2014 NFL Free Agency: Previewing the Best Players Available at Each Position

Alessandro MiglioFeatured ColumnistNovember 27, 2013

2014 NFL Free Agency: Previewing the Best Players Available at Each Position

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    The 2013 season is still going strong, but it's never too early to look ahead.

    We are a scant three-plus months away from the start of free agency in 2014. Who are the best players currently slated to hit the market?

    Some of these players will undoubtedly re-sign with their teams between now and then, but click through to find out.

Quarterback

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    Jay Cutler

    There aren't too many starting quarterbacks on the market every year, and Jay Cutler is the only one currently set to hit free agency this spring.

    It will be interesting to see if the Bears lock him up before he gets there. Given Cutler's history of injuries and wasted potential, he is not really worth a Matthew Stafford or Matt Ryan contract. But quality starters don't grow on trees, so it seems likely he will sign a big deal to stay in Chicago rather than the team dealing with the unknown.

Running Back

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    Maurice Jones-Drew

    It was almost a foregone conclusion that Maurice Jones-Drew would be moving on from the Jaguars after this season. Recently, however, there has been word that the Jaguars are open to re-signing the veteran running back.

    He might be at the tail end of his career, but MJD is still running hard and performing reasonably well given his circumstances.

     

    Ben Tate

    This season hasn't been pretty for the Texans, and it has likely cost Ben Tate some cheddar in free agency. 

    But Arian Foster's backup has flashed his potential enough in the past to get some serious looks come March.

     

    Darren McFadden

    There are obviously two big facets to Darren McFadden's value—talent and health.

    McFadden has never successfully made it through a full season. The most games he has ever played in one year is 13, and he is not going to hit that number this season.

    But McFadden also has some elusive potential that has yet to be fully realized in Oakland. Someone will certainly take a chance on the talent, and it will come at a big discount thanks to the injury concerns.

     

    Rashard Mendenhall

    He got off to a slow start this season, but Rashard Mendenhall has quietly become a valuable contributor on that Arizona offense.

    The question is whether the Cardinals want to re-sign him to a longer deal. They have a more talented rookie on the roster in Andre Ellington, and Stepfan Taylor is a rookie-in-waiting.

Wide Receiver

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    Hakeem Nicks

    If any upcoming free agent has lost himself money, it's Hakeem Nicks.

    The talented Giants receiver has simply never lived up to the hype, often because of nagging injuries. This season has been a relatively healthy one for Nicks, but he has been outperformed by the guy below him on the depth chart, Rueben Randle.

    Still, Nicks possesses a unique upside that will surely be tantalizing enough for a team to give him a nice contract. 

     

    Anquan Boldin

    It's going to be an interesting offseason for Anquan Boldin, who has proved his worth yet again in San Francisco. He is 33, though, and the league is trending toward younger, cheaper players.

     

    Julian Edelman

    The only reason Julian Edelman didn't sign a bigger contract than the one-year, $575,000 deal he got from New England is because he was injured too often in the past.

    This year, Edelman has been the picture of health. He has also proven to provide Wes Welker-like production at times. He might be diminutive, but Edelman will be well worth the investment for a team looking for a slot receiver and punt returner.

     

    Jeremy Maclin

    Unfortunately for him, Jeremy Maclin got injured in the wrong season.

    The talented receiver was lost for the year just before he was set to become a free agent. That will likely lower his price tag significantly, which only means whoever signs him will be getting a relative bargain.

     

    Emmanuel Sanders

    He hasn't quite been a consistent second option in Pittsburgh, but Emmanuel Sanders brings plenty to the table. Why else would the Patriots have tried to pry him away from the Steelers last season?

     

    Eric Decker

    The Broncos have an embarrassment of riches at receiver and tight end these days, perhaps giving Eric Decker a good reason to leave for greener pastures and more playing time. 

     

    James Jones

    James Jones is one of the more underrated commodities at his position, often overshadowed by teammates Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb despite outproducing them many weeks.

    The 6'1" receiver will be a great No. 2 receiver somewhere, though the Packers could certainly convince him to stay and keep that offense locked and loaded.

Tight End

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    Jermichael Finley

    It is going to be a battle for Jermichael Finley just to come back to the game after the scary injury he suffered against the Browns this season. If and when he does, where will he land?

