Predicting Where 9 Big-Name NFL Free Agents Will End Up
The NFL's free-agency period doesn't officially open up until March 11, but it's never early to speculate which teams will sign which players.
This year's free-agent class is a deep one, with a number of excellent players sure to switch franchises. And, as always, there will be a ton of surprises along the way, with certain clubs coming out of left field to acquire the services of a coveted player.
Based on teams' needs and cap space, I've projected some of the more surprising signings that could occur once March 11 rolls around.
Here are my predictions for nine surprising offseason signings.
All salary-cap information courtesy of Spotrac.com
Washington Redskins: CB Aqib Talib
The Washington Redskins have a boatload of cap space ($38 million), and they're coming off a 3-13 season. With owner Daniel Snyder running the show, you know what that means...
It means that general manager Bruce Allen will have his checkbook open early and often in the free-agent period as the Redskins seek to reload and return to the postseason. The expectation needs to be that the team will be in on a number of free agents once it works out a deal to bring back pass-rushing phenom Brian Orakpo.
The Redskins finished the season ranked 20th in pass defense, and cornerback is a position they'd surely like to fortify. In addition to bringing back DeAngelo Hall, expect the Redskins to make a run at the Patriots' Aqib Talib. Mike Jones of the Washington Post echoed those sentiments in a video with Bleacher Report's Adam Lefkoe.
It's far from a lock that Talib returns to the Patriots, and if he doesn't, there's a good chance he ends up in burgundy and gold next season.
Jacksonville Jaguars: S Jairus Byrd
Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley was formerly the defensive coordinator in Seattle, and he would love to construct a secondary similar to the "Legion of Boom."
In the second round of last year's draft, the team selected strong safety Jonathan Cyprien, and he looks like a keeper. Now, the Jaguars should look to find a rangy free safety (someone in the Earl Thomas mold) to pair with him.
The perfect fit is Bills safety Jairus Byrd, who is set to become a free agent. After Byrd and the Bills couldn't reach a long-term agreement last offseason, there was acrimony between the sides, as he played 2013 on the franchise tag. The contentious negotiations make it more likely that Byrd plays elsewhere in 2014 and beyond.
The Jaguars have a ton of cap space (nearly $52 million), and while general manager David Caldwell prefers to build through the draft, Byrd would be an excellent signing and would fill a major void on defense.
Cleveland Browns: RB Ben Tate
After the Cleveland Browns traded running back Trent Richardson to the Colts, journeyman Willis McGahee became the primary ball-carrier, and the results were what you'd expect.
The 32-year old McGahee averaged only 2.7 yards per carry as part of a stagnant Browns rushing attack that finished the year ranked 27th in the NFL. There's no question that the new regime of general manager Ray Farmer and head coach Mike Pettine need to breathe some life into the moribund ground game.
Enter former Texans running back Ben Tate, who is set to hit the open market.
In Houston, Tate played in a zone-blocking scheme run by former head coach Gary Kubiak, and the current Browns offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, served in that role under Kubiak for three seasons and runs the same system. Tate would be a natural fit in Shanahan's running back-friendly offense.
With the Browns being $35 million under the cap, expect them to address the offense in free agency. Tate would be a nice start.
Philadelphia Eagles: CB Alterraun Verner
Despite going 10-6 and winning the NFC East, the 2013 Philadelphia Eagles finished dead last in the league in pass defense, allowing an average of 290 yards per game.
They managed to survive and thrive because the offense was so good, but there's no question that general manager Howie Roseman and head coach Chip Kelly will seek to upgrade the secondary this offseason.
Tennessee's Alterraun Verner is the best young cornerback slated to hit the open market. With the Titans not expected to use the franchise tag on Verner (per Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean), Verner will likely sign with the highest bidder.
Don't be shocked if that's the Eagles, who have about $30 million in cap space. Verner would instantly improve their secondary and allow the team to focus on taking a safety in the first round of the draft.
Oakland Raiders: DE Michael Johnson
The Oakland Raiders finished 4-12 for the second consecutive season and only managed to accumulate 38 sacks on defense, tied for 18th in the league.
