NFL free agency sure was a rousing success in 2015!
Ndamukong Suh's signing with the Dolphins turned out to be…expensive and disappointing. DeMarco Murray to the Eagles? All smiles, Valentines and Super Bowls! The Jaguars signed Julius Thomas and were rewarded with 46 of the quietest catches a third-place team in a bad division could hope for.
Not all the big signings of last March proved disastrous, of course. But for every Jeremy Maclin, there's at least one Byron Maxwell. That's because free-agent courtship needs to be less like Tinder and more like the arranged marriages of Fiddler on the Roof. Everything turns out peachy for that family in Fiddler, right? No? OK, then it needs to be more like one of those dating sites that promises to find you a soulmate, with 37 points of compatibility and the couples enjoying chaste cooking classes together in the commercial.
NFL free agency needs a matchmaker, and I am once again here to offer my services.
You know how this works: We're looking for the perfect mesh of player and team needs. All of these matches are plausible from a cap and scheme standpoint, though some are less likely than others and a few are a little silly. I tune out as many of the agent-floated rumors as possible to improve the signal-to-noise ratio without completely ignoring the scuttlebutt.
Last year's matchmaker column scored a 27.2 percent hit rate. Not too impressive, but it's not like the actual results turned out all that great for the teams with their hearts on their sleeves.
Mario Williams, Defensive End
Perfect Match: Atlanta Falcons
To get the most out of Williams (and there is a whole lot of Williams to get the most out of), a team must have:
• Lots of cash
• A 4-3 defense that lets him tee off on the quarterback on 99.9 percent of snaps
• Motivators on the coaching staff
The Falcons have about $28 million to spend, a scheme that's super friendly to big edge-rushers and two coaches Williams is sure to mesh with: head coach Dan Quinn with his Seahawks bona fides and (more importantly) defensive coordinator Richard Smith, who coached Williams in Houston for several years. Williams and Vic Beasley as bookend rushers? Say goodbye to Kroy Biermann and hello to a very nervous Drew Brees!
Brock Osweiler, Quarterback
Perfect Match: Los Angeles Rams
Let's connect the dots:
• When Washington tagged Kirk Cousins and the Eagles gave Sam Bradford a two-year dip in the money Jacuzzi, it left Osweiler as the only appealing young free-agent quarterback on the market and set the annual salary bar for comparable quarterbacks really high. That's a win-win for the Osweiler camp.
• If John Elway taught us anything when he traded Tim Tebow in 2012, it's that he's not going to let a few close victories cloud his quarterback judgment. Elway likes Osweiler this much (opens the wallet halfway) but not thiiis much (rips it apart with the Jaws of Life).
• The Rams have a system well-suited to a stationary projectile-launcher of a quarterback, a new stadium to fill, cap space to burn and Case Keenum at the top of their depth chart.
Osweiler gets paid. The Rams catapult to the giddy heights of a 9-7 record. And Elway retains Malik Jackson and others while doing something distinctly Elway-like at quarterback: promoting Trevor Siemian, signing Chase Daniel, drafting Paxton Lynch, suiting up himself, doing all four or whatever.
Malik Jackson, Defensive Tackle
Perfect Match: Denver Broncos
If Osweiler leaves, Jackson benefits. There is heavy Jackson-to-Bears speculation out there, and Jack Del Rio is waiting in Oakland with a catcher's mitt, a cement mixer full of cap space and a great relationship with the defenders he coached in Denver. But Elway has ways of making the numbers fit for the players he really wants.
Doug Martin, Running Back
Perfect Match: Cleveland Browns
On the one hand, Martin could sign with the Browns and immediately tumble into the mouth of the Sarlacc that lurks just outside team headquarters in Berea. On the other hand, the Browns have the available cap space to offer a whopper of a contract, and the one thing every 27-year-old running back needs as much as oxygen to breathe is a whopper of a contract to sustain him until he reaches age 30.
Martin offers the Browns professionalism and all-purpose capability. He's a fine player at a glaring-need position and a safety net for whoever the starting quarterback is. Martin and Duke Johnson as Hue Jackson's thunder and lightning? It's so logical in a non-Browns way that it just might work.
Lamar Miller, Running Back
Perfect Match: Carolina Panthers
The Panthers need the playmaking jolt in the backfield DeAngelo Williams used to provide, as well as an over-the-top player to win the Super Bowl. They also need a budget-friendly addition. Miller is a dynamic rusher/receiver who may come at an affordable price because: A) he's a running back; B) the running back draft class is deep; and C) Miller's numbers were deflated by the mystifying Dolphins offense, which could lead to low-ball offers.
