Predicting Landing Spots for the NFL's Top Unrestricted Free Agents
The 2019 edition of NFL free agency kicks off on March 13, and there should be a flurry of early activity, especially since teams can begin contacting impending free agents two days prior. During that "legal tampering" period is when the rumor mill is really going to start churning.
The rumor mill has already been fired up, though, and there has been plenty of chatter about where free agency's top targets will land. While no free-agent move can become official until 4 p.m. ET on the 13th, logical predictions can be made.
That's exactly what you'll find here. We'll examine this year's top free agents and where they're most likely to end up, based on factors like the latest buzz, salary-cap situations, team fits and coaching connections.
Keep in mind that this list only includes impending free agents. Trade options like Antonio Brown and possible cap casualties like Justin Houston aren't included.
DE Trey Flowers: New England Patriots
Defensive end Trey Flowers might not be your typical speedy edge-rusher, but he can put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. He can also set the edge, occupy blockers and do just about anything else a team could ask of a defensive end.
The New England Patriots didn't use the franchise tag on Flowers (or anyone else), which sets him up for free agency. However, this doesn't mean the Patriots won't bring back one of their most versatile defenders for the 2019 season and beyond.
The Patriots may allow Flowers to test the market and weigh his contract options against the possibility of another championship run in New England, much like they did with Dont'a Hightower a couple of years ago. It's a tactic that may well work with Flowers.
"This is number six," Flowers said during a recent Springfield Thunderbirds game. "We want seven."
The opportunity to help chase New England's seventh title may be enough to bring Flowers back on a team-friendly deal.
Other Logical Landing Spots: Detroit Lions, Tennessee Titans
DT Sheldon Richardson: Oakland Raiders
Sheldon Richardson played on a one-year, $8 million deal with the Minnesota Vikings in 2018, and he proved to be worth every penny. Richardson started all 16 games and racked up an impressive 49 tackles to go with 4.5 sacks.
Richardson will likely be targeted by teams that both have a need in the middle of the defensive line and have the cap space to comfortably add a player worth more than $8 million per season. You know who perfectly fits the bill? The Oakland Raiders.
Oakland finished the 2018 season with the third-worst run defense (140.6 yards per game allowed) and the league's worst sack total (13). Richardson could help boost both of these areas.
The Raiders are also projected to have more than $70 million in cap space available, meaning a sizable contract shouldn't be an obstacle.
Other Logical Landing Spots: Indianapolis Colts, Cleveland Browns
LB Anthony Barr: Cleveland Browns
The Vikings didn't give the franchise tag to Sheldon Richardson. They didn't give it to Anthony Barr, either, meaning one of the league's most versatile linebackers is heading to market. Barr can cover, tackle and rush the passer with the best of them.
"He can play every down, and deftly switch between coverage and rushing the passer," Conor Orr of SI.com wrote. "This is the way defenses are heading."
This is exactly the kind of linebacker the upstart Cleveland Browns could use in their defense. They recently released fellow outside linebacker Jamie Collins, and Barr would be the perfect replacement.
According to Kevin Patra of NFL.com, the Browns saved $9.25 million against this year's salary cap by releasing Collins. While Barr would likely command a bit more than that in yearly salary, he's also more than two years younger than Collins and has been the more productive player in recent seasons.
At just 26 years old, Barr is exactly the kind of young and ascending player general manager John Dorsey wants to add to the rebuilding Browns.
Other Logical Landing Spots: Oakland Raiders, Green Bay Packers
RB Le'Veon Bell: New York Jets
When it comes to running back Le'Veon Bell, we should probably go ahead and follow the money. After all, his refusal to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers under the franchise tag in 2018 stemmed from his desire for a long-term deal.
Of the three teams projected to have the most cap space—the Indianapolis Colts, New York Jets and Cleveland Browns—only the Jets have a need at running back. They desperately need weapons around second-year quarterback Sam Darnold, and general manager Mike Maccagnan needs to put a winning—or at least exciting—product on the field if he's going to keep his job.
Going after Bell makes sense for the Jets, and it seems to be the general consensus.
"Most of the NFL people I spoke to believe the Jets will be aggressive in their pursuit of Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell," Brian Costello of the New York Post wrote.
Other Logical Landing Spots: Oakland Raiders, Buffalo Bills
S Tyrann Mathieu: Houston Texans
Safety Tyrann Mathieu proved he's still one of the league's top secondary players by racking up 89 tackles, eight passes defended and two interceptions in 2018. He's going to be highly sought-after by teams looking for help on the back end.
