NFLTR Review: 13 Observations From Last Week’s Earth-Shattering Trade

Happy Friday and happy April! We’re four weeks from the draft and this issue dives into all the ramifications from last week’s huge trade: 

  • What this deal means for SF, MIA, PHI & the rest of the NFL
  • Free-agent fits for the best of the rest available
  • Jeff Bezos’ options if he wants in to the NFL

The Big Picture: 49ers, Dolphins & Eagles Blockbuster Deal

Last weekend’s trade action was essentially a three-team deal between the 49ers, Dolphins and Eagles that will have massive ramifications for the future of each franchise. All told, six first-round picks changed hands, some of them multiple times. When the dust settled, it looked something like this:

Team Got Gave
49ers No. 3
No. 12, 2022 1st, 2022 3rd, 2023 1st
Dolphins No. 6, 2022 1st, 2023 1st (both SF), No. 156
No. 3, 2022 1st, No. 123
Eagles No. 12, 2022 1st (from MIA), No. 123
No. 6, No. 156


We’re going to be following the impact of this trade for years and years to come. There’s tons and tons here to unpack and that’s what we’ll attempt to do, following every tendril of how this impacts not just these three teams, but nearly the entire league. 

The 49ers are moving up for a quarterback. But who?

The package San Francisco surrendered to get the No. 3 pick made that obvious and both HC Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch confirmed this week why they moved up. Trevor Lawrence is obviously a lock at No. 1 and at this point it would be a major upset if BYU QB Zach Wilson is not the Jets’ pick at No. 2 overall. So when the trade was made, most assumed either Ohio State’s Justin Fields or North Dakota State’s Trey Lance were San Francisco’s target as the other consensus top quarterbacks available. 

But immediately after the trade, a curveball was thrown into the mix. NBC Sports analyst Chris Simms tweeted that he thought the 49ers were targeting Alabama QB Mac Jones. Simms previously stirred up some controversy by ranking Jones as his No. 3 option in this class while the general consensus had him the No. 5 quarterback by a good margin. It wasn’t just Simms, though. Former NFL GM Michael Lombardi said on the Pat McAfee Show that his instincts were telling him Jones was the guy as well. And seasoned ESPN reporter Chris Mortensen threw his chips in on Jones as well. 

Whatever you think of them as analysts, Simms, Lombardi and Mortensen are solidly connected to the NFL, so it was impossible to ignore all of them mentioning Jones as a possibility at No. 3. Lombardi waffled the next morning, but by Monday he was all in on Jones again. By then, NFL Media’s Daniel Jeremiah was reporting that the overwhelming consensus in league circles was that Jones was the guy. 

“Of the people that you would want to believe, and you put your faith in, the overwhelming majority of them believe this is going to be Mac Jones with that pick,” he said in an interview with the Athletic’s Robert Mays. 

A full week out from the deal, and Shanahan has confirmed Jones is one of the candidates San Francisco is weighing, along with Fields and Lance. It makes sense on one level, as Lombardi, Simms and others have pointed out Jones is the type of quarterback Shanahan has done extremely well with in the past. Shanahan’s man-crush on Kirk Cousins is well-documented and Jones fits that archetype. 

But that doesn’t change the reason the general consensus was so low on Jones compared to the rest of the class. He’s limited athletically and while being able to win from the pocket as a quarterback is still key, mobility is becoming more of an essential attribute for quarterbacks in the modern NFL. Having a guy who can escape pressure, buy time to throw, be a weapon with his legs and tilt the advantage to the offense in the run game is a huge advantage. 

Shanahan and the 49ers saw that firsthand in their Super Bowl loss to the Chiefs last year. The league is changing and Shanahan has also alluded to the potential need to change with it, saying this week that his prototypical quarterback would “obviously” be the biggest, strongest, fastest quarterback who could still throw well from the pocket. 

