Best Fits for Top Remaining NFL Free Agents
Plenty of notable NFL standouts have agreed to big-time contracts over the last few days.
Welcome to the league’s not-so-free-agency period.
If you look closely at the photo above, you will notice two of the better players still available on the open market. No one can say for certain where this pair and the other performers on this list will wind up over the next couple of weeks. However, more than an educated guess will be provided as to which team will maximize their skills.
Youth will primarily be served here, but there are always a few exceptions to the rule.
Based primarily on their performances in 2015, here are a dozen worthy names and where they would fit best.
WR Anquan Boldin (UFA: San Francisco 49ers)
Wide receiver Anquan Boldin is one of 13 players in league annals to total at least 1,000 career receptions.
He’s spent 10 of his 13 seasons in the NFC West with the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers. Including his three-year stint with the Baltimore Ravens, he’s been his club’s first- or second-leading pass-catcher every year in the league.
Speaking of division rivals, many have been waiting for the young wideouts of the Los Angeles Rams to emerge as a consistent group. So far, we’ve seen only occasional flashes from performers such as Tavon Austin, Brian Quick and Stedman Bailey—all drafted in the third round or higher since 2012.
The sure-handed Boldin has always been a quarterback’s best friend, outdueling defenders for the ball no matter where it’s thrown. He would be a major asset for a team that ranked last in the league in total offense in 2015. More importantly, his experience would prove invaluable to a wide receiving corps that hasn’t lived up to its billing.
Best Fit: Los Angeles Rams
QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (UFA: New York Jets)
The old saying that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence certainly wouldn’t apply here.
You can’t get much greener than the New York Jets.
Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick comes off a career season in terms of passing yards (3,905) and touchdown strikes (31). He’s thrown for 3,000-plus yards and at least 23 scores four times in his 11 campaigns—all under Chan Gailey either as his head coach or offensive coordinator.
Kevin Patra of NFL.com has the latest on the standoff between Fitzpatrick and the Jets, who are reportedly far apart when it comes to working out a new contract. With very few teams still looking for a starting quarterback, the veteran performer is running out of leverage.
Best Fit: Re-sign with New York Jets
ILB Jerrell Freeman (UFA: Indianapolis Colts)
There’s no question that Jerrell Freeman was the Indianapolis Colts’ best defender in 2015.
Will that be the case in 2016?
The defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos have lost their share of talent over the last few days.
Gone are quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler, as well as inside linebacker Danny Trevathan and defensive end Malik Jackson. The team released right guard Louis Vasquez and tight end Owen Daniels, while general manager John Elway must decide by March 15 if he wants to match the Miami Dolphins’ offer sheet for restricted free-agent running back C.J. Anderson.
All but Osweiler started in the club’s 24-10 win in Super Bowl 50.
The departure of Trevathan (second on the club in tackles in 2015) to the Chicago Bears opens up a big hole next to Brandon Marshall, who led the team in stops. It’s an ideal situation for Freeman, rated the second-best inside linebacker in the league this past season by Pro Football Focus.
Best Fit: Denver Broncos
DE Greg Hardy (UFA: Dallas Cowboys)
The personal baggage suggests some believe defensive end Greg Hardy shouldn’t be on the best list of any kind. It is a topic for another time.
On the field, the former Pro Bowler for the Carolina Panthers was effective for the 610 defensive snaps he played for the Dallas Cowboys in 2015.
The Buffalo Bills parted ways with defensive end Mario Williams this offseason following a disappointing five-sack performance. Hardy totaled six sacks in his 12 appearances with the Cowboys in 2015.
If Buffalo proves to be the landing place for the six-year pro, it’s somewhat ironic that his worst outing of the year came in Dallas’ 16-6 loss in Week 16 at Orchard Park.
Away from the field more than on it the last two seasons, a normal offseason will prove beneficial to Hardy. Head coach Rex Ryan and a Bills defense that totaled only 21 sacks in 2015 will reap the rewards.
