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Predicting landing spots for NFL’s top 10 free agents

Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL is about to embark on what promises to be the busiest week on the league’s calendar — free agency. As we’ve seen over the past several years, free agency week has been filled with teams throwing a ridiculous amount of cash to those on the open market.

This March is going to be no different. There’s a ton of top-end talent set to cash in big time. Making things even better on the open market, the NFL’s salary cap has increased by another $10-plus million. Teams have a lot of cash to spend.

It’s in this that we look at the top-10 impending free agents and give you our predictions about where they will end up.

1. Le’Veon Bell, running back

We’re really not sure what type of market is going to greet Bell once free agency opens. In the past, teams just don’t value running backs at the same clip as other positions. Add in the fact that he sat out all of last year, and that’s magnified further. How the market does play out could expand the number of interested suitors.

For now, we’re going to conclude that only a handful of teams have the cap space to pay Bell what he’s demanding. Among those teams, the Indianapolis Colts make perfect sense. They currently have north of $105 million to spend under the cap. Teaming Bell up with Andrew Luck in the backfield would created a juggernaut. Look for GM Chris Ballard and Co. to seriously consider it. Team: Indianapolis Colts

2. Trey Flowers, EDGE

Now that the New England Patriots have not placed the franchise tag on Flowers, the expectation has to be that he’ll leave in free agency. Bill Belichick has never been one to retain his free agents unless it’s cost effective. Just ask Nate Solder, Malcolm Butler and Dion Lewis last March.

The market for Flowers, 25, is going to be absolutely through the roof. He’s led the Pats in sacks each of the past three seasons — tallying up a total of 20.5 in the process. He’s also recorded an eye-opening 59 quarterback hits during that span. Given his likely market, we’re going to predict that the pass-rush starved Oakland Raiders land Flowers. Even after trading Khalil Mack, head coach and de facto general manager Jon Gruden has noted how important pass rush is. Flowers would fix that issue immediately. Team: Oakland Raiders

3. Earl Thomas, safety

It’s already a foregone conclusion that Thomas will leave the Seattle Seahawks after earning six Pro Bowl appearances over nine seasons with the team. Initial indications were that Thomas wanted to sign with his home state Dallas Cowboys. That’s no longer a possibility after it was reported Thomas wants to become the NFL’s highest-paid safety.

In a free-agent market inundated with top-end safeties, we’re going to predict that Thomas sticks it to his former Seahawks team by joining longtime teammate Richard Sherman with the San Francisco 49ers. GM John Lynch has noted that the team wants a starter-caliber free safety. Thomas remains one of the best in the NFL. With north of $66 million to spend under the cap, it makes too much sense for this not to happen. Team: San Francisco 49ers

4. Anthony Barr, linebacker

Barr’s market is going to be interesting in that some teams might view him as a pass rusher a majority of the time. Certainly, the stats back him up. The four-time Pro Bowler excelled in that role for the Vikings while also being tasked to drop back in coverage and stop the run. He’s one of the best all-around 4-3 backers in the game and will get paid like it.

Following the decision to release fellow linebacker Jamie Collins, the Browns find themselves nearly $82 million under the cap. Without a doubt, general manager John Dorsey and Co. are going to be extremely active in free agency. Barr would be a tremendous fit on the strong side — the same position he played in Minnesota. Team: Cleveland Browns

5. Landon Collins, safety

The New York Giants’ decision not to franchise tag Collins puts one of the NFL’s best safeties on the market. Sure the 25-year-old Collins went through an injury-plagued and somewhat down 2018 campaign. Even then, he was able to earn a third consecutive Pro Bowl appearance for what has been a bad Giants team.

We’re expecting a strong market for Collins’ services after he racked up 32 passes defended and eight interceptions in four seasons with the Giants. Among those likely interested in Collins, the Kansas City Chiefs make the most sense. Even if Eric Berry were to return healthy after playing just three games over the past two seasons, Kansas City needs that in-the-box safety. Collins certainly fits the mold. Team: Kansas City Chiefs

6. C.J. Mosley, linebacker

Yet another player we’re surprised to see hit the open market, this former first-round pick of the Ravens earned four Pro Bowl appearances in five seasons in Baltimore. This past year alone, Mosley recorded 105 tackles, six tackles for loss and five passes defended. He remains one of the better coverage backers in the game.

The Green Bay Packers have been linked big time to pass rushers in free agency. We fully expect an active GM in Brian Gutekunst to address that area. But Mosley should be the primary target. Inside linebacker has been an issue for the Packers over the past several seasons. They’d fix this with one of the game’s best at that position. Team: Green Bay Packers

7. Tyrann Mathieu, safety

Honey Badger more than proved his was back to his pre-injury self in his first season with Houston in 2018. The former All-Pro safety recorded 89 tackles, eight passes defended and two interceptions. This came after he signed a short-term deal with the Texans following a surprise release from Arizona. At 26 years old, Mathieu is still in his prime.

While some are looking for Jon Gruden and the Raiders to address offense in free agency, we’re going in another direction. After predicting them to sign Trey Flowers earlier, we’re doubling down on that side of the ball. After all, a true center fielder in the secondary would be huge for this unit. Team: Oakland Raiders

8. Ezekiel Ansah, EDGE

After missing all but seven games to injury and recording just four sacks last season, Ansah’s market will be intriguing. He was coming off a 2017 campaign that saw the former top-10 pick put up 12 sacks en route to seeing Detroit hand him the franchise tag. How said market plays out could very well determine where Ansah lands as he enters his Age-30 season.

The 49ers obviously come to mind here. Their new defensive line coach Kris Kocurek coached Ansah through tremendous seasons with Detroit. Meanwhile, San Francisco personnel man Martin Mayhew was the Lions’ general manager when they draft Ansah back in 2013. In need of edge pass rush help, this is the direction Kyle Shanahan and Co. might go. Team: San Francisco 49ers

9. Preston Smith, EDGE

Consistently above average. That would be the best way to describe the 26-year-old Smith during his four years with the Washington Redskins. The former second-round pick recorded 59 quarterback hits and 24.5 sacks during that span. Helping matters for Smith in free agency is the fact that he can play both outside linebacker and with his hands in the dirt.

After seeing their top-two sack getters either play defensive tackle or linebacker last season, the Colts are in desperate need of edge pass rush help in their 4-3 scheme. That’s where the 276-pound Smith would be a perfect fit. And as noted before, Indianapolis has a ton of cash to spend in free agency. This is a logical fit. Team: Indianapolis Colts

10. Sheldon Richardson, defensive tackle

This former Pro Bowler with the New York Jets settled on a one-year contract in Minnesota last offseason as a way to build up his free-agent stock. The 28-year-old Richardson did just that — recording 16 quarterback hits and 4.5 sacks. At this point, it seems Richardson is in line for the long-term deal he’s been seeking.

With no shortage of teams interested in Richardson’s services, we’re going to predict he lands with the defending champion Patriots. Incumbent starting defensive tackle Malcom Brown is slated to become a free agent. Richardson provides a ton more from an interior pass-rush perspective — something the team has been missing. Team: New England Patriots