NFL free agency predictions: The best team fits for the top players available
- Where will the top players available be when the dust settles on free agency? Our writers and editors lay out their case for the best fits for each of this year's biggest names.
Free agency opens this week, with a three-day legal tampering window before players can officially sign contracts starting at 4 p.m. on March 9. Among the big names set to hit the market are a former MVP, a Super Bowl LI hero, a pair of often overlooked interior D-linemen and one of the league’s most promising young cornerbacks—and the market only gets deeper as teams try to clear out cap space to make the off-season’s biggest splashes.
Every free agent wrestles with the trade-off between the ideal football situation and the ideal financial situation for his immediate future, and the marquee members of the 2017 class should have no shortage of options in front of them. Still, the frenetic pace at which deals go down once the 2017 league year begins always has the potential to create some chaos.
Which teams offer the best fit for this year’s top free agents? Our NFL writers and editors make their picks below.
Ben Baskin: Tennessee Titans. Jeffery would be a perfect piece to add to Tennessee’s young receiving corps, giving Marcus Mariota a legitimate weapon on the outside and turning a position of weakness into one of strength. Rishard Matthews emerged as a legitimate threat last season, but adding Jeffery would slide Matthews to a WR2 role and Tajae Sharpe into the slot, where both could thrive. For an offense that ranked third in rushing but 25th in passing in 2016, this upgrade could earn them a division title in the weak AFC South.
Chris Burke: Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks have Doug Baldwin and a handful of up-and-coming young receivers. What they don’t have is a physically dominant option on the outside. Jeffery would give them that, if he’s fully healthy. And paired with TE Jimmy Graham, he would make the Seahawks’ pass game lethal in the red zone.
Jacob Feldman: Tennessee Titans. Going off Jeffery's statement that he's looking for "the best situation to win a championship right now," staying in Chicago is out, as is joining the Kyle Shanahan/John Lynch experiment in San Francisco. That leaves the Titans a prime suitor, given that they just missed the playoffs last year. Then again, Jeffery previously guaranteed the Bears would win the 2017 Super Bowl, so maybe starting with his statements is the wrong idea.
Jonathan Jones: San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers have to find a quarterback first since they don’t have one on the roster. But San Francisco would look even more attractive to a free agent if they knew they had a healthy Alshon Jeffrey to throw to in 2017 and beyond.
Bette Marston: Tennessee Titans. Tennessee’s up-and-coming squad should be attractive to Jeffery after two rough seasons with the Bears, and the Titans have plenty of cap space ($61M) to enter the bidding war for arguably the best wide receiver on the market. Jeffery could rediscover his form from 2013 and ‘14 (more than 2500 receiving yards combined in those seasons) in Tennessee.
Eric Single: Chicago Bears. Jeffery's four-game PED suspension and meager touchdown output put a damper on his 2016, but the Bears know what kind of elite receiver he can be at his best and may use this past trying season as an opportunity to underscore their faith in him. Given their uncertain quarterback situation and thin receiving corps, Chicago should be willing to go bid-for-bid against other bottom-feeding teams with money to burn.
Baskin: Denver Broncos. I’d love to see Campbell head home to Denver and line up alongside Von Miller and Derek Wolfe. The Broncos’ D was down a bit last year, especially in the run game after losing DT Malik Jackson last offseason, and Campbell would fix those deficiencies. And it’s feasible that Campbell (turning 31 this season) would take less money for a homecoming and a chance at being a part of a dominant defense. If the Broncos trot out Trevor Siemian again, Denver will need an all-time D to have a shot at a long playoff run.
Burke: Tennessee Titans. Tennessee is set up to make a splash in free agency—Alshon Jeffery probably makes sense here, too. Few options for the Titans would improve them immediately as much as landing Campbell, to play opposite Jurrell Casey on the defensive front. Campbell could slide into a 4–3 and be effective, but he’s really an ideal pairing with a 3–4 defense.
Feldman: Indianapolis Colts. Campbell's athleticism and positional flexibility make him appealing for every team looking for a d-line upgrade (Detroit? Tampa? Washington? His hometown Broncos?), which means he'll be busy once the negotiating period begins this week. New Colts GM Chris Ballard has warned fans he will be conservative in free agency, but he ought to make at least one splash to show he's prepared to help Andrew Luck.
Jones: Denver Broncos. The Broncos sorely missed Malik Jackson in 2016 and Sylvester Williams has to be better. Denver is competing in the best division in football, and the defense has to be able to rush the passer—and that’s where Campbell, one of the best interior pass rushers in the game today, fits in.
