Just as some of you were either unwrapping, enjoying or possibly returning gifts you received during the holiday season, players across the NFL were planning for futures that will include becoming free agents and either signing with new teams or staying put and remaining with their current employers for at least one more season. Different factors will play into future negotiations involving these free agents. In some cases, age and the knowledge that the player only has so many years left to make as much money as possible affects decisions. Comfort and the desire to pursue a championship are more important than cashing-in to others.
Just as in life, there are no guarantees in pro football, particularly months ahead of the official opening of free agency. Injuries that impact rosters in the final weeks of the current campaign and during the postseason will lead to front offices and general managers making calls they did not plan the week of Christmas. Salary cap moves and the restructuring of contracts could lead to teams scheduled to have only so much available money as of January 1 choosing to spend and spend big in free agency. Don’t forget that a couple of quarterbacks being placed on the trade market could affect who is and isn’t paid come March 2019.
21 Sign with new team: Nick Foles
The possibility still exists that quarterback Nick Foles could return to the Philadelphia Eagles for the 2019 season. Perhaps Foles could even be elevated to the team’s full-time starter if he guides the franchise to another magical run en route to the organization shopping Carson Wentz to the highest bidder ahead of next year’s draft. More realistic, though, is that Foles gives the Eagles a couple of million dollars from his contract back in order to earn his freedom and make more guaranteed cash, moving forward, as a free agent. There would be at least a couple of teams willing to pay him and place him atop the depth chart.
20 New Team for Foles: Washington Redskins
The NFL is a business, and teams literally cannot afford to be sentimental regarding roster decisions. Obviously, everybody within the Washington Redskins wishes only the best for quarterback Alex Smith, who is currently rehabbing from a serious injury and from post-surgery complications that could, theoretically, threaten his career. The Redskins need a quarterback, one who is better than any of the signal-callers currently on the roster and also one who wouldn’t completely break the bank via a trade. Nick Foles could be the perfect fit. After all, he’s quite familiar with playing at FedExField.
19 Will stay put: Benjamin Watson
Veteran tight end Benjamin Watson turned 38-years-old exactly one week before Christmas, and he is one of several members of the New Orleans Saints who could choose to retire rather than become a free agent in early 2019. Why wouldn’t Watson instead put pen to paper on a decent deal to remain with the Saints? Unless something changes, quarterback Drew Brees is returning for another go next year. Watson isn’t an All-Pro tight end these days, but he’s hardly the worst individual at the position. He’s a great fit for an offense that has all kinds of playmakers. We’d like to see him play through the end of the decade.
18 Sign with new team: T.J. Yeldon
Odds are that it’s about to be a new day for the offense of the Jacksonville Jaguars, one that needs a new quarterback and also a fresh approach. Running back Leonard Fournette shouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon unless the Jaguars are blown away by a trade offer for his services. Instead, it’s ball-carrier T.J. Yeldon who probably has one foot out the door toward free agency. Jacksonville isn’t in a position to be spending too much money on its backfield, especially if the club knows it is going to have to eat some salary cap space to get rid of Blake Bortles ahead of the draft. Yeldon shouldn’t have to wait long to be signed.
17 New Team forYeldon: New York Jets
We know what you’re thinking, and it is that the New York Jets have the money and the need to spend money on the No. 1 running back entering free agency in March. That’s definitely a possibility, but it also isn’t a must for Gang Green. The Jets hope to have a franchise quarterback in rookie Sam Darnold, and the team could spend money on positions on both offense and defense while Darnold is attached to his rookie deal. Having T.J. Yeldon as an option would, on paper, improve the Gang Green offense, and it would also give the team’s first-year signal-caller somebody who has shown he can catch passes out of the backfield.
16 Will stay put: DeMarcus Lawrence
The Dallas Cowboys have a difficult decision to make regarding defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, who knows he could land a massive contract in free agency after the 2018 season. All of a sudden, the Cowboys are the best team in the NFC East, and the other three clubs in the division all face serious issues and questions as of the end of 2018. Now isn’t the time for the Cowboys to get cheap, especially with quarterback Dak Prescott on his rookie deal for another season. Lawrence should stay put, if only for a year, so that the Cowboys can go all-in on trying to win the Super Bowl in February 2020.
