Best fits for top projected 2018 NFL free agents
Field Yates

We've reached the final month of the 2017 regular season, which means it's time to take a glimpse into the crystal ball of free agency.

Leaning on this list of notable 2018 free agents compiled by my colleague Kevin Seifert -- with a few changes, most notably Alshon Jeffery, who just got a four-year extension -- below is a look at 20 of the best potential free agents and their ideal fits next year.

To be clear, this isn't a forecast of where they will actually end up -- there's still a lot to be decided between now and when free agency begins in March. This list is a matching of players' skill sets with teams that could benefit from them -- and have the salary cap space to do so.

Here we go:


Kirk Cousins, QB

Team: Washington Redskins | Age: 29

No player will be discussed more heading into free agency than Cousins, given his position and his performance. Twice the recipient of the franchise tag, a third tag from the Redskins would pay Cousins $34.5 million for the 2018 season -- if he were to play under it -- while the transition tag would be a palatable number for Washington's salary cap at $28.8 million. The transition tag is far more likely to introduce outside suitors. Despite a litany of injuries around him and a lack of consistent wide receiver play, Cousins enters Week 14 with 3,289 passing yards (fifth in the NFL) and 24 touchdowns. Naysaying Cousins at this point is negligent. He's a legit franchise quarterback.

Best fit: Redskins. We have more than enough evidence to see how much he means to this franchise. Has the contract situation between the Redskins and Cousins run smoothly to this point? No. But armed with significant cap space and all the familiarity one could need, Cousins should remain in D.C. for the long haul on a massive contract.

Drew Brees, QB

Team: New Orleans Saints | Age: 38

The future first-ballot Hall of Famer has been very good once again, helping the Saints to a 9-3 record and tracking them toward their first playoff appearance since 2013. His accuracy remains scorched-earth-level good. He leads the league in completion percentage at 71.5, placing him just behind Sam Bradford's NFL record pace set (71.6) in 2016. What's more: Brees is doing it at 8.10 yards per attempt versus Bradford's 7.02 yards per attempt. Brees is adamant that he wants to continue to play well into his 40s, something that's becoming a more familiar refrain among quarterbacks. His current contract precludes the Saints from using the franchise tag on him.

Best fit: Saints. After another 0-2 start to the season, I admit I wondered whether 2018 could be the offseason when the Saints and Brees mutually decided it was best to move on, with New Orleans building from the ground up and Brees departing to make another team a stronger contender. I was wrong. The Saints -- infused with young talent from the past two drafts -- are sensational, and keeping Brees around with a deal of any length is the most logical move. Brees would likely rather finish his career in New Orleans than anywhere else.

Jimmy Garoppolo, QB

Team: San Francisco 49ers | Age: 26

A trade-deadline transaction sent Garoppolo to San Francisco after three and a half years as the backup to Tom Brady in New England. Garoppolo has a small sample size as a starter. He played nearly six quarters last season while Brady was serving a four-game suspension and he threw for 496 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. But in his first start with San Francisco, he breathed life into the team with 293 passing yards in a 15-14 victory over the Bears in Week 13 -- just their second win of the year.

Best fit: 49ers. Let's not overthink this. The 49ers didn't trade a second-round pick for Garoppolo and hold him off from starting for weeks only to let him walk, regardless of his performance this season. The move was about the bigger picture, and San Francisco has endless resources -- including one of the biggest cap reserves in the league and the franchise tag -- to keep him around.

Case Keenum, QB

Team: Minnesota Vikings | Age: 29

If you thought Keenum would make a list like this before the season, you would be alone. But his play has been exceptional -- his 75.4 season Total QBR is second only to the injured Deshaun Watson -- helping the Vikings to a 10-2 record and meriting a prolonged look from quarterback-needy teams in free agency. Does that mean Keenum could warrant $15 million per season from a team that has the intention of making him its midterm starter -- comparable to Chicago's move for Mike Glennon, before the Bears drafted Mitchell Trubisky? Keenum's play begs the question of why he would be deserving of anything less, especially given how the free-agent market works for quarterbacks.

Best fit: Denver Broncos. While Denver is still evaluating Paxton Lynch, Keenum might be the kind of quarterback the Broncos need to get back on track in 2018. We know the defense can be outstanding, so steadying quarterback play and the offensive line's output could be enough to put them back in the hunt for the postseason next year. Keenum has familiarity with the system Denver runs, which has principles of that he ran under Gary Kubiak in Houston.

Le'Veon Bell, RB

Team: Pittsburgh Steelers | Age: 25

After receiving the franchise tag this past offseason, Bell and the Steelers were unable to find amenable terms on a long-term deal. Bell reportedly sought $15 million per season, a figure nearly double that of any other running back in the NFL on an annual basis. He leads the NFL in total scrimmage yards (1,559) and is as dynamic a pass-catching back as there is in football. He's patient and smart as a runner. He does it all, with the only concerns stemming from multiple knee injuries and suspensions in his past and total workload, as he has a league-high 336 touches this year.

Best fit: Cleveland Browns. The easy answer is to say the Steelers, which would be my guess. It's an ideal fit. But if Bell truly is seeking an unprecedented deal, the Steelers -- who currently have cap commitments for 2018 in the range of $180 million -- probably have to draw a line in the sand somewhere. The Browns, conversely, will enter the offseason with a possible nine-figure sum of cap space for 2018 and the league's greatest need for offensive playmakers.

Carlos Hyde, RB

Team: San Francisco 49ers | Age: 27

There might not be a trait that running back coaches value as much as reliability -- being available and also holding onto the football. Hyde is having his most reliable season yet. He has played in every game for San Francisco, has not lost a fumble and has seen a blossoming passing game role with more catches this year (52) than targets in any single season of his career. He has 693 yards rushing and another 307 receiving.

Best fit: 49ers. Before the season I would have forecasted 2017 to be Hyde's final year in San Francisco. But there's little doubt to me that a return to the Bay Area is the best option. The 49ers did draft Joe Williams in the fourth round last year and have promising rookie Matt Breida, but Hyde is a back that an offense can be built around. He should stay going forward.

Sammy Watkins, WR

Team: Los Angeles Rams | Age: 24

Watkins was traded to the Rams just before the season. It's safe to assume that Los Angeles acquired Watkins in a contract year with intentions of re-upping him long term, though he has been somewhat ordinary in terms of production. He has just 31 catches for 528 yards, though he does have six touchdowns. He's a unique talent that has all the traits to be a No. 1 wideout in an offense, though he has been a complementary part for the Rams when the team's receiving group is at full strength.

Best fit: 49ers. San Francisco is flush with cap space and plenty of cash to approach free agency as it sees fit. With Jimmy Garoppolo likely set in stone as the long-term starter at quarterback, addressing weapons around him is a must. Watkins, still 24 years old, would give the Niners their best talent at wide receiver and should pair nicely with veteran Pierre Garcon. Watkins' price tag will likely be steep.

Jarvis Landry, WR

Team: Miami Dolphins | Age: 25

No player has more catches through the first 60 games of his career than Landry's 368. He's at his best operating from the slot, and while he does not offer a ton of vertical-play ability, he's a tough, reliable catcher and a good punt return man, too.

Best fit: Chicago Bears. It's imperative that Chicago work hard to surround Trubisky with more playmakers this offseason. Landry would be a pillar of steadiness that would make life much easier on the young QB and allow the team to track a perimeter receiver elsewhere. Landry would feast in this offense.

Davante Adams, WR

Team: Green Bay Packers | Age: 24

Adams, who turns 25 on Christmas Eve, is on pace for 79 catches, 992 yards and nine touchdowns, keeping up his production after the transition from Aaron Rodgers to Brett Hundley following Rodgers' collarbone injury. Adams runs pristine routes, plays with good functional speed and consistently finds the end zone.

Best fit: Packers. Green Bay is the ultimate draft, develop and reinvest team. The Packers have a notable track record of finding wide receivers, including Adams. The cost won't be cheap, but Adams is most certainly worth it. Keeping him around in Green Bay would be smart for both sides.

Marqise Lee, WR

Team: Jacksonville Jaguars | Age: 26

It has been a steady 2017 season for Lee, who has assumed a featured role when teammate Allen Robinson suffered a major knee injury in Week 1. Lee is up to 51 catches for 637 yards and three touchdowns, putting him on track to set career highs across the board.

Best fit: Jaguars. Jacksonville had a pivotal 2014 draft class with Lee, Robinson, quarterback Blake Bortles, linebacker Telvin Smith and offensive lineman Brandon Linder -- the final two of which have already received extensions. Keeping Lee as a foundational piece on this offense makes a lot of sense.

Allen Robinson, WR

Team: Jacksonville Jaguars | Age: 24

The former second-round pick had his 2017 season cut short after tearing his ACL just one game into the season. He had a breakout campaign in 2015 with 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns, but poor quarterback play in 2016 led to just 73 catches and 883 yards for Robinson. At 6-foot-3 and 211 pounds, Robinson has ideal size and uses his frame well with an extended catch radius.

Best fit: Indianapolis Colts. A player coming off of a season-long injury is often the candidate we tab for a one-year, prove-it deal. While the team is in major need of receiver production and staying in Jacksonville alongside Lee certainly makes a lot of sense, Robinson playing alongside T.Y. Hilton and catching passes from Andrew Luck would make Indy a fun offense to watch. The Colts need more complementary pass-catchers.

Justin Pugh, OL

Team: New York Giants | Age: 27

Pugh can play multiple positions along the offensive line, with left guard as his top spot. But given his flexibility to also kick out to right tackle, he adds value to any offensive line. He has the frame and skill set to hold down multiple spots.

Best fit: Giants. The team is desperate for steady offensive line play and Pugh can deliver it. The Giants are another team that values draft and development opportunities, with a deal for Pugh likely to include a sizable price tag. Offensive linemen have been paid so handsomely in free agency of late, and with good reason.

Jimmy Graham, TE

Team: Seattle Seahawks | Age: 31

Graham is on a tear with nine touchdowns during his past eight games. It's a reminder that he's one of the most unique red zone weapons in football. There's not a defensive player with the raw physical measurements to out-leverage the 6-foot-7 Graham. As the football saying goes: Even when he's covered, he's open.

Best fit: Seahawks. The reality for Seattle is that with so many good players on the roster, keeping them all will be a difficult chore. With Sheldon Richardson set to hit free agency and Duane Brown among those a year away from the open market, Seattle will be forced into some tough business decisions. But Graham has emerged as a dominant force again and this offense needs him.


DeMarcus Lawrence, DE

Team: Dallas Cowboys | Age: 25

If the franchise tag didn't exist, there might not be a player who would be better positioned to cash in this offseason than Lawrence. The 25-year-old pass-rush phenom has a league-high 13.5 sacks this season. He checks off three of the most valuable boxes in free agency: a tremendous skill set, youth and playing a premium position. He would be a legitimate candidate for an $80 million deal if he reaches the open market, but a franchise tag from the Cowboys is all but inevitable.

Best fit: Detroit Lions. Detroit is desperate for pass-rushers, and Ezekiel Ansah could be elsewhere next season. Lawrence fits what the Lions do under coordinator Teryl Austin and would give Detroit a much-needed blue chip defensive lineman to lead a group that also includes promising 2016 draft pick Anthony Zettel. Plus, general manager Bob Quinn is unafraid to be aggressive in free agency.

