One of the things I always examined during my time as an agent was the connections clients had with former coaches and team executives who were around the NFL when their contracts were set to expire. When we had meetings to discuss upcoming free agency with clients, we would explore those types of relationships. A strong tie or negative experience would be a factor in finalizing a free agency game plan for the clients.
Familiarity can bring comfort. It was on display during 2018 free agency. Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei was the Bills‘ biggest free agent signing. Bills head coach Sean McDermott was Lotulelei’s defensive coordinator during his first four NFL seasons (2013-2016). Wide receiver Jordy Nelson quickly landed with the Raiders after the Packers released him. Edgar Bennett, Nelson’s offensive coordinator for his last three years in Green Bay, had been recently hired as Oakland’s wide receivers coach.
Along those lines, here’s a look at some of the key connections between the top free agents and high ranking team executives, head coaches, offensive and defensive coordinators and position coaches. The players given a franchise designation (Seahawks defensive end Frank Clark, Texans outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, Chiefs outside linebacker Dee Ford, 49ers kicker Robbie Gould, Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence) have been excluded.
The Cardinals need to do a better job of protecting the quarterback, whether it’s Josh Rosen or the first overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft is used on Kyler Murray. Broncos center Matt Paradis will likely command a contract near the top of the market, which would put it in excess of $10 million per year. His position coach in Denver last year, Sean Kugler, is new head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s offensive line coach. Kingsbury also hired Vance Joseph, who was let go as Broncos head coach after two seasons, to be his defensive coordinator. A pass rusher to pair with 2017 NFL sacks leader Chandler Jones is needed. Edge rusher Shaquil Barrett isn’t going back to Denver because of limited playing opportunities with Super Bowl 50 NFL MVP Von Miller and 2018 fifth-overall-pick Bradley Chubb in front of him.
Head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane, who were hired from the Panthers after the 2016 season, have looked to their Carolina roots while in Buffalo with Lotulelei in free agency and wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin via trade. Right tackle is an area of need. Panthers right tackle Daryl Williams had a Pro Bowl caliber season in 2017, but was limited to one game last season because of a knee injury. Benjamin’s failure in Buffalo may not dissuade Beane and McDermott from pursuing wide receiver Devin Funchess. Carolina is comfortable with him leaving in free agency.
It would be uncharacteristic for the Bengals to make a splash in free agency. Buccaneers inside linebacker Kwon Alexander could be a target in the unlikely event of a shift in philosophy. Newly hired senior defensive assistant Mark Duffner was Tampa Bay’s linebackers coach for the previous three seasons. New head coach Zac Taylor, who was the Rams‘ top offensive assistant last season, may want to try bringing offensive guard Rodger Saffold from Los Angeles. The front office probably isn’t interested in paying Saffold top guard money, which is more than $11 million per year.
The Browns could look for a more accomplished deep threat to complement slot wide receiver Jarvis Landry. John Brown appears to have put behind him the assorted ailments, including a cyst on his spine and a sickle cell trait diagnosis, that slowed him over his last two seasons with the Cardinals (2016 and 2017) while head coach Freddie Kitchens was an offensive assistant in Arizona.
The Cowboys have taken a conservative approach to free agency in recent years. The last big free-agent signing was cornerback Brandon Carr in 2012. Seahawks safety Earl Thomas‘ preference to play for the Cowboys is widely known. He is reportedly trying to reclaim his place at the top of the safety pay scale. Eric Berry is the current standard with the six-year, $78 million contract containing $40 million in guarantees he received from the Chiefs in 2017. Thomas would be reunited with secondary coach Kris Richard, who was Seattle’s defensive coordinator for three seasons (2015-2017), should Cowboys owner Jerry Jones decide to be a major player in free agency.
Vic Fangio got the Denver head coaching job because of his stellar work as Bears defensive coordinator. Two members of his Bears secondary, safety Adrian Amos and cornerback Bryce Callahan, would be good fits in Denver. Starting strong safety Darian Stewart was released last week. Signing Callahan would allow cornerback Chris Harris to play more on the outside, since he would be largely relieved of duties in the slot.
Offensive line coach Mike Munchak made what was essentially a lateral move in going to the Broncos from the Steelers. Tight end Jesse James isn’t expected to return to Pittsburgh. He would be the most complete tight end Denver has had in years, since he is a receiving threat in the passing game that can also block.
The Lions need to address the pass rush with the often-injured defensive end Ziggy Ansah’s days in Detroit coming to an end. Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers is the most attractive young edge rusher available because his talented contemporaries were given franchise tags.
