The NFL has gained popularity by becoming the first sport that really operates on a year-long basis. It consistently moves right after the season to the free agency and then the draft simultaneously. Even when that isn’t taking place contracts are always being negotiated. And even early on in the new season, the market is being set for certain positions as we move along.
Because of all this movement, we are getting a clearer look at what the 2019 free agent class will look like and where players should go. Because the draft takes place well after the free agency period begins, teams will go out and make moves quickly because there is no telling what the draft will bring. Players in free agency have reached more importance in recent years and the Super Bowl Champions will attest to that.
Last season for the Philadelphia Eagles, the key free agents were LeGarrette Blount, Alshon Jeffrey, and Chris Long. All of them were crucial throughout the year as leaders and gelled perfectly with everyone else. In 2015 the Broncos had finished creating their defense in part behind free agents DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib, who led them to a Super Bowl. In 2014, even the Patriots got in on the act getting Darrelle Revis in free agency and pushing their defense to another level as they won a championship. A player going to the perfect system can change the balance of power in the NFL so here’s a list of 20 players who could do that in the 2019 free agent class.
20 Ezekiel Ansah - Carolina Panthers
Ezekiel Ansah has been one of the best pass rushers in the NFL over the last three seasons. In 2013 the Lions took Ansah with the fifth overall pick in the draft. Since then he has performed great, including getting a career-high 14.5 sacks in 2015. Ansah missed most of 2016 with a knee injury, but when 2017 came up he back to speed and had 12 sacks that year.
Without a contract for the 2019 season, Ansah will be on the market and could go to a contender. The Panthers have started to lose talent on their defensive line and Julius Peppers may retire after this season. Ansah would be a perfect fit and could give the Panthers arguably the NFL's best front seven.
19 DeMarcus Lawrence - Atlanta Falcons
DeMarcus Lawrence was taken in the second round of the draft by the Dallas Cowboys in 2014. He didn’t play much for the Cowboys defensive line in his rookie season, but in year two, Lawrence got his chance. He got 8 sacks in 2015 surprising everyone in the NFL. In 2016 Lawrence wasn’t as successful and struggled in the 9 games that he played, mainly because of a back problem that was bothering him. Lawrence bounced back in 2017 with 14.5 sacks and was one of the best defensive linemen in football.
If the Cowboys don’t get his contract situation right, Lawrence would be the perfect fit for the Falcons system. On the other side of Vic Beasley, Lawrence would cause chaos in opposing backfields.
18 Tyrod Taylor - Buffalo Bills
Tyrod Taylor started at quarterback for the Buffalo Bills for three seasons. Taylor never had a great season but always managed to run the ball successfully and never turn the ball over. In 2015 Taylor threw for 3,000 yards, 20 TDs and 6 INTs in 2015. In 2016 Taylor continued his success with 3,000 yards, 17 TDs, and 6 INTs. The only issue with Taylor’s performances is that they have never lead to long-term success.
After 2017, Taylor became a free agent and joined the Browns. He will be a free agent again after this season, and as Baker Mayfield has taken over, he has little chance of starting again. Ironically, the best move for Taylor would be a return to Buffalo. The Bills have perhaps the worst QB depth chart in the NFL and could use a quality backup behind Josh Allen.
17 Le’Veon Bell - Indianapolis Colts
Le’Veon Bell has been one of the best running backs in the league since he was picked in 2013. No one knew what kind of talent the Steelers would have when they took Bell in the second round to be the running back of the future. Since then, Bell has had three different seasons where he rushed for over 1,200 yards and 7 TDs. But what has come with that territory is Bell holding out for a new contract that the Steelers won’t give him.
By 2019, it will finally be over, as his franchise tag price will be too high for the Steelers to pay. Bell would have to go to a team with ample cap space and a need at running back.
The Colts would love teaming him up with Andrew Luck in the backfield. That would be a destructive combo which would cause problems for the rest of the NFL.
16 Ndamukong Suh - Kansas City Chiefs
Ndamukong Suh was one of the most highly touted defensive line prospects in the last 10 years. In his rookie season, Suh lived up to the hype with 10 sacks but she’s never lived up to that enormous hype. In five seasons with the Lions, Suh had 36 sacks but also carried a lot of baggage, so much that they decided to move on and the Dolphins got a $114M contract.
Last year he was released by the Dolphins and the Rams signed Suh to a one-year, $14M deal. Suh hasn't quite lived up to expectations in Los Angeles, as Aaron Donald has completely overshadowed him. That being said, the Chiefs will be in a position next offseason where they'll want to load up while Patrick Mahomes is still on his rookie deal. Suh could likely fetch a two-year deal from the Chiefs with the guaranteed money he'll want.
