Even though the NFL Combine takes center stage this week, much of the focus inside the league is on free agency … Sources share their thoughts on players who are about to cash in and those about to be left out in the cold, plus the Giants sound open to trading Saquon Barkley, more
The NFL Combine is in full-swing, and as over 300 NFL Draft prospects are running 40-yard dashes, going through position drills and a dizzying interview circuit with teams across the league in Indianapolis.
But, the real action is going down inside the J.W Marriott, Prime 47 steakhouse, and underground cigar bars across the city.
Despite the fact that legal tampering isn’t slated to begin in the NFL until March 14, the free agency negotiation process is already in full-swing.
In fact, multiple agents have told FanSided this week that teams have been kicking the tires on soon to be unrestricted free agents for the past two weeks, getting a head start on the preliminary negotiations that are as much a fabric of Indianapolis this week as the shrimp cocktail at St. Elmo’s.
Free agency can be a tightrope act for teams, because the successful ones pay a premium for young talent based on projecting future success. But, it can be easy to fall into the trap of overpaying for a veteran at a position of need based on past production. Especially for general managers and coaches who face an ever slimming window of opportunity to win, and win big.
Every year, there seems to be a Kenny Golladay (four years, $75 million, who didn’t catch a touchdown in his first season with the Giants), Bud Dupree (five years, $85 million, who produced only three sacks for the Titans), who just don’t live up to the billing. But, there are also a handful of Trey Hendricksons or Casey Haywards who more than live up to their deals.
This year is no different, and FanSided spoke to sources from the team and agent side to get a perspective for who some of the more overrated and underrated players are as free agency approaches on March 16 …
James Conner, RB – Underrated
Former Arizona Cardinals running back James Conner is going to be a fascinating player to watch. There are some sources inside the league who believe he’ll garner a contract that pays him among the top-10 running backs in the league, after rushing for 752 yards and 15 touchdowns as a focal point of Arizona’s offense last season.
“After that season, he should get between $7-8 million per year,” one source tells FanSided.
Allen Robinson, WR – Overrated
In a market that features the likes of Chris Godwin and Michael Gallup both coming off torn ACLs at the top of the market, Allen Robinson should garner significant interest. Still one of the NFL’s premier route runners, despite being limited by a hamstring injury last season, Robinson is one year removed from a 1,250 yard and six touchdown 2020 campaign.
However, some inside the league are skeptical Robinson will command top-dollar.
“Is Allen Robinson at this stage of his career really worth $15 million per year?” an agent familiar with the wide receiver market tells FanSided. “Coming off that year, and until he proves he can stay healthy, I’m skeptical.”
Lucas Patrick, OL – Underrated
Aaron Rodgers has won two consecutive MVP awards while guiding the Green Bay Packers to the NFC’s No. 1 seed each of the past two seasons, but the lynchpin of the offensive line in front of him is someone no one is talking about as free agency nears.
Although he didn’t play enough snaps to qualify at guard, Lucas Patrick is the No. 1 offensive guard in run-block win-rate, per ESPN for the snaps he lined up there. Likewise, Patrick finished No. 3 among centers in run-block win-rate, while finishing as the No. 6 ranked guard in the NFL in pass-protection while allowing only one sack in 911 snaps last season. A handful of teams have already shown interest in Patrick, who could be on the cusp of cashing in, according to league sources.
Jessie Bates, S – Overrated
Bates proved to be the backbone of the Bengals’ secondary and a driver of Cincinnati’s playoff run. A former second-round pick, Bates is seemingly the kind of player the Bengals would want to build around. However, multiple sources tell FanSided that any expectations for a mega-extension should be tempered.
Rasul Douglas, CB – Underrated
Rasul Douglas is entering free agency at the perfect time. Coming off a career-year, in which he intercepted five passes and held opposing quarterbacks to a meager 43.7 passer rating when targeting him, the 26-year-old was at times, the best defensive back in the Packers’ secondary.
“He’s a guy that should be in the $9-10 million-per-year range, easily,” an agent with knowledge of the cornerback market tells FanSided. “He stepped up big time last season, and his instincts put him in position to make a lot of plays. Playing a premium position helps, too.”
D.J. Chark, WR – Overrated
Chark would seemingly fit the profile of the kind of player teams would pay a premium to project future success based not only on past results, but because at 25-years-old the Jaguars wide receiver still has plenty of upsides. This past season, Chark suffered a fractured ankle that ended his season in October.
Even though he’s two years removed from surpassing 1,000 yards and catching eight touchdowns, some don’t believe he’ll belong near the top of this year’s receiver market.
“You’re really telling me this is a $12 million per year player?” an agent wondered to FanSided. “His productivity hasn’t consistently been there, if he’s a guy you pay more than $10 million for, there are going to be a lot of receivers going back to their teams looking for more money.”
