NFL Insiders predict: Answering biggest 2018 free-agency questions

Mayfield not scared to join Giants or Browns (1:46)

Baker Mayfield covers the advantages of landing in New York behind Eli Manning or in Cleveland with the winless Browns and how he will stay humble in the NFL. (1:46)

The NFL offseason is heating up, but March 14 is when the real fun begins -- it's when free agency kicks off (4 p.m. ET). Our panel of ESPN NFL Insiders takes a closer look at the upcoming free-agent market, answering questions on the biggest topics in the league.

Final question: When the free-agency frenzy is over, which team will be declared the winner?

The topics our panel has hit so far (click each link below to see the answers):

When free agency ends, which team is your pick to be declared the "winner"?

Dan Graziano, national NFL writer: 49ers. They are still absolutely loaded with cap space, even after dumping $37 million of it into Jimmy Garoppolo and signing receiver Marquise Goodwin to an extension. The Niners are going to be the offseason and preseason darlings thanks to their hot finish and how much everyone loves their young quarterback. And they're likely to do more spending to address other needs. This is my predicted destination for cornerback Trumaine Johnson, for example.

Kevin Seifert, national NFL writer: Browns. No team has more salary-cap space, and no general manager has more of a mandate to improve his team immediately than John Dorsey. A veteran quarterback, the prospect of a young quarterback in the draft and some defensive improvements will work to spur external celebration.

Mina Kimes, senior writer: 49ers. San Francisco is already winning the summer thanks to their big move in February: signing a relatively team-friendly deal with Garoppolo. It's all gravy from here. The Niners have enough money to go after top-tier running backs, corners and linemen, and it seems inevitable that they'll be given high marks for their offseason work.

Field Yates, NFL Insider: Rams. While neither were free-agent acquisitions, the Rams already have secured cornerback Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, which allows them to turn their attention to in-house priorities. If the team can find a way to retain wide receiver Sammy Watkins -- with defensive back Lamarcus Joyner already franchise-tagged -- that's an impressive step for one of the NFL's fastest-rising squads.

Matt Bowen, NFL writer: 49ers. San Francisco is already ahead given the new deal with Garoppolo, and it still has plenty of cash to be aggressive through free agency. This gives the 49ers the ability to upgrade in the secondary, along the offensive line and possibly add another edge rusher on defense or take a look at the wide receiver market.

Mike Sando, senior NFL writer: Rams. After adding cornerbacks Peters and Talib, the Rams could re-sign both Aaron Donald and Todd Gurley, which would offset the departures of Alec Ogletree and Robert Quinn from a perception standpoint. The 49ers and Browns are also in position to win the offseason. Cleveland should get high marks for adding Dorsey as general manager, and the Browns' unprecedented haul of draft selections will look great on paper.

Aaron Schatz, editor-in-chief of Football Outsiders: 49ers. San Francisco is going to be everyone's hot sleeper pick for the 2018 season, in pretty much every way imaginable, which, in turn, makes the Niners not really a sleeper at all.

Next up: The Jets part ways with Muhammad Wilkerson two years after he signed a big deal. Where's the best spot for him to restart his career?

Where's the best spot for talented D-lineman Muhammad Wilkerson to restart his career?

Bowen: Chicago. The Bears have plenty of cap space to explore free agency, and Wilkerson would fit as that 3-4 DE in defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's base package. Plus, with the versatility to move along the front in Chicago's nickel/dime sets, Wilkerson would give Fangio more flexibility on passing downs to create interior matchups.

Sando: Green Bay. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine was with the Jets when Wilkerson entered the league and played some of his better ball. The Packers also could become more aggressive in free agency under new general manager Brian Gutekunst.

Schatz: Houston. There are plenty of teams with a need at defensive line, but Houston is near the top of the league in salary-cap room and could offer Wilkerson money, playoff contention (thanks to the return of Deshaun Watson) and an opportunity to make plays. Imagine Wilkerson at one 5-technique spot opposite J.J. Watt, with Jadeveon Clowney or Whitney Mercilus behind him rushing off the edge. He would never, ever see a double-team.

