The NFL offseason is well underway, and outside of the draft, the best time to add talent is coming up. Free Agency is set to begin on March 10th and although some teams stay away from high priced guys on the open market, there are some who feel it is important to make a splash.
In a salary cap world, it’s almost impossible to build your team through free agency but some teams, like my Raiders, have terrible rosters and tons of cash to spend. This year’s free agent crop is strong at a lot of key positions. If you’re looking for a dynamic playmaker in the backfield, you have the 2014 rushing leader DeMarco Murray available. If you’re looking for an interior lineman that could disrupt the opposition’s passing game, Ndamukong Suh is your guy. If you need a receiver to stretch the field, guys like Randall Cobb, Torrey Smith and Jeremy Maclin are just what the doctor ordered.
The only position that is seriously lacking in available players is at quarterback. Guys like Mark Sanchez, Brian Hoyer and Jake Locker could be decent options but they aren’t slam-dunks to start in 2015. It’s important to remember that winning in March doesn’t always translate to success in January and February. Just ask the Eagles, who built the so-called "dream team" in the summer of 2011 following the conclusion of the lockout. Plenty of teams have spent big bucks on guys that have flopped. Often times, the teams who make the best moves are the ones who wait for the first wave of big-ticket free agents to pass. They make the teams with a lot of cap space spend their money and they swoop in and sign a talented player who isn’t in demand as much because there are less dollars to throw around.
Here is my list of the 15 best free agents and where they will end up in 2015:
15 Mike Iupati - OG: San Francisco 49ers to Buffalo Bills
Mike Iupati is clearly the best interior lineman in free agency and will therefore be in heavy demand. He can expect competitive offers from the Buffalo Bills, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Washington Redskins and several others. It’s common knowledge that Iupati is a better run-blocker than pass-blocker but I believe he fits what Rex Ryan and the Buffalo Bills want to do.
The Bills don’t have a top notch quarterback on the roster, and with the acquisition of LeSean McCoy from Philadelphia, it’s clear they are planning on running the ball a ton. Throw in the fact that current Bills offensive coordinator Greg Roman was Iupati’s OC in San Francisco and it appears as though the Bills and Iupati are a match made in heaven.
Update: Signed with Arizona Cardinals
14 Bryan Bulaga - OT: Green Bay Packers
If Iupati is the number one guard available this off-season, Bryan Bulaga is the top offensive tackle. Quality tackles don’t often make it to market, so the fact that the Packers haven’t re-signed him yet is a little surprising. When the Packers selected Bulaga with the 23rd overall pick in the 2010 draft, they saw him as a left tackle. Since then, he has fit in better on the right side of the line but he still has good value at his position.
Both head coach Mike McCarthy and star quarterback Aaron Rodgers are both on record as saying that they want their big man back in the fold in 2015. Ultimately, Bulaga just looks like a Packer to me. I can’t picture him playing anywhere else and I fully expect Green Bay to get him under contract at some point.
There are plenty of teams that could use a tackle and anytime you are the best available player at your position, you will surely have some substantial offers. I think Bulaga will realize he has a good thing in Green Bay and that will ultimately keep him there.
His injury past is a concern, but he did manage to play in 15 games in 2014.
Update: Re-signed with Green Bay Packers
13 Torrey Smith - WR: Baltimore Ravens to Carolina Panthers
Just as the Ravens took a Smith from Carolina last year, it's time for the Panthers to return the favor.
Statistically, Smith had his worst year as a pro in several key categories. He finished the 2014 season with 49 receptions, 767 yards, no 100-yard games but he did have a career-high 11 touchdown receptions. Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti already admitted that he doesn’t see Smith returning. “The difference between what we can pay Torrey and what he gets on the open market…Mike Wallace got $10 million and I don’t think anyone thinks that was a good deal.”
The Panthers need to invest money into a few key positions but none may be more important than at wide receiver. Smith won’t be the highest paid free agent receiver to emerge from this class but he will command a good amount of cash. Last year, Cam Newton relied heavily on tight end Greg Olsen and rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin. Those two guys are playmakers, but they are big bodies and they don’t necessarily have elite speed.
