NFL Free Agents 2014: Breaking Down Best Suitors for This Year's Top 10 Players
The promise of NFL free agency might be one of the most overrated ones in sports, but it doesn't stop wistful fans and readers from soaking up the possibilities. We take a look at 10 of the top potential free agents and match them up with teams that can most use their services.
Yes, there are a lot of fantasy thoughts and leaps of faith taken here in this slideshow, but that is because there is no fun in merely assuming guys like Jimmy Graham are just going back to the New Orleans Saints. It is far too easy to say the best fit for a player is the one he already has with his current team, too.
In all of the following 10 situations, we found a franchise that needs the player even more than his existing team does—despite the fact these players are so good they are most likely to be brought back via the franchise tag.
10. Knowshon Moreno, Running Back, Atlanta Falcons
Knowshon Moreno is originally from New Jersey, but the former Georgia Bulldog might have a home back in the Peach State with the Atlanta Falcons. They certainly need a feature back after struggling through the injury woes of 30-year-old Steven Jackson. Jacquizz Rodgers has never proved to be anything more than a solid backup.
Jackson is under contract for a couple more years, but the Falcons cannot feel good about putting their running back position back in the hands of a banged-up plodder who will be 31 next season.
Moreno has been injury prone, sure, but he is coming off a healthy 16-game season that saw him rush for 1,039 yards and 10 touchdowns in the most prolific passing offense in NFL history. Matt Ryan could use a versatile feature back who will be closer to his prime like Moreno, 26.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution beat writer D. Orlando Ledbetter tweeted the Moreno question at Super Bowl media day, especially since Moreno was so successful as a pass receiver (60 catches for 548 yards and three touchdowns).
It is a fair question. The Falcons need to improve a running game that was dead last in the NFL last season.
9. Branden Albert, Left Tackle, Arizona Cardinals
It is no secret the Arizona Cardinals have been short on solid offensive line play for years. They finished dead last in Pro Football Focus' pass-blocking rankings for two consecutive seasons, as NFL.com's Chris Wesseling reminds us.
Branden Albert, who was franchise tagged by the Kansas City Chiefs a year ago—before the Chiefs went out and drafted a future left tackle in Eric Fisher—would be one huge addition for a team that won 10 games despite subpar line play.
The Cardinals have a suitable stopgap quarterback in Carson Palmer. They have a solid mix of receivers. They need the premium left tackle to make it all click for Bruce Arians' vertical passing scheme. Albert is the obvious fit here.
8. Brent Grimes, Cornerback, San Diego Chargers
Until this past season, Brent Grimes didn't carry a huge name among NFL cornerbacks. Look at him now. He rates as Pro Football Focus' highest-rated free-agent cover man on the market.
Think about the San Diego Chargers, who allowed the fourth-most passing yards in football this past season. They are second fiddle in a division with the Denver Broncos, who had the most prolific passing offense in NFL history. Yeah, Grimes fills a huge need here.
The No. 1 free-agent corner is a top priority for the Miami Dolphins, and the franchise tag is a legit possibility for the 30-year-old, as the Miami Herald's Barry Jackson reports.
But this list isn't about what is most likely to happen. It is about the best fit. No one needs a veteran cover corner more than the San Diego Chargers, who have to challenge the record-setting Manning and the Broncos in the AFC West.
7. T.J. Ward, Strong Safety, Chicago Bears
T.J. Ward was the No. 1 run-support safety last season, according to Pro Football Focus. No team needs to fix its defense more than the Chicago Bears, who finished dead last against the run last season...and it wasn't close.
What a difference a year and an offensive-minded head coach made in Chicago. The Bears were a proud defense that struggled offensively with Lovie Smith. Under Marc Trestman, it was exactly the opposite.
Ward would bring a presence and an elite, all-around defender to Chicago. The problem with this is the Cleveland Browns (his current team) have tons of salary-cap space and the franchise tag to use on PFF's No. 1 free-agent safety.
Ward is a pipe dream for Bears fans, but that doesn't mean he wouldn't be a perfect fit in an ideal world.
6. Jairus Byrd, Free Safety, Denver Broncos
If there is anyone who will give the Browns' T.J. Ward a run for his money—literally—at safety this winter, it will be the Buffalo Bills' Jairus Byrd. These are arguably the two best safeties in football, Ward the run-support guy and Byrd the pass defender.
The Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl with the Legion of Boom, and the NFL is always known as a copy-cat league. If a team could sign both Ward and Byrd at safety, it would be almost as good on the back end as the Seahawks.
If you can't beat them, join them.
The Denver Broncos cannot afford a luxury item, but they need one most at safety. They were playing with scraps in Duke Ihenacho and Rahim Moore at season's end. The Broncos had the NFL's sixth-worst pass defense mostly because of their struggles at the back end of the secondary.
