In the first two free agent matchmaker articles, I found great homes for very good players like Marques Colston and Cortland Finnegan. Now it’s time for the big pieces to make their moves. The next four players are among the biggest prizes on the free agent market. No one knows where they will land, but the Football Outsiders database can help us determine where they should land.
And of course, I saved the best — a certain Mr. Manning — for last.
The Player: Vincent Jackson, wide receiver
The Fit: Houston Texans
The Boost: A second deep threat
The Texans have an excellent No. 1 receiver in Andre Johnson. But Johnson turns 31 in July and hasn’t played 16 games in two full years. Johnson’s supporting cast includes a group of fine role players — Kevin Walter, Jacoby Jones, tight end Owen Daniels — and one of the best running games in the NFL. When Johnson is healthy, the Texans have a multidimensional offense. When he’s hurt, or when the Texans face an elite defense that can neutralize him, the Texans cannot make enough big plays in the passing game to complement their ground attack.
Table 1 shows how Texans receivers fared on passes thrown 20 or more yards downfield. It also shows Vincent Jackson’s statistics on 20+ yard passes. As you can see, Jackson had more targets, catches, and yards than any two Texans receivers combined.
Table 1: Passes 20+ Yards Downfield
Yes, it helped that Jackson caught passes from Phillip Rivers while the Texans dealt with rookie T.J. Yates for half a season. Even so, Jones was clearly overmatched as the designated deep threat in Johnson’s absence, and the low target total shows just how reliant on their running game the Texans became when Yates was in and Johnson was out.
Gary Kubiak’s offense is designed to capitalize on deep play-action passes, but they could not generate quite enough of them last year. Imagine Matt Schaub play-faking to Arian Foster on a stretch run, then dropping back to see both Jackson and Johnson running vertical routes. Imagine the poor safeties on defense. In a rebuilding AFC South, a Texans team with a beefed up receiver corps could easily win 13 games.
Christian Petersen / Getty Images
The Player: Mario Williams, pass rusher
The Fit: New England Patriots
The Boost: Pressure without blitzing
You have to expect the unexpected from the Patriots in the offseason. They somehow manage to make shocking, splashing moves without burning through cap space. This offseason finds them in familiar territory: they are coming off a great year, loaded with draft picks, and flush with enough cash to be players on the free-agent market. They also have a pressing need: their pass defense is pretty terrible.
The most obvious way for the Patriots to improve a defense that allowed 4,977 yards is to upgrade the secondary. But think like Belichick for a moment (not for too long, it could be dangerous). He has played mix and match with youngsters and disposable players in the secondary for years, because the key to his scheme is the pass rush. The Patriots registered a respectable 40 sacks last year, but once you adjust for the fact that teams had to pass constantly against them, that total is not too impressive. According to Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Sack Rate, the Patriots finished 19th in the NFL in pass rush.
Belichick’s defense is officially a 3-4, but anyone who watches a Patriots game knows that one linebacker often lines up with a hand in the dirt and rushes the passer, making the scheme more of a hybrid 4-3. As Table 2 shows, Belichick prefers to rush the quarterback with just four defenders. The problem last year was that opponents were more successful when the Patriots rushed four than when Belichick blitzed or went into a three-man “prevent” rush.
Table 2: Patriots Pass Rush Percentages
It is not hard to see how Williams could help the Patriots. He now has experience as a 4-3 defensive end and a 3-4 linebacker, so he could play a hybrid role in Belichick’s defense. He’s the type of edge rusher who forces opponents to adjust their protection schemes. Not only would he contribute a few sacks, but he would provide enough pressure to shave a half yard or so off of that 7.6 yard-per-play average when the Patriots rush four defenders, allowing Belichick to get by with his preferred collection of prospects and retreads in the secondary.
Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images
The Player: Matt Flynn, quarterback
The Fit: New York Jets
The Boost: Short passing accuracy
You were expecting someone else, Jets fans? Peyton Manning isn’t coming, for reasons I will explain in a moment. And while the Jets are more likely to suck it up with Mark Sanchez for another year than pursue any non-Manning solutions at quarterback, they should take a long look at Flynn, who provides something Sanchez cannot offer: touch and accuracy on short passes.
