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With free agency set to begin on March 13, no time like the present to begin assessing the potential market. It is likely some of these players will be franchised — teams can use the tag from Feb. 19 to March 5 — but here are 19 big names who could be available in some form in 2019.
1. DE/OLB Jadeveon Clowney: The No. 1 overall pick of the Texans in the 2014 draft will turn 26 on Valentine’s Day. He had to navigate injuries and the professional learning curve at the outset of his career, but Clowney has been a Pro Bowler the past three seasons, totaling 24½ sacks in that span. Those numbers may not be eye-popping, especially when considering Clowney plays opposite J.J. Watt, but they’re hardly the measure of the freakishly athletic 6-5, 270-pounder. Few edge defenders — and Clowney easily toggles between base 4-3 end and 3-4 stand-up linebacker — are as effective against the run or even covering receivers in space.
2. RB Le’Veon Bell: When he’s on the field, few players are as productive as the two-time all-pro, who’s exceeded 1,800 yards from scrimmage three times and is one of the few backs in the league who could probably be a Pro Bowl receiver, too. Of course, Bell took himself out of the lineup in 2018, refusing to play on a second consecutive franchise tag from the Steelers and raising questions about his value as a teammate after several Pittsburgh players felt they’d been left in a lurch. Still, a year away might seem a negative for most, but for Bell, who turns 27 month this month and led the NFL with 406 touches in 2017, such a recuperative period could be viewed as beneficial. Speculation has arisen that the Steelers might put the transition tag on him, which would provide the option to match any outside offer and prevent his defection.
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3. QB Nick Foles: The Eagles star bought his way into free agency, though Philadelphia could still engineer some kind of tag-and-trade scenario in a bid to get something more than a compensatory third-round pick for the beloved backup. It will be interesting to see what kind of market develops for Foles, who won Super Bowl LII MVP honors and rode to the rescue again this season, winning all three of his December starts to salvage another playoff run before also leading Philly past the Bears in the wild-card round. Yet for all his success as a de facto reliever, Foles, 30, flopped as a starter in St. Louis in 2015 and nearly retired. His next situation will have to be the right one — and that’s why the Jaguars, who just hired former Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo to be their offensive coordinator, bear watching.
4. DE Demarcus Lawrence: Franchised by the Cowboys last year, he followed his breakout 2017 (14½ sacks) by tallying 10½ more in 2018. Only 26, Lawrence has played his entire five-year career on Dallas’ four-man front, but the 6-3, 265-pounder could probably handle an elephant-type position for a 3-4 defense. A second tag would cost the Cowboys roughly $21 million, but Lawrence might be worth it after overcoming injuries and a drug suspension early in his career.
5. DT Grady Jarrett: You may recall him sacking Tom Brady three times in Super Bowl LI in a losing effort for Atlanta. Though that performance was an outlier for Jarrett — with 14 sacks in four regular seasons for the Falcons, he’s not the second coming of Aaron Donald — he’s still a highly disruptive player who utilizes the leverage afforded by a 6-foot, 305-pound frame. Only 25, he’s an especially important weapon as Atlanta tries to return to NFC South prominence against the likes of Drew Brees and Cam Newton.
6. DE Trey Flowers: It would seem the Patriots can hardly afford to lose him given he’s led them in sacks each of the past three seasons. Flowers, 25, has a modest total of 21 during that stretch but also possesses the varied skill set you’d expect from a New England defender — an every-down player who’s also averaged 55 tackles per season since 2016 and does some of his best work stifling the run.
7. S Earl Thomas: He’s probably the league’s premier safety in the post-Polamalu/Reed era. A broken leg ended Thomas’ 2018 campaign after four games, and he’s missed 19 starts over the past three seasons after starting every game in his first six years. The bigger concern about Thomas, 29, could be some of the me-first business antics he employed, similar to Bell in 2018, skipping Seattle’s offseason program, training camp and some practices even after the regular season began. But a lucrative new contract would probably serve as an elixir for such an accomplished play maker.