Miller won't turn 25 years old until the end of April and has fairly low mileage. He's worth a four-year, big-bonus, cap-friendly-for-2016 deal. A bottom feeder might make Miller rich, but he may also be looking for a chance to sign with a winner.
Matt Forte, Running Back
Perfect Match: New England Patriots
The Patriots have a long history of reclaiming veteran running backs: Antowain Smith, Corey Dillon, Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris, even Steven Jackson last year. Forte can be a situational red-zone runner and the guy who eats carries when the Patriots have a lead. He's at the point in his career where he will sign an incentive-laden deal, with "Win a Super Bowl" being a major incentive.
Olivier Vernon, Defensive End
Perfect Match: Detroit Lions
Vernon is the kind of player most teams would either slap with the franchise tag or break the bank for. He's just 25 years old and coming off three outstanding seasons at a high-leverage position. The Dolphins instead went full Dolphins and friend-zoned Vernon with the transition tag, a tool only the Dolphins think is the best choice for retaining top in-house talent. (See: Charles Clay last year.)
The transition tag means the Dolphins can match any offer Vernon receives, creating a built-in bidding war that will make cost-conscious suitors like the Giants leery and leave cap-strapped teams like the Cowboys out in the cold. But Vernon is a perfect fit for the Lions, a team expected to receive a salary-cap windfall when Calvin Johnson retires and needs: A) a post-Megatron franchise identity, and B) a tone-setting acquisition for new general manager Bob Quinn. With Vernon and Ziggy Ansah rushing NFC North quarterbacks, the Lions can take their time sorting out their offense.
This move would also be Ndamukong Suh payback, which works in a karmic way.
Alex Mack, Center
Perfect Match: Seattle Seahawks
When a player like Mack voids the last three years of his contract, it means that he is tired of losing. As fate would have it, there is a very successful organization in Seattle that is one upgraded offensive line away from the Super Bowl. Mack gives the Seahawks a mulligan on last year's Max Unger trade and refocuses their draft strategy. They will only need to draft about three offensive linemen.
The Seahawks are committed to their franchise-building model and may prefer converting defenders into offensive linemen and watching Russell Wilson run for dear life to bidding wars. Center-needy teams like the Colts will be lined up outside Mack's driveway this weekend. But just because this match makes too much sense to ever happen doesn't mean a matchmaker cannot dream.
Eric Weddle, Safety
Perfect Match: New York Giants
The Giants are the most perplexing team in this year's free-agent market. They have an estimated $56 million in cap space, gobs of needs and lots of in-house free agents that they are either likely to turn the page on (like Jason Pierre-Paul) or bring back once the market proves tepid for, say, injury-plagued cornerbacks (Prince Amukamara). At the same time, the Giants have historically hated: A) big-market free agency, and B) change of any kind.
The Giants could use Mario Williams, but they will shy away from a player whose motor seized up last year. Olivier Vernon would be perfect for them, but the Giants won't risk a bidding war for a player slapped with the transition tag. They are likely to get outbid by the NFL's freest spenders for most of the top talent.
But then there is Weddle. Most teams with big money have the kind of long-term needs that a 31-year-old free safety cannot fill. But the Giants need a natural free safety to pair with and mentor strong safety Landon Collins. They also have a leadership void on defense; Weddle can fill Antrel Rolle's old "face of the defense" role while providing a little less grist for the tabloids. And while Weddle will experience some California-to-New York culture shock, he seems like a man in need of a change of scene.
Jason Pierre-Paul, Defensive End
Perfect Match: New York Giants
JPP goes the Tom Coughlin route: He enters the open market as a white elephant that no one is sure what to do with, gets some disappointing offers, then lingers around team headquarters until someone breaks down and offers him a role.
Janoris Jenkins, Cornerback
Perfect Match: Oakland Raiders
Jenkins has Pro Bowl talent but needs to keep his head screwed on properly. The Raiders have glaring needs at secondary and this four-man team of motivators and mind-adjusters: head coach Jack Del Rio, defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., defensive backs coach Marcus Robertson and assistant defensive backs coach Rod Woodson.
