The 2018 NFL regular season is not yet over, as of the typing of this sentence, but it’s a safe bet that some franchises out of the playoff hunt are already thinking about which free agents will become available once the new league year opens. At the opposite end of future negotiation tables are the to-be free agents who are already contemplating where they will go once their contracts expire, so much so that some may shut things down and call it a campaign before Week 17 arrives. Heck, arguably the best running back in the business today decided to take all of 2018 off rather than play for less than what he feels he deserves.
That running back will probably be the biggest name to hit free agency, and odds are he will be signed fast once his rights become available to the highest bidder. Not all of the players looking to put pen to paper on new contracts in March will be so fortunate. As we saw during 2018, one noteworthy famous wide receiver was left in free agency for months and months until he was provided with a chance to perform, but his season ended before it really began because of an injury setback. A similar scenario could play out in 2019 for that same man depending on how he recovers heading into the summer.
21 Signed fast: Larry Fitzgerald
A popular opinion held among many within the NFL community is that Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald would prefer to retire as a member of the only franchise he’s known since entering the league rather than enter free agency in 2019 or at any point down the road. Larry Legend, one of the greatest receivers in league history, doesn’t have a Super Bowl championship on his resume, and the idea of pursuing a title with a team could be enough to convince him to sign a relatively inexpensive one-year deal in order to hoist the trophy that’s eluded him throughout his Hall of Fame career.
20 Where he will go: New England Patriots
Fans who listen to those weekly Monday Night Football radio interviews with both Tom Brady and Larry Fitzgerald know the two are quite familiar with each other. Brady has even joked about recruiting Fitzgerald while speaking with Jim Gray. Maybe there is more than a little truth behind those quips. Fitzgerald turns 36-years-old next August, but the thought of playing alongside the NFL’s most ageless QB could be enough to talk him into completing a move east for one year. Fitzgerald is one of the true good guys in the game. No veteran deserves a Super Bowl ring more. Make it so, New England Patriots, for all involved.
19 Left in free agency: Jay Ajayi
The Miami Dolphins trading running back Jay Ajayi to the Philadelphia Eagles in the fall of 2017 did wonders for his career, as he won a Super Bowl with the NFC East team last February. What began as a contract season for the 25-year-old ended prematurely in October when he went down with a torn ACL. Ajayi wasn’t producing headline-generating numbers when he was on the field, averaging 4.1 yards per carry before the injury. He has only a single 1,000-yard campaign to his name, he’s coming off an injury that has derailed careers and he will be on the wrong side of 25 in the summer. Teams couldn’t be blamed for leaving him in free agency through the beginning of the preseason.
18 Signed fast: Frank Gore
No, future Hall of Fame running back Frank Gore is no longer what he was during his best days, but he has proven during his stint with the Miami Dolphins that his production dipped with the Indianapolis Colts more so because of issues with that team’s offense than because he supposedly no longer had anything remaining in the tank. Gore said before the start of the campaign that moving to Miami was not the start of a retirement tour, and the 35-year-old likely wouldn’t be a free agent for long in early 2019 as long as he was realistic about the type of money he will earn during what could be his last season.
17 Where he will go: Arizona Cardinals
Say, for the sake of this piece, that Larry Fitzgerald does leave the Arizona Cardinals, either through retirement or by signing with a team such as the New England Patriots in free agency. Arizona could use a veteran in the locker room to work with quarterback Josh Rosen, who is learning the game as an active participant this fall. Those who have watched the Cards this season realize the team needs multiple improvements on the offensive side of the ball. Gore probably wouldn’t rush for 1,000 yards next season, but he could bolster a rushing attack that needs to take some pressure off a young signal-caller.
16 Left in free agency: Brandon Marshall
The Seattle Seahawks gave veteran wide receiver Brandon Marshall a chance to prolong his career after his stay with the New York Giants did not go as either party planned, but the Seahawks released him before October 2018 came to an end. Marshall found a home with the New Orleans Saints, and it’s possible he could impress and raise some eyes while catching passes thrown by Drew Brees. Marshall scoring double-digit touchdowns during any season is now a thing of the past, and he turns 35 years old in March. If he doesn’t retire, expect that he’ll be left in free agency at least until some other receivers suffer injuries in training camp and preseason games.
