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 for 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).
Linebacker need = very high
#15 Corey Littleton, Rams, age 26
Three down linebackers who can excel in coverage are an incredibly rare and valuable commodity in today’s NFL. Four-down linebackers like Littleton, who also shine on special teams, are that much better.
Littleton was reviewed by Hogs Haven in an article published in mid-February.
Del Rio wants sideline to sideline speed on defense. Linebackers that can’t run and cover are simply too one-dimensional to handle the multi-pronged attacks of modern offenses.
At 6-3, 228 pounds, Littleton is just what the doctor ordered. He is athletic enough to cover tight ends and running backs, and with the eighth most tackles in the NFL last year at 134, he isn’t a liability versus the run.
Littleton finished 2019 with two interceptions, two forced fumbles and 3.5 sacks. He is probably the premier veteran free agent linebacker available.
But his services likely won’t come cheap.
Littleton has played as the Mike, or middle linebacker, for the Rams at times, but, as a smaller sized player for the position, is probably more natural at the weak side (Will) position that he started out in with LA.
SIgning Cory Littleton would represent a commitment to youth, to athleticism, to talent... and to paying big bucks at the linebacker position — not something the Redskins have been known for, but there’s a new sheriff and deputy in town, and they were both linebackers in their playing days.
Don’t be surprised to see Ron RIvera and Jack Del Rio go in search of more talent for the middle of the defense. If they go looking in free agency, then Littleton is probably the best guy to look at first.
#44 Karl Van Noy, Patriots, age 28
Van Noy has mastered the Rob Ninkovich role as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker tasked with setting the edge in the run game and rushing the passer in advantageous situations. With Bill Belichick disciples proliferating throughout the league, Van Noy is reaching free agency at an opportune time.
Somehow, I’ve never gotten around to reviewing Van Noy as an impending free agent this off-season, but he seems to be a great candidate for Jack Del Rio to pursue.
Consider this from ESPN:
Van Noy wasn’t a fit in the Lions’ 4-3 defense at the time, but in New England, he began to thrive — with versatility to play on the end of the line of scrimmage as an outside linebacker, but also as an off-the-line linebacker with speed to chase and cover. The dynamic pass-rush skills that helped produce 26 sacks at Brigham Young also came to the forefront, as evidenced by his 15.5 sacks over the past three seasons.
For a Patriots defense that is defined by multiplicity and ever-evolving game plans, Van Noy’s Swiss army knife skillset was ideal. Not to mention his durability (missing four regular-season games) and clutch play (10 playoff games, 5.5 sacks, four forced fumbles).
In the context of the Redskins’ needs at linebacker, the need for players experienced in the 4-3 scheme, and Rivera’s recent comments about the desirability of players with positional flexibility, Van Noy seems like an ideal fit for the Redskins.
It’s easy to see the Redskins wanting to pursue Van Noy, though a little more problematic to see why the former Patriot would choose the Redskins if he has the kind of market demand he is likely to generate.
#45 Joe Shobert, Browns, age 26
Football’s version of a swing-from-the-heels guess hitter, Schobert tends to offset drive-killing stuffs and highlight-reel takeaways with missed tackles and overplays. Either way, it’s hard to deny his nose for the football.
When I wrote my free agent linebacker preview in February, I was pretty complementary of Schobert, but the blurb from NFL.com above makes me wonder if I was a bit too enthusiastic about him. “Missed tackles and over-plays” sounds a bit too much like what the Redskins had in Mason Foster and Zach Brown, who seemed to spend a lot of time guessing. When they guessed right, it could be spectacular, but when they guessed wrong, the run-fits failed and the opposing offense blew past for easy yards.
Littleton and Schoebert have eerily similar stats for both 2019 and for their 4-year careers. In some ways — most notably career tackles — Schobert has arguably been more productive.
He’s also got a more classic linebacker build, standing 6’1”, 245 pounds, compared to Littleton’s relatively wiry 6’3”, 228 pounds.
Schobert was a 4th round pick of the Browns in 2016, and, aside from missing 3 games in 2018 with a hamstring injury, has been remarkably consistent for Cleveland over the past three seasons
I’m looking for a lot more discipline from both defensive coaches and players this season than we’ve grown accustomed to in recent years. If Shobert can play inside the system, then I’d be happy to have him, but if I’m gonna think of Mason Foster every time I watch him play, then I’ll be satisfied if the RR and JDR pass him by in March.
