Before the annual team-building shuffle of free agency begins in earnest, let’s puzzle out some potential fits for players who are due to hit the market this offseason. Below, I’ve provided one team fit for seven notable free-agents-to-be. Plus, I also have some more fanciful ideas for five players who are technically set to become free agents this offseason but will almost certainly be kept by their current teams, either via the franchise tag or a long-term deal. All players are presented in alphabetical order.
Anthony Barr, LB: LOS ANGELES RAMS. This is a bad time for the four-time Pro Bowler and former first-round pick to be coming off a down year. He missed three games for the Vikings in 2018 because of injury, struggled in one-on-one pass coverage and finished with the lowest tackle total (55) of his five-year NFL career. Still, he turns 27 in March and should have a robust market for his skills, even if he’s not a top-tier pass rusher. He’s good against the run and would make sense in his hometown of Los Angeles, given the Rams‘ difficulties stopping the run last season (they ranked 23rd in run defense). Yes, Los Angeles tightened things up in the playoffs. But consider that Barr was Pro Football Focus’ 18th-highest-graded linebacker against the run last season, while the Rams‘ highest-graded linebacker was Mark Barron, who checked in at No. 90.
Le’Veon Bell, RB: NEW YORK JETS. Even if Bell is hit with the transition tag, he should receive an offer sheet that will be too costly for the Steelers to match. His decision to ultimately skip the 2018 season rather than play under a second consecutive franchise tag in Pittsburgh will no doubt raise some red flags among potential suitors. But the fact remains that he generated more scrimmage yards between 2013 and ’17 (a whopping 7,996) than all but one other NFL player (LeSean McCoy had 8,016), and that kind of production is extremely valuable. The Jets are currently projected to have plenty of cap space, according to Over The Cap, and they have a glaring lack of proven offensive weapons to put around promising quarterback Sam Darnold; New York was one of just five teams for whom no single player managed to crack 1,000 scrimmage yards in 2018. Bell could be the exact right kind of addition to accelerate both Darnold’s development and the team’s path back to contention under new coach Adam Gase.
Landon Collins, S: WASHINGTON REDSKINS. Back when he was running the Panthers, Giants GM Dave Gettleman demonstrated a reluctance to spend big on defensive backs. How the Giants proceed with Collins will tell us if that philosophy has changed. Collins is a very talented player who leans on instincts to produce despite not possessing great speed. Washington ranked 15th against the pass and 17th against the run. Collins can help in both areas, especially if the team does not end up re-signing midseason trade acquisition Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who is also due to become a free agent.
Trey Flowers, DE: NEW YORK JETS. It’s uncommon for quality pass rushers to reach the market. But then, it’s also uncommon for New England to spend a lot of money to keep them. Flowers has not posted eye-popping sack totals in his career thus far (he has 21 and notched a personal high with 7.5 in ’18). Even so, he led the Patriots in sacks in each of his three healthy seasons. He also won’t turn 26 until August. While Flowers might project as more of a complementary force than someone who could anchor a pass rush, there will be a market for him, should Bill Belichick decide to let him walk. The Jets ranked 24th against the pass in 2018 and finished the season with a middling sack total of 39, tied for 16th in the league. Again, they are flush with cap space and will be looking for talent as they transition to a 4-3 defense under coordinator Gregg Williams — and they surely wouldn’t mind stealing a productive player like Flowers away from the Patriots.
Nick Foles, QB: JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS. Is Foles a superlative example of a career backup, or can he be successful long-term given another chance to be a full-time starter? This is what teams must weigh when evaluating him as a free agent. In some ways, what Foles accomplished in 2018 — lifting a floundering Eagles squad to the playoffs and nearly upsetting the top-seeded Saints — was as impressive as his ’17 run to a Lombardi Trophy and Super Bowl MVP honors. The Jaguars are a ready-to-win franchise that could go places with a capable QB at the reins. Foles’ familiarity with new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo from their time together in Philadelphia will only help.
Tyrann Mathieu, S: KANSAS CITY CHIEFS. Mathieu signed a one-year, $7 million prove-it deal with Houston — and boy, did he prove it. The veteran tied a career high with 89 tackles while dispelling durability concerns, starting 16 games for a second straight season, and chipping in three sacks and two picks. As a playmaking presence whose competitiveness stands out, Mathieu would slot nicely into the Chiefs‘ secondary. He’d team well with veteran safety Eric Berry on a Kansas City defense that ranked 31st overall and against the pass last season.
Earl Thomas, S: DALLAS COWBOYS. It will be interesting to see if Thomas, coming off an acrimonious end to his 2018 season brought about by a leg fracture in October, lands the kind of contract he’s been angling for since last season, given the troublesome market that faced safeties last year. The Cowboys‘ defense stood out in 2018, ranking seventh overall and 13th against the pass, but this unit could absolutely use the addition of an experienced voice in the secondary. The 29-year-old Thomas might not be at his physical peak anymore, but I could easily see him filling a role similar to what Eric Weddle did in recent years for the Ravens, ensuring everyone is lined up correctly and providing a boost of veteran savvy in the back end. The fit only looks more attractive when you consider it would reunite Thomas with former Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard. And who could forget Thomas telling the Cowboys to come get him back in 2017, or Dallas’ previous attempts to trade for him?
A GM CAN DREAM …
These players’ contracts are about to run out — but they are almost certain to be kept by their current teams, either via a long-term deal or the franchise tag.
Frank Clark, DE: SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS. After registering a career-best 13 sacks in 2018, the 25-year-old Clark looks like he’ll be the face of the Seahawks‘ defense for years to come. However, if things fall apart with Seattle, the Niners would — like the Jets with Flowers and New England — surely not mind taking away from the talent base of a division rival to boost their own pass defense.
Jadeveon Clowney, LB: NEW YORK GIANTS. He’s a very talented player who’s registered 18.5 sacks over the past two seasons, and while he’s played alongside defensive studs like J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus in Houston, I do think Clowney is capable of anchoring a pass rush on his own. The Giants ranked 23rd against the pass and tied for 30th in sacks (30), and they could certainly use him.
Dee Ford, DE: INDIANAPOLIS COLTS. Ford would fit in well with defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus’ scheme, even though he played in a 3-4 with the Chiefs and the Colts operate in a 4-3. Indianapolis’ defense outperformed expectations, but there is plenty of room for growth when it comes to pressuring the quarterback, with no individual Colts player reaching double digits in sacks, while Ford just posted a career-best 13.
Grady Jarrett, DT: MIAMI DOLPHINS. Primarily a run-stuffer, Jarrett is also able to bring some pressure at the inside tackle position. The Dolphins could definitely use his services should the Falcons somehow let him get away, given that Miami ranked 31st against the run in 2018.
DeMarcus Lawrence, DE: OAKLAND RAIDERS. Dallas isn’t letting him go. But signing him would be an excellent use of the Raiders‘ copious amounts of cap space. Lawrence collected 25 sacks over the past two seasons with the Cowboys, including 10.5 in 2018 — almost as many as the entire Raiders team recorded all together (13).
Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.