So is Mac Jones a strong scheme fit in Shanahan’s offense? Yes, though so are plenty of other quarterbacks, including Lance and Fields. The Shanahan offense has become more and more popular for its ability to help limited quarterbacks put up strong production. But the original Shanahan quarterback was John Elway, someone whose skill set looks much closer to Lance and Fields than it does Jones. The Packers also showed what was possible this past season when an elite talent like Aaron Rodgers is plugged into the scheme and the Rams are trying to do the same by swapping Jared Goff for Matthew Stafford. It’s clear Shanahan is trying to follow suit to some degree. 

San Francisco didn’t trade that much draft capital without having certainty that at least one of the three quarterbacks available could be their answer. Perhaps that guy was Jones. With a month still to go until the draft, though, Shanahan has time to dig into both Fields and Lance and determine if the upside they provide is worth taking a swing on. 

This is obviously the end for Jimmy Garoppolo, but maybe not in 2021?

Garoppolo and the team have been answering questions about his long-term status with the team for a long time and those only intensified after his infamous fourth-quarter Super Bowl overthrow. Top-down, Lynch and Shanahan have defended Garoppolo for months. But actions speak far louder than words and trading three first-round picks is sending a message louder than a jet engine. 

That said, it’s not a foregone conclusion that Garoppolo will be playing elsewhere this season. Publicly and privately, San Francisco maintains Garoppolo is in their plans for 2021 and that they’re not trading him unless they’re blown away with an offer. Obviously, those are just words but there are reasons to believe the 49ers are being sincere. 

San Francisco has spent most of this offseason retaining the core of the team that won the NFC in 2019. Even the best rookie quarterbacks rarely play at the level needed to advance deep in the playoffs and win a championship, and while Garoppolo’s limited ceiling prompted this trade seeking an upgrade, the 49ers’ brass has already seen him lead a team to the Super Bowl. A plan that has a rookie redshirt for a year and take over as the starter in 2022 isn’t without precedent, the Chiefs did almost the same thing with Alex Smith and Patrick Mahomes

From a cap perspective, Garoppolo is the highest cap hit on the team at $26.4 million, $23.6 million of which could be saved in a trade or release. However, San Francisco isn’t hurting for cap space and all the big money has already been handed out in free agency. There’s zero reason to release him unless he starts to agitate things, and there’s been no indication that will be the case. 

As for a trade, while things change and players get hurt, there’s probably not a team willing to pony up what it would take right now to get Garoppolo out of San Francisco. Teams like the Patriots and Bears have already made their bets on veteran starters. This question could very well have a different answer in training camp though, once the team sees the rookie and Garoppolo in action side by side. 

One way or another, Garoppolo’s time in San Francisco is quickly running out. The best-case scenario for him and the team is taking another step forward, staying healthy in 2021 and ideally piloting a deep playoff run. If he does that, there will be a healthy market for his services in 2022. The Patriots at least should be interested and there will be other teams looking for a veteran starter. 

If this doesn’t work, it will cost people their jobs

This is the type of move that costs people jobs if it doesn’t work out. San Francisco mortgaged two years’ worth of premium draft picks for the chance to bet on a rookie quarterback. If they pick the wrong guy, they’ve hurt dramatically their ability to build a contending team. Lynch and Shanahan are both well-regarded in the media and NFL circles. But in five years together, they’ve managed just one winning season. 

Shanahan is regarded as one of the top offensive minds in the game and an elite play-caller. Failing to develop this rookie signal-caller, though, would be a big blow. Enough to get him fired? It depends. Lynch also has had his share of draft misses, like Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster. The trade and contract for Dee Ford is also an ongoing mess. It’s easier to see Lynch taking the fall if this move doesn’t work out than Shanahan. 

Both Lynch and Shanahan signed extensions last summer coming off their Super Bowl appearance and are scheduled to be under contract well into this decade. But if we learned anything about the NFL the past few months, it’s that Super Bowls don’t even buy long-term security anymore. If the Eagles can fire Doug Pederson three years after winning the organization’s first Super Bowl, no decision-maker can feel truly comfortable long-term. 

Dolphins charting a new, aggressive path with team building?

