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Looking at the top of the veteran free agent market and the Redskins ‘positions of need’ on Offense

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NFL: OCT 24 Redskins at Vikings Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The NFL season is set up so that veteran free agency precedes the draft by about 6 weeks.

Two key dates to be aware of in free agency are 16 March and 18 March. On the 16th, the “legal tampering period” opens, in which teams are allowed to negotiate with agents in advance of the start of the new league year. The 2020 league year begins at 4pm (New York time) on 18 March. The first deals of the free agent frenzy will likely become official around 4:01pm.

Of course, it’s an open secret that a lot of preliminary work is done during the Combine that has just ended in Indianapolis. It is a matter of practicality, if not strictly playing by the rules, for GMs and agents, who are all gathered in the same place for a week, to talk together in an effort to find out what’s possible during the impending free agency period.

Teams, as we know, seek to plug roster holes in free agency in an effort to reduce the urgency to “reach” for a player or to be forced to use the draft to fill immediate roster needs. If a team wants to get immediate starters in veteran free agency, the place to look is usually among the top-100 players available.

While there are a number of top-100 free agent lists published in the off season (and they can differ quite dramatically in specific rankings), they mostly focus on the same one hundred or so free agents that represent the most likely early signings of the 32 teams between the start of the league year on 18 March and the draft, which begins this year on 23 April. NFL.com published their top 101 veteran free agents list this week, so I thought I would look at that and use it to identify the most likely top-tier veteran free agents that the Redskins can target to fill their areas of need when free agency opens in about two weeks.

One note for readers:

With the improved revenue split to players, the expectation of a 17th regular season game on the horizon, and the prospect of lucrative TV contracts on the way, free agency in 2020 may well be “one for the books” if the new CBA is ratified prior to the start of the league year.

Contract amounts that will be reported this off-season may be difficult to digest. We’ve all read numbers like $11m for Austin Hooper, $18-20m for Trent Williams and $16m price tags for offensive guards. I wouldn’t be shocked to see new ‘highest ever’ contract records set for OG, OT, TE, QB, CB, Edge rushers, and possibly LB and S this off-season. It may be hard to digest the dollar amounts of many of the contracts that will be handed out this off-season. I suggest that when the first free agent contract is announced by the Redskins on the 18th, you take a deep breath, relax, and trust that someone in the organization did the math. I think that, no matter which player it is or at what position, the first reflex is going to be to declare it an ‘overpay’, but as the market unfolds, I believe you’ll see a dramatic re-valuing of player contracts around the league in March. (Of course, if the CBA is not approved between now and then, I believe front offices will be more circumspect with what they do in free agency, as the future will be much less certain).


Tight end need = very high to desperate

The Redskins could, of course, look to the draft to fill their roster hole, but, while 2019 seemed like a great year to draft a tight end, 2020 seems to have less opportunity to find an immediate starter.

With Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis both gone, the Redskins’ current depth chart at the position includes Jeremy Sprinkle, who hasn’t looked any better than the 5th round draft pick that he was in 2017, plus a pair of 2019 rookies: Hale Hentges, who was picked up on waivers from the Colts during the ‘19 season and looked pretty good in limited late-season duty, and Caleb Wilson, who was Mr. Irrelevant in the 2019 draft, and signed by the Redskins off of the Cardinals’ practice squad.

The Redskins desperately need a starter — a player who can provide a reliable target for Dwayne Haskins and — hopefully — do some blocking as well.

The Redskins already had a meeting with Greg Olsen this off-season, who, at 159 years of age, signed a contract with the Seattle Seahawks that has $5.5m in guarantees that will likely pay him over $7m this season. Whether the Redskins wisely passed on Olsen, or whether the former Panther chose Seattle over competing offers from Washington and Buffalo is unclear (though I choose to believe the former), but tight end remains one of the most pressing needs on the Redskins roster.

Ideally, the team will sign a starter in free agency, then add depth to the position with a mid-round draft pick, but the need to draft a rookie from the middling 2020 class isn’t pressing, since the team has 3 young players already. What is pressing is adding a talented veteran starter, and the free agency pickings are likely to be slender. Whoever the Redskins eventually sign will likely get a contract worth more than the $8.5m that Jordan Reed was scheduled to make this season.