Table 3 shows Sanchez’s statistics on passes that travel 15 or fewer yards in the air, as well as Flynn’s stats and the league average. Yes, Flynn’s stats are based on just one game with an outstanding group of receivers. The table still shows that Sanchez is below average as a short-range passer, which is bad news because he is downright awful as a deep passer. Flynn, on the other hand, has the potential to be much better.
Table 3: Short Pass Percentages
Flynn is an unknown commodity, of course, and his career could fall off the rails quickly if he joins a team such as the Jaguars, who have multiple needs and are looking for a quick fix at quarterback. With the Jets, Flynn has the benefit of a solid, veteran receiving corps, a good offensive line and a defense that will keep him out of shootouts. He would not have to be Aaron Rodgers Jr. to succeed. An accurate ball distributor could help the Jets win a lot of 21-10 games. Sanchez is not that player. Flynn may well be. And while he won’t come cheap, it will still be at a fraction of the Manning price.
Brent Smith / Reuters
The Player: Peyton Manning, quarterback
The Fit: Seattle Seahawks
The Boost: The Missing Piece
The Internet is flooded with wish fulfillment articles about Manning right now. Wouldn’t it be great if he teamed up with Rex Ryan? Tim Tebow? And wouldn’t it be even greater if he were an automaton who did whatever fans and columnists wanted him to do?
He’s not. He is a veteran free agent with multiple options who has little to prove and does not have to pursue the biggest payday to make ends meet. The Manning who enjoyed 13 years of stability in Indianapolis is not going to run away with a media circus, so forget all the talk about the Jets and Broncos. He is not going to spend the final years of his career butting heads with egomaniac coaches, so cross the Redskins off the list (and the Jets again). Manning wants a stable front office, a well-run organization and a team that can quickly grow into a winner. That team is the Seahawks.
You may not have noticed, but the Seahawks sent five players to the Pro Bowl this year. Four of them were alternates, but the selections of players such as rookie cornerback Brandon Browner show that the Seahawks are loaded with young talent. General manager Jon Schneider earns high marks in league circles as a personnel guru who knows how to fill a whole roster, and Pete Carroll has tempered his “player’s coach” reputation with a more disciplined approach. When Manning takes a long look at the Seahawks, he will see a team with solid management, a coherent business model and enough talent to win the division right away. They have depth at running back and a young corps of receivers (including Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate) who will look much better with him throwing them the ball than they did with Tarvaris Jackson at the helm.
Oh yes, Jackson. Nice guy. Hard worker. Not an NFL quarterback. On third downs, Jackson completed just 53.1 percent of his passes and got sacked a whopping 17 times in 162 dropbacks. He threw six interceptions in 78 attempts in the last two minutes of halves, turning every two-minute drill into a crisis. Jackson’s tendency to take too many sacks made the Seahawks offensive line look worse than it was. Jackson absorbed 42 sacks, but the Seahawks line is loaded with talented youngsters such as left tackle Russell Okung and Max Unger. (Backup quarterback Charlie Whitehurst was worse, somehow getting dumped eight times in 56 attempts). Once Manning looks at the film, he will see how quickly everything can fit into place once the Seahawks acquire a top-shelf quarterback. Like him.
The Seahawks also have about $30-million in cap space and one of the richest owners in the league in Paul Allen. They play in a region with a high quality-of-life factor. Seattle will roll out the red carpet for Manning without suffocating him with media hype. Manning looked great on the front pages of some New York papers on Thursday, but livability is a huge factor for aging free agents who can write their ticket anywhere. As Cliff Lee pointed out last year, New York ain’t for everybody.
Manning and the Seahawks: perfect together. It’s a sentiment you are going to hear 30 more times in the next few weeks, about 30 other cities.
Mike Tanier writes for NBCSports.com and Rotoworld.com and is a senior writer for Football Outsiders.
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