10 NFL free agents who landed in perfect spots
Matt Bowen
ESPN INSIDER


With the first wave of NFL free agency wrapped up -- and nearly every top player off the board -- let's take a closer look at the players who landed in ideal spots. I'm talking about scheme fit and the ability to help establish a winning culture, not guys who got the most money.

Here are 10 veterans who can make an immediate impact in 2018 after making wise decisions in free agency:


Jimmy Graham, TE, Green Bay Packers
The Packers struck out when they acquired free-agent tight end Martellus Bennett in 2017, but the move to land Graham shows Green Bay's need for a matchup weapon inside the 20-yard line for quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Graham might not run like he used to before a knee injury in 2016, but his red zone ability is still off the charts.

In Seattle last season, Graham caught 15 of 24 red zone targets, with 10 of those grabs resulting in touchdowns. He's a monster target in scoring position, with the frame and body control to finish. Throw the slant, fade and seam. It doesn't have to be complicated with Graham on the doorstep of the goal line. And that's a good thing for a Packers team that just cut Jordy Nelson, Rodgers' favorite target.



Kirk Cousins, QB, Minnesota Vikings

Landing Cousins can be looked at as the final piece of the puzzle for a Vikings team primed to make a serious run at Super Bowl LIII. This is a loaded roster from top to bottom. And the new system under offensive coordinator John DeFilippo -- a mix of West Coast routes, play-pass and run-pass options -- is a solid fit for Cousins.

He's an accurate thrower with the mobility to produce off-movement passes. Cousins has completed 70.1 percent of his play-action passes since 2015, which ranks No. 1 in the NFL among qualified passers, according to ESPN Stats & Info. DeFilippo's Eagles threw the fifth-most play-action passes in the NFL last season, while the Vikings were first, and quarterbacks coach Kevin Stefanski has remained in Minnesota.

With an established group of pass-catchers already in place, the return of running back Dalvin Cook from an ACL injury, and a nasty, lockdown defense, Cousins is in a position to elevate his game and play his best football for Mike Zimmer's club.


Richard Sherman, CB, San Francisco 49ers
The Achilles injury Sherman suffered last November is tricky for a 30-year-old cornerback, but the 49ers filled a major need with a veteran who is a perfect fit for the defensive scheme. With former Seahawks defensive assistant Robert Saleh running the San Francisco defense, Sherman can step in and play that pattern-match technique outside of the numbers in the three-deep shell.

More importantly, Sherman brings the leadership skill set necessary to create change on the defensive side of the ball. If teams want to build a winning culture, they have to add veteran players who set the bar with their practice habits, preparation and professional approach. Sherman brings that to Kyle Shanahan's team, and it will resonate with the young players on an ascending team.


Allen Robinson, WR, Chicago Bears
Robinson is recovering from a torn ACL suffered in Week 1 of last season, but when I look back at his tape from 2015 to 2016, it's easy to see that he's an upgrade for quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and a Bears team desperate for a No. 1 target in the passing game.

Robinson has the ability to make the splash plays down the field with his 6-foot-3 frame. He can go up and get it. From my perspective, however, it's really the route running that pops on tape. This guy is a technician who can create separation at the break. And that's a positive for Trubisky inside the 20-yard line or in critical down-and-distance situations. Just look at Robinson in the red zone -- his 18 red zone touchdowns from 2015 to 2016 were the most in the NFL.

With the Bears transitioning to a more modern route tree under new coach Matt Nagy, adding Robinson is a major boost to the development of Trubisky and the Bears' overall game plan.

Trey Burton, TE, Chicago Bears
This is another Bears fit I liked, as Burton can be the "move" guy in Nagy's offense, with 2017 second-round pick Adam Shaheen playing as the more traditional in-line tight end. Think of a matchup player with the flexibility to line up in multiple spots. Bump Burton to the slot, use him as an H-back or release him from a two-back look in the backfield. Burton has the skill set in the route tree to gain leverage against linebackers or safeties, and he is strong at the point of attack.

