Somewhere between 400 and 500 NFL players will become unrestricted free agents at 4:00 p.m. ET on Wednesday, though it appears a good number of them won't be on the open market for long. The "legal tampering" period that began on Monday has produced reports suggesting that several dozen players will have deals in places with new teams shortly after the new league year begins.
Still, that leaves a lot of free agents either looking for new NFL homes or working on deals to stay with their current team, such as Jason Pierre-Paul did with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday. Though the nation's current health crisis has created a radically different environment for the NFL and every workplace, there is still sure to be plenty of activity this week and in the next few weeks to come.
The Buccaneers, who have a large amount of cap space and a long list of their own free agents to consider – though not as long as it was two days ago – will be busy, one way or another. As free agency has approached, we've been taking a position-by-position look at what the Bucs have, who they could lose and who they could look at from other teams on the open market. Wednesday is the first day of free agency and it's also the end of our 2020 Free Agency Primers series, which concludes with the outside linebacker position.
OLB Jason Pierre-Paul signs a multi-year deal to stay with the Buccaneers.
2019 Output: Tampa Bay's defense racked up 47 sacks in 2019, the franchise's second-highest single-season total ever, and 35 of those were accounted for by outside linebackers. Most notably, Shaquil Barrett exploded for 19.5 QB takedowns, leading the NFL in that category and breaking the team record of 16.5 that Hall-of-Famer Warren Sapp set all the way back in 2000. It's no surprise that the Buccaneers placed their franchise tag on Barrett on Monday, as they will surely continue to explore a long-term deal with their emerging-star pass-rusher.
Barrett had company in getting to the passer off the edge in 2019, particularly in the season's second half after the return of veteran Jason Pierre-Paul from a neck injury. Thanks to a wild end-of-season rush, Pierre-Paul finished his second season with the Buccaneers with 8.5 sacks. Carl Nassib also missed a couple games due to injury but still recorded another six sacks while providing leadership as one of the team's defensive captains. Sam Acho accounted for the one other sack attributed to the team's outside linebackers.
That main trio of Barrett, Pierre-Paul and Nassib didn't just produce sacks. Between them, they also had 64 quarterback hits, with Barrett's 37 tying Green Bay's Za'Darius Smith for the most in the NFL. Barrett forced six fumbles on the season, including one that was returned by Ndamukong Suh for the game-clinching touchdown in a 55-40 Week Four road win over the Los Angeles Rams. Pierre-Paul's two forced fumbles included on in the season finale against Atlanta that rookie linebacker Devin White returned 91 yards for a touchdown. Barrett even recorded an interception in that Rams game.
The Buccaneers' outside linebackers also contributed to a run defense that ranked first in the NFL, allowing an average of 73.8 yards per game that ranks as the lowest a Tampa Bay defense has ever allowed. Barrett was fifth on the team with 58 tackles and 26 of those came on run plays. Pierre-Paul, who has always been considered a good defender against the run, had 14 of his 27 stops on rushing plays.
Under Contract for 2020: Thanks to the franchise tag on Barrett and the good news on Monday of Pierre-Paul re-signing with the team, the Buccaneers' have a very good start on the outside linebacker position for 2020. Barrett is not technically signed yet but he has made it clear that he will be playing in Tampa this season, preferably on a long-term deal but if not then on the tag.
Those two, who combined for eight sacks in just the last two games of the season, make up a potentially destructive starting tandem. The current depth behind them, however, is largely unproven.
Last spring, the Buccaneers used a fourth-round pick on Iowa's Anthony Nelson, for whom they had high hopes. A significant hamstring injury ended up costing Nelson roughly half of his rookie season and he never really got a chance to carve out a significant spot in the OLB rotation, finishing with just eight tackles and one pass defensed. He will likely get a chance to win a larger role in 2020.
The Buccaneers will use their franchise tag in efforts to retain the NFL's 2019 sack leader, Shaquil Barrett.
The other two OLBs currently under contract are first-year players Quinton Bell and Kahzin Daniels, who have two games of NFL regular-season experience between them. Daniels joined the Bucs as an undrafted free agent last spring and showed promise but was slowed by an injury in August. He eventually returned to the Bucs' practice squad in Week Eight and was promoted to the active roster two weeks later but only played three defensive snaps as a rookie. Bell was a seventh-round draft pick of the Raiders in 2019 who ended up on Tampa Bay's practice squad for the last eight weeks and was re-signed to a reserve/futures contract in January.
Buccaneers' Pending Free Agents: Even after tagging Barrett and re-signing Pierre-Paul the Buccaneers still have two outside linebackers who could hit the open market on Wednesday in Nassib and Acho.
In terms of what he has contributed to the Bucs' defense the last two years, Nassib is the more notable of those two pending free agents. Tampa Bay got the former Brown with a waiver claim in early September of 2018 after he was somewhat surprisingly waived by Cleveland. He quickly carved out a big role in the Bucs' defense and contributed 6.5 sacks, one more than he had put up over his first two seasons in Cleveland. Nassib went into 2019 as a starter in the absence of Pierre-Paul and opened the first eight games before sustaining a groin injury in Seattle. After missing two games, he returned and resumed taking a large share of snaps in the Bucs' OLB rotation. His 6.0 sacks ranked third on the team.
