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Don Wright/Associated Press
NFL free agency always finds a way to surprise.
A year ago, plenty of curveballs went out in the form of both team actions and player decisions. The Arizona Cardinals, for example, cut Tyrann Mathieu and turned around to sign Mike Glennon and Sam Bradford. The Indianapolis Colts decided to play it conservatively on the market despite droves of cap space.
As far as player movement, it was odd to see Jordy Nelson trade Green Bay Packers colors for the silver and black of the Oakland Raiders—or Legion of Boom leader Richard Sherman ink a deal with the San Francisco 49ers.
These surprises manifest in different ways. The dark-horse outcomes entertain the most, based on a mixture of money, individual player preferences and misconceptions about what a team is or isn’t willing to do.
For now, before the league plays the tag game, each of the top impending free agents has a viable dark-horse destination that will only make sense well after the transaction occurs.
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Bill Feig/Associated Press
Dark-Horse Destination: Washington Redskins
Given the importance of the position and the scarcity of the upcoming free-agent class (the initial draft outlook doesn’t look great either, but it rarely does in January), Teddy Bridgewater is bound to have a bigger-than-expected market.
After all, his competition in free agency is Tyrod Taylor, Josh McCown, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Robert Griffin III, to name a few.
Of those names, Bridgewater might be the only guy with franchise-passer potential. Before he suffered a brutal knee injury with the Minnesota Vikings in 2016, he completed 65.3 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 2015—and he’s still just 26 years old.
Bridgewater’s proven production and franchise-passer upside should appeal to a team like the Washington Redskins, who have a clear need at quarterback.
The Redskins could be content to sit on their hands with Colt McCoy and Josh Johnson while praying Alex Smith can make it back. But boasting some of the league’s best trench play on both sides of the ball, a strong running game and overall defense, the Redskins might decide to pursue a bidding war for Bridgewater’s services. If nothing else, a new potential franchise quarterback could spark poor attendance numbers.
Washington has been known in the past to splurge (remember Albert Haynesworth?). This move would make sense for a Redskins team that could then turn around and use premium draft assets on lacking skill positions such as wideout.
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Doug Benc/Associated Press
Dark-Horse Destination: Pittsburgh Steelers
It seems obvious that Le’Veon Bell will land with a win-now team like the Indianapolis Colts or join a rebuilder like the San Francisco 49ers or New York Jets and bask in the glory of helping spur a turnaround—not to mention cash.
But what about a return to the Pittsburgh Steelers?
The Steelers have plenty of reasons to make it happen, especially with the drama that surrounds Antonio Brown. James Conner faded over the second half of the season and isn’t as dynamic a talent. Losing Bell and Brown in the same offseason would be a crippling blow for a team that is trying to win in the last few seasons of Ben Roethlisberger‘s career.
ESPN.com’s Adam Schefter reported in November that the two sides made “late pushes” for a deal before the deadline. Schefter also noted the Steelers will get a $14.5 million cap credit toward next season because Bell never showed up. Why not use that money plus the potential savings if Brown gets dealt?
The Steelers could force Bell to stay via the transition tag, which would give them the chance to match any offer he receives. A 26-year-old back who’s coming off a season’s rest with 1,200-plus yards and 75-plus catches in three of his last four campaigns is going to be a hot commodity. A reunion is an underrated possibility.
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Rick Scuteri/Associated Press
Dark-Horse Destination: Detroit Lions
On paper, one would think the Oakland Raiders wouldn’t let Jared Cook get away.
Cook broke out for the Raiders in 2018, catching 68 of his 101 targets for 896 yards and six touchdowns—all team highs and career highs. It was an unexpected performance from the 31-year-old tight end, who’s been in the league since 2009.
Cook was a one-hit wonder of sorts on a bad team, and a wild card like the Detroit Lions might be willing to swoop in and overpay the veteran on the chance he can put up better numbers in an offense with Matthew Stafford.
