The official start of NFL free agency occurs Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET. Where will the best available players out of the NFC land at that time? (Find our predictions for AFC free agents here.)
Michael Bennett: Bears
Bears tight end Martellus Bennett has made it clear -- he wants his brother to fortify a defensive line that had all kinds of problems in 2013.
“If the contract is not the numbers that you want, you got to think about the market and off the field,” Martellus told the NFL Network Monday, via the Chicago Tribune. “We could do Doublemint commercials. Look at Duck Dynasty. Talk about the Black Duck Dynasty right now. Me and you, bro. So it’s just a lot of opportunity. Chicago is the best fans, unique city, great opportunities business-wise, which I know there’s a lot of things you want to do off the field after football. None of those things are tech or coffee, so, I mean, Seattle, that’s what they’re offering you. So come on down to Chicago, man.
“Usually when you go from another team to another team, you may have a friend there. You may just be jumping into the water. But here there’s a bridge. Your brother is the bridge.”
Silliness aside, Michael Bennett would be a perfect fit for a rebuilding Bears defense with his ability to rush the passer from multiple gaps. And as much as the Seahawks would like to retain him, they have a number in mind and a legitimate confidence in their ability to replace defensive players.
The Cardinals have offered Dansby a two-year deal in the neighborhood of $10-12 million, which isn't the neighborhood the veteran is looking to inhabit. Nor should he after the exceptional season he had in 2013. The Titans were looking hard at D'Qwell Jackson before Jackson signed with the Colts, and Dansby would be an amazing fit in Ray Horton's defense.
Vick won't command a long-term deal from anyone given his age and injury history, but it's entirely possible that he's got a couple of good seasons left. The Jets don't exactly have a cadre of intriguing targets, but that's somewhat fixable in a deep draft. Vick showed with the Nick Foles situation in Philly that he has no issue helping a younger quarterback along, and Geno Smith still needs development before he's going to resemble a consistent NFL starter.
The Patriots clearly need help for Tom Brady, and Bill Belichick loves to take chances on players who are fringe targets of other teams for whatever reason. Finley is coming off spinal fusion surgery, and he's yet to be cleared for football activity, but it's easy to see the gears in Belichick's brain turning on this one. New England's offense is built on tight ends who can excel in the slot and flex positions, and if he's good to go, Finley -- though inconsistent -- could be a potential steal in that system.
Golden Tate: Seahawks
The Seahawks went into the 2014 free agency period with two serious priorities up top -- re-signing Tate and Michael Bennett. If they're outbid on Bennett (which is entirely possible), Tate becomes the guy to lock up. He was the second draft pick of the Pete Carroll/John Schneider era, and the Seahawks stuck with him as he learned the receiver position at the NFL level. He's a dynamic slot target and an excellent special teamer, and Seattle should be able to get a deal done at a reasonable price.
Mitchell was one of the more underrated players in the NFC last season, and the Eagles' safety situation is pretty dire. After a breakout year in Carolina with 67 tackles and four picks after four seasons lost in the Oakland wilderness, Mitchell, who will be 27 in June, might still have the best years ahead of him.
The Vikings still have about $40 million in cap space after handing defensive end Everson Griffen a five-year contract extension Sunday, and there are holes all over their defense. Certainly the secondary is a primary concern, but there's also a real need for a tackle who can draw double teams and set the pace for the front seven. Joseph has proven that he can be such a player, and it's a near-certainty that he's going to test the market after four years with the Giants.
Jason Hatcher: Seahawks
The former Cowboys standout will be 32 when the 2014 season starts, but he's one of those little-discussed players who just gets better and better every year. Pete Carroll loves to take athletic freaks like the 6-foot-6, 300-pound Hatcher and put them in multiple positions to succeed. Few interior linemen have been more disruptive over the last three seasons.
James Jones: Colts
The Colts always need targets, though Andrew Luck proved in 2013 that he can still make things happen with a spackled-together receiver corps. Jones was a highly efficient receiver for the Packers in 2011 and '12 before injuries slowed him down in '13, and a bounceback season in Indy could benefit Luck immensely.
Denver was looking at Allen before the 2013 season, and there's no way the veteran is going back to Minnesota. The Broncos got a surprising season out of Shaun Phillips last year, and Allen could be an even better fit for a team looking to find new veteran leaders. Allen has said that he's not looking to extract too much money -- at this point in his career, he just wants to win.
Strief and the Saints talked about a new contract during the scouting combine, and given his excellent 2013 season -- not to mention the importance of protecting the right side of Drew Brees' pocket because he rolls out so much -- it's easy to see why New Orleans got the jump on this one.
Brandon Pettigrew: Jets
Pettigrew is a maddening case. He's got all the raw talent in the world, and he's a great blocker, but his catch rates are dismal and his overall efficiency is problematic at best. Thus, Pettigrew is far better suited for a power-based offense in which blocking and shorter routes are the order of the day -- he was always a bad fit in Detroit's high-flying passing game. The Jets wouldn't ask too much of Pettigrew, and there are reports that they've already shown interest.
McCown told ESPN Radio on Monday morning that he's talking with four teams, and he wants at least a shot at starting.
"To leave Chicago, it will be a situation where I’m looking to compete to start or to start and be able to kind of grow more as a player," he said. "The only way as a player that you can do that is on the field. That will definitely be something that we are looking at. So we’ll see. We’ll see what opportunities come and where we are at tomorrow.”
So, that takes quite a few contenders out of the running. But let's say that Texans general manager Rick Smith and new head coach Bill O'Brien aren't in love with any of the draft-eligible quarterbacks -- at least, not so in love that they're comfortable using the first overall pick on any of them. Taking a two-year flyer on a veteran like McCown, who has proven that he can excel in a system tailored to his strengths, would be an ideal alternative if the plan is to go best player available.
Nicks has worn out his welcome in New York, and given his declining production, he's almost sure to be disappointed in the offers that come his way. He's said in recent days that he's open to a one-year "prove-it" deal, and that he'd love to catch passes from a proven quarterback. Well, the Ravens have a proven quarterback in Joe Flacco, and not enough for Flacco when it comes to targets. This could be a ideal fit for both sides, as Nicks looks to reclaim his rep as a legitimate No. 1 receiver, and the Ravens hope to re-boot their troubled offense.
Darren Sproles: Patriots Recently cut by the Saints as a cap casualty, Sproles is one of the league's most intriguing satellite backs. Just as New England's offense is built on big tight ends these days, it's also centered around smaller targets who can get open in free space and keep drives going with short, repeatable passing plays. Sproles would fit the bill perfectly -- and the Pats would be a better match for him than most.