#19 Hunter Henry, Chargers, age 25

NFL.com:

It feels like the best is yet to come for Henry as a dynamic pass catcher. He’d instantly bring an extra dimension to nearly any offense.

BiB:

I have assumed for most of the off-season that the Chargers would re-sign Henry, and recent reports indicate that he won’t be available in free agency when it starts on the 18th, but as of the time of writing, he hadn’t been tagged or extended by the Chargers.

I previewed Hunter Henry in an article published in mid-January to review tight end free agent options.

Hunter Henry is 6’5”, 250 pounds and was drafted by the Chargers in the 2nd round of the 2016 draft. At just 25 years old, Henry approaches free agency in the prime of his career.

With the Chargers projected to have $54m in available cap space in 2020, it would be reasonable to ask why the Chargers wouldn’t be re-signing him.

The short version of the answer to that question is that the Chargers just don’t have the salary cap space to compete on the open market for Henry’s services.

PFF rates Henry as the #18 tight end in the league for 2019, with an overall grade of 73.1 and a receiving grade of 75.0.

The great concern about Henry isn’t his on-field production, but his health. After playing in 29 of a possible 32 games in his first two seasons, in 2018 he tore his ACL in May, and spent training camp and the regular season on the PUP list with a torn ACL.

He played in the opening game of the 2019 season, but suffered a tibia plateau fracture to his left knee. He left that game, and missed Weeks 2-5, returning Week 6.

Any thought that he is fragile, however, can probably be dismissed, as Henry went on to play in the final eleven games of the season, averaging 4.6 receptions, and 53 yards per game (11.52 avg). He also scored 5 TDs.

With 136 catches for 1,709 yards and 17 touchdowns in just 41 games played, Henry can be a dangerous threat in any system. His injury history is somewhat of a concern, but with the combination of speed and size that Henry possesses, he may just be worth the risk — and, as I said, he managed to play at a high level for his final 11 games of the ‘19 season.

Henry would be one of the two or three palatable free agent options for the Redskins this off-season, and Washington may have the most dire tight end situation in the league. In short, the Redskins may have to outbid everyone else for one of the premier veteran free agent tight ends this off-season, and I don’t have any problem if they do. Hunter Henry would be a very strong addition to the roster.


Related: Previewing 2020 free agents: Tight Ends


#32 Austin Hooper, Falcons, 25 years old

NFL.com

Hooper’s 75-catch , 787-yard fourth season would have been even more productive if not for a midseason knee injury. Tight ends this young, athletic and productive very rarely get to the free-agent market.

BiB:

I devoted a 5 o’clock club article to Austin Hooper in late December, and then added an extensive review of Hooper in mid-January.

I will say unabashedly that Hooper is my personal #1 free agent target for the 2020 off-season. I said in both of those articles that Spotrac had projected him at about $10m per year, but privately I always assumed he’d sign for $11m.

This week, we are seeing estimates of $11m APY for the Hooper contract on Twitter, which makes me wonder if that may now be the new ‘floor’.

I’m ready to see the Redskins completely reset the tight end market with Hooper. I think he’ll be a difference maker for the Redskins for years to come if they sign him.

Looking at tight end receiving grades for players with a minimum of 20 targets, Hooper stacks up well, especially considering the fact that he had the fewest games (13) of any player ranked in the top 10:

  • Austin Hooper is ranked #7 in the league with an 80.7 PFF rating (George Kittle is ranked #1 at 94.6).
  • Hooper is 5th in receptions with 68 (Kelce #1 with 94).
  • Hooper is 4th among TE in TD receptions, with 6 (Mark Andrews #1 with 10).
  • Hooper ranks 9th in receiving percentage at 79.1% (Foster Moreau #1 at 91.3%).
  • Hooper ranks 6th in total yards at 742 (Kelce #1 at 1,205).
  • Hooper is 7th in yards after contact at 310 (Kittle is #1 at 573).
  • Hooper ranks 6th among NFL TEs in receiving first downs with 38 (Kelce is #1 at 65).
  • Hooper had no fumbles, 2 drops and 3 penalties in 12 games.

Hooper is a good player. He is likely to hit free agency, not because his team doesn’t want him, but because they can’t afford him.

