The Schein Nine  

 

San Francisco 49ers headline desirable free-agent destinations

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After signing Jimmy Garoppolo to a mega-bucks contract, 49ers general manager John Lynch declared that he wanted to make San Francisco a destination for free agents. Well, that was a perfect start.

So what are the best destinations for 2018 free agents, factoring in team, location, weather (Lynch raved about the beautiful sunshine in Northern California), winning culture, up-and-comers, surrounding talent, quarterbacks, ownership, cap room and everything else of consequence?

Well, that's an intriguing question. Allow me to answer -- with a twist ...

Since Lynch's words inspired this piece, let's keep this in the realm of Lynch's 49ers, limiting eligibility to teams that didn't make the playoffs this past season. Free agents have to believe they can be the missing piece, like Calais Campbell and A.J. Bouye with the Jaguars, or Andrew Whitworth with the Rams.

Here are nine desirable spots for free agents in 2018:

1) San Francisco 49ers

John Lynch is right about everything. Jimmy G is a franchise quarterback -- he's the pied piper, and thus, worth every single penny. At the end of November, San Francisco was 1-10, playing out the string and eyeing a top slot in the 2018 NFL Draft. Enter Garoppolo, and the 49ers ran off five straight wins to finish the season, averaging 28.8 points per game in the process. In a Week 16 showdown with Jacksonville, Jimmy G and Co. shredded the Jaguars' vaunted defense for a 44-33 win. Suddenly, San Francisco became the most buzzworthy 6-10 team in memory. Garoppolo completely reinvigorated one of the league's most storied franchises -- and he did it with a supporting cast that left much to be desired.

Now, in Year 2, Lynch and Kyle Shanahan have a chance to dominate free agency. According to OverTheCap.com, San Francisco currently has the third-most cap space in the NFL. The Niners possess a true franchise quarterback to build around, and a superb offensive mind to maximize the talents of said signal-caller.

49ers Faithful endured some rough play following Jim Harbaugh's ouster, but this team is back in the spotlight heading into next season. Free agents, especially on offense, should flock to the beautiful City by the Bay.

2) Houston Texans

At the beginning of this year, the Texans smartly gave Bill O'Brien a long-term extension, ending any ambiguity about his future. Consequently, Houston nabs a lofty spot on this list. This is a team with talent on both sides of the ball. And now that everyone's working in the same direction -- and key pieces are on the mend after season-ending injuries in 2017 -- these Texans should appear quite attractive to those hitting the open market.

Before tearing his ACL during an early-November practice, Deshaun Watson was a revelation in his first pro campaign. Over his final five games, the rookie quarterback produced 18 touchdown passes and a 113.3 quarterback rating. And when Watson joined my SiriusXM show, "Schein on Sports," on radio row at the Super Bowl, he guaranteed that he'd back healthy for the start of training camp. Watson isn't the only difference-maker coming back from the sidelines, either: J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus each logged just five games in 2017. Anyone think that had something to do with Houston ranking 23rd in sacks last season?

The Texans have more than $50 million in cap space, according to OverTheCap.com. With the right offseason moves, Houston could easily reach its win total from last season (four) by mid-October.

3) Arizona Cardinals

Arizona has become one of the great organizations in the NFL. Team prez Michael Bidwill is a gem. The public relations staff is sensational, something that's obviously important to players. In the wake of Bruce Arians' retirement, GM Steve Keim astutely snatched up Steve Wilks to lead his team -- and then received an extension through 2022, matching the length of his new coach's deal. Wise move by the franchise. Keim started with the team two decades ago as an area scout on the East Coast, going from Maine to Miami. Cardinals football is his way of life. Since taking over as general manager in 2013, he's collected talent on both sides of the ball. Now he needs a new man to steer the offense, with Carson Palmer joining Arians in retirement.

One thing that could help attract a capable quarterback in free agency: The iconic Larry Fitzgerald signing up for another season. Free agents -- at the QB position and elsewhere -- should want to be the missing piece to get Fitz that coveted ring. Arizona is closer to getting back in contention than most people think.

4) Green Bay Packers

The reason Green Bay isn't at the top of this list is because Mike McCarthy doesn't have the long-term contract that he deserves. The Packers quietly gave their Super Bowl-winning coach a one-year extension through 2019 during the 2017 campaign, so he won't enter this season as a lame duck. Well, technically speaking, at least. The situation remains fluid. Off-putting stuff for free agents looking to establish long-term stability.

That said, Aaron Rodgers is still the best quarterback in the NFL today. That means you can win a Super Bowl every year he plays. And with Ted Thompson out of the GM post, I expect Green Bay to actually seek roster upgrades in free agency. What a concept!

5) Oakland Raiders

Talked to Derek Carr on SiriusXM Radio this past Friday. He is SO energized to work with Jon Gruden. My prediction: With Gruden's acumen and attitude, Carr, Amari Cooper (who, Carr told me, was battling a balky foot last season) and the Raiders will instantly turn things around and get right back in the Super Bowl conversation.

Oakland was one of the biggest letdowns in the NFL this past season, falling from grace (and a whole bunch of preseason hype) to finish 2017 at 6-10. But this roster remains enticing, with talents like Carr and Khalil Mack at prime age (both turning 27 this offseason).

The only reason the Raiders aren't a tad higher on this list: Vegas looms, and isn't for everyone.

6) Los Angeles Chargers

Philip Rivers has a few more years left of being brilliant. Los Angeles boasts a stud running back (Melvin Gordon), a true No. 1 wideout (Keenan Allen) and a dynamic pass-rushing duo (Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram). Casey Hayward remains grossly underrated as a No. 1 corner, while safety Desmond King provided plenty of playmaking to get excited about during his rookie campaign.

Long story short: The Chargers are close to being great under second-year head coach Anthony Lynn, who overcame some early setbacks (particularly in the kicking game) to win six out of the last seven games and finish at a respectable 9-7 in his debut season.

The issue is the location.

Oh, I love L.A. But the Chargers seemingly played 16 road games last year, with support at the StubHub Center being less than optimal. It's somewhere between a problem and a work in progress.

7) Cleveland Browns

BELIEVE! Young talent! Top pick in the draft! No. 4 pick in the draft! Six selections in the first 65 picks! John Dorsey, a widely respected football guy, taking the franchise reins from the Ivy Leaguers and baseball dudes!

Oh, and did I mention more than $110 million in cap space?!

Fresh off the second 0-16 season in NFL history, Cleveland's in position to own this offseason, comfortably boasting the most draft currency and real currency in the entire league. Anyone who helps turn around this long-downtrodden organization will earn heaps of external praise -- and internal satisfaction.

The only question -- and one that could give free agents pause -- is Hue Jackson's future. The guy's 1-31 as head coach of the Browns. How long is his leash in Year 3?

8) Detroit Lions

I detailed last week -- in my new coach rankings -- how much I love the Matt Patricia hire. He makes Detroit better and more accountable just by walking into the building.

And coming off their second consecutive 9-7 season, the Lions could be just a few key acquisitions away from contending for the division title and beyond. No shortage of cap space, either, as OverTheCap.com has them north of $44 million. Running backs should beg GM Bob Quinn for a meeting!

9) Chicago Bears

I'd run to Chicago, especially if I were a receiver. Mainly because the Bears don't have any. But I like the Matt Nagy hire a lot. And with Mitchell Trubisky flanked by Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen, Nagy and new offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich have some fun toys to play with. Now the Bears, who have $40 million-plus in cap space, need to refurbish the O-line and add some talent to the receiver room.

Want first-class treatment? Win in Second City. Gridiron success breeds legendary status in the nation's third-biggest metropolis.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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