The NFL is about to embark on the busiest week on the league’s calendar — free agency. As we’ve seen over the past several years, this is when teams throw a ridiculous amount of cash to those on the open market.
This March is going to be no different. There’s a ton of top-end talent available. Making things even juicier is the NFL’s salary cap has increased by more than $10 million. Teams have a lot of cash to spend.
It’s in this context that we look at the top 10 free agents and give our predictions about where they will land.
1. Le’Veon Bell, running back
We’re not sure what type of market is going to greet Bell once free agency opens. In the past, teams haven't valued running backs at the same price as other positions. Add in that Bell?sat out all of last season, and that’s magnified further. How the market does play out could expand the number of interested suitors.
For now, we’re going to conclude only a handful of teams have the cap space to pay Bell what he’s demanding. Among those teams, the Indianapolis Colts make perfect sense. They currently have north of $105 million to spend under the cap. Teaming Bell with QB Andrew Luck in the backfield would created a juggernaut. Look for GM Chris Ballard and Co. to seriously consider it. Team: Indianapolis Colts
2. Trey Flowers, defensive end
Now that the Patriots have not placed the franchise tag on Flowers, the expectation has to be he’ll hit free agency. Pats coach Bill Belichick has never been one to retain his free agents unless it’s cost effective. Just ask Nate Solder, Malcolm Butler and Dion Lewis last March.
The market for Flowers, 25, is going to be through the roof. He has led the Pats in sacks each of the past three seasons — tallying 20.5 in the process. He’s also recorded an eye-opening 59 quarterback hits during that span. Given his likely market, we’re going to predict the pass-rush starved Oakland Raiders land Flowers. Even after trading Khalil Mack, head coach and de facto general manager Jon Gruden has noted how important the pass rush is. Flowers would fix that issue immediately. Team: Oakland Raiders
3. Earl Thomas, safety
It’s a foregone conclusion Thomas will leave the Seattle Seahawks after earning six Pro Bowl appearances over nine seasons. Initial indications were Thomas wanted to sign with his home state Dallas Cowboys. That’s no longer a possibility after it was reported Thomas wants to become the NFL’s highest-paid safety.
In a free-agent market inundated with top-end safeties, we’re going to predict Thomas sticks it to his former Seahawks team by joining longtime teammate Richard Sherman with the San Francisco 49ers. Niners GM John Lynch has noted the team wants a starter-caliber free safety. Thomas remains one of the best in the NFL. With north of $66 million to spend under the cap, it makes sense for this not to happen. Team: San Francisco 49ers
4. Anthony Barr, linebacker
Barr’s market will be interesting in that some teams view him as a pass- rusher a majority of the time. Certainly, the stats back that up. The four-time Pro Bowler excelled in that role for the Vikings while also being tasked to drop back in coverage and stop the run. He’s one of the best all-around 4-3 linebackers in the game.
Following the decision to release linebacker Jamie Collins, the Browns find themselves nearly $82 million under the cap. Without a doubt, general manager John Dorsey and Co. are going to be active in free agency. Barr would be a tremendous fit on the strong side — the same position he played in Minnesota. Team: Cleveland Browns
5. Landon Collins, safety
The New York Giants’ decision not to franchise Collins puts one of the NFL’s best safeties on the market. Sure, the 25-year-old Collins went through an injury-plagued 2018 campaign. Even then, he was able to earn a third consecutive Pro Bowl appearance for what has been a bad Giants team.
We’re expecting a strong market for Collins after he racked up 32 passes defended and eight interceptions in four seasons with the Giants. Among those likely interested, the Kansas City Chiefs make the most sense. Even if Eric Berry were to return healthy after playing just three games over the past two seasons, Kansas City needs that in-the-box safety. Collins certainly fits the mold. Team: Kansas City Chiefs
6. C.J. Mosley, linebacker
Yet another player we’re surprised to see hit the open market, this former first-round pick of the Ravens earned four Pro Bowl appearances in five seasons in Baltimore. This past year, Mosley recorded 105 tackles, six tackles for loss and five passes defended. He remains one of the better coverage linebackers in the game.
The Green Bay Packers have been linked to pass-rushers in free agency. We fully expect an active GM in Brian Gutekunst to address that area. But Mosley should be the primary target. Inside linebacker has been an issue for the Packers over the past several seasons. They could fix this with one of the game’s best at that position. Team: Green Bay Packers
7. Tyrann Mathieu, safety
Honey Badger more than proved his was back to his pre-injury self in his first season with Houston in 2018. The former All-Pro safety recorded 89 tackles, eight passes defended and two interceptions. This came after Mathieu signed a short-term deal with the Texans following a surprise release from Arizona. At 26 years old, Mathieu is still in his prime.
While some are looking for Jon Gruden and the Raiders to address offense in free agency, we’re going in another direction. After predicting Oakland to sign Trey Flowers, we’re doubling down on that side of the ball. After all, a true center fielder in the secondary would be huge for this unit. Team: Oakland Raiders
8. Ezekiel Ansah, defensive end
After missing nine games to injury and recording just four sacks last season, Ansah’s market will be intriguing. He was coming off a 2017 campaign that saw the former top-10 pick put up 12 sacks and get the franchise tag from the Lions. How the market plays out could very well determine where Ansah lands as he enters his age-30 season.
The 49ers obviously come to mind here. Their new defensive line coach, Kris Kocurek, coached Ansah through tremendous seasons with Detroit. Meanwhile, San Francisco personnel man Martin Mayhew was the Lions’ general manager when they drafted Ansah in 2013. In need of edge pass rush help, this is the direction Kyle Shanahan and Co. might go. Team: San Francisco 49ers
9. Preston Smith, outside linebacker
Consistently above average. That would be the best way to describe the 26-year-old Smith during his four years with the Washington Redskins. The former second-round pick recorded 59 quarterback hits and 24.5 sacks during that span. Helping matters for Smith in free agency is the fact he can play both outside linebacker and with his hands in the dirt.
After seeing their top-two leaders in sacks play defensive tackle or linebacker last season, the Colts are in desperate need of edge pass rush help in their 4-3 scheme. That’s where the 276-pound Smith would be a perfect fit. And as noted before, Indianapolis has a ton of cash to spend in free agency. ?Team: Indianapolis Colts
10. Sheldon Richardson, defensive tackle
This former Pro Bowler with the New York Jets settled on a one-year contract in Minnesota last offseason as a way to build up his free-agent stock. The 28-year-old Richardson did just that — recording 16 quarterback hits and 4.5 sacks. At this point, it seems Richardson is in line for the long-term deal he’s been seeking.
With no shortage of teams interested in Richardson, we’re going to predict he lands with the defending champion Patriots. Incumbent starting defensive tackle Malcom Brown is slated to become a free agent. Richardson provides a ton more from an interior pass-rush perspective — something the team has been missing. Team: New England Patriots