The Brandt Report

Jack Conklin, Austin Hooper among free agents with leverage

When the free agency period opens on March 18, scores of NFL players will have the chance to cash in on a new contract -- but some will have richer opportunities than others.

Below, I've assembled a list of 10 players poised to enter free agency with maximum leverage. Note that this is not a list of the best free agents. You won't find any of the players who I expect will be hit with the franchise or transition tags, like Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry, because they won't be reaching the market in the first place. You also won't find some prominent quarterbacks, like Drew Brees, Tom Brady or Philip Rivers, who are at places in their career where their options are naturally limited by circumstance. (Brees has already said he's going back to New Orleans, while Brady likely won't find a better situation than New England, and just a few spots stand out as ideal fits for Rivers.)

Rather, the 10 players you'll see below are in exceptionally strong positions because they are likely not going to be tagged and stand out as plus-level talents at positions of relatively high demand. For this reason, we can expect that they should have the leverage to command a lucrative market and call their own shots in terms of where they'll be playing in 2020 and beyond.

1) Jack Conklin, offensive tackle

The Titans put themselves in a bad position with Conklin by failing to pick up his fifth-year option last May, when the right tackle was still struggling to regain his stellar early-career form following an ACL tear suffered in the 2017 playoffs. This past season, the 25-year-old Conklin roared back to top shape, helping pave the way for running back Derrick Henry to win the league rushing title -- Conklin earned Pro Football Focus' fifth-best run-blocking grade (80.5) among offensive tackles with 500-plus snaps, and the 12th-best overall offensive grade at the position (78.0). Now, with Henry and Ryan Tannehill likely being higher priorities when it comes to tag usage, the first offensive tackle to make the NFL Pro Bowl as a rookie since 1947 will hit the open market.

2) Austin Hooper, tight end

While he would love to live in a world where it could happen, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff admitted on Sirius XM NFL Radio that Atlanta won't be able to field the NFL's highest-paid player at every position. Per Over The Cap, seven players are currently set to account for $109 million against the cap for Atlanta, which would be about half of the roughly $200 million being projected for the 2020 salary cap: quarterback Matt Ryan ($24.2 million), receiver Julio Jones ($20.4 million), left tackle Jake Matthews ($16 million), cornerback Desmond Trufant ($15.2 million), defensive tackle Grady Jarrett ($12.3 million), center Alex Mack ($10.6 million) and linebacker Deion Jones ($10.3 million). So it's going to be tough to retain Hooper, a former third-round pick who made the Pro Bowl in each of the past two seasons and ranked second on the team in targets (97), catches (75) and receiving TDs (six) in 2019. I don't really see a tight end in this draft class who projects as a no-doubt first-rounder, meaning Hooper could easily become the NFL's highest-paid tight end by average salary, surpassing the record set by Jimmy Graham's three-year, $30 million deal with the Packers in 2018.

3) Teddy Bridgewater, quarterback

Drew Brees' decision to return to the Saints in 2020 spelled the end of Teddy Time in New Orleans. After re-upping with Sean Payton last offseason, Bridgewater seized the opportunity to shine when Brees went down with a thumb injury in 2019, putting up a 5-0 record and a 9:2 TD-to-INT ratio as Brees' replacement. The 27-year-old Bridgewater will draw buzz from teams seeking a veteran starter for 2020, and -- with the tag likely keeping Ryan Tannehill in Tennessee and the fear of signing someone who threw 30 picks in one season impacting the market for Jameis Winston -- he could be the outright first choice of some.

4) Jadeveon Clowney, edge rusher

The No. 1 overall pick of the 2014 NFL Draft is finally headed for free agency, having been tagged by the Texans last offseason and traded to the Seahawks, who agreed at the time of the deal not to tag Clowney again this year. Clowney's 2019 season was representative of his career as a whole: containing moments of greatness but interrupted by injuries, which in this case caused Clowney to miss three games and affected his performance in others. There is no doubt Clowney elevated the play of a defensive front seven that struggled to get sacks without him on the field. For the first time in his career, any team that wants a chance at him can take a run. Might someone be tempted to make the 27-year-old the fourth edge player in the NFL to average more than $20 million per season (joining Khalil Mack, DeMarcus Lawrence and Frank Clark)?