#52 Jamie Collins, Patriots (Browns), age 30
Some mental errors late in Collins’ terrific season with the Patriots could scare away teams wondering how he’ll perform away from Bill Belichick.
Signing free agents let go by Bill Belichick worries me almost as much as trading for players with Andy Reid.
Collins was traded to the Browns in the middle of the ‘17 season. With changes in the Browns coaching staff, Collins was released by Cleveland around this time last year.
The Patriots picked him up late (May), meaning that he didn’t count towards the Compensatory Draft pick calculation. The fact that he was (a) cut by the Browns, and (b) not signed until May, then (c) signed for $3m, and (d) allowed to go to free agency again suggests to me that Collins may not be the high-end leader that the Redskins should be looking for if they were to sign a 30-year-old free agent. I suspect Belichick is hoping that a team will sign the LB early enough this season for the Patriots to get a ‘free’ comp pick in return.
I’ve read this week that Washington is talking to Jon Bostic about returning to the team in 2020. I think I’d prefer him to Collins.
#64 Blake Martinez, Packers, age 26
The tackle numbers that brighten Martinez’s box score are impressive to behold. Too often, though, they occur 8 or 9 yards downfield with the linebacker absorbing — rather than delivering — the blow.
Blake Martinez is more of a run-stopper and (to some extent) pass rusher, and less of a coverage linebacker. Martinez looks to be a version of the Redskins’ 2019 linebacker Jon Bostic.
In other words, Martinez can call the defense and supply strong run support, but doesn’t add as much to the pass defense as would Littleton or Schobert.
In my view, this makes Martinez a less ideal fit than the other two, though there is very little that separates them athletically. All in all, I’d probably be just as happy to see Bostic back as to sign Martinez, especially as Bostic wouldn’t hurt the ‘Skins potential comp pick situation for 2021.
#66 Nick Kwiatkoski, Bears, age 26
One of the most promising backup linebackers early in his Bears career, Kwiatkoski proved to be a playmaking upgrade opposite Roquan Smith when steady starter Danny Trevathan went down with an elbow injury in early November. He’s an intriguing under-the-radar target in a buyer’s linebacker market.
Here are excerpts from a long article about Kwiatkoski from Fansided:
Nick Kwiatkoski has been a stud special teams player for years. Last year, when Danny Trevathan went down with an injury, he excelled. It has led to a lot of evaluators to become interested in his talents on the free-agent market.
He is a young, smart and talented player with a real chance to cash in here. There is no chance he is not going to take it. With that in mind, what type of money could he be looking at? The rumors are that multiple teams are interested. What could he expect in free agency?
Overall, it is unlikely the Chicago Bears are going to trust Nick Kwiatkoski. They like him and respect what he brought, but they never viewed him as a starter.
However, due to his brief stint in 2019, teams are going to look at these stats, look at his age, and look at his special team’s production and see a starter ready to step in.
As mentioned, over the past two years, Kwiatkoski has been more efficient on a snap-per-snap basis than Jordan Hicks. For the young free agent linebacker, $10 million as an average annual salary is much more realistic than anybody could have possibly thought that this point last year.
Some teams may look at Littleton and Martinez and think that Kwiatkoski at a slightly cheaper price is the better option.
Expect a 4-year, $40 million with $20 million guaranteed to be on the table for Kwiatkoski. Do not expect the Bears to be the team offering that.
#80 De’Vondre Campbell, Falcons, age 26
The Falcons once held high hopes for Campbell as an athletic, three-down sidekick to Deion Jones, but Robin never stepped out of the shadows to thwart potent offenses with cruel intentions when Batman wasn’t around.
#81 Danny Trevathan, Bears/Broncos, age 29
A key cog in two of the decade’s top defenses (2015 Broncos, 2018 Bears), Trevathan is a solid starter and respected leader entering the decline phase of a fine career.
Cornerback need = very high
#8 Byron Jones, Cowboys, age 27
Jerry Jones isn’t one to lose his stars, but he’s in a bit of a bind with Jones as the talented third wheel, tagging along behind Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper in the contract line. A rare athlete, Jones started his career at safety before moving to his current cornerback role that calls for the weekly stifling of top receiving threats.