15 Clay Matthews - New England Patriots
Clay Matthews was taken with the 26th pick in 2009 by the Green Bay Packers. As a pass rusher for the team, Matthews has been the perfect player for their defense. Matthews has gotten over 10 sacks in four seasons for the Packers. He has been the leader of their defense for years and crucial in deep playoff runs.
Matthews hasn’t had that same success in the past three seasons, never reaching 8 sacks. Next year, Matthews will be a free agent. The Packers have already moved on from some of their aging stars and will unlikely keep him. With a low price tag, and the Patriots needing to add a pass rusher, New England would be the perfect place for Matthews to revive his career.
14 Lamarcus Joyner - Arizona Cardinals
Lamarcus Joyner was picked in the 2nd round by the St Louis Rams. The defensive back was supposed to tie up the back side of the Rams already impressive defense. The early returns weren’t great for Joyner and he didn’t get an interception for the first three seasons of his career. In 2017 Joyner reached a different level with 3 INTs on the year and a big pick six. With the new defensive coordinator, Joyner plays in a different spot which lets him make more plays. If the Rams don’t like his performance, the Cardinals will need help at the safety position and Joyner will be the perfect fit.
13 Randall Cobb - San Francisco 49ers
Randall Cobb was once a big part of the Packers receiving corps. Cobb got 954 receiving yards and 8 TDs in 2012 and emerged as one of the better young wideouts in the league. Cobb has an amazing season in 2014 when he had 1,287 receiving yards and 12 TDs. He has never repeated that success reaching 900 yards or 7 TDs. The Packers seem to be revamping their receiving corps and are unlikely to keep Cobb after this season.
The 49ers are a team that is desperate to add some receiving talent, particularly since Pierre Garcon hasn't worked out all that well for them. Cobb, if he doesn't mind a lower price tag, could go to San Fran where Kyle Shanahan would be a perfect offensive mind to get the most out of him.
12 Earl Thomas - Dallas Cowboys
Earl Thomas has been one of the leaders of the Seahawks defense and one of the best free safeties in the league. Thomas has made six Pro Bowls and been an All-Pro three times in his career. But over recent years, Thomas has not been happy with Seahawks management. He has asked to be traded, then he re-signed and ultimately held out in camp. Everything unraveled about as badly as one could imagine in Seattle.
With the Seahawks slowly becoming dysfunctional, to say little of his season-ending injury in Week 4 and his "gesture" to the Seahawks thereafter, Thomas will want to be a Cowboy in 2019.
11 Tyrann Mathieu - New Orleans Saints
Tyrann Mathieu became a superstar in college the second he was given the title of “The Honey Badger” at LSU. As a safety in LSU, Mathieu had personal issues and became a third-round pick for the Cardinals in 2013. Mathieu was a steal for the team showing his worth early in his career. In 2015 Mathieu was an All-Pro and had 5 INTs. Over the last two years, Mathieu has been struggling with his production.
He signed a one-year deal with the Texans and has proven how foolish the Cards were for letting him go.
In 2019, Mathieu will be a free agent again and the Saints could use another defensive playmaker. If the Saints come up short in their Super Bowl bid this year, the chances of them going after Mathieu are that much higher.
10 Donte Moncrief - New England Patriots
When Donte Moncrief was taken in the third round of the draft by the Indianapolis Colts they believed he would be the next wide receiver for them. In 2015, it looked like Moncrief was going to emerge to the next level. He had 733 receiving yards and 6 TDs that season. But without Andrew Luck being healthy for the last two seasons, Moncrief struggled mightily.
Moncrief hasn't fit in all that well with Jacksonville, but then again, look at who his quarterback is. The Patriots love to take chances on low-risk, high ceiling free agents and that's exactly what Moncrief will be in March. This seems like a very New England signing.
9 Ryan Kalil - Denver Broncos
When the Panthers selected Ryan Kalil in the second round, they couldn't have imagined he would be this successful. The center has been a stalwart for the team ever since he started 16 games and made a Pro Bowl in 2009. Kalil has made five Pro Bowls in his career and had two All-Pro appearances.
Kalil is going to be a free agent in 2019, and while he's still one of the better centers in the game, the Panthers may be hesitant to pay the soon-to-be 34-year-old center what he wants. The Broncos would be the perfect fit for Kalil because they are trying to put together an offensive line and will likely have a rookie quarterback starting for them next season.
8 Kareem Jackson - Kansas City Chiefs
Kareem Jackson was the 20th overall pick in the 2010 draft by the Houston Texans. They expected him to play cornerback with the team for years and since that draft, he's been a solid player for them. Jackson has never had 5 or more INTs in a season but he is a very good piece to what the Texans do.
