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NFL free agency allows star players find greener pastures.
In one case, we know a top talent will sign with a new club. Running back Le’Veon Bell sacrificed an entire season to free himself of the franchise tag in an attempt to ink a new long-term deal. Now, he’s going to see what he can earn on the open market and who’s willing to pay big bucks for his services.
Meanwhile, other notable players have a decent chance at a change of scenery for the 2019 campaign and beyond. In some cases, it’s because of nonexistent long-term talks between agents and front offices. Other veterans may have price tags that are too rich for their current teams.
The eight veterans below have at least one Pro Bowl or All-Pro season, which justifies the label as a star player. Which players are likely on the move, and where could they land when free agency begins March 13 at 4 p.m. ET?
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As a versatile two-time first-team All-Pro, Bell will change an offense with his presence. He deserves consideration as one of the best pass-catching running backs in the game. The 27-year-old has hauled in 312 receptions for 2,660 yards and seven touchdowns. Whether the veteran tailback lines up in the backfield or out on the perimeter, he has potential for a big play.
Last month, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said he wouldn’t use a tag on Bell this offseason, per ESPN.com’s Jeremy Fowler: “Le’Veon is still a great player. We can’t afford to use any other type of tags. Le’Veon will be an unrestricted free agent at the start of the new league year.”
Bell should land on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ short list. Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones couldn’t crack 1,000 rushing yards combined last year. The former will become a restricted free agent March 13, while the latter will be going into his second season under a new coaching staff.
The Buccaneers can help quarterback Jameis Winston with a top-shelf running back who can elevate the ground attack and the short passing game.
New Landing Spot: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
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Running back Mark Ingram II and Alvin Kamara have formed a solid duo in the New Orleans Saints backfield. At times, they’ve done the heavy lifting, which likely added some playing years to the arm of 40-year-old quarterback Drew Brees.
Now, the front office faces a tough decision: Break up the backfield band, or re-sign a tailback headed into his age-30 season. Ingram is just one year removed from his best statistical campaign after recording 1,540 yards from scrimmage in 2017.
He appeared on The Rich Eisen Show and expressed confidence in his ability to hold a lead ball-carrier role, though he has a desire to re-sign with the Saints, via Mark Inabinett of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
“I have all confidence in my abilities and all confidence in what I can do given the opportunity to be a feature guy,” Ingram said. “So I’m not scared to bet on myself. At the same time, I’d love to be in New Orleans.”
According to Over the Cap, the Saints have $10.3 million in cap space, so they have little room to dole out a lucrative deal to a running back of any age. As Latavius Murray’s contract expires, the Minnesota Vikings will need a ball-carrier to handle rushing attempts in between the tackles.
New Landing Spot: Minnesota Vikings
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The Philadelphia Eagles acquired wide receiver Golden Tate before October’s trade deadline. He suited up for 10 games with the NFC East club, including two playoff contests, but accumulated fewer than 50 yards in nine of those outings. The midseason transaction didn’t provide a major boost.
Before his production tapered off in 2018, Tate recorded at least 90 catches in four consecutive campaigns. His body of work suggests he should earn $12-13 million per year on a new deal. As of Friday, the Eagles have $24.4 million in cap space.
The front office could terminate some contracts to create cap flexibility, but that doesn’t make sense for a 30-year-old wide receiver who underwhelmed for a half-season.
Tate will likely serve as a No. 2 option elsewhere. The New England Patriots seem like a reasonable suitor. He’d line up opposite Julian Edelman as an effective catch-and-run receiver, which fits with Tom Brady’s short, accurate throws.
New Landing Spot: New England Patriots
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As expected, top-notch pass-rushers won’t hit the open market. Demarcus Lawrence, Frank Clark and Jadeveon Clowney have received franchise tags. Those decisions give second-tier defensive playmakers the opportunity to cash in as teams search for pocket-pushers.
According to ESPN.com’s Michael Rothstein, there’s a 5 percent chance the Detroit Lions retain Ezekiel Ansah because of the wear and tear on his body.
“The Lions’ highest-profile free agent, the question for the Lions with Ansah has everything to do with his health and nothing to do with his production,” Rothstein wrote.
In 2018, Ansah missed nine games because of a shoulder injury, which required surgery. He’s sat out 14 contests over the last three terms. As the six-year veteran approaches his age-30 season, Detroit holds the No. 8 overall pick in April’s draft. Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat or Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell could become Ansah’s long-term replacement.