The Redskins’ need to replace Josh Norman and potentially Quinton Dunbar, which means that the Redskins need to find one or two high quality players this season. If they trade back, the opportunity to draft Jeff Okudah may present itself. If not, Washington may need to pay for the talent it hasn’t successfully drafted in recent years. Jimmy Moreland, Adonis Alexander, Greg Stroman, Joshua Holsey, Fabian Moreau, Kendall Fuller, Tevin Mitchell and Bashaud Breeland were all drafted between 2014 and 2019, yet the cupboard seems bare with regard to starting cornerbacks on the roster.
Byron Jones would instantly be the alpha dog in the Redskins motley crew of cornerbacks if Alex Santos, Kyle Smith and Ron Rivera decide to push the button on the top-of-the-market contract that he is likely to command - probably in the $14-16m APY range. Of course, he would come with that ‘old Cowboy smell’. Given the positional need, I wouldn’t complain much if the Redskins signed Jones at 4:01 pm on 18 March, but I would know that they outbid everyone else in the NFL to do so.
#24 Chris Harris, Broncos, age 30
Excelling in the slot or outside, Harris has been one of the game’s most respected and effective covermen over the past half-decade. More of a shadow corner under Vic Fangio last season, the 30-year-old lost some one-on-one battles that seemed out of character for a perennial Pro Bowler. In which case, a change of scenery may put him in a better position to recapture peak form.
I reviewed Chris Harris in detail in an article published at the end of January.
Chris Harris is undoubtedly a good cornerback, but he may be at the tipping point where his best years are behind him. He is expensive, currently boasting the 13th highest CB contract in the league by APY, and, after 9 years playing for the team that drafted him in Denver, he is likely only to change teams for more money and a chance to stay in the starting line up. As much as Bradberry seems to be a good fit for the 2020 Redskins, Chris Harris, who is a very similar player statistically, seems to be a bad fit when it comes to other considerations.
While there’s probably still room for Chris Harris in the NFL, and likely in Denver, an older, expensive vet on a probable one-year deal doesn’t seem like the answer to the Redskins needs at CB at the moment. Harris still has tread on the tires, I think, but I don’t see him coming to DC.
#37 James Bradberry, Panthers, age 26
Bradberry has often been trusted to track the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver and already has 60 starts under his belt. The Panthers could franchise tag him to keep him away from Ron Rivera in Washington.
I wrote an extensive review of James Bradberry at the end of January. I have cooled on him a bit in the intervening month, but it would hard to be angry if Rivera brought in this former Panther to help Riverboat Ron establish himself in DC.
Consider this from the Athletic:
Washington needs a durable shutdown cornerback. Bradberry has played in 60 of 64 possible games, finished with the second-most interceptions (three) among cornerbacks hitting free agency, and has never finished a season with fewer than 10 passes defended. Throughout his career, he has been asked to lock down some of the league’s best receivers in the Falcons’ Julio Jones and Saints’ Michael Thomas. He would be a reliable and physical corner to pair opposite Dunbar. While Moreau came on strong later in the season, he has struggled with injuries and with giving up big plays. Bradberry would give the defensive backfield some needed depth. There’s also a legitimate concern for the Panthers that they’ll be in a fight with Washington for Bradberry come free agency, especially after he said of his former coach to ESPN, “that’s my man,” following the season finale.
Bradberry won’t be cheap, but he also shouldn’t command a top-10 CB salary. His relationship with Rivera is likely to make him a priority free agent target for the Redskins, and should make Washington an attractive destination for the former Panther.
#49 Logan Ryan, Titans, age 29
Expect to hear Ryan floated as a Honey Badger type capable of transforming a secondary with his coach-like instincts and intelligence as a versatile back-end leader.
Ryan is a physical cornerback, who can play both on the outside and at the nickel spot, which would offer the kind of flexibility that Rivera seems to value and that Del Rio could use to advantage in designing defensive schemes.
Due to Ryan’s versatility, Del Rio could move him around the secondary and get more creative with personnel. During his run with the Titans, he moved inside for nickel packages but worked on the outside in base formations. He is a strong tackler and blitzer at the position.
The 7th year defensive back tallied 113 tackles, 4.5 sack, four interceptions and four forced fumbles. He also picked off New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, his former teammate, to clinch the Titans’ Wild-Card playoff in January.
Ryan was a third-round pick in 2013 and spent his first four years in New England. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound cornerback has been part of two Super Bowl winning teams during his career and would provide a strong veteran presence in the Redskins locker room. All this despite being only 28 years old.