Seifert: Seattle. Michael Bennett's departure, along with Sheldon Richardson's pending free agency, creates an opening. The Seahawks have a history of taking chances to maintain -- or, in this case, elevate -- their defensive talent.

Yates: Green Bay. The Packers don't often dig deep into the free-agent market, but after being released by the Jets, Wilkerson is what is known as a street free agent -- meaning he can be signed at any time and does not count toward the compensatory-draft-pick formula. Wilkerson could rejuvenate his career under Pettine, who coached him during his first two pro seasons (2011 and 2012). Green Bay is looking for defensive help this offseason (more likely in the secondary), but this would be a unique opportunity to add a talented 28-year old.

Next up: The Browns have a ton of cap space, the Nos. 1 and 4 picks in the 2018 NFL draft and a void at quarterback. What will they do in the offseason?

Will the Browns take a QB in the first round, sign a veteran QB, or both?

Pat McManamon, ESPN Browns reporter: Both. The Browns are not going to pass on this opportunity to truly strengthen a position they have left needy for years. They likely will draft a quarterback first, and they will make a serious run at a veteran -- with AJ McCarron the most likely target.

Graziano: Both. I believe the Browns will take their favorite quarterback at No. 1 (whomever that may be -- I say either Sam Darnold or Josh Allen) and also sign a veteran to act as a bridge. Josh McCown makes a lot of sense for that latter role, as he wouldn't stand in the way once the kid is ready. Hue Jackson favorite McCarron is another strong possibility.

Seifert: Both. Look back at general manager John Dorsey's executive history in Kansas City and Green Bay. He has never been part of a team that decided to start a rookie quarterback. He already has attempted to acquire Alex Smith and won't stop there even though he missed. Nor will he pass up the opportunity to draft a blue-chip quarterback while he is in position to do so.

Yates: Both. While it's hard to say anything is a certainty in the NFL offseason, doesn't it feel like we are tumbling toward a pairing of McCarron plus the No. 1 pick in the draft at quarterback? That appeases Jackson while also allowing Dorsey to fill a long-term need.

Sando: Both. They will land a veteran such as Tyrod Taylor or McCarron and then use a first-round pick on another quarterback.

Kimes: Both. Like many of my colleagues, I expect the team to go after McCarron and take a quarterback at the top of the draft. My second choice for the team is Sam Bradford, though I also think it's possible that they'll trade a second-round pick (they have three of them!) for Nick Foles.

Bowen: Both. The Browns are in a position to add a veteran and still use that No. 1 pick on a rookie signal-caller. This would give Jackson the veteran he needs to run his system in 2018 while Cleveland gets the quarterback of the future through the draft. The best rookie fit? Don't sleep on Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield given his accuracy and fit for the NFL's shift in offensive philosophy to more play-action, run-pass options and quick passing.

Schatz: Both. I agree that the Browns will be flying into McCarron Airport and that AJ is going to be just a placeholder for whichever quarterback they draft with the No. 1 overall pick. I think the Browns' plan was always to take long-shot fliers on quarterbacks the first two years while they built the rest of the team, but if those long-shot fliers (Cody Kessler, DeShone Kizer) didn't pan out, they would finally use a top pick on a passer in Year 3 of the current rebuild.

Next up: The Patriots benched Malcolm Butler in Super Bowl LII, again calling into question their long-term plan for the cornerback. Now he's about to be a free agent. Where will he play next season?

Where will Malcolm Butler be playing in 2018?

Bowen: San Francisco. The Niners have the cap space and a need at cornerback. Butler's technique, tackling and man-coverage skill set would upgrade their secondary and give them a cornerback with the ability to challenge routes outside of the numbers.

Graziano: Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers are going to go all-in this offseason to improve their defense. They have a massive need for a pass-rusher, but they aren't likely to find great solutions in free agency. I could definitely see them making a big-splash move for a former Super Bowl hero.

Kimes: Indianapolis. The Colts had the worst pass defense in the NFL last season, according to Football Outsiders, and they have a sizable amount of cap space.

