NFL Free Agents 2014: Projecting the Best Free-Agent Fits for Teams
While we aren't quite done with the 2013 NFL season—there are some conference championship games and a Super Bowl to play yet—the vast majority of teams are out of the playoffs and looking towards the offseason.
Every team—even the ones still playing—have room to improve and will be looking to do so in free agency as well as the coming 2014 NFL draft.
It's too early to know for sure everyone who will be available—after all, the Chicago Bears have already taken quarterback Jay Cutler off the market with a big contract—but for the purposes of this piece, let's assume the players mentioned within it don't get the same treatment Cutler got and end up in free agency.
Some of them undoubtedly will get retained by their current teams, but others may be tempted to see who is willing to pay them more money to jump ship.
So if your first impulse is to shout, "He'll never leave!," keep in mind that there are no such things as absolutes in contract negotiations.
With that, let's take a look at some pairings between free agent and teams that could be perfect fits.
Branden Albert to the New York Giants
You can point out any number of reasons for the disastrous season the New York Giants just wrapped up, but one thing which stood out as a problem which needs to be addressed immediately is the state of the offensive line.
The poor line play hampered the run game and put quarterback Eli Manning into some untenable positions, which contributed to his career-high turnover numbers.
The offensive line has danced along the razor’s edge before—this year it just slipped off.
While addressing the needs via the 2014 NFL draft is absolutely on the agenda, the Giants need help now—and more of it than you can get from some rookies. And as well as Will Beatty played in 2012, he was pretty bad in 2013.
Branden Albert will be on the free-agent block this offseason and the Giants should take a long look at him.
Despite missing a chunk of the season due to injury, Albert was still the second-highest rated offensive lineman on the Chiefs, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription link).
It was clear the team was looking to move on when they took rookie Eric Fisher with the first overall pick of the 2013 NFL draft, but they couldn’t seem to find a taker for Albert— which makes sense since he was about to become a free agent.
Admittedly, Albert is getting on in years (he becomes 30 next season) and is closer to the end of his career than the beginning. However, the Giants need help now, and as we saw this season with Fisher, the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Luke Joeckel and Philadelphia Eagles’ Lane Johnson, it takes time for rookie left tackles to really step in.
If the Giants want to bounce back from an awful 2013, they need to fix the offensive line, and Albert would be a perfect fit to help turn things around in short order.
Brent Grimes to the Minnesota Vikings
While rookie Xavier Rhodes had an alright season, the rest of the Minnesota Vikings cornerbacks didn’t pass.
Chris Cook, Shaun Prater and Marcus Sherels were all rated poorly by Pro Football Focus—in fact, save for Rhodes, Prater (barely) and Jamarca Sanford, no other defensive back on the team rated positively in pass coverage (subscription link).
The Vikings face Jay Cutler, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Stafford in their division every season and in 2014 add Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Drew Brees and Robert Griffin III, per Vikings.com, to the list of tough quarterbacks.
Suffice to say, bumping up the ability of their cornerbacks is of paramount importance.
Without a doubt, Miami Dolphins cornerback Brent Grimes is the best of the bunch when it comes to free-agent corners.
PFF rates him as the No. 2 cornerback overall this season (subscription link), and nobody in the rest of the top five was anywhere close to him in terms of number of snaps played. Grimes only intercepted four balls but had 14 passes defensed, and while he allowed more passes completed than any of the other top-five players, he also saw far more targets.
Grimes saw 98 targets, with the next closest (Colts corner Vontae Davis) at 85 and the rest in the 60s.
While by no means a shutdown corner like a Darrelle Revis or a turnover machine like Richard Sherman, Grimes is a very good corner, and if the Vikings can pry him away from Miami (or any of the other suitors bound to make a play for him), he would be an instant upgrade across from Rhodes.
Jairus Byrd or T.J. Ward to the Green Bay Packers
One would assume the Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills would do whatever they could to retain the services of safeties T.J. Ward and Jairus Byrd.
However, both teams have a lot of other needs to fill and could very easily decide to spend their money elsewhere.
If we had to pick one or the other, we’d lean towards Cleveland letting Ward go over Buffalo parting ways with Byrd because the Browns have much further to go in rebuilding their team.
They may not be able to spend the money to keep him with all the other needs they have.
Either player would be an excellent addition for a Green Bay Packers team with some real needs at safety.
According to Pro Football Focus (and most people’s eyeballs) the highest rated safety on the team was Morgan Burnett—and PFF still ranked him as the No. 63 safety overall (subscription link).
M.D. Jennings was worse, Chris Banjo barely played (and looks pretty raw) as did Sean Richardson.
The Packers have not been able to compete with the talent on defense, especially at the safety position—in fact, you can make a strong argument they compete despite it.
General manager Ted Thompson needs to make some moves for veteran help, and while neither Byrd nor Ward would be cheap, they would be a huge and immediate upgrade for a position in a lot of trouble.
It's not something he has done in the last few years—which is a big reason why the Packers are in this position in the first place.
Jeremy Maclin to the New York Jets
The New York Jets aren’t sure they have a franchise quarterback in Geno Smith, but one thing they can be absolutely, 100 percent positive about is that they surely don’t have enough wide receiver talent.
