Early Look at the 2014 NFL Free Agency Landscape

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor IMarch 16, 2013

Early Look at the 2014 NFL Free Agency Landscape

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    We’re less than a week into the 2013 NFL free agency period.

    So it’s only natural that we start discussing the league’s free agent class of 2014?

    What?

    Here’s a look at just a smattering of some big names that are playing in the final year of their first or latest contracts. We limited this list to a not-so-dirty dozen.

    Now, we’re perfectly aware of the fact that there are eight players out there who were franchised and given one-year tenders. And to date, three of those players (Chicago Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton, Dallas Cowboys linebacker Anthony Spencer and Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson) have signed their tenders. This list won’t include any of those eight players that could possibly sign a long-term deal.

    There are also a number of veterans who were unrestricted free agents this offseason and just re-upped with one-year deals. We’re going to omit them as well for the sake of avoiding 2013 free agency deja vu.

    But one look at the following 12 players and it’s easy to see why they were the choice here. And who knows, by the time the regular season rolls around in September, some or all may have secured future deals.

    All free agent and financial information for the players in this piece comes courtesy of www.spotrac.com.

Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons

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    So much was made about Super Bowl XLVII champion Joe Flacco’s new contract with the Baltimore Ravens.

    Soon, it will be time for the Atlanta Falcons to decide how they want to handle quarterback Matt Ryan’s new deal.

    The third overall pick in the 2008 draft has made steady progress as a passer. During his debut campaign in 2008, Ryan threw 16 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions, leading his team to the playoffs. In each of his next four seasons, his touchdown pass total increased from 22 (2009) to 28 (2010) to 29 (2011) to 32 in 2012.

    Of course, Ryan finally got his first postseason win in four tries this past January, rallying his club in the final minutes to avert a complete collapse against the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional playoffs. And the Pro Bowl passer threw for 396 yards and three touchdowns in the NFC title game loss to the 49ers.

    But Ryan also committed two crucial turnovers as Atlanta blew a 17-0 second-quarter lead in that setback to the Niners.

    Expectations will be high in 2013 for both Ryan and the Falcons, who have been the NFC’s top seed two of the last three years but have yet to make a Super Bowl appearance.

Jay Cutler, QB, Chicago Bears

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    So how would we rate quarterback Jay Cutler’s tenure with the Chicago Bears?

    Good? Bad? Ugly?

    How about incomplete?

    In four seasons in the Windy City, Cutler is 34-22 as a starter, throwing 82 touchdown passes compared to 63 interceptions. But he’s also been sacked a whopping 148 times in those 56 games, and the Bears have made just one playoff appearance over that span. Cutler has also missed at least one start due to injury in each of the past three seasons.

    There’s a relatively new regime in town with general manager Phil Emery and first-time NFL head coach Marc Trestman, the latter replacing Lovie Smith following nine seasons on the job. It will be interesting to see how Cutler produces under Trestman this season.

    Chicago made some key free-agent additions this offseason in left tackle Jermon Bushrod (meaning J’Marcus Webb moves to right tackle) and tight end Martellus Bennett. Let’s see if one or both will help keep Cutler and the Bears' playoff chances upright in 2013.

Tony Romo, QB, Dallas Cowboys

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    What’s the going rate for a rollercoaster?

    What’s been interesting for Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo as of late is that he hasn’t been able to put a complete season together each of the last three years, even when he’s been on the field.

    In 2010, the Cowboys signal-caller’s campaign was cut short after six games thanks to a broken collarbone.

    A year later, there were few quarterbacks hotter than Romo the final three months of the season. After a mediocre start in which he threw eight touchdown passes and six interceptions in his first five outings, Romo threw for 23 scores and was picked off just four times in his last 11 games.

    This past season, Romo threw for 19 scores and was picked off just six times in his final nine games, this after throwing nine touchdown passes compared to 13 interceptions in his first seven contests. Unfortunately for Romo, he threw three interceptions in the season-ending loss to the Washington Redskins in the clash for the NFC East title.

    Romo owns a 55-38 career regular-season record as a starter and is a three-time Pro Bowler. He also seems to be the sole reason the Cowboys haven’t succeeded in recent seasons, which is absurdly incorrect.

