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NFL Mailbag: Which Free Agents Will Have the Hottest Markets?

There’s just one NFL game left this year, which means all but two teams have moved on to the offseason. Which teams will be targeting quarterbacks? Where will Tom Brady play? Where will Philip Rivers play? Answering it all in this week's mailbag.

MOBILE, Ala. — The 49ers and Chiefs will wrap up the 2019 season in 11 days. But here on the Gulf Coast, the other 30 teams are on to 2020. (For more on that, listen to this week’s podcast, which has a ton of draft stuff in it.)

And based on your questions for this week’s mailbag, many of you are on to 2020 as well. So let’s go there …

From Disco (@discoque5): Who will be the most sought-after free agents this offseason?

The strength of the top of the free-agent class, as usual, will be determined in large by which players receive a franchise tag—a dynamic that puts some Cowboys near the top of list. With each passing day, the likelihood that Dallas has to tag Dak Prescott increases. If they tag Prescott, both receiver Amari Cooper and corner Byron Jones hit the market, and both play premium positions where top players rarely make it to the market.

Amari Cooper

Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones may be the best player in free agency, but it’s hard to see Kansas City choosing not to tag him at around $17 million. The Seahawks, conversely, agreed not to tag Jadeveon Clowney, so barring an extension before March 18, he’ll get to see what his market value is. Hunter Henry and Austin Hooper could be interesting options for shoppers at tight end, and young offensive linemen Jack Conklin and Joe Thuney will almost certainly break the bank, given what players at their position have been getting.

Players on their third contracts—like A.J. Green, Anthony Castonzo and Chris Harris—will probably cash in, too.

The Titans, Bucs and Chargers all have decisions to make about their quarterbacks. If each teams tags its passer (a two-week window to do so closes March 10), then the chances of Tom Brady re-signing with the Patriots increases, and maybe aside from figuring out Cam Newton’s fate, the quarterback scene is relatively quiet. If those players aren’t tagged? Look out.

From Dale Mayotte (@16Mayotte): Do you think there is a chance the Lions do the smart thing and draft Tua No. 3, let him sit a year behind Stafford and trade Stafford next year?

Dale, there were murmurs last March and April about the Lions doing homework on quarterbacks, and that Detroit liked Duke’s Daniel Jones (he was off the board before the Lions picked). Maybe the idea of Tua Tagovailoa is enticing enough to consider drafting him third overall. But I’d tell you that at this point, the idea doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.

First of all, the Lions coaches, and really anybody who’s been through that organization over the last 12 years, love Stafford. I can’t tell you how many people have come out of that place convinced Stafford is a couple of breaks going his way away from being a top-five quarterback. Second, the one legit reason you’d draft one behind Stafford is because of Stafford’s durability issues. So … you take a quarterback with even more of those?

I will say that the Lions are in a great spot heading into this year’s draft. With all signs pointing toward the Bengals' taking Joe Burrow at No. 1, and the Redskins taking Chase Young at 2, it certainly looks, three months out, like the draft will start with the Lions at 3.

From BradyForcesJetsFansToCry (@Pats_1988): Hello, will Nick Caserio and Monti Ossenfort stay with the Patriots? What’s Plan B if they leave? Thanks and best regards from Austria.

A message from the homeland! Thanks for checking in, bud. I wouldn’t be surprised if both are gone. I believe that if Caserio reaches the end of his contract in May and tells his close friend Bill O’Brien in Houston that he wants to work there, the Texans would find a way to hire him as GM. As for Ossenfort, his deal is up in May, too, and if there’s a way to step up to a director-of-player-personnel type of role elsewhere, I think he’d look at that.

If both leave, then what? Pro scouting director Dave Ziegler, who’d have been Josh McDaniels’s GM if McDaniels took the Cleveland job, would be the highest-ranking remaining scout. He’s under contract through the 2021 draft, and would be up for a bump. And I think from there, Belichick would bring in both a veteran hand and do some promoting from within.

Which veteran hand? When Scott Pioli left for Kansas City, Belichick hired ex-Titans GM Floyd Reese to backstop Caserio, who was promoted. Pioli is available now, and maintains ties to the region (and happens to be a summer neighbor of Belichick’s on Nantucket).

