There are many elements to the perfect NFL free-agent match:
The match must help both parties. It should make the team better (for the right price) while enhancing both the player's career and his checkbook.
The match must be sensible. Teams with major cap issues cannot splurge. No matter how flush they may be, rebuilding teams cannot spend big bucks on luxury items (slot receivers, punters) or over-the-hill veterans.
Players rarely want to go from a contender to a weakling (unless they recently won a ring and are now seeking a payday), and while some players might take a slight discount to play for a powerhouse, even the Patriots cannot get anyone to sign for free.
The match must be a good strategic fit. It's not just about a team that needs a pass-rusher signing a pass-rusher. It's about a team with a complex, blitz-happy defense signing a pass-rusher who excels at lining up in unusual places and making the most of blitz opportunities.
The match must be significant. Maybe it vaults a team into the Super Bowl picture. Maybe it sets the tone for a new regime. Building-block acquisitions have their places, but we aren't here to make sure the Jaguars improve their offensive line or the Falcons add depth to their secondary. Perfect matches, like perfect marriages, mix practicality with a little bit of sizzle.
We are just one week away from all of the imperfect free-agent hookups that will take place in the messy, imperfect real world.
The franchise tag has skimmed much of the top talent off the board, while cap constraints will keep some of the contenders from doing much more than window shopping. With second-tier teams wooing their second-favorite options, free agency will soon achieve its familiar closing-time sketchiness: few happily-ever-after situations, plenty of next-morning regrets.
But that won't stop this matchmaker from being a free-agent busybody! I've listed an "expected destination" (based on the gossip) and a "perfect match" (based on many dimensions of compatibility) for most of next week's most eligible bachelors. Teams and players are often too dazzled by big stats or beaucoup bucks to know an ideal situation when they see one. But then, nobody's perfect.
(All salary cap estimates come from OverTheCap.com.)
Ndamukong Suh, Defensive Tackle
Expected Destinations: Raiders, Lions
Everyone expects the Raiders to max out their credit cards after last year's ill-advised, overpriced attempt to reunite the 2010 Pro Bowl roster. In fact, the Raiders figure to be judicious with their nearly $55 million in cap space—but Ndamukong Suh is not Maurice Jones-Drew or Matt Schaub. He's Ndamukong Suh, not only a first-team All-Pro, but also a guy who is more like a Raider than just about any of the Raiders of the last decade.
He's worth the kind of massive deal the Raiders can afford to put together (keep in mind that most of last year's veteran acquisitions signed short, mid-tier contracts, hence the cap surplus). Head coach Jack Del Rio and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. represent an appealing one-two coaching punch for a player who can go anywhere he wants and doesn't want to endure another endless losing cycle.
Suh also likes his current coaches, and Lions general manager Martin Mayhew has been upbeat at every opportunity about his chances of re-signing Suh. Detroit did not franchise Suh, but the strange structure of his contract (there's a voidable year that would turn to a dead-money landfill in the event of a tagging) made the move unappealing.
Mayhew will offer Suh the loose change vacuumed from beneath the salary cap driver's seat, and Suh has not put Mayhew's calls on "ignore" yet.
Perfect Matches: Seahawks, Patriots
Suh is in position to make himself the Darrelle Revis of the D-line, traveling from team to team in search of short-term cash and championship glory. He's tired of losing, and he knows his reputation could use a refresh. Suh could sign a glorified one-year contract, pocket a massive signing bonus, play for Pete Carroll or Bill Belichick, win some jewelry, improve his image and then sell his services to the highest bidder next year.
Sound implausible? That's what you thought when the Patriots signed Revis.
Suh is the one player on the market guaranteed to make the NFL's best teams better, though the Seahawks could afford to dip their toes in the receiver market. It would take some cap finagling and outside-the-box thinking on both sides, but Suh-to-Super Bowl team could be the ultimate win-win.
DeMarco Murray, Running Back
Expected Destination: Colts
The Colts have nearly $44 million in cap space and can argue that they are one great running back away from the Super Bowl without anyone snickering.
The doubts and fears about Murray's workload are legitimate; his 497 rushes and receptions in the 2014 regular season and postseason are extremely high. But the Colts don't need 392-carry, 1,845-yard Murray. A 250-carry, 1,200-yard Murray—running against nickel defenses that are constantly on their heels in fear of Andrew Luck and the Colts' deep passing game—will suit them just fine.
Perfect Match: Cowboys
Old Jerry Jones would have splurged and handed Murray a regrettable Shaun Alexander-sized contract by now. New Jerry Jones is playing hardcore Moneyball, not completely by choice.
