The franchise-tag window is open, and in less than three weeks, free agents will be on the move. At Pro Football Weekly, we certainly have our opinions on who are the best free agents – frankly, more often than not, following the tags tells us as much.
But we're offering something different in this series, by digging a little deeper to bring our readers not necessarily the best free agents but the most interesting. In some cases, the best and most interesting will converge. In other cases, we'll focus on criteria that includes best potential value, most untapped upside, particular positions that will be emphasized and de-emphasized more than usual based on this offseason's supply and demand, and guys whose stock may be up or down based on injuries, suspensions and past miscastings, among others.
We'll begin our position-by-position breakdown with the quarterbacks, and a couple caveats: Tyrod Taylor would top this list if (when) he becomes a Bills cap casualty, and the list isn't meant to be comprehensive — hence the notable absences of guys such as Drew Brees and Case Keenum — but selectively focusing on unique candidates at every position.
1. Kirk Cousins
Is he special? Scot McCloughan, with whom Cousins resided in Washington during the quarterback's two-year breakout stretch in the NFL, doesn't think so. And that's OK. Is Super Bowl LII MVP Nick Foles special? How about a 39-year-old Peyton Manning leading Denver to the Super Bowl, or Joe Flacco and Trent Dilfer turning the trick in Baltimore? The point is that Cousins certainly appears good enough to win with — assuming his teammates can help elevate him as much as he does for them.
What's undoubtedly special about Cousins' case is that he enters free agency in his prime and will be a truly unrestricted free agent available to the highest bidder. Say what you will about Drew Brees and Peyton Manning —both of whom were coming off potentially career-threatening surgeries — and Kurt Warner, whose reinvention in the desert at age 34 was anything but a shoo-in. Cousins, on the heels of three consecutive 4,000-plus-yard passing seasons, arguably hits free agency with the fewest questions ever for a franchise passer to answer.
2. Sam Bradford
With a clean injury history, Bradford, not Kirk Cousins, likely would be the belle of the free-agent QB ball in a couple of weeks. Of course, that's like saying, with more stable quarterbacks and ownership, the Browns would've been more competitive over the past two decades.
Nonetheless, Bradford flashed his immense upside as recently as Week 1 last season, after a criminally underrated 2016 when he excelled under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. His laundry list of ailments and surgeries figures to preclude Bradford from commanding a lucrative multi-year commitment. But in a league lacking guys with a skill set that includes the ability to spin it, process things quickly and lead a huddle, Bradford checks all of the boxes and will get another shot somewhere. We think it has to be from a club with a top-end backup or unproven guy whom it's willing to throw into the fire at a moment's notice.
3. AJ McCarron
The two-time national champion at Alabama finally gets his chance to show he can be a winning starter at the next level. Could he be Mike Glennon 2.0? Absolutely. Will people care about Chicago Bears GM Ryan Pace's massive whiff on Glennon if Mitchell Trubisky helps Pace and Matt Nagy win a Super Bowl? Absolutely not.
Indeed, the best scenario for McCarron, like Bradford, figures to be with a club that is simultaneously grooming a young draft pick. But, unlike Glennon, McCarron has postseason experience, a winning record in a brief NFL starting stint and at least enough foot quickness to operate in moving pockets and avoid a sack every now and again.
4. Teddy Bridgewater
Week 1 of the 2018 campaign will mark two full seasons since Bridgewater's last start. Still, he'll be just 25 years old, and his sterling intangibles remain unaffected by the catastrophic knee injury he suffered in Aug. 2016. Bridgewater has obviously proven a lot less than, say, Cousins, but it was only a few years ago that the game-manager stigma hung over Cousins the way it continues to hover over Bridgewater.
Bridgewater was cleared medically in November and will have had an additional four full months to continue strengthening his knee and, potentially, his market appeal. No one questions his drive to return to leading an NFL franchise. How teams view the other questions — namely limited arm talent, lingering knee concerns and two years of inactivity — will obviously drive the marketability of a quarterback with a 17-12 record starting in the NFL.