A three-year deal would allow the ‘Skins to get useful seasons out of the veteran, without having to go past his 31-year-old season. He will likely be cheaper than Dallas Cowboys cornerback Byron Jones, who is probably the highest profile impending free agent at the position.
#50 Kendall Fuller, Chiefs (Redskins), age 25
Fuller’s tremendous performance in the Super Bowl was a reminder that he’s had stretches of Pro Bowl-quality play throughout his career. His ability to transition to safety showed his versatility.
Redskins fans are, for the most part, Kendall Fuller fans. A lot of hearts were broken when Fuller was traded away on his rookie contract.
What we’ve learned from his time in Kansas City is that while Fuller has a lot of positional flexibility, his best position may be at safety.
That “positional flexibility” may quickly become a buzz-phrase in talking about free agent and draft prospects given Ron Rivera’s recent comments and the general trends in the NFL.
Re-acquiring Kendall Fuller would also go a long way toward washing some of the bad taste out of the mouths of Redskins fans who were disbelieving and angry when he was traded to the Chiefs.
If Ron Rivera wants an immediate win with the Redskins fan base, he’ll tell Rob Rodgers to get this done — bring back Kendall Fuller to the team that drafted him in 2016.
#56 Trae Waynes, Vikings, age 28
Waynes, a former first-round pick, quietly improved after a rocky start to his career, evolving into a physical and reliable starter.
The Vikings liked him enough to exercise the $9m 5th year option on him but are now up against the cap. I think they may find a way to keep him, as Xavier Rhodes was the worst DB on the Vikings team in 2019.
PFF has him as the 71st ranked CB (overall) in 2019, with his strongest grades coming in run defense, which isn’t typically what you want to see from your cornerbacks. His coverage grades and overall defensive grades from PFF have been pretty consistent over his 5-year career, which is to say that they have been okay... neither bad nor stellar.
He is primarily a boundary corner, but given the strength of his run support, lines up more than 10% of the time like a box safety.
The 28-year-old Waynes is ranked #38 on the Pro Football Rumors list of the top 100 veteran free agents of 2020. He would provide strong competition for Fabian Moreau, but at a cost.
Spotrac estimates Waynes’ free agent value at $8.4m APY, projecting a 3-year, $25.2m contract for him, though with the new CBA, the Spotrac estimates all seem to be way low this off-season. On that basis, I’d probably say this is a $10m APY contract, maybe more.
Adding Waynes would probably provide an upgrade compared to every Redskins cornerback aside from Dunbar, and could be a good medium-cost investment for the team if the Vikings fail to retain him.
#58 Bradley Roby, Texans/Broncos, age 28
There will be coaches who view Roby’s peak play and see a potential star, even if his week-to-week performance the last two seasons has been closer to average.
Fansided published an article about Roby, and talked about what Houston wanted when they grabbed him in free agency a year ago.
The Texans were looking for a versatile defensive back that could match up with big physical possession receivers or fast vertical receivers that could get upfield in a hurry. At 27 years of age, Roby embodied those traits as he trailed the best receiver and showed the speed to stay step for step with the faster receivers in the league towards the end of the regular season.
A versatile defensive back able to match up with possession receivers or fast vertical receivers? Sounds like the kind of guy the Redskins could use. Roby is truly versatile, taking about 30% of his defensive snaps lined up as the slot defender in 2019. That versatility could make him particularly valuable for the Redskins, who have a very good boundary corner (for the moment at least) in Quinton Dunbar, and a second player in Fabian Moreau who seems much better suited playing wide than in the slot. Jimmy Moreland showed some promise as a nickel corner as a rookie, so an all-rounder like Roby could be just what the roster-doctor ordered for Jack Del Rio’s re-tooled defense.
The Athletic echoed this sentiment:
Roby might be just the right fit. Roby played a season for Del Rio in Denver, was tied for third in interceptions with two among corners hitting the market. He’s never had a season without an interception, and 2019 is one of only two seasons in his career where he’s had fewer than 10 passes defended. Under Del Rio, he enjoyed tremendous success with two picks, 13 passes defended, two forced fumbles, two recoveries and a sack. Roby’s 65 tackles and five for a loss were the most of his career.
Roby’s market position isn’t terribly ambiguous. He signed a $10m contract a season ago, probably expecting to get a significant raise on a multi-year deal this off-season. His play, while good enough to land him among the better available free agents, was not really close to the elite level that would earn him a raise. In fact, I wouldn’t be shocked to see teams offering him no more than the $10m he made in ‘19.
