Top NFL free agents: Where they will sign versus where they should
Once again, Redskins could set the market with first big signing
It would be hard for Darren Sharper to improve situation he has with Saints
New England makes sense for Thomas Jones and would irk division-rival Jets
With the demise of the NFL's salary cap dramatically changing the landscape, free agency is such an unknown this year that one club executive told me this week the only thing he knows for sure is Washington will throw money around like it's playing Monopoly.
Thank goodness we can count on something in this uncapped year. Consistency of approach isn't something the Redskins usually get high marks for, but in terms of free agency spending, they're the only compass we have.
"The feeling we get is that nobody's going to be very active in free agency except for the Redskins,'' the club executive said. "We're hearing they have significant interest in Julius Peppers and Darren Sproles.''
So with that familiar March refrain -- "the Redskins want him'' -- we plunge into a free agency period that promises to be like none other. It begins at 12:01 a.m. Friday, but where it will lead, no one can be sure. Here's a preview of the 10 free-agent names to know, with our projection of where they will sign, and where they should sign. For the purposes of this list, no restricted free agents are considered, unless their teams failed to tender them. Let the bidding begin.
Julius Peppers, defensive end
Where he will sign: Washington -- The Redskins are poised to come after the ex-Panthers franchise player with their go-to combination of Daniel Snyder's private jet and a Brink's truck, which seems to work every time. Washington has been signing the biggest available fish in free agency for so long now we really can't remember when the Redskins weren't the market setters.
The Bears have money to spend too, and with no picks in the first two rounds of the draft (see Jay Cutler and Gaines Adams trades), they're motivated to make something happen in free agency. The Eagles may not match dollars with Washington or Chicago, but if Peppers wants to play for a winner, Philly offers an opportunity the Redskins and Bears can't dangle or duplicate.
Where he should sign: New England -- If Peppers is serious about wanting to approach greatness and try his hand rushing the passer as a 3-4 outside linebacker, his best shot to realize those goals is with the Patriots. New England won't throw the biggest contract at Peppers, but Adalius Thomas aside, its biggest free-agent acquisitions usually prosper from the move to Foxboro.
Karlos Dansby, linebacker
Where he will sign: New York Giants -- With six years of NFL service under his belt, Dansby is one of the few big-name free agents who is perfectly situated for this year's unrestricted class. In New York he would be the centerpiece upgrade of a defense that is now led by new coordinator Perry Fewell, and would walk into the middle linebacker role vacated by Antonio Pierce's departure. Miami has need for an inside linebacker as well, and the lure of playing in a Bill Parcells-style defense could be strong. Expect Washington to be in the bidding, too, especially if the Redskins don't land Peppers.
Where he should sign: New York Giants -- As they move into their new Meadowlands stadium, the G-Men should be poised for a big bounce back on defense next season, with safety Kenny Phillips healthy and Fewell getting more out of that underachieving defensive line. Dansby would be a big part of the improvement and there's nothing like success in the NFL's largest media market to really kick-start the second half of one's career.
Darren Sproles, running back
Where he will sign: Washington -- The Chargers came to the conclusion that as a situational back, Sproles wasn't worth the $7 million-plus price tag he was in line for if they tendered him as a restricted free agent. But Mike Shanahan covets him from his days competing against San Diego in the AFC West, and the Redskins have been known to overpay for skill players in free agency (Antwaan Randle El and Brandon Lloyd come to mind).
Where he should sign: Philadelphia -- The Eagles are reportedly interested, and if so, Sproles would fill the third-down back/return man role quite nicely. With no Brian Westbrook around to throw the ball to any more, the Eagles would let Sproles inherit the same role he enjoyed his greatest success with in San Diego. The Eagles have LeSean McCoy to carry the rushing load, and Sproles would add yet another electrifying young playmaker in Philly.
Dunta Robinson, cornerback
Where he will sign: Tampa Bay -- The Bucs clearly won't break the bank for the former Texans franchise player, but if Robinson's market turns out to be soft and the price tag is reasonable, the Bucs could target him and land a youthful (27) but experienced option (six-year veteran) to replace the aging Ronde Barber, who turns 35 in April. Other teams expected to shop in the cornerback market this offseason include the Falcons, Vikings, Titans and Packers.
Where he should sign: Tennessee -- The Titans have faced Robinson twice a year for six seasons now in the AFC South, and they probably know his work as well as anyone. Though his play hasn't lived up to his first-round billing for quite a while now, Robinson is still an athletic young corner, and not many of those make it to unrestricted free agency. In the past, Tennessee has shown a tendency to sign free agents away from a division opponent, thereby weakening a rival (Nick Harper and David Thornton were ex-Colts).
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