Free agency is just over a week away, and with dozens of veterans vying for the attention of 32 suitors, someone has to play yenta and fill the dance cards, organize the speed dates, and find a few perfect fits.
Over the next few articles, I will match several top free agents (plus some trading-block fodder) with their ideal teams. Players who aren't going anywhere, like Drew Brees, are not included. These articles are about guys who are ready to file change-of-address forms. The Football Outsiders stat database will help explain what boost each player can provide his new team.
If you don't like the matches, you can still use the stats to play the field. After all, arranged marriages aren't everybody's bag.
The Player: Marques Colston, Wide Receiver
The Fit: San Francisco 49ers
The Boost: Intermediate passing game
Some free agent receivers, like DeSean Jackson, excel in the deep game. Others, like Wes Welker, do their best work close to the line of scrimmage. Colston is dangerous on both short and long routes, as well as the important, overlooked routes in between. Few receivers are as dangerous on intermediate routes, 10-20 yard patterns that allow an offense to grab yardage in chunks without resorting to the bomb.
Figure 1 shows Colston's performance on passes that traveled 10-20 yards in the air. It also shows the combined performance of all the Niners' receivers last year. The Niners' intermediate passing game was not terrible, but tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker provided most of the production. The receivers did little, and that problem became more pronounced in the playoffs, when defenders stopped worrying about anyone but Davis once the ball floated a few yards downfield.
Intermediate receiving totals
Intermediate receiving totals
Colston, meanwhile, outperformed the entire Niners receiver corps combined. He scored two touchdowns and recorded 32 first downs, while Niners receivers scored two touchdowns but picked up just 27 first downs. Drew Brees had a lot to do with that 73 percent catch rate, of course, but it is not hard to project Colston's 6-foot-4 frame into the Niners run-oriented offense, envision him drawing attention from Davis (and vice versa), and giving the Niners offense the diversity it needs to allow Alex Smith to build upon the gains he made as a quarterback this year.
Unlike Jackson and Welker, Colston is likely to hit the market as a true free agent, not a sign-and-trade franchise player. The Niners have the cap room to sign him, and the Saints have multiple priorities, starting with Mr. Brees. Expect a phone call at 4 p.m., March 13.
The Player: Cortland Finnegan, Cornerback
The Fit: Detroit Lions
The Boost: Big Play Elimination
Finnegan would fit right in with the Lions. He played for Lions coach Jim Schwartz in Tennessee. His coverage skills complement the Lions outstanding defensive line, so his presence could vault the Lions into the upper echelon of contenders. And his personality . well, the anger management counselor could just live in an RV parked outside the team's headquarters for the sake of convenience.
Cornerbacks are hard to measure statistically; Finnegan intercepted just one pass last year, but interceptions are only a portion of a cornerback's game. At Football Outsiders, we can track of how many yards the offense gains every time a defender makes a tackle on a passing play or breaks up a pass. Good cornerbacks allow a low number of yards per play, because they hold receivers to short catches and come up in zone coverage to tackle running backs on dump-offs and screens. Bad cornerbacks allow lots of 12-15 yard receptions, plus some bombs, and it all shows up on the spreadsheet.
|Name||Pass Plays||Yards per Pass Play|
Lions cornerback Eric Wright finished eighth on the list, and the Lions' ranked second in the league in stopping No. 1 receivers and 6th in stopping No. 2 receivers according to Football Outsiders. But during the Combine, Schwartz spoke of a "revolving door" at the nickel position, as injuries forced the team to juggle Chris Houston, Aaron Berry, and others at cornerback opposite Wright and in the slot. The Lions face the Packers twice per year and fell to the Saints in the playoffs. This is not a team that can afford any revolving doors in the secondary if it hopes to contend. With Finnegan and Wright in coverage, Schwartz can blitz more. As if NFC North quarterbacks did not have enough to worry about.