From Otavio Franco (@OLFD): If Brady leaves, does Belichick draft a QB for the future or does he go ahead with Jarrett Stidham?

Otavio, if Tom Brady leaves the Patriots, I see Bill Belichick pulling multiple levers at the position—perhaps signing a reclamation project (Marcus Mariota?) or trading for a bridge guy (Andy Dalton?) on the veteran market and looking hard at the draft class. That quarterback can then compete with Stidham.

Some might ask what that says about Stidham, but there’s a lot even the Patriots themselves can’t know about the 2019 fourth-rounder until he actually gets in games. They also would be following a well-worn path in covering themselves with insurance policies at the game’s most important position. And there may no better example of a team doing that than what happened in Green Bay in 2008.

Early that offseason, Brett Favre announced his retirement and the Packers moved forward with the presumption that fourth-year quarterback Aaron Rodgers would be the guy. They loved the progress Rodgers had made. But they drafted not one but two quarterbacks that April—Louisville’s Brian Brohm in the second round and LSU’s Matt Flynn in the seventh round. Some read it as a sign of internal doubt on Rodgers. The rest is history.

From Tobias Starke (@tst1860): Will the Buccaneers keep Jameis Winston, and if so, how (franchise tag, long-term or short-term deal)?

Tobias, I think the most sensible solution for everyone is the franchise tag. But it’s possible that the Bucs see the tag (expected to be about $27 million) as too much for Winston, and instead give him, say, a two-year offer, and let him go to the market to try to beat it. It’d be risky, of course—risk losing him and poisoning the negotiation—so the team should tread lightly.

The problem for Tampa Bay? It doesn't have another viable starting-level quarterback on the roster, nor are the Bucs drafting high enough (14 overall) to guarantee they’ll get one they like enough to start in the fall.

From Ed (@ftballguy21): Thoughts on Mike McCarthy?

Ed, I like the Cowboys hiring him. There wasn’t a lot of interest in him after he was fired in Green Bay. Sometimes, coaches who get fired and then get second chances right away don’t right their wrongs. Conversely, if you have to go through what McCarthy did, it can humble you and force you into some serious self-evaluation. To his credit, I believe McCarthy when he says he went back and was hard on himself—and I believe it’ll make him more motivated and better. That doesn’t mean this Dallas hire is guaranteed to work. But I think it gives him a good chance, for the reasons why guys like Mike Shanahan and Bill Belichick would tell you having to wait for their second opportunities helped them.

Also, McCarthy fits the current roster. It’s a win-now group, and he’s put together a win-now staff, with Mike Nolan bringing 17 seasons of defensive coordinator experience with seven different teams to the table, John Fassel having been a special teams coordinator for 12 years with two teams, and Kellen Moore remaining in place as offensive coordinator, allowing for continuity for the Cowboys’ young quarterback.

Philip Rivers claps while with the Chargers.

From RobGiants (@NYFootballJesus): I've heard rumors of Chargers QB Philip Rivers going to the Bucs after moving his family to Florida. Then they would draft Eason or Fromm. Do those QBs work with Arians? Possible?

Rivers’s situation will be fascinating. I do know that he wants to coach high school football by the time his eldest son, now a fifth-grader, gets to high school, and it’ll be somewhere in the south, closer to where he grew up in Alabama. It could be very close to where he grew up. Maybe it’ll happen where they’re going in Florida. That much I don’t know.

I think if the Chargers don’t tag him, monitor the Titans—and they could have an opening depending on what they decide to do with Tannehill. My guess is Brady might be more of an option there than Rivers. The Colts are another, because of his ties to coach Frank Reich and OC Nick Sirriani.

I guess the Bucs are worth monitoring, but his house in Florida is in the panhandle, so the Bucs don’t have a great geographic advantage. As for the two college quarterbacks you mentioned, I’d say Washington’s Jacob Eason is a much better fit than Georgia’s Jake Fromm for Bruce Arians’s offense.

From a Duval County guy (@mrflorida): Why do the Jaguars refuse to fire GM Dave Caldwell??

Duval, there was a strong sense in that building that EVP Tom Coughlin had torched the relationship between the front office and some prominent players, which also became a problem for the coaches. Yannick Ngaukoe is one (and he’s a pending free agent). Jalen Ramsey was another, before he was traded to the Rams.