In Smith, the Panthers would give Newton a burner who could stretch the field and beat defensive backs over the top. Expect the 26-year-old to make it to market and to find himself a new home fairly early in the free agent process.
Update: Signed with San Francisco 49ers
12 Pernell McPhee - OLB: Baltimore Ravens to Indianapolis Colts
Pernell McPhee may not be a household name just yet but you’ll know him soon enough. The 26-year-old graded out as one of Pro Football Focus’s top 3-4 edge rushers in 2014 but only played 540 snaps on defense for the Ravens last season.
Pro Football Focus uses some interesting “advanced stats” to grade every player in the NFL and one of the key stats for McPhee was his pass-rushing grade. His rating of 23.1 trailed only Justin Houston and Elvis Dumervil.
The Ravens had Dumervil and Terrell Suggs rushing the passer so full-time work for McPhee was out of the question. With so much emphasis being placed on the passing game, guys who can get after the quarterback have become that much more valuable.
McPhee’s true value comes in the form of versatility. Throughout his career, he has proved that he can line up all over the field. He can be used in a 4-3 or 3-4 defence and he won’t miss a beat. Expect the Colts to make a strong push for McPhee. Chuck Pagano was McPhee’s defensive coordinator during his rookie season in Baltimore in 2011 so there is some familiarity there.
Update: Signed with Chicago Bears
11 Brian Orakpo - OLB: Washington Redskins
When you think of Brian Orakpo you think of two things; quality pass rushing and injuries. The 28-year-old was limited to seven games in 2014 because of a torn pectoral muscle (it’s the third time he’s suffered that injury). Orakpo finished the year with 24 tackles and half a sack last season.
Orakpo is still young and he is just one year removed from 60 tackle and 10-sack season in 2013. The three-time Pro Bowler will have a lot of interest if he makes it to March 10th without re-signing with the Skins. Atlanta and Jacksonville are just two of the teams that are believed to have interest in Orakpo.
The talented edge rusher was given the franchise tag last season, but he didn’t get it this year. There are several good pass rushers in this free agent crop but Orakpo is a proven commodity on the field if he can stay healthy. I really can’t see Washington let him hit the open market.
Update: Signed with Tennessee Titans
10 Greg Hardy - DE: Carolina Panthers to Cincinnati Bengals
This will be an interesting one. The NFL announced that Greg Hardy will be allowed to sign a contract with a team even though he is on the commissioner’s exempt list. Hardy was suspended indefinitely by the NFL because of a domestic violence issue between him and his ex-girlfriend in 2014. The charges against Hardy were eventually dropped but he won’t escape a suspension in 2015. The only question that remains is how many games Hardy will be forced to miss because of the incident.
The 26-year-old played just one game before being suspended last season and he registered a sack in that game. Hardy is just one year removed from a terrific season that saw him rack up 15 sacks. He has registered 27 sacks in his last 32 regular season games.
Hardy comes with a lot of baggage but quality pass rushers are so rare that it wouldn’t shock me if he came away with a multi-year deal. Which team is notorious for giving players second chances? The Cincinnati Bengals! On top of all that, they could use another defensive end to help Carlos Dunlap get after the quarterback.
Update: Signed with Dallas Cowboys
9 Nick Fairley - DL: Detroit Lions
The Detroit Lions arguably have the two best defensive linemen on this list and I can’t see them losing both. Keeping Ndamukong Suh will be an issue. He is one of the premiere players in the NFL and teams who are loaded with cap space will make him priority number one this off-season.
What does that mean for Fairley? I think it’s pretty clear that the Lions will have to invest money in at least one of their two prized free agents. Keeping Suh isn’t realistic at this point so putting all their efforts into bringing Fairley back would be wise.
Fairley was limited to eight games last season but he is a valuable part of Detroit’s interior on the defensive line. The Lions and Fairley’s representatives met during the NFL Combine and both the meetings reportedly went well. Detroit knows that he can be a bit of a head case but they will work with him and make him the go-to guy on their defensive line.