The Lions need the help. After watching Eric Ebron score 13 touchdowns with the Indianapolis Colts following four years in Detroit, the Lions likely have a sour taste in the mouth.
New arrivals Levine Toilolo and Luke Willson were targeted 24 or fewer times apiece, neither eclipsed the 300-yard mark and they scored a single touchdown between the two of them.
Bringing back Cook seems like a routine offseason item for the Raiders, but Detroit has reason to open up the checkbook and offer plenty in the way of guarantees as the coaching staff seeks offensive balance.
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Ron Jenkins/Associated Press
Dark-Horse Destination: New York Giants
An NFC East rivalry could get even better thanks to Demarcus Lawrence’s impending trip to market.
The Dallas Cowboys took a risk by slapping the franchise tag on the 2014 second-round pick out of Boise State after a 14.5-sack campaign in 2017. He can now command top dollar after appearing in 16 more games and tallying 10.5 sacks, not to mention two forced fumbles and an interception.
While Lawrence is a tag candidate again, the Cowboys have future contracts to think about for other young cornerstones like Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper.
That leaves the door open for the New York Giants.
An intra-division trip for Lawrence seems reasonable because the Giants get more looks at him than most. They appear willing to do whatever it takes to keep contending around Eli Manning—look at the big splash last year with left tackle Nate Solder.
One of the reasons Dallas got swept by those Cowboys in 2018 and only won five games is a lack of quarterback pressure. The Giants tied for 30th in sacks with 30, and Olivier Vernon predictably led the way with seven.
Coughing up the cash for Lawrence assures a pass-rusher in his prime who can produce, not only helping every unit of the defense improve, but also freeing up the front office to use draft assets on other areas.
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Rick Osentoski/Associated Press
Dark-Horse Destination: Los Angeles Rams
The Los Angeles Rams haven’t been shy about making win-now moves.
But few would assume they do it again, right?
They just might with a talent like Ezekiel Ansah on his way to market. The Detroit Lions also may be content to let Ansah go after he played only seven games under the franchise tag last year.
A player who still has immense upside at the age of 29, Ansah has been sporadic with his production in large part because of injuries. He has a pair of seasons with double-digit sacks over his six years in the league but also has missed 14 games the past three years.
The Rams might not blink at risk factor or cost. Just as they didn’t with Marcus Peters. Or Aqib Talib. Or Ndamukong Suh.
That last name is one reason the Rams could come out of the woodwork and swipe one of the best players on the market this offseason. Suh was a big name, but his struggles—along with less-than-ideal play from Dante Fowler Jr. after the Rams traded for him in October—left the team just 15th in the NFL in sacks with 41.
Sacks aren’t everything by any means, but pairing Ansah with 20.5-sack man Aaron Donald would assure continued contention.
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Danny Karnik/Associated Press
Dark-Horse Destination: New England Patriots
A so-called “undersized” defensive tackle with pass-rushing abilities, Grady Jarrett has exceeded expectations and quietly shoved himself into the Geno Atkins range as far as interior defenders go.
That would explain why Jarrett is a prime franchise-tag candidate this offseason.
As Pro Football Focus’ Austin Gayle pointed out, few were as good as the Clemson product: “Jarrett finished the regular season ranked fourth in pass-rush win percentage (16.6) and sixth in pressure percentage (12.3), recording 71 pass-rush wins and 53 total pressures in the process.”
If Jarrett does slip to market, a contender like the New England Patriots won’t shy away from the idea of scooping him up.
The Patriots and Bill Belichick love to grab versatile workhorses in the trenches with intriguing upside (Danny Shelton, among others, is the latest experiment). But the problem is twofold: The Patriots tied for 30th in sacks this season, and opponents averaged 4.9 yards per carry against them.
One way to improve both aspects while pumping up contention chances around Tom Brady is spending big on a player of Jarrett’s caliber. A desperate contender with a fading centerpiece to said contention (in terms of age, at least), the Patriots are a dark horse capable of swooping in and getting a major win.