The Buccaneers signed Acho when both Nassib and Nelson went down with injuries in Week Nine. Acho only saw a handful of snaps after Nassib got back into the rotation but he has 110 games worth of valuable NFL experience, including two years playing in Todd Bowles' defense in Arizona.
Potentially Available Free Agents: The pickings here appear to be getting very slim, very fast, which is an obvious indication of how much value teams place on productive edge rushers. The Buccaneers weren't the only team to use their franchise tag on a player in this category; the same thing happened in Baltimore with Matt Judon, in Pittsburgh with Bud Dupree and in Jacksonville with Yannick Ngakoue.
All of those players got non-exclusive tags, which means they technically can negotiate with other teams, but the draft-pick compensation of two first-round picks makes it unlikely any of them would sign elsewhere. There is always the possibility of a tag-and-trade situation, such as what happened with Dee Ford last year, but with such big investments in Barrett and Pierre-Paul it's not likely the Buccaneers would be part of such a deal.
Meanwhile, it appears the OLB/DE/EDGE aisle of free agency will be seriously thinned by the time free agency is into its opening hours. Reports indicate that the following players have already come to (non-binding) contract agreement during the two-day negotiating window: Jamie Collins (Detroit), Shaq Lawson AND Kyle Van Noy AND Emmanuel Ogbah (Miami), Mario Addison (Buffalo) and Stephen Weatherly (Carolina).
All of those quick (potential) signings should be good news for the edge rushers who are left, who should find themselves in high demand. The top remaining name on the list is probably Jadeveon Clowney, who excelled last season in Seattle after being traded by the Houston Texans. Clowney was good enough to get the franchise tag in Houston before the trade and he didn't disappoint in Seattle. His 3.0 sacks in 2019 are misleading, as he was disruptive against both the run and the pass, and he had 18.5 sacks over the previous two years in Houston.
The Rams' Dante Fowler hits the market at the right time. The third-overall pick in the 2015 draft by the Jaguars, Fowler never really emerged as a star in Jacksonville and was traded to Los Angeles during the 2018 season. He then signed a one-year deal to remain with the Rams last year and exploded for 11.5 sacks. That big season and the potential that made him such a high draft pick should convince a team or two to offer good money for his services.
Robert Quinn also had an 11.5-sack season in 2019, but that was more a matter of the soon-to-be-30-year-old veteran proving he still had plenty left in the tank rather than a sudden emergence. Quinn had 69 sacks over six seasons with the Rams and another 6.5 with Miami in 2018. He went to Dallas last year on a one-year deal and potentially earned himself another multi-year contract. [UPDATE: Quinn is reportedly signing with the Bears.] Bruce Irvin is three years older than Quinn but he had 8.5 sacks last year in Carolina and is now a free agent again. The Colts' Jabaal Sheard had just 4.5 sacks last year and might have to go the route that Quinn just did, landing a one-year prove-it deal somewhere.
One potentially interesting name is Markus Golden, who has ties to Bucs Head Coach Bruce Arians. A former second-round pick by Arizona in 2015, Golden racked up 12.5 sacks under Arians in 2016 but then tore an ACL in 2017 and had just 2.5 more sacks over the next two seasons. He went to the New York Giants last year on a one-year deal and may have resurrected his career and his free agency earning potential with 10 sacks.
Teams that are looking for the still-in-his-prime free agent who might be able to take his game to another level might consider the Jets' Jordan Jenkins. A former third-round pick, the 26-year-old Jenkins had just 5.5 sacks over his first two seasons but has recorded 15.0 in the past two. Meanwhile, former Falcon Vic Beasley is a bit of an enigma. He led the NFL with 15.5 sacks in 2016, his second season, but had just 14 more in the three years surrounding it. Last year, Beasley tacked on four sacks in the season's final month to double his 2019 total to 8.0, but it wasn't enough to compel Atlanta to try to re-sign him. He's still just 28.
Bucs' Interest Level: Moderate to Low
The Buccaneers' interest in the outside linebacker position was most definitely high – sky-high, really – when its own list of free agents was still a matter of doubt. By tagging Barrett and re-signing Pierre-Paul, however, the Bucs have already taken care of their top two priorities at the position and are in much better shape to fill out the depth around them.
That said, the current depth is unproven and a bit shallow. Nassib could still return and Nelson might be ready for a bigger role with better fortune on the injury front, but both of those items are still just conjecture. The team likely needs to make some sort of addition along the edge in order to weather inevitable injuries.
Unfortunately, the free agent market doesn't seem like it will offer a lot of opportunities, particularly after the run of reported signings during the "legal tampering" period. The Buccaneers aren't likely to be one of the main suitors for the top-shelf remaining players like Clowney, whose estimated market value by Spotrac is $20 million per year. The ideal would be to find another Barrett, a young player with a chance to emerge who won't deal a huge blow to the team's salary cap. Of course, that's a lot easier said than done. The Buccaneers may have a better chance to add more talent to the position in the 2020 draft in April.