Update: Signed with St. Louis Rams
8 Jeremy Maclin - WR: Philadelphia Eagles to San Francisco 49ers
Jeremy Maclin didn’t play a game in 2013 because of a torn ACL suffered in camp, but he certainly made up for that in 2014. The 26-year-old exploded back onto the NFL scene, setting career-highs in receptions (85), receiving yards (1,318), and he tied a career-high with 10 touchdown catches.
The 49ers will want to put a nightmare season behind them and they will need to make a splash to help get their offense going. As Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News mentioned, the Niners haven’t had success drafting receivers and with Michael Crabtree and Brandon Lloyd set to hit the open market, Maclin makes a lot of sense.
San Francisco is in a similar situation to Carolina. They need to get their young quarterback some quality weapons with speed. Maclin would give Colin Kaepernick a legit number one receiver. With LeSean McCoy now gone, it would be tough for Eagles to lose Maclin but with March 10th approaching, it looks like he will indeed go to market.
Update: Signed with Kansas City Chiefs
7 Byron Maxwell - CB: Seattle Seahawks to Philadelphia Eagles
If your team needs a quality corner, this year’s crop of free agents won’t be of much use to you. Maxwell is by far and away the top corner available on the market and it seems like that will definitely get him paid. The Eagles seem like a logical landing spot because they released Cary Williams earlier this week.
The Seahawks certainly won’t bring Maxwell back. They have invested a lot of money in their secondary already and Maxwell is more expendable than Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas or Richard Sherman.
Maxwell also gave the Eagles a ringing endorsement during an interview with ESPN on Thursday. "They run the defensive scheme that I’m talking about,” said Maxwell. “Cover 3, man press. And they’re committed to winning, so definitely Philadelphia. If they were to come at me, I would definitely have to consider them.” I’m convinced the Eagles will make this happen. They certainly have the cap space to do it, (close to $40 million).
Update: Signed with Philadelphia Eagles
6 Julius Thomas - TE: Denver Broncos to Oakland Raiders
I do think it will be a two-horse race between the Raiders and Seahawks to land Julius Thomas’ services. Some of you may think I’m crazy to predict that the 26-year-old tight end (or anyone for that matter) would pick Oakland over Seattle but there are some important factors to consider.
First of all, the Oakland Raiders have a crazy amount of cap space and they are desperate to get sophomore quarterback Derek Carr some weapons. Second, Thomas was born in Stockton, California, which is just over an hour drive from the Oakland Coliseum.
Some people believe Thomas’s stats are inflated because of Peyton Manning, and that’s probably true but you can’t ignore his 24 touchdown grabs in the last two seasons. Thomas caught 12 touchdowns in just 13 games in 2014. He missed three contests because of torn ligaments in his ankle. You won’t find a better pass-catching tight end anywhere on the free agent market.
Update: Signed with Jacksonville Jaguars
5 Devin McCourty - FS: New England Patriots to Chicago Bears
If you think the free agent corner back field is slim, then you have to believe that the crop of available (and talented) safeties is almost non-existent. Devin McCourty probably doesn’t want to leave the team that he just won the Super Bowl with, but the Patriots have to find a creative way to keep Darrelle Revis.
There may not be a team with more of a need at safety than the Chicago Bears. I think they are fed up of sending Chris Conte out there and they will need to invest in a dynamic player like McCourty.
As beat writer Brad Biggs points out, new GM Ryan Pace was in the Saints front office when they signed Jairus Byrd to a six-year, $54 million contract in 2013. Do the Bears think they will be able to compete in 2015? Maybe. But bringing McCourty to the Windy City would help shore up their secondary and ultimately their entire defense.
Update: Re-signed with New England Patriots
4 Jerry Hughes - DL: Buffalo Bills to New York Jets
Some thought the Bills would use the franchise tag on Jerry Hughes but they opted against doing that. Buffalo acquired Hughes from the Indianapolis Colts in 2013 and the young edge rusher’s career has taken off since then.
