clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Millionaire Matchmaker: Finding the Best Free Agent for Each NFL Team

Case Keenum and the Cardinals, Jimmy Graham and the Dolphins, and other pairings that will give franchises the best offseason boosts

Muhammed Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, and Case Keenum Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The upcoming start to NFL free agency offers every team the chance to fill needs and bolster depth—and for a few, it provides the opportunity to add the final piece to a championship puzzle. There’s a handful of franchises that may need to do a bit of payroll finagling to get under the salary cap and venture out into the open market, but the current league-wide surplus in salary cap space means that every squad has the chance to sign what could be a key component to their winning formula in 2018. With that in mind, let’s play millionaire matchmaker and find one high-impact free agent for every team in the NFL.

Arizona Cardinals: QB Case Keenum

Keenum’s an experienced, veteran bridge option at quarterback—which makes him a nice fit for a new coaching staff hoping hit the ground running in year one. General manager Steve Keim and head coach Steve Wilks have some work to do to build a functional offensive line. But David Johnson is set to return as a force both on the ground and in the passing game, and the ageless Larry Fitzgerald will be back, too. So Keenum—who threw for 3,547 yards, with 22 touchdowns and just seven picks to finish second in Total QBR (69.7) for the Vikings last year—would have a few tools to work with if Arizona becomes his new squad.

Atlanta Falcons: OL Jack Mewhort

With quarterback Matt Ryan, receivers Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu, and running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman under contract in 2018, the Falcons still have their championship-caliber offensive nucleus intact. But Atlanta needs to upgrade its interior line if it really wants its offense to fire on all cylinders. Wes Schweitzer was the weak link at right guard last year; Mewhort has had injury issues over the past two seasons, but when healthy, he represents an immediate upgrade at that spot, in both the run game and passing attack. He could also play tackle in a pinch.

Baltimore Ravens: WR Paul Richardson

The Ravens need more playmakers in the passing game and Richardson is seemingly good for one circus catch a game. Richardson is a combination of a big-play threat―he finished ninth in the NFL in yards per catch (16.0) last year―and a guy who can separate underneath and give his quarterback an option at the intermediate level. After struggling with injuries in his first two seasons, Richardson emerged for Seattle in the past two, over which he’s caught a combined 65 balls for 991 yards and seven scores. The arrow is pointing up for the soon-to-be 26-year-old.

Buffalo Bills: C John Sullivan

At 32, Sullivan’s a little long in the tooth, but on a reasonable short-term deal, he could provide immense value as the replacement for recently retired longtime starter Eric Wood. The Bills’ offense is still centered around LeSean McCoy and a dominant run game, and Sullivan graded out as Pro Football Focus’s eighth-ranked run-blocking center in 2017.

Carolina Panthers: CB Aaron Colvin

Carolina surrendered 1,018 passing yards to slot receivers in 2017 (fourth-worst league-wide), per NFL.com’s Matt Harmon, and 67.5 percent of the catches the team allowed went to receivers who lined up in the slot pre-snap. Incumbent starter Captain Munnerlyn may no longer be the answer at that spot—he struggled last year and was benched late in the season—and the team may look elsewhere to bolster its young cornerbacks group. Colvin played well at the nickelback spot for the Jags last year, where he was tied for seventh among slot corners in yards per cover snap (0.76), per Pro Football Focus, and surrendered zero touchdowns on 52 targets.

Chicago Bears: CB Bashaud Breeland

When you play in the same division as Aaron Rodgers, it makes sense to load up on players who can play tight in coverage downfield—and stamping the transition tag on cornerback Kyle Fuller was a good start for Chicago. But the Bears can do one better by bringing in Breeland, too. He’s got size, speed, and, at 26 years old, is just entering his prime. Breeland ranked second among all corners in pass breakups per target, finished with 19 passes defended in 2017 (fifth), and surrendered a paltry 75.6 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks in coverage (31st) playing opposite Josh Norman.

Cincinnati Bengals: C Ryan Jensen

The Bengals need to upgrade just about every spot on their offensive line and could kill two birds with one stone by grabbing Jensen, a quality center from a division rival, in free agency. He graded out ninth among centers in run blocking in 2017, per PFF, and allowed just 12 pressures on 596 snaps—tied for fifth at the position league-wide.

