It's that grab-bag time of year again.
Fans look to see how much money their favorite team has to play with, and the daydreaming takes off:
Uh, not exactly. If there's one portion of the pro football calendar that does not lend itself to logical thinking, it's free agency. Everyone will assume they know where a particular player is headed, and then it doesn't happen -- think of the supposedly inevitable marriage between Matt Flynn and the Miami Dolphins in 2012. Flynn, in fact, has been with four different organizations (Seahawks, Raiders, Bills and then back again to the Packers) since being a supposed lock to land in Miami. Funny how the little under-the-radar signings, the ones that happen with no prognostication or fanfare -- like Danny Woodhead heading to the Chargers last year -- are the ones that end up ranking among the top moves of the offseason. Heck, Woodhead caught 76 balls in 2013.
Free agency is, and always will be, dominated by conjecture. With that in mind ... Below you'll find six players headed toward the marketplace and three potential suitors listed for each. Expect to see these familiar names residing at unfamiliar addresses.
Eric Decker, WR, Denver Broncos
The Broncos will not have enough cap space to make any kind of play for Decker, who will command close to $10 million per season.
Oakland, which should have more than $60 million to play with, can certainly afford Decker's services. Not to mention, getting a player coming off an 87-catch, 1,288-yard campaign who could face his former team twice a season makes sense. Of course, the question remains: Can he be a No. 1 receiver sans Peyton Manning?
The Redskins currently have their WR1 in Pierre Garcon; would they pay $10 million for a guy who thinks he's a No. 1 and fits in as a No. 2? The club can afford Decker. So can the Vikings, who don't really have a top guy, despite signing Greg Jennings to a $45 million deal last offseason. Decker was a Minnesota Golden Gopher, but do the Minnesota Vikings want to roll the dice in free agency again? Interesting call. On that note, the Patriots have been mentioned often as a landing spot, but methinks they won't have -- or won't want to spend -- the financial resources it would take to land Decker.
Hakeem Nicks, WR, New York Giants
This is the brand of free agent that Oakland has typically acquired, though I doubt the Reggie McKenzie-Mark Davis Era Raiders will take a shot on such an unreliable player when they have the money to go after someone like Decker. Carolina could use Nicks; not only does the University of North Carolina product and Charlotte native have local ties, but he could make some plays for Cam Newton, who often has to do it all by himself. The Panthers also could get Nicks on the cheap, relatively speaking.
As I touched on above, the Patriots have been linked with several free-agent wide receivers, including Nicks. While I think Bill Belichick would be less than interested in signing another injury-prone wideout, Nicks wouldn't be completely Amendola-esque in that he doesn't miss as much time and has more big-play ability than the pass-catcher the Patriotsbrought on last year.
Another interesting destination would be St. Louis. The Rams aren't expected to have a whole lot of room to maneuver financially, and also possess two first-round picks in May's draft ... but again, Nicks' low projected price tag might allow them to bolster a young receiving corps long on upside and short on productivity.
Jared Allen, DE, Minnesota Vikings
Allen made $14 million in 2013. He won't be making that in 2014. Yes, he posted 11.5 sacks, but the reality is that he is very close to the age (he'll turn 32 in April) at which pass rushers are running on fumes. Allen hasn't been a quality run defender for a couple of years. No one expects the Vikings to try to re-sign him, and that should make for an interesting offseason.
I thought a team like the Broncos might make a trade for Allen last season. Random musing perhaps, but as a pass-rushing specialist who would play 20 to 25 snaps, this guy could still make hay. Another AFC West club, the Raiders, could use Allen, especially if Lamarr Houston gets away, and because of the mere fact that Oakland lacks veteran leadership on defense.
