The football arced beautifully through the night air, traveling about 36 yards before hitting Jamison Crowder in stride, allowing the Redskins receiver to convert a crucial third down and essentially ice the Packers. Kirk Cousins was putting the finishing touches on a 375-yard evening, in the midst of a boffo season that nearly got him into the 5,000-yard club. That came two weeks before Eric Berry beat the Falcons with the rare pick-two (his second interception-return score of the game). One week later, Le'Veon Bell racked up a whopping 298 total yards on the Bills' snow-covered defense.
All three of these men could be playing tag in the coming days.
Yes, we've reached the offseason period where NFL teams can slap franchise (or transition) tags on players. And that could be the fate for these three potential headliners of this year's free-agent crop -- much to their chagrin, as all three guys are looking to cash in on the open market. In fact, Berry has flat-out declared that he will not play under the franchise tag for a second consecutive season.
That said, nothing is guaranteed in this league, so it's worth exploring what could happen if these guys are there for the taking. And of course, these aren't the only enticing names in this year's free agency frenzy.
So which notable players could be signing new deals in new towns when free agency opens on March 9? And where could they be headed? We pontificate below, Nostradamusing what might happen to 10 big-name guys, including the aforementioned trio. As always, your take is welcome: @HarrisonNFL is the place.
Kirk Cousins, quarterback
Cousins will, barring a major surprise, end up with the Redskins -- either via the franchise tag (again) for $24 million or under a long-term deal that won't come much cheaper per year. But major surprises do happen every so often, so who else could be out there? The Browns and 49ers could make sense.
Long-starved for a franchise quarterback, the Browns have tons of money -- as in, the most cap space in the league, according to OverTheCap.com. They also have enough draft capital that the blow for handing over two first-round picks (the price for signing a player under the non-exclusive franchise tag, should the Redskins go that route with Cousins) would be softened a tad. Trading down in last year's draft -- allowing the Eagles to nab Carson Wentz -- provided the Browns with a gaggle of picks. That said, paying multiple first-round picks for Cousins wouldn't seem to fit into Cleveland's Moneyball approach. Not to mention, adding Cousins would be highly unusual unless the Browns are completely scrapping the RGIII project, given that Cousins was Griffin's former caddy in D.C.
The 49ers have a ton of available cap space, as well, should Jed York sign off on using it. They also have a brand new offensive-minded head coach who was part of the process of drafting Cousins three rounds after RGIII back in his Washington days. Kyle Shanahan surely would like nothing more than to start his new gig with an established QB who can handle his run-on-sentence-long play calls. New Niners general manager John Lynch is a fan of Cousins, as well.
Le'Veon Bell, running back
Like Cousins, Bell almost certainly will get franchise-tagged. Unlike the quarterback, though, this running back wouldn't draw a pair of first-round picks from anyone. Nothing against him or his versatile skill set. It's just, well, over the past four drafts, we've seen a grand total of three running backs go in Round 1 (Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon). So forget about someone giving up two first-rounders. Not to mention, Bell has encountered some off-field issues that make his availability a concern. Lastly, RB shelf life is like milk shelf life -- and Bell already has an injury history.
Yet, if the Steelers know something we don't and allow Bell to hit the open market without using the franchise tag, two teams should pounce: the Jags and Bucs.
Jacksonville has plenty of cap space -- and hasn't fielded even a top-20 run game since my colleague Maurice Jones-Drew led the league in rushing back in 2011. Also, Bell's pass-catching prowess certainly would significantly help the development of QB Blake Bortles. The addition of Bell wouldn't render last offseason's signing of Chris Ivory moot, either -- the big man could still be used situationally.
Meanwhile, the Bucs need an every-down back. Doug Martin is enduring personal challenges off the field and will be suspended for the first four games of 2017. Jacquizz Rodgers, who gave the team a nice boost last season, is a free agent. The offense has talented youngsters in Jameis Winston, Mike Evans and Cameron Brate, but Bell would give the unit a whole other dimension. Throw in an emerging defense, and we could be talking about an instant contender. The Bucs have a healthy amount of cap space, too.
Eric Berry, safety
If Kansas City can't get a long-term deal done -- like the Vikings did with Harrison Smith and the Cardinals managed with Tyrann Mathieu last offseason -- why wouldn't a team make a bold move and pay Berry like the top-flight player he is? The safety would be a fantastic coup for the Titans -- and a fun toy to play with for DC Dick LeBeau (who made the Hall of Fame as a DB, by the way). Then there's the Browns, sitting on that pile of cash, inserting sabermetrics into their analytics processor -- the same concoction that said no dice on retaining Tashaun Gipson last year. Would Berry's all-around play (five takeaways, three scores and 77 tackles in 2016) influence a different line of thinking in the Haslam halls? New defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has said he thinks the organization will be "aggressive" in acquiring personnel. Berry would alter the tenor of that defense.
Granted, this is a stretch -- call it fun speculation -- but why can't the Raiders kick the tires on Berry? Upgrade a position while taking away from a division rival? Team brass missed out last offseason on Eric Weddle, who left the Chargers to make a huge difference in Baltimore. Oakland did sign Reggie Nelson, but he'll be 34 in September. A few more potential fits for Berry: Colts, Panthers, Bears, Redskins, Jags.
Alshon Jeffery, wide receiver
Jeffery is another player who could get the tag slapped on him (again), but that appears to be a far less likely outcome for the Bears receiver than for the guys above. Jeffery has been an off-and-on player in Chicago. And given that the Bears just paid him $14,599,000 in 2016 (under the franchise designation) for 52 catches and two touchdowns, it's hard to believe they'd play tag again. But then again, look at their depth chart at receiver.