Two years ago, Miami looked like they were bringing tanking to the NFL. Dolphins GM Chris Grier and HC Brian Flores stridently denied it and probably will continue to do so for a long time, but at the time there was no other way to explain why they were tearing their roster completely down to the studs, including trading away LT Laremy Tunsil and S Minkah Fitzpatrick

The early results are promising, though. The Dolphins turned Tunsil and Fitzpatrick into three first-round picks, two in 2020 and one this year that ended up being the No. 3 overall pick after the Texans bottomed out. Miami flipped that No. 3 pick to the 49ers for two more firsts over the next two seasons, effectively turning Tunsil, who is an elite left tackle, into four first-round picks. 

All told, the Dolphins are set to have eight first-round picks from 2020-2023, which is an incredible way to juice a rebuild that already looks nearly complete. Miami finished 10-6 this past season and looks to be on the verge of turning into a contender. 

For ages, folks inside the NFL have derided “fantasy football” decision-making. But Miami is providing a compelling case study as a real-life example of a strategy countless fantasy managers in dynasty leagues have executed: taking short-term losses for long-term gains when it comes to team-building, buying low and selling high, and emphasizing first-round picks. Other ideas from the outside are penetrating the insular NFL and it wouldn’t be surprising to see more teams in the future follow the template the Dolphins have laid out for a rebuild. 

It’s not a huge surprise, but the trade shows Miami’s commitment to Tua

Perhaps the hype exceeded reality for Tua Tagovailoa, who became a star as a freshman when he came off the bench to win the national title for Alabama. Expectations have been off the charts for him ever since, and while he didn’t have a bad rookie season, it paled in comparison to what Justin Herbert did for the Chargers. Getting benched twice for Ryan Fitzpatrick didn’t help. 

Still, the talk of replacing him after one season only made sense if the Dolphins could get Deshaun Watson, which is now not really a consideration given the uncertainty around what the nearly two-dozen allegations of sexual impropriety will mean for the Texans quarterback’s career in the next year and beyond. This trade shuts what already was a very small door. Tagovailoa is the Dolphins’ starter in 2021. 

Leashes are short in the NFL, though. Tagovailoa faces a lot of pressure to show progress if Miami is going to count on him to be their answer at the position for the next 10 years. 

Who is Miami coming back up for? 

The Dolphins immediately flipped their first-round pick in 2022 to move back up from No. 12 to No. 6 overall with the Eagles. It’s probably not high enough for a quarterback but it is high enough to have a shot at one of the elite players at other positions who will be pushed down by a possible 1/2/3/4 run on QBs in the top five. 

The big question is who. A future first is a steep price to pay to move up six spots, even from outside the top ten. According to the Jimmy Johnson trade value chart which teams still widely use, 400 points separates No. 6 and No. 12, which would have been the equivalent of Miami’s own second-round pick at No. 50 overall. The Dolphins paid a premium, a 200-500 point premium to be exact if you assume they’re a playoff team this season. 

Perhaps all the first-round picks the Dolphins have acquired have desensitized them to sticker shock. That investment suggests the Dolphins have their eyes on an elite player at a premium position, though. LSU WR Ja’Marr Chase, Oregon OT Penei Sewell and Florida TE Kyle Pitts are the only guys who Miami may have been targeting at No. 3 that they couldn’t bank on falling closer to their pick at No. 12. Perhaps Alabama WR Jaylen Waddle falls in that group as well. This is a deep group at receiver but Waddle’s speed sets him apart from the rest. 

Chase would be a slam dunk, as teams have been prioritizing adding No. 1 wideouts to help young quarterbacks develop and Chase is as close to a can’t-miss prospect as there is. Pitts also looks like a Day 1 phenom, and while the Dolphins have Mike Gesicki, he’s in the last year of his contract and Pitts is just at a different level. There’s a strong argument that an elite tight end is one of the biggest advantages you can have in this sport outside of quarterback, and part of that is how criminally underpaid they are relative to other positions. More on that at another time. 

There are no standout, slam-dunk pass rushers like Chase Young, Nick Bosa or Myles Garrett this year but there is a left tackle in Sewell who a lot of people, though not everyone, are very high on. Just going by traditional models of positional value, the spots teams have been willing to pay a premium for outside of quarterback are pass rushers and offensive tackles — guys who get paid to disrupt the quarterback and protect them. That would suggest Sewell is in play even though the Dolphins just spent a first-round pick last year on Austin Jackson

Even though Jackson had an uneven rookie year, it would be hasty to give up on him especially when the team knew going in he’d be a developmental project. If you’re willing to consider the possibility of doing that at quarterback, though, you certainly have to think about it at left tackle, especially if Sewell projects as a clear upgrade. 

The Eagles couldn’t pass up that deal

Passing up a chance at Chase, Pitts or Sewell hurts for Eagles fans. Like we’ve articulated, though, a first-round pick to drop six spots is a big plus in terms of value. Philadelphia is staring at a transition phase somewhat similar to what Miami faced in 2019, though they’re not cutting the roster as deeply for now. 

The end result after the trade is the Eagles still stand to get a stab at a good player at No. 12 and have a compelling war chest of picks to work with in 2022. Not only will they have their own pick, which could be decently high, they now have first-round picks from the Dolphins and probably the Colts if Carson Wentz stays healthy more or less. Those picks give the Eagles a ton of flexibility as they try to reload. 

This deal more than likely locks Jalen Hurts in as the 2021 starter

There were some doubts that the Eagles were going to have a chance at one of the top quarterback prospects at No. 6 but at the very least it was a possibility that couldn’t be ruled out. All the way down at No. 12, it’s safe to say a first-round quarterback won’t be challenging Hurts for the starting job. The only other help Philadelphia has added at the position is Joe Flacco, and no respect to a former “elite” starter, but he won’t threaten owner Jeffrey Lurie’s reported mandate to prioritize developing Hurts over adding competition

That puts Hurts’ future in his hands in some ways. How he performs with a probable 16-game audition will determine whether those three first-round picks in 2022 will be used to bring in help for him or to replace him. It’s not unlike the situation Gardner Minshew found himself in with the Jaguars this past season. 

Like Minshew, Hurts will face his fair share of challenges. The pandemic still will affect the offseason and Hurts’ preparation and development. The Eagles weren’t a good team in 2020 and don’t project to be much better in 2021, with question marks on defense and in the receiving corps, plus a first-time head coach. 

For a year at least, though, the job is his. In order to keep it, Hurts probably needs to play well enough to keep Philadelphia far away from the top 10 in 2022. 

Philly fans should keep an eye on the 2022 QB class. The Eagles certainly will. 

While it’s not outside the range of outcomes, Hurts faces an uphill battle to maintain his hold on the starting job. He’s an intriguing player and his mobility and leadership are both plus traits. There’s a reason he wasn’t taken until the second round, though. He’s not viewed as a polished starter and there are major questions with other parts of his game, specifically his accuracy and work from the pocket. If you had to put odds on Hurts or a 2022 rookie being Philadelphia’s starter next year, they might be even. There’s a good chance the Eagles have already started to do some work on the 2022 quarterback class. 

Quarterback is such an important position that the NFL can’t help but look ahead when it comes to collegiate prospects. It’s an inexact science, as players develop at different rates. While guys like Lawrence and Fields have been highly touted since high school, others like Wilson and Joe Burrow last year have come out of nowhere, relatively speaking. 

Even with that caveat in mind, however, right now the 2022 quarterback class is looking nowhere near as promising as the 2021 class. There’s no clear-cut top option like this year with Lawrence or even one the caliber of past years like Tagovailoa, Herbert or Sam Darnold. There might not even be a single player you can point to right now as a surefire first-rounder. 

There are a few candidates that people in the media have already honed in on and the football world surely has as well. North Carolina QB Sam Howell burst onto the scene as a true freshman starter and has been prolific for the past two seasons for the Tar Heels. By the end of his junior year, he’ll have been a three-year starter and could already be pushing 100 touchdown passes. He’s closer to the Baker Mayfield/Burrow spectrum when it comes to physical attributes but both of those were No. 1 picks, which shows Howell’s potential ceiling. 

After helping propel Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Hurts to the NFL, Lincoln Riley’s next quarterback and his first true recruit, Spencer Rattler, is another contender to be highly drafted. He doesn’t have great size at 6-1 and 205 pounds but that’s becoming less of a problem for NFL teams. What he does have is a smooth release and mobility that could draw Zach Wilson comparisons in a year. 