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Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press
Dark-Horse Destination: Oakland Raiders
Little makes sense with the Oakland Raiders in terms of Jon Gruden’s master plan.
It would reek of oddity for the team that shipped away Khalil Mack to cough up a massive contract for Jadeveon Clowney.
It would make some sense too.
The Houston Texans likely want to keep the 25-year-old linebacker in town for the long haul. But the Texans need to dole out big contracts to other players and must walk a cautionary tightrope with Clowney given his injury history that features microfracture surgery and back issues.
Granted, Clowney has only missed one game the last two seasons, but at one point it seemed he would have a hard time landing a big payday on a second contract.
These are concerns the Raiders won’t worry much about while trying to key a long-term rebuild. It’s a simple decision to throw guaranteed cash at Clowney in the hopes he continues the form that got him 18.5 sacks over the last two seasons. The Raiders got the trade assets from Mack and could spend less on Clowney than him, provided the Texans don’t throw a tag into the fray.
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Elaine Thompson/Associated Press
Dark-Horse Destination: Kansas City Chiefs
It’s a long-held theory that Earl Thomas will end up with the Dallas Cowboys, and his joining the San Francisco 49ers is something even Richard Sherman is talking about publicly.
Naturally, neither of those will happen.
But how about the Kansas City Chiefs, another contender with a major hole to patch? If they step into the fray and offer a competitive number atop surefire Super Bowl contention, it might be hard for the soon-to-be 30-year-old safety to ignore.
The Chiefs tied for the league lead in sacks (52) and still have Eric Berry on the roster (he played in two games this year, three total over the past two seasons). But the defense ranked 31st by allowing 273.4 passing yards per game and coughed up 26.3 points per contest.
Call Thomas the insta-fix. Few safeties of this era have seen the field the way he does, hence 28 career interceptions and at least five passes defensed in every season; at one point he recorded 10 passes defensed in an 11-game season. Numbers don’t do justice to Thomas’ value or impact, but they certainly don’t hurt.
Perhaps viewed as a contender willing to round out a stacked roster with projects like 2018 second-round pick Breeland Speaks, the Chiefs might see the immediate fix and shrug off the amount of money necessary to acquire Thomas.
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Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press
Dark-Horse Destination: San Francisco 49ers
On the other end of the spectrum, the San Francisco 49ers are a rebuilding team unafraid to spend a ton of cash for a big-time fix.
Under general manager John Lynch, the 49ers gave Jimmy Garoppolo a massive contract and doled out $30 million for running back Jerick McKinnon.
Why can’t Tyrann Mathieu be next?
Mathieu took a one-year deal with the Houston Texans last year in a prove-it scenario when the Arizona Cardinals cut him after a restructure dispute. All he did in response was total 89 tackles and produce secondary-changing play for a playoff team.
The 49ers could use the help after grabbing a league-worst two interceptions last year and allowing 27.2 points per game, good for the 28th-worst mark in the NFL.
San Francisco could outbid anyone for Mathieu both for his production and ability to mentor a rebuilding locker room. It’s a superb fit most might not see coming while guys like Thomas clog the attention.
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Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press
Dark-Horse Destination: Green Bay Packers
Given the strength of the impending safety class, it is easy to gloss over Lamarcus Joyner.
Yet Joyner is one of the most versatile defensive backs in the NFL and once again flexed his muscle in 2018, this time under the franchise tag. The 2014 second-round pick recorded 78 total tackles with one sack, one interception and three passes defensed. Numbers aside, the real value comes from his jumping from cornerback to safety and being able to play anywhere.
Those traits will appeal to a team that fancies itself a contender while Aaron Rodgers is still under center.
The Green Bay Packers tied for 29th with seven picks last year and ranked outside the top 20 in scoring defense while feeling comfortable enough to trade away Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
While the obvious move is for Joyner to stick with the Rams, a natural fit with Green Bay while helping along young corners like Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson has to look appealing to Packers brass.
Free-agent data and contract info courtesy of Spotrac.