Tannehill has earned future money and playing time during his five sturdy starts this season, the goal of any impending free agent. In Tennessee's resounding 42-20 win over the Jaguars on Sunday, Tannehill played like a better version of Marcus Mariota, smarter about when to use his legs and more willing to make tight-window throws. No one will confuse Tannehill with a top-10 difference-maker, but league-average quarterbacks hold plenty of value, especially for this balanced Titans roster.
It's hard to imagine the Titans letting go of Tannehill, who signed a one-year deal with Tennessee this March after being acquired via trade, with the 31-year-old making sense as part of a two-part plan at the position that also should include a draft pick. As the Titans learned this season and throughout the Mariota era, it's dangerous to have all your organizational eggs in one basket at quarterback.
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Tannehill's money-making stretch got me thinking about how the upcoming free-agent market has changed since I ranked the top-25 free agents in August. In this week's Debrief, I'll take a quick tour around the quarterback position and beyond, examining which players have helped and hurt their free agency value in the first 12 weeks of the 2019 season.
The 2020 Quarterback Market, in a series of overly declarative sentences
1) The contracts of Tom Brady and Drew Brees make it nearly impossible to imagine them changing teams in the offseason. Though the voidable years on both players' deals mean they are technically bound for free agency, the financial pain for the Patriots and the Saints would be too great to let them leave, because of the massive amounts of dead money the teams would incur.
2) It's far more possible that Philip Rivers, carrying a 15:14 TD-to-INT ratio as the 37-year-old QB of a 4-7 team, will leave the Chargers after his current contract runs out this offseason than I ever would have expected back in August. His performance over the next five weeks looms large, but I'd expect there to be a market for Rivers if the Chargers try to lowball him to stay.
3) Based on the contract extension Bucs general manager Jason Licht signed before the season and the public comments of Bruce Arians, there's likely a greater chance that Jameis Winston stays in Tampa in 2020 than Bucs fans want to believe. This will be especially true if Winston pulls off his patented post-playoff-relevancy strong December.
4)*Dak Prescott* will eventually be paid a lot of money to remain the Cowboys' starting quarterback for a very long time. Even with Prescott having a career season in his walk year, the details of how they get to that point aren't that fascinating, I promise.
5) After performing well as an emergency starter for New Orleans this season, Teddy Bridgewater should have a better market as a free agent than he did a year ago, when he signed on with the Saints for a one-year deal worth up to $12.5 million. But I still wouldn't expect him to get true starter money over $20 million per year. Don't discount the Saints trying to continue having their Brees King Cake and eating it, too, with Bridgewater staying as the backup-in-waiting. They will have to be creative to pull that off, though.
6) The Jaguars will be a wild card in the quarterback sweepstakes. After getting blown out in three successive weeks, it's possible to imagine owner Shad Khan cleaning house completely, from the front office down to the coaching staff. That would only raise further questions about the futures of 2019 free-agency prize Nick Foles and rookie Gardner Minshew.
Free agents who have made themselves money this season
1) Bucs outside linebacker Shaq Barrett's monster performance against the Falcons' Jake Matthewson Sunday was a reminder that Barrett has mostly maintained his scorching start to the season. Barrett had a sack, a pass defensed, a forced fumble, four more quarterback hits and five hurries, according to Pro Football Focus, in addition to forcing a few backbreaking penalties by Matthews. Signed to a one-year contract worth up to $5 million before this season, Barrett will be a strong candidate for the franchise tag.
2) The Steelers surprised a lot of folks by paying Bud Dupree $9.22 million this season as part of the fifth-year option on his contract. The former first-round pick responded with a career season that includes excellent play against the run, seven sacks and 35 total pressures. PFF has him ranked sixth this season among 3-4 outside linebackers, and he figures to be a priority free agent for some team, possibly the Steelers.
3)*Matthew Judon* is following in a long line of Ravens edge rushers who have seen a jump in production and playing time in their contract year, leading to free-agency riches. I don't think he's as big a difference maker as Za'Darius Smith, who left Baltimore for a four-year, $66 million pact with the Packers last March, but the Ravens have learned the hard way how difficult it is to keep pass rushers. For once, it doesn't appear that there is much young future talent in the pass-rushing pipeline.
4)*Arik Armstead* may be playing too well for the 49ers to keep him. San Francisco general manager John Lynch is going to have tough decisions to make, because so many of his players are performing like stars. Armstead's 10 sacks and fantastic run defense have come out of nowhere after the 2015 first-round pick battled injuries and ineffectiveness early in his career.
6)Broncos safety Justin Simmons flashed big-time talent in his second season, took a step back in his third and put it all together under coach Vic Fangio this season. He's a strong candidate for the franchise tag.