General manager Bob Quinn was New England’s director of pro scouting when Flowers was drafted. Matt Patricia was Flowers’ defensive coordinator in New England before becoming Lions head coach last offseason.
The Lions are parting ways with cornerback Nevin Lawson, who has started 45 games over the last three seasons. Defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni spent a year with defensive back Kareem Jackson in 2015 as the Texans’ linebacker coach. Jackson’s ability to play both cornerback and safety would come in handy since safety Glover Quinn, who joined the Lions as a free agent in 2013, was released last month.
Green Bay Packers
Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst is much more aggressive in free agency than Ted Thompson, his predecessor, ever was. Finding a pass rushing outside linebacker could be a priority. Redskins outside linebacker Preston Smith may price himself out of Washington. Kirk Olivadotti, his position coach in Washington, is coaching inside linebackers in Green Bay under new head coach Matt LaFleur. Justin Houston, at age 30, is being released by the Chiefs, and might be another option. Outside linebackers coach Mike Smith came to Green Bay after Kansas City made defensive coaching staff changes following the loss to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.
The Colts have an NFL-best $102.067 million of salary cap room according to NFLPA data. Finding another wide receiver to go with T.Y. Hilton may be a top priority. Chargers wide receiver Tyrell Williams is arguably the best deep threat available in free agency. Head coach Frank Reich was the Chargers’ offensive coordinator in 2015, during Williams’ rookie season. His offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni was Williams’ position coach in 2016 and 2017. Williams posted career highs of 69 receptions, 1,059 receiving and seven touchdowns in 2016.
An impact pass rusher could be on the Colts’ offseason shopping list. General manager Chris Ballard could look to the Chiefs, where he was a front office executive for the four years prior to coming to Indianapolis in 2017, to find help with Justin Houston.
Cornerback could be upgraded. Morris Claiborne finally started living up to the potential that made him the sixth-overall pick by the Cowboys in the 2012 draft before a groin injury sidelined him for the last nine regular season games of the 2016 season. Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus was coaching linebackers in Dallas during Claiborne’s five years with the Cowboys.
A high-risk, high-reward option that could be worth signing to a low cost one-year “prove it” deal as an upgrade at cornerback is Jason Verrett. The Chargers’ 2014 first-round pick has played only five games since a 2015 Pro Bowl season because of knee and Achilles injuries. Reich saw Verrett’s capabilities first hand during Verrett’s first two years in the NFL.
The Jaguars are parting ways with quarterback Blake Bortles. Going all-in on Bortles after an unexpected playoff run to the AFC Championship Game in 2017 proved to be a big mistake. Super Bowl LII MVP Nick Foles is on Jacksonville’s radar screen. Foles would have a comfort level in Jacksonville because his quarterbacks coach with the Eagles in 2017, John DeFilippo, is the new offensive coordinator.
Kansas City Chiefs
The release of outside linebacker Justin Houston frees up $14 million of salary cap space. Safety Landon Collins had his best season in 2016, when new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was running the Giants defense. Spagnuolo was the Ravens‘ secondary coach in 2014 during four-time Pro Bowl inside linebacker C.J. Mosley’s rookie year.
Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers have a hole in the middle of their defense line because Brandon Mebane’s contract is expiring and Corey Liuget’s option wasn’t picked up. Head coach Anthony Lynn was the Jets running back coach during defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson’s first two years in New York. There will be changes in the secondary, especially at safety. Jahleel Addae’s six-year stint with the Chargers has come to an end, as he has been released. Adrian Phillips is unrestricted. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley saw Earl Thomas emerge as one of the league’s top safeties as Seahawks defensive coordinator. It’s a position he held for four years before becoming Jaguars head coach in 2013.
New head coach Brian Flores is bringing the Patriots’ defensive scheme versatility from New England with him. Patriots defensive lineman Trey Flowers would help Flores make more of a seamless transition in employing the defense he coached in New England. Miami didn’t replace the production at wide receiver lost by trading franchise player Jarvis Landry to the Browns last March. Assistant head coach/quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell was brought on by Flores because of his seven years of head coaching experience. He was Golden Tate’s head coach with the Lions during four of the wide receiver’s five and a half seasons in Detroit.
New York Giants
The Giants dealt edge rusher Olivier Vernon to the Browns for offensive guard Kevin Zeitler. More offensive line help could be on the way from general manager Dave Gettleman’s past if he looks to sign Panthers right tackle Daryl Williams. Gettleman was Carolina’s general manager from 2013 through 2016. Linebacker is also area of need for the Giants. Anthony Barr’s price tag is probably too high for the Vikings. Head coach Pat Shurmur was the Minnesota’s offensive coordinator in 2016 and 2017.
