Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota are forever intertwined. The two Heisman-winning quarterbacks were the top two picks of the 2015 NFL Draft. They’ve each had underwhelming careers since, and now they’re both in danger of seeing their teams give up on them after 2019.
Winston and Mariota have combined to make one career postseason appearance between them in occasionally hopeful, mostly depressing tenures in Tampa Bay and Tennessee, respectively. Each has been benched for a journeyman backup in the past two years — Ryan Fitzpatrick for Winston and, just this week, Ryan Tannehill for Mariota. Now they’re each staring down free agency with plenty left to prove.
This has been a very bad use of the final year of their contracts; a season that, when played to its fullest, can lead to a lucrative long-term deal the following spring.
2019 is filled with players set to hit free agency next offseason. Sometimes these big contract-year performances portend success. Other times they’re outliers that convince a club to overpay for an average player — or worse. So which ones are we buying in on, and whose newfound glory looks like an illusion?
We take a look at seven different players heading into free agency in 2020.
Robby Anderson, WR, Jets
Anderson has been a useful weapon since joining New York as an undrafted free agent in 2016, but his uneven production could convince the franchise to look elsewhere for Sam Darnold’s top target. The former Temple star blew up with a 92-yard touchdown catch — the longest play of the year so far — in the Jets’ first win of 2019, but he’s generally been unable to exceed his 2017 breakthrough (63 catches, 941 yards) in the two years since.
Christian D’Andrea: Buy. Anderson has improved his hands considerably, going from 14 drops in his first two seasons in the league to just one since 2018. His inconsistent play would be concerning if it came alongside a consistent quarterback, but that’s not something for which the Jets are known. In the past two years alone he’s been treated to the Tunica Casino buffet of too-young Sam Darnold, too-old Josh McCown, and too-Luke-Falk Luke Falk.
Let’s see what Anderson can do with a continually improving Darnold.
Adam Stites: Sell. Inconsistency has defined Anderson’s career thus far, but the flashes of brilliance will probably convince a team he’s a game changer. I wouldn’t be so sure. His 125-yard performance when Darnold returned was only the sixth 100-yard game of his career. None of those six games topped 150 yards.
Yes, he’s had a quarterback carousel but for a big-play receiver, he hasn’t made many, well, big plays. He’s averaged 3.4 receptions per game over the course of his career and some team is going to get stuck with a contract for a player who doesn’t do nearly enough. That production, as well as the fact that he was arrested once in 2017 and again in 2018, would have me looking elsewhere in the receivers market.
Shaquil Barrett, LB, Buccaneers
Barrett has emerged as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, which is borderline shocking considering he’d only started 15 games in his previous five seasons as a pro. The Bucs’ prized acquisition leads the league with nine sacks, all of which came in a torrid start over his first four games of 2019. He’d had 14 sacks in his career before arriving in Tampa Bay.
D’Andrea: Sell. Barrett’s four-game sack streak upped his price tag significantly, but while he’ll only be 27 next month, I don’t think this impact is sustainable. Now that opponents know what he’s capable of, they’ve been successful in either rolling away from him or blocking him outright — he’s had only two solo tackles (no sacks) in his last two games.
I fully believe Barrett is a capable starting linebacker. But giving him top-tier pass rusher money — no doubt what his agent will be looking for after lighting the league on fire through the first quarter of 2019 — is an overpay.
Stites: Buy. An important aspect of Barrett’s 2019 success — in my mind — is that it’s happened without much help at all in Tampa Bay. None of his sacks were manufactured for him by interior pressure or another edge rusher flushing the quarterback into his lap. Over and over again, he’s had to win on his own to get sacks.
That’s why teams, recognizing that he’s the only pass-rushing threat for the Buccaneers, have been able to game plan around his abilities as of late. It’s also why I don’t think Barrett’s ridiculously productive September was a fluke. I’d be willing to roll the dice that — given a halfway decent supporting cast around him — Barrett could keep tallying sacks. That’s worth paying for.
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Saints
The deal that kept Bridgewater in New Orleans this season expires next March, and his 4-0 record as the Saints’ starting quarterback could bring him the QB1 opportunity he’s been looking for since suffering a catastrophic knee injury back in 2016. He’s only thrown for 200+ yards twice in five games as his team’s primary passer, but has been tremendously accurate (69.4 percent completion rate) and shown the ability to make big throws downfield — most notably in a four-touchdown performance against the Buccaneers in Week 5.
D’Andrea: Buy — as long as you’ve got a solid defense behind him. While Bridgewater has never been the kind of passer you’d trust to put up big numbers in a shootout, he’s a steady, turnover-averse presence who makes your offense better. He showed the world he’s still capable of roasting teams by lighting up Tampa Bay, but he’s going to have success as more of a caretaker if he’s in the right situation.
Stites: Sell. It’s hard not to root for Bridgewater, but we’ve seen too many teams convince themselves that efficiency in the form of completion percentage and passer rating is way more valuable than it actually is. The Vikings overpaid Kirk Cousins for exactly that reason, expecting a player who completed an NFL-best 69.8 percent of his passes in 2015 to boost the offense.
But when Cousins completed a career-best 70.1 percent of his passes for the Vikings in 2018, the team’s offense was still 19th in points scored. Granted, there were problems beyond Cousins, namely the awful offensive line and struggling run game. Still, it’s a red flag when a quarterback completes passes but doesn’t actually accomplish much.