Trent Brown, OT – underrated
Trent Brown continues to be one of the league’s rising offensive tackles. Last season, Brown allowed just one sack and nine pressures in 489 snaps, despite missing time with a nagging calf injury. Still, some believe despite any lingering injury concerns, Brown will be a hot commodity.
“I think Brown’s deal is going to come in a lot higher than most expect,” an offensive coach tells FanSided. “There’s a lot of offensive tackle need out there, and not a whole lot of quality players on the market.”
"“I’m open to everything.”"
– New York Giants GM Joe Schoen, when asked at the NFL Combine if he is open to trading top players, including Saquon Barkley.
Four words could change everything for the New York Giants.
Schoen is taking the exact posture he should, especially when taking over a franchise that has averaged 4.7 wins over the past four seasons and begins this offseason at approximately $12 million over the cap.
If this offseason is about creating cap space, by surviving short-term pain, trading Barkley makes the most sense for the New York Giants and Schoen’s rebuilding efforts.
Barkley, the former No. 2 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, would likely draw a strong market from contending teams who believe they are an elite versatile running back away from competing for a Super Bowl. But, more importantly, trading Barkley this offseason would create $7.5 million in cap space this year.
When fully healthy, Barkley is easily one of the top-10 running backs in the NFL. He just hasn’t been fully healthy for quite some time.
Barkley averaged 1,155 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns and 580 receiving yards and three touchdowns in his first two seasons. But, Barkley’s 2020 campaign was cut short by a torn ACL in Week 2, and an ankle injury kept him sidelined for four games last fall.
The New York Giants don’t have a roster that’s anywhere close to capable of competing for the postseason in 2022, which after picking up his fifth-year option is the final year Barkley is under team control. Barkley just might be more valuable as a trade chip than a potential bounce-back player who averaged 3.7 yards per carry and only scored two touchdowns in 2021, one season removed from a torn ACL.
Schoen has no ties to Barkley, nor for that matter, third-year quarterback Daniel Jones. He would be foolish to limit optionality when it comes to acquiring assets to begin an overdue rebuild.
It’s hard to imagine teams like the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, or Tampa Bay Buccaneers (who did extensive work on Barkley prior to the 2018 draft and could lose Leonard Fournette to free agency), wouldn’t at least pick up the phone if Schoen called, and perhaps offer an early-round pick for a running back that could put them over the top.
Schoen inherited a mess; a roster that has myriad holes on both sides of the ball, limited cap space this offseason, and uncertainty at quarterback. If this offseason is about tearing the roster down to the nuts and bolts to begin rebuilding, and that includes moving on from a player at a luxury position to create both spending flexibility and nets additional assets, so be it.
If this is truly the final year the NFL Combine is in Indianapolis, it will be the sad end to an era.
At no other point during the NFL offseason does the entire league; general managers, executives, coaches, scouts, and agents descend on the same 6.5 miles.
Beyond the access for reporters to the NFL’s power brokers, and the information economy that this week has become for all parties involved, the event has been a real boon for the local economy for the past 35 years since Indianapolis became the permanent home for the event back in 1987.
However, multiple local business owners FanSided spoke to this week believe that the end is near for Indy being the unofficial kickoff to the NFL’s offseason.
“The writing is on the wall,” Indianapolis-based SunKing Brewery VP and General Counsel Steve Koers tells FanSided. “We’ve got a great group of people leading the charge to keep [the Combine], but some are saying it’s now all about the money, which means Los Angeles and Dallas will at least get a shot at hosting it.
Indianapolis offers 17 hospitals within a short drive, which centralizes the medical evaluations of the over 300 prospects. The J.W. Marriott serves as the hub for teams conducting interviews with up to 45 players, where valuable information about the prospects can be gathered as front offices build their draft boards.
But, the Combine also gives back to Indianapolis, too.
Steakhouses like Prime 47, St. Elmo’s, and Harry and Izzy’s undoubtedly benefit from thousands of extra folks in town from the league and those who cover it during the Combine. But, smaller businesses also see an uptick in traffic.
Places like SunKing Brewery, that host Peter King’s annual meet up to talk football to benefit Teachers Treasures, which furnishes area supplies for students and teachers, become an annual Combine destination. Both for the conversation and exceptional craft brews.
Peter’s event is a personal highlight of mine each offseason, and one that I have been fortunate enough to serve on the panel for in recent years. And it benefits a phenomenal cause. It’s just one of the myriad events happening on the fringe of the Combine every year that make it such a special event for those who play, cover, and enjoy football.
If Indianapolis loses the Combine to metropolis’ like Dallas, or Los Angeles, it will become even more than a made-for-television spectacle than it already has in recent years and much less about the backroom deals that get made, or the local mom and pop shops that benefit from it every year.