New York Jets
The Jets have the second-most salary cap room behind the Colts, with almost $93 million. There’s a hole at cornerback with Morris Claiborne and Buster Skrine entering free agency. Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains was with the Bears from 2015 through 2017 during cornerback Bryce Callahan’s first three NFL seasons.
There was interest in trading for edge rusher Dante Fowler, Jr. last year, but he is re-signing with the Rams. Lions defensive end Ziggy Ansah, who is one of the NFL’s better pass rushers when healthy, could be an alternative. Although it’s the other side of the ball, running backs coach Jim Bob Cooter was Detroit’s offensive coordinator for the last four seasons. Wide receiver Golden Tate thrived in Detroit with Cooter calling plays. He would be an upgrade over his former Seahawks teammate Jermaine Kearse, who is also a free agent.
The Jets have already started to shore up the offensive line by acquiring offensive guard Kelechi Osemele from the Raiders. Dolphins right tackle Ju’Wuan James is arguably the best available free agent at the position. That’s something new head coach Adam Gase knows. He spent the last three seasons as Dolphins head coach.
There reportedly was mutual interest in free-agent defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson, who was dealt to the Seahawks at the 2017 roster cutdown, coming back last offseason. Head coach Todd Bowles was fired but general manager Mike Maccagnan remains. The Jets also pursued defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh last offseason after the Dolphins released him.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers have been active during the last two free agency periods. The same is expected this year. More weapons in the passing game need to be found for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo after wide receiver Pierre Garcon’s option wasn’t picked up. Vice president of player personnel Martin Mayhew signed Golden Tate in 2013, when he was the Lions general manager.
The 49ers are expected to improve their outside pass rush. Mayhew drafted Lions defensive end Ziggy Ansah while he was in charge of the franchise. Ansah’s defensive line coach until last year, Kris Kocurek, has replaced Jeff Zgonina in that capacity with the 49ers. Defensive backs coach Joe Woods coming over from the Broncos, where he was defensive coordinator for the last two seasons, could help make edge rusher Shaquil Barrett an option.
The 49ers signed cornerback Richard Sherman last offseason after the Seahawks released him. Playing the Seahawks twice a year and staying in the same defense because of defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s experience coaching in Seattle was appealing to Sherman. Defensive continuity and reuniting with Sherman could be attractive to Seahawks safety Earl Thomas and outside linebacker K.J. Wright.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Head coach Bruce Arians assembled a staff in Tampa filled with coaches who were with him when he was coaching the Cardinals. Safety has been an issue in the Buccaneers defense. Tyrann Mathieu, a Cardinals third-round pick in 2013, would be a nice upgrade. Any big signings will be difficult because Tampa Bay only has a little more than $3 million in cap space. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles was in charge of Arizona’s defense during Mathieu’s first two NFL seasons before he became the Jets’ head coach.
The Cardinals are trying to accommodate wide receiver DeSean Jackson’s desire to be traded. Jackson departing would free up $10 million of cap room. If Jackson is out of the picture, Arians might look to John Brown to be his replacement as a deep threat. Brown took a one-year “prove it” deal from the Ravens last offseason after his four year rookie contract with the Cardinals expired.
Pass rushers are a priority in Tennessee because of outside linebackers Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo’s expiring contracts. Orakpo has retired. The Titans have tapped into general manager Jon Robinson and head coach Mike Vrabel’s Patriots roots in free agency the last couple of years (cornerback Malcolm Butler, running back Dion Lewis and cornerback Logan Ryan). Robinson had a long tenure in New England before becoming the Buccaneers director of player personnel for three years (2013-2015). Vrabel won three Super Bowl rings as a Patriots linebacker.
Signing defensive end Trey Flowers would be an ideal continuation of the New England pipeline. Ravens outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith would be a cheaper pass-rushing alternative. He would making an easy transition since Titans defensive coordinator Dean Pees ran the Ravens’ defense for Smith’s first three NFL seasons. Pees probably wouldn’t object to C.J. Mosley coming over from Baltimore but there are bigger needs than inside linebacker. Mosley could be looking to jump start an inside linebacker market that’s been stagnant since Luke Kuechly signed a five-year extension with the Panthers in 2015 averaging $12,359,059 per year.
Undrafted wide receiver Adam Humphries was a great find while Robinson was in Tampa. Humphries would make up for Rishard Matthews, the Titans’ leading wide receiver in 2016 and 2017, asking for and getting his release early last season.