Best Fit: Buffalo Bills
CB Casey Hayward (UFA: Green Bay Packers)
The Green Bay Packers defense has experienced its share of ups and downs in recent years despite an influx of young talent.
A year ago, general manager Ted Thompson used the team’s first two picks of the draft on cornerbacks Damarious Randall (first round) and Quinten Rollins (second round). Both saw their share of playing time as rookies, but Casey Hayward graded out as the club’s best cover corner in 2015.
Follow carefully. Arizona Cardinals free safety Tyrann Mathieu was actually the NFL’s top-ranked cornerback this past season, via Pro Football Focus. He tore his right ACL in late December and is on the road to recovery. Veteran corner Jerraud Powers comes off a shaky year and is an unrestricted free agent. Patrick Peterson is one of the best players at his position, while Justin Bethel is more known for his work on special teams.
Arizona’s defensive system bears similarities to that of Green Bay. Hayward may be a luxury the Packers can no longer afford and one that Bruce Arians and the Cardinals will welcome with open arms.
Best Fit: Arizona Cardinals
G Evan Mathis (UFA: Denver Broncos)
The Kansas City Chiefs come off an 11-5 season and came away with the franchise’s first playoff win since 1993.
If Andy Reid’s team is to unseat the Denver Broncos in the AFC West, it has to up its game a bit.
The changes have begun up front. The team recently cut ties with right guard Ben Grubbs, while left guard Jeff Allen and swing tackle Donald Stephenson left via free agency.
The team’s new right tackle is Mitchell Schwartz, arguably the best addition by any team on the first day of the NFL’s new fiscal year. Now the Chiefs have an opportunity to deliver a big blow to the defending Super Bowl champions and, at the same time, bolster their own offensive front.
Veteran Evan Mathis was the seventh-ranked guard in the league in 2015. He also played in Philadelphia for four seasons—the first two years under Reid. It’s an immediate upgrade for a team that must face the Denver defense at least twice a year.
Best Fit: Kansas City Chiefs
RB Alfred Morris (UFA: Washington Redskins)
Be it by design, a lack of bodies or a combination of both, only two teams in the league averaged fewer yards per game rushing than the New England Patriots.
Mike Reiss of ESPN has the latest on one of the team’s early standouts of 2015:
Patriots’ running back Dion Lewis’ recovery from a torn right ACL on Nov. 8 has been encouraging to Dr. James Andrews, who performed surgery on Lewis Nov. 18. When Lewis visited Andrews in January for a routine check-in, the feeling was that things were exactly where they should be, if not better. The Patriots still figure to take it slowly with Lewis this offseason and perhaps even into training camp, but at this point, there’s no reason to think Lewis won’t be available for when the games count. The sparkplug rusher/receiver is planning on splitting his time training this offseason between Arizona, Albany and Foxboro.
The Patriots are expecting to have Lewis back at some time. The team still has running backs James White and Brandon Bolden. LeGarrette Blount, who led the team in rushing yards this past season, is a free agent.
So is Alfred Morris, a two-time Pro Bowler who has seen his carries and yards decrease each year since his impressive rookie campaign with the Washington Redskins. He’s still a young player with only four years of experience—a perfect fit for an offense that seems to prefer a backfield by committee.
Best Fit: New England Patriots
FS Reggie Nelson (UFA: Cincinnati Bengals)
Those who know football can tell you that there’s nothing like a nose for the football.
Call free safety Reggie Nelson the Jimmy Durante of the league in 2015. He tied for the NFL lead with eight interceptions and came away with 10 of the Cincinnati Bengals' 28 takeaways.
While the front office has already re-signed strong safety George Iloka, cornerback Adam Jones and linebacker Vincent Rey, Nelson is still waiting his turn.
The Oakland Raiders have already turned the page in their secondary with the retirement of free safety Charles Woodson. The team forced 25 turnovers this past season, and the 18-year pro came up with eight of those thefts.
General manager Reggie McKenzie has already added key pieces in outside linebacker Bruce Irvin and cornerback Sean Smith. Adding Nelson, who’s totaled 35 takeaways in nine seasons, helps offset the departure of the ball-hawking Woodson.