    Finley has proven to be an enigmatic talent in Green Bay, but he had quietly begun to realize his potential over the past couple of seasons. 

     

    Tony Gonzalez

    While he could probably play for another few years, Tony Gonzalez is likely to retire and stay there this offseason.

    On the off chance he comes back, it would be interesting to see where he chooses to hang his helmet. The Falcons were supposed to be a sure contender, and look how that turned out.

     

    Brandon Pettigrew

    Brandon Pettigrew has been one of those frustrating talents in the NFL, rarely living up to his potential despite playing in a high-powered offense.

    He is still a 6'5" weapon, a potentially valuable asset to any offense.

     

    Dennis Pitta

    There was a brief period where Dennis Pitta's hip injury looked like it might be career-ending. After all, Bo (Jackson) Knows hip injuries.

    Fortunately, Pitta might be back from his injury soon, just in time to remind general managers around the league just how valuable he could be at tight end.

     

    Fred Davis

    Unfortunately for Fred Davis—and to some degree, the Washington offense—the talented tight end has fallen out of favor in the capital. But just because he hasn't seen the field much doesn't mean Davis has lost his talent.

    Before injuries and suspensions derailed his career, Davis' star was on the rise. Given a fresh start somewhere, he could get back to punishing opposing defenses up the seam.

Offensive Tackle

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    Branden Albert

    After last offseason's tête–à–têtes between Jeff Ireland and John Dorsey failed to produce a trade for Branden Albert, the big offensive lineman was locked in as Kansas City's left tackle while he awaits a big pay day in free agency.

     

    Michael Oher

    It has been a down season for Michael Oher just one year after he blossomed into a solid right tackle. He has done a fine job of protecting quarterback Joe Flacco, but his run blocking has taken a nosedive.

    He is part of the problem with Baltimore's run game, but that's a secondary concern. Good, versatile pass protectors aren't easy to find, and Oher should be solid on either side of the line.

     

     

Offensive Guard

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    Richie Incognito

    If your eyes bulged out of your sockets for a moment, take a few moments to gather yourself.

    Sure, Richie Incognito has been embroiled in an ugly imbroglio down in Miami, but that doesn't change the fact he is a solid offensive guard. Incognito will land somewhere if he is not brought back in Miami unless the NFL investigation takes a nasty turn.

     

    Matt Slauson

    Of all the 2013 bargains, Matt Slauson may be the best.

    Chicago, which has had years of poor offensive line play, locked him in to a cheap $815,000 deal, despite the fact New York wanted him back.

    The Jets lost out on him because they couldn't even afford to pay him that, and he has become one of the better guards in the league in Chicago.

     

     

Center

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    Brian De La Puente

    One of the best centers in the league plays in New Orleans right now, but he does not have a household name. He is Brian De La Puente, a versatile interior lineman who should get some interest on the open market if he isn't re-signed before free agency.

     

    Jonathan Goodwin

    He is not having quite the season he did in 2012, but Jonathan Goodwin remains one of the better centers in the league for San Francisco.

     

Interior Defensive Line

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    Henry Melton

    It was a rather unfortunate turn of events for Henry Melton this season, who was put on injured reserve while playing on the one-year franchise tag deal.

    It could be a blessing in disguise in terms of free agency for the big defensive lineman, though. Perhaps the fact Chicago's run defense has turned into a block of melted butter since his injury will prove he needs a fat, longterm contract.

    If the Bears let him hit the open market, he should have plenty of suitors despite the injury.

     

    Randy Starks

    The Dolphins slapped Randy Starks with the franchise tag last season, and all he has done is play lights out for much of the season. Starks is going to force Jeff Ireland's hand this offseason.

     

    Paul Soliai

    Before Starks got the franchise tag, Paul Soliai was that guy. 

    The mammoth defensive tackle is a force against the run, which is how he derives his value at defensive tackle. He has played well in multiple schemes, only adding to his value.

     

    Jason Hatcher

    It has been a fantastic season for Jason Hatcher in the middle of that Cowboys defense. He leads the league with nine tackles at defensive tackle despite missing a game due to injury, and he is one of the top-rated defensive tackles over at PFF.

    Hatcher is earning himself a big payday in a contract year.

