First off, I need to apologize if I misled or confused you. Free agency does exist in college football... right? Did Texas A&M not morph into the New York Yankees this offseason? Was Caleb Williams not a high-profile free agent after leaving Oklahoma? With the introduction of NIL, and the expansion of transfer rules, it feels like a form of free agency already exists in the world of CFB — the NCAA would just prefer that we don’t acknowledge it. NIL: good for student-athletes. Legitimate open market: very, very bad. Or something like that.
While college athletes are inching closer and closer to realizing their fair market value, it is still nothing like the pros. And honestly, I’m thankful for that. I am all for them being compensated, but I hope we don’t veer too far away from the pageantry and tradition(s) of college sports. That is a different conversation for a different day.
Getting back to the original question: What if true free agency was in place, specifically in college football? How would schools handle it?
Personally, I don’t think it would be much different than what we see today. Small schools would be equivalent to small market teams you see in the pros. They would have less money to throw around, instead hoping to catch lightning in a bottle and compete once in a blue moon. Mid-tier teams would rely heavily on in-house development of under-the-radar players. Maybe they dominate a non-power conference and earn a playoff bid once every handful of seasons. Then you’ve got your thoroughbreds, your elite, your big spenders. They dominate the playoff discussion on a yearly basis, everybody wants to play for them, money is no object, etc. Ohio State is a thoroughbred.
The problem is, you can’t just buy 100 of the best players. Even professional teams generally operate within the framework of a salary cap. Using real-life parameters as part of my fake free agency scenario, I decided to take a look at potential targets for the Buckeyes.
Which active players, not already on the Ohio State roster, would be the best additions? Keep in mind, free agent targets and best of the best are not one in the same. Is Pitt’s Jordan Addison an upgrade over Marvin Harrison Jr.? Maybe. But why would you mess with the chemistry Brian Hartline has in his WR room? And who says Harrison Jr. doesn’t possess the higher upside? Same goes for a position like defensive end. I would love to have a guy with 20 career sacks, but I’m not willing to punt on J.T. Tuimoloau or Jack Sawyer in order to get him. I looked at the biggest holes on the roster, and made a suggestion as to how OSU could fill them.
Tight End — Brock Bowers, Georgia
No, I have not been living under a rock. I realize that Ohio State does not often use the tight end as a weapon, but that doesn’t mean they lack the creativity to do so. Jeremy Ruckert was (and remains) a very skilled player. He was primarily asked to block and make the occasional play in the red zone, and he did so unselfishly. But Brock Bowers is a legitimate weapon who Ryan Day could deploy all over the field. He is also entering his true sophomore season. Sign me up for at least two years of high-end production from arguably the best tight end in college football.
Bowers is a modern tight end — more so than Ruckert or anybody currently (proven) on OSU’s roster. He doesn’t block like Gronk, but he gets in the way. More importantly, he is a skilled pass catcher who can make plays once the ball is in his hands, which is all the Buckeyes should care about. Ohio State doesn’t run out of the I-formation. They are not a ground-and-pound team. They are a potentially balanced offense, leaning further and further toward the passing game. Bowers could do a little bit of everything in Day’s offense, and he would be the most talented TE the program has had in decades.
Outside linebacker/Edge/Leo — Will Anderson Jr., Alabama
I think Anderson Jr. is one of the best defensive players I have ever seen play in college. That is not a hyperbolic statement. His combination of size, speed, and skill is otherworldly. His intimidation factor is through the roof. So yes, Ohio State would be fortunate to have him, but not solely because he is a phenomenal football player. Anderson Jr. also plays a position (or positions?) of need for the Buckeyes. I would give this man a blank check for one year.
OSU has endured its recent struggles at linebacker, and that is where the current Crimson Tide superstar would be a perfect chess piece for Jim Knowles and the Buckeye defense. Anderson Jr. diagnoses plays well, reacts quickly, and possesses the speed to chase down any ball carrier. But characterizing him as a linebacker is also missing the mark. Anderson Jr. can do so much more. He is more like a talented edge rusher who just so happens to spend time off the line of scrimmage. If Knowles preferred to use the 2021 Naguski Award winner as his Leo or even a traditional edge, we’re talking about a guy who finished last season with 31 TFL and 17.5 sacks. Eye-popping numbers for a talent who jumps off the screen when you watch him play.
Safety — Brandon Joseph, Notre Dame
Safety might not jump out as a need for Ohio State, but options don’t always equal solutions. The Buckeyes have more than a handful of talented safeties to choose from, but most of them were on the roster last year as well — the exception being Tanner McCallister — and OSU still ended up starting Bryson Shaw. No disrespect, because I will never believe that Shaw was adequately prepared or setup for success, but the results were the results. Brandon Joseph would be a known (evidence above) commodity and difference-maker in the back end for Ohio State. A solution.
You may have heard this before, but new OSU DC Jim Knowles loves safeties. Shocking, I know. But do you know what Knowles loves even more? The answer is: a versatile safety — and that’s exactly what Brandon Joseph is. The former Northwestern All-American is a ball-hawk who is also willing to provide support in the run game. He excels playing center field or in coverage, but he could fill any safety role for the Buckeyes. Some will say Joseph’s run support fell off last year, but I would point to the talent around him (or lack thereof). If Knowles wanted to keep him deep or on the outside, we’re talking about a guy who has nine interceptions in his last 20 games. Ohio State could certainly use an exciting playmaker like Joseph.
The Buckeyes would be fortunate to have any one of these talented players, but they have a roster full of them as is. As exciting as it would be to build a Monstars-type roster, it should be equally exciting to see new players step up in 2022. So while one can dream of having Bowers, Anderson Jr., and Joseph in the scarlet and gray, maybe the alternatives (Gee Scott Jr., C.J. Hicks, Kourt Williams, etc.) will be even better. Go Bucks!