Predicting Landing Spots for the Top NFL Free Agents on Market Entering April
I know, I know. You're damn excited about the 2019 NFL draft, and you're allowed to be—especially now that it's actually April. That's the same month in which the draft is held! Draft, draft, draft, upside, upside, upside! Raw physical tools! Measurables! Game tape! Rising and falling stocks! It all makes us so freakin' excited!
But free agency isn't over. Not even close. And it deserves at least some of your attention this month. Because this is when good players can be had at discount rates, and there are several really good players still out there.
Based on a multitude of criteria, including scheme fits, salary-cap space and roster holes, here's a look at potential landing spots for the best second-wave free agents on the market—chosen mainly based on their potential to make an immediate impact.
QB Colin Kaepernick: New England Patriots
The sheer chaos associated with Colin Kaepernick joining the New England Patriots would be enough to not only blow up Twitter, but also Instagram, Facebook, Myspace and Friendster. This is the kind of development—the outspoken Kaepernick becoming a member of Donald Trump's Favorite NFL Team—that would be too juicy not to devour.
And while it probably won't happen, it does make some sense.
The Patriots like talented football players (✔️); they like giving players opportunities to rejuvenate their careers (✔️); they need a potential successor for the 41-year-old Tom Brady (✔️); and they can get away with controversial press (✔️).
The Pats have been so damn successful that they really don't have to worry what the league or their fans will think about such a move. And in an interview with CNN after his collusion lawsuit was settled in February, Kap's attorney, Mark Geragos, mentioned the Patriots and Carolina Panthers as teams that could sign the 31-year-old.
Carolina has since indicated it is happy with its quarterback stable, but the Patriots remain a possibility. And acquiring Kaepernick sure would help owner Robert Kraft deflect some of the scrutiny resulting from the criminal charges he's currently facing.
RB Jay Ajayi: Jacksonville Jaguars
Now that the Philadelphia Eagles have traded for Jordan Howard, it's safe to conclude that running back Jay Ajayi will be looking for a new team this offseason.
That quest could be complicated by the fact that Ajayi is still recovering from a torn ACL, as well as the reality that multiple running backs could still be available on the trade market. But there might be room for Jay Ajay to join the Jacksonville Jaguars (say that five times fast).
Not only has 2017 No. 4 overall pick Leonard Fournette failed to live up to lofty expectations when healthy, but the 24-year-old has already missed 11 games because of injury in two seasons. And with Carlos Hyde gone and T.J. Yeldon and Corey Grant still unsigned, it's obvious Jacksonville is considering going in a new direction in search of insurance for Fournette.
Fournette and Ajayi don't exactly complement each other. They have similar bodies and running styles, but that might be the point. Ajayi wouldn't provide a change of pace, but he would provide an alternative in the event that Fournette is absent or ineffective. And because of his injury and the state of the market at that position, he'd probably come cheaply to a team that isn't flush with salary-cap space.
WR Michael Crabtree: Washington Redskins
Five teams—the Indianapolis Colts, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers, Washington Redskins and Green Bay Packers—stand out as potential landing spots for accomplished veteran wide receiver Michael Crabtree.
All five have either suffered significant losses at that position or were already in dire need of wideouts and have yet to shore up the depth chart there. But Pittsburgh and Indianapolis approach free agency conservatively and have already invested in Donte Moncrief and Devin Funchess, respectively. The typically cautious Packers have already spent big bucks this offseason, and the 49ers have already been there, done that with Crabtree.
That leaves the Redskins, who might have the most shallow receiving corps in the world. Josh Doctson hasn't lived up to expectations as a 2016 first-round pick, Paul Richardson hasn't lived up to expectations as a 2018 big-money free-agent acquisition, and Jamison Crowder is gone, leaving just Doctson, Richardson, Trey Quinn, Brian Quick and Tre McBride as recognizable names at the receiver position.
Crabtree would bring some outside playmaking ability and experience to a unit that could use more stability, and he'd probably be affordable at this advanced stage of free agency.
DT Ndamukong Suh: Los Angeles Chargers
The Los Angeles Chargers have yet to make a splash in free agency, but it's possible they're waiting for the right moment with the best player still on the market: defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
Suh took his time before signing with the Los Angeles Rams last year, and it appears he's very careful about where he takes his talents. On the Bloomberg Business of Sports podcast earlier this offseason, the three-time first-team All-Pro and Warren Buffett disciple talked about the cost-benefit analysis that went into signing a one-year deal with the Rams in 2018, noting the valuable business connections he's established in Southern California.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported in March—via Pro Football Talk's Charean Williams—that Suh prefers to remain on the West Coast. Meanwhile, according to ESPN.com's Lindsey Thiry, Rams general manager Les Snead said at the NFL owners meetings that Suh's return to the Rams is "pretty much guaranteed to be off the table."
The 49ers are already loaded up front, and both San Francisco and the Oakland Raiders have already spent through the roof this offseason. The Seattle Seahawks make some sense, but the Chargers make the most sense both geographically and in fit.
Each of L.A.'s four most prominent interior defensive linemen—Brandon Mebane, Corey Liuget, Darius Philon and Damion Square—hit free agency this offseason, and only Mebane has returned. So it sure looks as though the Chargers are waiting for something to happen at that position, and Suh would be a tremendous addition to a win-now team.
DT Corey Liuget: New England Patriots
Meanwhile, Liuget might be waiting for that Suh-sized domino to fall before he either re-signs with the Chargers or jumps to another team in need of help in the defensive interior.
While the 29-year-old might not be a superstar, he certainly can help. His 2018 campaign was marred by a suspension and a quad injury, but he's often been a reliable starter with first-round pedigree, and there's room for him to excel in the right environment.