Edge Rusher

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    Michael Johnson

    Michael Johnson had a breakout season in 2012, to the point where he was slapped with the franchise tag. He has followed that up with another great year for Cincinnati—his sack totals are down, but he is one of the best-rated defensive ends according to Pro Football Focus—and he will be looking to cash in this coming offseason.

     

    Jared Allen

    It has been a while since Jared Allen signed that massive six-year, $73 million contract with the Vikings. While Allen is no longer the player he once was, he is still a potentially valuable pass-rushing asset.

     

    Michael Bennett

    Last season Michael Bennett rated out as one of the best 4-3 defensive ends in the league over at PFF. But he didn't get much play on the open market, and he wound up signing with the talent-rich Seahawks for one season.

    He has performed well in Seattle, and he gets another crack at free agency in March.

     

    Anthony Spencer

    The Cowboys made a curious decision to place the franchise tag on Anthony Spencer for the second year in a row—thus paying him 120 percent of his 2012 salary—this past offseason. They did that despite changing to a 4-3 scheme, for which Spencer was less well-suited.

    Spencer wound up going on injured reserve this season, but he should be a coveted commodity this coming offseason.

      

    Shaun Phillips

    Shaun Phillips bet on himself when he took a one-year contract at the veteran minimum with the Broncos, and it has paid off handsomely thus far.

    Phillips has filled in quite nicely for the departed Elvis Dumervil. He is the seventh-best 4-3 defensive end in the league this year, per PFF, nearly matching his 2012 sack total with nine in just 11 games. 

     

Linebacker

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    Donald Butler

    At 25, Donald Butler still has plenty of good football ahead of him. That is if he can stay on the field, at least.

    Butler hasn't been a picture of health over the past couple of seasons, perhaps putting a drag on his free-agent stock. He has also fallen off a bit this season after a great 2012. But some of that can be attributed to a change in defensive scheme as well as the injuries he has dealt with this season.

     

    Karlos Dansby

    There was no home in South Florida for Karlos Dansby once Jeff Ireland decided to pick up Dannell Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler in free agency. All Dansby has done is outperform the two out west in Arizona.

    The 31-year-old has been outright fantastic at times with his old team, likely earning himself one last multi-year contract with his great play. 

     

     

Cornerback

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    Brent Grimes

    A one-year gamble has turned out great for Brent Grimes and the Miami Dolphins.

    Grimes was coming off an Achilles injury, so a multi-year contract was not in the cards for the talented cornerback. He has proven himself worthy of such a contract this season, however, earning himself the seventh-best PFF rating, in part by leading the league in pass breakups.

     

    Aqib Talib

    Aqib Talib was set to cash in last year, but he curiously signed a one-year deal to stay with the Patriots. While he has dealt with injuries that have hampered his play in recent weeks, Talib has proven to be an excellent press-cornerback with the Patriots this year.

     

    Charles Tillman

    It has been an injury-marred season for Charles Tillman, who appears to have caught the bug that has ravaged the Bears defense.

    Perhaps as a result of the regime change, and all those injuries, Tillman was having a down year before being put on injured reserve a few weeks ago. But that doesn't mean teams will forget 

     

    Tim Jennings

    Tillman's partner in crime in that defensive backfield has not fallen off like his comrade. Jennings is a ball hawk, and teams crave turnovers on defense. 

     

     

     

     

Safety

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    Jairus Byrd

    The Bills had a dilemma last offseason—should they keep Jairus Byrd or offensive guard Andy Levitre. They couldn't afford both.

    They wound up choosing to put the franchise tag on Byrd, who was subsequently injured before the season began. He returned a few weeks ago, and he promptly resumed being arguably the best safety in the league.

    Byrd might just get a bigger contract than he would have commanded last offseason.

     

    James Ihedigbo

    Who would have thought the Ravens would be just fine without Ed Reed?

    James Ihedigbo has been great as a first-year starter in Baltimore. He only has two interceptions, but he is one of the best-rated safeties in the league per PFF. He has been particularly good against the run.

    Ihedigbo couldn't have picked a better season to break out as he heads into free agency.

     

     

Punter and Kicker

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    Here is a list of available kickers and punters. There isn't much to say about them other than they're pretty good at their jobs. 

     

    Phill Dawson

    Jay Feely

    Adam Vinatieri

    Robbie Gould

    Dave Zastudil