NFL free agency extravaganza: Who surprises a mega-deal?


NFL free agency is less than three weeks away, and FanSided asked league sources who it expects to surprise fans with big contracts.

It’s an NFL offseason tradition unlike any other.

Each year, in the hours after the new league-year begins and the free-agent market opens, there are a handful of contracts that reverberate through the league as agents, executives, and coaches throw their hands in the air and wonder “they paid him how much?”

Last year, it was the Las Vegas Raiders’ pilfering linebacker Cory Littleton from the Los Angeles Rams for $36 million over three years. There was Dante Fowler, at age 26, fetching $48 million over three years from the Atlanta Falcons. Finally, linebacker Kyle Van Noy getting $51 million over four years from the Miami Dolphins.

The pendulum also swings both ways, as there is always a player — or two — that fans and the media believe is on the cusp of cashing in on a $100 million contract, but winds up signing for the veteran minimum, similar to Jadeveon Clowney last spring. This year will be no different in that regard.

“Bud Dupree is someone that is a real question mark for me,” a current head coach tells FanSided, on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly about players on other teams. “If he was healthy, he’s easily the top pass-rusher hitting the open market, and teams would pay a king’s ransom to sign him. But, with him coming off a torn ACL, what exactly are you committing to? Does he want to go back to Pittsburgh? Who knows, but he’s someone that I think will wind up having to wait a while to sign.”

Those mega contracts will likely be much more consequential and the bets that general managers are making that the veteran players attached to them will push their team over the top more meaningful because the salary cap could be as low as $180 million this year.

What is typically this week hustle and bustle of contract framework being negotiated in crowded Indianapolis steakhouses with the NFL Combine merely a backdrop, has been replaced by gridlock as the teams await the final cap number, which certainly has made for much uncertainty on all sides of the negotiating table.

“Not every business prepares for the unknown in the same manner,” former Raiders CEO and current CBS Sports analyst Amy Trask tells FanSided. “In other words, there is no one formula, and no one answer on how to handle this. It makes a tremendous amount of sense, in my view, to plan for multiple scenarios and eventualities.

“Teams have to prepare for every scenario, every eventuality you can possibly envision. It is my expectation and understanding that’s what many teams will do. Remember, all 32 teams are subject to the same uncertainty, and while some may be better positioned from a cap standpoint, there are other considerations as well to remember, cash constraints and cash flow issues that will impact some teams beyond simply cap constraints.”

So, who will be the player that out of nowhere signs a contract that quickly becomes boom-or-bust for his new team and whose APY sends shockwaves across the NFL?

FanSided spoke to current NFL executives, scouts, agents, and coaches to find out:

AFC Pro Personnel Executive: Jonnu Smith, TE, Tennessee Titans

“He’s the kind of pass-catching tight end that with all these teams looking for playmakers at the position, his value is only going to be pushed higher. He can run, he’s athletic, and he’s improved every year.”

NFL Agent: Taylor Moton, OT, Carolina Panthers

“There are so many bad tackles hitting the market this time around, and so many older guys that Moton’s is a deal that I’ll be watching closely.”

AFC Scouting Director: Denico Autry, EDGE, Indianapolis Colts

“He lines up and fits in any defensive scheme. You can rush him inside or off the edge. He’s been productive and even though he is 31, you watch him on film and he’s just starting to hit his stride.”

NFC Personnel Executive: Brandon Scherff, OG, Washington Football Team

“He’s a really good player, and highly thought of as a teammate. He’s also very low maintenance.”

While it seems certain that there are going to be some shocking, surprising, and even bad contracts given out next month, the fortunes of the general managers who award them might be more tied than ever to them. Especially, given the constraints of the cap and potential that a bad signing could torpedo a team or season.

“I worked for a team owner who was not concerned with overpaying,” Trask said, of the late Hall of Fame Raiders owner Al Davis. “Notwithstanding that he was strongly castigated for doing so, when he did. I note this, because some teams may overpay, in the free market sense. This season, it may be harder to shrug that off given the lower than anticipated cap number and reduced revenue from the pandemic-impacted season. This offseason is going to be fascinating to watch.”

In addition to mega-deals that get given out like breath mints the third week of March across the NFL, don’t rule out an extension that comes out of relative thin air.

“I think the biggest surprise will probably be an extension of an existing contract,” one agent tells FanSided. “There won’t be a Patrick Mahomes like deal, because of the lower cap and because the big-name quarterbacks have already moved across the board. But, I think teams are going to try to lock down a guys to multi-year extensions, and some of them might turn some heads.”