There are a lot of other intriguing options. Desmond Ridder has started since his true freshman season at Cincinnati and has intriguing physical tools. Nevada’s Carson Strong is another player in that bucket. Georgia’s J.T. Daniels, Ole Miss’ Matt Corrall, USC’s Kedon Slovis and Arizona State’s Jayden Daniels are some other names worth keeping an eye on. 

The Panthers are the biggest immediate losers from this trade

The three-team trades didn’t just impact the franchises involved. There were four or five top prospects at quarterback this year, depending obviously on who you asked in hindsight. There were a lot more than four or five teams that could use a potential franchise quarterback and the 49ers jumped ahead of several by moving up to No. 3. 

Carolina especially was the biggest loser from this move. The Panthers went from potentially having a move into the top three picks as their Plan B to landing Watson to now having neither as an option and staring down Plan Bridgewater. Even if the Falcons don’t take a quarterback and elect to trade down for more picks — which is very possible given how badly that roster needs an influx of cheap talent — there’s no way they’re giving the Panthers a crack at a potential franchise quarterback. 

At this point, the Panthers probably are going to enter 2021 with Teddy Bridgewater as the starter again. If they land a quarterback, it will be the fifth-best one in the class. Up until recently, it was assumed that would be Mac Jones, and plenty of people have connected the Panthers coaching Jones at the Senior Bowl as a sign of interest. Reporters on the beat are less sure. The team has given the impression it’s disillusioned with the game manager style of play Bridgewater brought in 2020 and wants something more dynamic. That doesn’t sound like the Bama guy. 

If Jones goes No. 3, the Panthers could land either Lance or Fields, which would be a boon. They still might have to trade up with one of the teams in slots 5-7 to box out teams behind them. But at that point, they would have a little more control over their fate at the position. For now, they’re at the mercy of the 49ers. 

There’s never been a higher premium on a franchise quarterback

The price the 49ers will pay for a quarterback at the end of this month, three first-round picks, was widely seen as the starting point that the Texans would ask for in trade talks for Watson. San Francisco is instead paying that for an unproven rookie, which is just bananas. Watson no longer being an option might have played a factor in that. 

Regardless, the 49ers have now set the potential market for Atlanta if it chooses to explore a trade with a team further down the board like the Broncos, Patriots, Washington or Bears. Three firsts remain a steep price to pay but if the 49ers were willing, it’s hard to rule out a team like the Bears being willing to take the plunge as well. Even if it’s not three firsts, like in a trade with the Broncos, the Falcons still are in very good position to either take a passer of their own to groom behind Ryan or to address other needs. 

Some really good players are going to get pushed down the board

Odds are quarterbacks will be the first four picks off the board and five of the first eight or nine picks. That’s going to push some really talented players down to teams that otherwise would have no shot at them. 

NFL GMs will tell you how the board starts to flatten about halfway through the first round and the differences in players start to become less pronounced. Because of all of the quarterbacks, though, a couple of teams in the back end of the top ten and early teens are going to get players who would be top-five or top-ten picks in normal years. In our first mock draft, players like Northwestern OL Rashawn Slater and Alabama WR DeVonta Smith were pushed outside the top ten picks. Even if it’s not those players specifically, some really good players are going to be available later than they should. 

The NFC West is a damn arms race 

The Rams went out and got Stafford. The Cardinals are loading up with veterans like DeAndre Hopkins, J.J. Watt and Malcolm Butler while Murray is on his rookie deal. The 49ers just catapulted into the top three to try and upgrade at quarterback. No wonder Seahawks QB Russell Wilson is getting agitated about being left behind. 

This division is looking like an absolute meat grinder in 2021. Seattle and Los Angeles were playoff teams in 2020 and Seattle should absolutely push for the postseason as long as they have Wilson. The Rams obviously feel like Super Bowl contenders with Stafford. The Cardinals were a trendy breakout pick last year and appear to have gotten better. And the 49ers return the bulk of a team that, when healthy, made it to the Super Bowl. 

