How NFL Free Agency Affects the Draft, Part 2
There’s a lot of things in the world that have affected next month’s NFL Draft. Coronavirus is the most obvious one, which has led to teams conducting interviews over FaceTime. Roger Goodell finally won’t get booed when he takes the (virtual) stage this year. Honestly, that might be the final nail in the “2020 is the weirdest year of our lives” coffin. There’s also the usual suspects, though: free agency, trades, combine performances, etc. Today, we’ll focus on the first two. How have teams’ offseason moves affected their priorities in the draft?
I’m going to go through every team and name one move or collection of moves that changes what we’ve been seeing in mock drafts. Teams will be in alphabetical order by city. This is Part 2 of 2, with Las Vegas through Washington. Part 1 is here.
Las Vegas Raiders: Signing LBs Nick Kwiatkoski and Cory Littleton
Does anyone know how to remove Sharpie? I’m asking for me and anyone else that had Kenneth Murray to Las Vegas at 19. The fit seemed so perfect, but Mike Mayock and company just had to go and sign two quality linebackers in free agency instead. Now, it’d surprise me to see linebacker before the 3rd or 4th round for Vegas.
No need for linebacker means 19th overall will likely be a corner, at least the way I see it. That’s assuming that the Raiders don’t do something crazy like take Jordan Love, as mentioned previously. Receiver and corner are the clear-cut pressing needs now, but I still believe receiver will be addressed at 12, regardless of which of the three it is.
Vegas could still add a SAM to complement Kwiatkoski and Littleton, as Nicholas Morrow could be improved upon. Murray isn’t the best option for that, as I think his best fit is at MIKE, but there are plenty of prospects in the middle rounds that would be good fits. My favorite would be Akeem Davis-Gaither from Appalachian State.
Los Angeles Chargers: Signing CB Chris Harris
This is another one that’s not about the top of the draft. What’s been even more telling than the Chargers’ moves has been their lack thereof, specifically at QB. It seems set in stone at this point that 6th overall will be either Tua Tagovailoa or Justin Herbert, depending on the Dolphins’ choice. After that, tackle is still a need despite the signing of Bryan Bulaga, as the current starter at left tackle is Trey Pipkins.
Once QB and OT are addressed, I’ve traditionally taken a boundary corner in the third round of any Chargers mock drafts. The reasoning was that with Casey Hayward and Desmond King entrenched as starters, the addition of an impact player on the other side would be unstoppable. With Harris now in the fold, this is no longer a short-term concern. However, I’d still expect Los Angeles to draft a late round corner with hopes that they develop into a starter once Harris ages out of the team.
With corner addressed, I’d look for the Chargers to turn to other pieces on offense in the third round. Guard or center is a consideration, even with the addition of Trai Turner. A slot receiver is a need as well, or an outside one if Shane Steichen is bold enough to run Keenan Allen purely out of the slot in 2020. Running back could also get a look, depending on who’s available and what the staff wants Austin Ekeler’s workload to be.
Los Angeles Rams: Signing EDGE Leonard Floyd
The Rams are one of the more curious cases in the league these days. Todd Gurley is gone, rumors still swirl around Brandin Cooks, and they still need offensive line and linebacker help. They don’t even have a kicker at this point! Without much salary cap room, they’ve had to get creative with their moves, which is what concerned me after they lost Dante Fowler Jr.
Luckily, they found a short term solution in Floyd, who signed a 1 year, $10 million deal with Los Angeles to replace Fowler. Floyd hasn’t lived up to his draft position, but I don’t think he’s a slouch by any means. If it works out, EDGE is no longer a concern, because you just re-sign him. If it doesn’t, you’ve at least pushed a need to the 2021 draft, rather than having more needs than capital this year.
The Rams’ only pick in the first two rounds is at 52nd overall. I half expect them to trade down, because they have so few picks in this draft already. If they do make a selection, I’d expect somebody like Troy Dye, Jordyn Brooks, or Willie Gay Jr. to get strong consideration to bolster the linebacker spot. They could also move in on an offensive lineman like Jonah Jackson or Matt Peart.
Miami Dolphins: Signing CB Byron Jones
The Dolphins are, or at least should be, picking BPA, with exceptions at a select few positions. Before free agency, that was really only WR, where the duo of DeVante Parker and Preston Williams looks solid. Miami is now paying the two biggest corner contracts in league history to Jones and Xavien Howard. I think that makes CB a position they could go without upgrading in the draft.