15 Signed fast: Clay Matthews
Veteran linebacker Clay Matthews is an interesting player to follow this December. Matthews’ numbers are clearly down from his best years with the Green Bay Packers, a club that essentially announced to the world that it was not re-signing its asset following the 2018 season, but the Packers are also undeniably a mess at the moment. Argue, all you want, that the Packers are right in spending money elsewhere, but a healthy Matthews should be signed fast in March unless he intends on holding clubs up for cash. Fortunately for him, one team could present Matthews with a unique offer and also a lucrative contract in 2019.
14 Where he will go: Cleveland Browns
Clay’s father, Clay Matthews Jr., spent the majority of his playing days with the Cleveland Browns, and he just so happens to be a semifinalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The younger Matthews will likely need a new NFL employer in 2019, preferably one with plenty of salary cap space and a willingness to take him on, if only for a season or two. Cleveland will be attempting to compete for a playoff spot next season, and that roster needs help on both sides of the ball. Matthews alone wouldn’t make the Browns the best side in the AFC North, but signing him could benefit both the team’s defense and a player looking to silence some critics.
13 Left in free agency: Ryan Fitzpatrick
A good backup quarterback can make the difference between a team winning the Super Bowl and that side spiraling down the standings. Ask the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles and 2018 Washington Redskins, the latter of which is playing Mark Sanchez in December of this year, about that. With that said, everybody knows what Ryan Fitzpatrick is and isn’t. Sure, the veteran can provide some Fitzmagic in a pinch, but midnight will eventually strike and he will become a turnover machine. It always ends the same. Why any team would sign him in March rather than wait for trouble and/or an emergency to strike before signing him is beyond us.
12 Signed fast: Mark Ingram
The New Orleans Saints have Alvin Kamara in the backfield and Drew Brees under center. In short, the team doesn’t need to pay Mark Ingram to come back even though he has produced a couple of 100-yard performances, as of the first full week of December, following his four-game suspension for violating the league’s policies. Ingram turns 29-years-old, ancient for a player at the position, before Christmas, but that one number shouldn’t cause him to remain in free agency for too long, considering the teams that need help for their rushing attacks.
11 Where he will go: Indianapolis Colts
The Indianapolis Colts need to do anything and everything to make life easier for Andrew Luck in 2019 and beyond, and that includes continuing to improve the team’s offensive line that has done well to keep Luck on his feet this season. Indianapolis is also going to have a boatload of cap space, meaning overpaying for someone such as Ingram, if doing so is necessary to land him, won’t burden the franchise too much. Ingram playing home games inside of a dome and for a pass-first side could help him return to a 1,000-yard campaign and push the Colts even closer to a return to postseason football.
10 Left in free agency: Adrian Peterson
Like Frank Gore, Adrian Peterson is turning the clock back this fall, as he is enjoying his best season as a member of the Washington Redskins since his 2015 campaign. Let’s all not forget, though, that Peterson remained left in free agency through August for multiple reasons. It’s not a guarantee that he’d have a job in the league today had Washington’s backfield not been decimated by injury woes. Peterson may not be able to bank on such good luck again if he wishes to continue playing beyond December and (maybe) January. If he elects to give it another go, he will likely have to sit around a few months before receiving a call from a team in need of a back.
9 Signed fast: Golden Tate
The Detroit Lions trading wide receiver Golden Tate this fall was more about the fact that the team probably realized both parties were ready to move on than it was any type of statement about Tate’s talent these days. Tate, who turns 31-years-old next August, will be the most reliable and most proven receiver available on the open market in March, and he realizes that this will probably be his final chance to earn big cash off an NFL contract. Teams that are scheduled to have a lot of available salary cap also need players such as Tate, which will affect how much he is paid by a team other than the Lions or Eagles.
