With less than four weeks to go until the start of the 2020 NFL season, it's crunch time for a handful of notable free agents still looking to latch on with a team. One of the most high-profile unsigned veterans, Dez Bryant, will soon work out with the Ravens in an effort to resuscitate his career after not playing a snap in two-and-a-half years.
As hard-pressed as players are to find a new home before Week 1, decision-makers have the challenging task of trying to plug unexpected holes that have developed. Arguably no unit across the league will undertake as drastic a makeover as Bill Belichick's defense, which was decimated by free-agent departures and COVID-19-related opt-outs. Could a big-name free agent addition be just the solution Nike has dialed up?
Below are free agent-team pairings at five different positions that would be mutually beneficial.
The Patriots could use major help along their front seven after seeing several of their most disruptive defenders exit in free agency (Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy, Danny Shelton) or opt out due to the coronavirus (Dont'a Hightower). Those four players ranked among the team's top six leaders in QB pressures last season, while Collins and Van Noy ranked first (22) and second (21) in hurries, according to Next Gen Stats. Clowney had more than both with 23. The three-time Pro Bowler also had a higher stuff percentage (6.3%) than any player on Bill Belichick's dominant 2019 unit. Although New England has been talking up third-year linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley, asking a guy with 413 career snaps (per PFF) to fill the shoes of so many productive veterans is a lot, to say the least. Bringing in a player of Clowney's caliber on a team-friendly(ish) one-year deal -- if he'd succumb to taking a bit less money -- would alleviate some of that pressure, giving the Pats a versatile edge presence to team with second-year defensive end Chase Winovich and rookie outside linebacker Josh Uche. Clowney would get to play for one of the greatest defensive minds of all time before earning another shot to finally cash in. Would it really surprise anyone if the 2014 No. 1 overall pick becomes the next passed-over former first-rounder to land in New England?
The Eagles could use depth behind 2019 rookie sensation Miles Sanders, and Freeman could use a roster spot to replenish his market value. Doug Pederson's offense would offer the two-time Pro Bowler a soft landing spot to try and recapture his dual-threat skill set that has been limited by injuries and inefficiencies over the past three seasons. The former Falcon says he's looking for a team that's hungry and believes in him as much as he believes in himself, which suggests he'd be open to competing if it's the right situation. Sanders, who's week-to-week with a lower body injury, has the Eagles' RB1 job locked up, but Freeman could potentially earn snaps away from backups Boston Scott and Corey Clement. Best case: A healthy Freeman makes the most of seven-to-10 touches per game, providing the Eagles with productivity from the backfield while Sanders catches his breath. Worst case: The Eagles waste a few million dollars (they have the cap space) on a short-term, low-cost move.
Hard to imagine a better place for Kaepernick to resurrect his NFL career than in Baltimore. With the Ravens, the former Super Bowl quarterback would reunite with former 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman in a system that fits Kap's skill set as well as any in the league. The organization boasts an incredibly strong and tight-knit front office, as well as a Super Bowl-winning head coach, the league's reigning MVP and the 2019 Walter Payton Man of the Year. If any franchise could withstand the media circus that will inevitably follow Kap's signing, it's the Baltimore Ravens. It's fair to wonder what the 32-year-old, who hasn't taken an NFL snap since 2016, has left in the tank. But it's hard for any organization to know for sure until it brings him in for a workout. If he outplays backup Robert Griffin III, the team would only need to eat $500,000 in dead money to move on from the former Washington QB, per Over The Cap. And if Kap doesn't come out on top in that battle, but at least shows familiarity and capability within the offense, then Baltimore has yet another insurance policy at the most important position.
The Ravens displayed absolute confidence and fortitude last offseason when they completely overhauled their offense to fit a quarterback 27 other teams passed over in the 2018 draft -- all while enduring wide-ranging skepticism. Seems far less risky to give a former Super Bowl passer an opportunity to win a QB2 job.
The Bengals might need to inject even more cash into their secondary now that free-agent addition Trae Waynes (torn pec) is expected to miss a good chunk of the 2020 season. Barring a trade, Cincinnati is unlikely to find a better CB replacement than the 37th-ranked free agent on NFL.com's Top 101 list. The Bengals' coaching staff should be quite familiar with the eighth-year pro, as Cincy defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has faced him 10 times since 2013 while serving as the DB coach for the Dolphins (2012-17) and Giants ('18). As much as Ryan wants to be viewed as a safety, it's the two-time Super Bowl winner's experience on the perimeter and in the slot that will likely be the reason he gets paid this season. While the former Patriot and Titan surrendered six touchdowns and allowed a 92.5 passer rating to opposing QBs when he was the nearest defender in 2019, he also picked off four passes and had the second-most passes defensed (19), according to Next Gen Stats. You take the good with the bad if you're the Bengals because A) you've got the cap space and B) there are too many potent passing attacks to deal with in the division. A competitive one-year agreement would seem to benefit both sides: Cincinnati would have a clear out once Waynes returns to 100 percent; Ryan would get to rebuild his market value for a possible 2021 windfall. Let's make a deal!
A 36-year-old tight end who's missed 24 games over the past two years due to ankle injuries ... Not exactly the pass-catching help Aaron Rodgers was hoping for this offseason. Still, Walker would add some much-needed punch to the Packers' passing game. Prior to his season-ending injury in Week 7, the productive veteran ranked 11th among tight ends in catches (21), more than double the total that current Packers TE1 Marcedes Lewis managed during that same span (9). And while Green Bay does have 2019 third-rounder Jace Sternberger waiting in the wings, he didn't record a single regular-season reception as a rookie after spending the first half of the campaign on injured reserve (though he did catch 3 balls in the playoffs). Working in Walker's favor: He learned Matt LaFleur's system in 2018 when both were in Tennessee, although he did suffer a season-ending injury in Week 1. Still, veterans with scheme familiarity are at a premium with the pandemic severely limiting teaching opportunities and practice reps.