Tom Brady isn't the only big-name quarterback with a hazy contractual future beyond this season. Drew Brees is in a similar situation to Brady, with a contract set to void next offseason, causing salary cap chaos unless he re-signs with the franchise he's carried for longer than anyone dared imagine.
Philip Rivers will be a 38-year-old free agent in 2020 if he doesn't re-up with the Chargers before the new league year begins, which makes him look like a relative kiddo in comparison. Eli Manning may have to decide, at 39 years old, whether he wants to join a different team for the first time. Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota may not have a choice but to change teams if the season goes sideways. Dak Prescott will almost assuredly be re-signed by the Cowboys, perhaps before this season even starts. There's also a second tier of quarterbacks such as Jacoby Brissett, Ryan Tannehill and Teddy Bridgewater who will spark interest.
Some of the names above -- perhaps most -- will wind up with new contracts to stay put before free agency starts next March, but their unsettled status adds weight to their upcoming campaigns. How they each fare on the field in 2019 will help shape what's set to be a fascinating 2020 free agency period. I've created a preposterously early list of my top-25 players scheduled to hit free agency below, while staying aware that innumerable factors will change those rankings before the new year. One potential change would be a new collective bargaining agreement.
The calm before the storm?
The ongoing CBA negotiations between the NFL and NFL Players Association loom over the entire league, especially the front offices. Expect a transition from celebrating the league's centennial anniversary to a 2020 offseason filled with labor reporting and consternation. Assuming that a new deal isn't worked out in the meantime, the final year of the current CBA (scheduled to end after the 2020 season) will shape the next free agency cycle as much as the aging quarterbacks.
The short version: There are multiple rules limiting teams from putting a ton of contractual money beyond the existing CBA. That could lead to more short-term contracts and a reduced ability for teams to restructure contracts. For the first time in years, the salary cap could be truly difficult to negotiate for more than a few teams. Fewer financial tricks will be available to create salary cap space, although teams always seem to find a way. Ultimately, 2020 could prove to be a one-off year of transaction trends that completely change under the terms of the next CBA. It sounds like a headache for general managers, but it could make for compelling player movement.
A note about these rankings
The rankings below are not a prediction of which players will make the most money. Rather, these are the players I'd value most if I were signing them to my theoretical team. That's why Tyreek Hill, whose contract is due to expire after the 2019 season, isn't on the list. The Chiefs know Hill differently after working with him for three years, and reports indicate they are open to extending the relationship. It would be another matter for another team to sign him. If Hill reached free agency, he would inevitably attract interest from some teams. I suspect the risk inherent in signing Hill would eliminate him from consideration entirely from the majority of the league, similar to how he was reportedly taken off most draft boards in 2016 before Andy Reid selected him in the fifth round.
About those voids
Brady and Brees aren't listed below because they aren't truly due to become free agents. Even though their contracts void at the end of the league year (the new league year begins on March 18, 2020 at 4 p.m. ET), there are huge financial incentives from each team's side to avoid that scenario. In Brady's case, Over The Cap and The MMQB noted that the big signing bonus given to Brady this year would result in $13.5 million of "dead money" going on the 2020 cap if he were no longer on the roster. The Patriots will have the exclusive rights to negotiate a new deal with Brady until the current league year ends. This incentivizes the Patriots to work out a new contract well before that ever becomes an issue, giving Brady even more leverage than he already has from his six championship rings.
Brees has the Saints over an even bigger barrel. They would have to eat more than $21 million in dead money if they can't work out a new deal by March 17. In theory, this situation is even better than free agency for both players. But I don't think it makes sense to list Brees or Brady with the rest of the free agents because of the financial ties the Saints and Patriots have to both players beyond 2019, a fact that makes their departures even more unlikely.
On to the list!
His previous two seasons have been spotty, but 26-year-old quarterbacks with his skill set and level of production virtually never become available for a reason. I'd be stunned if he doesn't have a new deal by October, much less next year.
