The NFL’s 2019 free agency period began with the kind of frenzy typically only seen when a cow slips into the Amazon River. Future Hall of Famers were traded. Multiple-time All-Pros changed teams. The Bengals did extremely Bengals things, even without Marvin Lewis in town.
But days after the league officially opened its 2019 business year, that fire hose of activity has slowed to an uneven trickle. After Justin Houston signed with the Colts Thursday, only three of SB Nation’s top 50 free agents and 19 of the top 103 remained available for teams looking for an immediate boost. Now franchises that came into the year looking for their Earl Thomas or Landon Collins may have to settle for a Tre Boston or Marcus Gilchrist — not bad consolation prizes by any means, but not the kind that merit a 36-point font headline either.
There’s a little something for everyone left on this year’s market. A pass rusher like Ezekiel Ansah could provide one lucky team with a much-needed presence on the edge. Andy Levitre and Jared Veldheer could add some veteran savvy for teams in need of pocket protection. Jay Ajayi, T.J. Yeldon, or Isaiah Crowell could be impact players for teams’ tailback platoons.
Where do these players best fit? We took a look at team needs across the league and decided to play matchmaker for the free agents who sat out the first week of the NFL’s open season and are now waiting for the right deal to come along.
DE Ezekiel Ansah — Denver Broncos
Ansah had 14.5 sacks in 2015 and 12 in 2017, but his lack of consistency — he had only two sacks in 13 games in 2016 — led the Lions to retain him with the franchise tag for a make-good 2018. This caution proved well-deserved when injuries limited him to only seven games, two starts, and just 11 tackles.
A bum shoulder may defer his big-money dreams and force him into a shorter deal, but that could be a boon for needy teams out there. Indianapolis could’ve given him a tremendous opportunity to rehabilitate both his shoulder and his value as a pass rusher. However, the Colts addressed that need by signing Justin Houston, who will slide into the team’s defensive end rotation alongside Jabaal Sheard and 2018 second-round pick Tyquan Lewis for snaps.
The Falcons could add him to their collection of inconsistent former first-round picks at DE alongside Takk McKinley and Vic Beasley, but would have to perform some cap space acrobatics to fit the former Lion. The Bengals need help along the edge, but seem primarily interested in getting the band back together after a 6-10 season for some reason. The Giants could sign Ansah to fill some of the void left when they traded away by shipping Olivier Vernon to Cleveland — but that seems a bit too on the nose after the Golden Tate signing.
Instead, let’s pair a guy with great measureables and uneven production with a general manager who loves all that: John Elway. The Broncos’ once-fearsome defense took a step backward in 2018. The club ranked 22nd in the league in total defense and struggled to stop big plays throughout a six-win season.
Adding Ansah to a pass rush that already features Von Miller and Bradley Chubb would help snuff out those big plays before they can develop, especially if the Broncos can get some second-level help in this year’s draft. The big Ghanaian could be the player Elway hoped Shane Ray could become — especially if he’s healthy and able to thrive in the space created by the rest of the Denver front seven.
S Eric Berry — Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys didn’t land Earl Thomas, but they can still get a veteran safety to upgrade their defense. Berry’s Kansas City career came to an end after the Chiefs signed Tyrann Mathieu, pushing the oft-injured star to bonafide free agency for the first time in his nine-year career.
He’s got plenty to prove after missing 29 of his last 32 regular-season games, but Dallas could be the perfect backdrop for his comeback. The Cowboys need a backline defender who can break up passes downfield, come up to the line of scrimmage to tackle runners, and, most importantly, generate stops on third down — especially in passing situations.
A healthy Berry fits that bill.
He returned for parts of the Chiefs’ stretch run last season after rehabbing from a torn Achilles and bone spurs in his heel. While he didn’t look like the same player who’d been named a first-team All-Pro just two seasons earlier, he’s still a capable defender who can help a playoff team when healthy.
That’s what the Cowboys need, though looming extensions for Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper mean they’re not in the market to pay top dollar for a rangy safety. That may be a sticking point for Berry, but if his market isn’t as active as he hopes then the two sides could work out a short-term deal. That could allow Berry to prove he’s still elite, push the Cowboys back to the postseason, and set him up for one final big-money contract. The two parties have reportedly already laid out the parameters for a potential union:
A source familiar with the mutual interest between Dallas and Berry said Tuesday’s visit will be more of a feeling out process between the two sides, centered largely on Berry’s health and potential fit with the team. If both sides are happy with the results, talks are expected to advance into potential financial terms.
OG Andy Levitre — Detroit Lions
Matthew Stafford was sacked on 7.2 percent of his dropbacks the past two seasons — the highest mark of any two-year stretch in his career. His limited time in the pocket (2.63 seconds per dropback, per Next Gen Stats) contributed to a major dropoff after a sneaky-good 2017 campaign; he averaged more than a yard less per attempt last fall than he had the year prior.
While a limited receiving corps shoulders some of that blame, Detroit’s lack of blockers is a culprit as well. Adding Levitre, who has been a rock-solid interior lineman over the course of a 10-year career, to a young core that includes the still-growing Frank Ragnow and Graham Glasgow would not only buy some extra time for Stafford. It’d also help clear space for Kerryon Johnson, who last season became the first Lion since 2013 to record a 100-yard game.
That would be a major boost to a team that was lacking across the board offensively in 2018.
Levitre’s first priority this offseason was rehabbing the torn triceps muscle that cost him all but two games last season. Once that’s set he’ll make his team choice. The opportunity to bring a stable veteran to an offense that desperately needs some consistency up front could make Detroit a perfect match for the 32-year-old.
DT Ndamukong Suh — Seattle Seahawks
Suh has entered the ring-chasing stage of his nine-year NFL career. For some that would mean finding a locker in New England, but the Patriots have already made useful additions to their defensive line with Michael Bennett and Mike Pennel and by re-signing John Simon, limiting their need for a high-cost vet like Suh. The indefatigable Seahawks — who showed interest in Suh as a free agent last spring — may be a more realistic option.
Seattle’s kinda/sorta rebuild dismantled the Legion of Boom last year, leaving plenty of room for improvement along the defensive line. While Suh is no longer an All-Pro threat — or even a Pro Bowl threat — he’s still a consistent performer who absorbs blockers up front, redirects passers at the line of scrimmage, fills running lanes, and adds a pass-rushing presence from the center of the defensive line. His 19 QB hits were a top-30 mark among all defensive players.
The Seahawks, who lost tackle Shamar Stephen to Minnesota in free agency, need a powerful lineman who can serve as a run deterrent up front, especially on early downs. Suh would fit the bill, even if his production doesn’t match his name value at this point in his career.