That would likely see Roby stay in Houston where he knows he has an established position, and a good chance at a second consecutive playoff season... unless his relationship with JDR tips the balance.
#68 Darqueze Dennard, Bengals, age 28
The Bengals’ pass defense tends to disintegrate when their savvy nickelback is sidelined, which has happened 10 out of 32 times in the last two seasons.
#70 Eli Apple, Saints/Giants, age 24
A former Giants top-10 pick resuscitated his career in New Orleans and is still just 24 years old with a ton of starting experience.
I’m sorry; I just can’t forget what a clown show Eli brought to the Big Apple when he was drafted into the NFC East. Apparently, he has done better in the Big Easy, but someone else is going to have to extol his virtues. I just can’t bring myself to do it.
The 2015 Defensive Rookie of the Year runner-up came back quickly from a torn ACL last season, perhaps too quickly. Interested teams would be buying low.
This review is from our own Andrew York:
Ronald Darby is a former high school track star with the athletic traits to be an elite NFL corner. He blew up the combine with a 4.38s 40 yard dash and 41.5” vertical, despite being a bit undersized at 5’11” and 193 lbs.
Despite questions about his toughness and ability in run support, Darby was drafted by the Bills in the 2nd round of the 2015 draft. Although he has played well since then, Darby has missed time with injury in every NFL season he has played. He ended 2015 with a groin injury, missed time in 2016 with a concussion, dislocated his ankle and tore several ligaments in 2017, and ended his 2018 season with a torn ACL. Playing on the final year of his rookie contract in 2018, Darby has since signed a 1 year, $8.5M contract to return to the Eagles in 2019.
On tape, Darby’s speed is evident. He is frequently so fast that he’s able to assist other players in the Eagles secondary that get beat on their own matchups. His vision and play recognition is good, he’s fluid and good at mirroring opposing WRs, and he is a high effort player, never quitting on a play.
However, that effort doesn’t seem to extend to tackling. Darby is a minus in run defense, and often gets blocked out of plays and whiffs on tackles, showing poor tackling form when making tackles in space. Overall though, I think Darby could be a much better player than he’s allowed to be in Jim Schwartz’s scheme. I think Darby would benefit from playing closer to the line, and being allowed to mirror and run with WRs from the line, similar to Chidobe Awuzie in the Cowboys scheme.
He could be a really strong addition to the Redskins secondary, which is in need of help.
#83 Jimmy Smith, Ravens, age 31
On the wrong end of 30, unseated by Marlon Humphrey as the No. 1 cornerback and unable to stay in the lineup for 16 games, Smith’s free agency is born under a bad sign. That said, the Ravens’ defense played its best ball of the season once Smith, Marcus Peters and Chuck Clark solidified the back end in the second half of the season.
#90 Bashaud Breeland, Chiefs/Redskins, age 28
The Chiefs grabbed Breeland cheaply in free agency last year and he wound up playing 1,104 solid snaps, including 54 in a terrific Super Bowl outing.
I doubt many Redskins fans would be unhappy to have Breeland back, but I think it would take the optimism of Lloyd Christmas to bet money that Breeland will return to the team that drafted him.
#91 Prince Amukamara, Bears/Jaguars/Giants, age 30
Amukamara is back on the free agent market for a fifth time. That’s a sign that he’s good enough to be a starter year after year, but not quite good enough to always stick around.
#92 Jalen Mills, Eagles, age 25
Jim Schwartz seems to love Mills’ feistiness, so don’t be surprised if he returns to Philadelphia.
This is from Mike Kaye:
While the Eagles cornerback could return to Philadelphia, he should weigh his options before signing a new deal with his only NFL franchise.
The 6-foot-0, 191-pound cornerback has been a full-time starter for three seasons. While his past two campaigns were disrupted by a Lisfranc injury suffered in 2018, Mills has shown enough during his Eagles tenure that he should command interest on the open market.
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is a big fan of Mills, but the team could look to rework its secondary this offseason. If Mills is forced to leave the nest, he may need to rely on his familiarity with coaches and executives on other teams to find his next stop.
This from our own Andrew York a year ago:
Jalen Mills was a promising college prospect who fell to the 7th round in the 2016 draft due to injury and maturity concerns. He has good length (6’0”), was a little light (191 lbs), and had a slow combine 40 time (4.61s), but had a better pro day (4.48s). Originally projected to play a slot CB or safety, Mills has instead played boundary CB for the Eagles.