Tampa Bay needs an edge rusher in the worst way. New coach Lovie Smith has no problem playing veterans, and Allen would give the defense enough of a boost to shorten the amount of time an already strong secondary has to cover. The Buccaneers should have $10 million or so to play with, and while that will not be enough for, say, Greg Hardy (should he hit the open market), it could allow them to add someone like Allen. The Jaguars, who will have nearly three times as much cap room, have needed a pass rush of any kind for a long time. But after bringing in the likes of Aaron Kampman and Jason Babin over the past few years, it would be nice for the team to target someone younger than Allen.
Ben Tate, RB, Houston Texans
With the Texans committed to Arian Foster (or so we think), Tate figures to be one of the most coveted free agents available this offseason. Typically, big dollars are not paid out for free-agent running backs; in general, teams are far more likely to pick up a couple backs in the draft or grab a mid-tier free agent. Tate, however, is expected to be wooed.
Schein: Cleveland rocks! (Seriously)
How much Tate will command remains to be seen, but don't expect it to be some obscene figure, like more than $10 million per year. Teams aren't going to pay that much for a guy who was a backup -- albeit an effective one -- in Houston. Cleveland, which desperately needs to hop off the McGahee-Ogbonnaya-Baker train, can certainly afford Tate. After all, everyone expects the Browns to draft a quarterback come May, and a young QB's best friend is the running game.
The Dolphins and Falcons also present interesting potential destinations for Tate. Unless, that is, the Dolphins are shooting for mediocrity and inconsistency, which they successfully attained with the running back duo of Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas in 2013. Miller could still develop into a player, but Thomas has largely disappointed in his short career. The Falcons swung and missed on their last big free-agent acquisition at the position, Steven Jackson, but let's remember that Tate is five years younger and not yet on the downside of his career. Any Falcons fan will tell you that the team just can't win while throwing the ball twice as many times as it runs (as Atlanta did last season). Some balance in the offense would do wonders for pass protection, and inherently, help keep Matt Franchise upright.
Jairus Byrd, S, Buffalo Bills
Bills general manager Doug Whaley has intimated that he wants Byrd back, but using the franchise tag on him for a second consecutive season would cost more than $8 million -- and if the playmaking safety balks at being franchised again, as he did last year, the move would not make for a pleasant locker room. I'd say there's less than a 50 percent chance Byrd stays in Buffalo.
Meanwhile, the Redskins will finally have some breathing room with regard to the cap -- more than $20 million, we might add -- after going into the 2013 offseason with nothing. This team has been looking for an answer at safety since Sean Taylor's tragic death. Having a ballhawk back there to give Robert Griffin III some short fields could have tipped the balance on some games the 3-13 Redskins lost in 2013.
The Eagles might be a factor in the market for Byrd, as they have fewer soon-to-be free agents to re-sign than most teams, will have approximately $20 million in cap space, and aren't expected to Wang (Patrick) Chung any longer.
Jason Hatcher, DT, Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys pretty much can't afford plastic cups and paper plates right now. Per the usual, they are up against the cap ... and Hatcher wants to get paid.
Now, my colleague Marc Sessler predicted an unpredictable offseason in Cleveland, and I agree with his forecast. If newly minted GM Ray Farmer does indeed pursue a funky strategy, it could include signing a guy like Hatcher, who can play 3-4 defensive end for the Browns. He can also be a very effective inside rusher in a four-man front on passing downs. Hatcher excelled as a 4-3 defensive tackle in 2013 in Dallas, piling up 11 sacks. Don't forget how frequently new Browns coach Mike Pettine mixed up fronts when he was the Jets' defensive coordinator under Rex Ryan.
The Colts also could potentially use Hatcher in the multifaceted role (playing him at defensive end in a 3-4 while moving him inside on passing downs). Indy has many free agents to re-sign, yet should also carry $30 million in breathing room. That said, I don't anticipate the Colts going on any spending sprees; that's not GM Ryan Grigson's M.O. AFC South foe Jacksonville could, however. Signing Hatcher to play inside would instantly upgrade the Jags' defense. Coach Gus Bradley would love to employ a line rotation that could pummel some quarterbacks, and the organization figures to have well over $40 million in cap space to do just that.