15 Sign with new team: Clay Matthews
Unless linebacker Clay Matthews chooses to return to the Green Bay Packers at about half the price, if even that, he and the Packers are likely parting ways after the 2018 season. This is not entirely a reflection of what Matthews can and cannot offer the club these days. The fact that Matthews turns 33-years-old next May, that the team is about to have a new coaching staff and also the reality that Aaron Rodgers isn’t getting any younger and the franchise must do everything possible to build around him all play a role in Matthews’ inevitable departure from the only NFL home he’s known since entering the league in 2009.
14 New Team for Matthews: Cleveland Browns
A perfect storm of events has made Matthews heading to Northeast Ohio to sign with the Cleveland Browns in March an ideal situation for all involved. The Browns will have the money to sign multiple free agents. Matthews shouldn’t cost a ton of cash against the salary cap. Matthews’ father, Clay Matthews III, played for the old Browns, and he remains a popular figure among Cleveland fans. Perhaps just as important, the Browns are on the cusp of potentially accomplishing something meaningful with Baker Mayfield at quarterback. Don’t look now, but Cleveland is no longer a punchline within the football community. Matthews could improve the team’s defense.
13 Will stay put: Frank Gore
Veteran running back Frank Gore, who already has a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame reserved, cannot end his incredible career injured. It just isn’t fair. Besides, those who cover the sport can’t be done making those “Frank Gore is playing forever” jokes quite yet. By all accounts, the 35-year-old who has done well to remain in great shape is well liked among those in the locker room of the Miami Dolphins. He’s shown he can still be a solid contributor on offense even if he doesn’t rush for 1,000 yards during seasons anymore. At the right price, Gore returning to the Dolphins makes sense.
12 Sign with new team: Earl Thomas
Any glimmer of hope that safety Earl Thomas would consider returning to the Seattle Seahawks past the 2018 season disappeared once he suffered a broken bone in his leg in Week 4 of the current campaign and then offered those on the Seattle sideline a certain hand gesture that can’t be shown on certain websites. Thomas, who held out through the end of the postseason, would have been able to choose his future employer had he remained healthy, but that may no longer be the case. He may have to sign a one-year “prove it” contract with a franchise that isn’t the Dallas Cowboys, probably his preferred destination as of earlier this year, and then re-enter free agency in 2020.
11 New Team for Thomas: San Francisco 49ers
As previously stated, Thomas would probably sign with the Dallas Cowboys if given the option. The Cowboys no longer have such a massive hole in the secondary, though, and taking a flier on somebody coming off an injury isn’t the wisest move for that organization. The San Francisco 49ers, however, should be better off next September as long as the team’s starting quarterback and starting running back remain healthy through at least Halloween. San Francisco not only has the money to sign Thomas. Doing so would give him a couple of chances to get some revenge on the Seahawks during regular season games and also show every other team he can return to form.
10 Will stay put: Tevin Coleman
The Atlanta Falcons should not overthink this one. Tevin Coleman is a younger option than Devonta Freeman, who will be sidelined through the remainder of the year, and Freeman’s injury history should set off alarms for the franchise that paid him in the summer of 2017. The Falcons likely wouldn’t receive equal value in a trade involving Freeman, but the team nevertheless needs to explore that option and take the loss if doing so means retaining Coleman. Coleman is a great fit in an offense that features Matt Ryan under center. Matty Ice turns 34-years-old next spring. Now isn’t the time to let one of his weapons leave via free agency.
9 Sign with new team: Golden Tate
Maybe wide receiver Golden Tate will fall in love with the city of Philadelphia and/or with playing for the Philadelphia Eagles in the months after he was traded to the NFC East outlet by the Detroit Lions. It’s more likely, though, that Tate will look to make his money as the top available wide receiver on the open market in March. As reliable as Tate has been throughout his career, he is now competing with Father Time and his age. He turns 31-years-old next August. This will probably be the last time he can make a large amount of guaranteed money off what could be the final contract he signs.