Sando: Houston. The Texans have the need and could be a comfortable fit from a scheme standpoint. They also have some ties to New England. Detroit was another team that came to mind, depending on what role former New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia (now the Lions' head coach) did or did not play in the Patriots' decision to sit Butler in Super Bowl LII.

Schatz: San Francisco. The 49ers have cap space and need improvement at cornerback -- both outside and inside. They ranked No. 30 in DVOA on passes to No. 1 receivers last season and No. 32 on passes to slot receivers.

Seifert Seattle. Who knows better how Butler can win a game? Injuries and age have deteriorated the Seahawks' secondary. We'll see if Seattle recognizes the need as well.

Yates: Houston. The Texans have a massive need at the position, something that dates back in part to electing not to use the franchise tag last offseason on A.J. Bouye, who would go on to sign a lucrative deal with Jacksonville. In Houston, the system run under defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel is familiar to Butler, while Butler is familiar to members of the Texans organization. Venerable scout Frantzy Jourdain was with the Patriots previously and was the first set of eyes for New England on Butler when he was a largely overlooked prospect out of West Alabama.

Mike Reiss, ESPN Patriots reporter: Not in New England. Not after what happened in Super Bowl LII. Butler visited the Saints in restricted free agency last year, but their corner spot has since been solidified through the draft. So a team like the Jets -- or any looking for a competitive 28-year-old corner at the midlevel financial range of free agency -- could make a lot of sense.

Next up: Jimmy Graham is slated to hit the open market. Could a reunion with Drew Brees in New Orleans be on the horizon?

Where will tight end Jimmy Graham land in free agency?

Bowen: Houston. The Texans have the cap space, and Graham could be a key matchup piece in their heavy play-action scheme with Deshaun Watson back on the field at quarterback. Landing Graham also would give Watson another top red zone weapon to pair with standout wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins.

Graziano: Baltimore. The Ravens need all kinds of pass-catchers, including one at tight end. I say they make a play for Graham as they try to put more playmakers around Joe Flacco to see whether he can help them make one more run before it's all over.

Kimes: Denver. While Graham struggled at times last season in Seattle, he did one thing very well: scored touchdowns (10). The Broncos, who have a need at tight end, had the worst red zone efficiency percentage in the league. Adding Graham could be cost prohibitive if they sign Cousins, but it would help an offense that sorely needs a steady red zone threat.

Sando: New England. Graham seems like the type of player who could occasionally make a shorter-term stop with the Patriots.

Schatz: New Orleans. Did you realize that the Saints were dead last in receiving yards by tight ends last year? A reunion with Drew Brees in New Orleans makes a ton of sense.

Seifert: New Orleans. If the Saints are going to make one (expensive) last run with Brees, it makes sense to maximize their chances. Graham can still give the Saints an elite red zone presence, which they were pretty good at capitalizing on during his first tenure.

Yates: Detroit. While Eric Ebron is currently scheduled to play out the final year of his rookie deal in 2018, the Lions could certainly use some depth at the position, and, frankly, Graham is a better player than Ebron. The team needs players who can beat man coverage. And while Graham isn't as quick as he was earlier in his career, his 6-foot-7 frame makes him open even when he's covered.

Brady Henderson, ESPN Seahawks reporter: New Orleans. The Saints have a need at tight end and ample cap space to absorb a contract that could be cheaper on average than the four-year, $40 million deal they gave Graham in 2014. Graham would reunite with Brees while returning to an offense in which he has thrived and one that does not ask him to block. That could be enticing enough to overcome whatever hard feelings linger from Graham's franchise tag dispute with the Saints and their decision to trade him to Seattle in 2015.

Next up: We know there will be a big sweepstakes for Kirk Cousins. But who are the under-the-radar free agents that teams will get into bidding wars over?

Who's an under-the-radar free agent likely to be in a bidding war?

Bowen: Lamarcus Joyner, S, Los Angeles Rams. Joyner doesn't have the national recognition at the safety position, but his tape is legit and his versatility in the secondary meshes with the modern game. Joyner can play over the top as a deep safety in the middle of the field, roll down to cover in the slot and has some thunder in his pads on contact. You want a defensive chess piece to counter today's NFL offenses? Make a run at Joyner.

Graziano: Paul Richardson, WR, Seattle Seahawks. With Jarvis Landry franchised and the possibility of Sammy Watkins and Allen Robinson also getting tagged, you could make the case that the 25-year-old Richardson is the next-best wide receiver on the market. He was a pretty good deep threat in a Seattle offense that didn't feature enough pass protection to really maximize a deep threat. Some teams will see potential there and pay for a player his age.

Kimes: Patrick Robinson, CB, Philadelphia Eagles. He's no longer flying that far below the radar thanks to the Eagles' Super Bowl run, but the 30-year-old defensive back had a surprisingly great season, allowing just 54.5 percent of passes to be caught in the slot, according to Pro Football Focus. Because of his age, he probably won't break the bank, but I still think a few teams will vie for the veteran after his breakout year.

Sando: Trent Murphy, OLB, Washington Redskins. Murphy is under the radar after missing last season with a torn ACL. He also faces a four-game suspension upon his return. Murphy did have nine sacks for the Redskins in 2016, and outside pass-rushers can be difficult to find. (Ezekiel Ansah getting the franchise tag did not help.)

Schatz: Nate Solder, OT, New England Patriots. Solder has anchored one of the league's top offensive lines over the past few years. The Patriots drafted his heir apparent last year, although Tony Garcia ended up spending the season on injured reserve. The bidding war here is not only financial, between the Patriots and other teams that need a left tackle. There's also an emotional component, as there has been a lot of talk in New England that Solder might want to retire at the end of his current contract to concentrate on care for his son, who has pediatric kidney cancer.

Seifert: Rashaan Melvin, CB, Indianapolis Colts. According to scientific research, 6-foot-2 cornerbacks don't grow on trees. Everyone loves height at that position, and Melvin's recent hiring of agent Drew Rosenhaus suggests he understands that. He would be smart to hit the market.

Yates: Trey Burton, TE, Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles' jack-of-all-trades tight end was the pass-thrower in the now famous "Philly Special" play, which was emblematic of his versatility. He can be a starting-level tight end, an ideal No. 2 tight end or a core special-teamer. He's the real deal.

Next up: The Dolphins placed the franchise tag on wide receiver Jarvis Landry. Will the two parties be able to work out a long-term deal, or could Miami trade him?

Jarvis Landry will be playing for the _____ in 2018.

Sando: Miami Dolphins. I think the Dolphins are motivated to trade Landry, but how many teams will be motivated to acquire -- and then pay -- a limited receiver deemed expendable by his own offensively anemic team? Landry ranks third in receptions since 2014 with 400. However, he has only five scoring receptions on passes that traveled at least 5 yards past the line of scrimmage. That is tied with Tavon Austin, among others, for 121st in the league over the past four seasons.

Schatz: Baltimore Ravens. Quarterback Joe Flacco is the king of short completions that aren't actually successful plays for the offense. It's only appropriate to give him the top receiver in short completions that aren't actually successful plays for the offense.

Seifert: Ravens. Flacco led the NFL in 2017 with 241 attempts that traveled 5 or fewer yards past the line of scrimmage. If he's going to throw short passes, the Ravens might as well pursue a slot receiver who excels at catching them.

Yates: Chicago Bears. There might not be a team more desperate for depth at wide receiver than the Bears, whose depleted core hamstrung rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky in 2017. Chicago has the cap space to acquire Landry, who would get a lot of targets under new coach Matt Nagy.

Graziano: Ravens. I still see the Dolphins either pulling this tag or trading Landry, and the Ravens have a desperate enough need at receiver (and a deep enough defense) to be able to get a deal done.

Kimes: Cleveland Browns. As we all know, the Browns have cap space and assets -- and they're going to have to bolster their arsenal of offensive weapons in order to set up their new quarterback for success. Pairing the versatile and reliable Landry with Josh Gordon would immediately create one of the best receiver tandems in the league.

