With the NFL Scouting Combine less than a week away and more than a month of intense draft coverage ahead – not even counting the following analyses and undrafted free agent work – I decided to at least put together one piece about free agency. To do so I took the top ten teams in terms of cap space for 2019 according to spotrac.com and found one player I think would fit well with them. This can be due to personal connections, scheme fit or simply a combination of need at the position and the money to spend. While it is often times about all the small moves a team makes over the course of the offseason and how a team builds depth (also through the draft), I thought it would be fun to put together some pairings that I believe would make sense. I did not include likely franchise tag candidates such as DeMarcus Lawrence, Jadeveon Clowney and Nick Foles – who the Eagles will look to trade once they have secured his rights. With that being said, I still think we have a strong class of edge rushers and there are three safeties who were among the very best at the position just two years ago. On the other hand, there are no big fish at quarterback out there, assuming Foles will be tagged, such as Kirk Cousins last offseason, and I will tell you to look for your team to draft a receiver out of college, because outside of one veteran pass-catcher these guys on the market will all be overpaid. So here are some of the fits I found when looking at who is available and where these ten teams could use some help.
1. Indianapolis Colts – Landon Collins
The Colts ran plenty of split-safety looks on defense last season, to defend the deep ball and rally to anything underneath. However, they drafted Malik Hooker out of Ohio State two years ago as a center-fielding free safety and that would fit well with the cover-three based scheme defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus wants to run. While I think the reason they used more two-high safety shells is the fact that Eberflus didn’t trust his corners to play man-bail and stay on their islands, I also believe he didn’t have the right strong safety to play the shallow zones, act as a robber and complement the run game as a box-player. That’s why I believe Giants four-year veteran Landon Collins would make a lot of sense in Indianapolis. Collins was put in some bad spots as a rookie, as Big Blue asked him to cover the deep middle and make open field tackles racing up from 15 yards. He looked much more comfortable in 2016 & 17, when they left those responsibilities to Darian Thompson and allowed Collins to play more freely. In ’16 Collins had a Defensive Player of the Year-type season, as he intercepted five passes, deflected another 13 and recorded 100 solo tackles. Last year however the Giants defense fell apart to a large degree and all players on that unit were pretty underwhelming. I think the Colts could use the versatile DB in a role that features him heavily in the box and even if they do want to play quarters, Collins has actually graded his best in that role according to Pro Football Focus. In connection to this signing I would expect Chris Ballard to find another quality cover-guy or two, such as former Bronco Bradley Robey or Eagle Ronald Darby. Indy already has a deep defensive line and two excellent young linebackers, so with some help on the back-end they could really turn this around quickly.
2. New York Jets – Rodger Saffold
Gang Green definitely is still far from competing with the Patriots in that AFC East and looking at their offensive roster, they don’t have anybody that truly stands out. They don’t really have a true number one receiver and their running back room is full of guys, who are good in one or two areas but don’t offer that complete package. Therefore the often rumored signing of former Steelers’ star running back Le’Veon Bell would make a lot of sense, but I decided to go a different route. Young Sam Darnold definitely needs some help at the skill positions, but outside of Bell I don’t see a lot of talent at either running back or wide receiver on the open market. If there is one area that the Jets could really help themselves, it is the right side of their offensive line. Guard Brian Winters and tackle Brandon Shell are both below-average starters in the league and let Darnold down plenty of times last season. I know that other team in New York needs to make a splashy move to balance some of the shine Saquon Barkley and Odell Beckham Jr. get for the Giants, but the Jets have the most important asset among those two teams – a quarterback for the future – and they need to protect him. While Mike Mccagnan could look to add pieces for Gregg Williams’ new 4-3 base defense early on in the draft, free agency would be the place to build a foundation on the offensive line. There are a few candidates at tackle, such as former Panther Darryl Williams and others, but Saffold might the safest bet here. At 31 years old he will probably not demand a monster contract and he has played extremely well on one of the league’s best offensive lines these last two years. As one of the top zone-blocking guards and with just one sack allowed in each of those last two seasons, he would be a great fit in New York to make live easier for Darnold and whoever is running the ball for them.