Trumaine Johnson with his arms spread out on either side
Trumaine Johnson
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Cleveland Browns: CB Trumaine Johnson

The Browns fielded one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL in 2017, surrendering a 102.2 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks (dead last) and 28 passing touchdowns (tied for 26th) while picking off just seven balls (31st). Veteran corner Jason McCourty played well in his first year with the team, but he needs help, and pairing him with another experienced playmaker like Johnson could pay immediate dividends for this young defense. Johnson played under current Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams from 2014 to 2016, so his familiarity with Williams’s scheme could allow him to hit the ground running in Cleveland.

Dallas Cowboys: CB Patrick Robinson

We could see a major shakeup in the Dallas secondary this offseason under new defensive backs coach Kris Richard: Cornerback Orlando Scandrick is likely on his way out and safety Byron Jones is expected to move to corner. Dallas may be best served by giving the trio of Jourdan Lewis, Chidobe Awuzie, and Anthony Brown a little veteran support. The Cowboys nearly signed Robinson to a three-year deal prior to the 2016 season, and they probably wish they’d gotten that deal done after surrendering a 105.2 passer rating on coverage over the slot, the fifth-worst mark in the league, in 2017. The 31-year-old former first-rounder was one of the best nickel corners in the league last year for the Eagles, allowing a 65.2 passer rating in coverage (third) while picking off three passes on 363 snaps, per PFF.

Denver Broncos: TE Tyler Eifert

If Denver loses the Kirk Cousins sweepstakes, John Elway’s next-best option may be to add as many offensive playmakers as possible to make things easier on whoever ends up under center in 2018. Eifert, who is coming off back surgery and has missed 22 games over the past two years, is an obvious injury risk. But, when healthy, the 27-year-old’s combination of size and athleticism makes him one of the best red-zone-mismatch creators in the league. That’d be a nice boost for a Broncos team that finished 32nd in touchdowns per red zone trip in 2017.

Detroit Lions: DL Sheldon Richardson

It’s tough to know what to expect from Matt Patricia’s new defense, but if the scheme he designs for his new team is anything like the one he coordinated with the Patriots, he’ll value versatility in everyone on that side of the ball. Richardson’s an excellent run stuffer on the inside with upside as a sub-package pass rusher who can play at multiple spots on the line, and he’s the best defensive lineman set to hit the market in 2018. Put him next to recently tagged Ziggy Ansah and let him get after the passer.

Green Bay Packers: DE Muhammad Wilkerson

Keeping in mind the Packers’ fresh new outlook on spending outside free agency and with Mike Pettine’s familiarity with Wilkerson from their time together in New York in 2012, this move makes too much sense. Wilkerson notched double-digit sacks and earned second-team All-Pro honors in both 2013 and 2015, and he signed a five-year, $86 million extension with the Jets prior to the 2016 season. Wilkerson flailed after signing that massive contract, grabbing a total of eight sacks the past two seasons, but a reunion with Pettine could be exactly what he needs to revive his career. Putting Wilkerson next to Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark would give Green Bay the potential to field one of the best defensive fronts in the NFL.

Houston Texans: T Nate Solder

After finishing 2017 20th in Football Outsiders adjusted sack rate, Houston’s offensive line badly needs some help. It’s a group in flux: Left tackle Chris Clark and guard Xavier Su’a-Filo are free agents, center Nick Martin is coming off ankle surgery, and right tackle Derek Newton may never get back on the field after suffering two torn patellar tendons in the 2016 season. Protecting Deshaun Watson’s blind side in his second year should be a top priority for the Texans, and Solder is the top free agent on the market suited for that job. Solder got off to a rocky start in the first half of last season for the Patriots, but he hit his stride as the year went on, allowing just one sack over the team’s final eight games and during the playoffs.

Indianapolis Colts: G Andrew Norwell

GM Chris Ballard’s got some work to do to shore up the line charged with protecting Andrew Luck—if and when the quarterback returns—and slotting one of the best guards in football in between left tackle Anthony Castonzo and promising center Ryan Kelly makes too much sense. Norwell won’t be cheap, but with more than $72 million in cap space to work with, the Colts can afford him.

