Predicting Where Top Remaining NFL Free Agents Will Sign
With training camp only a few weeks away, most NFL players are enjoying one last vacation before the 2018 grind begins in earnest.
Others can't wait for vacation to be over.
Though the calendar has flipped to July, a number of well-known veterans remain without a team. For some, it's a matter of money. For others, it's age or injury.
Whatever the reason, these players are still waiting for the phone to ring.
For the most part, these veterans will find work at some point, whether it's with a team that loses a player to an injury in training camp or one looking to shore up an area of weakness.
Let's play matchmaker, pairing the best available free agents with a prediction for where they will land.
Dez Bryant: San Francisco 49ers
If Bryant is willing to settle for a short-term prove-it deal—which he's what he's going to get at this point—teams will show interest in him, even if he's not as dominant as he once was.
On the surface, the San Francisco 49ers don't appear to be in need of wideout help. San Francisco has 11 wide receivers on its roster, including a pair it added in this year's draft.
But as CBS Sports' John Breech noted, the Niners do need help in the red zone.
"In 2017, the 49ers ranked second-to-last in the NFC in red-zone scoring percentage, ahead of only the Arizona Cardinals. Although Bryant has had some trouble staying healthy over the past few years, he did manage to make it through the entire 2017 season unscathed and he put up some decent numbers in the process (69 catches, 838 yards, six touchdowns)."
Five of Bryant's six scores last season came in the red zone.
With north of $45 million in cap space, the Niners have more than enough room to bring Bryant in, and they're looking to make the jump from a rebuild to a contender. Bryant has also indicated his interest in joining them, according to Breech.
John Lynch hasn't been shy about getting aggressive during his tenure as San Francisco's general manager. It's time for him to make another splash.
Eric Reid: Seattle Seahawks
Any team that signs Eric Reid will be entering into a complicated situation.
Reid was one of the most active players in the protest movement last year, and he filed a collusion grievance against the NFL in May. However, he's also a versatile and talented 26-year-old safety who already has a Pro Bowl nod on his NFL resume.
His talent should be far more important to the Seahawks than his activism. Because right now, Seattle needs all the help it can get at safety.
That leaves the Seahawks trying to keep their championship window pried open with veteran journeyman Bradley McDougald—and that's about it.
Between the Seahawks' need at safety and the progressiveness of the Pacific Northwest, the fit between Reid and Seattle makes almost too much sense. It's also an opportunity for the Seahawks to pay back the 49ers for snagging Richard Sherman after they released him.
Turnabout is fair play.
DeMarco Murray: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The New Orleans Saints would be a logical landing spot for DeMarco Murray, as Mark Ingram will serve out a four-game suspension to start the year. However, Murray declined to work out for them in mid-June, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, as "he preferred not to work out with a large group" of running backs.
That doesn't mean Murray won't land in the division, though.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are coming off a miserable 2017 season. Jameis Winston's season-opening three-game suspension threatens to carry that misery over to this year, especially in a division where every other team made the playoffs in 2017.
A Tampa team with no margin for error now needs a ground game to rely on in September. And with all due respect to rookie Ronald Jones and holdovers Peyton Barber, Jacquizz Rodgers and Charles Sims, there's next to no evidence the Buccaneers have one. After all, they managed only 90.6 yards a game in 2017, which ranked 27th in the NFL.
The Buccaneers can offer Murray a real audition. If he averages 4.5 yards per carry and starts piling up 100-yard games, they won't be in any rush to push Jones out there. In turn, Murray would provide a measure of experience, stability and depth in the backfield.
Desperate times call for desperate measures.
Kenny Vaccaro: Cleveland Browns
Kenny Vaccaro is not a great safety. However, the 27-year-old is good enough to still be in the league.
The No. 15 pick in the 2013 NFL draft is a stout run defender who has piled up 385 total tackles in his five professional seasons. He even played some slot corner for the Saints last year, racking up a career-high three interceptions in the process.
Like Reid, Vaccaro protested during the national anthem early in the 2017 season, which may be contributing to his lack of employment, as Steven Ruiz of For The Win suggested. But as teams move into training camp and realize they're in a predicament at safety, that could spur some tire-kicking on Vaccaro's behalf.
The first team to pick up the phone should hail from northern Ohio.
On paper, Cleveland's starting safeties right now are Damarious Randall and Jabrill Peppers. The former is a converted cornerback, and to say the latter struggled as a rookie would be an enormous understatement.
If nothing else, Vaccaro could provide depth behind the pair. He'd likely replace one of them as a starter, though.
And it isn't like the Browns lack the cap space to sign him. No team has more wiggle room than Cleveland's $70.6 million.
Johnathan Hankins: Cleveland Browns
When a team has $70-plus million in cap space and a roster with a number of holes, said team is bound to get mentioned as a potential destination for prominent available free agents.
From an impact perspective, Johnathan Hankins may be the most prominent free agent left on the market.
The 26-year-old nose tackle is in the prime of his career. Hankins posted 44 tackles and two sacks last year for the Indianapolis Colts, and his seven-sack 2014 season belies pass-rushing chops you don't see all that often in players that weigh 320 pounds.
It's somewhat surprising that Hankins hasn't already found work—at least until you consider that he languished in free agency for a month last year before inking a three-year, $27 million deal with the Colts.
The Browns could give Hankins a one-year, $8 million deal without breaking a sweat. After trading Danny Shelton in the offseason, they're woefully thin at the 1-technique spot—and both tackle spots, too.
The Browns have made a lot of noise personnel-wise this offseason. On paper, the NFL's worst team looks markedly better this year.
