Free agency is a funny thing in the NFL.
On the one hand, there is a mad scramble to sign the most coveted free agents every year. On the other, the teams making that mad dash often find themselves outside looking in when Super Bowl weekend rolls around.
This offseason should be no different, and there will be plenty of talented players looking for a big payday. Here are the top free agents at each position.
1. Jay Cutler
As usual, there are few true starting options upcoming in free agency at quarterback. Cutler is really the only one, and he might not make it to market.
General manager Phil Emery told ESPN 1000's Waddle and Silvy Show that the Bears are considering the franchise tag for the 30-year-old, which would remove him from free agency. This, of course, could open the possibility of the team trading Cutler after signing him.
If he does happen to hit the market, the mixed results throughout his career shouldn't preclude him from getting a big deal. As inconsistent and somewhat injury-prone he has been throughout his career, Cutler is still franchise quarterback material.
2. Michael Vick
The Michael Vick era is all but over. Long live Michael Vick.
Once hailed as the prototype for the future at his position, the 33-year-old quarterback finds himself at the twilight of his career. At least as a starter.
Per his modus operandi, Vick has been unable to stay healthy in recent years. He has also continued his inconsistent and turnover-prone ways, finally losing his job to second-year standout Nick Foles.
Vick still has some gas in his tank, but it's clear he is no longer an NFL starter.
3. Josh McCown
Cutler's backup in Chicago performed admirably this year.
McCown has completed 66.5 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns to one interception this year. He has done well enough to cause some like CBS' Jason LaCanfora to question whether they should simply re-sign him and let Cutler go.
That is a bit ludicrous, but McCown has done himself plenty of favors when it comes to landing a nice contract as a backup.
4. Josh Freeman
Three months ago, Freeman was the starting quarterback for the Buccaneers. Today he finds himself on the brink of free agency, having been cast off by Tampa Bay and Minnesota.
At 25 and rock bottom, Freeman might benefit by signing with a team as a backup to an established starter. He could understudy Philip Rivers for a couple of seasons under quarterback guru and head coach Mike McCoy.
1. Knowshon Moreno
The Broncos originally had a cheap club option for 2014, but somehow that option was voided, per ESPN Denver's Cecil Lammey. So Moreno hits the market, coming off a career year with the Broncos.
Once a punch line teetering on the edge of the roster, Moreno surged back from the brink to meet those first-round expectations. He surpassed 1,000 rushing yards and hit double-digit touchdowns for the first time in his career, bucking the injury-prone and bust labels all at once.
Sure, it probably helps that teams had to worry about Peyton Manning shredding their defense, but Moreno has been good in his own right, getting tough yards and being a trustworthy pass blocker for Manning.
2. Ben Tate
Free agency has been a long time coming for Tate, who has been stuck behind Arian Foster in Houston throughout his career. But a lost season in The Bayou City claimed Tate, who was largely underwhelming before being put on injured reserve with cracked ribs.
The 25-year-old still managed 771 yards and four touchdowns despite playing through that injury for a good portion of the season.
Tate is young, and he has flashed his potential in the past. That should net him plenty of interest around the league.
3. Rashad Jennings
Like Tate this year, Jennings had a marvelous opportunity to shine in a contract year when Maurice Jones-Drew went down in 2012. Worse than Tate did this season, Jennings stunk it up.
One year later, however, and Jennings has redeemed himself in a big way with the Raiders.
Jennings has rushed for 584 yards and all six of his touchdowns at a 4.7 yards-per-carry clip since McFadden went down with an injury against the Eagles in Week 9. Outside his awful 2012 campaign, Jennings has averaged 4.9 yards per carry in his four-year career.
When he entered the league, McFadden was following in Vikings running back Adrian Peterson's footsteps. Expectations soared for the former Arkansas running back. Then reality hit.
Or, more accurately, injuries. Every year.
McFadden is the modern-day poster child for "injury prone," never playing more than 13 games in a season and averaging just over 11 per season.
More importantly, however, is the fact McFadden no longer looks like the dynamic back he was a few years ago. The six-year veteran has averaged just 3.3 yards per carry over the past two seasons. He has had to deal with scheme changes and a patchwork offensive line, but so has Jennings, who severely outshined McFadden this year.