Los Angeles' top outside performer last year was Kenny Britt, who is a free agent. Jared Goff can't succeed with only Sean McVay at his side -- although the new head coach is practically Britt's age. The 49ers have the second-most cap space to the Browns, according to OverTheCap.com, and could use a big target for whoever plays quarterback in San Francisco next season. Putting Jeffery on one side would definitely make Torrey Smith more effective on the other. Lastly, the Bucs could use another Vincent Jackson (who is now a free agent -- and 34 years old). A big-bodied duo of Evans and Jeffery would be quite tough to defend, especially in the red zone.
Dont'a Hightower, linebacker
Well, we discussed Berry donning the Silver and Black above. That might not merely be speculation, but rampant speculation. However, Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie has stated that inside linebacker is "a hole that we have to fill." Oakland won't be sleepless letting go of ex-Seattle linebacker Malcolm Smith. Enter Hightower, who would join a so-so defense with more raw talent than production (at this point, anyway).
Meanwhile, the Colts must rebuild the defense straight up the middle, and have the dollars to do so.
Perhaps the most interesting match, though, would be the Redskins, who have lacked the type of defensive leadership in the ILB spot Hightower could bring since London Fletcher hung 'em up. The 'Skins are in their best cap shape in years, yet have several important free agents in their own driveway to consider first: Cousins, DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garçon ...
A.J. Bouye, cornerback
Bouye is another player who easily could be tagged. It'd make plenty of sense. The Texans have developed this former undrafted free-agent signee (in the Gary Kubiak administration) into quite a player -- why allow the 25-year-old to take prime years elsewhere? Houston head coach Bill O'Brien has said the franchise wants him back. But if the Texans do decide to tag Bouye, that means they would be paying approximately 14 million bucks for a guy who has been a premier corner for all of one season. Pretty steep. He wouldn't make near that much per year in a long-term deal.
Martellus Bennett, tight end
I was tempted to put the Bears and Cowboys in "Potential fits," just to make sure you're reading with purpose, but I have faith in my audience! (Despite some of the scorched-earth commentary that tends to appear in the comments section below.) Bennett has been around the league, experiencing varying degrees of success, but he really came into his own as a complete team player in New England this past season. Maybe there was some maturation, maybe he bought into "the Patriot Way," maybe he enjoyed playing alongside another physical freak at the position in Rob Gronkowski (well, for half a season). Now, no one is really sure what the Patriots are planning to do with Bennett (... and Jimmy Garoppolo and Dont'a Hightower, for that matter). What we do know is that they almost certainly will not match what some team with plenty of space is willing to offer. Not with the variety of people New England uses in the passing game, and the (hopeful) return to full health of Gronk.
The Colts might be that team, given that Dwayne Allen has yet to take the next step to Bennett's level, and Jack Doyle is a free agent. The Rams must acquire talent for Jared Goff. And after seeing the way McVay maximized Jordan Reed (and even Vernon Davis) with the Redskins, why not scoop up Bennett? Tell me his personality wouldn't fit in L.A.
Jason Pierre-Paul, defensive end
Of all the impending free agents, JPP might be the most intriguing. That guy proved a lot of people wrong last year -- those skeptics who thought he wouldn't be able to compete with that hand mangled by the fireworks accident. Here's the deal: The Giants absolutely could use Pierre-Paul back on the line, playing at the same level he did in 2016. For all the Odell Beckham Jr. love, Big Blue finished 26th in points scored -- and second in points allowed. How about that?
The Lions also could use a pass rusher like JPP, as they amassed just 26 sacks (worst in the NFC). Detroit could have won the NFC North if the secondary didn't allow opponents a 106.5 passer rating, easily the highest mark in the league. The Dolphins would be an appropriate fit, given that Mario Williams disappointed last season and almost certainly won't be back. Not to mention Miami's top edge rusher, Cameron Wake, is in his mid-30s. Executive VP Mike Tannenbaum is not afraid to make a splash in free agency.
DeSean Jackson, wide receiver
There's been plenty of speculation about Jackson returning to Philadelphia. Brandon Graham's giddy thinking about it. Football insiders are mumbling about it. And everyone knows the Eagles could use their old field stretcher again. Ideally, they'll be in the market for Jackson, Jeffery or one of the other top free-agent wideouts, but can they afford it? That's the question. The Eagles are not in the best financial position to acquire high-priced free agents. But the Titans are -- and could really use a guy to take the top off the defense. Making safeties hyper-aware of a player like Jackson would A) create wider throwing windows for Marcus Mariota and B) lighten the box for a team that loves to run the football.
As mentioned in blurbs above, the Rams must provide some support for Goff -- unfortunately, thanks to Goff, they don't have as many draft picks to do so. As Jackson's OC in Washington the last three years, McVay knows the wideout's merits as well as anyone. (His drawbacks, too.) And despite Tavon Austin's speed, his game has not been vertical at the NFL level.
Dontari Poe, defensive tackle
Not seeing much written about Poe potentially ending up in Tennessee. OK, but here's what we do know: Jon Robinson's Titans are not afraid to make big offseason moves, as evidenced by last year's trade for DeMarco Murray. As much as the Chiefs might want to retain Poe, they won't have the funds to pay him, Berry and Charles this offseason. In fact, given that they are near the bottom of the barbecue pit in available cap dollars (according to OverTheCap.com), the Chiefs might only be able to pay Berry.
Poe could get paid in Nashville, playing an important role in LeBeau's defense a few miles up Interstate 40 from where he played his college ball. Staying in the AFC, the Bengals need to replace long-time veteran Domata Peko in the middle of that defense. Poe would be an instant upgrade, allowing Vontaze Burfict to run free and make plays. The 49ers could replace another former Chief (Glenn Dorsey) with Poe, who would start alongside the team's top picks from each of the last two drafts (Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner). The Raiders and Colts are other possibilities for the big man.