While the Cowboys have cleaned up their ledgers a bit, managing their salary cap is still like juggling hand grenades. What Dallas needs is a "Goldilocks zone" Jerry Jones to dream up a Murray contract that keeps him off the market but does not stuff millions of dead dollars into an accordion folder marked "2019."
For years, Jones overpaid to keep the nucleus of an 8-8 team intact. Now he has a 12-4 team that he cannot keep together because of all the creative accounting he used on those 8-8 teams.
The mastermind of the Tyron Smith contract (the one that technically runs until 2023 or the heat death of the universe, whichever comes last) could probably have whipped up a front-loaded three-year deal to keep Murray around until the Tony Romo-Jason Witten window slams shut. But it's not going to happen with the Sword of Dezocles hanging over the team.
Sure, the Cowboys can draft Melvin Gordon or Tevin Coleman, drop the rookie behind their awesome offensive line and pencil in well over 1,000 yards. But Dallas has other needs in the draft.
The Murray market may not push him into "overpriced disappointment" category—the data-driven Jaguars and gun-shy Raiders won't break the bank for a running back. Murray's next contract will probably come in at around four years and a notch below $50 million—the Matt Forte-LeSean McCoy range.
That's a premium price for a high-mileage runner, but it is worth the risk for a team in the shadow of the Super Bowl.
Randall Cobb, Wide Receiver
Expected Destination: Raiders
Cobb faces a common dilemma for coveted young free agents on perennial contenders. If he stays put in Green Bay or transplants to another Super Bowl-caliber team, he will earn far less than he would fetch from rebuilding teams.
But signing with any of the receiver-needy teams with the most money to spend (Raiders, Browns, Jets, Jaguars) has obvious drawbacks, like going from Aaron Rodgers to, at best, a second-year prospect. Does Cobb follow the money or the shortest path to the Super Bowl?
The Packers are hard at work sweeping quarters from the cushions of their salary-cap sofa. The rebuilders are expected to draw up contracts in the five-year, $45 million range, far beyond what Green Bay can match.
The Raiders' interest in Cobb is well-documented, which means the particulars may already have been worked out on an Indianapolis cocktail napkin (Shhh! Tampering is a secret!). Derek Carr gives the Raiders a viable quarterback to pitch to a star wide receiver, something the Jets and Browns cannot offer.
Cobb's ability to turn short passes into productive gains will appeal to a team that averaged a league-worst 9.5 yards per completion and turned deep threat James Jones (Cobb's former teammate) into a guy who runs flat routes.
Cobb is just 24 years old, so the Raiders have no fear of repeating last year's new-money-for-old-players mistakes. Oakland will probably announce the Cobb signing 45 seconds after the official free-agent window opens. It is not a bad fit.
Perfect Match: Jaguars
But we can create a slightly better fit. The Jaguars have something the Raiders lack: lots of complementary receiving talent to take the heat off.
Cobb thrived in Green Bay opposite Jordy Nelson in an offense which (until last season, anyway) was loaded with other receiving weapons. The Jaguars can surround him with Marqise Lee, Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns and other young receivers who showed talent last season. Carr may be ahead of Blake Bortles at this stage, but a playmaker like Cobb could change all of that.
Wide receiver does not look like a need position for the Jaguars, but Cobb would give Bortles one of the deepest, most dynamic young receiving corps in the league. Sometimes, rebuilding is not about getting "good enough" at every position, but about becoming great at positions that can make a sudden difference.
Jeremy Maclin, Wide Receiver
Expected Destination: Eagles
There have been no whispers of Maclin leaving Philly, save for some obligatory Andy Reid reunion speculation. Maclin and the Eagles are reportedly not far apart, per NFL.com's Dan Hanzus, and Maclin has been outspoken about his desire to stay in Philly.
An elaborate game of franchise-tag chicken may have held up a deal. The Eagles wanted to see if Dez Bryant or Demaryius Thomas hit the open market (limiting Maclin's curb appeal), while Maclin's camp may have wanted to see if a last-second Cobb contract made him the best receiver available. That would have forced the Eagles to sweeten the pot.
Now that everyone knows who is and is not available, both sides can stop posturing.
Perfect Match: Eagles
Seriously, this is the best place for Maclin. He would help the Chiefs, but A) they have no cap space; and B) Maclin is only a No. 1 receiver in a unique system like Chip Kelly's, which uses the no-huddle and play-action threats to help receivers win matchups they would not win in a traditional offense.
The Seahawks could use Maclin, but the same can be said of any wide receiver with a pulse, two healthy hamstrings and the potential to catch more than 66 passes in a season.
The Panthers would be a great fit for Maclin. He could be the crafty route-runner to complement/mentor size/speed threat Kelvin Benjamin, giving Cam Newton some of the stability he lost when Steve Smith left. But the Panthers' cap situation is a quagmire. The only team with the right combination of money, scheme and opportunity to get the most from Maclin happens to be the team he has played for his entire career.