Based on video review of Mills, I think he is a below average starting NFL CB with good (not great) speed and mirroring ability, great effort, and slightly below-average field awareness. He is below average in run support and tackling ability. His biggest weakness is his over-aggression, which may be partly due to the lack of help on offer in Schwartz’s scheme. He bites hard on fakes and often gets beaten for big plays. As a result, he often seems like a very up-and-down player; good against the more limited WRs he can match 1-on-1, but not nearly as good against the NFL’s better WRs, against whom he receives little to no support.
#96 Daryl Worley, Raiders/Panthers, age 25
In 2018, the Panthers traded Worley away to the Eagles for wide-receiver help (Torrey Smith). He was released in the same off-season by the Eagles following his arrest. He landed with the Raiders.
Ron Rivera will know Worley, and his opinion of the young DB may determine whether his future could potentially be in DC.
Free Safety need = high to very high
#6 Justin Simmons, Broncos, age 25
A rangy athlete with sensational leaping ability, Simmons plays safety like a frisbee-chasing dog, flagging down all flying objects in sprinting distance. Just entering his prime as a first-time All-Pro (second team), he’s unlikely to escape the long arm of John Elway’s franchise tag.
I have not published a review of Simmons on Hogs Haven this off-season because I always expected him to be retained by the Broncos. Reports out of Indianapolis this week confirm that he likely will not get away from John Elway in 2020:
Safety Justin Simmons said recently that he expects to be franchise tagged by the Broncos this offseason and General Manager John Elway confirmed that’s very much a possibility when he spoke to reporters in Indianapolis on Tuesday.
Elway said, via multiple reporters, that the hope is to get a deal done with Simmons ahead of the deadline to use the franchise tag. That deadline is March 12 after the league and NFLPA agreed to push it back two days in light of this week’s round of talks on the proposed Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Simmons, who ranks 16th on PFT’s list of the year’s top free agents, would likely be in line for a salary north of $11.5 million if he played out the 2020 season under the terms of the tag.
Related: Previewing 2020 free agents: safety
#18 Anthony Harris, Vikings, age 28
Surrounded by high draft picks with big-money contracts, Harris overcame his undrafted pedigree to become Minnesota’s best player in the secondary.
When I published the review of free agent safeties in late January, I didn’t review Anthony Harris for only one reason — whoever the Redskins sign or draft will be paired with Landon Collins, who is the 4th highest paid safety in the league at the moment, so I don’t see Washington signing another top-tier contract at the position. In short, I think the Redskins will be seeking to pair Collins with a draft pick or a more economical free agent than Harris.
The ideal move here would be to draft Isaiah Simmons, but that would take an incredible string of good fortune that the team simply can’t count on. I expect Rivera to go shopping for a free agent in free agency, but I doubt very much that it will be Anthony Harris.
#29 Devin McCourty, Patriots, age 32
Another magnificent McCourty performance was lost in the shadows of Stephon Gilmore’s season-long Defensive Player of the Year campaign. At 32 years old with savvy ball skills, sticky coverage and a reputation for natural leadership, McCourty could be the final piece of the puzzle for a Super Bowl contender.
If Anthony Harris doesn’t fit the Redskins needs, then 32-year-old McCourty is an even worse fit. The Redskins are not really looking for the final piece of the puzzle for a super bowl contender; they are looking for a partner for Collins to help establish the Redskins defense as a force in the NFC.
I’d be shocked if the Redskins looked here for help.
#33 Von Bell, Saints, age 25
Bell has a reputation as a “box safety” because he can blitz and deliver hits in the running game, but the 25-year-old also covers opposing tight ends well enough. This is the type of skill set nearly every team is looking for.
Bell has been steady if unspectacular for the Saints, with 14 passes defended and one interception in a 4 year career, but averaging 84 tackles per year.
Vonn Bell was a 2nd round draft pick of the Saints in the 2016 draft, and he has been an on-and-off starter in his four years with the team.
With an overall grade of 64.6 from PFF in 2019, but a coverage grade of just 51.9, Bell doesn’t appear to be a great fit for the Redskins’ need for a cover safety to match with Landon Collins.
