Predicting Where the Top 25 NFL Free Agents Play in 2013

Ty Schalter@tyschalterNFL National Lead WriterMarch 1, 2013

Predicting Where the Top 25 NFL Free Agents Play in 2013

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    With the NFL Scouting Combine over, fans are buzzing about where all the top prospects are going to land, and whom their favorite team is targeting.

    They're jumping the gun.

    Between the combine and the draft comes free agency, and with that comes a ton of player movement. A lot of quality starters are going to change teams, turning needs into strengths and strengths into needs.

    As an example of how quickly things can change, Jay Glazer of Fox Sports recently reported a handshake trade agreement between the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs for quarterback Alex Smith. Suddenly, the team sitting atop the draft went from having a desperate need at quarterback to solving its quarterback problem—and the No. 1 overall pick will be spent on a non-quarterback for the first time in five years.

    Additionally, the Atlanta Falcons released running back Michael Turner, defensive end John Abraham and cornerback Dunta Robinson Friday morning, unleashing three new FAs onto the market and creating more needs for themselves.

    At 4:00 p.m. ET on March 12, these top 25 free agents, excluding those likely to be franchise-tagged, will hit the market. Wherever they land, they'll solve their new team's problem—and create one for the team they left.

    Here are the likely landing spots for the top free agents, ranked based on ability, age and positional value. Note that you won't find players almost certain to be franchise tagged, like Ryan Clady or Jairus Byrd (who was franchised on Friday, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter)—and you won't find receiver Mike Wallace, whose asking price is far, far beyond anything his production warrants.

    ProFootballFocus.com is a subscription site and sourced in this article.

No. 25: Jake Long

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    In 2008, then-Dolphins executive vice president Bill Parcells made Jake Long the No. 1 overall pick. The left tackle was the last non-quarterback to be picked at the top of the draft, and he earned his massive paycheck early.

    After years of being one of the best pass-protectors in the game, Long had a down year in 2012. Injuries both shortened his season and appeared to hamper his effectiveness. Pro Football Focus graded Long as the 46th-best offensive tackle (out of 80) last season.

    Long will turn 28 before next season. Given the premium placed on his position and his reputation as one of the league's best, he may command a huge contract. That team will be betting an awful lot on Long playing like he played the first time he stepped on the field, and not like the last.

    PREDICTED 2013 DESTINATION: Indianapolis Colts

No. 24: Dwight Freeney

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    Feared Colts pass-rusher Dwight Freeney wasn't very fearsome in 2012. The switch to head coach Chuck Pagano's 3-4 defense wasn't a smooth transition, and a high ankle sprain hampered him further.

    He may not be an every-down monster, but Freeney still has pass-rushing talent. With the right fit, he could still be very productive.

    PREDICTED 2013 DESTINATION: New England Patriots

No. 23: Donald Thomas

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    New England Patriots swing guard/center Donald Thomas was forced into starting duty in 2012 and was Pro Football Focus' 17th-best guard—despite flip-flopping between left and right guard all season long.

    The Patriots likely don't have a permanent spot for him. The Detroit Lions, though, released starting right guard Stephen Peterman, forced longtime center Dominic Raiola to take a (non-guaranteed) veteran minimum deal for 2013 and already had Thomas on the roster for a cup of coffee in 2010.

    PREDICTED 2013 DESTINATION: Detroit Lions

No. 22: Steven Jackson

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    The St. Louis Rams have been built around the power running of Steven Jackson for the past eight seasons and under six different head coaches. 2013 is the end of an era, though, as the NFL's Clydesdale workhorse back will likely void his final contract year and become a free agent.

    Yahoo! Sports' Jason Cole thinks Jackson is likely to replace Atlanta Falcons workhorse Michael Turner, as does the Rams' beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jim Thomas.

    PREDICTED 2013 DESTINATION: Atlanta Falcons

No. 21: Greg Jennings

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    Injuries somehow kept Greg Jennings from putting the Packers on his back in 2012.

    It was widely thought that he'd hit the open market this spring, but Jennings is unlikely to find a quarterback who can feed him quite like Aaron Rodgers, and the Packers are unlikely to find a receiver who can fit into their offense quite like Jennings.

    Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel recently reported that the Packers are still very much in the picture for Jennings, despite the emergence of young receiver Randall Cobb. The Packers may not be willing to shell out elite money for Jennings, but Jennings may not command elite money.

    PREDICTED 2013 DESTINATION: Green Bay Packers

No. 20: Paul Kruger

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    Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Paul Kruger earned himself a lot of money in the 2012 playoffs, putting on a pass-rushing clinic during the Ravens' title run.

    Kruger looked especially dominant against the Indianapolis Colts.

    Colts head coach Chuck Pagano was recently the Ravens defensive coordinator and runs the Ravens' 3-4. Needing to replace Dwight Freeney with a pass-rusher who can excel in his defense, Pagano got an up-close-and-personal look at the perfect candidate.

    PREDICTED 2013 DESTINATION: Indianapolis Colts

No. 19: Danny Amendola

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    Like Paul Kruger, wideout Danny Amendola might have aced a job interview he didn't even know he was having in 2012.

    Amendola exploded for 11 catches and 102 yards against the San Francisco 49ers in 2012, and the 49ers would love to have his hands and speed to replace Randy Moss and/or Ted Ginn Jr.

    PREDICTED 2013 DESTINATION: San Francisco 49ers

No. 18: Dwayne Bowe

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    Dwayne Bowe has the size, speed and hands of a true No. 1 receiver. What Bowe hasn't had is the production of an elite target—or a quarterback who can get him the ball.

    Unsurprisingly, new Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid has prioritized the passing game. Per Fox Sports' Jay Glazer, the Chiefs have swung a deal for 49ers quarterback Alex Smith. Will the new direction be enough to keep Bowe from seeing what kind of numbers he commands in the open market?

    That's doubtful.

    But it's also doubtful that Reid lets Bowe walk out the door.

    PREDICTED 2013 DESTINATION: Kansas City Chiefs

No. 17: Reggie Bush

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    Reggie Bush never quite turned into the next Marshall Faulk. Quietly, though, Bush has become a steady 1,000-yard rusher whose speed, explosion and hands make him an out-of-the-backfield receiving threat.

    With Jahvid Best missing the entire season, that game-breaking threat is something the Detroit Lions lacked in 2012. Per Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Pressthe Lions' rumored interest in Bush "is real." 

    PREDICTED 2013 DESTINATION: Detroit Lions

No. 16: Martellus Bennett

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    Last year, for the first time in his five-year career, new New York Giants tight end Martellus Bennett started all 16 games. In them, he racked up 55 catches for 626 yards and five touchdowns, finally making good on his rookie promise.

    Bennett, according to NFL.com's Chris Wesseling, would love to play with his brother, defensive end Michael Bennett. Michael is also a free agent, and the team trying to retain him, Tampa Bay, does need a starting tight end. 

    However, a more likely fit would be Atlanta, which needs pass-rush help and is currently trying to convince retired tight end Tony Gonzalez to un-retire.

    PREDICTED 2013 DESTINATION: Atlanta Falcons

No. 15: Gosder Cherilus

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    Andre Smith and Gosder Cherilus are like free-agent twins. They both have excellent size, are natural right tackles and struggled with behavioral and discipline problems early on in their career. Together, the two of them finished first and second, respectively, among right tackles in Pro Football Focus' overall grades.

    Cherilus is excellent in pass protection, but despite his 6'7", 315-pound frame, he is not a dominant run-blocker. Cherilus will be 29 when the season starts, three years older than Smith, and according to the Detroit Free Press, he had the controversial Regenokine therapy performed on his knee in January.

    The Lions may be ready to let 2012 first-round pick Riley Reiff take over.

    PREDICTED 2013 DESTINATION: Jacksonville Jaguars

No. 14: Andre Smith

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    The other of the two big right tackles available in free agency, Andre Smith is coming off a breakout season. After a slow, rough, injury-laden start to his young career, his massive size (6'4", 332 pounds) and talent finally got a chance to shine.