3. Buffalo Bills – Golden Tate
I just talked about how teams should be looking for receivers in the draft and this is the only one I have connected to a team on this list. Tyrell Williams should be a hot name and I like him, but I think him and multiple pure slot receivers such as Adam Humphries, Cole Beasley and Randall Cobb will be overpaid, while one team might bet on the few big plays Chris Hogan made for the Patriots, mostly against busted coverages. The one guy I believe still can be productive for you, even if some of his quickness might have gone, is Golden Tate. The former Seattle Seahawk and Detroit Lion leads the league in yards after catch as well as missed tackles forced since 2014 and he is second in terms of catches on third down during that stretch. He might not blow by safeties or take a slant 80 yards multiple teams a year, but he is still more than a capable chain-mover and you can almost use him as an extension of the running game, when you get the ball to him on quick screens. The Bills will have to restock their receiving room this offseason, but what Josh Allen also needs is a veteran presence among his pass-catchers to be able to rely upon. I did a rookie quarterback report at the end of last season and I was pretty impressed by the big gunslinger. While Allen did most of his damage on the ground as a scrambler, I saw cleaned up footwork, improved accuracy and better presence in the pocket by this kid compared to his Wyoming tape. As a rookie his protection was shaky, he dealt with a load of drops and nobody made things happen after the catch for him if he didn’t launch a rocket to Robert Foster, who almost walked the rest of the way into the end-zone. Tate would instantly give him a dependable target, who would also be a positive influence in that receivers’ room. Jared Cook at tight-end would be another option.
4. Cleveland Browns – Grady Jarrett
There were multiple players I thought about putting with the Browns here. That doesn’t mean that they have a lot of holes on their roster, because it actually is one of the most complete ones in the league. They need some help at offensive tackles, but that is a position I think they will look to address in this upcoming draft. Therefore I mainly argued between defensive linemen. Cleveland was 28th in rushing yards allowed defensively and they need to address that area by adding beef up front. Myles Garrett is turning into a superstar and Larry Ogunjobi emerged as a disruptive force on the interior last season. Emmanuel Ogbah and Anthony Zettel are pretty nice pieces to add to the mix, but I still believe defensive end is an option, especially when I look a potential bargain in Shaquil Barrett or a Super Bowl hero in Trey Flowers, who would bring championship pedigree as well as the versatility to slide inside on nickel packages and still control the point of attack in the running game. Instead however I went with the best defensive tackle on the market. Grady Jarrett might not be the cleanest fit for the Browns because Ogunjobi is the 3-tech in their base defense, but I still believe he would be a great addition. The former fifth-round pick (who I had graded as a second-rounder back in 2015) started his career with the Falcons as an undersized nose tackle and went up to 305 pounds. He kept that weight when he moved more into a B-gap upfield role while turning into one of the most underrated superstars of this league. I think he can still eat up double teams on first and possibly second down and when Cleveland works in their sub packages, he slides over the guard and forms one of the top interior pass rushs in the league. Jarrett has been one of the top run-defending defensive linemen in the league these last few years and he recorded 53 total QB pressures in 2018.
5. San Francisco 49ers – Ezekiel Ansah
Before selecting Mike McGlinchey with the ninth overall pick last year, the 49ers had drafted three straight defensive linemen with their first round picks. While Arik Armstead has been flexed out wide at times and Solomon Thomas was drafted as a 3-4 defensive end with the expectation to make a living on the edge, those two and DeForest Buckner all fit best at 3-technique, where they can line up in the B-gap and just get upfield. To me Armstead should have been traded a while ago and Thomas should at least move inside on passing downs, but even with both of them on the roster San Francisco has no viable options to truly stress offensive tackles on third downs. Cassius Marsh and Ronald Blair each had 5.5 sacks last season, but those guys are more rotational pieces for me. I do expect John Lynch to get one of the three elite draft prospects with that second overall pick – that is either Nick Bosa, Quinnen Williams or Josh Allen. Bosa and Allen would immediately upgrade the defensive end position while Williams could be a perfect fit as that shade nose tackle for them. Either way, a veteran presence to come off one edge to complement that could really help. Ziggy Ansah might turn 30 next season and has missed 13 games due to injury these last three seasons, but even at this stage of his career he might not have even reached his potential yet. The former fifth overall pick came out of nowhere his senior year and put himself into top ten conversations thanks to the freakish athleticism he displayed at the combine after less than three years of any football experience. Ansah made an immediate impact for the Lions and became a Pro Bowler in just his third season, collecting 14.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. After a disappointing season under the franchise tag he is set to hit the open market and I could see the Niners taking a chance on him, considering they brought in his former D-line coach Kris Kocurek about a month ago.