Jacksonville Jaguars: OG Josh Sitton

Jacksonville’s rolled the dice with Bortles another year (or more), so the team needs to beef up its ability to run the ball and play a ball-control style of offense. The 31-year-old former Bear graded out as PFF’s sixth-rated run-blocking guard (10th in pass pro) and could slide right in between Cam Robinson and center Brandon Linder to solidify Jacksonville’s left side.

Kansas City Chiefs: DT DaQuan Jones

The Chiefs don’t have much wiggle room under the cap to spend big money in free agency—in fact, they’re still $3.4 million over their spending limit—so they may need to get creative to fix their subpar defense. Jones is a stout run stuffer who can play on the nose or at the five-technique spot, and he’s not likely to break the bank. Jones could help shore up a run defense that ranked dead last per DVOA last year.

Los Angeles Chargers: DT Justin Ellis

The Chargers boast a top-tier pass rush and talented secondary, but they need more depth at safety and linebacker and should address last season’s 27th-ranked run defense per DVOA with a big-bodied anchor like Ellis. He graded out 22nd among interior linemen as a run defender, per Pro Football Focus, registering 22 stops while missing just two tackles last season.

Los Angeles Rams: C Weston Richburg

The Rams have been one of the most aggressive teams in the league so far this offseason, using a pair of trades to land cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib and the franchise tag to hold on to safety Lamarcus Joyner. Now the team has to handle its needs on offense. With John Sullivan hitting free agency, L.A. needs a new starter at the center position. Richburg missed all but four games last year to a concussion, which is obviously a concern, but when healthy, he’s one of the best players at his position in the league.

Jimmy Graham rushes against Arizona Cardinals cornerback Tramon Williams
Jimmy Graham
Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Miami Dolphins: TE Jimmy Graham

The tight end position is a focal point in Adam Gase’s offensive system, but the Julius Thomas experiment hasn’t worked in Miami and the veteran is likely to be cut before the season. Graham’s no longer a major factor up the seam, but he’s still highly effective as a red zone weapon and exactly the type of tool Ryan Tannehill’s going to need in his return to the field in 2018. Graham led all tight ends with 10 touchdowns last year—and could thrive with a return to his college city. The Dolphins will have to cut some cap to make any moves in free agency, but a release or contract-restructuring of Ndamukong Suh could do the trick.

Minnesota Vikings: QB Kirk Cousins

The Vikings boast a top-tier defense and two of the best receivers in football in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen and will be getting running back Dalvin Cook back from a rookie-year ACL tear. Minnesota’s the perfect landing spot for the top quarterback in the free-agent market. Cousins would make the Vikings a Super Bowl contender in 2018.

New England Patriots: DE Julius Peppers

The Patriots need a boost to their tepid pass rush, and the 38-year-old Peppers could be the next in a long line of savvy veterans to sign up with Bill Belichick for a late-career run at a championship. Peppers notched 11 sacks and two forced fumbles in a rotational role for the Panthers last year and would add some teeth to New England’s pass rush off the edge.

New Orleans Saints: DE Adrian Clayborn

It’d be easy to see New Orleans ending up as Jimmy Graham’s free-agency destination, too, but New Orleans has more pressing needs on the defensive line. Cameron Jordan primarily lines up on the left side of Dennis Allen’s defensive front, but New Orleans needs to bring more oomph coming off the opposite side. That happens to be Clayborn’s domain: He racked up 54 pressures rushing off the right last year—fourth-most from that side of the line among 4-3 defensive ends, per Pro Football Focus—and grabbed 9.5 sacks. He’d be another great piece in an ascending defense.

New York Giants: LB Nigel Bradham

Bradham’s just the type of versatile ’backer that new defensive coordinator James Bettcher needs to add to his front seven in New York, and would pair well with the team’s recent trade acquisition, Alec Ogletree. Bradham played at least 44 snaps at seven different alignments for Philly last year. He was solid as a run-stopper, effective as a situational blitzer, and sticky dropping back in coverage, where he ranked sixth among inside linebackers in coverage per Pro Football Focus’s grading.

New York Jets: CB E.J. Gaines

The Jets have needs across the board, but grabbing a talented cover corner like Gaines could help strengthen a pass defense that surrendered 30 touchdowns last year (tied for second-worst). Gaines gave up just one touchdown on 60 targets for the Bills in 2017, and he would be a solid addition to the promising nucleus in the Jets secondary that already features safeties Marcus Maye and Jamal Adams.