#62 Eric Ebron, Colts/Lions, age 26

NFL.com:

As shaky as his hands may be for the other 80 yards on the gridiron, Ebron is just the sort of red-zone box-out artist who has bedeviled the Patriots in their Ahab-like quest to capture Rob Gronkowski’s successor at tight end.

BiB:

Colts GM, Chris Ballard spoke more than 10,000 words in his end-of-the-season press conference. One sentence summed up Ebron’s future with the Colts: “We’ll probably move on.’’

The Athletic estimated Ebron’s chances of returning to the Colts as being 0%.

The Colts weren’t happy with Ebron’s decision to undergo season-ending ankle surgery after the Nov. 21 loss at Houston. It probably was a business decision for Ebron, but it left the team hanging.

If we focus on 2017 & ‘18 as two complete seasons, played without injury, and for two different teams and coaching staffs, we get this picture of the typical Ebron season:

  • 60 receptions (3.7 p/game)
  • 662 yards (41.3 p/game)

Touchdowns are hard to peg to the “typical” from this exercise. For Ebron, 2018 was an incredible outlier, with 13 TDs; he only scored 14 TDs in the other 5 years of his career combined.

Here are Eric Ebron’s grades for the past three seasons according to PFF:

Year - Rank - PFF Grade

  • 2019 - 21st - 71.1
  • 2018 - 22nd - 67.5
  • 2017 - 17th - 69.7

Ebron appears to be an average-to-above average tight end (depending on what you focus on) who will provide around 60 receptions, 650 yards, and 3 or 4 touchdowns per year to an offense.

That would represent roughly the same production that the Redskins got from Jordan Reed in 2016 and 2018, though Reed played in 12 games in ‘16 and 13 games in ‘18.

Ebron, of course, has had durability issues of his own. He played full 16-game seasons in two years of his 6-year career, playing between 11 and 14 games in each of the four other years.

All in all, there’s not a lot of statistical difference between Hooper, Henry and Ebron, who are expected to be the three tight ends who garner the most interest in March. Two of the three (Henry and Ebron) have had questions raised about their durability, though Ebron’s troubling injury history is the most recent, and the obvious issues that arose between the tight end and the Colt’s front office have caused a bit of a cloud to surround his name this off-season.

It is expected that Ebron will sign for about 25% less than Austin Hooper, meaning that he could prove to be the best value free agent tight end available in March.


Offensive Guard need = high to very high

#10 Brandon Scherff, Redskins, age 28

NFL.com:

One of the best run-blocking guards in football, Scherff hasn’t topped 700 snaps in either of the last two years. If he were healthier, he’d be ranked even higher.

BiB:

The Redskins can certainly force Scherff to stay if they want to use the franchise tag to hold onto him, though that would likely mean spending $16m for a season. Ron Rivera said in Indianapolis last week that talks had begun with Brandon’s agent. Brandon said in a late-season interview in 2019 that he wanted to be a Redskin for the rest of his career. We’ll soon find out how badly he wants to stay and how badly Ron Rivera and his team want to hold onto Scot McCloughan’s first draft pick, taken 5th overall in 2015. Recent reports say that the Redskins are tying to negotiate a long-term deal with him, hoping to avoid using the franchise tag.


Related:

Rebuilding the Redskins offensive line in 2020: Right Guard

Rebuilding the Redskins offensive line in 2020: Left Guard


#11 Joe Thuney, Patriots, age 27

NFL.com

The Patriots already paid guard Shaq Mason big money, which means Thuney is likely gone. Some team is going to get one of the league’s steadiest and headiest interior linemen, a second-team All-Pro who has missed 20 combined snaps in four years.

BiB:

Thuney was reviewed on Hogs Haven most recently in an article published on 20 February.

In 2019, PFF ranked Thuney as the #6 guard, with an overall offensive grade of 77.4. By contrast, they ranked Brandon Scherff #9 (75.0).

Thuney and Scherff are very comparable players, though Thuney does not have the injury history that Scherff does. I tend to be a bit leary of top-of-the-market linemen coming out of New England, as they seem to benefit from coach and scheme and don’t seem to perform as well when they get to their next destination. All things considered, for the money it would take to sign Thuney, I’d rather just hold onto Brandon Scherff.