They do have a defensive-minded head coach in John Fox. If Knowshon Moreno and Eric Decker were both allowed to walk from the offense, perhaps John Elway could pour some resources into an elite safety.
If Byrd wasn't so likely to get a long-term deal from the Buffalo Bills, as NFL.com's Chris Brown reports, Byrd would help the Broncos pull a little bit closer to the Super Bowl champion Seahawks.
5. Eric Decker, Wide Receiver, New England Patriots
Before you laugh at the prospect of Eric Decker leaving Peyton Manning for Tom Brady, remember how silly it seemed Wes Welker would leave Brady for Manning. Bill Belichick is still steaming mad from how that all played out in the postseason.
Brady and the New England Patriots had some notorious frustrations with inexperience and a lack of durability with their receivers, something Decker could fix in one fell swoop.
Decker is worth more than Danny Amendola, who signed a five-year, $28.5 million contract with the Patriots last offseason. Amendola proved incapable of being the receiver Welker was. Decker proved he is just as good as Welker, if not better, side-by-side in Denver.
The Boston Globe's Ben Volin reports the Patriots could make Amendola a June 1 cap casualty, albeit to re-sign Julius Edelman. Few would argue against the notion Decker is better.
Don't discount the possibility Belichick turns away from Edelman in favor of Decker, if only to exact a measure of revenge on the Broncos. It would be quite a twist this offseason.
4. Alex Mack, Center, Baltimore Ravens
If there is a team that was a mess on the offensive line this season, you would have to immediately think of the Baltimore Ravens. Fixing it from the inside out with an elite center like the Cleveland Browns' Alex Mack (no relation to this writer) would seemingly be a great place to start.
The Baltimore Sun's Jeff Zrebiec writes finding a quality center is "one of biggest challenges for the Ravens front office this offseason."
Not only would signing Mack, the top-rated free-agent center on the market according to Pro Football Focus, help fix the Ravens' league-worst 3.1 yards per rush, it would also weaken a division opponent. The Browns have so much cap space, they can trump anything the Ravens would offer, but Mack would have a much better chance at winning in Baltimore...if that was more important to him than money.
3. Brian Orakpo, Outside Linebacker, New York Giants
If it seems like the New York Giants haven't had a good linebacker since Lawrence Taylor, it is because ostensibly they haven't.
Jon Beason had to really get GM Jerry Reese to rethink his long-held strategy at trying to find athletic linebackers on the cheap. Beason came over from the Carolina Panthers midseason and turned a horrible Giants defense into an almost respectable one.
Beason is a free agent, but the Giants proved they need more than Beason to truly compete. That is where stealing Brian Orakpo, 27, from the Washington Redskins comes in. Orakpo can play the run and the pass and get after the quarterback unlike any Giants linebacker they have had since the days of L.T.
2. Greg Hardy, Defensive End, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed Lovie Smith to be their next head coach, it was clear they were going all in on the defensive side of the ball. Now, they need to find a pass-rushing defensive end to make the press-coverage defense with Darrelle Revis work.
There will be no pass-rusher on the open market better than the Carolina Panthers' Greg Hardy, who is just 25 and racked up a career-high 15 sacks this past season. Hardy has totaled 26 sacks in the past two years, while the Bucs managed just 35 as a team in 2013, which put them in the bottom 10 of the NFL in that category.
Hardy would do more than just add some sacks to the Bucs. Pro Football Focus rates Hardy as the best edge defender on the market. Adding him to an already talented defense would make this one scary team to play next season.
With Hardy off the edge, you can make a case the Bucs defense would be as good as the defense of the Panthers (especially if they lost Hardy), the San Francisco 49ers or perhaps even the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.
1. Jimmy Graham, Tight End, Miami Dolphins
There is little way to see the New Orleans Saints allowing Jimmy Graham to walk, especially because they can franchise tag him as a tight end and force him to be signed for one year at a ridiculously under-market contract for his talents. Tight ends just don't make wide receiver money.
You can also make a case Graham wouldn't be better, statistically speaking, anywhere but with Drew Brees and Sean Payton in New Orleans. That doesn't mean the Miami Dolphins don't need an elite tight end like Graham more.
Also, remember, Graham was once a Miami guy, having played college football—and basketball—with the Hurricanes.
Yeah, Graham is an ideal fit in a lot of places but none more so than Miami. Heck, the Dolphins would become a postseason contender, if not a favorite, with an impact target like Graham.
So, dream away, Dolph-fans. It is the time of year to think big thoughts.
Eric Mack, one of the giants among fantasy writers, was the Fantasy Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report in 2013. Follow him on Twitter, where you can ask him endless questions about your team, rip him for his content and even challenge him to a head-to-head fantasy game.
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