Players who haven't helped their value
1) Some team will take a chance on A.J. Green next offseason at a reasonably big price tag. The longtime Bengal is a Hall of Fame talent who has only produced when he's played. There's just no way, however, his contract will be as big as possible after he missed the first 11 games of this season. He's missed 24 games and counting since 2016 started.
2) The Seahawks paid Ezekiel Ansah $9 million on a one-year prove-it contract this offseason. This is often the type of last big-ticket deal for formerly dominant players on the way down to the NFL's middle class in pay structure. That should definitely be the case after a rough season for Ansah.
3)Jaguars defensive end Yannick Ngakoue figures to be among my top 20 free agents in March, possibly among the top 10. It's hard to find a consistent pass rusher in free agency, and he qualifies. With that said, Ngakoue -- who held out this summer, to no avail -- could use a strong finish to the season, because he's been less disruptive than in previous seasons. After averaging 73 total disruptions in 2017 and 2018, Ngakoue has 31 this season, according to PFF, despite an uptick in snap percentage.
4) The less said about Melvin Gordon's holdout, the better. His play has picked up markedly after a slow return to the Chargers lineup in October, but he's unlikely to be the flag bearer for getting running backs paid like he was hoping.
5)Eagles wideout Nelson Agholor is an example of when fifth-year options go wrong. He's going to finish his five-year rookie deal without logging a single season over 800 yards. This year, though he's had every chance to step up, he may log his third sub-500-yard campaign.
6) Some team will bring in Marcus Mariota as a quality backup quarterback next season, but it's hard to imagine him getting a contract much better than what Teddy Bridgewater signed for in New Orleans this year.
Superstars who have solidified their place high on free-agent mountain
1) There is a worthwhile debate to be had about the efficacy of paying any defensive player more than $20 million per year in a salary-cap system, unless that player is in the prime of a Hall of Fame career. There is not a debate over whether Seattle's Jadeveon Clowney will get that type of money on the open market, because that's what he'll be worth in a system that doesn't limit his choices. Clowney's representatives smartly got the Seahawks to agree not to use the franchise tag on him when Seattle acquired him from Houston, Clowney just needs to make sure his current hip ailment doesn't turn into a serious issue.
3) Perhaps Kansas City DT Chris Jones doesn't have the name recognition of the guys above, but he plays like a superstar. The Chiefs will surely use the tag on him if necessary. Otherwise, he'd be my pick as the highest-paid non-quarterback in this free agency class.
Veterans earning another nice contract
1)Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy is the best front-seven player and the best pass rusher on the best defense in the league. There are enough Bill Belichick disciples around to drive up his value in free agency to its actual worth.
2)*Robert Quinn*'s burst in Dallas reminds me of his days as a St. Louis Ram. Previous back issues remain a concern, but they haven't shown up in 2019.
4) Quality cornerbacks are hard to find, and the Eagles' Ronald Darby has improved throughout the year since returning from ACL surgery.
I expected Wilson to keep his once-sizable lead in this race until at least December. But as the previously excellent Rams defense learned on Monday night, resistance to Lamar Jackson's sport-shaking season is increasingly futile. Jackson gets the edge for now because of how much better he makes his teammates. His receivers are more open because of Baltimore's threat to run. The record-setting rushing pace for the entire team is because of Jackson. As someone who has irrationally rooted for running quarterbacks to succeed since I saw Randall Cunningham do this, it sure feels like Lamar Jackson is The One. Lamar throwing for five touchdowns (along with 95 rushing yards) on only six perfect drives is as close to perfect as football gets.
Let's not act, however, like this race is remotely over. Wilson is lifting up his supporting cast as much as Jackson, with a weak offensive line, erratic running game and a defense that has only recently started playing well. Wilson's performance in Philadelphia was far better than the stats showed because of drops and his 13 completions still led to 200 yards in rough conditions.
It's worth remembering that the NFL MVP vote is not like the NBA, where voters list first through fifth place. I'm happy to highlight other great NFL players having sensational seasons here, but this MVP "conversation" is down to a two-man race over the next five weeks for an award that only requires voters to pick one recipient.
UNSTOPPABLE PERFORMANCE: Stephon Gilmore, CB, New England Patriots
Gilmore's diving interception while holding Amari Cooper to a goose egg followed by his diving pass defensed in the end zone should get some notice in the wide open Defensive Player of the Year race. Gilmore's presence allows Bill Belichick to essentially blitz every down, as rushing five defenders is the norm with such a strong Patriots secondary. Gilmore hasn't allowed a completion in three consecutive weeks.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: It's nice to see Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold bouncing back from their rough starts to the season. They both threw over for over 300 yards while leading the Browns and Jets, respectively, to 75 combined points. More than anything, both players are playing with a mental clarity that was absent early in the year.
Unstoppable Performance is presented by Courtyard by Marriott, the Official Hotel of the NFL.