    Smith was Pro Football Focus' best-graded right tackle last year, equally strong in pass protection and run-blocking. Per the Cincinnati Enquirer's Joe Reedy, the Bengals will likely "let the market set" Smith's price. As always, the question isn't whether the Bengals will have the cap room to re-sign Smith, but whether owner Mike Brown wants to spend the money.

    PREDICTED 2013 DESTINATION: Cincinnati Bengals

No. 13: Matt Moore

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    Those shocked to see former Carolina Panthers and Miami Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore so high up this list likely didn't see just how good his 2011 performance was. In just 13 games (12 starts), Moore threw for 2,497 yards and 16 touchdowns, with just nine interceptions and a 60.5 percent completion rate.

    A lot of teams in 2012 could have used quarterback play that competent. The Cleveland Plain Dealer's Terry Pluto took a "guess" that the Browns would sign Moore, if they signed any quarterback. Given that Moore is a year younger than Brandon Weeden, maybe they should.

    PREDICTED 2013 DESTINATION: Cleveland Browns

No. 12: Wes Welker

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    Over the past year, receiver Wes Welker's career with the Patriots has seemed dead as a doornail, guaranteed forever, back again and everywhere in between. His on-field performance has been solid, but key drops in key games have haunted him. It looked like the cap would prevent the Patriots from re-signing him, but then Tom Brady restructured his contract.

    There's still no guarantee that a deal gets done—but like Greg Jennings and the Packers, neither side is likely to find a better fit than each other.

    PREDICTED 2013 DESTINATION: New England Patriots

No. 11: Richard Seymour

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    When last the football world thought about Richard Seymour, he was being traded from the heart of the mighty New England Patriots defense to football's black hole: Oakland.

    When healthy, Seymour has been one of the better run-stopping tackles in football, and he still has enough jump in the legs to get after quarterbacks a bit.

    As Bill Williamson of ESPN.com noted, Seymour could be the latest in a long line of players and coaches who have switched sides in the rivalry between the Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos. Seymour would help beef up an otherwise solid Denver defense that didn't always stop the run well in 2012.

    PREDICTED 2013 DESTINATION: Denver Broncos

No. 10: Brandon Moore

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    If Brandon Moore were a little younger or played a position other than guard, he'd be higher on this list. As it is, the 33-year-old-to-be has been one of the best, most dependable guards in the NFL. In the five years Pro Football Focus has graded players, Moore has never been marked lower than 12th overall among offensive guards.

    The Jets are cap-strapped and likely won't be able to invest big money in a player so far past 30, so a contending team in need of a powerful right guard could land a great one. The Atlanta Falcons, who love to run inside but have struggled to do so, would be a great fit.

    PREDICTED 2013 DESTINATION: Atlanta Falcons

No. 9: Adam Jones

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    It's almost impossible to believe that the quietly productive, 11th-best PFF-graded cornerback in football last season, Adam Jones, is the same human powder keg universally known as "Pacman." The Bengals gambled on Jones and won big, wrote the Cincinnati Enquirer's Joe Reedy, and they're unlikely to let him get away.

    However, the Bengals have several other big-ticket free agents. If a bidding war breaks out, Cincinnati rarely wins those.

    PREDICTED 2013 DESTINATION: Cincinnati Bengals

No. 8: Cliff Avril

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    Everyone seems to agree that Cliff Avril is one of the few pure pass-rushers available this season, and so he should be getting a big contract from somebody. The question is, who?

    Sports Illustrated's Peter King said Avril should be getting a "big payday" despite not producing in accordance with his talent, and the Lions need him back but can't afford to overpay. Avril is a natural 3-4 rush linebacker but has been playing as a 4-3 end his entire career.

    A 3-4 team in need of some heat off the edge would be a fit, and the Cleveland Browns have the cap space to outbid the Lions.

    PREDICTED 2013 DESTINATION: Cleveland Browns

No. 7: Andy Levitre

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    The Buffalo Bills have one too many star free agents to tag, and stud left guard Andy Levitre appears to be the odd man out.

    The 6'2", 305-pound pass-protector could do wonders in Chicago, where quarterback Jay Cutler hasn't been able to drop back calmly and set his feet in years.