Bowen: Ravens. The Ravens lacked efficiency in the passing game last season, and Flacco's third-down numbers were dismal. Making a move to trade for Landry gives the Ravens a middle-of-the-field target out of the slot on high-percentage throws. Think of short-to-intermediate routes in which Flacco can work the ball between the numbers and move the sticks. That's where Landry can excel.

Next up: Kirk Cousins is the top free agent on the market, but the teams who seem to be interested in breaking the bank to sign him are dwindling. Where will he sign, and how much guaranteed money will he get?

Kirk Cousins will get $ _____ million guaranteed in his deal with the _______.

Graziano: $70 million fully guaranteed at signing (beating Matthew Stafford's record of $60.5 million) and $100 million in injury guarantees (beating Stafford's record of $97 million) from the New York Jets. The Vikings, Broncos and Cardinals will all make strong pushes, but the Jets' offer will top them all.

John Keim, ESPN Redskins reporter: $87 million guaranteed from the Minnesota Vikings. Of course, this depends on the Vikings going away from Case Keenum and Teddy Bridgewater. Cousins would have an opportunity to join a good franchise, one set up to win now and for the next several years -- but he might have to spurn bigger offers to do so.

Seifert: $71 million guaranteed from the Broncos. That's what it will take to outbid the Jets, who might be more aggressive but offer less in the way of long-term hopes.

Sando: $90 million guaranteed from the Vikings. The Vikings have made it clear they're not overly excited about Case Keenum. They aren't drafting early enough to snag one of the top quarterbacks from the college ranks. While Denver is where I initially thought Cousins might land, all signs have pointed toward Minnesota since the combine. (Answer updated on March 7, after discussions with people around the league.)

Bowen: $70 million guaranteed from the Jets. Denver and Arizona also will make a strong push for the veteran QB, but I think New York wins out. Cousins is a good fit for new offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates, who can design a game plan to cater to Cousins' strengths.

Schatz: $70 million guaranteed, and I still think the Broncos are the best match for him.

Yates: $75 million fully guaranteed, but I'm not ready to pick a team just yet. Guarantees are a bit tricky to calculate, so with the idea in mind that Cousins' guarantees (for injury only) could approach nine figures, a $75 million full guarantee is a reasonable bar to expect.

Next up: Debating Le'Veon Bell's future. The talented Pittsburgh Steelers running back is a free agent again after playing on the franchise tag in 2017. Will he be back in Pittsburgh this season -- and beyond?

True or false: Bell will be playing for the Steelers in 2019.

Jeremy Fowler, ESPN Steelers reporter: True. All principals involved in the negotiations -- from player to team president to general manager -- have expressed optimism for an extension, something the Steelers typically don't do without conviction. The Steelers can structure any contract with reasonable escape clauses after two to three years to account for potential declines in Bell's game, and they are eager to keep the "Triple B" trio of Bell, Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger intact.

Graziano: False. After one more year on the franchise tag, Bell and the Steelers part ways in 2019, and he signs a lucrative long-term deal with the Seattle Seahawks.

Bowen: False. With Bell playing out the 2018 season on the franchise tag, the running back hits the market entering the 2019 offseason. A destination? The Cleveland Browns are an option if they don't grab Penn State's Saquon Barkley at the top of the draft -- they have the first and fourth picks in the first round. Seattle is a possibility too, given the Seahawks' inability to develop a feature back since the departure of Marshawn Lynch. But for now, I'll say the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where Bell signs a multiyear deal with a value that reflects his impact on the game and rare versatility for the position.

Schatz: False. Add me to the list of people who expect the Steelers to get one more year out of Bell on the franchise tag and then let him depart. The New York Jets seem like the kind of front office that would spend through the nose on a top running back.

Kimes: True. I might be overly optimistic, but the language coming from those in the Steelers' front office this offseason suggests that they're more motivated to get a deal done than they were last year -- and one would think that Bell, who has racked up a massive number of touches over the past few years, could be more amenable as well. Pittsburgh knows how integral he is to its offense, which is why I think the Steelers will come up with an agreement that keeps him in town for at least two more years.