Devin McCourty, Safety
Expected Destination: Patriots
McCourty is the Maclin of safeties.
He sounds content to hang around New England and play in the Super Bowl every few years. He even went so far as to call the franchise tag "player-friendly," which is something you don't hear every day. The tag is also kicker-friendly, which is why Stephen Gostkowski was tagged instead of McCourty, whose contract status is stuck in a thicket while the Patriots figure out what they want to do with Darrelle Revis.
The Bears are hungry for safeties and have a new general manager who was part of the Saints' management team that spent big money on Jairus Byrd last year. That said, McCourty may not want to get involved with a wholesale rebuilding project, and Ryan Pace may be gun-shy after spending big money on Byrd.
Perfect Match: Chargers
The Chargers have an All-Pro safety in Eric Weddle and a placeholder safety in Marcus Gilchrist. If they add McCourty, they will have the best safety tandem in the NFL.
Weddle and McCourty are both free safeties, but that distinction is mostly nominal these days, and either defender can handle the occasional in-the-box assignment. The Chargers have an estimated $29.4 million in cap space and need to upgrade their defense to get past the pass-happy AFC powers, including the Patriots.
What's in it for McCourty? Perhaps you have heard about the snow in Boston this winter. McCourty has a Super Bowl ring, but he probably has not had warm, dry feet for six weeks. If the Patriots are smart, they won't let their veteran free agents get on a plane to someplace hot and sunny.
Oh, who are we kidding? The planes out of New England airports never get off the ground these days, anyway.
Julius Thomas, Tight End
Expected Destinations: Falcons, Jaguars
The Falcons still miss Tony Gonzalez—they stopped just short of asking poor Levine Toilolo to change his haircut Vertigo-style and publish a flexitarian cookbook last season—and they have cleared cap room for a massive rebuilding romp in free agency.
The Jaguars need a little bit of everything; new offensive coordinator Greg Olson likes to feature tight ends in his offense, and the Jaguars cannot keep pretending that Marcedes Lewis is, well, Tony Gonzalez. The Georgia-Florida line teams sometimes share a collective consciousness—it's just how they roll—and one of them is likely to pony up enough cash for Julius to get his shine on.
Perfect Match: Packers
Aaron Rodgers attempted just 10 deep passes (more than 15 yards downfield) to his tight ends last year, according to Football Outsiders. He was 7-of-10 on those throws, because he is Aaron Rodgers, but imagine if he were throwing to an experienced seam-stretcher instead of Andrew Quarless or Richard Rodgers.
Signing Thomas offsets the expected loss of Randall Cobb and takes pressure off young receivers like Davante Adams. Meanwhile, Thomas goes from one great quarterback on a contender to another.
Jordan Cameron, Tight End
Expected Destinations: Falcons, Packers
Due to his concussion history, Cameron is generally thought of as a Julius Thomas consolation prize.
Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's familiarity with Cameron makes Atlanta a likely stop. As noted above, the Packers need a seam-stretcher, preferably a cost-effective one, and Cameron won't be asked to do much blocking in a system that treats the tight end like a slot receiver.
Perfect Match: Broncos
Speaking of Julius Thomas consolation prizes, Cameron can provide Julius-like production at about half the price in Denver.
As in Green Bay, Cameron would be more of a glorified flex receiver than a blocker setting the edge, and the Broncos can keep him fresh by rotating him with Virgil Green and/or Jacob Tamme—assuming they retain the services of either of those free-agent tight ends.
The Broncos need tight end solutions, personnel exec Tom Heckert has Browns roots (see: T.J. Ward), and Cameron could be lured with the kind of one- or two-year "prove it" deal that will allow the Broncos to easily pivot toward a post-Peyton future.
Brian Orakpo, Outside Linebacker
Expected Destination: Redskins
There is still scuttlebutt about Orakpo returning to the Redskins.
His agent has reportedly had productive talks with the team, according to ESPN.com's John Keim, and the recent releases of Barry Cofield and Stephen Bowen have tidied the Redskins' cap situation enough to retain Orakpo. (The Redskins have also signed defensive lineman Ricky Jean-Francois, because their thirst for spending knows neither start dates nor deadlines.)
The logic in Washington appears to be to let Orakpo test the market and discover that the gravy train for injury-prone 3-4 outside linebackers isn't as thick 'n' meaty as he hoped it would be, then welcome him back to a familiar situation.
Perfect Match: Titans
Dick LeBeau needs natural 3-4 outside linebackers. He also needs pass-rushers who can generate more than 6.5 sacks (Derrick Morgan's team-leading total last year), and Orakpo is both a force and a perfect system fit when healthy. The Titans have about $44 million in cap space to work with and need to do a little spending (and take some risks) to improve what may be the league's least talented roster.