8 Where he will go: New York Jets
This is one those running the New York Jets need to not overthink — yes, we know that is asking a lot of this organization. Gang Green should want to pair young quarterback Sam Darnold with a talented wide receiver who is a good route-runner and who can catch the football, and Tate tops the list of guys at the position looking to get paid. The Jets have money to burn while Darnold is on his rookie deal for the next several seasons. This makes all kinds of sense for everyone, and the Jets shouldn’t even let Tate really think about signing with a different team. Money talks. Speak loudly in these negotiations, Jets.
7 Left in free agency: Josh Gordon
Give wide receiver Josh Gordon credit for reportedly remaining on his best behavior and also for working to play as well as possible since being traded from the Cleveland Browns to the New England Patriots after the start of the 2018 season. That move screams “rental” from the Patriots, a franchise that probably would not invest any real money in a player who will be looking to get paid, as long as he remains available, next March. Gordon’s well-known history makes him an uncomfortable buy, even for a team with money to spend. Some franchise will eventually take a flier on Gordon, but it will take some time unless he becomes a revelation during the playoffs.
6 Signed fast: Earl Thomas
Any fan who still thinks that players who hold out for money are somehow in the wrong should just remember what occurred with Earl Thomas, who returned to the Seattle Seahawks after the 2018 preseason only to then sustain a fractured leg in Week 4 of the campaign. That will serve as a regrettable and sad end to his tenure with the Seahawks, but it shouldn’t prevent him from getting paid by a team that has a need at safety unless he experiences some type of unforeseen setback while working to return to the field. He’ll probably come cheaper than he would have had he remained healthy, but that’s the lay of the land heading into 2019.
5 Where he will go: Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys did not orchestrate a trade for Earl Thomas before his season ended early, but neither that nor his injury will prevent him from being linked with the Cowboys as soon as it is known he will be ready to go for the start of the 2019 season. It’s no secret among fans, let alone among those who cover the league for a living, that both sides want to make this a reality, and Thomas may find himself in a position where he has to bet on himself and agree to a one-year deal to show that he can still be the player of old coming off an injury. Dallas, meanwhile, could already be the best team in the NFC East even before signing Thomas.
4 Left in free agency: Kareem Hunt
The situation involving running back Kareem Hunt is still unfolding as of the posting of this piece. Maybe some team will decide that taking a chance on the former Kansas City Chiefs back is worth it even though we probably won’t see him on the field until November or December 2019. That seems unlikely this holiday season, though, since his banishment from the Chiefs is still fresh on the minds of everyone, including fans. Talented players like Hunt receive second chances unless they repeatedly violate league rules, but the 23-year-old could be left in free agency past the start of next season.
3 Signed fast: Le’Veon Bell
James Conner becoming a star with the Pittsburgh Steelers resulted in some people believing that Le’Veon Bell will lose out after refusing to play for the club underneath the franchise tag this season. Regardless of how anybody feels about that, Bell is still going to be the best running back on the market. Any one of the teams that are on the cusp of having millions upon millions of dollars in available cap space could afford to guarantee Bell the money he wants, and every one of those clubs also needs the help on offense. A franchise looking to make positive headlines and also put a smile on the face of a new head coach, whoever that is, should pay him as soon as possible.
2 Where he will go: New York Jets
The New York Jets can afford to pair Sam Darnold with both Golden Tate and Le’Veon Bell, and the franchise is about to hire a new head coach who will be tasked with getting the best out of the second quarterback taken in the 2018 NFL Draft. New York signing those two playmakers and improving the team’s offensive line could help the Jets flirt with competing for a playoff spot as quickly as next year as long as Darnold takes the necessary steps in the right direction. Don’t ignore that having such a bright offseason would get the Jets some good press from the New York media, something that’s often been on the minds of team ownership. The Jets signing Tim Tebow years ago certainly wasn’t about winning games.
1 Left in free agency: Dez Bryant
After the Dallas Cowboys released wide receiver Dez Bryant, some believed it would be only a matter of time before he signed a contract with a team in need of a wide receiver. That didn’t happen in the summer or immediately after the start of the season. In fact, Bryant had to wait until November before the New Orleans Saints came calling. Then, he suffered a torn achilles tendon two days after joining the Saints. Bryant will be 31 years old next November, and he was no longer an elite WR before this setback. He will be left in free agency for some time, maybe even until the regular season kicks off.