6. Houston Texans – Ja’Wuan James
While the Texans had a phenomal run last yesr, winning nine straight games after starting the year 0-3, I said before the season even started that they had big holes on the offensive line and that this will keep them from contending for a championship. While the defense struggled late, giving up an average of 26 points to the Colts, Jets and Eagles from weeks 14 to 16, I thought their biggest problem was the lack of protection for Deshaun Watson. The young quarterback had a very rough game himself in the Wildcard Round against Indy, as the offense put up just seven points, and I thought a leader like him should not have made the comments he did in the postgame interview, but in general he was right that his O-line didn’t really give him a chance. He was under constant pressure in that matchup and while Watson gets himself into trouble by not being able to navigate inside the pocket in favor of backing off and escaping, this group up front might have been the worst in the league when it comes to the true dropback passing game. Houston was eight in total rushing yards and middle of the pack in yards per attempt, which I was pleasantly surprised by after saying that only one of those five guys on that line would start for another team in the league. This also opened up those play-action shots with Will Fuller clearing out space (as long as he was healthy) and DeAndre Hopkins catching everything thrown his way on deep crossers and comeback routes along the sideline. However, when the Texans were in situation where the running game was not a threat and it was up to the offensive line to give Watson time to scan the field and let routes develop, they could not get it done. They allowed the most sacks and QB hits of all NFL teams despite having the eight-lowest percentage of pass plays. In a weak offensive line group, former Dolphin Ja’Wuan James is a guy with a lot of upside. While he has missed 18 games of his rookie contract (five years), he has allowed a sack in less than every third game and would be an immense upgrade at right tackle, depending on what they do in the draft.
7. Oakland Raiders – Brandon Graham
As the wise Jon Gruden once said – good pass rushers are hard to find. The Raiders have three first round picks in this upcoming draft and they will probably look for an impact defender with that fourth overall pick and likely with one of the two in the 20s, but they will still look to find somebody in free agency, who is proven at providing pressure on the opposing quarterback. With this class of edge rushers available there are several options for Gruden and his new general manager Mike Mayock, but I think former Eagle Brandon Graham makes a lot of sense here. Graham is one of those guys that is constantly flying under the radar because he never quite puts up those big sack numbers like some other players do, but he is one of the premiere defensive linemen in the entire league. When you go into less mainstream stats you can see than he has averaged 71 pressures and 13 tackles for loss over the last three years. He is a disruptive force in the running and passing game with the flexibility to slide inside on third downs. The sacks aren’t always there because he primarily rushed the passer off the left side, which led to quarterbacks being forced off the spot and one of his teammates cleaning up. With Mayock being on that Raiders ship now and diving into the tape, I could see them value an asset like Graham despite his age of 31 years. The entire Oakland defense combined for a microscopic 13 sacks last season, which was less than half of the second-worst team in that department. Even with young talents in Arden Key and Maurice Hurst looking to emerge, they need that instant difference-maker and Graham is a guy who will get those troops ready. He just looks like a Gruden guy.
8. Seattle Seahawks – Jared Cook
I really thought hard about putting former Patriots defensive lineman Trey Flowers here, because he would give the Seahawks some inside-out flexibility in the mold of Michael Bennett during their Super Bowl runs, but since I expect them to put the franchise-tag on Frank Clark and possibly grab somebody in this edge-rich draft class, I went a different route. Flowers would be one of those few players I think Belichick will try to retain, because he is the type of versatile piece they can make use of. Instead I linked nine-year veteran tight-end Jared Cook to them. The Seahawks let Jimmy Graham walk last offseason and never got any consistent receiving production from that position. Third-round pick Will Dissly came out of Washington with little experience after transitioning from the defensive line and he excelled more so with his blocking. He had that 105-yard performance in the season-opener, but he only caught five more passes for 51 yards over the next three games before being gone for the year. Overall their entire tight-end room combined for 50 catches and 591 yards over the season. Cook had 68 grabs for 896 yards and six touchdowns himself. That also included 15 plays of 20+ yards, while all those Seattle tight-ends combined for just seven of those and two of them came in that first week by Dissly. To me Cook was the fourth-best tight-end in the league last season behind only Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz and George Kittle, who all set NFL records. He was by far the biggest weapon on a disappointing Raiders offense, whose second- and third-most productive pass-catchers were their primary third down back and a 33-year old Jordy Nelson. Cook will turn 32 himself before next season starts, but he still made incredibly athletic plays in 2018 and would be a great compliment to a young tight-end room, that has plenty of pass- and run-blockers at their hands.
