Free agency is fun. And this year’s class could offer an enticing list of future Hall of Famers, former first-round picks and multi-time Pro Bowlers. I stress “could” because there’s still time for last-minute negotiations — and of course, we’ve yet to play our annual game of (franchise) tag.
With that in mind, I think it’s absolutely incumbent on certain teams to do everything in their power to keep certain players away from the NFL’s March madness. In this edition of the Schein Nine, I’m identifying the guys teams simply CANNOT let out of the building.
Understand, Drew Brees is either a Saint in 2020 or broadcasting and spending time with his kids. The 41-year-old has made it clear that he won’t be wearing another uniform. And at this point, it appears Tom Brady will at least test the free-agent waters. As NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport detailed earlier this week, Patriots owner Robert Kraft feels like that’s the best approach for all parties involved. So you won’t find either of them on the list. But the following nine guys cannot be allowed to hit the open market — they’re just too important to their current teams.
1) Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys need to sign Dak Prescott to a long-term deal right now. Forget the debate about whether Dak is “elite.” Or top 10. Or better than Carson Wentz. Dak Prescott is the Cowboys‘ franchise quarterback. He’s been a really-good-to-great player who should be consistently excellent under the watchful eye of offensive guru and Super Bowl-winning coach Mike McCarthy. And you want Dak with McCarthy in his famous quarterback school in the offseason. I don’t want to hear about franchise tags or July 15th deadlines. The Cowboys currently have more than $77 million in cap space, per Over The Cap. What’s the holdup? This needs to happen NOW, so Dallas can plan for the rest of the offseason.
The Cowboys need Dak. And Dak needs the Cowboys. Prescott isn’t selling soup playing quarterback for the Jaguars. One year ago, I begged Dak to bet on himself and play out his rookie contract. He did, and he earned a lot of money in doing so. Now it’s time for him to cash in.
Dak is an amazing leader and the face of the team. His work with charitable causes and in the community is beautiful. Get the deal done. Both sides want it to happen. With Prescott under contract before free agency opens, Dallas can absolutely become a Super Bowl team under Mike McCarthy — in 2020 and beyond.
2) Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans
On Super Bowl week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Henry on my SiriusXM Radio show, “Schein On Sports.” He was fantastic. And he made it crystal clear that he wants to stay in Nashville. It’s about loyalty, Henry said, with every other team passing on him in the 2016 NFL Draft. (Now, granted, the Titans themselves selected three other players before scooping up Henry at No. 45 overall, but I’ll let him go with it.) It’s about the opportunity to win a title. It’s about the group of guys in the locker room. And Henry stressed that he loves the fans and coaching staff. Henry came across as incredibly sincere in our chat.
Now, paying running backs is a dangerous game. Take a look at Todd Gurley and David Johnson. But I think Henry deserves to get a multi-year deal. Yes, he’s a bigger back, but he’s only 26 — and the ultimate blend of power and speed. And yes, he just logged 386 carries en route to his first rushing title and sheer playoff domination, but he only averaged 179 carries during his first three seasons, so there should be plenty of tread left on those tires.
Derrick Henry is a bona fide star. It’s not often the Titans have offensive stars. You keep him. You prioritize him. And then you try to keep Ryan Tannehill, too, whether on a long-term deal or the franchise tag.
3) Hunter Henry, TE, Los Angeles Chargers
From one Henry to another! This cat is the entire package at tight end. He has sticky hands, runs great routes and is a major threat on third down and in the red zone. And what really sets him apart from most modern tight ends? He’s a fine in-line blocker, to boot.
With Philip Rivers moving on, the next Chargers quarterback needs a guy like Henry at tight end. And I especially love the fit for Henry alongside wideouts Keenan Allen and Mike Williams — what a trio! Tom Brady would want Henry. In fact, if I’m Brady — and the Chargers should absolutely be in play for his services should he leave New England — I’d insist on Henry’s presence. Teddy Bridgewater would want Henry. Tua Tagovailoa would want him. Justin Herbert would want him. And the list goes on.
4) Shaq Barrett, OLB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The 27-year-old sacked the quarterback 19.5 times last year. The Bucs can’t let him walk. And they won’t. Bruce Arians said as much in December: “He ain’t going anywhere.” This is wise, because Barrett’s imperative to this team’s future success.
And for his part, Barrett loves being in Tampa — and certainly doesn’t mind Florida’s tax benefits, as he told me on SiriusXM last week. The sense I gathered from our conversation is Barrett feels wanted and he feels Tampa is on the rise. Having spent his first five seasons buried behind some spectacular edge rushers in Denver, Barrett blossomed in his debut season with the Bucs, and I don’t view him as a one-hit wonder.
5) Byron Jones, CB, Dallas Cowboys
I am a big fan of Jones. Great player. Great teammate who will do anything to win, including changing positions. He was a Pro Bowler in Year 1 as a full-time corner in 2018, and just enjoyed another fine campaign at the spot.
If the Cowboys weren’t so distracted with the Dak back and forth, this could be done. And should be. I would absolutely prioritize Jones over Cooper.
6) Bryan Bulaga, OT, Green Bay Packers
Yes, he’s getting a little long in the tooth. Yep, playing 16 games is no guarantee. But he’s still generally playing at a high level. And in case you haven’t noticed, offensive tackles aren’t exactly growing on trees these days.
Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst wants his right tackle back, as he expressed in his end-of-season presser. Aaron Rodgers loves him and trusts him. And Rodgers isn’t getting any younger. Right now, though, the Super Bowl window is open. And Bulaga is part of the reason why.
7) Arik Armstead, DE, San Francisco 49ers
The Niners are loaded on the defensive line. There’s no shortage of big names and elite players. But Armstead was the team leader in sacks (10) and also a machine when it came to tackles for a loss (13.5). While Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner and Dee Ford rightly get the pub up front, Armstead was a huge part of a Niners defense that I considered the best in the NFL. And when your passing attack can be spotty at times, you want the incredible defense to stay together.
The Niners don’t have oodles of cap space. And given all the young studs on this roster, a long-term deal could be difficult. I think the franchise tag could come into play here — something that Armstead is publicly open to. Like the rest of this 49ers, he feels there’s unfinished business to take care of in 2020.
8) Anthony Harris, S, Minnesota Vikings
With the Vikings already in the red in terms of 2020 cap space, this might feel like a pipe dream. But Vikes GM Rick Spielman has to get creative and free up space to re-sign this guy. Harris is a stud safety for Mike Zimmer. It’s criminal that he was left off the Pro Bowl team this year. And he will be wowed the minute he hits the market.
It would be a crushing blow to Minnesota to lose this playmaker — who, along with Harrison Smith, comprises the best safety duo in the NFL. That’s no small thing, considering the decrepit state of the Vikings‘ cornerbacks.
9) Jack Conklin, OT, Tennessee Titans
The Titans‘ offensive line is a strength. Conklin is a former top-10 pick and rookie All-Pro whose career was sent off track by injury. But he enjoyed a really solid bounceback season at right tackle for Tennessee in 2019. His run-blocking grade from Pro Football Focus was stellar — and considering the ground game was the bread and butter of Tennessee’s march to the AFC title game, you have to keep the band together.
Yes, Derrick Henry is the top priority. And count me among those who believe Ryan Tannehill proved he’s the guy for the Titans. But don’t overlook the crucial importance of continuity up front. Henry won a rushing title with Conklin at right tackle. It’s kind of a big deal. A healthy Conklin showed he’s strong and a crucial part of the Titans as they try and prove they can be an annual playoff team. If Conklin hits the open market, he’ll be immediately scooped up on a massive deal.
Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.