8. DE Frank Clark: One of the Seahawks’ unsung stars, he has 32 sacks since 2016, culminating with a career-high 13 in 2018 despite playing through elbow injuries down the stretch. Just 25, it seems more likely Seattle would franchise the 6-3, 265-pound Clark than Thomas.
9. OLB LB Dee Ford: A career season was sullied by his untimely neutral zone infraction in the AFC Championship Game. Prior to that, Ford, who will turn 28 in March, established a personal best with 13 sacks in the regular season. The Chiefs want to retain the 6-2, 252-pound pass rusher even though he’s not especially stout against the run and is a liability when dropping into coverage.
10. ILB LB C.J. Mosley: He’s not in the rarefied air of Luke Kuechly or Bobby Wagner, but Mosley, 26, is solidly in the next tier of inside linebackers — a reliable player in every phase who has earned Pro Bowl nods in four of his five seasons.
11. S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix: It was telling that the Packers exported the former Pro Bowler at the trade deadline rather than extend him. The 26-year-old may not quite qualify as elite at his position, but his effectiveness against the pass should make him quite valuable — figuratively and literally — to some defense.
12. OLB Preston Smith: A three-year starter in Washington, maybe he’s best described as Clowney-lite — the stat sheet won’t wow you (24½ sacks in four seasons), but Smith, 26, is a solid all-around edge presence.
13. DE Brandon Graham: He’s a bit undersized (6-2, 265 pounds), but Graham has long been one of the league’s top run stoppers as a base 4-3 end. And, of course, you might remember that game-sealing strip sack of Brady in Super Bowl LII. Graham turns 31 in April, and his age is probably the only thing that will depress his market.
14. C Matt Paradis: In a year when few notable offensive linemen will be available, the NFL’s second-ranked pivot, per the analytics website Pro Football Focus, could be poised to cash in a year after Ryan Jensen — remember him? — reset the center market. A broken leg did prematurely end what was probably Paradis’ final season in Denver early.
15. DT Ndamukong Suh: At 32, he’s no longer among the league’s most-feared linemen. And though it certainly helped playing alongside defensive player of the year Aaron Donald in 2018, Suh also proved in his year with the Rams that he can be a valuable commodity on a three-man front after lining up as a three-technique on 4-3 defenses for most of his career.
16. S Landon Collins: He’s been a Pro Bowler each of the last three seasons, but his impact has diminished since 2016, when he was a legitimate defensive MVP candidate with four sacks and five interceptions. Should be interesting to see how hard the Giants fight to keep Collins, 25, who’s more a box safety than center fielder.
17. RB Mark Ingram: It’s not easy for 29-year-old backs to command top dollar. But Ingram remains an effective and versatile performer, his receiving skills probably especially undervalued given how well Alvin Kamara does that in New Orleans. The time share with the Saints and a four-game suspension to start the season meant his touches dropped by nearly half (from 288 to 159) after his 2017 Pro Bowl campaign — though reduced use this past season might actually serve as a selling point for a fresher Ingram.
18. QB Teddy Bridgewater: He looked so good in preseason with the Jets that New Orleans spent a third-round pick to acquire him to be Brees’ backup in 2018. Bridgewater still only has one regular-season start since suffering his horrific knee injury in Minnesota just prior to the 2016 season. But he could be a valuable alternative in cities like Miami, Washington or elsewhere and potentially the type of relatively low-risk investment who could pay off in spades given his pre-injury Pro Bowl track record and age (he just turned 26).
19. WR Golden Tate: Yes, he’s 30, but was still playing like a 1A kind of receiver in Detroit prior to his midseason trade to the Eagles. With so few pass catchers available, guys like Tate and TE Jared Cook could benefit due to supply/demand factors.
*RB Kareem Hunt: The NFL rushing champ as a rookie in 2017, the 23-year-old rates a mention here. The league continues to investigate Hunt’s off-field behavior, most notably his infamous physical altercation with a woman in a Cleveland hotel that led to his Nov. 30 release from the Chiefs. Any team signing Hunt would certainly face public relations backlash. But he’s not nearly as old as Ray Rice was when he was suspended, and exceptional talent typically leads to second chances in the NFL.
Follow Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis