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Free agency was supposed to be the headline act of March in the NFL calendar.
But then a blockbuster Russell Wilson trade, the end (for now) of the Aaron Rodgers saga and the small matter of the unretirement of Tom Brady happened in a whirlwind week for the league.
As such, many of the moves that are reported when the NFL’s negotiating window opens may seem insignificant compared to the events of the last seven days.
However, the right acquisition on the open market can have a substantial impact for teams looking to contend for the Lombardi Trophy.
Just look at the Cincinnati Bengals, who were in touching distance of winning the title for the first time thanks in part to the defensive efforts of two free agent signings in edge rusher Trey Hendrickson and cornerback Chidobe Awuzie.
With the salary cap increasing to $208.2million, the first time in league history it has been over $200m, plenty of teams will be ready to loosen the purse strings.
Yet free agency is often not about making the big splash move, it is more a matter of finding the right fit between player and team.
Using advanced metrics, Stats Perform looks at six of the best potential fits for this year’s free agency cycle.
J.C. Jackson to New York Jets
Jackson is in for a monster payday after the New England Patriots elected not to place the franchise tag on a cornerback coming off a second-team All-Pro season.
Though they are clearly not ready to contend in 2022, the Jets present the perfect marriage of positional need and cap space, of which they have the second-most in the NFL.
Only four teams allowed more yards per pass play than the Jets (7.11) last season, with the secondary a long-standing problem for New York.
Over the past three seasons, no player in the NFL has record more interceptions than Jackson’s 22. His closest challenger is Xavien Howard (16).
Jackson finished 2021 having allowed a big play on 18.9 per cent of his targets, the eighth-best rate among corners with at least 50 targets.
Pairing him with a corner in Bryce Hall who had the best combined open percentage (14.61) across man and zone coverage of any player at his position in the NFL last season (min. 100 coverage matchups) would go a long way to shoring up the Jets’ defensive backfield.
Terron Armstead to Cincinnati Bengals
It almost makes too much sense. The Bengals are in obvious need of help on the offensive line and will have the seventh-most cap space of any team in the NFL with which to acquire it, making Armstead an obvious fit.
Though injuries limited him to eight games for the Saints last season, Armstead remains one of the premier left tackles in the NFL.
Armstead’s stunt-adjusted pass block win rate of 91.93 per cent was third among tackles with at least 100 pass protection one-on-ones in 2021.
That is exactly the kind of excellence in protection the Bengals need to ensure Joe Burrow can keep them in contention for Super Bowl titles in the coming years.
Tyrann Mathieu to Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers have been mentioned as a potential destination for several free agents, which is unsurprising given they are in the top half of the league in terms of cap space and have a premier quarterback on a rookie deal in Justin Herbert.
They have already shown a desire to be aggressive in striking a trade to pair edge rusher Khalil Mack with Joey Bosa on the defensive line, yet there is no doubt the secondary would also benefit from an infusion of experience and added quality.
Mathieu would bring just that if the Chargers were able to lure him from the division rival Kansas City Chiefs. With free safety Nasir Adderley having so far struggled to live up to his status as a second-round pick, Mathieu’s arrival would allow the Chargers to rotate him and former first-round pick Derwin James, who each possess the versatility to play free and strong safety and one on one with wide receivers and tight ends in man coverage.
Last year, Mathieu finished ninth among defensive backs with at least 100 coverage matchups across man and zone with a combined open percentage allowed of 20.3.
With another three interceptions added to a career tally that now stands at 26, there is no doubt Mathieu still has the playmaking ability and coverage skills to be an asset to any defense.
Von Miller to Denver Broncos
Everybody loves a reunion, and this would be a quick one after the Broncos dealt Miller to the Los Angeles Rams last season, with the veteran edge rusher going on to win his second Super Bowl title.
And after the Broncos struck a stunning trade to acquire Wilson from the Seattle Seahawks, bringing back Miller to boost a defense that will be run by former Rams secondary coach Ejiro Evero would be an ideal next move to make for a team clearly eyeing an immediate run at a Lombardi.
Miller ranked fifth among edge rushers with a stunt-adjusted pass rush win rate of 43.4 per cent in 2021, with that ability to generate pressure highly valuable to a defense that was a disappointing 30th in win percentage last year.
The Broncos are set up to contend, and a return to Denver would potentially give Miller the chance to compete for further titles while ending his career where it started.
Cordarrelle Patterson to San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers have a host of more important needs than a wide receiver-turned-running back, and given San Francisco possesses the gold standard in that regard in ‘wide back’ Deebo Samuel, signing Patterson would be a luxury move rather than a necessity.
Yet the thought of head coach Kyle Shanahan having both Samuel and Patterson to work with is an extremely enticing one.
Among running backs with at least 150 carries in the regular season, only James Conner (22.7) produced a higher percentage of big plays on targets in the passing game than Patterson (22.6).
Putting him with the play-caller who arguably does the best job of getting offensive players in space would be a match made in heaven.
Christian Kirk to Indianapolis Colts
It’s not clear who will be playing quarterback for the Colts in 2022 following the Carson Wentz trade to the Washington Commanders, but that signal-caller will need receiving help beyond 2020 second-round pick Michael Pittman Jr.
With T.Y. Hilton on the downswing of his career and injuries preventing Parris Campbell from making any sort of discernible impact, the Colts are light on legitimate pass-catching weapons.
Kirk could stock the cupboard in that regard, giving Indianapolis a legitimate deep threat who fell 18 yards shy of 1,000 receiving last season and has 11 touchdowns over the past two campaigns.
He registered a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play where he is targeted, on 66.4 per cent of targets (the average for receivers with at least 100 targets was 62).
Among receivers to meet that target threshold, Kirk was fourth in the NFL in 2021 with a burn yards per target average of 13.2, with his ability to separate much needed by an offense that heads into the offseason in questionable shape.
Matthew Stafford has signed a four-year, $160million extension with the Los Angeles Rams as the Super Bowl champions aim to bolster their squad for a title defence.
Stafford, who played just three playoff games in 12 seasons with the Detroit Lions, ended his first year in LA by leading the Rams to a 23-20 Super Bowl LVI win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
Representing a significant upgrade on predecessor Jared Goff – who headed to Detroit as part of a trade that also saw the Lions receive two first-round picks – Stafford threw for 4,886 yards and 41 touchdowns in the 2021 regular season.
The team improved from ranking 13th in passing offense in 2020 (250.9 yards per game) to fifth in 2021 (273.1 yards).
The one-time first overall draft pick added 1,188 yards and nine touchdown passes in the Rams’ successful playoff run, including three scores in the defeat of the Bengals.
Stafford’s existing contract had been set to expire following the 2022 season, but the new deal added to the end of that is set to keep the quarterback in LA through 2026.
The extension guarantees Stafford $135m, according to reports, and was crucially secured before his $10m roster bonus was due on Sunday.
This should allow cap space for the Rams to further improve their roster in free agency, with another title tilt on the cards as both coach Sean McVay and superstar defender Aaron Donald appear set to return despite claims to the contrary.
The Rams have already signed Allen Robinson and Stafford will again be able to look to Offensive Player of the Year Cooper Kupp in a fearsome offense.
Patrick Mahomes welcomed the arrival of a new Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver to target after JuJu Smith-Schuster secured a one-year, $10.75million deal.
Smith-Schuster announced his departure from the Pittsburgh Steelers on Friday.
The one-time Pro Bowler had spent his entire NFL career to date with the Steelers, with 323 catches for 3,855 receiving yards and 26 receiving touchdowns across 63 games in five seasons.
Taken in the second round in the 2017 NFL Draft, Smith-Schuster was an instant hit with seven receiving TDs in each of his first two seasons, including a pair of 97-yard scores – becoming the first player in NFL history to have multiple offensive TDs of that distance or more.
There were 1,426 receiving yards in 2018, before a step back in 2019 was followed by a career-high nine receiving TDs in 2020.
Limited to five games by a shoulder injury while the Steelers toiled on offense with the retiring Ben Roethlisberger still at quarterback, Smith-Schuster’s only score last season was his first career rushing TD.
Paired with Mahomes, though, the 25-year-old can feel confident he will get his career back on track in Kansas City.
Wideout Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce will remain Mahomes’ primary weapons, targeted on 28 per cent and 25 per cent of their routes respectively last season, but there is room for another option after Sammy Watkins left following the 2020 campaign. Byron Pringle departed this offseason in free agency and Mecole Hardman has yet to live up to his second-round draft status.
Superstar Mahomes certainly appears eager to link up with Smith-Schuster, quickly welcoming his signing on social media after the new man posted: “#ChiefsKingdom Let’s Go!”
“Turn me up brotha!!!” Mahomes replied, to which Smith-Schuster said: “Can’t wait to get after it my boy!”
Smith-Schuster had earlier posted a message thanking the Steelers fans, saying: “To all of Steelers Nation. Thank you for taking me in and making me a part of the family from the moment that I was drafted. You all took me in so quickly, and I really needed it.
“I was a wide-eyed 20-year-old who was sent to the east coast away from my family for the first time in my life, and you made me feel right at home, despite all of the loneliness I should have felt.
“These have been the best five years in my life. I owe so much to the fans who embraced me and who made playing on Sundays in Pittsburgh so special.
“It was an honour to wear the black and gold for you all! I love you! JuJu.”
Michigan edge rusher David Ojabo suffered a torn Achilles at his pro day on Friday, according to reports, likely ending his hopes of selection in the first round of the NFL Draft.
Ojabo had been widely viewed as a first-round prospect having enjoyed a breakout junior season with the Wolverines.
He recorded 11 sacks, 12 tackles for loss, and forced five fumbles in 2021 as Michigan reached the College Football Playoff.
However, Ojabo now faces the prospect of potentially falling to day two of the draft, after ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported the nature of his injury on Saturday.
While doctors expect a full recovery, Ojabo is set to face around six months out of action.
That means he would miss all of his prospective NFL team’s preparations for the 2022 season and likely the start of the new campaign, which begins on September 8.
Mar 16, 2022 LaLiga
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