And yes, putting a hothead like Finnegan on the same field as Ndamukong Suh and the other penalty-happy Lions could be a problem. Finnegan drew one personal foul and one roughness penalty last year, a light season for him. Get the aromatherapy serenity candles ready.
The Player: Bart Scott, Linebacker
The Fit: Indianapolis Colts
The Boost: 3-4 Experience
Scott is not a free agent, but a disgruntled veteran who is openly seeking a trade. Judging from the tone of comments coming out of Jets headquarters, he is likely to be available at a discount, and the Colts are in need of some cheap solutions.
When not watching Peyton Manning and Jim Irsay lob lightning bolts across the heavens at each other, new Colts coach Chuck Pagano is trying to change the Colts defense from the Dungy-2 system they have run since the dawn of time into a Ravens-style 3-4. Scott played for the Ravens when Pagano was the team's defensive backs coach, and both of them know that a 3-4 inside linebacker needs to attack the line of scrimmage more often and more aggressively than a Cover-2 middle linebacker.
|Player||Rushing Tackles||Yards per Rushing Tackle|
Scott also blitzed frequently last year, registering 4.5 sacks. That's another key difference between Pagano's brand of 3-4 and the Tony Dungy flavored 4-3: linebacker blitzes have been incredibly rare in Indianapolis for a decade. No Colts linebacker has recorded more than one sack in a season since David Thornton had two sacks in 2005. Sure, guys like Angerer and Conner aren't going to get lost on the way to the quarterback and try to sack a down marker by mistake, but Pagano could use the help of a player with experience in his blitz concepts, techniques, and terminology. The asking price is likely to be a middle-round pick. The Colts can spare one.
The Player: Peyton Hillis, Running Back
The Fit: Washington Redskins
The Boost: Backfield Depth and Versatility.
Hillis played for Shanahan in Denver, and Shanahan knew what Hillis was: a multi-purpose power back who was at his best when sharing carries with a speedier threat. Josh McDaniels replaced Shanahan, benched Hillis, then traded him away during his daring Scorched Earth initiative. Hillis landed on Cleveland's talent-poor roster as an unlikely featured back, then an unlikely Madden cover boy before falling prey to injuries and a case of own-hype belief in 2011.
Hillis averaged just 3.5 yards per attempt last season, and no one is going to suggest that he secretly had a good year. It's just that his season wasn't as bad as the raw numbers suggest. Hillis faced the Ravens and Steelers four times in the 10 games he played last year, so he carried the ball a disproportionate number of times against two of the top run defenses in football. More surprisingly, Hillis posted a Success Rate of 54 percent, ranking him fourth in the league in that category, according to Football Outsiders.
Success Rate is like batting average for running backs: productive rushes (four yards or more on first and 10, half the distance to the sticks on second down, conversions on third or fourth down) count as successes, everything else (even a 15-yard draw play on 3rd-and-16) does not. Hillis' Success Rate is not just the result of easy short-yardage conversions, either. The Browns used Hillis 27 times in short yardage situations, and he was nothing special: 17-of-27, with tons of two-yard plunges on 2nd-and-1. In all other situations, he gained at least three yards on 90 of 134 rushes, a 67% rate. Those aren't featured back numbers, but the Redskins have a featured back in Roy Helu. Hillis can eat up the carries that players like Ryan Torrain did nothing with last season.
The Redskins running back situation is muddled behind Helu. Tim Hightower is an unrestricted free agent who won't be able to fully participate in on-field activities until June. Evan Royster was a revelation at the end of last season as a big-play threat, but it is not clear how he would perform in a more regular role. Shanahan loves to rotate his backs, and with youngsters like Helu and Royster needing all the practice reps they can get to reach their full potential, the coach could use a veteran who knows the system, doesn't need many reps, blocks well, and can churn out 40 yards on nine or ten carries, plus a catch or two. The Redskins usually get grief when they clutter their bench with veterans. Hillis is a veteran who can provide much more than clutter.
Mike Tanier writes for NBCSports.com and Rotoworld.com and is a senior writer forFootball Outsiders.