ProFootball Rumors has Bell ranked as the #6 available safety among the 9 safeties they list in their top-100 free agents of 2020. The valuation from OTC would put him #7 on the list.
I don’t see much evidence to convince me that Bell would provide a clear upgrade to Nicholson or Apke for the Redskins.
#42 Jimmie Ward, 49ers, age 28
Finally healthy after landing on injured reserve in four of his first five snakebitten NFL seasons, Ward was an unsung star for San Francisco’s Super Bowl defense. With the versatility to slide over to nickel corner, Ward is the perfect safety to combat the spread offenses that proliferate today’s NFL.
With Jimmie Ward, obvious questions jump out:
- Why would the Niners let him leave?
- Why would Ward want to leave SF?
As to the first question, the 49ers, coming off a very successful 2019 season, may need to make some difficult salary cap decisions. Over the Cap estimates that SF will enter the 2020 season with around $15m in cap space, and 49 players under contract.
This was addressed by Chris Biderman of the Sacramento Bee late in the season:
[S]afety Jimmie Ward is tied for the league lead at his position with seven pass breakups, according to Pro Football Focus. Being the free safety on the NFL’s best pass defense is a nice thing to put on your resume. Ward has been outstanding this year. So far, it’s been his first healthy season since 2015.
Ward could command a yearly salary between $8 and $10 million, which would put him in the upper echelon at the position. Which, again, doesn’t seem like something San Francisco can afford at the moment.
But here’s the thing: the 49ers frontloaded many of their contracts with guaranteed money up front. Players such as Jimmy Garoppolo, center Weston Richburg and linebacker Kwon Alexander could have money in their contracts moved around to clear up space because the guarantees were pushed toward the first seasons of their respective deals.
Plus the team could clear more room by releasing players like Marquise Goodwin and Jerick McKinnon.
A key question becomes, are there any other starters the 49ers might want to get off the books? Could Jaquiski Tartt, who has one season left on his contract, be replaced by a draft pick? Would another team be willing trade for him to help clear some $5 million off the cap sheet? Could the team attach a draft pick to Solomon Thomas in a trade to get his guaranteed $9 million out of the way?
While Jimmie Ward is clearly the Niners’ best safety, his backup is Tarvarius Moore, who was drafted in the 3rd round of the ‘18 draft and who played over 200 defensive snaps at safety in 2019, so the cupboard isn’t bare.
Still, Ward is the clear #1 safety on a team that is going to the Super Bowl — a team that is led by its defense, with a young coach and a bright future.
One would expect Jimmie Ward to try to stay in San Francisco if he can. It would probably take a very appealing offer to get him to leave willingly.
Ward’s big problem, of course, is his ability — uh... that is... durability and availability. Ward has played in 64 games in his 6-year career (less than 11 games per season on average) and has only played a full season once, in 2015.
His list of injuries has been long:
- Nov 2014 - foot (IR)
- Sep 2016 - quad (out 3 wks)
- Dec 2016 - clavicle (IR)
- Aug 2017 - hamstring
- Oct 2017 - fractured forearm (IR)
- Nov 2018 - broken forearm (IR)
He did manage to start and finish the final 13 games of the 2019 season, but was forced to settle for a one-year, $4.5m deal in 2019, after playing the 2018 season on the 5th year option at $8.5m.
It’s hard to imagine Ward wanting to leave the Niners given their current success and expectations for the future, but he might be lured away by a team that can offer him more security in a more standard multi-year contract. I’m not sure that the salary-cap and injury history fit with the Redskins would be ideal, but Jimmie Ward is probably one of the two safeties currently scheduled to hit free agency in March who would likely offer a strong upgrade on the field over Montae Nicholson.
#51 HaHa Clinton-Dix, Bears/Redskins/Packers, age 27
The guy at NFL.com couldn’t bring himself to say much about HHCD. He’s played for 3 teams in 6 years and is now looking to make it 4 in 7. This guy seems to wear out his welcome pretty quickly. I wasn’t happy to see the Redskins trade a 4th round pick for him when he came to the Redskins, and there’s no way I want to see him return. I would be surprised to find a lot of people who would disagree with me. I hope that RR and JDR have “hard pass” written next to his name on the white board.
Damarious Randall, Browns/Packers, age 27
Randall’s range and speed will get him paid, although his reputation for being high maintenance could have him on his third team in as many years.
Shades of HaHa Clinton-Dix! Randall is another former Packers safety who has under-performed for more than one team. He is about to go to his 3rd team in his 7th season.