    As he prepares for his eighth season as the Cowboys' staring quarterback, it will be interesting to see how much of a long-term investment the Cowboys make in him in this what-have-you-done-lately-for-me business.

Darren McFadden, RB, Oakland Raiders

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    What could have been, or what may still be?

    In five NFL seasons, Oakland Raiders running back Darren McFadden has played in a total of 57 games.

    That’s out of 80 possible contests. That means the former Arkansas star has missed 23 games in those five seasons, including at least three games in each of those campaigns.

    McFadden can be electrifying when healthy. His best season came in 2010 when he rolled up 1,664 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns, posting career highs in rushing yards (1,157) and receptions (47) despite (you guessed it) missing three games.

    The Raiders  will begin the second season of the Dennis Allen era. It’s pivotal that McFadden stay healthy. Carson Palmer and (possibly) Terrelle Pryor need the support of a consistent ground game, as do most quarterbacks around the league.

    The ground part hasn’t been the problem. It is consistency and durability that’s the issue. And as McFadden enters his sixth NFL season, it’s time he proves he can stay on the field. Or the Silver and Black may have to make a big decision on the fourth overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft.

Mike Williams, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    With all the attention free-agent addition Vincent Jackson got in Tampa Bay last season, it would have been understandable if wide receiver Mike Williams got a little lost in the mix.

    That certainly wasn’t the case, though, as the former Syracuse star continued to produce on a consistent basis—with the emphasis on consistent.

    In three NFL seasons, Williams has been a 16-game starter each year. He’s totaled 65, 65 and 63 catches, respectively, over that span and totaled 23 touchdown receptions. In 2012, he totaled a career-high 996 yards through the air and averaged a career-best 15.8 yards per grab to go with nine touchdowns.

    Williams and Jackson could be a receiving tandem heard from for some time. But it’s also been a time of changes in Tampa, and Williams is part of the “old” regime.

    It would be hard to imagine the Buccaneers letting the budding star get away. The team just traded former second-round pick Arrelious Benn to the Philadelphia Eagles.

    A year from now, both Williams and New York Giants wideout Hakeem Nicks could be on the open market. It would make for an interesting debate to see who’s the more worthwhile investment.

Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans Saints

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    So far so good for New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham.

    The athletic tight end has had his way with opposing defenses since he emerged as a major part of the Saints’ passing game late in the 2010 season.

    Graham’s rookie season saw him catch 31 passes for 356 yards and five scores, all in the team’s final 11 games. And four of Graham’s touchdowns came in the final three weeks.

    The athletic tight end was a monster in 2011, snaring 99 passes for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns on his way to the Pro Bowl.

    It was obviously a down year for the Saints this past season, but Graham still caught 85 passes for 982 yards and nine scores.

    It’s hard to believe that the organization would even allow Graham to get anywhere near the open market. In any case, with another solid season, he could well be the league’s highest-paid tight end very soon.

Jared Allen, DE, Minnesota Vikings

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    In 2013, Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen will celebrate his 10th season in the NFL. No doubt that there are a lot of quarterbacks around the league who won’t be acknowledging that happy event.

    Since entering the league with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2004, no player has totaled more sacks than Allen, who has dropped opposing quarterbacks 117 times in 141 games.

    He’s done plenty of damage in the Twin Cities, totaling 74.0 sacks in 80 games (all starts) with the Vikings dating back to the team’s acquisition of the former Kansas City Chiefs standout in 2008.

    Allen has a nonstop motor and brings great intensity and consistency to the game. He’s also never totaled fewer than 11.0 sacks in any of his five seasons in Minnesota.

    The Vikings could look to wrap up Allen sometime in the not too distant future because there’s obviously a lot of gas left in the tank of this tank.

Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati Bengals

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    It’s a good time to be arguably the best player on one of the league’s best defenses.

    Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins proved that three times is the charm, as his third season in the NFL opened a lot of eyes.

    There were those who felt that the former fourth-round pick from Georgia in 2010 was the best interior defensive lineman in the league in 2012.

    Atkins finished the season with 53 tackles, 12.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. Those are strong numbers standing alone, but they’re made even more impressive by the steady progression made by the former Bulldog.

    Atkins totaled 3.0 sacks in his rookie season, despite playing in all 16 games—albeit he made just one start. A year later, he was a fixture in the lineup and totaled 7.5 sacks before last year’s breakout campaign.

