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The 2019 edition of NFL free agency is right around the corner, as teams can begin contacting pending free agents on March 11.
Free agency presents teams with the opportunity to upgrade quickly, but overpaying to upgrade at a position can backfire when a player doesn’t live up to expectations.
Here, we’ll run down the best potential bargain at each position. The following players all have the potential to substantially outperform their contracts because of undervalued deals, untapped potential or a heavy risk-reward factor.
The focus will also be based on current market values, even though some of this year’s biggest contracts will look like bargains in two or three years due to the inflating salary cap.
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Teams looking for a starting solution at quarterback won’t have many options in free agency this offseason. Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles and 2014 first-rounder Teddy Bridgewater sit atop the list, but both could prove to be expensive.
That likely won’t be the case with Tyrod Taylor.
After briefly starting for the Cleveland Browns in 2018, Taylor might need to reestablish himself as a starting-caliber quarterback. A quarterback-needy team may be able to land him on a short-term prove-it deal—something substantially cheaper than the two-year, $36 million contract Case Keenum got last offseason from the Denver Broncos.
If Taylor can come close to replicating his 2015 Pro Bowl campaign—in which he passed for 3,035 yards, rushed for 568 yards and tallied 24 total touchdowns—he would be a massive bargain.
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Running backs won’t command a lot of attention in free agency this year. The position is relatively easy to supplement through the draft, and aside from New Orleans Saints standout Mark Ingram, there aren’t many starting-caliber backs.
Kansas City Chiefs backup Spencer Ware could be one of the few exceptions.
In 2016, Ware rushed for 921 yards, added 447 receiving yards and scored five total touchdowns in 14 games as a starter. This past season, he mostly served as a receiving back—along with a brief two-game stint as a starter—and caught 20 passes for 224 yards.
Since Ware was injured late in 2018 and missed the entire 2017 season because of a torn PCL, he may have to accept a one-year prove-it deal. At only 27 years old, he may prove to be a valuable long-term piece.
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Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver Tyrell Williams aspires to be a team’s top pass-catcher. At 6’4″ and 205 pounds, he looks the part.
“I definitely feel like I’m a No. 1 receiver,” Williams said in late January, per Eric D. Williams of ESPN.com. “So I want to make sure that I clean up all of the little things in route running and blocking to make sure I solidify myself as a No. 1.”
Williams’ best season came in 2016, when he caught 69 passes for 1,059 yards and seven touchdowns. He has the skill set to be a go-to guy even though he hasn’t served in that role over the past two seasons.
While Williams will get a sizable contract on the open market, it’ll likely be far lower than what a No. 1 or high-end No. 2 receiver typically earns. If he receives a deal similar to what Mohamed Sanu or Marvin Jones got as free agents back in 2016, it shouldn’t take him long to outperform it.
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Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert is an interesting free-agent option. His upside is tremendous—he had 13 touchdown receptions and made the Pro Bowl in 2015—but injuries have hampered him in recent years.
Eifert has never played a full 16-game season, and he appeared in only 14 games over the last three years. A broken ankle cut his 2018 campaign short after four games, although he did recently post a workout video showing impressive progress in his rehab.
If Eifert cannot stay healthy, he could be one of the biggest busts in this free-agency class. If he does, though, he could be one of its biggest steals.
Eifert is a true risk-reward option, but the reward side makes him a potentially huge bargain.
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Now that Greg Robinson is off the market, the chances of a team landing a young long-term solution at tackle for a bargain are slim. On a related note, Miami Dolphins tackle Ja’Waun James is about to break the bank.
Teams that don’t mind signing a player with a few miles on the proverbial odometer are in luck, though.
Washington Redskins backup Ty Nsekhe is a starting-caliber tackle on many teams that don’t have Morgan Moses and Trent Williams as bookends.
The 33-year-old is also an attractive option because of his ability to fill in at guard if needed. Nsekhe made three starts at tackle and two at guard for the Redskins in 2018.
While James might command close to $10 million per season on the open market, Nsekhe is likely to receive something closer to the one-year, $2.9 million deal he played under in 2018.
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When it comes to interior linemen, Denver Broncos center Matt Paradis appears to be the cream of the pending crop.
Jason Fitzgerald of Over the Cap predicted he’ll land a deal worth around $10-11 million annually. Fitzgerald also predicted Kansas City Chiefs center Mitch Morse would command roughly $3 million less per season.