QB is still the move at 5 and OT should still be the pick at either 18 or 26. That of course assumes Miami keeps all of their picks, which doesn’t seem likely. Regardless, it’s easier to list positions the Dolphins don’t need than ones they do, which is why going the corner route is intriguing.
I’ve said this corner class is strong, and it is, but it’s strong because there’s a lot of talent clumped at the top. That means, by and large, that teams looking for a corner to see the field immediately will have to strike in the first two days. By avoiding this via signing Jones, Miami has actually opened up one of their bajillion picks in the first two days to do something else with. That means they could attack this interior offensive line class, look for one of the upper tier linebackers, or make a run at one of the top 5 safeties. With the number of picks they have, perhaps they’ll do all 3.
Minnesota Vikings: Trading WR Stefon Diggs
This trade at least made some sense. It was clear Diggs was frustrated with the system and quarterback he had in Minnesota, and the Vikings secured an absolute haul for him, including 22nd overall in this year’s draft. It still absolutely sucks for Vikings fans, but at least there’s assets the team can use to replace him.
The question is when, not if, the Vikings grab a receiver in this draft. They benefit from an insanely deep class that gives them this flexibility. Justin Jefferson at 22 or 25 could be an option, as could Laviska Shenault Jr., Denzel Mims, or Jalen Reagor. If, however, Minnesota opts to address other needs in the first round, receiver later on is an option as well.
I think it’s likely Minnesota doubles up, considering the weakness of a Bisi Johnson and Tajae Sharpe tandem next to Adam Thielen. I’d expect them to target somebody like Antonio Gandy-Golden or a similar big-bodied player in the middle rounds. Corner and offensive line are still in the cards, especially after letting Mackensie Alexander, Trae Waynes, and Xavier Rhodes all leave this offseason.
New England Patriots: Franchise Tagging G Joe Thuney
Much like some of the other teams covered earlier on, the Patriots have been quiet this offseason, apart from the Tom Brady stuff. Their biggest move has likely been re-signing Devin McCourty, but I’ve been of the opinion that New England should be looking for his replacement anyway. That turns our attention to Thuney.
Again, while expected, tagging Thuney prevents the Patriots from having a gaping hole to address. What makes it interesting is that this is the first time since 2015 that Bill Belichick has used the franchise tag. Back then, he used it on kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who ended up signing a 4-year extension. Since then, a ton of quality Patriots players have hit free agency without receiving the tag. What that says, at least to me, is that New England is serious about keeping Thuney in the fold.
Not needing an interior offensive lineman early on frees the Patriots up to target some other positions of need. Wide receiver is an obvious one, but I’m personally a fan of both N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers. Quarterback is another one, but again, I was a big Jarrett Stidham guy last year. EDGE and TE loom as the biggest ones for me, with an early target like AJ Epenesa likely in the cards. New England is infamous for drafting BPA, though, so don’t be surprised with something like Jordan Love or Justin Jefferson, either.
New Orleans Saints: Signing WR Emmanuel Sanders
I have to give credit to my fellow WNS contributor and Saints fan Dylan Sanders for this one. Back in January, while I was writing a mock draft, I reached out to him regarding the Saints’ pick at 24th overall. At the time, the most common pick was a wide receiver, but Dylan said he had a gut feeling New Orleans wouldn’t do it.
He was right, in all likelihood. The Saints could still use a quality #3 to go with Michael Thomas and Sanders, or a developmental #2 to eventually replace Sanders. However, neither of those are players you spend the 24th overall pick on. Nor is interior offensive line, nor corner after the retaining of Janoris Jenkins.
That leaves one huge need in my mind, and that’s linebacker. Oft-injured Alex Anzalone and Kiko Alonso are currently the first two middle linebackers on the Saints depth chart. Luckily, 24th overall is an excellent spot to grab one. Kenneth Murray and Patrick Queen should both be available, and I don’t see a scenario in which both of them are off the board. If somehow they are, New Orleans might be a trade down candidate late in the first round.
New York Giants: Signing LB Blake Martinez
Martinez has done well selling himself as a non-liability in coverage to Giants fans, while not making many friends in Green Bay. His complaint about the Packers system seemed to be that he was the “clean-up crew” and not much else. Signing with the Giants likely suggests that New York was comfortable giving him more responsibility. That, plus re-signing David Mayo, takes linebacker out of the cards for me at 4. Yes, even with the Matt Miller rumor that they’re locked in on Isaiah Simmons at 4th overall.