An environment like the one in Foxborough, where Bill Belichick loves to squeeze the most he can get out of talented players who might not have lived up to their potential elsewhere. New England is in need of another proven player up front following the loss of Malcom Brown, and Liuget—who is still recovering from a torn quad—would likely be willing to play for a cheap, one-year prove-it deal.
That's right up New England's alley, especially because even in the worst-case scenario it would help bolster the team's chances of landing compensatory picks in 2021.
DE Ezekiel Ansah: Oakland Raiders
Like Liuget, Ezekiel Ansah is a defensive lineman with plenty of starting experience who was a first-round pick but hasn't totally taken off. And like Liuget, Ansah is recovering from a major injury. And thus it could be a while before anyone gives him a shot.
Rapoport, who earlier this offseason reported the Buffalo Bills and New Orleans Saints had expressed interest, noted more recently that teams are awaiting the four-month check-up on the 2015 Pro Bowler's surgically repaired shoulder—which is scheduled for mid-April.
Eventually, somebody will feel confident enough on Ansah's health to give him a shot. Because while he's injury-prone and he'll soon be on the wrong side of 30, he's a talented player at a premium position who has two 12-plus-sack seasons under his belt.
That somebody might be the Bills or Saints, but the Raiders make more sense because they should be more desperate, and they could use that experience on the edge.
After dumping star pass-rusher Khalil Mack, the Raiders posted a grand total of 13 sacks in 2018, which is astonishing considering no other NFL defense registered fewer than 30. And yet Oakland still hasn't signed an edge-rusher in free agency, instead focusing on the offensive side of the ball and the secondary.
The could and should change for a team that can't afford to rely on its current defensive ends and whatever it mines from the draft.
LB Aaron Lynch: Denver Broncos
Editor's Note: per the Bears team website, Lynch has agreed to re-sign with Chicago on a one-year deal.
Aaron Lynch has failed to replicate his early-career success with the 49ers, but the versatile outside linebacker is still only 26 and is coming off a strong season in a limited role with the Chicago Bears. He's an ideal second-wave free-agent signing because he has experience and upside. As a strong run defender with pass-rushing chops, he can play a variety of roles in a pinch.
And while Rapoport reports Lynch has visited the Colts, Raiders and Seahawks, the Denver Broncos make even more sense. After all, if Vic Fangio felt strongly enough about the 2014 fifth-round pick to bring him from San Francisco to Chicago in 2018, there's little reason to believe Fangio won't lobby John Elway to bring him to Colorado. And Fangio has more clout now that he's a head coach.
Denver already has Von Miller and Bradley Chubb on the edge, but it never hurts to have another option there, and the Broncos have to replace Shane Ray (still unsigned) and Shaquil Barrett (now a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers).
It wouldn't be surprising if the Bears tried to stop the free-agent bleeding by bringing Lynch back, and Indy and Oakland could use him as well, but the Broncos would probably love to have an established run-defending alternative to Chubb on early downs, and Lynch is the obvious top candidate for Fangio.
LB Jamie Collins: Baltimore Ravens
Things didn't pan out for veteran linebacker Jamie Collins under Gregg Williams in Cleveland, but he still registered over 100 tackles and four sacks in 16 starts as an off-ball linebacker with the Browns in 2018, and he was a Pro Bowler with the Patriots only a few years ago.
Somebody will benefit from Collins' versatility and experience in 2019, and it's odd somebody hasn't already bit considering the dude is only 29. But it might not be long before the Baltimore Ravens dive in.
The fit is obvious. Baltimore was hurting at linebacker even before C.J. Mosley, Za'Darius Smith and Terrell Suggs departed as free agents, and Collins would present an immediate upgrade over 2018 fourth-round pick Kenny Young, replacement-level three-year vet Patrick Onwuasor and whoever the hell Chris Board is.
They need a proven commodity within that group, and Collins would appear to be an ideal replacement for Mosley at a much more reasonable price.
S Eric Berry: Indianapolis Colts
Issues with his Achilles/ankle/heel have caused three-time All-Pro safety Eric Berry to miss all but three games the last two seasons, but he still has a high ceiling as one of the best safeties in the game, and he only just turned 30.
Somebody will take a chance on Berry, and no team is better positioned to do so than the Indianapolis Colts, who lead the league in cap space, could use an upgrade at safety, would appreciate more experience on defense and would have a strong backup plan in case the five-time Pro Bowler can't stay healthy.
That's because Indy is already in decent shape at that position with 2017 first-round pick Malik Hooker locked in as a starter and 2018 starter Clayton Geathers returning on a cheap one-year deal.
Best-case scenario? Berry returns to his old form and is a massive upgrade over Geathers. Middle-case scenario? He contributes at a reasonable second-wave free-agent rate. Worst-case scenario? A team with nearly $60 in cap space swings and misses and moves on in a year.
There's little downside here.
S Tre Boston: Cleveland Browns
While the Browns were widely praised for the Odell Beckham Jr. trade, it did leave a hole at the safety position. But Cleveland still has plenty of salary-cap space and interest in both Eric Berry and underrated 26-year-old Tre Boston.
"They're both really good football players who we have had discussions with their representatives," Browns general manager John Dorsey said last week, per Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal, "and that's where we are right now."
Either player would suit the Browns, but Berry's injury history might make him too big a gamble for a team that doesn't have much insurance at that position. It's also possible that Cleveland will be outbid for the more talented Berry, because the Colts have more salary-cap space than every other team in the NFL.
Boston wouldn't be a bad consolation prize. After a three-interception campaign with the Arizona Cardinals, he now has more picks the last two seasons than all but five NFL players. His Pro Football Focus grade from the last two seasons (82.2) ranks 15th among qualified players at that position.
He'd make an already dangerous Browns team just a little sharper.
All salary information courtesy of Spotrac.