5) Jason Pierre-Paul, edge rusher

After a fireworks accident led to the amputation of his right index finger in 2015, Pierre-Paul completed an impressive recovery to top form, racking up 28 sacks (including 12.5 in 2018) over the next three seasons. JPP did it again in 2019, bouncing back from a spring car accident to finish with 8.5 sacks in 10 games. And his impact didn't end with his stat line -- in his second season with the Buccaneers, he also helped prevent opposing offenses from leaning on double-teams to slow Shaq Barrett, who stormed his way to 19.5 sacks. Pierre-Paul's history of medical issues and his age (31) might dissuade interest from some teams, but he's a proven commodity at a position that is a major need for multiple organizations across the league.

6) Anthony Harris, safety

Harris worked his way up the ranks with the Vikings the hard way, first earning a spot on the roster as an undrafted free agent and then spending most of his time on special teams, eventually snagging an increasing number of defensive snaps. In 2019, his first season as a full-time starter, Harris displayed the same ball-hawking skills that led to an NCAA-high eight picks in his junior year at Virginia; Harris tied for the league lead with six interceptions, in addition to posting career highs in tackles (60) and passes defensed (11). If Minnesota's tight cap situation (the Viking are currently projected by Over The Cap to have $1.4 million in space) prevents the team from retaining Harris, he should attract plenty of suitors.

7) Joe Schobert, linebacker

Maybe things would be different if the previous Browns regime was returning in 2020, but new GM Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski have decided to let Schobert hit the market and focus on building the offensive line, per Cleveland.com. In so doing, they're allowing the rest of the league a chance to snag a 26-year-old who has been great at best and solid at worst since becoming a starter in 2017, notching 100-plus tackles in each of the past three seasons and collecting a career-high four interceptions and nine passes defensed last year.

8) Byron Jones, cornerback

Until a new collective bargaining agreement is signed between the NFL and NFL Players Association, the Cowboys will have both the franchise and transition tags at their disposal -- but even so, they'll likely use the former on quarterback Dak Prescott and the latter on receiver Amari Cooper, leaving Jones to offer his services to the highest bidder. After struggling at safety earlier in his career, Jones found a home at cornerback, ranking 15th among CBs who were targeted 50-plus times in yards allowed per catch (6.0) and 24th in forced incompletion rate (15%) in 2019, per Pro Football Focus. He can be expected to draw top dollar -- though the team that shells out for him will have to hope he can generate more turnovers than he has over the past two seasons (zero picks and one forced fumble).

9) Robby Anderson, wide receiver

Anderson would rank higher if not for the glut of talented receivers that will be available in the draft, but the fact remains that he has the speed -- reflected in his 207 career receptions and 14.8 yards-per-catch mark -- that makes him an appealing target for teams that believe he's a true No. 1 wide receiver. If the Jets want to try to work out a long-term deal, they might have to resort to the franchise tag, but if not, Anderson should be able to carve out a market.

10) Kenyan Drake, running back

Following in the footsteps of fellow discarded DolphinsMinkah Fitzpatrick, Jordan Phillips and Ryan Tannehill, Drake proceeded to play his best NFL football after leaving Miami. Traded to Arizona midway through last season, Drake made an immediate splash, rolling to 162 scrimmage yards in his Week 9 Cardinals debut. Over his eight-game stint in the desert, Drake was on fire, collecting 5.2 yards per carry and scoring eight times. Arizona might use the tag to keep Drake around, but then again, the team has already made a significant financial commitment to David Johnson for 2020 (he'll count for a $14.2 million cap hit and $16.2 million in dead money if cut). If Drake makes it to the market and the Titans decide to tag Derrick Henry, Drake could be the top player available at his position, depending on what happens with Melvin Gordon.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.

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