In unusual times, we are witnessing an unusual NFL free agent market.
Almost a full week has passed in the free agency period and there are still many big names without teams – especially quarterbacks. The supply and demand is such that there are more capable QBs available than starting jobs to be had.
As the game of musical chairs continues, here’s a look at why some of the game’s biggest names are still unemployed and where the best fit would be for a bounceback.
Best fit: Pittsburgh Steelers
The 26-year-old became an unrestricted free agent on Wednesday after five seasons with the Buccaneers, the team that drafted him first overall in 2015.
In 2019, Winston became the first player in NFL history to throw 30 touchdown passes and 30 interceptions in one season. Surprisingly, it could have been worse, as he also had nine potential interceptions dropped by opponents. Winston joined a second exclusive club in 2019, becoming just one of eight QBs to throw for 5,000 yards in a season. But he also threw an NFL-record seven pick-sixes last year.
Winston clearly has talent, but he needs a new start. His first and last pass attempts with the Tampa Bay were interceptions. The entire tenure was a mess.
Ryan Tannehill is a perfect example of the kind of change Winston needs. Tannehill was cast off by the Miami Dolphins last off-season and went to Tennessee as a backup; he ended the season as a franchise quarterback and got a big-money long-term contract last week.
Winston has been a star his entire life. He’s never had to hold a clipboard, has never been able to just focus on learning an offence and studying his craft. That’s part of the reason he’s had trouble with interceptions every year in his career, except his national championship-winning season at Florida State.
So start over where Winston will have zero expectations and zero pressure: Pittsburgh. Mike Tomlin’s ability to reason with hard-headed superstars would be good for Winston, and Pittsburgh could use an infusion of top-end talent at quarterback and a Ben Roethlisberger insurance policy.
Pittsburgh was 0-6 versus playoff teams in 2019, largely because once Roethlisberger was hurt the combination of Devlin “Duck” Hodges and Mason Rudolph was inadequate even as a stop-gap measure. Roethlisberger is throwing pain free for the first time in years, but he’s been injury prone throughout of his career and that’s not something that gets better with age.
A couple months ago, Winston thought he was going to by franchise-tagged by the Buccaneers. Now he’s without a franchise and likely will no longer be an NFL starter. If he goes to Pittsburgh, that will be the best thing for him in the long run.
Los Angles Chargers
Expected to be released by the Panthers on Tuesday, Cam Newton’s biggest issue as he’s about to become a free agent is not his play but his health, or lack thereof. Newton underwent shoulder and foot surgeries in 2019. Last season, he missed all but two games due to the Lisfranc injury.
Washington, with Newton’s former coach Ron Rivera, would theoretically be a fit but Washington has already traded for a former Panthers pivot in Kyle Allen. Plus, Newton’s ailments are tough to look past considering he turns 31 in May and Washington is a young, rebuilding franchise.
Anthony Lynn wants a mobile quarterback, so the Los Angeles Chargers would be a better fit. The Chargers missed out in a star in Tom Brady who could create buzz around their franchise that gets lost in the L.A. sports market. And while Newton’s production has fallen off, he’s still a star with a 1,000-watt smile and a legion of fans.
From Newton’s standpoint, the Chargers’ pass-catching options of Mike Williams, Keenan Allen and Hunter Henry are better than the options the 2015 MVP ever had with Carolina.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Freeman was released by the Atlanta Falcons as a cap casualty, but he still has good football left if he doesn’t have to carry an offence.
Freeman ran for 32 touchdowns in six seasons and 77 games with the Falcons. Last season’s 656 yards rushing and 410 yards receiving aren’t impressive as a lead back, but a timeshare situation might bring out the best of him.
The Buccaneers would work. Freeman can make a run at a title, stay in the division he’s familiar with and give Brady a passing outlet he badly needs while the younger Ronald Jones can take all the tough carries in between the tackles.
New York Jets
Clowney was traded from Houston to Seattle ahead of the 2019 campaign and played on a one-year, $15-million dollar deal last season, but the significant raise Clowney and his representation were expected to demand might not be coming.
Clowney had an up-and-down 2019 season in Seattle, with 31 tackles, three sacks and four forced fumbles. The biggest question is the evaluation.
His 32 sacks and 68 tackles for loss over the last five seasons means he’s one of the best defensive players in the league. Three of those seasons he was a Pro Bowler. But Clowney takes plays off and has had nagging injuries, so there is no way he’s going to reset the market on what defensive ends are paid.
The former No. 1 pick is not going to get more than $20 million per year in this market. Teams pay for sacks, and just three is not a good return. But Clowney is an elite edge rusher: his 26.5 per cent rush win rate the last two seasons is third in NFL; he can get to the QB, as he’s had 23.5 sacks over the last three seasons.
Jets defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who is more preoccupied with QB knockdowns than sacks, would be the perfect DC for a freak athlete like Clowney. The 27-year-old also provides scheme versatility, as he can play in a 3-4 or a 4-3 front.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility Clowney returns to Seattle, but if those two sides can’t come to terms, New York is a good landing spot.