Now feels like a good time to mention that, mathematically speaking, it’s now possible for all four teams to make the postseason with the addition of a third wildcard berth in the postseason. 

This Week In Football

  • Free agency dramatically slowed this past week, with depth and special teams signings the bulk of the moves teams made. There were a few key signings, though. There’s always one deal that’s agreed to but ends up falling through every year. This year, it was DT Tyson Alualu reneging on the Jaguars to come back to the Steelers on a slightly smaller deal, which is a big coup for Pittsburgh. 
  • There was an interesting situation with the Seahawks and DT Jarran Reed that ended up in Seattle cutting the veteran and him landing with the Chiefs. Seattle approached Reed about converting his roughly $8 million salary into a signing bonus and adding some void years to save the team cap space. Reed wanted a real extension as he entered the final year of his deal and his feelings were hurt when Seattle declined. So he asked for his release and ended up taking a pay cut to sign in Kansas City, which is a big coup for the Chiefs who have been edged out for a surprising number of free agents this offseason. 
  • A couple of big offensive names found homes after a somewhat extended wait. The Ravens finally got a receiver to sign a contract, giving Sammy Watkins $5 million to come block and catch a handful of balls a game. A weak market for running backs and a strong recruiting pitch by the Buccaneers got RB Leonard Fournette to re-sign on a one-year deal to bring all 22 starters from Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl squad back in 2021. The Chiefs also landed another interior offensive linemen, poaching C Austin Blythe from the Rams. 
  • The Vikings continued their defensive makeover, signing former Cowboys starting S Xavier Woods and bringing back CB Mackensie Alexander after a year away. Woods instantly steps into a gaping void at free safety while Alexander should help at slot corner. The Giants also found a much cheaper replacement for DT Dalvin Tomlinson, who left for Minnesota, signing nose tackle Danny Shelton who is well-versed in New York’s scheme after playing for both the Lions and Patriots. 
  • Though free agency is over, some teams saved money to reward some of their own players. The Raiders have made early extensions a key tactic with players like TE Darren Waller and C Andre James. They did it again with LT Kolton Miller, handing him a three-year extension worth $18 million per year two years before he was scheduled to be a free agent. That’s a hefty chunk of change but it actually could end up saving the Raiders a lot in the long run. Miller is an ascendant player and the top of the tackle market is already at $23 million a year. By 2023 when the media deal billions start hitting the cap, Miller could command much more than that. 
  • Seattle inked two key extensions which also cleared cap space for them on the front end in 2021. The Seahawks gave WR Tyler Lockett a four-year, $69.2 million extension, paying him $17.3 million a year and likely reducing his almost $15 million cap hit. The team also gave new G Gabe Jackson a three-year, $22.575 million extension following his trade from the Raiders. He’ll count just $4.1 million against the cap now instead of the $9 million or so he was at before. There is some risk here for the Seahawks, though, as Lockett will turn 29 and Jackson will turn 30 before the start of the season. Extensions for older players can age poorly if the players do. 
  • One deal that has not happened but could be in the works is between the Patriots and CB Stephon Gilmore. A trade was once seen as a possibility but with New England now eyeing a return to contender status, it’s unlikely they’d get a return that makes parting with the 2019 DPOY worth it. The word from the Patriots’ beat is that Gilmore, who turns 31 in September, is very open to a new deal but would like a raise from his current $7 million in 2021 compensation to closer to $14 million a year. 
  • Another deal that has not happened and does not appear to be close is for Giants RB Saquon Barkley. This offseason was the first one that Barkley was eligible to receive a new deal as a draft pick in 2018 and most thought there was a good chance GM Dave Gettleman would give him a market-setting contract this summer. But his torn ACL last season complicated things. Giants owner John Mara recently said they’re in no rush to extend Barkley, which likely means unless the former No. 2 pick wants to take a discount on an early deal, he’ll play out the 2021 season before entering 2022 on his fifth-year option. 
  • The NFL world thinks the Jets are zeroing in on Wilson as their future starter, which means Sam Darnold is going to need to find a new home sooner rather than later. There was optimism at one point that the Jets could fetch a second-round pick, perhaps even a late first, in a trade for Darnold. That has waned given most teams see Darnold as a reclamation project, not a surefire starter in 2021. Combined with his contract status, that has depressed his market to closer to a third-round pick. One report says the Jets are “truly” considering keeping both Darnold and a rookie, which is something a team trying to preserve trade value would want out there. 
  • Chargers owner Dean Spanos’ sister has filed a petition in court to force the sale of the team to answer financial issues the family faces. Who knows what, if anything, ultimately comes of this, but it does put another franchise on the list of teams potentially available with former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos lurking as a prospective buyer. In addition to the Chargers, the Broncos could be forced to sell due to family drama. The Washington Football Team faces an NFL investigation which could result in Dan Snyder being forced to sell but that looks increasingly unlikely. Seattle’s ownership situation also isn’t quite settled following the death of Paul Allen