Single: Chicago Bears. Teams ran early and often against Chicago in 2016 because they knew it would work—the addition of Campbell's versatility and raw power next to Akiem Hicks and promising edge rusher Leonard Floyd should instantly turn the defensive line into a unit few offenses seek out.
Baskin: New England Patriots. Hightower should stick with the Super Bowl champions. I completely understand a desire to test the market and cash in— as the Patriots would likely require him to sign a discounted deal to stay in New England— but Hightower just fits the Patriots defensive scheme perfectly. He’s played there his whole career, has won two titles, and has a small window in New England before Tom Brady declines/retires (if that ever happens) to win at least one more.
Burke: New England Patriots. While the Patriots opted not to use the franchise tag on Hightower, they should keep the door open on re-signing him at the right cost. He is too valuable on that defense and was perhaps the main reason they still thrived after dealing away Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins. Eventually, even the league’s top franchise has to feel some effect of losing all these guys. Hightower is arguably the best of that trio.
Jones: New England Patriots. The Patriots let Jones go. They let Collins go. But they can’t let a guy whose two signature plays have come during Super Bowls go. New England not tagging Hightower was slightly surprising, but Belichick should be able to work out a deal with the defensive signal-caller before free agency opens.
Single: Indianapolis Colts. If the Patriots want him back, it’s hard to see anyone luring Hightower away from New England. However, if Indianapolis could gather up enough cash to get Hightower’s attention, he’d become the all-purpose centerpiece of a defense that’s been trying to address its soft underbelly for years.
Ben Baskin: Dallas Cowboys. I’m not sure if Adrian Peterson would accept being the second back on a team at this point in his career (he should), but in a hypothetically perfect would he’d be a Cowboy next season. No matter how much tread he has left on the tires, AP running behind the Dallas offensive line—where he could get a head of steam on every rush before being touched—is a scary thought. And for opposing defenses, dealing with Ezekiel Elliott and then Adrian-freaking-Peterson as a change-of-pace back, well, that is nightmare-inducing. Plus Peterson would be a highly respected voice in that young huddle.
Chris Burke: New York Giants. Peterson no doubt is looking for a clear-cut starting job, but he may have to settle for a situation like this, where he could split carries with Paul Perkins and handle most of the short-yardage work. Peterson is going on 32, played just three games last season and looked lethargic when he was out there. His pursuit should be more about the proper fit than about breaking the bank, at this point.
Jacob Feldman: Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In many ways, Minnesota is still the best home for AP, given how soft the running back market is. But it seems increasingly likely that Peterson is headed elsewhere. If so, there are only a few competitive teams with power-run schemes and money to burn, making Tampa a likely landing spot.
Jonathan Jones: Oakland Raiders. The Raiders have one of the top offensive lines with one of the best young quarterbacks in the game. Latavius Murray was good last year, but not that good. Peterson has miles and injuries on him, but the best running back in this generation has something left in the tank. With a healthy Peterson and Derek Carr, the Raiders could challenge the Patriots for the AFC crown next year.
Bette Marston: Carolina Panthers. The tandem of Adrian Peterson and Jonathan Stewart would work well for both coach and player alike. Carolina’s scheme works with two running backs, and Peterson, given his recent injuries, wouldn’t be forced to shoulder a full load.
Eric Single: Tampa Bay Buccaneers. There’s no easy fit for a running back Peterson’s age with Peterson’s recent injury history, but the Buccaneers have the cap space to grit their teeth and take a flier on him—anything to improve an injury-plagued run game that finished in the bottom five in yards per attempt last season. Peterson won’t exactly see a dramatic upgrade in O-line play from his time in Minnesota, but depending on Doug Martin’s standing with the team come September, Tampa Bay could be the place where he’s guaranteed the most work.
Baskin: New England Patriots. DeSean Jackson has played the majority of his career on mediocre to bad teams, has been labeled as a difficult-to-manage personality and has a skill set that is a bit one-dimensional (even if that one-dimension is still as explosive and electric as ever). Solution? Put him on the Patriots! Belichick, Brady and Co. would have no reservations about being able to manage Jackson’s eccentricities, and giving Brady a legitimate deep threat opposite of Julian Edelman and the presumably-healthy Rob Gronkowski is already giving me flashbacks of their 2007 record-breaking offense.