    PREDICTED 2013 DESTINATION: Chicago Bears

No. 6: Chris Houston

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    With Chris Houston, the Detroit Lions have a solid No. 1 corner and a nice mix of young, talented players competing for the No. 2 and nickel corner roles. Without him, they have three second-year corners, the most talented of whom (third-round pick Dwight Bentley) had his rookie season cut short by injury.

    A year younger than Adam Jones and more consistent over the past few seasons, Houston is still likely more attractive to the Lions than any other team.

    PREDICTED 2013 DESTINATION: Detroit Lions 

No. 5: Michael Johnson

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    Michael Johnson has all the indicators of a player who's going to get paid: He's young (26), plays a premium position (defensive end) and is coming off a monster year. Officially, he had 11.5 sacks, but Pro Football Focus' charting credits him with 13—along with eight quarterback hits and 34 hurries.

    UPDATE: Friday, March 1 at 4 p.m. ET

    According to team's official Twitter page, the Bengals have franchised Johnson: 

    We have designated DE Michael Johnson as the team’s franchise player for 2013.#Bengals

    — Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) March 1, 2013

    Johnson will play on a one-year, $11.1 million deal (via USA Today) unless the Bengals offer him a long-term deal.

    ---End of Update---

     

    Incredibly, he might be better at stopping the run than rushing the passer. If the Bengals let him hit the open market, he'll be in huge demand.

    2013 DESTINATION: Cincinnati Bengals

No. 4: Sebastian Vollmer

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    Offensive tackles who are 6'8" and 320 pounds on the right side of 30 with a proven, consistent track record don't often hit the open market. The New England Patriots, though, don't appear to likely to break the bank to re-sign him. Vollmer had another excellent season in 2012, despite being slowed by a lower back injury.

    If healthy, Vollmer is a much safer bet at right tackle than Gosder Cherilus or Andre Smith. The Patriots likely will try to re-sign Vollmer without using the franchise tag, according to ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss.

    PREDICTED 2013 DESTINATION: New England Patriots

No. 3: Desmond Bryant

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    In-demand free agent—and Harvard graduate—Desmond Bryant allegedly did some very dumb things: getting drunk, getting arrested for criminal mischief and posing for one of the most astounding mug shots of all time.

    However, according to Pro Football Focus, the 28-year-old pass-rushing defensive tackle racked up four sacks, 11 quarterback hits and 20 hurries last season, all in just eight starts. If the Raiders aren't inclined to pay big money for their mischievous tackle, the Seattle Seahawks could use more push up the middle.

    PREDICTED 2013 DESTINATION: Seattle Seahawks

No. 2: Michael Bennett

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    Last season, 27-year-old defensive end Michael Bennett started 16 games for the first time. All he did was rack up nine sacks, 14 quarterback hits and an incredible 48 hurries. Despite this, Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik won't use the franchise tag on Bennett, according to Tampa Bay Times beat writer Rick Stroud.

    Bennett and his brother, tight end Martellus Bennett, say they'd like to play together, according to NFL.com's Chris Wesseling. If the Atlanta Falcons are unable to convince retired tight end Tony Gonzalez to come back, the brothers would be a perfect fit.

    PREDICTED 2013 DESTINATION: Atlanta Falcons

No. 1: Anthony Spencer

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    The Dallas Cowboys can't afford to pay Anthony Spencer what he's worth, according to Jerry Jones (via Nick Eatman of the team's official site). Too bad: Spencer was an absolute beast in 2012.

    According to Pro Football Focus, Spencer racked up 11 sacks, two quarterback hits and 27 hurries, as well as 64 solo tackles and 24 assists. He was PFF's top-ranked 3-4 outside linebacker and showed up all over the field on tape.

    Just about every team should kick the tires on Spencer, but any 3-4 team looking for pass-rush help should be especially interested. The Indianapolis Colts and Cleveland Browns are both potential suitors (and Paul Kruger and Cliff Avril likely competitors). The Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers could really use his services but don't have the cap space to outbid the loaded Browns.

    New Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton might just get two new shiny toys to play with.

    PREDICTED 2013 DESTINATION: Cleveland Browns