    The Bengals have a certain reputation when it comes to finances. But that’s a bit misleading considering they’ve drafted a lot of good players in recent years and haven’t let them get away.

    The team used the franchise tag on defensive end Michael Johnson this offseason. And if the Bengals don’t strike a deal with Atkins before the end of the season, he’s seems a certainty to get that same designation in 2014.

Clay Matthews, OLB, Green Bay Packers

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    The good times remain for the franchise with more league titles than any other team.

    Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews burst onto the scene in “Titletown” in 2009, and the franchise has reaped the rewards ever since.

    The former first-round pick has put up double-digit sack totals in three of his first four seasons and has amassed 42.5 sacks in 58 regular season games. Matthews has been named to the Pro Bowl in each of his four NFL campaigns, and he was a major catalyst in the team’s Super Bowl XLV title season in 2010.

    A year ago, he missed a quarter of the season, but all he did was total more sacks (13.0) than games played. It was a nice bounce back after just 6.0 sacks in 2011 and a season in which the team gave up the most passing yards in a season in NFL history.

    Now, the former USC Trojan standout is in the final year of his rookie contract and is worthy of some pretty decent compensation. It will be interesting to see how the Packers organization handles this matter, what with quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ contract expiring in the not-too-distant future as well.

    One reason the Pack remains near the top of the NFL year after year is that they draft well and do not overpay. That’s not to say that they won’t take care of Matthews, currently their most productive defensive player. But safe to say there are some interesting times ahead for one of the league's steadiest organizations.

Brian Orakpo, OLB, Washington Redskins

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    It’s said that absence makes the heart grow fonder.

    It is also a big problem for your defensive unit.

    In a Week 2 loss to the St. Louis Rams a year ago, the Washington Redskins lost both defensive end Adam Carriker and outside linebacker Brian Orakpo for the season.

    In his first three seasons in the league, Orakpo totaled 28.5 sacks and was named to a pair of Pro Bowls. But as he approaches his fifth year in the NFL, it remains to be seen how well he can perform after last year’s season-ending injury.

    Granted, the Redskins did manage to make the playoffs last season. But without Carriker and especially Orakpo, the defense suffered, finishing 30th in the NFL in passing yards allowed.

    And while Washington did come away with 31 turnovers, Jim Haslett’s defensive unit managed only 32 sacks while allowing 31 scores through the air.

    For both Orakpo and the Redskins, a bounce-back season is in heavy demand in 2013.

Brian Cushing, ILB, Houston Texans

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    You can point to a lot of factors for the Houston Texans' late fade in 2012.

    But it’s safe to say that the loss of inside linebacker Brian Cushing after five games last season eventually caught up to Gary Kubiak’s team.

    Including last season’s postseason split with the Cincinnati Bengals and New England Patriots, the Texans allowed 242 points in their last nine games. Houston had allowed only 143 points during the club’s 8-1 start in 2012. Kubiak’s club allowed 31-plus points in four of those final nine contests, including 40 or more points in a pair of losses to the Patriots.

    Combine last season’s injury and Cushing’s four-game suspension in 2010, and the former NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2009 has yet to put back-to-back complete seasons together, regardless of the reasons.

    There’s no denying Cushing’s impact on the field, and when the time comes, he figures to remain a Houston Texan for quite a spell.

Malcolm Jenkins, S, New Orleans Saints

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    This may be an odd time to throw out any player from a team that allowed the most total yards in a season in NFL history, but what the heck?

    New Orleans Saints free safety Malcolm Jenkins has been a primary starter for the team for the last three seasons and can usually be found near the top of the club’s list in stops. The former college cornerback-turned-pro safety has finished third on the team in tackles each of the last two seasons, this after finishing fourth in the same department in 2010.

    Jenkins has shown some ability via the blitz, and while he’s far from a ball hawk, he’s returned two of his four career interceptions for touchdowns.

    After a forgettable 2012 season, the Saints are trying hard to put all of the pieces back together again. There’s a new defensive coordinator in Rob Ryan, and the secondary has a new face in cornerback Keenan Lewis, formerly of the Steelers.

    Jenkins could flourish in this new system, making him a hot commodity in 2014. Just how hot obviously remains to be seen.