Best fits for top NFL free agents
Where Mario Williams, Vincent Jackson, Ben Grubbs, others could land
By Aaron Schatz
Football Outsiders/ESPN INSIDER
We're just a few days away from the start of NFL free agency. It won't be as fast and furious as last year, but some quality big-name players will be changing teams. We're spending a lot of time trying to figure out who will end up where, so Football Outsiders decided to take some time to figure out who should end up where.
There are many considerations in figuring out the best fit for a free agent. It needs to be a team with a hole at the position; it needs to be a team where the player fits the scheme; it needs to be a team with some cap space; and most free agents would certainly prefer, all other things (i.e., money) being equal, to sign with a team that's a playoff contender.
It was hard to pick the top free agents, and we know good players, such as DeSean Jackson and Paul Soliai, were left off our list. We didn't consider players who are likely to be franchised or re-signed by their current teams, such as Matt Forte, Drew Brees and Wes Welker. We're also going to leave out restricted free agents, although it certainly wouldn't be a surprise to see a few teams willing to lose a first-round pick in order to bring in Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace.
One other thing to remember: Neither the Giants nor the Patriots spent money on one of the top free agents of the 2011 offseason. They filled holes with cheaper players such as David Baas and Andre Carter. So you don't need to sign one of these guys to make it to Super Bowl XLVII.
Mario Williams: Tennessee Titans
It's hard to find a team that wouldn't be a fit for Williams, the best defensive free agent of this offseason and one of the best ever. New Orleans and New England are strong Super Bowl contenders that need pass rush help, but each team may have to spend too much re-signing players to make room under the cap for Williams. Green Bay finished dead last in adjusted sack rate last season, but Williams really fits best in a 4-3 scheme. So how about the team that finished next to last in ASR? The Titans desperately need pass rush from the outside. Last season, their only defender with more than four sacks was a rookie defensive tackle, Karl Klug. They have plenty of cap room and finished 9-7 in a division that's completely up in the air for 2012, especially if the second-place Titans can steal the best defensive player off the first-place Texans.
Carl Nicks: Chicago Bears
The Bears have a strong defense. They have a good quarterback. They will have a great running back if they franchise Forte. And they have a terrible, terrible offensive line. The Bears finished 24th in our adjusted line yards metric and 31st in adjusted sack rate allowed. No one lineman stood out as deficient in 2011 because they pretty much all were, except for veteran Roberto Garza playing out of position at center. The Bears should have no problem kicking either Chris Williams or Chris Spencer out of the starting lineup to make room for Nicks, and a line that adds Nicks and Gabe Carimi, who missed most of his rookie season with injury, might give Forte actual holes to run through. A big free-agent signing would help Chicago take advantage of the fact that it is the only NFC North team with actual cap space.
Vincent Jackson: Chicago Bears
Is it cheating to say that the top two offensive free agents fit best in the same city? When your team finishes fourth in Football Outsiders' ratings for defense and first in special teams but 30th in offense, it's pretty clear where the problem lies. It's highly unlikely the Bears could sign both Jackson and Nicks, but Jackson solves Chicago's other offensive problem, which is that the team has no true No. 1 receiver. He's a huge target who can stretch the field vertically, exactly what the Bears are looking for in their offense. Of course, if the Bears signed Jackson instead of Nicks, Jay Cutler might not stay upright long enough to get it to Jackson. If Jackson is more concerned with getting paid than winning games, he would also fit nicely with Jacksonville, a team with a ton of cap space and a receiving corps even worse than Chicago's.
Marques Colston: San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers' biggest hole was blatantly obvious when their wide receivers combined for just one catch in the NFC championship game. So what do you get a coach who needs a first-rate pass-catcher for his Bill Walsh-influenced offense? How about a first-rate route-running technician who has at least 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns in five of his six NFL seasons? The only problem with signing Colston would be that the 49ers' top two receivers (Colston and Michael Crabtree) would be shorter-route possession guys, but that actually fits Alex Smith's strengths. They can always stretch the field with Vernon Davis and Kyle Williams in the slot.
Matt Flynn: Miami Dolphins
This one is so blatantly obvious that you've seen Flynn connected to the Dolphins all over the Internet. It's pretty simple: Miami needs a quarterback. The biggest worry about Flynn is that he'll be unable to succeed out of Green Bay's offensive system, but Miami hired Green Bay's offensive coordinator, Joe Philbin, as its head coach and is installing Green Bay's offensive system. Actually, if Philbin doesn't want Flynn as his quarterback in Miami, it should make other teams wary of handing Flynn big money. Unless the Dolphins pass up Flynn for Peyton Manning, but we'll get to that in a bit.
Robert Mathis: Atlanta Falcons
After watching the Giants take home the Lombardi Trophy, NFL teams are even more desperate for a pass rush than usual, so somebody's going to pay plenty of money to find out if Mathis can be as effective without Dwight Freeney on the other side. The same teams chasing after Williams will be chasing after Mathis, but at age 31, Mathis is a better fit for a team that needs to win now rather than a team that is trying to build a consistent contender. Hello Atlanta Falcons. John Abraham, the team's only defender with more than four sacks last season, is a 33-year-old free agent and is asking for a lot of money. If his price comes down, the Falcons could pair him with Mathis. If he ends up going elsewhere, Mathis should become his replacement.
Ben Grubbs: Tennessee Titans
Grubbs gets to be the consolation prize for teams chasing after Nicks. No, he's not an All-Pro, but he's a solid guard who has been starting since his rookie year and will be just 28 this season. The Titans are looking to rebuild their interior line this offseason, because Jake Scott is a free agent and Leroy Harris is nothing special. You would have to believe that Mike Munchak, a Hall of Fame guard, would make a pretty good sales pitch to free agents at his own position. Cincinnati and San Diego would also make good landing spots for Grubbs.
Stevie Johnson: Carolina Panthers
By FO stats, Johnson has been better than DeSean Jackson over the past couple of seasons. No, he's not quite as fast as a deep threat and he doesn't contribute on punt returns, but he has better hands and does a better job of getting open when it isn't just a go route. Carolina has a superstar young quarterback but last season ran out a bunch of No. 4 receivers and a No. 1 who was 32 years old. Instead of futzing around with Legedu Naanee and Seyi Ajirotutu, stick Johnson on one side with Steve Smith on the other. With Greg Olsen going up the seam and Cam Newton always a threat to run from the pocket, it will be fun to watch opponents try to figure out what to do with their safeties.
Bonus free agent
Peyton Manning: Seattle Seahawks
We all know that Manning is 99 percent likely to be cut by the Indianapolis Colts by March 8, so let's assume he's healthy enough to play and figure out where he's going to go. The best fit for Manning probably depends on what he's looking for. Does he want a team more likely to make a Super Bowl run or a team where he can put up big numbers with a great receiver? If it's the latter, the clear choice is Arizona, where he can play with Larry Fitzgerald. However, even in the NFC West, the Cardinals don't seem particularly close to a playoff appearance. Many observers believe that Manning fits best in Washington, because the Redskins have a good, young defense that could pair with a Manning-led offense to make a Super Bowl run. However, that's not a good reason for Manning to pick Washington over Seattle or Miami. Based on Football Outsiders ratings, the Redskins defense was ranked 14th last season, lower than Seattle (10th) or Miami (11th) -- and they play in the NFC East. Since the Seahawks have about twice as much cap space as the Dolphins and Flynn fits Miami as a cheaper, lesser alternative, we'll send Manning out west where he can try to teach Zach Miller how to be Dallas Clark.