Signing Hankins would be a matter of them patching one more glaring hole.
Connor Barwin: Detroit Lions
Any pass-rusher with a pulse typically doesn't struggle to find dance partners in free agency.
While Connor Barwin may never return to his 14.5-sack heyday of 2014, the 31-year-old ain't dead. He's piled up 17 sacks over the past three seasons, including five with the Los Angeles Rams in 2017.
However, Barwin's market has been whisper-quiet to date. He visited the Arizona Cardinals in April, according to Schefter, but that's about it.
That slow market affords the Detroit Lions a nice opportunity.
The Lions are undergoing a ton of changes defensively under new head coach Matt Patricia, who was known for using multiple defensive fronts during his time in New England. Versatility among his defenders is key.
The Lions also badly need help getting after the quarterback. The team is dangerously thin in that regard outside of Ezekiel Ansah, and even he was hit-and-miss in 2017. Nine of Ansah's 12 sacks a year ago came in three games.
Detroit would benefit from a versatile edge-rusher who has played both defensive end and outside linebacker, one who could step into a rotational role opposite Ansah and offer a cheap boost to the front seven. Barwin fits that bill.
Tre Boston: Arizona Cardinals
The Arizona Cardinals had the NFL's deepest cadre of safeties not long ago, but free agency has taken a toll on them in recent years.
Tony Jefferson bolted for Baltimore in 2017. They released Tyrann Mathieu this offseason, only to see him sign with the Houston Texans.
The Cardinals are now a mixture of young, old and thin at safety. The young is second-year pro Budda Baker. The old is 33-year-old Antoine Bethea. And the thin is the lack of much of anything behind that pair.
Not only is depth at safety a major issue, but both Bethea and Baker are more comfortable at strong safety. The Cardinals could use a center fielder under new head coach Steve Wilks.
That's where Tre Boston comes in.
According to NFL.com's Marc Sessler, the Cardinals have already made an offer to Boston, who picked off a career-best five passes last year with the Los Angeles Chargers. That, um, didn't go so well.
"They rolled out the red carpet for me," Boston said, "but the offer was very, very disrespectful."
The Cardinals need to up their offer a little. Boston needs to swallow his pride a little. And both sides need to make this deal happen.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie: Washington Redskins
According to ESPN's Josina Anderson, veteran cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie isn't sweating the fact that he hasn't found a new team yet. He told Anderson that he's fine with waiting until training camp before putting pen to paper.
That would seem to indicate DRC is waiting for one of two things to happen: an injury to a cornerback already on a roster, or for a team to come to the realization that its current corners won't cut it.
The Washington Redskins may already be there in the latter regard, as they met with Rodgers-Cromartie back in March, according to Kareem Copeland of the Washington Post.
One side of Washington's defense is secure with Josh Norman. But the team traded Kendall Fuller to the Kansas City Chiefs for Alex Smith, and while it brought in Orlando Scandrick to replace him, Scandrick has mainly played in the slot in recent years.
That leaves an opening outside, one which Rodgers-Cromartie would fill nicely.
The 10-year veteran isn't coming off a great 2017 season, but the year before, he was a second-team All-Pro. Rodgers-Cromartie has made it to two Pro Bowls and has picked off 30 career passes.
Washington only has about $13.5 million in available cap space, but that gives it enough leeway to patch up its back end.
NaVorro Bowman: Oakland Raiders
NaVorro Bowman's NFL career hasn't gone as expected.
At one time, Bowman appeared to be an eventual Hall of Famer in the making. But numerous injuries, including a devastating knee injury in the NFC title game in 2014, robbed him of some of his quickness.
The 30-year-old was decent for the Oakland Raiders last year, but he clearly isn't the same player anymore. That doesn't mean the Raiders shouldn't bring him back, though.
In May, Raiders general manager Reggie McKensie told Scott Bair of NBC Bay Area that he would "love" for Bowman to return. It isn't hard to see why.
Though Bowman wasn't great in 2017, he was easily Oakland's best linebacker. The Raiders brought in Tahir Whitehead and Derrick Johnson this offseason, but Whitehead is no world-beater and Johnson is 35.
McKensie indicated that the Raiders made Bowman an offer, but he balked, likely hoping to find another suitor willing to give him the Rod Tidwell treatment.
But it's now July, and Bowman remains unemployed. If he's stuck in "take what you can get" territory, as he appears to be, it makes sense for him to stay in the Bay Area.
He'll likely do just that—right before camp opens.
Eric Decker: New England Patriots
"I think the Patriots would be a good fit and being drafted by Josh McDaniels in Denver," Decker said. "I talked with New England last year during the free-agency process in June. That is always an option that I would definitely love to entertain."
In related news, just about every available free agent would be interested in joining the Patriots. The chance to win Super Bowls is hard to turn down.
But in Decker's case, it makes some sense.
The Patriots have already added free-agent pass-catchers in Jordan Matthews and Cordarrelle Patterson. However, Patterson is more of a threat on special teams than he is on offense, and Matthews is coming off easily the worst season of his career.
The Pats also have an unsettled depth chart at receiver. Danny Amendola and Brandin Cooks are gone. Julian Edelman will miss the first four games of the 2018 season due to a performance-enhancing drug suspension.
Decker is no longer the same receiver who topped 1,000 yards three times in four years from 2012-15. But he would provide Tom Brady with a proven option on the perimeter and in the red zone.
Throw in the Patriots' proclivity for adding aging veterans, and the pieces of this puzzle slide together well.
All salary-cap information via Over The Cap, unless otherwise noted.