9. Cincinnati Bengals – Jordan Hicks
It is not too far-fetched to say the Bengals had one of the worst defenses we have ever seen over the second half of the 2018 season. Despite a 4-1 start, they ended the year at the bottom in terms of total yards allowed and they set new records for two-, four- and five-game stretches in that category. While injuries and schematic miscues plus the growing disinterest after falling off the map are definitely factors in this, you can also point to a horrendous linebacker group. Each member of that Bengals starting trio ranked outside the top 60 according to Pro Football Focus and they failed to produce impact plays, as the entire crew (including backups) combined for eight tackles in the opposing backfield. To put that into perspective, 93 individual players had at least that many last year. Eagles linebacker Jordan Hicks on the other hand was a top ten linebacker by the PFF metric and recorded five tackles for loss himself in just 12 games, while also adding three sacks and five pass breakups. I don’t think the Bengals defense is nearly as bad as the numbers might indicate. They still have one of the top three-techs in the game in Geno Atkins, Andrew Billings emerged last year, their edge rushing duo of Carlos Dunlap and a healthy Carl Lawson is top-notch, Jessie Bates was already an excellent center-fielder as a rookie and William Jackson III is a rising star on the outside. They started the season really strong, but all their issues were on full display when some injuries hit them and the offense couldn’t take any pressure off them. I think Cincinnati could have a quick turn-around if they just upgrade that linebacker level and Hicks can help them make some stops in the run game as well as being in presence in the middle versus the pass and a blitzing threat.
10. Dallas Cowboys – Earl Thomas
This is the most logical and apparent fit. Thomas already didn’t want to play under the franchise tag last season and flipped the bird towards the Seahawks sideline when he was carted off the field after fracturing his leg in week four. He was also caught on camera running after Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett in the tunnel, telling him to “come get him”, and there were already trade offers on the table according to multiple reports before Dallas squared off against the Seahawks early in the year. Outside of the obvious interest from both sides, Thomas being a Texas kid and former Longhorn and the available cap space, this also makes a lot of football sense. The Cowboys have talked about how much they like their young safety Xavier Woods and he did a pretty good job, starting the final 14 games and their two playoff matchups last season. So while he has been solid for them, he is nowhere close to a perennial All-Pro and at times even Defensive Player of the Year candidate like Earl Thomas. The eight-year veteran was off to a blazing hot start last season, breaking up five passes and intercepting another three, with two of those coming directly against Dallas. Even though injuries had cost him seven combined games in 2016 and ’17 before he missed the final 12 of this recent campaign and he talked about retirement at some point, a healthy Thomas might still be the premiere single-high safety in the NFL today. The Cowboys under Rod Marinelli and former Seahawks defensive back coach / coordinator Kris Richard run a lot of one-high safety based coverage schemes with similar personnel in terms of long, physical corners on the outside, rangy linebackers and a deep rotation of defensive linemen that is built on rushing the passer. Their defense already was sixth in points and seventh in yards allowed in 2018. Adding a guy on the back-end who allows everybody else to be even more aggressive because of the range and play-making ability he possesses could take them to a new level.
Bonus: Baltimore Ravens – Le’Veon Bell
When I started putting together this list about a week ago, Baltimore still was at ten on the list of NFL teams with the most cap space and while it would be a bold move, I just have a feeling that this is going to happen. The only reason the Ravens are even anywhere close to this amount of available money (and they are eleventh right now) is due to trading long-time quarterback Joe Flacco and his 20-million dollar price tag to Denver. That move clearly indicates that they are all-in on Lamar Jackson as their guy for the future. Jackson took over for Flacco in week 11 after the bye-week when the ten-year veteran was out with an injury and the rookie never looked back, leading his team to a 6-1 record and a division title. However, in their Wildcard Round loss to the Chargers the former Heisman trophy winner struggled mightily to keep his offense on the field and all those stupid comments about Lamar actually being a running back came back up. All he can do to prove those doubters wrong is work his butt off this offseason to improve the passing game and allow his coaches to open up the playbook more. With that being said, he needs some help. The complete overhaul of the receiving room with Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead wasn’t bad, but none of those guys have number one upside, especially this deep into their careers, and the most productive running back on that roster was an undrafted free agent. Gus Edwards ran wild once he started becoming the featured guy at that position with Lamar entering the spotlight, rushing for more than a hundred yards per game in those final seven weeks as the inside battering ram to go with the threat of Jackson pulling the ball. While I do believe that offense got exposed for what wasn’t even a read-option based rushing attack, but rather already designed plays, adding a guy of Le’Veon Bell’s stature would give them a completely different dynamic running the ball as well as being an easy underneath target for the second-year QB. Bell might not say it, but he wants to make the Steelers pay and he would be perfect for this run-heavy approach in Baltimore.