Oakland Raiders: DT Dontari Poe

With Justin Ellis’s contract set to expire, the Raiders will need to add some meat to the middle of their defensive line. Poe’s a highly athletic workhorse who could stuff the run, eat up blocks, and make life easier for the Raiders’ linebacker corps. Plus, he offers some upside as an interior rusher: Poe tied for ninth among all interior linemen last year with seven quarterback hits.

Tre Boston runs with the ball
Tre Boston
Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Philadelphia Eagles: S Tre Boston

With veteran safety Corey Graham set to hit free agency, the Super Bowl champion Eagles should look to add talent in the back end of their secondary. Boston surrendered just three catches on 12 targets in 2017 (averaging 193 cover snaps per reception allowed, per Pro Football Focus, by far tops in the NFL), and picked off five passes. With a reliable last line of defense like Boston patrolling deep, safety Malcolm Jenkins could keep doing what he does best: lining up everywhere on Philly’s defense.

Pittsburgh Steelers: LB NaVorro Bowman

The Steelers need reinforcements at the linebacker position, and the 29-year-old veteran would fit in great in a tough AFC North division. After suffering knee and Achilles injuries over the past few years, Bowman’s nothing close to the All-Pro player he was early in his career, but he’s still incredibly savvy and instinctive. He graded out as PFF’s eighth-rated inside linebacker in 2017.

San Francisco 49ers: WR Allen Robinson

Now that the Niners have secured Jimmy Garoppolo, they need to get their franchise quarterback more playmakers to throw to downfield. Robinson’s coming off an ACL tear and a down year in 2016, but he’s still got the upside of a guy that caught 80 passes for 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2015—the type of ceiling that looks attainable alongside Garoppolo and play-caller Kyle Shanahan. Robinson is big, fast, and would give San Francisco another talented deep threat and red zone target.

Seattle Seahawks: OG Justin Pugh

The Seahawks still need to upgrade an underperforming offensive line, and a reunion between Pugh and Seahawks new offensive line coach Mike Solari—who coached the Pugh the past two seasons—could help solve Seattle’s woes in that area. Putting Pugh in between left tackle Duane Brown and center Justin Britt could solidify what’s been easily Seattle’s worst unit over the past few years. The Seahawks would have to do some shuffling to get Pugh while staying under the cap (Richard Sherman’s imminent release would help in that area), but after suffering a back injury last year, he a quality starter who could come at a discount—and he can play tackle if the team needs help at that spot.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: CB Malcolm Butler

With cornerback Brent Grimes hitting free agency and Vernon Hargreaves most effective playing in the slot, and in a division with Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, and Cam Newton, the Buccaneers need more talent at the cornerback position. Butler’s going to be looking for a change of scenery and is a durable, competitive starting-caliber corner who picked off six passes and racked up 28 passes defended over the past two years.

Tennessee Titans: WR Sammy Watkins

Under new head coach Mike Vrabel and offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, we can assume the Titans are going to go away from the Mike Mularkey’s offense, which was characterized by way too many tight-end-heavy personnel sets. LaFleur, who coached under Sean McVay with the Rams last year, will likely spread things out a bit and favor more three- and four-wide looks, helping to bring Marcus Mariota’s offense into the 21st century. (L.A. led NFL in the percentage of plays run out of a three-receiver, one-back, one-tight-end personnel set last year at 81 percent.) The Titans will need more talent at the receiver position, and Watkins is still just 24 years old and has the upside of a dominant no. 1 receiver. Even if he doesn’t ever reach that potential, he is, at worst, the type of big-play threat the offense needs to take a big jump forward in 2018.

Washington Redskins: RB Dion Lewis

As we saw last year, Alex Smith’s at his best in a balanced offense supported by a run game that keeps the offense on schedule and presents manageable third-down situations. Lewis was one of the league’s best creators with the ball in his hands last year, when he racked up 42 forced missed tackles on the year (tied for fifth) per Pro Football Focus, averaged 3.2 yards after contact per rush (fourth)—and of all running backs who played at least 50 percent of their team’s snaps, ranked first in the NFL in PFF’s Elusive Rating. Pair him with explosive pass-catching satellite back Chris Thompson and the Redskins would suddenly have one of the most talented backfields in the league.