Losing Rivers just before the Chargers are scheduled to move into their new stadium would be nothing short of disastrous.
I asked resident NFL Network Scouting Gawd Daniel Jeremiah to rank Jones, Jadeveon Clowney and Leonard Williams as potential free agents. He had the same order as me, proving once again that scouting backgrounds are overrated.
In theory, Clowney's a riskier long-term gambit because he's always battling injury. In reality, he's played over 87 percent of the Texans' defensive snaps over the last three years, with a knack for playing his best down the stretch.
The Cowboys should prioritize signing Cooper before Ezekiel Elliott because Cooper is closer to free agency. Will they?
Still just 25 years old after four seasons, Williams has enjoyed a very strong career without quite developing into a game-wrecker. Perhaps a new defensive coordinator (Gregg Williams) will help him get there.
Green will be 32 years old when next season starts, with a growing history of injuries. He also has the talent to be one of the best free-agent wide receiver signings of all time.
The numbers don't lie: Pro Football Focus credits Ngakoue with 134 total pressures, including 23 sacks, over the last two seasons.
It's rare for run-blocking-first guards to blow up the free-agent market, but there aren't many guards in the entire league who can impact a game like Scherff.
PFF's year-end rankings listed Hudson in the top five at center in each of the last three years, including No. 2 in 2018. Known as one of the smartest linemen alive, he could reset the center market for the second time in his career.
Winston will either play well enough for head coach Bruce Arians and general manager Jason Licht to re-sign him, or he'll play poorly enough to send this ranking plummeting.
Mariota has every intangible possible. But it's fair to question his durability and how high his ceiling can be, considering his tangibles as a passer.
Gordon needs to show up for work at some point this season to become a free agent in the offseason, although it wouldn't crush his free agency value to enter 2020 following a season with a lighter workload.
There's a decent chance Gordon actually makes it to free agency because the Chargers may need the franchise tag for Rivers or Henry.
Darby signed a one-year deal as a 25-year-old coming off a torn ACL, knowing that he'll be in better position to get paid in 2020.
A versatile safety who has improved every year, Bell could price himself off the Saints' tight salary cap with another standout season.
The details regarding Reed's recent six-game suspension will have to be investigated by any interested team, but he was playing like a Pro Bowl-caliber defensive tackle last year.
The numbers and the analytics don't quite support Jack as a potential star as much as my eyeballs do, but I still believe he changes the alchemy of any defense.
Undoubtedly one of the game's best cornerbacks of the decade, Harris will turn 31 years old next June. As long as the broken leg he suffered last year has no lasting impact, he should earn one more big contract.
Peters appeared on track to become one of the game's highest-paid cornerbacks until a borderline disastrous first season with the Rams, where he wasn't a fit in Wade Phillips' defense. Will he bounce back?
Quality interior linemen with the versatility to play guard or center are a scarce commodity in the NFL, which will only drive up the demand for Whitehair.
Nate Solder was younger when he hit free agency, but Castonzo is a steadier player, and tackles are impossible to find.
Deep speed is one of the rarest assets in football, one reason why Tyrell Williams struck gold in free agency with the Raiders. Anderson comes with risk, but he's a superior player to Williams.
Starting a few games with Frank Reich as his head coach would be a recipe to send Brissett's stock soaring.
Just missed (in alphabetical order):
Nelson Agholor, WR, Eagles
Giovani Bernard, RB, Bengals
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Saints
Michael Brockers, DE, Rams
Bryan Bulaga, OT, Packers
La'el Collins, OT, Cowboys
Mike Daniels, DT, Lions
Dante Fowler Jr., LB, Rams
Kendall Fuller, CB, Chiefs
Derrick Henry, RB, Titans
Gerald McCoy, DT, Panthers
Jason Peters, OT, Eagles
Ndamukong Suh, DT, Buccaneers
Ryan Tannehill, QB, Titans
Joe Thuney, OG, Patriots
Trae Waynes, CB, Vikings
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