Last-minute 2020 NFL free-agency news and notes: What to watch for

ByDan Graziano ESPN logo
Monday, March 16, 2020

The NFL still plans to start its new league year and 2020 free agency at 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday. That means, as of noon ET on Monday, agents for players whose contracts expire Wednesday will be allowed to talk to interested teams about contract terms.

It has been a weird offseason, with voting on the collective bargaining agreement holding up a lot of the exploratory talks that usually go on at and after the NFL combine, and now the coronavirus outbreak forcing every sports league to alter its short-term plans. But we've managed to collect a couple of nuggets about the still-looming NFL free-agent signing period. Here are some things we've been hearing:

More on the NFL offseason:

Tracker: Latest news

Guide to 2020 free agency

Barnwell grades big deals

Top 100 free agents| More

The latest on the Cowboys' big contracts

Dallas has spent the past couple of weeks hoping and trying to get quarterback Dak Prescott and star wide receiver Amari Cooper under contract before free agency opened. Indications are that they've made more progress with Cooper than they have with Prescott, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see a Cooper extension done in the next day or so. Expect it to be a shorter-term deal, maybe two or three years, that would allow the 25-year-old Cooper to hit free agency again while still in his 20s.

Prescott's deal is trickier, but sources close to the discussions have long believed that the Cowboys' application of the franchise tag to Prescott would not be the end of negotiations. They want to sign him long term regardless.

Corners set to cash in

The Cowboys have enough cash and salary-cap space to sign all of their free agents, but it seems likely that defensive back Byron Jones is destined to land elsewhere. There are some who believe Jones will sign a contract that will pay him $16 million to $17 million a year, and he could benefit from a bidding war. Philadelphia is among the teams with a desperate need in the secondary, Oakland is looking for cornerback help, and the Giants need pretty much everything on defense. Could Dallas lose Jones to a division rival?

Jones sits atop the cornerback class because of his versatility -- he can play safety as well -- but James Bradberry and Bradley Roby look poised to cash in as well. There is lots of chatter connecting Bradberry to Washington, where his former Panthers coach, Ron Rivera, is now running the show,and some chatter that the Texans were working to bring back Roby over the weekend. (Update: Roby is headed back to Houston on a three-year deal.)

If Jones leaves Dallas, watch out for veteran Chris Harris Jr. as a possible replacement in the secondary on a shorter-term deal.

Why Wednesday matters for Brady and Brees

Drew Brees has made it clear he'll re-sign with the Saints. Tom Brady has made it anything but clear whether he'll re-sign with the Patriots or go elsewhere. But the contract structures of both quarterbacks makes Wednesday at 4 p.m. ET an important date.

Both contracts void automatically the instant the league year ends, and if they aren't re-signed, each team will have to carry an additional salary-cap charge in 2020. If Brees isn't re-signed by the Saints before 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday, an additional $5.4 million charge accelerates onto their 2020 salary cap. If Brady isn't re-signed by the Patriots by then, an additional $6.75 million charge accelerates onto their 2020 cap.

Re-signing the player before then would allow the Saints and/or Patriots to continue to keep those cap charges in the "void" year of 2021, where it currently sits. So expect Brees to get something worked out with the Saints before Wednesday afternoon, and expect the Patriots to push for an answer from Brady ASAP so they can arrange contingency plans.

Pass-rusher market is thin

With many of the top-level pass rushers in line for franchise tags, Jadeveon Clowney is the best free-agent edge player available and could cash in big. Sources say Clowney is looking for something in the $20-million-a-year range. Seattle (which promised not to franchise him when it acquired him in last summer's trade with Houston) would like to keep him but isn't likely to spend at that level to do so. If Clowney doesn't find another team willing to pay his price, he could end up back with the Seahawks, who were pleased with his 2019 performance.

Likewise, Dallas would like to bring back Robert Quinn, but he's likely to generate enough outside interest to drive his price beyond the Cowboys' preferred range. Quinn, Jason Pierre-Paul, Dante Fowler Jr., Shaq Barrettwho was franchise tagged by the Bucs on Monday), Mario Addison and Everson Griffen are among the pass-rushers who could appeal to teams that don't get Clowney or don't want to pay his price. You might see a big-name guy or two (Vic Beasley Jr.?) take a one-year prove-it deal like Fowler did with the Rams last year.

Oh, and speaking of Seattle, even if the Seahawks do bring back Clowney, expect them to pursue another pass-rusher as well. That's a major need area for them.

Who's going to pay these running backs?

