to become available. 

Interior Defensive Line

1. Chris Jones, Chiefs

2. D.J. Reader, Texans

3. Javon Hargrave, Steelers

4. Leonard Williams, New York Giants

5. Shelby Harris, Denver Broncos

Jones is one of the top impending free agents in the league. It's ridiculous that he failed to make the Pro Bowl despite 15.5 sacks working primarily inside in 2018, but he finally broke through in another strong season as his rookie contract expired in 2019. At the position, only Aaron Donald earned a higher pass-rushing grade from Pro Football Focus. 

It wouldn't be surprising at all if the 25-year-old were to become the second interior defensive lineman in NFL history to land a contract worth more than $20 million a year. 

The rest of the list of notable potential free agents at the position is a lot less exciting, but it's a pretty deep group. Reader broke out with perfect timing this season in Houston, Hargrave showed steady improvement over his first four years in Pittsburgh, Leonard Williams has already flashed superstar potential (but is unlikely to get away from the Giants), and Harris set new career highs with six sacks and 49 total tackles in his walk year with the Broncos. 

There's also plenty of extra experience at the position, with both Gerald McCoy of the Bucs and Michael Brockers of the Rams worth monitoring. 

Off-Ball Linebacker

1. Cory Littleton, Rams

2. Kyle Van Noy, Patriots

3. Jamie Collins Sr., Patriots

4. Danny Trevathan, Chicago Bears

5. A.J. Klein, Saints

Littleton doesn't get a ton of attention in Los Angeles, but he's one of the best coverage linebackers in the NFL and was a Pro Bowler in 2018. The 26-year-old could make a run at a contract as lucrative as the four-year, $57 million deal Deion Jones signed with the Falcons last offseason. 

Van Noy and Collins obviously have that New England pixie dust on them, and both veterans will be heavily valued for the fact they've been key cogs in one of the league's most dominant defenses this season. Both can do a little bit of everything and have that versatility Bill Belichick loves, but Van Noy will be 29 in March, and Collins just turned 30. 

Trevathan and Klein are also at or beyond their prime, but the former is an excellent all-around linebacker when healthy, and the latter has been a steady starter in New Orleans the last three years. 

With Mychal Kendricks of the Seahawks now recovering from a torn ACL (and facing potential prison time after pleading guilty to insider trading), this is an extremely shallow group. 

Cornerback

1. Byron Jones, Cowboys

2. Chris Harris Jr., Broncos

3. Kendall Fuller, Chiefs

4. Trae Waynes, Minnesota Vikings

5. James Bradberry, Carolina Panthers

Now that Marcus Peters has re-signed in Baltimore, this group is a little weaker than it already was. 

Jones is a 2015 first-round pick with a Pro Bowl nod on his resume, but he's intercepted just two passes in five seasons and has yet to become a star at the age of 27.

Harris was a star, but we're using the past tense because he's now on the wrong side of 30, and his play has begun to drop off. That's not a stock worthy of substantial investment at this point. 

Fuller was one of the top slot corners in the league early in his career with the Washington Redskins, but he hasn't been able to replicate that since he was traded to the Chiefs in 2018. His timing also couldn't be worse, as he's coming off a walk year that was derailed by injury. 

Waynes and Bradberry are both at least relatively young outside corners with extensive starting experience, but neither performed consistently well in 2019. 

In other words, there isn't a single top-tier impending free-agent cornerback coming off a strong season. But that could give value to some of the names listed above, as well as veterans like Bradley Roby of the Texans, Tennessee's Logan Ryan, Eli Apple of the Saints and Bashaud Breeland of the Chiefs. 

Safety

1. Justin Simmons, Broncos

2. Anthony Harris, Vikings

3. Jimmie Ward, 49ers

4. Devin McCourty, Patriots

5. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Bears

There's plenty of talent and depth among the class of safeties slated to hit the market in March, starting with Simmons and Harris, who intercepted a combined 10 passes in breakout seasons with the Broncos and Vikings, respectively. The former was PFF's highest-graded safety entering Week 16, while the latter was tied for the league lead with six picks. 

Both were arguably Pro Bowl snubs, but they should land free-agent contracts that compare well with the market-setting six-year, $84 million deal Landon Collins signed with the Redskins last offseason. 

The veteran Ward had a tremendous season in coverage and run defense with the jacked 49ers D, but his injury history might be an impediment. He could have to sign a one-year prove-it deal somewhere, which isn't ideal considering he'll be 29 in July. 

Meanwhile, McCourty is facing the biggest age-related question as he approaches 33. But he had five picks as part of an amazing New England defense in 2019, so he'll likely cash in on a shorter-term deal. 

There are also lower-end versions of Simmons and Harris—guys who have upside but haven't been as consistently productive. The 27-year-old Clinton-Dix fits into that box, as do Vonn Bell of the Saints and Karl Joseph of the Oakland Raiders. 

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