Jackson has now hit 30 and he's likely going to be looking for one final big contract before he thinks about retiring. Jackson would be a perfect player for the Chiefs because they need secondary players after trading Marcus Peters last offseason. Look for the Chiefs to be like last year's Rams in the offseason and fill out their defensive holes.
7 Cameron Wake - Pittsburgh Steelers
Cameron Wake came into the NFL without being drafted by a team. At the age of 27, he got picked up by the Miami Dolphins and ended up making the team. In his second year, Wake had 14 sacks and made the Pro Bowl. In his time with the Dolphins, Wake has continuously been one of the best pass rushers in the league racking up nearly 100 sacks in 10 seasons.
In 2019 the five-time Pro Bowler will be a free agent and he works perfectly in the Steelers system. At that point, Wake will want to go all in and play for a competitor and the Steelers need that extra push.
6 Teddy Bridgewater - Miami Dolphins
Teddy Bridgewater is the most intriguing free agent QB and the one with the best chance to start if he goes to another team in 2019. While the Saints have expressed interest in retaining Bridgewater as an heir apparent to Drew Brees, it doesn't look like Brees is anywhere close to done, so Bridgewater will be eager to get a starting job somewhere else. The Dolphins seem like they may move on from Ryan Tannehill this offseason, but won't be bad enough to land a high draft pick. Thus next season could see the Dolphins bring Bridgewater in as a bargain free agent signing and to see what he could do as a starter.
5 Josh Gordon - Philadelphia Eagles
When Josh Gordon was put on the trade market by the Cleveland Browns earlier this season, several teams expressed interest in him, but the Patriots pounced early. Gordon has become a solid contributor in New England but he still doesn't quite look like the All-Pro he was earlier in his career. Still, Gordon is too talented and shouldn't command that high a price tag. With the Eagles unlikely to retain the recently acquired Golden Tate in 2019, and Nelson Agholor regressing, they'll want to bring in a deep threat for Carson Wentz. From there, Gordon could hopefully continue his ascension to being what he once was.
4 Tyler Eifert - Houston Texans
When everything clicks for Tyler Eifert he is just as good as any tight end in the NFL as his 2015 year will show. Eifert had 600 receiving yards and 13 TDs in only 13 games that year. But health has been the problem for Eifert, not his ability. He has never played 16 games in a season and only reached 10 games played in two of his five years. He also was placed on IR earlier in the season, after the Bengals' Week 4 win over the Falcons.
With the Texans building around young quarterback Deshaun Watson, a receiving threat in the middle would be perfect for their spread offense, even if they would be taking a flyer on a player who can't seem to stay healthy.
3 Mike Iupati - Seattle Seahawks
Mike Iupati was taken with the 17th overall pick in 2010 by the San Francisco 49ers. As a guard, Iupati was brought on to add a different level of intensity to their front and add a running game. The left guard was one of the best in the league making a Pro Bowl in his last three seasons with the 49ers.
In 2015, Iupati went to the Cardinals and made yet another Pro Bowl. He has been a consistent starter for the last two season but will be a free agent in 2019. It would work out for both parties if Iupati continued running through the NFC West and joined the Seattle Seahawks.
2 Sheldon Richardson - Dallas Cowboys
Sheldon Richardson was picked with the 13th pick in the 2013 draft. He was set to be a dominant interior defensive lineman and in his second season that appeared to be the case. Richardson had 8 sacks in 2014 and made the Pro Bowl. However, he never got anywhere close to that success again, never recording more than five sacks with the Jets.
Last year, Richardson joined the Seahawks and didn’t produce either, getting only one sack the entire season despite starting 15 games. He's looked a little more like his old self in Minnesota, but he's unlikely to be retained after the season.
He’s a big enough name for the Cowboys take one last flyer on him. The Cowboys already have a solid front seven and if the price is right, Richardson would be a good addition.
1 Golden Tate - Baltimore Ravens
Golden Tate was selected in the second round of the 2010 draft by the Seattle Seahawks. In his first couple of years, Tate didn’t have the impact they wanted at wide receiver before he became one of the more underrated wideouts in the game. He never cracked 1,000 yards with the Seahawks but was just as important as their other weapons. After going to play for the Lions, Tate’s value became clear. In 2014, he had 1,300 yards through the air and that has been followed up with two 1,000-plus yard years in the last two seasons.
A strong finish to the season in Philadelphia would really drive Tate's price tag up in the offseason, when he hits free agency, now on the wrong side of 30. As the Ravens look to continue building their offense, Tate would be perfectly paired with Lamar Jackson as he takes over at quarterback. If the Ravens keep Flacco, it's another solid weapon in the passing game.