Santonio Holmes has been a complete bust since arriving in New York, Stephen Hill has proved to be a wasted pick and nobody else has stepped up, save Jeremy Kerley—a good possession receiver but far from a traditional No. 1 receiver.
If you want your quarterback to succeed, you need to give him the tools.
Jeremy Maclin was lost for the 2013 NFL season when he tore his ACL in training camp, but he hopes to return to Philadelphia, per NJ.com. That may be a tall order for a team with other needs when it comes to a player coming off of a severe knee injury.
For the Jets though, it might be a worthy gamble.
Smith may not be the answer at quarterback, but nobody is ever going to know if the Jets don’t give him some decent weapons.
Rashad Jennings Back to the Jacksonville Jaguars
They say you "can’t go home again," but in the case of the NFL, that’s never true.
After spending three years in Jacksonville with the Jaguars, Rashad Jennings had a career year with the Oakland Raiders.
Maurice Jones-Drew is about to become a free agent, and while an argument could be made to retain him, there’s a good chance he’s going to want more money than he will be worth to the Jaguars.
While both he and Jennings are currently the same age (28), Jones-Drew has a lot less tread left on his tires and has spent a lot of time hurt over the course of his eight-year career.
Meanwhile, Jennings has only played four years, and as he has only started parts of his career, his 387 carries pales in comparison to Jones-Drew’s 1,804.
Jennings showed a lot of strength, good speed and a tough running style this year and gained a lot of yards with very little in the way of consistent help from players around him.
The Jaguars are going to be rebuilding and they need a reliable, durable and productive running back—and it makes no sense to blow the bank up to do it.
They can get Jennings for a reasonable price and he can be a cornerstone for the offense while the team gets the rest of the piece in place around him.
Hakeem Nicks to the Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers boast an impressive defense and a franchise quarterback, but they still have some work to do to complete their (rather fast) turnaround.
One thing they really need is another good wide receiver. The passing offense ranked a woeful 29th in the NFL this past season, and if the Panthers are going to continue fighting for the division title each year, that has to change.
While quarterback Cam Newton’s play needs to continue to be refined, overall he increased his completion ratio and seemed to take a step forward this past season.
To continue his progress, he needs more weapons to pass to.
Hakeem Nicks is coming off a terrible season. Some of that was the bad play of his quarterback, some of that was the amount of time he had to spend blocking, not running routes and some of the blame must also go to Nicks, who seemed to mail it in at the end of the season.
That said, Nicks has shown before that he can play at a high level and he would be a good alternative for Steve Smith—something quarterback Cam Newton needs.
At 25, Nicks is also young enough to take over for Smith in the near future.
Meanwhile, the Panthers can address a developmental receiver in the 2014 NFL draft.
Greg Hardy to the Dallas Cowboys
This may not seem as far-fetched as you’d imagine. We know the defense in Dallas needs help off the edge and had the eighth-fewest sacks in the NFL in 2013. We also know that owner/GM Jerry Jones loves a big splash.
The Carolina Panthers would do well to keep defensive end Greg Hardy home, but don’t be surprised if someone like Jones backs a Brinks truck filled with money up to Hardy and he can’t say no.
He’d be an instant upgrade over the departing Anthony Spencer and would be perfect across from DeMarcus Ware, who struggled with injury this season and will be undergoing surgery this offseason, per DallasCowboys.com.
On top of it, he already plays in a 4-3, so there’d be no transitional issues.
Hardy has become a force for the Carolina Panthers and his speed and strength are a mismatch for offensive lines.
The Dallas Cowboys cannot have another season where they struggle to generate pass rush. As much as injury played a part, so did a deficit of talent.
Acquiring Hardy would be a huge for them going into next season.
Eric Decker to the Baltimore Ravens
While it wasn’t the entire reason the offense struggled, the Baltimore Ravens trading Anquan Boldin was a big mistake which echoed throughout the season.
Though quarterback Joe Flacco did have a career high for yards, his touchdown total went down and his interceptions jumped up from 10 to 22—more than doubling his 2012 total.
Some of that was a regression by Flacco and an overall offense which struggled, but some of it was a distinct lack of options beyond lead receiver Torrey Smith.
Whereas Smith made up for the difference in yards, he had a harder time fighting through double coverage. Rookie Marlon Brown played well and caught a lot of touchdowns, but he wasn’t much of a threat between the 20s. Neither were Jacoby Jones, Tandon Doss or Brandon Stokley.
Eric Decker’s 2013 was just as good as his 2012, and he is likely to command a lot of interest on the open market, perhaps even as a potential lead wide receiver.
Still, he might remain more productive as a No. 2 receiver where he isn’t the focus of the opposing secondary and can excel in one-on-one matchups.
With Smith already the primary receiver for the Ravens, Decker would be able to reproduce the production and role he has taken on for the Denver Broncos.
Ultimately, while getting rid of Boldin seemed to be a mistake, the Ravens would have upgraded the position with Decker.
Andrew Garda is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. He is also a member of the fantasy football staff at FootballGuys.com and the NFL writer at CheeseheadTV.com. You can follow him at @andrew_garda on Twitter.