2020 NFL free agency fits: Rivers to Colts? Gordon to Steelers?
Free agency is just one part of team-building, but signing the right player can seriously alter a franchise’s future for the better.
Before players start inking deals and switching jerseys, I thought I’d play matchmaker and come up with 10 tantalizing free-agent fits in 2020, which you’ll find below. Note that this list does not encompass every top free agent, or those players — like Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Dak Prescott — who I think will ultimately not change teams. These are the 10 fits that I found exceptionally interesting, ranked in order of impact on the player’s new team.
1) Philip Rivers, QB: Indianapolis Colts
Rivers’ 16-year relationship with the Chargers is over — but it’s still hard to envision him wearing the uniform of any other team. While I think he’d be a great fit with the Buccaneers, I’ll ultimately match him with the Colts, largely because of the comfort level he has with Indianapolis coach Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni. Reich was Rivers’ position coach with the Chargers in 2013 and his coordinator there from 2014 to ’15, with Sirianni serving as QB coach in those latter years. In the span from 2013-15, Rivers completed 67.3 percent of his passes while averaging 4,518 yards, 31 TDs and 14 picks per season, with a passer rating of 97.4. With the Colts, Reich has made the running game a priority, which would go a long way toward reducing the pressure on the 38-year-old Rivers, who threw 20 picks (third-most in the NFL) in 2019. (Indianapolis ran on 46.4 percent of plays last season, while the Chargers ran on 36.7 percent.) Quarterbacks of Rivers’ age can’t always do what they could when they were younger, but Reich and Sirianni should know Rivers well enough to know how to maximize his strengths, minimize his weaknesses and help him continue to win even as he draws closer to 40.
2) Melvin Gordon, RB: Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers (currently projected to have less than $2 million in cap space, per Over The Cap) might not be able to afford Gordon, who, at any rate, has publicly said he wants to stick with the Chargers. Still, it’s not hard to see Gordon ending up elsewhere, given the way last year’s holdout unfolded. Running back Le’Veon Bell‘s absence in Pittsburgh over the past two seasons (as a holdout in 2018 and as a signee with the Jets in ’19) left a void that James Conner and others haven’t really been able to fill. The Steelers have a strong defense (ranking fifth in 2019) and a quarterback who is coming off a major elbow injury and turning 38 in March. Adding Gordon, who is a talented ball carrier and would mesh very well with Pittsburgh’s M.O. of releasing the ball to the running back coming out of the backfield, would surely help Ben Roethlisberger and Co. make the most out of their remaining window.
3) Chris Harris, CB: Houston Texans
Per Albert Breer of The MMQB, the Texans were interested in potentially dealing for Harris at last season’s trade deadline. Harris might not be able to help Houston’s 2019 playoff push anymore, but better late than never. The Texans are projected to have $55 million in cap space, per Over The Cap, and featured one of the NFL’s shakiest secondaries (Houston ranked 29th against the pass) in 2019. Harris turns 31 in June, but showed no signs of slippage in 2019. He has the versatility to smother opposing pass catchers lining up out wide or in the slot. Plus, after facing Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs five times (including Mahomes’ single start in 2017), he’ll surely have thoughts on how to stop the team and quarterback who racked up seven consecutive touchdown drives against Houston in the playoffs.
4) Emmanuel Sanders, WR: Las Vegas Raiders
Raiders coach Jon Gruden loves versatile veterans, and the Raiders need a true No. 1 receiver, especially in the wake of the Antonio Brown debacle. Sanders fits the bill as a threat both inside and outside. He also could serve as a mentor to Hunter Renfrow and any other younger receivers the Raiders might draft, as Sanders did to Courtland Sutton in Denver and Deebo Samuel in San Francisco. Sanders might be about to turn 33 in March, but he averaged 76 catches for 958 yards and five scores over the past two seasons — and he showed he still clearly has the speed to burn opponents when he slipped past the Chiefs‘ secondary on a play in Super Bowl LIV that could have helped San Francisco win the Lombardi Trophy, had Jimmy Garoppolo not overthrown him.
5) Robby Anderson, WR: New England Patriots
Over the years, the Patriots have made a habit of pilfering key players from AFC East rivals. Anderson, who averaged 15 yards per catch and 55 catches per year over the past three seasons with the Jets, would make an ideal addition to a New England team that has had just two players (Brandin Cooks in 2017 and Rob Gronkowski in ’17 and ’15) match those numbers in any given season since 2009.
6) Dante Fowler Jr., LB: Atlanta Falcons
Fowler reportedly wants to play for Falcons head man Dan Quinn, who coached Fowler in Florida and helped recruit him to the Gators — and who could blame him? Atlanta, meanwhile, ranked 22nd against the pass and 29th in sacks, finishing with just 28 on the year, and will definitely be in the market for a pass rusher after announcing former first-round pick Vic Beasley will not be re-signed. The 25-year-old Fowler finished 2019 with a career-high 11.5 sacks for the Rams, finally showing why the Jags made him the No. 3 overall pick in 2015, but Los Angeles might not have the cap space to keep him.
7) Joe Thuney, G: New York Jets
Like I discussed above with the Pats and Robby Anderson, the Jets could apply the same philosophy of trying to hurt your division rival — while helping yourself — here. Thuney and Washington’s Brandon Scherff are the highest-rated pending free agents at a position where the Jets — who ranked fourth in the NFL with 52 sacks allowed — could desperately use an upgrade. (Coincidentally, this problem also dogged Adam Gase when he was coaching the Dolphins.) Thuney has proven versatile and dependable, having played 99 percent of the Pats’ offensive snaps over the past four seasons while only allowing one sack in 2019. It would also make sense for Gang Green to take a look at Denver center Connor McGovern.
8) James Bradberry, CB: Washington Redskins
Bradberry has declared he’s open to being reunited with new Washington coach Ron Rivera, under whom the corner blossomed in Carolina. It likely wouldn’t behoove the Panthers, who are headed for a roster rebuild, to spend big money to keep Bradberry, but the Redskins have a need at cornerback, given that they are moving on from veteran Josh Norman and could do the same with Quinton Dunbar. (Dunbar reportedly asked to be released or traded because Rivera has yet to speak with him about an extension.) Bradberry finished 2019 with 65 tackles, 12 passes defensed and a career-high three picks.
9) Jack Conklin, OT: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Conklin played almost 1,000 regular-season snaps last year at a pretty high level, especially in the second half of the season, showing he’s put an ACL injury suffered in the 2017 playoffs firmly behind him. With Tennessee having declined the former first-round pick’s fifth-year option, he’s headed to the open market — where I think he’s going to attract a lot of attention. Whether or not Jameis Winston is under center for the Bucs in 2020, they need to figure out a solution for the right tackle position, with veteran Demar Dotson entering free agency, and Tampa Bay should have the cap space to make a run at Conklin.
10) Matthew Judon, OLB: Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals‘ 32nd-ranked defense could use help across the board, but one of their biggest needs is an edge rusher to pair with Chandler Jones, who finished second in the NFL with 19 sacks. Judon would fit nicely, coming off his best season with Baltimore. Following the exits of Ravens stalwarts Za’Darius Smith and Terrell Suggs last offseason, Judon took up the pass-rushing mantle, logging 54 tackles and a team- and career-high 9.5 sacks. He also finished with five turnovers caused by pressure, tied for second in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats. Notably, since arriving in Arizona in 2016, Jones has shared the field with just one other player who finished with more than eight sacks in a season (Markus Golden, who had 12.5 in 2016).