Who Is the Best Player on the NFL Free-Agent Market?

Ryan RiddleCorrespondent IMarch 6, 2013

At the frantic rate NFL teams are re-signing and franchising their key players before the fervor of free agency is underway, the best available mercenary might be an over-the-hill veteran or a young buck with one distinguishing season under his belt.  

Even if we happen to hit on three coveted qualities of any free agent—youth, talent and production—we still must contend with possible character concerns, which are commonly found in such guys who hit the open market.

In deciding the best free agent available, it seemed only logical to disregard all restricted free agents considering their current team has the right to match any offer made on them. Restricted free agents also require their new team to give up compensatory picks in the draft. This makes acquiring a restricted free agent highly unlikely. Had I considered this category, Victor Cruz would be at the top of the list.

For me, the best available free agent really became a decision between three highly talented individuals: Jake Long, Greg Jennings and Mike Wallace. Though both receivers mentioned are fantastic free-agent options, the rare opportunity to snag an elite left tackle with a number of valuable years left in him is just too hard to pass up.

There was a time, not too long ago, when Long’s name was in every legitimate discussion regarding the best left tackle in football. Nowadays, he seems to be falling out of favor with front-office executives who expect they’ll have to pay a premium price for his services. Long is reportedly seeking annual compensation in the vicinity of $11 million.

Long may have slipped a bit over the last couple of seasons, but does that really mean his best days are behind him? Absolutely not. When it comes to talking numbers at the negotiating table, it might benefit those teams interested to make such a case.

For the most part, an offensive lineman’s skills rarely erode so early in his career. Long is not even 28 years old, yet talk about his demise after two perceived down seasons seems to be the current pulse of most media members—and likely the Dolphins as well, even though they’ve publicly expressed interest in re-signing him.


Why Would the Dolphins Let Long Hit the Open Market?

For starters, they made the tough decision not to franchise Long, opting instead to apply the tag to defensive tackle Randy Starks. There could still be an outside chance that Long and the Dolphins manage to come together on a deal before free agency begins on March 12. However, all indications are that they’ll let him test the market.

At this point, Long would likely come with a cap figure Miami does not want to pay. Miami is already in “deep talks” with its leading receiver from a year ago, Brian Hartline, as reported by NFL.com’s Albert Breer. He’s expected to earn anywhere from $6 million to $6.5 million per year—a pretty big payday for a guy of limited potential.

The Dolphins do have about $36.5 million of free cap space after factoring in Randy Starks’ franchise tender of $8.45 million. This may seem like they have plenty of wiggle room, but they still have several of their own free agents they're hoping to re-sign, including Long. Miami also hopes to land at least a few free agents from other teams and must save some room for this possibility.


Long is the Best Available Free Agent

For all the talk about Long’s declining ability in recent years, I decided to pull some interesting numbers from Pro Football Focus, which does a fantastic job at providing statistics for offensive linemen. 

According to a three-year breakdown of pass-blocking efficiency prior to the 2012 season, Jake Long finished second behind only Joe Thomas of Cleveland, which included all offensive tackles in the NFL. This measure came from looking at pass protections and the total amount of pressures (sacks, hits and hurries) given up by a player relative to their opportunity on the field.

In 3,423 snaps in pass protection at left tackle, dating all the way back to 2008, Long has given up only 21 sacks. By contrast, Arizona’s rookie right tackle Bobby Massie gave up 13 sacks last season in only 708 pass-block attempts.

When looking at accolades, Long’s short career only gets more impressive. In 2009, he was named second-team All-Pro, and in 2010, he was upgraded to the first team. Long has made the Pro Bowl four out of his five seasons in the NFL.

Looking beyond the numbers, Jake Long has been a great presence in the locker room and has demonstrated nothing but high-quality character both on and off the field. He is a talented athlete for his size (6’7”, 319 pounds) who plays with ferocity and an intense competitiveness which can compensate for his lack of foot speed at times.

Long is still one of the best offensive tackles in the NFL. No other free agent currently available is anywhere close to being one of the best at their respective positions other than this former No. 1 overall pick back in 2008.


Possible Landing Spots for Long

There is always a high premium on talented left tackles in the NFL, especially with today’s pass-happy offenses. But which teams could really use a guy like Jake Long, and what places would be best suited for his particular skill set?

Arizona: This team needs an immediate overhaul to its offensive line. It featured one of the worst displays of blocking in recent memory.

Jacksonville: The Jaguars need talent in almost any position they can get it. Long would give their offense a major boost from day one. His influence in the locker room would also be huge for this team.

Green Bay: Aaron Rodgers was getting dirty way too often for Packer fans. Green Bay must do a better job protecting the best player in the league. Long would help immediately with this issue while also providing a potential boost in an otherwise-dormant running game.

Chicago: It’s no secret Jay Cutler has taken a beating. Long can provide valuable insurance in keeping its often-frustrated quarterback happy.

Miami: If the market proves to be dry for Long, he will always be welcomed back with the Dolphins...at a significant discount, of course.