#43 Graham Glasgow, Lions, age 28

NFL.com:

Hardly a household name, Glasgow will attract plenty of interest as a stout, crafty blocker with a clean injury history. A four-year starter in Detroit, he’s just now coming into his own as a seasoned pro with few weaknesses in his game.

BiB:

As intimated by NFL.com’s blurb, I had never heard of Glasgow before I wrote an article about what the Redskins could do at left guard, which I published in early February. After putting that article together, Glasgow was on my short-list of Redskins free agent targets fro this off-season.

Tim Twentyman, a writer for DetroitLions.com, wrote a free agent review for all 19 of Detroits upcoming UFAs. Here’s what he had to say about Glasgow:

Graham Glasgow

Position: Guard

2019 stats: No sacks allowed, five quarterback hits, 20 quarterback hurries

Twentyman: A former third-round pick by the Lions in 2016, Glasgow has the versatility to play both guard spots and center. He played in at least 93 percent of Detroit’s offensive snaps his first three seasons in the league. He played in 86 percent of the snaps this year, yielding some snaps to Wiggins. Glasgow finished as the 13th best guard in football by Pro Football Focus. There will be a market for his services in free agency.

I’m no expert on offensive line play or how to rate offensive line salaries, but I’m guessing that Glasgow will fall in the gap between Thuney & Scherff at the top of the veteran free agent guard class of 2020 and Ereck Flowers, who will probably be in the middle of the group.

Depending on how the new Ron Rivera regime wants to structure the offensive line, Glasgow, with his great positional flexibility, could prove to be an extremely valuable free agent acquisition this off-season, Glasgow is capable of starting or backing up all three interior line positions, and could provide a big upgrade from Tony Bergstrom and competition for Ross Pierschbacher.


Offensive Tackle need = very high (assuming Trent Williams is traded)

#21 Jack Conklin, Titans, age 25

NFL.com:

It’s no surprise that the season’s most unstoppable ground attack ran behind Conklin, one of the league’s most accomplished and physical body movers. Back to full health after battling knee injuries throughout 2018, Conklin paved the way for the NFL rushing champion Derrick Henry as well as Comeback Player of the Year Ryan Tannehill. The Titans have some excruciating decisions to make.

BiB:

I just published a look at the right tackle position on Tuesday this week; that article reviewed Jack Conklin as a potential replacement for Morgan Moses. But if the Redskins are gonna pay big money to a tackle this off-season, it will be because they are looking for a replacement for Trent Williams.

With Becton, Thomas and Wirfs all available in the draft this year, it would be ideal if the Redskins could draft one of them as the TW replacement if needed, but, as with Isaiah Simmons and Jeff Okudah, too much would have to go just perfectly for Washington to make that happen in April. If Trent pushes his way out of Washington, the Redskins will need to find a replacement for him.

Conklin is a talented tackle, but he has spent his entire NFL career on the right side of the line. There would be a certain amount of projection and faith involved in shifting him to the left at this point in his career, and, given the amount of money he is likely to command if he reaches the open market in March, I’m not sure that’s a risk I’m comfortable taking.


Related: Rebuilding the Redskins offensive line in 2020: Left Tackle


#23 Anthony Castonzo, Colts, age 32

NFL.com

After drawing Pro Bowl buzz throughout one of his better seasons, Castonzo made it clear he has no appetite for a change of scenery. The Colts have plenty of cap space to bring the veteran back for a 10th season, perhaps as a bodyguard for Rivers.

BiB:

When I reviewed Castonzo in late January, I noted that Castonzo would be an almost ideal replacement for Trent Williams, but reports from the Combine last week indicate that the Colts are likely to re-sign the OT prior to the start of free agency.

#41 Brian Bulaga, Packers, age 30

NFL.com:

The most consistent blocker on one of the best offensive lines of Aaron Rodgers’ career, the oft-injured Bulaga played all 16 games for just the third time in nine years. He will be in demand even if he’s a year-to-year proposition in his early-30s.

BiB:

I’ll be honest with you — I just can’t get this one play out of my head.

Based on this one play alone, I don’t want to see Bulaga protecting Dwayne Haskins (or whoever replaces him as the Redskins starting quarterback).

Hard Pass.