5. Maurice Jones-Drew
Despite injuries in recent years, Jones-Drew has been quite effective for the Jaguars. But he has been healthy this year, and is averaging a paltry 3.5 yards per carry.
Jones-Drew will be 29 this March, and he is heading into the twilight of his career. He is a hard-nosed running back with something left to give, but he will likely be best in a timeshare.
Ian Rapoport of NFL.com reported Jones-Drew and the Jaguars are mutually interested in the veteran re-signing in Jacksonville. If that doesn't happen, it will be interesting to see how much interest he gets on the open market.
6. Rashard Mendenhall
Given Arizona's success this season—particularly running the ball—you would think Mendenhall is in for a nice payday this offseason. But he is only averaging 3.1 yards per carry, and rookie Andre Ellington is severely outplaying him.
Mendenhall is a decent goal-line backup in the Shonn Greene and Michael Bush mold, but nothing more.
7. Donald Brown
It seems like a little-known fact that Brown is a former first-round pick, but the Colts might want to bury that information.
Recently, however, Brown has turned a corner. He has actually overtaken Trent Richardson, who the Colts traded a first-round pick to obtain earlier this year. He has over 700 total yards and seven touchdowns, both better than his counterpart.
1. Eric Decker
After all, he has 31 touchdowns over the past three seasons, which includes one season with Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow throwing passes his way.
2. Hakeem Nicks
If Nicks lived up to his potential, he would be a shoo-in for a big contract as a No. 1 receiver.
The injury bug has largely stayed away from Nicks this season, but he couldn't escape the pervasive ineptitude in the Giants organization.
Nicks had a poor season however you slice it, though. His underwhelming and injury-riddled career have likely cost him a good chunk of change this offseason.
Chris Orr of the Newark Star-Ledger reported Nicks would like to come back to New York, but the Giants have a recent history of stinginess when it comes to wide receivers.
Imagine how good the Eagles offense would look with a healthy Maclin in the fold.
Unfortunately for Maclin and the Eagles, the talented receiver was lost for the 2013 season with a preseason knee injury, meaning he will hit free agency while still rehabbing.
Maclin expressed his desire to return to the Eagles, per Sheil Kapaida of Philadelphia Magazine, so he might not hit the open market. If he does, however, he should garner plenty of interest as a solid No. 2 receiver.
4. Anquan Boldin
Were Boldin a scant few years younger, he would have likely topped this list. At 33, however, Boldin is a tad overripe from a free-agent standpoint.
Sure, Boldin has had some big games for the 49ers this year, but a big contract isn't on the cards for the aging veteran. He will make a team looking for a solid No. 2 quite happy.
4. Emmanuel Sanders
Pittsburgh liked Sanders so much they matched New England's offer last offseason, despite the fact the Steelers would have gotten a third-round pick and they were tight on cap space.
Sanders responded by having the best year of his career, though he won't crack 800 yards at his current pace.
5. James Jones
The question about Jones has always been whether or not his success has been predicated on having an All-World quarterback, Aaron Rodgers. Through just about seven games without Rodgers this year, the jury is still out.
Jones has 32 catches for 410 yards in that span. Of course, the entire Packers receiving offense has been down in that span, so the results aren't trustworthy.
In truth, Jones is a solid No. 2 receiver, as he has been during his tenure in Green Bay.
6. Julian Edelman
What a difference good health and opportunity make.
Edelman has stepped in for the departed Wes Welker and injured Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski this year. The diminutive receiver is on pace for 100 catches and 1,000 yards, and he is a big reason the Patriots offense hasn't completely collapsed in the wake of all the turnover and affliction.
His own injuries have, perhaps, prevented him from getting a longer contract last offseason. He wound up settling for a one-year deal to stick with the Patriots, a move that has paid off in spades for both parties in the end.
1. Jimmy Graham
Only 11 total NFL seasons, per Pro Football Reference, have seen a tight end go for 1,000-plus receiving yards and 11-plus touchdowns. Jimmy Graham owns two of them, doing it twice in the past three seasons despite some injury woes.