While some players are about to cash in, and teams are about to dedicate what will be larger portions of their cap space to veteran players, much of the back-channel negotiations between teams and agents is very much on hold as all sides await the final cap number being set.

“Everything is just such a total mess,” one prominent agent tells FanSided. “Until they actually set a cap number.”

What happens at wide receiver?

The amount of wide receiver talent that has the chance to be available across the league this offseason might be unprecedented.

Allen Robinson and Chris Godwin are both candidates for the franchise tag, but if the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers allow them to hit the open market instead, two of the top-10 receivers will be available to the highest-bidder.

If they even hit the market.

“I think the climate of this offseason and the market at receiver,” a head coach says. “Is you may see two tag-and-trades among the Robinsons, Godwins, and (Kenny) Golladays.”

Then, there’s marquee and productive wide receivers such as Corey Davis, Marvin Jones, and JuJu Smith-Schuster who would likely start on any team across the NFL.

That’s not even factoring in the receivers who might be released in coming weeks as teams slash salary to get below the salary cap and create enough flexibility to go shopping themselves and have cap space to sign their rookies.

It’s a great offseason to need a wide receiver, but might not be ideal given the cap constraints and flood of supply at the position to be a free agent wide receiver.

In addition to the proven commodities poised to be free agents, and other receivers potentially becoming cap casualties, Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith, and Kyle Pitts are all plug-and-play high-impact starters bound to be first-round picks. Likewise, this is believed by many executives across the NFL to be as deep or deeper at receiver than last year’s class, which was judged by many as historic.

“There’s so much tremendous talent and depth at wide receiver in this year’s class that will impact the receiver market in the NFL,” an agent tells FanSided. “arguably much more so than it has in recent years.”

So, what happens for Godwin, Robinson, Golladay, and others?

“Remember,” the agent says. “It’s a pass-first league now, so the money will flow into the position, regardless. But, I do say it’s a downyear for receivers on the open market because of the lower cap, cheaper talent coming in, steady demand, and heightened supply.”

Ben Roethlisberger’s Pittsburgh return prolongs the Steelers’ inevitable

It sure sounds like Big Ben is back in Pittsburgh.

“They want Ben back and will contact me soon to address the cap situation,” Roethlisberger’s agent, Ryan Tollner, tells NFL Network’s Aditi Kinkhabwala. “As we’ve shared since the season ended, we are happy to creatively adjust his contract to help them build the best team possible. A year ago, Ben wasn’t sure if he could throw again, but he battled back to get 12 wins and the 8th division title of his career. They lost steam down the stretch and that doesn’t sit well for him, so the fire burns strong and there is plenty of gas left in the tank.”

While it can be debated just how much gas is left, it almost goes without saying that bringing Roethlisberger back at a number anywhere close to his current $41.25 million cap figure would be among the bigger blunders in professional sports history. Especially after Roethlisberger oversaw one of the greatest second half collapses in recent memory.

After starting the season 11-0, with visions of hosting the AFC Championship after beating the Baltimore Ravens 19-14 on Wednesday, Dec. 2, the Steelers one just one of their final five games before getting run out of their own building 48-37 by their arch-rival the Cleveland Browns in the AFC Wild Card.

Roethlisberger was as big a reason for Pittsburgh’s December to forget as anyone in the Steelers’ organization.

From Weeks 13-15, Roethlisberger completed 60.4 percent of his passes for 698 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions, while averaging a meager 5.51 air yards per attempt.

Roethlisberger’s reluctance — or inability — to push the ball downfield hamstrung receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Chase Claypool, effectively grounding the Steelers’ vertical passing game, making them much easier to defend.

Granted, the Steelers are slated to be picking 24th-overall in April’s NFL Draft, so there’s little realistic chance of coming away with Ohio State’s Justin Fields or BYU’s Zach Wilson and projects like Alabama’s Mac Jones might be little more than lottery tickets with unknown potential in the NFL.

However, what is known, is that Roethlisberger’s best football is behind him, not in front of him, and by going all in on one last quest for a Super Bowl in a conference loaded with stellar quarterback play; the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, Bills’ Josh Allen, Ravens’ Lamar Jackson, the Chargers’ Justin Herbert, and Bengals’ Joe Burrow, to name a few, seems misguided.

It might have been more prudent for the Steelers to roll the dice with Mason Rudolph for one year with one eye towards the 2022 quarterback class, or take the Dolphins’ temperature on trading Tua Tagovailoa, or even seeing if Ryan Fitzpatrick would sign on for a bridge season, than it is to perhaps win enough games with Roethlisberger to remain in quarterback purgatory another year.