Burke: Philadelphia Eagles. How about a Philadelphia reunion here? The Eagles obviously have a need at receiver and, despite the ugliness of their 2014 split, the team and Jackson have a mostly positive on-field history together. Jackson led the league in yards per catch last season, with 17.9—the second time in three years he’s held that title, and third time overall. Carson Wentz could use a big-play weapon to help stretch the field.
Feldman: Los Angeles Rams. Every indication suggests Jackson is headed to Tampa, but this is a list of best fits, not most likely, right? So let's send the speedster to his hometown of Los Angeles, where his former offensive coordinator, Sean McVay, and a young quarterback in desperate need of help await.
Jones: Tennessee Titans. If Houston doesn’t get a quarterback this offseason, the Titans should be the favorites to win the AFC South. Tennessee is already making a play for Brandin Cooks, so clearly the Titans are interested in speed. When Marcus Mariota gets a clean bill of health, hopefully he has a speedy No. 1 receiver waiting for him in Nashville.
Marston: Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Vincent Jackson reportedly is not planning to retire, but the 34-year-old hasn’t been much of a factor in Tampa Bay the last two seasons. Enter: DeSean Jackson. The speedster could occupy defensive backs opposite of the Bucs’ big man Mike Evans.
Single: Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs need as many ways as possible to take defensive attention away from Mike Evans, and with tight end Cameron Brate cementing himself as a reliable intermediate threat, a little more downfield speed would round out a promising receiving corps nicely. When healthy, Jackson still has afterburners that force secondaries to play on their heels.
Ben Baskin: Jacksonville Jaguars. The jury is still out on whether Stephon Gilmore is a true shutdown corner after an inconsistent 2016, and with the cornerback market set so high after Janoris Jenkins and Josh Norman signed monster deals last year, a team has to be really sure that Gilmore fits their D before signing. I’d prefer to see Gilmore go to an already solid defense to cement their secondary, rather than being the first building block in a bad unit. So I think signing with Jacksonville would be a nice fit, where he could pair with emerging superstar Jalen Ramsey (obviously still widely underpaid on his rookie deal) and instantly be one of the best cornerback tandems in the league.
Chris Burke: New York Jets. The Jets don’t just need cornerbacks—they need cornerbacks who can thrive in man coverage, so they can properly execute Todd Bowles’s system. Gilmore fits the bill. The underlying concern for New York lies in throwing out big money to an elite free agent like Gilmore, right after the Darrelle Revis partnership fell apart. But that shouldn’t be a blocker, if the Jets think Gilmore is a fit for their system.
Jacob Feldman: Oakland Raiders. The Raiders landed several top free agents last year, and saw enough success to turn around their franchise. With a decent amount of room under the cap, they definitely could use more talent in the defensive backfield (Oakland was 25th in pass defense DVOA last year).
Jonathan Jones: Chicago Bears. The Bears lost the Janoris Jenkins sweepstakes last year, and while Gilmore may not be as good as Jenkins, he was good enough to start in 66 of his 68 games for the Bills. Chicago has a lot of issues, and shoring up the backend is one of them.
Bette Marston: Green Bay Packers. Green Bay rarely spends big in free agency, but that makes Gilmore an even better fit. The Packers can probably get away with signing the sixth-year player for less than market value, which would bring crucial stability to the Packers’ secondary.
Eric Single: Tennessee Titans. The Titans should probably spend a good chunk of draft capital on upgrading their secondary no matter what happens this month, but Gilmore provides a more immediate fix for a team that can fairly expect the contend for a division title next fall. Coming off a career-high five interceptions in 2016, Gilmore is inching closer to shutdown corner status, and Tennessee likely wouldn’t mind trading in a few of those picks for consistently blanketing the top wideouts in the AFC South.
Baskin: Atlanta Falcons. Atlanta had one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history last season, which masked a weakness in their run defense—opponents were almost always playing catch up and were forced to abandon their ground game. So while the Falcons faced the fifth-fewest rushes per game in the NFL in 2016, they allowed 4.5 yards per rush, good for 26th in the league. Being able to add a player like Brandon Williams would greatly improve the Falcons’ run-stopping unit, as Williams is a prototypical space-eater. And an improved run defense would make life much easier for Atlanta’s young pass rushers.
Burke: Detroit Lions. The Ravens should be doing whatever they can to keep Williams and right tackle Ricky Wagner, but it seems as if both are headed out. With Williams hitting the market, Lions GM Bob Quinn might consider swapping out Haloti Ngata—a disappointment in Detroit—with Williams. The latter was a rookie with the Ravens during Teryl Austin’s final season as Baltimore’s defensive coordinator, before Austin relocated to Detroit.