Graham is going to get paid this offseason. The question is by which team?
New Orleans would certainly like to keep him, but the Saints are heading for some rough salary cap waters, according to Over The Cap. They are currently slated to be around $8 million over the projected cap, though cutting outside linebacker Will Smith and working some other magic will net them some space.
If they make enough room, they might hit Graham with the franchise tender. Whether or not he will be awarded the tender as a tight end or wide receiver will be interesting to see—he certainly has an argument at wide receiver given his role and production—but a long-term deal isn't impossible.
Should he become a free agent, however, he will command plenty of attention and money.
2. Dennis Pitta
There is Jimmy Graham and then there are the rest. Pitta is the best of those set to hit free agency this March.
Like Jeremy Maclin, Pitta had the misfortune of getting injured in the preseason. Fortunately for Pitta, his hip injury was not as serious as initially feared—the dreaded Bo Jackson comparison was invoked—and Pitta has managed to make it back to the active roster before the end of the year.
He broke out in 2012 as a favorite target for Joe Flacco. He should make a fine free-agent target for tight end-needy teams if he doesn't re-sign in Baltimore.
3. Tony Gonzalez
The best tight end in the history of the game seemed rather insistent he will stay retired this year, but he would still make for a fantastic short-term signing should he be persuaded otherwise.
4. Fred Davis
Think back to 2011, Davis' first season as a full-time starter. Twelve games had passed, and the fourth-year starter at the time had blossomed into a nice pass-catching tight end, on pace to surpass 1,000 receiving yards.
Then the stink hit the fan. Davis was suspended for testing positive for marijuana earlier in the year, and his career has gone off the rails ever since.
To be fair, a chunk of bad luck has been involved here. Davis tore his Achilles the following year, the reason he had to sign a one-year deal to stay with Washington, where he has spent much of 2013 in Mike Shanahan's doghouse.
Davis has flashed that ability at times this season, however. Will that be enticing enough to get him some more attention on the market this year?
5. Jermichael Finley
Finley should be No. 2 on this list. As it stands, fifth might be generous.
A brutal injury knocked Finley out for the season and threatened his NFL career. He hopes to play again after a neck injury nearly paralyzed him this past October, per SI's MMQB.
Hopefully his recovery goes well, but given the severity and recovery time of the injury, he might not be able to test the market until later next season, if at all.
6. Brandon Pettigrew
Pettigrew has always had potential, but he has never lived up to it with the Lions. Sound familiar?
He is a solid blocker and seam threat, however, even if he suffers from the dropsies at times.
1. Branden Albert, Offensive Tackle
After being dangled like a ballyhoo fish in the Caribbean last year, Branden Albert will likely find himself on open waters this coming March.
Albert was the subject of much trade speculation last April—mostly involving the Dolphins—only to find himself starting for the Chiefs with his heir, Eric Fisher, playing on the other side.
It's unlikely the Chiefs pay Albert to keep Fisher out of position on the right side next season, so he should find a nice, new home and a big contract this offseason.
2. Alex Mack, Center
Having a good center is an underrated commodity these days, but the position is still rather important. Just ask Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who lost longtime center Matt Birk to retirement.
Gino Gradkowski—the worst-rated center in the land by at least two furlongs, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required)—now hikes the ball in Baltimore.
At the other end of the spectrum crouches Cleveland's Mack, who has grown into arguably the best center in the league since being drafted out of Cal in 2009.
3. Eugene Monroe, Offensive Tackle
The Jaguars were unlikely to re-sign Monroe after his contract was up this season, both because they drafted Luke Joeckel and Monroe is likely to command a big contract this offseason. The Ravens swooped in and took Monroe off Jacksonville's hands for a couple of third-day draft picks, not too shabby for a huge upgrade on that offensive line.
Monroe has done a fine job in Baltimore, having given up just four sacks, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and doing a solid job in the ground game this season. The Ravens hope to extend Monroe, per CBS' Jason LaCanfora, which would make the trade look even more ingenious.
