NFL Free Agency: Best fits for key players on the market
Albert Haynesworth, David Boston, Javon Walker … the list of big-name players who totally flopped after being handed huge contracts goes on and on. Perhaps the most notable letdown from the 2012 class: Robert Meachem, a complete disappointment in San Diego after signing a $25.9 million deal to replace Vincent Jackson.
Teams are well aware of those nightmare signings, which is why, on the eve of free agency, front offices league-wide are not simply looking for the best players, but rather want to find the most comfortable fits for their current rosters.
Here, we examine several of this year’s key free agents and guess where those fits may wind up taking them.
• Cliff Avril, DE/OLB: Avril played out last season on the dreaded franchise tag and, while his numbers dropped slightly (11.0 sacks to 9.5), he performed well enough to earn Peter King’s No. 1 spot in this year’s Top 50 free-agent rankings.
Best fit: Indianapolis. If the Colts and Browns reportedly are set to engage in a bidding war for Paul Kruger, why shouldn’t the loser take a run at Avril? Both teams run a 3-4, so the soon-to-be-former-Lion would have to switch to OLB.
• Reggie Bush, RB: Bush proved his worth in Miami, averaging 1,330 combined rushing and receiving yards. He’s still just 28 and has fewer than 1,000 career carries.
Best fit: Detroit. I was tempted to list Denver here, just to go against the grain. But in truth, Bush fits perfectly into the Lions’ offense. He could split carries with Mikel Leshoure and serve as a serious threat out of the backfield during the Lions’ frequent pass attempts.
• Jared Cook, TE: Cook always seemed a bit underused in Tennessee — he caught 44 passes for 523 yards and four touchdowns last season. He apparently thinks so too, as he’s reportedly hoping to land a contract that makes him one of the league’s highest-paid tight ends.
Best fit: Chicago. Another one where the fit almost seems too obvious. The Bears need a pass-catching tight end, even more so now with Marc Trestman’s offense going in place.
• Dannell Ellerbe, LB: Losing Ray Lewis is a blow for the Ravens in the locker room. On the field, however, they might feel Ellerbe’s absence even more, if he departs.
Best fit: Baltimore. Ellerbe’s asking price needs to come down slightly, but it should unless another team swoops in with a surprising offer. The opportunity for Ellerbe is too great to pass up in Baltimore.
• Dwight Freeney, DE: As with Peyton Manning last year, it will be odd to see Freeney in a new uniform. The 33-year-old recorded 107.5 sacks in 11 seasons with the Colts.
Best fit: Denver. Seems natural to bring another of Manning’s ex-teammates west, doesn’t it? Freeney would be best suited in a rotational situation, too, like Denver could provide.
• Dashon Goldson, S: Goldson did not finish strong, struggling during San Francisco’s playoff run. He still rightfully earned a Pro Bowl nod and first-team All-Pro honor.
Best fit: Cincinnati. The 49ers could try to keep Goldson, and the Eagles are rumored to be interested. But Cincinnati has more cap space than any team in the league right now, and it needs safety help with the underwhelming pairing of Taylor Mays/Reggie Nelson currently penciled in as starters.
• Steven Jackson, RB: Jackson topped the 10,000-yard mark for his career last season, all of those coming with St. Louis. At age 29, he’s ready to move on and should have a number of suitors.
Best fit: Green Bay. The Falcons are the rumored leaders in the clubhouse for Jackson’s services, as free agency opens. He’d thrive in Green Bay, though, both as the running back the Packers have been missing and as a blocker in front of Aaron Rodgers.
• Greg Jennings, WR: Jennings enjoyed a heck of a run in Green Bay, though he played just 13 games in 2011 and eight in 2012. Even so, a 29-year-old receiver with three seasons of 1,100 or more receiving yards won’t struggle to find work.
Best fit: Miami. Jennings and Wallace may wind up flip-flopping — the former is thought to be on Minnesota’s radar; the latter a lead candidate to land with Miami. But Jennings could wind up the more cost-effective (and equally productive) option.
• Paul Kruger, OLB/DE: Kruger’s set to parlay a breakthrough 2012 into a high-priced deal, and the Ravens have no plans to break the bank for him — especially after drafting Courtney Upshaw in 2012.
Best fit: Cleveland. The Browns are making the move to a 3-4 defense, and they could use another playmaker on the edge. A Kruger-Jabaal Sheard duo would be formidable, plus allow 2012 fourth-rounder James-Michael Johnson time to develop.
• Andy Levitre, G: Interior linemen rarely feel the love in free agency like other positions, but Levitre might be the safest player available.
Best fit: San Diego. All signs currently point to Louis Vasquez finding somewhere else to call home — “The Chargers had a chance to get something done,” his agent said last week. If the Chargers cannot get Vasquez re-signed, Levitre represents a possible upgrade for a relatively similar price.
• Jake Long, OT: Long’s future is a tough one to peg, because he once was a dominant left tackle and now is coming off back-to-back disappointing, injury-plagued years. Where will the market set his value?
Best fit: Chicago. Even a declining Long represents a significant upgrade over J’Marcus Webb on Jay Cutler’s blindside. Any number of teams still would welcome Long, if the price is right.
• Ed Reed, S: Reed has expressed interest in sticking with the Ravens, but is the feeling mutual? The 34-year-old defensive back is nearing the end of his career, and he was not as effective in 2012, despite Baltimore’s Super Bowl run.
Best fit: Baltimore. The Ravens could use Reed’s leadership, if nothing else, with Ray Lewis hanging ‘em up. He’s comfortable there, and the team knows what he brings to the table. Indianapolis is the second in line as an obvious option, due to Reed’s familiarity with Chuck Pagano.
• Sean Smith, CB: Smith is a big, physical cornerback who struggles more often than he should. That said, he might be the best CB on the market, and he can hang with the NFL’s top receivers.
Best fit: Tampa Bay. I’m hopping on the Smith-to-the-Bucs bandwagon here. The reason this potential match keeps coming up is obvious: Tampa Bay badly needs a player of Smith’s ilk after unloading Aqib Talib to New England last season.
• Aqib Talib, CB: After overstaying his welcome in Tampa Bay, Talib resurrected his career in New England. That is, until an untimely playoff injury.
Best fit: New England. The Patriots need a reliable No. 1 corner, and they finally found one in Talib last season. Had he stayed on the field against Baltimore, New England’s fate may have been different.
• Mike Wallace, WR: When he is motivated and on his game, Wallace is a bigger threat than all but a few offensive players in the NFL. He slumped last year, though, to just 836 yards receiving, down from 1,193 the season prior. Because of that, there’s a little “buyer beware” stigma trailing Wallace — even if a boatload of teams could use him.
Best fit: Minnesota. I know Miami is the odds-on favorite to land Wallace, and that’s certainly a team that needs a legitimate No. 1 receiver to pair with Brian Hartline. Still, with Percy Harvin reportedly off to Seattle, the Vikings are more desperate than ever for receiver help.
• Wes Welker, WR: Every undersized slot receiver over the past six years (and especially every undersized, white slot receiver over the past six years) has been compared to Welker, who has raised the bar at that position. Welker has averaged 112 catches during his six seasons in New England and led the league in receptions three different times.
Best fit: New England. If it ain’t broke …