Free Agent Fits: Best of the Rest

The market has slowed down to a crawl but there are still a lot of big names available on the free-agent market. Some of them might be pyrite and available for a reason — both of the former Chiefs starting tackles remain unsigned but both are also dealing with serious injuries — but others are guys who could legitimately play a key role for a team in 2021. 

Here’s a look at 10 of my favorite free agents who are available, loosely working off our Top 100 Available Free Agents list, and some of the fits that make the most sense for them. 

CB Steven Nelson

Best fit: Chiefs

Nelson presents the exact kind of player who was hurt the most by the pandemic as a middle-class veteran forced out by budget shortfalls, not performance. Still a very capable No. 2 corner who’s just 28, Nelson will have a hard time matching the $8.5 million a year he got from the Steelers in 2019 so a one-year deal to get back to the market in a year might be his best bet. The going rate for corners right now is $4-$6 million. Nelson’s former secondary coach Al Harris is in Dallas and the Cowboys could use a reliable starting corner. But a reunion with the Chiefs to chase a ring — Kansas City also has more cap space — might make more sense. 

CB Casey Hayward

Best fit: Raiders

It’s tempting to link Hayward back to the Packers where he started his career. Fans would definitely be more excited about the prospect of Hayward than bringing back Kevin King, even if the 31-year-old veteran has lost a step. However, the Raiders make much more sense. They need a veteran who can play either outside or in the slot and help mentor a young crew of corners. Hayward would also be rejoining DC Gus Bradley and esteemed DB coach Ron Milus. Las Vegas also wouldn’t need to rely on him as a full-time starter, which would minimize any further decline as Hayward ages. 

EDGE Jadeveon Clowney

Best fit: Browns

It’ll come down to money for Clowney and the Browns probably won’t have the best offer on the table anymore. But if he’s really looking to reset his market and hit it big on that second contract, he could do a lot worse than rushing across from Myles Garrett

LT Russell Okung

Best fit: Chiefs

Kansas City has put a lot of resources into bolstering the interior of its offensive line but the two tackle spots remain a weakness. Okung has struggled to stay healthy but when he’s on the field he’s an above-average starter. The Chiefs could do much worse in terms of a band-aid solution at left tackle and are one of a handful of teams that have reportedly shown interest in Okung. 

CB Quinton Dunbar

Best fit: Seahawks

The Cardinals are interesting as the NFC West teams continue to load up. A second outside corner is one of their last major weaknesses on defense. But Seattle remains a strong scheme fit for Dunbar and could give him an opportunity to raise his profile with a head start on learning the scheme and technique the Seahawks ask from their DBs. There’s a lot of upside for Seattle as well. Dunbar was PFF’s No. 2 cornerback in 2019. 

DE Melvin Ingram

Best fit: Ravens

This would entail Ingram either remaining patient or not enough of a market developing for him until May when signing free agents no longer affects the compensatory pick formula. Given that a few other teams, including the Chiefs and possibly the Colts, have shown interest in Ingram, Baltimore might lose out. But they have a huge need at outside linebacker and Ingram would be a strong scheme fit and help allay the concerns there. 

