|(From left to right) Mario Williams, Cortland Finnegan and Vincent Jackson highlight the 2012 free-agent class.|
Now that the overblown game of tag has played out across the league, who are the Last of the Mohicans -- the big-time free agents with no home, and a bunch of quality football still in them? Believe it or not, there is a healthy crop of premium players available who can help a team NOW, and of course, will command some good coin.
Over the next week, you'll hear Matt Flynn chatter galore. After all, he's a sexy option because of his age (26) and the fact that he's a potential franchise quarterback in a QB-driven league. And then there's the Peyton Manning saga. I'm on the record with where I think he should end up.
For now, let's look at the impact players hitting the open market not named Manning or Flynn. There are several guys, like DE/OLB Mario Williams, who could certainly help many teams in the immediate future. Who would be the best fit for him, as well as five other big-name free agents?
Mario Williams to ... Jacksonville?
It ain't easy finding a player who has 53 sacks on his résumé, is 27 years old and can play in the 4-3 or 3-4 as an edge rusher. With so many potential suitors, where will Williams end up? The best fit would be a team that plays a four-man front, and has much in the way of cap room, unless Williams will be its only big acquisition.
While the former Texan learned the 3-4 last season under Wade Phillips, the bottom line is that he's only played five games in that scheme and is a bit oversized (if there is such a thing) to play weak-side linebacker. Thus, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers initially appear to be strong suitors as a franchise with a ton of cap space. Unfortunately, the Bucs also have problems inside, and with a new staff, it's hard to determine if they want to get into the Williams sweepstakes. The Buffalo Bills have cap space, and are switching back to a four-man front, so they, too, are a possibility. The Seattle Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons are others who could be in the mix.
But how about the Jacksonville Jaguars? They play a 4-3, and have not been able to get any pressure in the Gene Smith era. During Smith's three years as GM, Jacksonville has finished 32nd, 30th, and 25th in the league in sacks. Consider that they've faced Williams twice a year and know his game. Lastly, this organization has over $40 million in cap space. Rumor has it the Jags won't spend big money on free agents (plural). My sense is that's true ... but there's a difference between getting multiple starters in free agency and one big fish.
The question with Williams is: Would he play in Jacksonville? Even if he wouldn't, I still don't see him ending up with the Patriots, which has been the most widely discussed prospective destination as of late.
Cortland Finnegan to ... Tampa Bay?
Staying in the AFC South, what will Finnegan command in the marketplace? Top corners are tough to find, and Finnegan is regarded as a physical player with solid cover skills. The best fit would be a team in need of a corner (almost every club in the league), but more importantly, a team that will pay a premium for a position some clubs are reluctant to shell out the dollars. (Anyone remember the Nate Clements contract?)
This is a player who will be expecting a multi-year deal worth $10 million dollars per season. The Minnesota Vikings sorely need a CB. The St. Louis Rams have been linked to Finnegan because he was drafted by Jeff Fisher. But with all of their holes, does the veteran head coach want to dedicate this much money to one position ... especially on a guy who can be a distraction? The Dallas Cowboys don't have the cap space, but even if they were to make it work, Finnegan is not their guy.
Here's a vote for the Buccaneers because a) the uncertain future of starters Aqib Talib (legal) and Ronde Barber (age) and b) they have the cap space to outbid everyone. Reports are that Tampa has nearly $60 million of breathing room.
Brandon Carr to ... Dallas?
Another attractive corner is Brandon Carr, who has been one the AFC's better corners as a member of the Kansas City Chiefs. With GM Scott Pioli opting to franchise WR Dwayne Bowe and sign CB Stanford Routt last month, Carr has been deemed expendable -- at least for the money he will be seeking, which will be in the Finnegan neighborhood.
Once again, the Cowboys are mentioned often in regards to Carr. That's the best option. The Joneses know the secondary killed their playoff hopes more than anything else, save maybe offensive-line play. If the Cowboys cut Terence Newman, they'll have enough room to make a push for Carr. If the money is in the same ballpark as an offer from, say, Tampa or Minnesota, the attractiveness of playing in Dallas, in that stadium, with a chance to win, should prevail.
Vincent Jackson to ... Chicago?
Carr had his share of battles with San Diego Chargers receivers in the AFC West, and the most prominent of those guys is on the open market. While Jackson has had some monster games (including a 142-yard day at Arrowhead back in 2009), he can also disappear at times. Will that scare some teams away from the 29-year-old wideout? Yes, if the money (in excess of $10 million per year) doesn't.
So, who wants -- and has the means -- to acquire this 6-foot-5 target with three 1,000-yard seasons under his belt? The Buffalo Bills are a possibility. The Washington Redskins already have admitted wide receiver is a position they'll be looking at hard in free agency. (Hard to imagine them rolling with Jabar Gaffney and Santana Moss as their starters again.)
Still, the Bears seem like the best fit. Chicago had a big receiver last season who couldn't play in Roy Williams. They want one who can play. (Jay Cutler hasn't played with a marquee receiver since his Broncos days with Brandon Marshall.) With reportedly more than $25 million in cap space, the Bears can afford Jackson and give the veteran vertical threat the best chance to win now.
Marques Colston to ... San Francisco?
Another prime-time receiver, Colston has done plenty of winning in New Orleans. But the six-year standout out of Hofstra has made it known he won't be giving a "hometown" discount. So where might a guy who's only 28 years old, with 6,240 yards and 48 touchdowns in his short career decide to play?
Not in New Orleans. My well-informed colleague Jason La Canfora believes Colston can print money elsewhere. Minnesota might make sense, if only the dropoff from Drew Brees to Christian Ponder wasn't so steep. The Oakland Raiders are regularly mentioned, as head coach Dennis Allen used to be an assistant in New Orleans. But the best destination for Colston is just a hop, skip, and a jump away in San Francisco.
Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh wanted a big, physical receiver last year. He got Braylon Edwards. That's like wanting a Boba Fett action figure for Christmas and getting a Greedo instead. With at least $30 million in cap room, the 49ers can afford to outbid the Saints, if the latter even plans to get into a bidding war (probably not) for Colston. For Colston, the opportunity to win and be the guy makes playing in scarlet and gold a strong possibility.
Michael Bush to ... Denver? Or how about Kansas City?
Speaking of strong possibilities, a lot of people seem to think the Bengals will do anything to get Michael Bush. Cedric Benson is a free agent, and according to him, Mike Brown hasn't exactly been blowing up his phone. While the Bengals owner might not be willing to sign checks for the 29-year-old Benson, how flexible would he be for Bush?
The big tailback is two years younger than Benson and viewed as being less of an attitude concern. With a young quarterback in Andy Dalton, having Bush would be a luxury. Same deal in Denver, where Tim Tebow would benefit from having a big, productive back who is effective in the screen game. Then there's Kansas City, who like Denver could fill an '82 DeVille with all of their available cap money.
Denver seems right. Willis McGahee, the team's leading rusher in 2011, is north of 30 and can't do it all by himself in the Broncos' rush-heavy offense. The Broncos would seriously benefit by a) acquiring a big, between-the-tackles RB and b) depleting a divisional foe who tied them in the standings last year. Bush benefits because he would get lead-back carries and a big payday. My gut still says the Chiefs might make a bold move, though.
Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @Harrison_NFL