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5 NFL free agents who should be back in demand now

Teams can now sign free agents without it affecting their compensatory draft picks. So which NFL veteran is next?

The first wave of NFL free agency is over. So is the 2019 NFL Draft. Now come the bargain shoppers.

May 7 marks the first day teams can sign available players without having it count against the compensatory draft pick formula. As a result, clubs looking to capitalize on recent losses — like the Eagles, Ravens, and, as is tradition, Patriots — will have more on their plate than just rookie minicamps this month.

That means a handful of potent veterans still looking for homes will either sign with the teams they’d visited earlier in the offseason or sift through a new round of offers. Several of our top 100(ish) free agents are still available for interested teams, including Ndamukong Suh, Tre Boston, and Jay Ajayi. Most will have new homes by Memorial Day.

Why does the NFL see a renewed push for free agents after May 7?

The league’s guidelines have a built-in equalizer to aid teams that lose more talent than they take in during free agency: compensatory picks. These bonus draft picks, awarded by the NFL, are aimed at restoring a measure of competitive balance when game-changing players leave a franchise. Teams are awarded picks at the tail end of the third through seventh rounds of the following year’s draft based on a secret formula that weighs the value of the players who left a team’s roster in free agency vs. the players it signed.

But there’s a time limit on that formula, and in 2019 it expires on May 7. Any free agent who departs or is signed on that date or later doesn’t count toward the compensatory formula. So if a team had its eye on, say, Suh, but didn’t want to put a potential 2020 third-round compensatory pick in jeopardy for signing him, it could roll the dice and hope to sign him in mid-May instead, leaving any compensatory selections intact.

This doesn’t apply to players who were released by their teams, however. The Patriots won’t get any points on the compensatory scale because the Dolphins signed tight end Dwayne Allen after they cut him. They also won’t lose points for signing Demaryius Thomas since the Texans released him (and his eight-figure cap hit) earlier in the offseason.

Other notable veterans who are still on the market but weren’t affected by the deadline include Eric Berry, Michael Crabtree, and Jamie Collins.

Who could be the biggest names to sign this May?

There are plenty of veteran free agents still available in 2019, though all have their share of questions to answer before signing with a new team. This year’s crop includes players who’ve had star-making turns the past two seasons, but have languished in free agency due to concerns about their age, injuries, or other factors.

Still, many of these players could go on to play major roles for contenders this fall. Here are the five biggest names who will dot team’s wish lists now that they can be signed without giving up a potential third-round compensatory pick in exchange.

DT Ndamukong Suh

2018 team: Los Angeles Rams

Suh came one game away from winning his first NFL championship, and the veteran disruptor could be in the ring-chasing phase of his career after earning more than $138 million in his nine-year career to date (at least $660,000 of which has been paid back to the league through various fines and suspensions).

While the 32-year-old is no longer the All-Pro threat he was earlier in his career, he’s still an above-average interior lineman who can shrink pockets from the inside out (4.5 sacks in each of his last two seasons).

Suh will likely remain an expensive purchase after playing on a one-year, $14 million deal in Los Angeles in 2018. Fortunately for him, there are a few win-now teams that have the space to hand him an eight-figure salary for a short-term deal. The Colts, Texans, Browns, and Titans could all fit the bill, though Suh’s laid-back approach to free agency suggests he won’t sign until he’s good and ready. After doing a low-key barnstorming tour as a free agent last year, he’s been notably quiet in 2019.

Reported suitors: Without any reported visits on his radar, we can only speculate that it’ll be another recent contender who lands Suh’s services. He likely won’t be back with the Rams, but he does want to stay on the West Coast.

DE Ezekiel Ansah

2018 team: Detroit Lions

The Lions were reticent to commit to Ansah last year despite his double-digit sack potential, and that caution paid off. Detroit franchise-tagged Ansah in 2018, only to watch him miss nine games due to a shoulder injury that limited him to his least effective season to date.

That led to a tepid market for a player who’s had two seasons with 12+ sacks in the past four years, and two with four or fewer. Ansah has been deliberate in his free agent negotiations, likely working toward a make-good deal that could see one team add an impact pass rusher at a bargain price while the Ghanian works to restore his value on the field. The former Lions standout won’t be back to full strength until August, so there’s no rush on signing him.

But the Seahawks — who have a definite need at pass rusher after trading Frank Clark — didn’t waste much time landing his services.

Reported suitors: Seattle Seahawks, Buffalo Bills

S Tre Boston

2018 team: Arizona Cardinals

Boston has languished in free agency even as other safeties have signed massive contracts — Eric Reid and Tyrann Mathieu foremost among them. The former fourth-round pick has been a bit of a transient recently despite a solid track record at free safety; he’s broken up 17 passes and has eight interceptions over the past two seasons.

Somehow that hasn’t been enough to land him the long-term stability he’s sought. It’s a development that’s left Boston confused, but relief could be on its way. The Steelers, Texans, Chiefs, and Seahawks could all use safety help, though the presence of other veteran free agents like Berry and Glover Quin could damper his value as he attempts to move on to the fourth team of his five-plus year career.

Reported suitors: Cleveland Browns

OT Jared Veldheer

2018 team: Denver Broncos

Veldheer is a valuable tackle who can man either side of the offensive line, but his age and recent injury history have reduced him to a likely May signing. The 31-year-old has only played 33 games over the past three seasons and is coming off a knee injury that limited his performance for a disappointing Denver unit last fall.

When healthy, he’s an above-average edge protector whose size (6’8, 321 pounds) and veteran savvy help mitigate the risk of his eroding athleticism. His ideal landing spot would be with a club that needs a third tackle and not necessarily a starter — a lineup where he can bring his experience and talent to a backup role with the potential to play major snaps when needed. It looks like New England, who could use a steady veteran in case 2018 first round pick Isaiah Wynn fails to fully recover from the torn Achilles that cost him his first season with the club, will be the team to land his services.

Reported suitors: New England Patriots, Denver Broncos

RB Jay Ajayi

2018 team: Philadelphia Eagles

Ajayi’s lack of free agent interest reflects a handful of factors:

  1. his recovery from a torn ACL that cost him a dozen games in 2018.
  2. the boom-or-bust tendencies make him best suited for a platoon role rather than a starring spot.
  3. and the continually soft market for NFL tailbacks.

But when he’s on, Ajayi brings a game-breaking extra gear to the backfield, even if the salad days of his 200+ rushing yard performances are two years in his rear view. His 2017 performance with the Eagles, in which he ran for 5.8 yards per touch in a reserve role for a Super Bowl team, showcased what he can do for a needy club. While it seems unlikely he’ll sign for the kind of big-money deal that would have cost an acquiring team its third- or fourth-round compensatory pick, the veteran back should still be able to find a welcoming home in the next phase of free agency, assuming all goes well with his recovery.

Reported suitors: Philadelphia Eagles, Indianapolis Colts