Tackle is just such an overwhelming need for this team. Nate Solder hasn’t lived up to the contract he was given in 2018, yes. On the right side, ESPN lists the current starter as Nick Gates, who’s likely a replaceable piece. If I were in charge of the Giants, I’d target someone like Jedrick Wills Jr. or Tristan Wirfs. Both of them have experience at right tackle, but project favorably to the left side as well. That allows the Giants to move on from Solder should they view Gates as a long-term option. They can also keep Solder if they think the cap hit is too rich for their blood.
New York Jets: Signing OLs George Fant and Connor McGovern
This one likely won’t be popular, but I’m going to do it anyway. Fant’s 3 year, $30 million deal has an out next year with just $2 million dead cap. What that says to me is that they want to see if Fant can be their starter long-term. If he’s not, you slide a middle-round tackle in at left tackle or draft a premier one in 2021. If he is, the tackle situation is finally secure in New York. McGovern is a good option at center, which takes that need away more definitively.
I think the Jets will take a wide receiver at 11th overall. As I mentioned, the structure of the Fant contract is such that he’s your starter at left tackle next year. I like Chuma Edoga on the right side, too. Meanwhile, Robby Anderson left for Carolina, which leaves Jamison Crowder, Breshad Perriman, and Quincy Enunwa as their best 3 receivers. Grabbing a top tier receiver at 11 and seeing what you have in Fant just seems like the most likely option.
Philadelphia Eagles: Trading for CB Darius Slay
Yesterday, I wrote that John Elway and the Broncos were in wide receiver or bust mode. It feels very similar for Howie Roseman and company in Philadelphia. The Eagles have always been mocked either receiver or corner, given their extreme struggles at those positions in 2019. I see Darius Slay as a true #1 shutdown corner, so bringing him on demolishes any need that may have been there before.
So yeah, wide receiver is likely the move at 21. Justin Jefferson, Jalen Reagor, really anyone that can stretch the defense vertically at all. You know all this by now: Greg Ward is a nice depth piece, JJ Arcega-Whiteside looked bad last year, on and on and on. The dark horse move for Philly is linebacker, though. The need isn’t exactly a secret, but it’s a pick that I haven’t seen a ton of, despite both Kenneth Murray and Patrick Queen usually being on the board. Consider the following:
CeeDee Lamb, Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, and Jefferson are all taken by 21. Murray and Queen are both available. You have another pick at 53, where you’d be able to grab a KJ Hamler type player at receiver. Would you rather overdraft Reagor or Laviska Shenault Jr., or take a potential difference maker at LB?
Pittsburgh Steelers: Signing TE Eric Ebron
The Steelers don’t pick until 49th overall in this draft, which hasn’t been all that bad for them during mocks. All their needs are at positions that will have talent available: the trenches, tight end, and running back, namely. I’m not counting quarterback for the moment, because I’m of the opinion that Pittsburgh is banking on Ben Roethlisberger coming back healthy for 2020, and won’t take a QB until 2021 at least.
Tight end can be crossed off that list after the signing of Ebron, who I think is probably a better option than even the top talent in this draft. While it’s been popular to give Pittsburgh Cole Kmet, Thaddeus Moss, or whoever the flavor of the month is, it likely won’t happen as things stand. However, the Steelers have lost Javon Hargrave this offseason. As a team that loves to rotate players in and out, adding another piece in the draft is likely. Justin Madubuike is my favorite option, as he has the athletic profile Pittsburgh likes in their draft picks.
San Francisco 49ers: Trading DT DeForest Buckner
Again, no disrespect to DeForest Buckner, who’s an excellent player. That said, this is again about the pick the 49ers got back, rather than the player they’re losing. It’s no secret that Kyle Shanahan has been unhappy with his receivers room, save Deebo Samuel. Jumping up to 13 puts them squarely in the picture to secure one of the top talents at the position. That’s the obvious solution, so let’s instead talk about possible moves at 31.
Other than wide receiver, some needs in San Francisco include corner, offensive tackle, and a replacement for Buckner on the defensive line. Corner is simple: opposite Richard Sherman, the position has been inconsistent at best, with Emmanuel Moseley looking like the best long-term option. Offensive tackle is more about the future. Joe Staley isn’t getting any younger, after all. The move that I prefer for San Francisco is going corner at 31, while addressing offensive tackle in the middle rounds.