#46 Andrew Whitworth, Rams, age 38

NFL.com:

The Rams are in desperate need of an heir apparent with their left tackle coming off ankle surgery, entering his age-38 season and finally showing signs of a long-awaited decline. By all indications, though, Whitworth is leaning toward returning for one more year as Jared Goff’s blind-side guardian.

BiB:

Whitworth is too old to help the Redskins.

Hard pass

#55 Jason Peters, Eagles, age 38

NFL.com:

Peters’ health is a concern. He was still an asset when he played last year and has ultimately gutted out more than 900 snaps in each of the last two seasons.

BiB:

I admire what Peters has done in his career, but this grizzled veteran is not the guy the Redskins need to solve the problem that awaits when Trent Williams is traded.

#82 Demar Dotson, Buccaneers, age 34

NFL.com:

Dotson’s pass protection has started to slip as he enters his mid-30s, but he’s still sound enough to stand sentry for the league leader in passing yards — and interceptions.

#86 Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Eagles, age 26

NFL.com:

Plying his trade in the era of the NFL’s great offensive line drought, Vaitai may just land a handsome monetary reward for his yeoman’s work as a versatile swing tackle capable of keeping an offense afloat in Philadelphia.

BiB:

Think Ty Nsekhe, who went to Buffalo and became a starter in last year’s free agency.

#93 Andrus Peat, Saints, age 26

NFL.com:

Despite operating within an otherwise-elite Saints offensive line, Peat still had his share of problems.


Wide Receiver need = moderate

#2 Amari Cooper, Cowboys, age 25

NFL.com:

One of the league’s premier route runners and boundary specialists, Cooper’s presence in Dallas is one of the primary reasons for Prescott’s place atop this list. Dak has played the best ball of his career since the former No. 4 overall pick arrived to fill the No. 1 receiver void left by Dez Bryant’s decline and departure.

BiB:

Cooper was covered in the Hogs Haven free agent wide receivers preview published in January. The former Raider and current Cowboy is widely expected to be the hottest commodity among wide receivers this off-season. Many media observers and fans have spent months assuming that the Cowboys would use the transition tag to hold onto Cooper if they couldn’t work out a long term deal (using the franchise tag on Dak Prescott) but the upcoming vote on the proposed CBA may nix that strategy.

Personally, I think that Cooper is unlikely to be able to live up to any contract he signs in the NFL this year, and I hope the Redskins stay far away from him. While I’d like to see the team’s young receiver corps get some help, I’m not interested in Cooper or the contract he is likely to command. I think there will be some better value in free agency, and much better value in the draft, even in the 4th or 5th rounds.


Related: Previewing 2020 free agents: Wide Receivers


#12 A.J. Green, age 31

NFL.com:

A borderline Hall of Fame candidate who missed all of last season, Green should still have some high-level years left. The Bengals are unlikely to let him get away.

BiB:

I expect Cincinnati to try to hold onto Green and have him retire as a Bengal, but even if he hits free agency, I don’t see Green as the guy the Redskins need to add to their young WR group.

#35 Robbie Anderson, Jets, age 26

NFL.com:

Deep speed gets paid and Anderson has plenty of it. He often disappointed his Jets coaches, however, and is too talented to have fewer than 800 yards in each of the last two seasons.

BiB:

In my initial wide receiver review back in January, I didn’t include Robbie Anderson because I assumed the Jets would re-sign him.

That, apparently will not happen.

When it was suggested to me in the comments section of the WR free agent review that Anderson would be available, I responded that he would be a good fit for Washington, and added some stats to put meat on those bones.

FWIW, Spotrac estimates his contract at $12APY (4years, $48.1m)

Comps:

Sammy Watkins

Stephon Diggs

Alan Robinson

Adam Humphries

PFF grades on Anderson

2019 = 68.6

2018 = 68.3

2017 = 71.4

Commenters started jumping in and raising character concerns about Anderson, suggesting he was a bad locker room guy. Reading other free agent profiles on Anderson, there is constant disappointment with his limited production and suggestions that he is too much of a one-dimensional threat.

I have revised my opinion of Anderson since my initial comments in January; I no longer think that he is a good fit for the Redskins, and I would likely feel disappointed if the team signed him when free agency rolls around.

#39 Emmanuel Sanders, 49ers, age 32

NFL.com:

Sanders’ impact on the 49ers went beyond the numbers. His route-running opened up space for his younger receivers, whom he also mentored. Kyle Shanahan won’t want to lose him.