The Baltimore Ravens, who recently released Eric Weddle, could make a "strong push" for Mathieu, according to CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora.
As La Canfora points out, Mathieu has experience with Ravens safety Tony Jefferson from their days together with the Arizona Cardinals.
Of course, Mathieu also has experience playing with the Houston Texans, the team that signed him last offseason. Since the Ravens and Texans were playoff teams in 2018, the decision could come down to money and overall comfort level.
The Texans are projected to have slightly more cap space than Baltimore, and Mathieu seems pretty happy in Houston.
"I really want to be here," he told reporters back in January.
Other Logical Landing Spots: Baltimore Ravens, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
S Landon Collins: Indianapolis Colts
According to Bleacher Report's Matt Miller, the New York Giants turned down a first-round pick for safety Landon Collins prior to last year's trade deadline. If that's true, it was a bad decision in retrospect. Collins underwent shoulder surgery and missed the final four games of 2018. This may have played a role in New York's decision not to franchise Collins.
Regardless, the Giants didn't use the tag on the hard-hitting safety and now appear poised to lose him in free agency.
It would be a good move for teams with a need at strong safety to add Collins. One such team that could entice Collins is Indianapolis.
The Colts are projected to have more than $105 million in cap space, so meeting Collins' contract demands wouldn't be an issue. They were also a playoff team in 2018, meaning they could offer him the realistic shot at the postseason he didn't get over the last two years.
Furthermore, Indianapolis is set to lose safety Clayton Geathers in free agency, and Collins would be an upgrade over him.
Other Logical Landing Spots: Washington Redskins, Green Bay Packers
LB C.J. Mosley: Oakland Raiders
"Letting C.J. Mosley test the market is as head-scratching as the Landon Collins decision," Siciliano said, via Twitter.
It does appear to be an odd move for a team with plenty of cap space and a realistic shot at returning to the playoffs in 2019. Perhaps the Ravens believe they can strike a fair deal with Mosley after he tests the market.
This could prove difficult, though, depending on which other teams get involved. The Raiders, for one, are projected to have more cap space than Baltimore and, as previously mentioned, need help in run defense. Mosley, who produced 105 tackles in 2018, could be that help.
Oakland doesn't have as many critical free agents to re-sign—Baltimore is looking at Terrell Suggs, Za'Darius Smith, John Brown and Brent Urban, to name a few—and should be able to outbid the Ravens.
Other Logical Landing Spots: Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers
QB Nick Foles: Jacksonville Jaguars
The Philadelphia Eagles are letting Super Bowl LII MVP Nick Foles reach free agency instead of keeping him as insurance for the oft-injured Carson Wentz. This gives Foles a shot at a lucrative payday and a chance to lead his own team.
There are several teams that could use the services of an experienced starter, including the Washington Redskins, Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins. Washington isn't likely to have Alex Smith this season, and new Dolphins head coach Brian Flores watched Foles torch his Patriots defense in that aforementioned title game.
However, it's already looking like Jacksonville is the favorite to land him.
According to Dan Graziano of ESPN.com, the Jaguars are expected to release Blake Bortles and sign Foles at the beginning of free agency.
This doesn't mean that other teams won't enter the mix—remember, they're not supposed to float offers until March 11—but adding Foles makes a ton of sense for the Jaguars. They were championship contenders just two years ago on the strength of their defense and, with quality quarterback play, could be that again in 2019.
Other Logical Landing Spots: Washington Redskins, Miami Dolphins
S Earl Thomas: San Francisco 49ers
Earl Thomas is one of the most notable names in what is shaping up to be a very strong safety market. There will be several teams interested in him, but price will likely take several out of the running.
"His goal is to become the highest-paid safety in the NFL," Clarence E. Hill Jr. of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram wrote.
Fortunately for the San Francisco 49ers, who could use help on the back end, making Thomas the league's highest-paid safety wouldn't be much of an issue. San Francisco is projected to have roughly $67 million in cap space, sixth-most in the NFL.
The 49ers would also be able to offer Thomas a chance to reunite with cornerback Richard Sherman, who joined the Seattle Seahawks' rivals last offseason. Ultimately, the opportunity to stick it to Seattle twice a season may be just as alluring to Thomas as a fat contract.
Other Logical Landing Spots: Los Angeles Rams, Oakland Raiders
All cap and contract information via Spotrac.