By going forward with Dave Caldwell and Doug Marrone, Shad Khan is giving them one more chance to make it right. I’d also say that Shad’s son Tony Khan’s rising role in the organization was a factor, too; Tony is close to Marrone and Caldwell and has great respect for both.

From Mitesh Patel (@MkPatel): Mr. Breer, you think Joe Douglas considers drafting a WR with the No. 11 pick? Or does he draft best player available?

Mitesh, I’d bet that Joe Douglas goes very heavy on the lines of scrimmage in the draft and maybe even free agency. If the Jets had their choice, I would guess they’d come away with a left tackle at No. 11. Of course, a lot of that rides on players like Georgia’s Andrew Thomas and Iowa’s Tristan Wilfs—whether the Jets like them and if they fall out of the top 10.

As for the receiver question, I know the team stands to lose Robbie Anderson, but I think there’s a dynamic at the receiver position in this year’s class that will cause good players to slip. There is no Julio Jones this year, but there are a ton of players at the next level down, which could cause teams to address other needs in the first round thinking they can get good receiver on the second day of the draft.

The Jets would be one team prime to be in that group, with the thought being it’d be harder to find a left tackle after the first round than a receiver.

From Josh (@ScarletNGrayFan): Mike McDaniel—next Browns OC? And, does he call plays?

Josh, I think to get McDaniel out of San Francisco, the Browns would have to promise that he call plays, and even then I think Kyle Shanahan would be hesitant to let him go. McDaniel is the one assistant Shanahan has taken with him pretty much everywhere—from Houston to Washington to Cleveland to Atlanta and now to San Francisco. McDaniel is among the young brightest offensive minds in football

Passing game coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike LaFleur could be a viable option for Kevin Stefanski. The Niners blocked LaFleur from going with his brother to Green Bay last year, in part because that wasn’t going to be a play-calling coordinator job. If Cleveland’s job is (and that’s still a little up in the air), maybe Shanahan will let LaFleur take what would a big step up the coaching ladder.

From Back2Beantown (@Back2Beantown): Do you think we’ll ever see Antonio Brown in the NFL ever again?

This week news broke that police investigated an alleged battery in which Brown was involved in Florida. To answer your question—we probably won’t see him in the NFL again. Players who bring baggage have to be worth the trouble they bring. And Brown is bringing so much trouble now that it seems to have finally superseded his prodigious talent.

From Tyler Schmidt (@teachgeek90): My Colts need a QB. Should they go for someone like Jordan Love or Justin Herbert in round 1 or pick someone up in a later round?

Tyler, I think the Colts will do all the homework as if they plan to take a quarterback with the No. 13 pick, and the results of that work will determine whether they pull the trigger on one. Obviously, the idea of Burrow will be off the table. But Tagovailoa, Love and Herbert all merit first-round consideration, and there are scenarios out there where any of the three could land in Indy.

I also believe the Colts will explore the veteran market, with two players potentially available that have strong ties to their coaching staff—Philip Rivers and Nick Foles. Rivers knows Frank Reich and OC Nick Sirriani from San Diego. Foles, of course, had Reich as his coordinator during the Eagles’ 2017 Super Bowl run.

From millerjeff (@millerjeff): Can the Lions be competitive next year?

Jeff, I believe the Lions were on track to be competitive this year and then the quarterback injury sent everything haywire. The Lions started 2-0-1, won in Philadelphia on Sept. 22, and if not for a couple of bad breaks, would’ve been right in the wild-card race in early November. They were 3-4-1 with Stafford and easily could’ve been 5-2-1 (given how they got hosed by the refs in Green Bay, and lost a heartbreaker to Kansas City). But when Stafford got hurt, the bottom fell out. 

The challenge for Matt Patricia will be re-creating what the team had in September and October—a team that was starting to look more aligned to what his vision for it was, with the types of players that fit his program culturally. That, of course, won’t be easy, and winning early will be key, given how speculation around his job status promises to swirl if the Lions don’t.

But I don’t think all the progress that those guys made early on last year will just vanish (pending, obviously, the quarterback staying healthy).

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