If Ansah’s shoulder heals and the Lions move in another direction, the Oakland Raiders should target the veteran defensive end to strengthen their pass rush. In 2018, the Silver and Black logged a league-low 13 sacks (17 fewer than the 31st-ranked New York Giants). The front seven could have a proven commodity in place before the draft.
New Landing Spot: Oakland Raiders
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The window to franchise-tag players closed at 4 p.m. ET on Tuesday. In February, before the combine, ESPN.com’s Jamison Hensley reported linebacker C.J. Mosley and the Ravens were “optimistic” about striking an agreement.
“The Ravens won’t put the franchise tag on Mosley, but they will end up retaining him in free agency,” he wrote. “All sides are optimistic about getting a deal done.”
As we know, roster plans remain fluid throughout the year. Intentions can shift over time. As the legal-tampering window opens Monday, clubs will certainly reach out to the four-time Pro Bowler, which would threaten Mosley’s tenure in Baltimore.
At 26 years old, still in the prime of his career, Mosley will probably perform at a high level for at least another four-to-five years unless an injury hinders his ability. He possesses the range to play in varied fronts—an indicator several suitors would swoon over him on the open market.
The Ravens should do everything possible to keep Mosley, but if he walks, the Eagles should inquire about him. Philadelphia is going to allow starting middle linebacker Jordan Hicks to test the market.
New Landing Spot: Philadelphia Eagles
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Typically, off-ball linebackers won’t demand huge salaries. It’s a grinder position in which players chase down ball-carriers and are tasked with short-area coverage. Anthony Barr earned a Pro Bowl invite in four consecutive years following his 2014 rookie campaign. Now, he can test the open market and find out what those accolades are worth in dollars.
In January 2018, Barr expressed his desire to continue his career with the Vikings, per Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The front office never came forth with an offer. Instead, team brass extended defensive end Danielle Hunter and wideout Stefon Diggs.
Now that Barr is heading toward free agency, it seems like Minnesota won’t mind if he walks out the door. He could find a club that’s willing to explore his skill set as a pass-rusher. He recorded 23.5 sacks between his junior and senior terms at UCLA, and Minnesota lists him at 6’5″ and 255 pounds. In that scenario, the former Bruin could land a big contract.
Barr would serve as a major upgrade for the Raiders defense, whether in an expanded rule or with similar duties to those in Minnesota. It’s a unit that desperately needs talent on the second level. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther could also experiment with Barr as a pass-rusher from the linebacker spot.
New Landing Spot: Oakland Raiders
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Earl Thomas won’t be giving any discounts, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram‘s Clarence E. Hill Jr.
“His goal is to become the highest-paid safety in the NFL, topping the $13 million annual contract of Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry, despite coming off a fractured leg that ended his 2018 season early,” Hill wrote.
Despite Thomas’ holdout last offseason, the Seattle Seahawks opted not to extend his deal. If it didn’t happen then, there’s little chance the soon-to-be 30-year-old will sign a new contract with the club after fracturing his leg for the second time in three seasons. He’s missed 19 games over the past three campaigns.
According to Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times, general manager John Schneider will allow Thomas to test free agency. He’ll likely have a healthy market if he’s flexible in negotiations.
Thomas can point to his production as a reason for the high asking price. In 2018, he snagged three interceptions and broke up five passes in four contests. It’s fair to say the ball-hawking safety could’ve put together a fourth All-Pro season, but that’s a projection.
According to NBC Sports Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco, the San Francisco 49ers will pursue a “starting-caliber safety”. Interpersonal ties may lead Thomas to a rival. For the right price, he could join former teammate Richard Sherman and play under Robert Saleh. The 49ers defensive coordinator served as a defensive quality control assistant in Seattle between the 2011-13 seasons.
New Landing Spot: San Francisco 49ers
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The New York Giants will likely part ways with All-Pro safety Landon Collins. According to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, no franchise tag likely means a turn on the free-agent market for the 25-year-old.
Although Collins’ coverage ability has been hit-or-miss, he’s arguably the best box safety on an expiring deal. The four-year veteran led Big Blue in solo tackles in all four of his years with the club.
During his standout 2016 season, Collins recorded five interceptions and 13 pass breakups. The tone-setting safety isn’t inept in coverage, but teams will likely focus on his run support and physicality closer to the line of scrimmage.
The Green Bay Packers jettisoned two safeties last year, trading Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to the Washington Redskins and waiving Jermaine Whitehead, who started two contests. Kentrell Brice missed tackles and struggled in coverage as a primary starter. Collins would bring a physical presence to the secondary. He’s a solid open-field tackler who’s capable of stopping big plays on the ground and after the catch.
New Landing Spot: Green Bay Packers