In Chicago, the Bears can cater to his talent on isolation routes in the red zone or feed him the ball off play-action and run-pass options. Burton caught 60 passes over his past two seasons in Philadelphia, and he produced five touchdowns for the Super Bowl champs in 2017 playing behind Zach Ertz. Given a more prominent role in Chicago, Burton's production should climb. And the person most happy is Trubisky.

Trumaine Johnson, CB, New York Jets
With a long, 6-foot-2 frame, Johnson is an ideal fit for Todd Bowles' defensive game plan. This is a system that leans on pressure and man-coverage defenders in the secondary. Johnson brings the physicality to challenge the release outside of the numbers and the press technique to win one-on-ones.

And while the former Rams cornerback produced only two interceptions last season, he has 18 in his career. He has some ball skills. The Jets already feature two safeties in Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye who are in a position to make a jump in their second NFL seasons. But they had a real need at cornerback, and Johnson is an upgrade as a disruptor at the line of scrimmage.


Case Keenum, QB, Denver Broncos
The Broncos still could draft a quarterback at No. 5 overall, but landing Keenum on a two-year deal gives the Denver offense some stability and leadership heading into the season. Keenum's ability to beat pressure and make off-schedule plays stood out on his 2017 tape when he tossed 22 touchdown passes and only seven interceptions with the Vikings.

In Denver, Keenum has two prime targets in wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Look for the Broncos to use the play-action game -- Keenum had eight TD passes with only one pick on play-action last season -- and get Keenum on the move and capitalize on his skill set to ad-lib when protection breaks down. He can make things happen. The Denver quarterbacks did not protect the ball in 2017, and Keenum will help the Broncos be more efficient.

Jerick McKinnon, RB, San Francisco 49ers
McKinnon's contract, which includes $12 million guaranteed in 2018, caught me by surprise because he has been in a rotational role with the Vikings since being picked in the third round in 2014. Question the contract all you want, but there's no reason to question the fit in Kyle Shanahan's offense given McKinnon's ability as a zone runner and versatility as a receiver in the passing game.

McKinnon caught 94 passes over the past two seasons with the Vikings, and that meshes with Shanahan's system. Run the angle route, burst to the flat, impact the screen game or remove from the formation to beat a linebacker in coverage. Similar to what we saw from Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman during the Falcons' 2016 season when Shanahan was calling plays, McKinnon can be that matchup guy out of the backfield for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.


Dion Lewis, RB, Tennessee Titans
Adding Lewis gives the Titans more versatility to pair with Derrick Henry in the backfield. Think of Henry as that downhill hammer to pound the ball between the tackles, with Lewis bringing some wiggle and pass-catching ability.

Lewis averaged 5.0 yards per carry with the Patriots last season, but what really jumps out is his production after first contact. He averaged 2.6 yards after contact per carry, tied for best in the league with LeGarrette Blount.

Lewis is slippery on contact, and the burst is there to hit the edge or scoot through daylight inside. Plus, with 32 receptions in 2017, Lewis has shown he can produce on screens, swings and quick throws underneath for quarterback Marcus Mariota in an offense that will transition to a modern system under new coordinator Matt LaFleur.


Star Lotulelei, DT, Buffalo Bills
Landing Lotulelei is a bonus for the Bills, who re-signed veteran leader Kyle Williams on the defensive front. In 2017, the Bills ranked No. 29 in rushing defense, giving up an average of 124.6 yards per game. That's rough.

With Lotulelei, Buffalo gets a 312-pound space-eater in the middle of the defense to plug running lanes and eat up blockers. Let those linebackers run and finish. Plus, after playing for Bills coach Sean McDermott in Carolina, expect Lotulelei to be put in a position that maximizes his impact in the game plan. This is a smart signing by the Bills at a position of need that is directly tied to improving their porous run defense.