Seeing as Morse has developed into one of the better pass-blocking centers in the league, that would make him a bargain by comparison.
Morse did miss five games in 2018 and nine games the previous season, which raises concerns about his durability moving forward. However, such risks often lead to great value.
A team can likely land Morse on a deal based heavily on playing-time incentives. If he stays healthy, he could be one of the top offensive line signings of free agency.
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The New England Patriots sent a 2019 third-round pick to the Cleveland Browns last offseason in exchange for defensive tackle Danny Shelton and a 2018 fifth-round pick. Shelton promptly rewarded them with a stellar season as a rotational player.
His impact on New England’s defensive front was far bigger than the 21 tackles he registered.
Shelton is a space-eater and a line mover, and he can help a team looking to fill the nose tackle position. His status as a 2015 first-round pick and a defending champion could help land him a hefty contract, but he’ll likely come far cheaper than, say, Ndamukong Suh.
At only 25 years old, Shelton is entering his prime, so whichever team lands him can reap the benefits for years to come.
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This year’s free-agent class doesn’t lack for pass-rushers, although Jadeveon Clowney and Demarcus Lawrence aren’t likely to hit the open market.
For teams looking for a pass-rusher, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs could be a bargain option.
While Suggs would like to return to Baltimore, he intends to play somewhere else if the Ravens aren’t interested in bringing him back.
“I would love to be a Raven for life,” he told reporters in January. “… Hopefully we can work it out, but if not, you know, I’m gonna be lining up for somebody next year.”
If the Ravens do not re-sign Suggs, he will likely be a short-term rental for a contender. After notching 18.0 sacks over the past two seasons, the 36-year-old could ink a below-market deal to chase one more ring.
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When it comes to off-ball linebackers, C.J. Mosley is at the top of this year’s free-agent class. However, the Ravens figure to use the franchise tag on him if they can’t reach an agreement on a long-term deal.
That leaves a large gap between Mosley and the players who will actually be available.
Instead of overpaying to add a second-tier linebacker, teams should consider adding Vincent Rey instead.
While the 31-year-old didn’t play a large role for Cincinnati in 2018, he’s been productive when given extensive opportunities in the past. In 2017, for example, he racked up 85 tackles in 14 games.
Rey can be a starting-caliber linebacker for a team in need at the position. He shouldn’t cost much more than the $3.5 million per year he made on his last deal, either, making him a tremendous potential bargain.
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On this year’s cornerback market, Morris Claiborne, Jason McCourty, E.J. Gaines and Buster Skrine likely jump out before Pierre Desir does.
Desir only recently emerged as a starting-caliber cornerback for the Indianapolis Colts, which is why his contract figures to be below market value for a starter.
However, Desir has grown into a solid defender who deserves to start. He has the physical tools of a high-end outside corner—including a lengthy 6’1″ frame—and he brings the physicality and field vision of an early-round draft pick.
Watching Desir on film, you’d be hard-pressed to guess that he came out of Lindenwood University.
Because of his relatively low profile and small-school status, Desir is likely to be financially undervalued. In turn, one team should be able to sign him to a bargain deal.
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Safety is one of the deeper positions in this year’s free-agent class, at least at the top. Earl Thomas, Lamarcus Joyner and Tyrann Mathieu are sure to garner their fair share of attention when the market opens.
However, Chargers safety Adrian Phillips may beat them all out as the best bargain.
Phillips is coming off a Pro Bowl campaign, so he’ll likely get a hefty raise after signing a one-year, $1.5 million contract last offseason. However, he should fall in the second tier of safety contracts.
Phillips’ upside is tremendous. He plays the run as well as any defensive back—he often lines up at linebacker—and he can hold his own in pass coverage, too. Teams looking for a hybrid defender similar to Mark Barron could hit big by signing him.
Last season, Phillips had 94 tackles, nine passes defended, one interception and one forced fumble. He could be even more productive in 2019.
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New York Jets kicker Jason Myers made the Pro Bowl in 2018, which will undoubtedly boost his free-agency appeal.
But with well-known names such as Stephen Gostkowski, Wil Lutz and Robbie Gould also hitting the market, Myers may wind up being one of the more affordable options.
Myers was far less reliable during his three seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars than he was in his debut campaign with the Jets. But if he can continue building off the success he had in 2018—he hit 91.7 percent of his field-goal attempts and made five kicks of 55 yards or more—he’ll be a terrific value for a kicker-needy team.
All contract information via Spotrac.