Some eyebrows were raised March 6 when Austin Ekeler reached a four-year, $24.5 million deal with the Chargers, in part because of the thought that he could have gotten more if he'd gone to restricted free agency. But I'm not so sure. I see Houston, Miami, Tampa Bay and Arizona as teams that might be willing to spend on a starting running back, but I'm having trouble finding others. The big deals signed by David Johnson and Todd Gurley in recent years, and the issues that have ensued with those players since, have teams leery of paying big money to running backs, and I don't think there's going to be a massive market for any of the free agents. A few notes on this class:

  • Having locked up Ryan Tannehill on a long-term deal, the Titans could use their franchise tag on Derrick Henry this year and next and avoid committing long term to a high-contact player who racked up almost 400 touches last season.
  • Arizona has some interest in bringing back Kenyan Drake, who played well there last season, but the two sides haven't been able to reach a deal.
  • The Cardinals would be open to trading Johnson, but it won't be easy, as $2.1 million of his $10.2 million 2020 salary becomes fully guaranteed on Wednesday. Even cutting him before then would leave the team with a $16.2 million dead-money charge.
  • Melvin Gordon, who held out last year when the Chargers were offering nearly $10 million a year, is unlikely to find that much waiting for him on the market. Teams can find their running-back answer in the middle and late rounds of the draft, and Drake and Ekeler stand as 2019 examples of backs who filled in more than capably for more expensive starters.

A few more notes on offensive players

  • Austin Hooper could reset the tight end market with a monster deal. Atlanta is too tight to the cap to afford to keep him, and he's likely to get strong interest from the NFC North rival Packers and Bears. Green Bay didn't used to be known for spending in free agency, but it spent a bunch of money on defense last year and it worked out well.
  • Tampa Bay wants to take a shot at Brady or Philip Rivers and might have other options it prefers to quarterback Jameis Winston. I'm told Winston remains a possibility for the Bucs, but only if other plans fall through.
  • Teams are monitoring what the Panthers are doing with Cam Newton, who remains a candidate to be traded if his foot checks out healthy this spring.
  • The Bengals tried to trade Andy Dalton in October but couldn't find any takers. Depending on what shakes out with the free-agent quarterbacks, they could have success this time around. There is lots of chatter connecting Dalton with the Bears, who would like to bring in a veteran to push Mitchell Trubisky.
  • Washington hasn't found a taker yet for tackle Trent Williams, who has permission from the team to seek a trade. Some interested teams (i.e., Houston) would be bringing Williams in as a right tackle instead of a left tackle and thus are balking at the price. Washington's demands are high (a second-round pick to start) and an acquiring team also would have to make Williams happy with a contract extension. The Browns, who pushed for Williams in October but found Washington's price too high, seem to have their sights set elsewhere. They're expected to make a run at free-agent tackle Jack Conklin.
  • Other offensive linemen who could cash in include guards Joe Thuney, Andrus Peat and Graham Glasgow, as well as tackle Bryan Bulaga, who doesn't sound as if he's in the Packers' plans. Expect the Jets to be among the teams hitting the offensive-line market hard.
  • The draft is loaded with wide receiver prospects and the free-agent list is a little thin, but several people around the league expect Jets speedster Robby Anderson to command a lot of interest and possibly land a contract worth $10 million a year or more.
  • Tight end Tyler Eifert is coming off a rare healthy season and could be a lower-cost target for teams that miss out on Hooper.
  • I continue to hear that the Jaguars would prefer to go with Gardner Minshew as their starting quarterback and trade Nick Foles, though Foles' onerous contract means they'd likely have to include a pick and/or pay part of the salary to make a deal happen.

A few more notes on defensive players

  • Off-ball linebacker isn't usually a premium-money position in free agency, but this year's crop is of interest to a lot of teams. Cory Littleton is expected to do the best, potentially landing something in the range of $13 million to $14 million a year from the likes of Oakland, Baltimore or Buffalo if these teams decide to splurge. Blake Martinez, Kyle Van Noy and Joe Schobert also project to do well, possibly with deals in the range of $8 million to $10 million a year. Watch Van Noy with the Giants, as new coach Joe Judge and linebackers coach Bret Bielema coached him in New England.
  • The Lions have been poking around on cornerbacks and still expect to trade cornerback Darius Slay in the coming days or weeks. If Detroit misses out on Byron Jones in free agency, coach Matt Patricia could have his eye on former Patriot Logan Ryan.
  • Expect the Vikings' Anthony Harris to lead the safety market with a big deal, though maybe not in the $14 million-a-year range of last year's safety market. Watch the Browns as a Harris suitor. Jimmie Ward and Vonn Bell are expected to draw interest as well on the safety market.

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