4. Matt Slauson, Guard
Though quietly solid since entering the NFL in 2009, Slauson took a one-year deal in Chicago last year. He has only been the fifth-best guard in football this year, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Slauson should see a little more action in free agency this time around.
5. Brian De La Puente, Center
One of the more solid centers in the league over the years, De La Puente could be on his way out of New Orleans because of salary cap woes.
6. Michael Oher, Offensive Tackle
It's been a long time since The Blind Side came out in theaters. It's been nearly as long since Oher has been an effective tackle in the NFL.
The fifth-year player has simply never lived up to the hype generated from the award-winning film. He hits free agency as one of PFF's worst-rated offensive tackles.
Still, Oher is serviceable and relatively young, which is enough for some teams.
7. Richie Incognito, Guard
Yes, Incognito is still suspended with pay because of the bullying scandal down in Miami. Pending the outcome of the investigation, however, Incognito will be a free agent well worth a go.
The embattled guard has done a pretty good job on the field over the years, after all.
1. Henry Melton, Defensive Tackle
Like Jeremy Maclin, Henry Melton was unfortunately lost to a season-ending injury in a contract year. The difference here is that Melton had rounded into one of the top defensive tackles in the league, hence why the Bears gave him a franchise tender last offseason.
Melton's injury has been a big part of Chicago's defensive collapse. Hence, Chicago knows exactly what he's worth.
Whether he gets his comeuppance depends on how Chicago—or other teams, depending on whether he re-signs—feels about his injury.
Modern medicine is a wonderful thing, and Melton is just 27, so it's difficult to imagine he won't get a nice deal in March.
2. Greg Hardy, Defensive End
The Kraken roams the defensive waters in Carolina, laying waste to unsuspecting quarterbacks. But what else is new?
Hardy is one of the more underrated defensive ends in the league, even though he has hit at least 11 sacks—pending today's games—two years in a row now. A well-rounded lineman, he ranks in PFF's top 10 for the second consecutive season as well.
The good news is Hardy would like to stay, per Charlotte Observer's Joe Person (h/t CBS Sports) with the Panthers. The bad news is that won't come cheap, even if he gives Carolina a bit of a discount.
The 25-year-old has become a stalwart of a tough defensive line, sure to garner widespread interest if he hits the market.
3. Michael Johnson, Defensive End
Johnson had a career year in 2012, to the point where the Bengals extended their franchise tender. The 26-year-old responded with another great season, though raw statistics would lead you to believe otherwise.
Cincinnati's right end has just three sacks on the year after nabbing 11.5 a year ago. He has already surpassed his career high in total tackles, however, and Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranks him the second-best 4-3 defensive end in the NFL.
4. Michael Bennett, Defensive End
Last season, Bennett was quietly one of the top 4-3 defensive ends. That got him little play on the open market, so he signed with the Seahawks, a team that seemed bent on collecting all the defensive ends in the league.
Another great year from Bennett could see him get a little more attention on the market. The 28-year-old could match or exceed his nine-sack total from a year ago with a good game today despite playing about 400 fewer snaps.
5. Randy Starks, Defensive Tackle
There aren't too many quality defensive tackles going on the market behind Melton, but Miami's Starks is certainly one of them. That's why he earned the franchise tag in South Florida last winter.
Starks comes in as PFF's fifth-best defensive tackle this season, rounding into a good run stopper to go with his pass rushing prowess.
As of now, Miami is projected to have the third-most cap space in the NFL. A lot will change between now and then, but that could be enough to get him signed to a multiyear deal.
6. Jared Allen
Eyebrows shot up when Allen signed a six-year, $73 million contract with the Vikings in 2008. Their faith in the talented defensive end was rewarded handsomely.
Allen has been a model of consistency with the Vikings, starting every game and recording double-digit sacks each season in Minnesota since he signed there.
At 31, Allen might have one more multiyear deal left in his career. He isn't quite the monster he was a few years ago, but he should be a solid pass-rusher wherever he lands.
7. Paul Soliai, Defensive Tackle
Starks' running mate on that defensive line will be coming off his two-year deal with the Dolphins this summer. He has been consistently good for Miami, though he is more of a run stuffer than pass rusher.