Trumaine Johnson, CB

Team: Los Angeles Rams | Age: 27

Twice a recipient of the franchise tag, Johnson looks bound to hit the open market if he chooses; a third straight tag feels unlikely. He has excellent size at 6-foot-2, 213 pounds with good on-ball production with 63 career pass deflections. Some in the NFL view him as a player who is best fit to lean on that size and physicality with a system -- coordinator Wade Phillips always does a great job maximizing a player's skill set.

Best fit: Dolphins. Miami has no shortage of investments already on the books for 2018, but this is a franchise that has shown a willingness to make audacious moves with steep financial commitments -- absorbing Byron Maxwell's contract in a shocking trade two years ago is just one example. Johnson would fill a massive need for a defense that lacks top-end cornerback play and depth.

Malcolm Butler, CB

Team: New England Patriots | Age: 27

Since becoming a full-time starter in 2015, Butler has emerged as one of the NFL's better talents at the position. He's long and athletic, with good technique at the point of the catch. The Patriots and Butler were unable to agree to terms on a long-term deal last offseason and he flirted with the Saints during restricted free agency. A return to New England shouldn't be dismissed entirely.

Best fit: Colts. While Indianapolis has made quiet strides in recent weeks on defense, it's clear the unit is still a few pieces of established talent away from being at a level that can help Indianapolis consistently make the postseason. General manager Chris Ballard will likely seek linebackers this offseason, but Butler would be yet another smart add via free agency to go along with Johnathan Hankins, John Simon and Jabaal Sheard, among others, from last offseason.

Ezekiel Ansah, DE

Team: Detroit Lions | Age: 28

After a red-hot start to his career that included 30 sacks in his first three seasons, Ansah has slowed down because of nagging injuries that have prevented him from playing at his highest level. He has some truly unique physical gifts with a super long frame at 6-foot-5 and explosive edge ability to seek out the quarterback. With a modest 2017 to date -- 5.0 sacks through Week 13 -- Ansah could be best-suited looking for a one-year deal to build his value back up before his age-30 season.

Best fit: Cowboys. While DeMarcus Lawrence is a natural candidate for the franchise tag, we'll point out that if a scenario existed in which Dallas instead opted to let him hit the open market, Ansah would be a wise choice. A one-year deal under defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli would be a sensible pairing.

Sheldon Richardson, DL

Team: Seattle Seahawks | Age: 27

A powerful and athletic player, Richardson is someone whose value extends beyond the box score. He can provide a bit of pass-rushing juice in terms of collapsing the pocket and creating rush lanes for others, plus he's a handful to move in the running game.

Best fit: Arizona Cardinals. Not to say they are the same type of player, but after Calais Campbell left in free agency, Arizona could use an interior force on their defensive line. The Cardinals' 2016 first-round pick, Robert Nkemdiche, has had an inconsistent start to his career.

Morris Claiborne, CB

Team: New York Jets | Age: 27

Claiborne is playing perhaps the best football of his career, handling top cornerback duties for the Jets after signing a one-year deal this past offseason. Ability has not been his issue to date, but inconsistent play and injuries slowed him during his time in Dallas. He's a strong starter.

Best fit: Jets. New York has gone through an organizational transition since the start of the last offseason, moving off from a handful of notable veterans and working to build toward the future. Part of that process includes identifying players who have enough youth to contribute for multiple future years, and Morris fits the bill. The Jets' secondary has a bevy of young talent.

Kenny Vaccaro, S

Team: New Orleans Saints | Age: 26

Vaccaro followed up a fantastic rookie season with a couple of less steady years. He's a versatile defensive back who can do a bit of everything as a coverage player in the slot, handle safety duties and also play in the box and blitz when asked to. He's passionate, too.

Best fit: Packers. It's not often that Green Bay forays into free agency, but after Micah Hyde departed last year for Buffalo, Vaccaro would be a sensible fit. Both players bring a dash of everything to the table in the secondary, and Green Bay could use the defensive reinforcements.