The Roethlisberger era in Pittsburgh is over, even if neither he nor the Steelers know it yet. If the Steelers aren’t careful, so too might be their unprecedented run of relevancy as a Super Bowl contender in the AFC.


Tiger Woods was severely injured, suffering fractures in both legs, including a compound fracture and a shattered ankle in a one-car accident when his SUV hopped a median early Tuesday morning in Rancho Ponte Verde, California, just outside Los Angeles.

Woods was on his way to meet Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert and Drew Brees for an on-course lesson and photo shoot at the time of the accident.

Fortunately, Woods survived the crash, but his accident sent shockwaves through the sports and pop culture communities as the rest of the world seemed to stop in a way we haven’t seen since Kobe Bryant’s tragic death last February.

“Praying for you, Tiger Woods,” tweeted Michael Vick.

Woods isn’t just one of the greatest golfers in the history of the sport. He’s a larger-than-life figure in American culture because his meteoric success in the mid-1990s gave access to golf — and quite literally many of the courses it is played on — to African American and minority golfers.

Prior to Woods’ arrival, golf was a sport where “inclusivity” was a word only used to describe the food and beverage packages fans could purchase at hospitality tents during PGA tournaments.

It remains to be seen whether Woods will ever play competitive golf again. If he doesn’t, it will be a disappointment that we were never able to see how that chapter of Woods’ life would end, whether he would eventually catch Jack Nicklaus’ Major Championship record, or how many more miraculous moments we’d all experience like his Augusta triumph two Aprils ago as he won his fifth green jacket.

However, all of that seems trivial today, and the real miracle is that Woods is still with us. That he’s still with his children, Charlie and Sam. That’s what truly matters.

Here’s to Woods making a full recovery, and enjoying a long and happy life, whether it includes being able to play golf again, or not.

Final Thought

Carson Wentz has the chance to be the real winner of last week’s blockbuster trade.

The Philadelphia Eagles did what they had to do, trading Wentz to the Indianapolis Colts in exchange for a third-round pick in 2021 and a conditional second-round pick in 2022 that can become a first-rounder of Wentz plays 75 percent of the Colts’ offensive snaps or 70 percent of the snaps and Indianapolis makes the postseason next year.

Far less than the king’s ransom Eagles GM Howie Roseman steadfastly coveted, but so it goes, when — as I reported Thursday — the Indianapolis Colts were the only team with any interest in Wentz. According to league conversations, the sense across the NFL was the Chicago Bears’ interest in Wentz evaporated, per league sources, by the Monday before last Thursday’s blockbuster.

The Eagles now are in a full-fledged rebuild mode around Jalen Hurts, who some in the NFL believe can be an upgrade over Wentz, in part because of his mobility, youth, affordability of having two years remaining on his rookie contract, and the fact that Philadelphia’s locker room seemed to rally around him over the final four weeks last season.

But, in Indianapolis, in the AFC South, Wentz now has the benefit playing behind one of the game’s most dominant offensive lines, having playmakers like Michael Pittman Jr. and Jack Doyle to throw to and Jonathan Taylor to hand it off to with a ferocious and swarming defense to complement the Colts’ high octane offense.

Wentz is going to need to do his part, though.

Multiple league sources have said that Wentz is reticent to hard coaching, even though that is what brings out the best in him. And, it is obvious that losing, pressure, and criticism bring out the worst in his temperament. But, reunited with Frank Reich, who helped coach Wentz to an MVP caliber 2017 season before he shredded his knee that December and in the warm and comforting arms of a midwest fanbase in Indianapolis, this situation has the chance to bring out the best in Wentz.

The Colts might not win a Super Bowl given the gauntlet of quarterbacks in the AFC, but if Wentz can come anywhere close to reaching his previous heights, Indianapolis has the talent, the coaching, and upwards of $46.3 million to add playmakers around Wentz to give his aspirations of hoisting a Lombardi Trophy he won a boost. Indianapolis is much closer to a Super Bowl today than the Eagles are at this juncture.

Now, in Philadelphia, thanks to four picks in the top 100 in this year’s NFL Draft and a combined $416 million in cap space from 2022-2024, it is up to Roseman to pick up the pieces and take one last shot at building a Super Bowl contender.

The Eagles’ franchise’s decline from 2017 is among the most precipitous in recent sports history, and with Wentz exorcised, it is up to Roseman not to bungle his second chance at (re)building a championship caliber roster around a young hand-picked quarterback.

Matt Lombardo is the site expert for GMenHQ, and writes Between The Hash Marks each Wednesday for FanSided. Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattLombardoNFL.