Yes, free agency is looming, and teams across the NFL will be deciding whether to franchise or re-sign players set to hit the market, or cut veterans who no longer fit. After making those oft-difficult choices, the league's front-office mavens will train all of their cognitive and financial resources on determining who to target, while also keeping track of the prospects who were on display at the NFL Scouting Combine. Yep, being a general manager is as hard in real life as it was for fake GM Kevin Costner, who had to deal with his weird (really weird) interoffice romance with Jennifer Garner. (Or I'm just jealous.)
But where will the big-name free agents -- like Matt Forte, Doug Martin and Sam Bradford -- land? Below, I've identified great fits for some prime talents who potentially will be looking for a new home. Note that you won't see Cousins or Ryan Fitzpatrick, as neither the Redskins nor the Jets are going to let the best quarterbacks they've had in years walk. You also won't see Bills left tackle Cordy Glenn, Jets defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson, Broncos pass rusher Von Miller or Panthers cornerback Josh Norman, who are good candidates to get franchise-tagged. I also don't expect Eric Berry to go anywhere, as the Chiefs want to retain him. And lastly, Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery is more likely to get franchised (and then maybe traded?) than he is to land in the marketplace. But as for the dudes below? I think most will hit the open waters.
Let's start with one of the top players of the last decade, who already tweeted his goodbyes to the city of Chicago ...
This might be the most interesting name on the list. Forte would greatly benefit the Patriots, Cowboys and Redskins. But can any of those teams afford him? New England is the organization worth circling. (Did you see how many times Tom Brady targeted James White in the AFC Championship Game on those wheel routes?) Forte is the kind of veteran who might have jussst enough left in the tank to help, à la Corey Dillon in 2004, who, at age 30, contributed 1,635 rushing yards and 12 rushing scores to the Patriots' Super Bowl-winning campaign. Not to mention, but we'll mention, why wouldn't Forte want to earn a ring as he enters Year 9? The Redskins are listed here by virtue of Alfred Morris' impending free agency. And I could see Tampa giving Forte a look if Doug Martin were to walk.
Of all the on-the-fence big names, Martin is the player I think is most likely to stick with his current team. But with running backs, you never know when another team will be willing to pay -- even with the devaluation of the position, all it takes is one organization to step up. That said, think of what the Eagles got for the money they spent on DeMarco Murray -- the league's leading rusher in 2014 -- in 2015: 702 rushing yards, six rushing touchdowns and 3.6 yards per carry. Martin missed a total of 15 starts in 2013 and 2014, then had a prolific season (1,402 rushing yards, 4.9 yards per carry, six rushing touchdowns) in a contract year. Hmm ... four years in the league ... huge season in his fourth year ... Sounds like Murray. Still, I could see the Titans taking a long look. The Redskins -- who, as we mentioned in the Forte blurb, could lose Alfred Morris -- have Matt Jones under contract, but his inability to seize the RB job and hold onto it (or the football) last season might cause Washington to glance at Martin. The Redskins do not have a ton of cap space with which to make a bunch of signings, which is the same story with the Cowboys, who certainly could use someone to pair with Run DMC.
Not sure there will be a huge market for Bradford, between his middling 2015 performance (19 touchdowns, 14 picks, 86.4 passer rating in 14 games), his history of injury and the fact that teams have shown recently you can find a franchise quarterback outside of the first round of the draft (think of third-rounder Russell Wilson or second-rounder Derek Carr). Obviously, the Eagles will evaluate Bradford, in light of Howie Roseman's comments that the team would "like to have him back." Sure, Bradford was in Philadelphia all year, so you would think they'd know their guy. But new coach Doug Pederson must break down the tape and see what he can do to fix Bradford's intermediate and vertical game. (Seriously wondering if Pederson would lobby to sign Chase Daniel, who served as the backup quarterback in Kansas City, where Pederson was the offensive coordinator. Hmm.) Chip Kelly might bring Bradford to San Francisco for some no-fake read option 2.0. Enjoy. As for the Browns, they need a quarterback. Given that Cousins and Fitzpatrick aren't going anywhere, Bradford is the BPA.
After Von Miller, Vernon is the best pass rusher on the market. The 4-3 defensive end could do exactly what he's been doing in Miami (29 sacks in four seasons, including 7.5 last season and 11.5 in 2013) in either Tampa Bay or Jacksonville. The Buccaneers have needed a pass rusher for years, and the 25-year-old Vernon could provide them with several productive seasons. Gus Bradley has created a viable pass rush in Jacksonville with Scotch tape and the contents of two Folgers cans: one labeled "nuts" and one labeled "bolts." No one on the Jaguars hit the six-sack plateau in 2015 despite the team posting a respectable total of 36. Jacksonville will have more than enough cap room to make this happen. The Giants have an absolute need at the position, with Robert Ayers and Jason Pierre-Paul both about to hit free agency (and with JPP a good candidate to walk). The Dolphins can, of course, slap the franchise tag on Vernon, and he is precisely the kind of player teams use that option on ... but do they want so much money going to the defensive line? (This just in: Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake don't have small contracts.)
As it stands right now, the Bears and Texans play schemes that would suit Jackson. They should also have enough funds to add him, especially Chicago. What the 49ers will do up front under new defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil remains to be seen, but we know they could use a player like Jackson, have the cap space and must retool multiple aspects of their defense. San Francisco garnered just 28 sacks in 2015 -- while Jackson is not a prolific sack guy, he can free up edge rushers to make plays. The fun landing spot would be with the Raiders. Head coach Jack Del Rio coached Jackson in Denver, while Oakland faced Jackson twice last season and has a TON of cap space. The Raiders can afford to throw dinero at the just-turned 26-year-old -- which, by the way, is the right age for a franchise to get the most bang out of a fat contract.
Smith is probably the toughest guy on this list to figure out a landing spot for. The Bengals seem ready to move on, considering they drafted two tackles in 2015. Then again, Andrew Whitworth turns 35 this season, so there is a small (small) chance Cincy re-signs Smith. There isn't a slew of solid right tackles available in free agency. That said, Smith is now 29 and has fought through several injuries in his career. He might be a declining player at this point. Tennessee could use a tackle to protect Marcus Mariota, but the draft is probably where the Titans will look to find one. The 49ers found out that recently retired offensive lineman Anthony Davis wants to play again, which is fun and all, but his return isn't guaranteed, and they still need help at tackle. It will be interesting to see if the Bears acquire a right tackle in order to move Kyle Long, a former Pro Bowler at guard, back to his old position.
Well, it's pretty obvious Weddle won't be suiting up in San Diego anymore. And he has made it clear that he wants to be on a contender. If, for some reason, the Chiefs don't get Eric Berry back in-house, Weddle would be a cheaper option who obviously knows the AFC West very well, as he has spent his entire career there. Which is precisely why the Raiders, who have enough cap space to buy 32 pairs of safeties, could sign him. Why not replace the departed Charles Woodson with another veteran safety who fits the 1970s organization blueprint of acquiring perceived misfits? The Cowboys need cheaper options, and the safety position has traditionally been a spot over the decade at which they have not invested high draft picks. Adding mid-tier free agents there, on the other hand, hasn't been an issue -- it's just that most of them couldn't play. Brodney Pool, anyone? Lastly, the Steelers could use another veteran presence in their secondary, especially if William Gay isn't re-upped. Besides, Gay is a corner. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler could use both.
SOMEONE TO KEEP AN EYE ON
OK, so as of this writing, Mack isn't on the market yet. But per NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport's Monday report, Mack -- who, as a transition-tagged player in 2014, signed an offer sheet with the Jaguars that the Browns had to match -- is expected to opt out of his current contract. Arizona could upgrade its offense with the three-time Pro Bowler at center, no question. Imagine the power running game with David Johnson running through interior, behind the road-grading duo of Mack and Mike Iupati. Good grief, Johnson might run for 1,500 yards. Perhaps Mack isn't the player he once was, but the Cardinals clearly have no issue signing veterans. Jacksonville center Stefen Wisniewski is a free agent, and the Jaguars -- who, again, tried to ink Mack two years ago -- have plenty of cap room to bring an established vet like Mack in the building. Meanwhile, our own draftnik Lance Zierlein listed center as the Redskins' top draft need. After a productive start early, Washington struggled running the football with any consistency for the bulk of the season.