Sean Smith, Cornerback
Perfect Match: Jacksonville Jaguars
Smith was a Seahawks-style cornerback long before Seahawks-style cornerbacks were a thing. That makes him a great fit for Gus Bradley's Diet Seahawks. He meshes with the Jaguars philosophy and fills a glaring need. The Jaguars have so much cap space that they must make sure they clear the salary minimum, meaning they will be looking for blue chips to splurge on. Happy payday, Sean Smith!
Russell Okung, Offensive Tackle
Perfect Match: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Okung gives the Buccaneers a championship-proven All-Pro veteran at a need position and peace of mind on Jameis Winston's blind side. The Bucs give Okung buckets and buckets of money (they are flush with cap space), plus the chance to be a leader for another impressive young core of offensive players. Okung the Agent will remind Okung the Left Tackle that the tax rates in Florida are a very valuable fringe benefit.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, Quarterback
Perfect Match: San Francisco 49ers
Brainy head coach with a short attention span and a system based on quarterback mobility seeks brainy mobile quarterback willing to sign lucrative short-term contract and start while mentoring a rookie, watching the organizational focus shift weekly and what have you. Hipster beard not a deal-breaker. No smokers or weirdos.
Reggie Nelson, Safety
Perfect Match: Cincinnati Bengals
An object in motion tends to remain in motion. An object at rest tends to remain at rest. An object in the Bengals secondary tends to remain in the first round of the playoffs.
Adam Jones, Cornerback
Perfect Match: Arizona Cardinals
The Bengals Law of Thermodynamics (see: Reggie Nelson) would also seem to apply to Jones, but there is only so much money to go around for 30-something-year-old defensive backs, and Jones is less reliable. So let's see: older player, top talent, more than two carry-ons of baggage, probably wants a ring, probably willing to accept something short and incentive-laden, needs a coach willing to work with castoffs and oddballs. Hello, Bruce Arians!
Marvin Jones, Wide Receiver
Perfect Match: Green Bay Packers
It's time to break the cardinal rule of free-agent speculation by actually projecting a player to the Packers.
The Packers' biggest problem last season was that they lacked a receiver who could separate on vertical routes and make difficult catches. Jones provides both skills. Sure, the Packers get Jordy Nelson back next year, but they need more. Nelson, Jones and Randall Cobb can bring back the old Greg Jennings-Donald Driver-Nelson vibe. And the Packers are due for one massive move to put them over the top, what with it being a leap year and all.
It won't happen, and the Bengals will have trouble retaining Jones, because he is the only blue-chip receiver on the free-agent market. Someone is likely to back up the money truck. But in the unlikely event that Ted Thompson picks up the phone and talks to Jones about playing with Aaron Rodgers, Jones will listen.
Bruce Irvin: 49ers
Irvin is this year's Pernell McPhee, a player whose reputation among front offices exceeds his reputation among fans. He will cash in with some team eager to make a splash, and the 49ers will pay a premium to upgrade their defense while downgrading the Seahawks.
Veteran Linebackers: Doesn't Matter
Derrick Johnson, James Laurinaitis and Danny Trevathan can all still help a team and play at a high level. But veteran linebackers are invariably signed by teams too disorganized to develop their own linebackers, meaning that their impact is minimal. Think of it as the Karlos Dansby Effect.
Veteran Guards: See: "Veteran Linebackers"
Terrance Knighton: Patriots
Pot Roast hates year-at-a-time contracts, but he will make an exception for the Patriots.
Tamba Hali: Kansas City Chiefs
Aging situational pass-rusher seeks a contender, realizes he's on a contender, chooses an incentive-laden deal to not have to call a real estate agent.
Arian Foster: Dallas Cowboys
Foster knows a deep-pocketed organization that might ignore his injury history and has a great offensive line when he sees one.
Roddy White: Buccaneers
White is about to have his Andre Johnson Colts season. He's toast. In Tampa, he can help Mike Evans and the young receivers get more comfortable in Dirk Koetter's offense.
Alfred Morris: Indianapolis Colts
Morris is the perfect Colts running back acquisition: the arithmetic mean of Trent Richardson and Frank Gore. He could also fit in San Francisco if Chip Kelly decides to stockpile and alienate running backs again. Either way, Morris gets paid, which is what a young man whose career is marching backward really needs. And either location offers a good chance of a reunion with Mike Shanahan in 2017.
Greg Hardy: The Podunk Cowtippers of the Gonzo Extreme Insolvent Indoor Football League
The only place for a man to go when his presence has become too toxic for Jerry Freakin' Jones.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.
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