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.
Targets Catches Catch Rate Yards Yards/Target Colston 52 38 73 percent 646 12.4 Niners WRs 65 34 54 percent 539 8.2
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
Brent Smith / Reuters
The Lions need a cornerback with Cortland Finnegan's ability.
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.
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.
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