8 New Team for Tate: New York Jets
Yes, the New York Jets signing running back Le’Veon Bell would generate headlines and make for better buzz among local fans. That doesn’t make it the right move. Tate is the perfect receiver to give to a young quarterback such as Sam Darnold, as his consistency and talent could help the signal-caller grow in confidence during his second season. The Jets paying a running back and Tate clearly aren’t the only two moves the franchise must make in the offseason. Hiring the right coaching staff and bolstering the offensive line are also musts to ensure that the team doesn’t waste Darnold’s second year in the NFL.
7 Will stay put: Ezekiel Ansah
Only a couple of months ago, Ezekiel Ansah was on the verge of becoming one of the top defensive free agents of next year’s class. Not only did he have a down season with the Detroit Lions. He suffered a shoulder injury that prematurely ended his campaign. Much like with Earl Thomas, Ansah’s value took a hit, and the best business decision for his long-term future could be to return to the Lions on a team-friendly deal that would also give the 29-year-old an option to get paid in 2020 were he to experience a bounce-back campaign. The Lions could certainly use the help up front. Whether or not the team wants him back has yet to be determined.
6 Sign with new team: Teddy Bridgewater
Maybe there is some agreement somewhere between the New Orleans Saints and Teddy Bridgewater that unofficially makes him the team’s starter after Drew Brees rides off into the sunset. Brees isn’t slowing down, and Bridgewater shouldn’t want to wait for his opportunity, especially knowing there are other teams out there capable of paying him to be more than just a backup behind one of the greatest to ever play the position. The former starter for the Minnesota Vikings deserves a chance to be QB1 for an NFL franchise. We have just the team in mind as long as ownership gets out of its own way and makes the right decision for the franchise’s future.
5 New Team for Bridgewater: New York Giants
The time has come for Eli Manning and the New York Giants to part ways, regardless of if doing so means Manning retiring or if it involves the team either trading or releasing him. Big Blue could have signed Bridgewater in early 2018. The club can’t make the same mistake of letting him go to a different franchise a second time. Bridgewater has a history with Pat Shurmur, current New York head coach, from when the two were employed by the Vikings. The signal-caller would probably be an upgrade at the position for the Giants as long as he is fully healthy and his knee can withstand playing 16 games.
4 Will stay put: Dez Bryant
We never even got a chance to see wide receiver Dez Bryant play with the New Orleans Saints. After Bryant waited months and months to earn a contract with a team, he tore his Achilles tendon during a November practice before ever taking the field for a down of meaningful football. Bryant, who is now 30-years-old, isn’t what he was during his best days with the Dallas Cowboys. It’s possible he’ll never return with any team considering the injury and also the fact that every organization passed on him time and time again. He should stay put with the Saints, on the cheap, in an attempt to resurrect his career with a franchise that apparently was high on him ahead of a debut that never happened.
3 Sign with new team: Le’Veon Bell
For years, journalists, observers and also fans will discuss Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell betting on himself and choosing to sit all of 2018 out rather than play on the franchise tag that would have earned him millions of dollars but also could have cost him millions in future earnings he would make on a long-term contract. Bell only turns 27 in February. He should still have several elite seasons left in the tank. Everybody around the NFL knows he is fresh and hasn’t taken a hit since last January. We’ll see how much he earns and if he made the right call for his career.
2 New Team for Bell: Indianapolis Colts
Say, for the sake of argument, the New York Jets do spend money differently than handing Bell a blank check. The Indianapolis Colts could be the perfect fit for a back who is both looking to get paid and also play for a contender. Quarterback Andrew Luck is back to his old self now that he is healthy and playing behind an improved offensive line. Signing Bell and adding an additional lineman via either free agency or the draft could be just what the Colts need to take that next step. If nothing else, adding Bell to the offense would remove some pressure from the team’s franchise QB who has struggled to remain on the field during his playing days.
1 Will stay put: Larry Fitzgerald
In the middle of December 2018, Greg Moore of the Arizona Republic wrote a letter to Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald asking arguably the second-greatest receiver in history to not retire and instead, consider playing another sport. As humorous as that was, Fitzgerald could return to the Cardinals on a final one-year contract. Nobody wants to watch Fitzgerald’s last plays involve him starting for one of the worst teams in the league. As much as we may want to see him sign for a contender, he’s repeatedly said he wants to retire with Arizona. Stay put for 2019, Larry Legend, and see if the Cardinals can do right by you during the offseason.