Sando: True. Bell is an elite talent and true difference-maker for the Steelers, which makes him too valuable to let walk while Roethlisberger is holding open the Steelers' championship window. I tend to think the sides will find a way to continue this very productive marriage, perhaps against the odds, as long as Bell is healthy and an elite performer.

Seifert: False. The Steelers, smartly, will go year-to-year at a position where production drops dramatically in most cases after the age of 27. Bell turned 26 in February.

Yates: False. Bell will be playing somewhere other than Pittsburgh in 2019 after playing on the franchise tag again in 2018. The Indianapolis Colts make sense.

We're starting with a deeper look at the Vikings, whose top three quarterbacks from 2017 -- Case Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford -- are all free agents. Minnesota also might be in the Kirk Cousins sweepstakes.

Which quarterback will take the most snaps for Minnesota in 2018?

Sando: Cousins. While Keenum was the favorite coming out of the season and Bridgewater was a reasonable fallback option, Cousins is looking like the Vikings' No. 1 target more recently. Coach Mike Zimmer's recent comments questioning Keenum firmed up that feeling in my mind. (Answer updated on March 7, after discussions with people around the league.)

Courtney Cronin, ESPN Vikings reporter: Bridgewater. I predict the Vikings will end up getting outbid in the Cousins sweepstakes, thus leading them to re-sign two of their pending free-agent quarterbacks. Although Minnesota might use the franchise tag on Keenum, it would make sense to use its cap space to work out deals with Keenum and Bridgewater. The Vikings typically don't have quarterback competitions in training camp, but given the unique nature of their situation, both Bridgewater and Keenum will have a chance to duke it out in camp. It might not be in the beginning of the season, but by some point in 2018, I believe Bridgewater will emerge as the starter.

Bowen: Bridgewater. I expect the Vikings to explore the market for Cousins. But with the Jets, Broncos and possibly more teams jumping into the mix, the price tag is going to rise quickly. That's why I'm looking at a situation in which coach Mike Zimmer & Co. attempt to bring back both Bridgewater and Keenum. With Bridgewater healthy and prepped to go through the entire offseason program, the former first-round pick will edge out Keenum in a daily camp battle for the starting spot.

Seifert: Keenum. Part of the Vikings' public ambivalence could be related to leverage. Declaring a quarterback your guy means you have to pay him that way. There is no doubt that Zimmer loves Bridgewater, but the Vikings know how rarely in their history they have gotten a performance like the one Keenum gave them in 2017. We have no information at the moment that would allow us to project Bridgewater as the superior quarterback.

Yates: Cousins. The Vikings were publicly reticent throughout much of the 2017 regular season to fully and entirely commit to Keenum as the guy, which suggests to me that the team won't overextend to keep him. Cousins, meanwhile, is the rare available quarterback who can shift the winds of a franchise, helping Minnesota -- armed with the financial resources to acquire him -- elevate to another level.

Kimes: Bridgewater. The Vikings have enough cap space to make a run at Cousins, but I think they'll back off when his price tag reaches uncharted territory; Cousins is better than Keenum and Bridgewater, but he's not that much better. It's hard to forecast when Bridgewater will take Keenum's job (I expect the team to keep both quarterbacks), but I still think Bridgewater is Minnesota's long-term plan.

Graziano: Bridgewater. My projected scenario is one in which the Vikings bring back Keenum and Bridgewater, and Bridgewater eventually takes the job away from Keenum -- either in a training camp competition or after Keenum struggles during the regular season. All of this, of course, assumes the Vikings don't sign Cousins. If they break the bank for a quarterback, I'd change my answer to Cousins.

Schatz: Keenum. My guess is that other teams will look at Keenum and say, "Yes, he had one fantastic year, but what is his regression going to look like in our system?" The Vikings are the one team that can look at Keenum and know they have seen evidence he can play well for them. In the same system with the same teammates, there's a better chance he can continue to play at 2017's high level.