Feldman: Washington Redskins. Baltimore appears to be doing everything it can at this point to keep its promising defensive tackle. If he gets away, he might not end up going far. Washington has moved on from its “win the off-season” ways, but it still could really use a run-stopping anchor for new defensive coordinator Greg Manusky.
Jones: Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens would be silly not to re-sign Williams. He’s one of the best players set to hit the market—arguably the best—and he’s going to come at a cost. Baltimore knows that. But Williams is one of the best run stuffers in the game, and getting him back on the front line will be the first step in getting Baltimore back into the playoffs.
Single: Oakland Raiders. How could the Raiders have finished last in the league in sacks with Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack coming off the edge? In part, because Mack was the only defender consistently winning his battles close to the line of scrimmage. Williams would attract attention in a way 2016 defensive tackles Dan Williams and Stacy McGee could barely approach, and Reggie McKenzie showed last March that he isn’t afraid to whip out the checkbook in pursuit of elite interior line play.
Baskin: New York Giants. Free Terrelle Pryor! In 2016, Pryor (two years removed from being a QB) had nearly 80 catches and over 1,000 yards on a team that cycled through quarterbacks with last names such as Kessler, McCown and Griffin. It would probably take some cap magic to make this work, but Pryor playing alongside small receivers in Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shephard on the Giants would be a great fit. Eli Manning always seems to get the best out of big receivers (Plaxico Burress, Hakeem Nicks) and is one of the smartest QBs in the league. Manning would certainly help Pryor’s development, and Pryor would add another dimension to the bewilderingly stagnant Giants offense.
Burke: Cleveland Browns. Kudos to Pryor for getting himself into this position. The former quarterback has excelled at wide receiver to the point that he should cash in during free agency. But some of the credit belongs to Cleveland coach Hue Jackson and his staff for being able to unleash Pryor this past season. If the Browns are willing to pony up the dough, it’d be great to see these two sides stick together to build a foundation on offense.
Feldman: San Francisco 49ers. Pryor studied Julio Jones after switching from quarterback to wide receiver. That should help Shanahan, who turned Jones into the NFL's scariest weapon last year, pitch Pryor on the possibilities in San Francisco. Plus, the 49ers braintrust should have the time and money to risk some of both on a potential stud.
Jones: Cleveland Browns. The Browns drafted four receivers last year and not one of them had the production of Taylor Gabriel, a guy they cut in favor of the young quartet. In short: The Browns have trouble evaluating the receiver position. They’ve taken their time to groom Pryor, and now they need to keep the player they’ve invested time in.
Single: Cleveland Browns. Sentimentality rarely rules the day when free agency hits, but it’s hard to believe Pryor will forsake the franchise that believed in his talent all the way through his remarkable journey to this payday. The Browns can afford everybody on the market at every position, so keeping Pryor around as the primary target for 2017 Week 1 Starting Quarterback TBD should be an easy starting point for what figures to be a busy week in Cleveland.
Baskin: Indianapolis Colts. The Colts just hired former Chiefs director of player personnel Chris Ballard as general manager, and it would be wise of Ballard to bring Poe with him from Kansas City to Indianapolis. The Colts have wasted enough years of Andrew Luck’s prime by being cheap and not building a legitimate roster around him. Adding the best interior defensive lineman in free agency would be a good start to building a real contender—and at only 26 Poe would be a nice addition of youth into an aging Indy defense. Maybe he could even play both sides and help ensure that Luck is protected and doesn’t have another year lost to injury.
Burke: Houston Texans. Poe remains a menace on early downs, and he would benefit—as any interior D-lineman would—from the freedom provided by the presence of Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt on the edge. The Texans are losing space-eating veteran Vince Wilfork this off-season, so they have an opening. Youngster D.J. Reader likely would be next man up, but Poe is a more proven option, if Houston can swing the money.
Feldman: Green Bay Packers. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It won’t happen, because it’s not a typical Packers move. But if we’re spending other people's money, I’m putting Poe on the Packers to bolster their interior defense and introduce more casual fans to one of the league’s largest characters. And with Aaron Rodgers calling for his team to “reload”, maybe there’s a chance?
Marston: Oakland Raiders. The Raiders’ run defense ranked No. 23 in the league last season, and Poe’s presence should give that a boost. Oakland also has plenty of cap space to give Poe the payday he’s chasing.