Bridgewater is top 10 in completion percentage and passer rating, but the Saints aren’t generating much offense with him at the helm. That’s a problem that will only get worse if he no longer has Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, and the great New Orleans offensive line.
Jamie Collins, LB, Patriots
Collins’ return to New England has seen him play the best football of his career. He’s been an integral part of the league’s top defense, doing a little bit of everything as an inside linebacker. He leads the Patriots in sacks, tackles, tackles for loss, and forced fumbles and has had, per SIS, a three-times bigger positive impact in six games this fall than he had all of last season in Cleveland.
D’Andrea: Sell, unless you’re the Patriots. Collins has been the perfect addition to an already powerful defense in New England, where he and Kyle Van Noy make up the league’s most solid inside linebacking duo. But we’ve seen what happens to him when he’s in the wrong environment. While it’s easy to write off his poor performance with the Browns as the purest function of the NFL’s most cursed franchise, questions linger about how he’ll adjust to a new scheme at age 30. We’ve seen other Patriots linebackers fade into nothing after rebuilding their value in New England, after all (hellllooooo, Akeem Ayers).
Stites: Buy. The Patriots-then-Browns-then-Patriots-again swapping for Collins revealed a couple things. There’s the extremely obvious: Bill Belichick is way better at putting together a defensive game plan specific to his athletes than Gregg Williams. But also, it’s revealed where exactly Collins fits best. He’s a versatile player who can make an impact in many spots, and he’s been especially good as a 3-4 outside linebacker so far in 2019. Don’t sign him and try to make him a Brian Urlacher-type of 4-3 middle linebacker like the Browns did.
Everson Griffen, EDGE, Vikings
Griffen has been a consistent positive presence for Minnesota in his 10-year career, but he could leave Minneapolis in 2020 in search of one last lucrative contract. Although the veteran pass rusher slumped in an injury-plagued 2018, he already has more QB hits (14) and pressures (27) in 2019 than he did then — and that latter figure is fifth-best in the NFL through six weeks.
He’s still a valuable addition — especially when pass rushers like Clay Matthews and Calais Campbell have proven they can still kick ass in their 30s. So is he worth a pricy deal?
D’Andrea: Buy ... for three years or less. Deals of that length typically carry much dead money into the final year of the contract, so any downturn at age 34/35 would create an easy escape route.
Stites: Buy. I’d also be wary of a long-term deal for a player who will be 32 in December, but that doesn’t seem likely anyway. There isn’t much sign that Griffen is slowing down and he’d slot in right away as a starter at a valuable position.
Derrick Henry, RB, Titans
Henry’s on pace for another 1,000-yard season, but only because a punchless Titans offense is running him into the ground. His 18.8 carries per game are 5.4 more than he averaged in 2018 and more than double his average touches from his first two seasons as a pro. He hasn’t done much to justify this attention, either; he’s averaging just 3.7 yards per carry.
He also gets stuck behind the line of scrimmage a lot for a 250-pound back who should ostensibly be a pile-pusher. In 2019, 28 of his 113 carries (24.8 percent) have resulted in either zero or negative yardage. Factor in his limited receiving prowess (45 catches in 53 NFL regular season games) and you’ve got a player who looks like a platoon back in 2020.
D’Andrea: Sell. He’s worth a shot in a non-Titans offense — the same offense that turned the once-dynamic Dion Lewis into a statue — but there will be cheaper options available who offer much of the same demonstrated strengths as Henry.
Stites: Sell. The one thing Henry has truly proven over the course of his career is that he can dominate the Jaguars. He’s averaged 79.3 rushing yards and 18.1 receiving yards in seven games against the AFC South rival. Henry’s had 46.8 rushing yards and 7.5 receiving yards per game against everyone else.
Bradley Roby, CB, Texans
Roby was awful in his final season with the Broncos, but he’s rebounded to make significant improvements as Houston’s top cover corner this fall. Per Sports Information Solutions, he’s seen his yards-allowed-per-target drop from a putrid 10.3 to a more manageable 7.3 — significantly better than fellow outside corner Johnathan Joseph (8.8). That’s not great, though it’s a solid number given the amount of deep targets he’s faced. While Roby’s tackling remains an issue, he’s allowed only 51 percent of passes thrown his way to be completed.
D’Andrea: Buy if he’s second in the pecking order on your CB chart, sell if you need him as your top corner. Roby hasn’t lived up to his first-round pedigree, but he has the talent to be a valuable second man up against potent passing offenses. His one-year prove-it deal in Houston has shown he can be a capable defender when needed.
Stites: Buy. The Texans are about to find out just how valuable Roby really is now that he’s expected to miss a month with a hamstring injury. Roby didn’t give up a single touchdown in the first six weeks of the season, according to Pro Football Focus. He was especially impressive against Tyreek Hill in Week 6. Patrick Mahomes targeted Hill five times while Roby was in coverage and the receiver only caught one of those passes for 8 yards.
When Phillip Gaines replaced Roby in the lineup due to the hamstring injury, he was roasted for two deep touchdowns by Hill. Roby’s not the biggest cornerback and he’s not great against the run, but anyone who can run with Hill is worth paying.