And being among the best players at his position when it comes to pass defense is certainly an advantage as well.
Best Fit: Oakland Raiders
T Russell Okung (UFA: Seattle Seahawks)
No one questions the talents of six-year tackle Russell Okung, but we have yet to see the one-time first-round draft choice suit up for an entire season.
The former Oklahoma State product has missed exactly one-quarter (24 games) of the Seattle Seahawks’ 96 regular-season contests since 2010. Okung played in 13 games this past season and was more than adequate, earning passing grades in both his overall performance and when it came to run blocking.
It appears the Seahawks are in no hurry to re-sign the 2012 Pro Bowler. But current Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn was with the Seahawks for three of Okung’s seasons with the team.
Adding the 6’5”, 310-pound performer and shifting two-year pro Jake Matthews to right tackle would make a lot of sense for a team that has to deal with the Carolina Panthers defense at least twice a year.
Best Fit: Atlanta Falcons
T Donald Penn (UFA: Oakland Raiders)
The Oakland Raiders are expecting big things from newly signed guard Kelechi Osemele, late of the Baltimore Ravens. That’s the pressure that comes with signing a five-year, $58 million dollar contract, via Spotrac.
However, Jack Del Rio’s team still has a major hole to fill at left tackle. That is if the team opts not to retain Donald Penn, a 16-game starter at the position in each of his first two seasons with the Silver and Black.
The nine-year pro is as dependable as they come. He has played in every game during his career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Raiders. His 140 consecutive starts rank third among active tackles, trailing only the Jets’ D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Cleveland’s Joe Thomas.
In each of his two seasons with the Raiders, he’s been ranked as a top-10 player in the league at his position.
The Seattle Seahawks have yet to re-sign Russell Okung, meaning the club has an opening at left tackle. Penn would be an ideal addition for a unit that struggled against the top defensive fronts around the NFL in 2015.
Best Fit: Seattle Seahawks
FS Eric Weddle (UFA: San Diego Chargers)
Under first-time defensive coordinator Keith Butler, the Pittsburgh Steelers made significant strides on his side of the football.
A once-dormant pass rush ranked third in the NFL with 48 sacks. A team that had been less than opportunistic totaled 30 takeaways, the club’s highest total since 2010 (35).
But the club continued to struggle in another area. Only the New York Giants and New Orleans Saints gave up more yards passing yards in 2015. Pittsburgh’s defensive unit allowed only 35 touchdowns, but 29 of those scores came through the air.
The addition of free safety Eric Weddle would be a coup for an organization that doesn’t traditionally utilize free agency a lot. The Steelers already added one of the three-time Pro Bowler’s former teammates in tight end Ladarius Green.
What of current starting free safety Mike Mitchell? It was about this time a year ago (via Scott Brown of ESPN) that head coach Mike Tomlin contemplated moving the defensive back to replace Troy Polamalu. Adding Weddle gives the Steelers another much-needed playmaker in the secondary.
Best Fit: Pittsburgh Steelers
C Stefen Wisniewski (UFA: Jacksonville Jaguars)
Throughout his brief career, center Stefen Wisniewski has been a steady performer. He’s started all 77 games he’s played, beginning his career with the Oakland Raiders.
This past season with the Jacksonville Jaguars, he was the team’s top-rated offensive lineman and graded out as the league’s 14th-best player at his position.
His rookie year in the NFL came in 2011 under then-Oakland head coach Hue Jackson, who’s now running the ship with the Cleveland Browns. The team just lost three-time Pro Bowl pivot Alex Mack to the Atlanta Falcons. There’s a chance that 2015 first-round pick Cameron Erving could fill the void despite a debut season that saw him struggle at both guard spots.
Why gamble when you can add Wisniewski? It gives Erving another year of experience while not forcing him to learn a third different position in two years.
Best Fit: Cleveland Browns
Unless otherwise noted, all player and team statistics come from Pro-Football-Reference.com and ESPN.com. All player ratings courtesy of Pro Football Focus. All 2016 contract terms and 2016 transactions are courtesy of Spotrac.