The 26-year-old has recorded back-to-back 9.5 sack seasons since joining the Bills and it would be disappointing to see the two sides split after the success they have had together. After the Kansas City Chiefs opted to tag Justin Houston, Hughes became the top pass rusher available in free agency. Ultimately, I think that Buffalo opting not to give Hughes the franchise tag shows him that they aren’t serious about keeping him.
Landing Hughes will command some serious coin but at the end of the day, I think the Jets (like a lot of teams) will need someone to get after the quarterback. New head coach Todd Bowles will need an impact pass-rusher and I believe the Jets will get their guy in Hughes.
Update: Re-signed with Buffalo Bills
3 DeMarco Murray - RB: Dallas Cowboys to Indianapolis Colts
Many people expect DeMarco Murray to return to the Dallas Cowboys in 2015 because of Ed Werder’s report that Murray is willing to let the Cowboys match any offer he receives. I know that teams don’t invest big money or high draft picks on running backs anymore but I really believe that Murray joining the Colts could be a home run for both sides.
I don’t have to tell you that Murray was outstanding last season. The 27-year-old ran the ball 393 times, rushing for 1,845 yards and 13 touchdowns. He also had a dozen 100-plus yard rushing performances. There probably isn’t a guy who does more with less than Andrew Luck. The Colts’ quarterback has been phenomenal since entering the league and he hasn’t had a consistent running game to lean on.
Trent Richardson was a huge flop since being acquired from the Browns and Ahmad Bradshaw hasn’t been able to stay healthy. Bringing Murray into the fold will take a huge load off of Luck. I know it’s hard to picture Murray in another jersey, but I really do think it’s looking that way.
Update: Signed with Philadelphia Eagles
2 Randall Cobb - WR: Green Bay Packers to Oakland Raiders
I realize that I have the Raiders landing both Randall Cobb and Julius Thomas, but they certainly have the cap space to make this a realistic possibility. Oakland has $63.27 million to spend right now and that number may climb even higher if they decide to cut quarterback Matt Schaub (almost a certainty).
The Raiders are lacking big play ability on offense and adding Randall Cobb will finally give them a legit option in the passing game. It’s hard to know how Cobb will react to being the number one option in a passing game (he had Jordy Nelson to help carry the load in GB) but the Raiders will have to roll the dice.
ESPN’S Adam Schefter reported earlier this week that the Raiders will prioritize Thomas and Cobb over Ndamukong Suh in free agency and I fully expect that report to materialize. Cobb, 24, had 91 receptions, 1,287 yards receiving and 12 touchdown catches in Green Bay’s offense one year ago. He will help bring respectability to the Raiders’ offense.
Update: Re-signed with Green Bay Packers
1 Ndamukong Suh - DT: Detroit Lions to Miami Dolphins
Ndamukong Suh is clearly the crown jewel of this free agent class. I fully expect him to reach the open market and I think a change of scenery will make him very, very rich and it will also do him some good. A lot has happened with Suh in Detroit and getting a clean slate somewhere else may make him even more productive than he’s been.
Dolphins’ owner Stephen Ross is always looking to bring in big names and Suh fits the bill. Beat reporter Omar Kelly has come out and said that he believes Miami is going to make a serious push for Suh. Kelly also mentioned that he expects the Dolphins to offer Suh a contract in the neighborhood of six years and $100 million, which not many teams have the cap room to do.
Ross and the Dolphins haven’t hesitated when spending money on free agents. You’ll remember that Miami signed Mike Wallace to a five-year, $60 million contract (a deal the Dolphins are wishing they could take back) and Branden Albert to a five-year $47 million contract last off-season.
Suh, 28, had 51 total tackles and 8.5 sacks in 16 games with the Lions last season. He was also a huge reason why the Lions had the number one defense against the run (69.3 yards rushing allowed per game) and the number two total defence (behind Seattle) in 2014.
Players like Suh don’t usually make it to free agency, so it’ll be interesting to see how high the numbers get in his case. I strongly believe that the Dolphins will reel in the biggest fish in the free agent pool but they will have a lot of competition. Miami has finished with an 8-8 record in back-to-back seasons but adding Suh could be the piece that puts them over the top.
Update: Signed with Miami Dolphins