He drafted by the Packers in the first round of the 2015 draft, and traded to the Browns for QB Deshone Kizer and a swap of 5th round picks.
He’s a capable safety who notched up 9 passes defended and 4 interceptions in each of ‘17 and ‘18 seasons. In 2018, his first season with the Browns, he broke out with 72 tackles.
In 2019, he played in just 11 games, with attendant drops in tackles and passes defended, and failed to intercept a pass for the first time in his career.
Pro Football Rumors has him rated as the 5th-best free agent safety available this off-season, but OverTheCap’s valuation method puts him 8th (out of 9). His 2019 PFF rating of 69.3 ranks him 59th among all NFL safeties.
Here’s some recent commentary about Randall from Dawgs by Nature, the Cleveland Browns’ SB Nation site:
The good: Finished the season with Cleveland’s top tackling grade (79.8 per Pro Football Focus) and was fourth on the Browns with 60 tackles. The bad: Missed two games early in the season with a concussion that may not have been a concussion, three games in the middle of the season with a hamstring injury, and the second game against the Pittsburgh Steelers after being left home for undisclosed reasons. Randall is fine when he is on the field, but a new coaching staff may not believe he is worth the hassle. You hate to see the Browns create more holes, but this could be a case of addition by subtraction.
I don’t see Randall as a clear upgrade to what the Redskins have in Nicholson and Apke, but he is a former first-round pick by the Packers, who typically have tended not to be careless with draft picks. Maybe there’s more talent here than I realize, and likely available at a reasonable contract price.
#60 Karl Joseph, Raiders, age 26
Joseph was finally living up to his bone-jarring billing as a former first-round pick after the Raiders declined his fifth-year option last offseason. A serious foot injury put a premature end to his breakout season in early November.
A glance at Joseph’s career stats shows that he has missed 15 games in his career, averages 59 tackles and less than 4 passes defended per season, with 4 interceptions in 4 years.
It’s hard to see anything that suggests that the 26-year-old free agent safety would provide an upgrade to Nicholson and Apke.
#69 Rodney McLeod, Eagles/Rams, age 29
Known as the understated glue to the Eagles’ championship secondary, McLeod can still provide quality snaps for a team needing a starter.
Rodney Mcleod doesn’t have elite speed, but from the time he entered the league he made plays against the run with the Rams. Similar to his teammate Jenkins, in his two seasons with the Eagles, it seems that McLeod has meshed well and improved his play. He created turnovers with both interceptions and forced fumbles, and provided another physical presence for Philly. McLeod and Jenkins may have formed the best safety tandem in the division.
Unfortunately, the pairing with Landon Collins isn’t likely to be ideal, as the Redskins probably need someone with more range and speed than McLeod offers.
#77 Adrian Phillips, Chargers, age 27
Known for his all-pro special teams work, Phillips can play a safety/linebacker hybrid spot with ferocious intensity.
This is from a December 2018 LA Times article:
The Chargers see Adrian Phillips as a versatile defender who is nimble enough to blanket a receiver in man-to-man coverage, stout enough to shed the block of a massive lineman and tackle a running back, and smart enough to anticipate plays from a multitude of positions.
Phillips sees himself as a somewhat insecure safety who, despite the praise of coaches and teammates and his prominent role on one of the NFL’s better defenses, is still struggling to make it in a cut-throat league in which security is elusive for so many.
Phillips cut his teeth on special teams and as a part-time defensive back on passing downs in 2015 and 2016. He emerged as a regular in the wake of linebacker Denzel Perryman’s ankle injury in 2017, racking up 60 tackles, two interceptions and six pass breakups in 15 games.
Phillips played receiver and quarterback at Garland (Texas) High School but said he didn’t get serious about defensive film study until college.
“I’ve always had that chip on my shoulder,” Phillips said of going undrafted. “It’s a tag you never forget because the way you came up is different. They love the draft picks. Free agents, it’s like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’
If he signed with the Redskins, he would likely provide positional flexibility, creating more defensive options for the coaching staff, and likely on a budge contract relative to most other free agent options.
#95 Clayton Geathers, Colts, age 27
Geathers lost his starting job to rookie Khari Willis last season, but has played well enough when given the chance to warrant a starting spot elsewhere.
Geathers is an oft-injured player and a borderline backup quality safety. He is not the answer to the Redskins needs.