CB Richard Sherman

Best fit: Cowboys

Sherman has just a few years left to play, he’s said as much, and for as much as he loves new Jets HC Robert Saleh, spending the final few years of his career toiling away on a rebuilding team in New York might not be the way he wants to go — although it’s worth pointing out New York is the best-positioned in terms of budget. Dallas hits a few key boxes for Sherman. They run a scheme that he’s used to and new DC Dan Quinn knows Sherman well. The Cowboys have a need at corner and their defense could sorely use someone with Sherman’s edge. And from Sherman’s perspective, Dallas offers the chance to contend for another ring to close out what surely will be a Hall of Fame career. 

G Trai Turner

Best fit: Giants

The first place to check when finding landing spots for free agents is past coaching connections. Fortunately for Turner, the Carolina coaching tree has started to spread around the league, with outposts in New York, Buffalo and Washington. Unfortunately for Turner, both Washington and Buffalo are pretty set at both guard spots and don’t really have an opening, barring an injury. That leaves New York. While the Giants are low on cap space and already signed Zach Fulton, he doesn’t have anything close to the resume that Turner does as a five-time Pro Bowler who’s still only 27. 

S Malik Hooker

Best fit: Raiders

The Raiders desperately need a free safety who can make plays on the ball, as that’s not Johnathan Abram’s game and Jeff Heath isn’t the answer either. Coming out of college, Hooker was seen as a potentially elite safety with game-changing, Earl Thomas-like range as a deep defender. With Bradley’s Cover 3 roots coming up with the Seahawks, that safety position takes added importance. Hooker’s injury history and lack of overall consistency is cause for concern. But the potential reward is too high not to take a swing. 

DT Jurrell Casey

Best fit: Eagles

Eagles GM Howie Roseman is a big believer in keeping the defensive line stocked to maintain a healthy rotation of waves of talented players. With Malik Jackson gone, a third defensive tackle is needed with Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave. Casey shouldn’t cost much on the other side of 30 but there’s reason to be optimistic he still has something left in the tank. There are a few connections to the current staff, as his DL coach his first few years in the NFL is current Eagles DL coach Tracy Rocker. He also overlapped briefly with new Eagles DC Jonathan Gannon in Tennessee. 

Check This Out

  • USA Today’s Mark Schofield has a terrific piece on the evolution of offensive football, looking at all of the big picture changes that we’re starting to see in the NFL and looking around the corner at what might be next. It’s a fascinating conversation starter on how the NFL evolves. Even 10 years ago, the game looked vastly different, and 10 years ago that was even more the case. It’s interesting to think about how things could change in another 10 years. 
  • Mock drafts are a lot of fun to look at and make, but the vast majority of the time they’re guesswork and entertainment. Sometimes though there is real value to be gleaned from a mock and the Athletic’s Bruce Feldman published one of those a few weeks back. Don’t pay as much attention to where he has the players going, focus in on what people in the college football and NFL world are saying about these kids. I’ll pull one of my favorites. On DeVonta Smith, one coach said: “He doesn’t drop a ball ever. The most impressive thing, though, is after each series, he’d come off to the sideline and tell their coaches, ‘They did this and this and this.’ He really knows coverages and what defenses are trying to do. Our guys came back to the sideline and said he’s calling out what we’re playing and telling their sideline what our coverages are and how we’re playing our man coverage. God almighty, that’s different.”
  • If you play in any dynasty fantasy leagues, I can highly highly highly recommend the work of Matt Waldman on the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. Waldman is a thorough and detailed evaluator who is guaranteed to make you smarter when it comes to looking at quarterback, running back, wide receiver and tight end play, as well as just football in general. There is a ton of fantasy content out there these days and it can be hard to know which voices to zero in on. This should be one of them.
  • I usually reserve this space for outside content but I’m a big fan of our 2021 NFL Draft Prospect Meeting Tracker. I’ve been a big fan of the draft season for a long time and I’d never really seen one comprehensive tracker of pre-draft visits and meetings prospects would take with teams. We launched this last year and unfortunately the pandemic took the wind out of our sails somewhat when visits were cracked down on. That’s continued this year with all visits being virtual and no Combine but there are still some nuggets to be plucked here and there absolutely will be more in future years. 

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