The Titans are an unappealing employer for some free agents, but at least they do not have the Redskins' knack for spectacular failure. Orakpo would rush quarterbacks with the help of lineman Jurrell Casey, who is better than anyone Washington has on its line.
The draft could bring complementary pass-rusher Randy Gregory or another block-muncher on the line like Leonard Williams. New coach, decent teammates, gobs of cap space: It's a pitch that could lure Orakpo away while the Redskins binge at other positions.
Jerry Hughes, Defensive End/Outside Linebacker
Expected Destination: Browns
Hughes blossomed under Mike Pettine when Pettine was the Bills defensive coordinator.
Hughes' versatility as a hybrid end-backer makes him a natural fit in Cleveland, where he upgrades Jabaal Sheard (a free agent who is not expected back, per ESPNCleveland.com's Tony Grossi) and provides much-needed last-chance Barkevious Mingo bust insurance.
Perfect Match: Bengals
Hughes excelled for a Bills team with two excellent defensive tackles to dictate how opponents set up their blocking schemes. In Cincinnati, Hughes can help Geno Atkins get his mojo back (Atkins had a flat season in his first year back from an ACL injury) and benefit from the attention paid to fellow pass-rusher Carlos Dunlap and space-eater Domata Peko.
Hughes proved himself as a 4-3 end last year, and Bengals coordinator Paul Guenther mixes his fronts enough to keep Hughes from slamming into 310-pound tackles 70 snaps per game.
The Bengals need a pass-rush boost to crack through the AFC playoff ceiling. Jason Pierre-Paul or Justin Houston would have provided that boost, which is one reason both were tagged. Hughes can have almost the same impact, and the Bengals have the cap money to splurge.
Pernell McPhee, Pass-Rusher
Expected Destination: Colts
The Colts have indicated they will be aggressive in free agency, even as they try to distance themselves from the free-agent and trade splurges (Ricky Jean-Francois, Trent Richardson) of two years ago.
Forget for a moment that their spending habits could place them on the slippery slope to Redskins-ville; the Colts really are a big move or two away from the Super Bowl, so rebooting the spending spree of 2013 (with a little more wisdom) could yield better results.
McPhee has Chuck Pagano ties from Baltimore, and his 7.5 sacks and 26 quarterback hits represent an instant pass-rush boost for the Colts. McPhee is a square peg, a nominal outside linebacker who does his best work when moved inside (sometimes over center) in 3rd-and-long packages, so he needs a creative schemer like Pagano to maximize his potential.
Perfect Match: Eagles
McPhee's sack and hit totals were inflated by the fact he often rushed the quarterback with Terrell Suggs on his outside shoulder and Elvis Dumervil attacking the other side of the line.
McPhee still wins his share of battles and can cause mismatches along the line, but he will be most effective in a system that slides multiple pass-rush threats all over the formation. Put him in a rotation with Connor Barwin, Vinny Curry and perhaps Trent Cole, and McPhee will create the kind of mix-and-match opportunities that overwhelm weaker offensive lines.
Mike Iupati, Guard
Expected Destination: Redskins
You know we are nearing the end of the article when we are talking about free-agent guards. Iupati is the best offensive lineman on a weak market, and there is a lot of chatter that the Redskins are interested.
Dear Dan Snyder,
Offensive guard is the one position on the field that even the most disorganized teams in the league can usually fill through the draft. Your new general manager Scot McCloughan knows this, and he probably knew Ali Marpet's favorite pizza toppings before the rest of us knew there was such a thing as Hobart College that might produce a guard prospect who would blow up the Senior Bowl and combine.
Please let McCloughan and other professionals do their jobs instead of spending large sums of money on 28-year-old replaceable parts. Otherwise, we're going to have to legalize something a heck of a lot stronger than weed to get us through our days.
Citizens of Washington, D.C.
Perfect Match: Bills
The team that invests heavily in Iupati should get fringe benefits, like a lineman whose familiarity with the new offensive coordinator helps others learn the system. Iupati can speed the Bills' transition to Greg Roman's offense (which is full of pull-and-trap responsibilities for interior linemen).
He also brings a major upgrade over Erik Pears and Cyril Richardson. The Bills already signed Richie Incognito to provide depth/competition/sociopolitical intrigue to the interior line. Signing Iupati would give them an easy do-over for that blunder.
Darrelle Revis, Cornerback
Revis is still under contract as of press time, though most observers expect the Patriots to void their option (which carries a $25 million cap charge) and send Revis to the open market.
If that happens, speculating on Revis' next employer would be trivial. He will merge with the universal cap force and become a cosmic being of pure income.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.