It’s theoretically possible that Kristian Fulton will be available, but I wouldn’t bet on it. I’d be much more comfortable placing my faith in Noah Igbinoghene or AJ Terrell being the pick at 31. Adding one of those players, plus an impact receiver at 13, will keep the 49ers in contention for the years to come.
Seattle Seahawks: Trading for CB Quinton Dunbar
Just a single fifth rounder for Dunbar is absurd in my eyes, so there’s that aspect of this trade. Apart from GM John Schneider’s wizardry, there’s also the on-field benefits of pairing the former Redskin with Shaquill Griffin. It solves a need for Seattle, who can now move Dunbar, Griffin, Tre Flowers, and Ugo Amadi all over the field without losing much productivity. Much like Miami earlier, I view Seattle as being out on this corner class.
Legally speaking, the Seahawks can’t make a first round selection. Yeah, they technically have 27th overall, but the only way I wouldn’t be shocked to see them pick there is if they take someone so off my radar that it sends me into a coma. Once they trade out, they’ll be better equipped to tackle needs at EDGE, offensive line, and possibly even receiver. It’s impossible to give names to look out for, though, because this is Seattle we’re talking about. Probably Trevis Gipson, Danny Pinter, and/or Aaron Parker. I don’t know.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Signing QB Tom Brady
Duh. Of course, in retrospect, Tampa is going all-in. I don’t want to say we should’ve seen this coming, but think about it. Bruce Arians came out of retirement for this job, and we were just cool with the idea that it was to mentor Jameis Winston into a prolific QB? Now, the Bucs have a QB on the verge of retirement, a coach ready to join him, and a really good roster around them. If they’re in the Super Bowl picture, as many expect them to be, it’ll save GM Jason Licht’s job long enough to handpick the direction of the future.
So. You’ve got Tom Brady, which rules out a quarterback at 14, I can only assume. Ndamukong Suh is coming back, so you’re probably not looking to add Javon Kinlaw. JPP and Shaq Barrett are here, too, so no K’Lavon Chaisson, probably. What else is there?
Tackle. There’s offensive tackle. Demar Dotson is 34 and still on the open market and Brady will be 43 by week 1 kickoff. So right tackle is the move, but the question then becomes if one will be available. Mekhi Becton is a pure left tackle, as is Andrew Thomas in my eyes. I already said the Giants should take one of Jedrick Wills Jr. or Tristan Wirfs, which would mean the other would need to last 10 picks. Personally, I think it’s a likely outcome, but we might see some trades involving Tampa to ensure it happens.
Tennessee Titans: Re-Signing QB Ryan Tannehill
I thought for a long time about putting the Vic Beasley Jr. signing here, but I don’t think he’s enough of an answer to prevent Tennessee from looking for EDGE help in this draft. Instead, I’ve elected to write about Tannehill, which might be the first sign that I’m going stir crazy.
The former Dolphin has stabilized the QB situation for the Titans, which rules out the possibility that they’d take a QB with their first rounder. After Marcus Mariota packed his bags for Vegas, the backup is currently Logan Woodside, so expect a middle to late round addition at the position. Now, the question is whether or not Derrick Henry is a long-term piece. That’s complicated by the huge Tannehill contract.
The answer is that Henry has to be a long-term piece. You can’t build an offense you term “exotic smashmouth” and then let your smashmouth RB leave in favor of a QB who threw for seventy-two yards in a playoff game. Because of this, I’d again expect a middle to late round addition at RB to complement Henry but not supplant him. At 29, I think it’ll either be defensive line help or a pass rusher to push Beasley and Harold Landry.
Washington Redskins: Signing CBs Kendall Fuller and Ronald Darby
Washington did pretty well to avoid cratering after trading Quinton Dunbar, bringing back Fuller after two years away and adding division rival Darby. That leaves them with a trio of Fuller and either Fabian Moreau or Jimmy Moreland outside, with Darby manning the slot, which is a secondary I like.
Washington shouldn’t trade out of 2nd overall unless they make absolutely sure they can still secure Chase Young. That covers the EDGE need. Without another pick until the 3rd round, things start to get iffy. Tagging Brandon Scherff helps fend off the offensive line need, as would convincing Trent Williams to return. Tight end is another point of concern, but the 3rd round is a great time to get one of the better ones. Unless something changes and either Scherff or Williams decide they’d like to be Redskins after all, though, I’d imagine an offensive lineman is still a likely outcome at 66th overall.