BiB:

In my January review of free agent wide receivers, this is what I wrote:

Signing Sanders would be a move by the Redskins to add veteran leadership to the wide receiver group for just a season or two while the young players the team currently has on the roster (and any new ones they draft) mature. And, while Sanders wouldn’t be a “budget” signing, he would likely take up only about half the cap space that Amari Cooper would, and won’t require a long-term commitment of salary cap resources.

In January, I strongly fixated on the idea that the Redskins needed to add a veteran receiver to the roster. Following the Combine, I feel much different; I now believe that the Redskins can use a 3rd or 4th round draft pick to get a receiver who can help them in 2020 and who can grow with the other young offensive skill players.

I won’t be surprised to see Sanders stay in San Fran with Kyle, and I don’t feel now that signing him would be a very good move for the Redskins.

#78 Breshad Perriman, Buccaneers/Ravens (Redskins, Browns), age 26

NFL.com:

In a market lacking depth, Perriman could benefit from being one of the only deep threats available.

BiB:

I’ve always had a higher opinion of Breshad Perriman than nearly everyone else, aside from perhaps his mother and the guy who drafted him. I can’t expect that too many people will be excited to see his name on this list of potential free agent targets, but I’ve always felt like Perriman is a good receiver who just needed the right situation in which to excel. As a former first-round selection of the Ravens, Perriman’s career can only be viewed, to date, as a ‘bust’. As a free agent receiver entering his 6th year in the league, however, Perriman might be perceived as an intriguing low-cost addition to a roster in need of a solid #2 receiver.

In an explosive Tampa Bay offense this season, Perriman was the #3 guy behind Chris Godwin and Mike Evans, and, in 14 games, managed to post 645 yards (46 yprg) at an average of 17.9 yards per catch.

The 26-year-old, 6’2”, 215 pound receiver ran a 4.24 40-yard dash at the combine, and has displayed solid route running skills and hands in a 5-year career that has seen him play for three different teams.

Perriman’s most recent contract was a 1-year deal with the Buccaneers for $4m. I would guess that, following a pretty good season, he’d be looking for a longer deal, say, 3 years, and a bit more money.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see him hoping to leave Tampa Bay, where he is locked in as the third guy on the depth chart, and go somewhere where he can be featured more in the passing attack — someplace like Washington. My best guess at what it would take to sign him is a 3-year contract worth $15-$18m total value ($5m-$6m per year). Given what we’ve seen reported about the free agent market this off-season, that number could go much higher, but a contract like this could fit very comfortably with the Redskins current roster and salary cap situation.

One factor that would mitigate against him commanding a high-value deal is the reported strength and depth of the receiver position in this year’s draft class. As a budget option, Perriman could provide a seasoned receiver with all the measurables and a first-round pedigree to complement the current group of hard-working receivers.

#87 Demarcus Robinson, Chiefs, age 25

NFL.com:

A bit of a tease as the fourth or fifth option in Patrick Mahomes’ aerial attack, Robinson tended to disappear outside of a truly promising showing as Tyreek Hill’s September stand-in.

#88 Randall Cobb, Cowboys/Packers, age 29

NFL.com:

The slot receiver on the league’s No. 2 offense by way of Football Outsiders’ metrics, Cobb missed out on his second career 1,000-yard season due to a maddening combination of disheartening drops and poorly timed Cowboys penalties. With better luck, he could be pitched as a poor man’s Julian Edelman.

BiB:

Last year Cobb was at the top of my list of offensive free agent targets I wanted to see the Redskins sign.

Now, he looks like a perfect “keeper” for McCarthy as he takes over the reigns in Dallas. I expect Cobb to remain a Cowboy. The Redskins have Sims in the slot backed up by Quinn; draft picks and free agency dollars can be invested in other roster positions this off-season.

#97 Devin Funchess, Colts/Panthers, age 25

NFL.com:

Signed to a one-year, $10 million deal by the Colts before fracturing his clavicle in Week 1, Funchess figures to come at a lesser price this time around.

BiB:

Funchess played for Ron Rivera for four years. He could be a low-cost option to compete with Kelvin Harmon to play opposite Terry McLaurin.