With the team finally out of the throes of salary-cap hell and under the cap by $70 million, expect general manager Reggie McKenzie to open up the checkbook in an effort to improve one of the worst 53-man rosters in the league.
And it will start with Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson.
Despite only garnering 3.5 sacks last season, Johnson ranked as the fourth-best defensive end according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He would provide a massive upgrade to the pass rush.
With free-agent defensive end Lamarr Houston not a lock to return, especially with the team needing to re-sign free-agent tackle Jared Veldheer, Johnson would be a perfect fit in head coach Dennis Allen's defense.
New York Jets: QB Michael Vick
Even though quarterback Geno Smith started all 16 games for the Jets as a rookie, the results weren't great, as he tossed only 12 touchdown passes against 21 interceptions. While he enters the offseason as the presumptive starter, he's not a lock to be under center when Week 1 rolls around this September.
The Jets would be wise to upgrade the depth at the position, where Matt Simms served as Smith's primary backup last year. With Mark Sanchez likely to be cut, general manager John Idzik will surely bring in an option to both push Smith and potentially serve as an insurance policy in the event that Smith gets hurt or struggles.
Rex Ryan hinted at this when he said, "We'll see who's on our roster before we make that decision." This was in response to a question about whether or not Geno Smith would be the definitive starter heading into training camp.
The best free-agent quarterback is Philadelphia's Michael Vick. Expect the Jets to target him.
Vick is no longer the player he once was and will be 34 at the start of the season. But he's still a viable short-term option at the position, and current Jets offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg coached Vick in Philadelphia.
The Jets have the cap space ($27.6 million) to bring in Vick and upgrade at the skill positions.
Cincinnati Bengals: QB Josh McCown
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has flopped in three consecutive Wild Card playoff games and has been the albatross around the team's collective neck.
Forget about the franchise records he set last season for passing yards and touchdown passes. The bottom line is that Dalton hasn't improved much in his three seasons, and for a Bengals team ready to win now, they need more from the position.
Chicago's Josh McCown would be a perfect fit. He is good enough to push Dalton and potentially start if Dalton falters.
McCown went 3-2 in five starts last season and threw 13 touchdown passes against only one interception. But with Jay Cutler locked in as the Bears starting quarterback after inking a new big-money deal, McCown might opt to sign somewhere he has a chance to start.
The deal would be positive for both the team and player. It makes too much sense not to happen.
New York Giants: RB Knowshon Moreno
The New York Giants hoped to ride the two-headed running back monster of David Wilson and Andre Brown to the postseason, but as the great author Charles Dickens wrote, the best laid plans of mice and men and such, as the team finished 29th in rushing offense.
Brown is a free agent, and Wilson is currently recovering from neck surgery. Even if Wilson does return, neck injuries are nothing to be messed with, so the Giants would be smart to address the position this offseason.
A player who makes a lot of sense for the Giants is Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno. Moreno knows what it takes to play for a Manning, having been alongside Peyton for the last two seasons in Denver, and he has the skills to thrive in new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo's attack.
Moreno can run, catch the ball out of the backfield and pass protect with aplomb. The Giants don't have a ton of cap room ($16.3 million), but counting them out of the race for him wouldn't be wise.
Indianapolis Colts: WR Eric Decker
After receiver Reggie Wayne tore his ACL in Week 7, the Indianapolis Colts offense wasn't the same.
Although the team went 11-5 and advanced to the divisional round of the postseason behind quarterback Andrew Luck, it became obvious that the team desperately needs to upgrade the talent at receiver. Wayne will turn 36 during next season, and while T.Y. Hilton is a good player, it doesn't behoove the team to be playing Da'Rick Rogers and Griff Whalen in critical spots.
Denver's Eric Decker is the best receiver set to hit the open market, and he'd be a perfect fit in Indianapolis and a wonderful complement to Wayne and Hilton. Can you imagine that trio of receivers, with Luck serving as the trigger man? It'd be a sight to behold.
The Colts have a ton of cap space ($40.1 million), so they can definitely afford to bring in Decker. With owner Jim Irsay being as aggressive as he is, look for him to give general manager Ryan Grigson the green light to improve the team at all costs.
That could mean Decker is a Colt next season and beyond.