The Dolphins might have a bit of a Sophie's Choice between their pair of defensive tackles come March.
1. Brian Orakpo
The sweet, short-lived waters of success have dried up in Washington, turning it into a vast desert. Orakpo has been an oasis on that defense.
The fifth-year linebacker has hit a career high in tackles and is nearing his career high in sacks with 10 thus far after a lost 2012 due to injury.
2. Karlos Dansby
From castoff to Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Dansby could not have picked a better time to have a career year.
Dansby is third in the league with 109 solo tackles, though it's a bit mind-boggling that he has just eight tackle assists to go along with it. (Earth to Arizona's official scorer?)
He also has 6.5 sacks, four interceptions and a league-leading two defensive touchdowns.
Of course, like with Anquan Boldin in the earlier slide, Dansby's age is a mitigating factor. At 32, it's difficult to see a team signing him to a big contract.
3. Daryl Smith
Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome struck gold yet again when he snagged Smith on a one-year deal last offseason. He has done a fine job replacing the legendary Ray Lewis in the middle of that Baltimore defense.
Smith has already surpassed his career high in total tackles, sacks and interceptions this season, even scoring his first ever touchdown. He even broke one of Lewis' franchise records, having deflected 18 passes this year.
At 31, Smith could be in line for his last, best contract. He picked a great time to play his best football.
4. Donald Butler
Injuries have short-circuited Butler's time in San Diego, to a certain degree. They may have affected his play this season, which has been less-than-stellar when compared to previous years.
Butler is still young and talented, however. San Diego tried to give him an extension before this season, but the timer ran out on a deal before the season began.
5. Anthony Spencer
It seems Spencer is flying a bit under the radar after going down for the count early this season with a knee injury.
Before that, Spencer had done such a good job for the Cowboys that they decided to slap him with their franchise tag in consecutive seasons, an expensive proposition in the current collective bargaining climate.
Tagging him again was a risk, given he was an outside linebacker in Rob Ryan's old 3-4 scheme and he was asked to move to defensive end for Monte Kiffin's 4-3 defense.
6. Brandon Spikes
He might not be a well-rounded linebacker, but Spikes is a solid run stopper.
His run-stopping ability is the reason why he is rated the sixth-best linebacker in the NFL this season over at PFF. He has the third-best stop percentage in the league, per PFF.
Of course, he isn't much of a cover linebacker, but he never was.
7. Shaun Phillips
It seemed like Phillips was washed up in San Diego, but signing with the Broncos for one year has breathed new life into the veteran's career.
The 32-year-old replaced Elvis Dumervil when he left after the faxgate debacle, and Phillips has practically made Broncos fans forget about the ordeal. His 10 sacks are among the league leaders and the most he's had since 2010.
Like Dansby, his age could prevent him from netting a big deal, but he is clearly not done in the NFL yet.
1. Brent Grimes
An Achilles injury prevented Brent Grimes from cashing in last summer. A great season with the Dolphins has gotten him back on track for a big pay day, however.
Grimes has been a pleasant surprise in Miami, where he signed a one-year contract due to uncertainty because of his injury.
The talented cornerback is one of PFF's (subscription required) top cornerbacks, leading the league in passes defensed while allowing zero touchdowns.
A long-term deal has eluded Grimes, who has been tagged before. His injury came after the Falcons hit him with the franchise tender in 2012, and his play might force Miami to do the same if a long-term deal cannot be struck, per the Sun Sentinel.
2. Chris Harris
Harris has quietly been one of the better cornerbacks in the league since the Broncos signed him in 2011. In three seasons, he has allowed just five touchdown receptions. Not too shabby for an undrafted 5'10" cornerback out of Kansas.
3. Aqib Talib
Talib gambled on himself last offseason, taking a one-year deal to stay in New England rather than a multiyear deal elsewhere. He has had mixed results in 2013.
On the one hand, Talib has shown himself to be a shutdown press cornerback at times, holding Jimmy Graham, A.J. Green and Mike Wallace to limited games. He has been inconsistent, however, perhaps explaining his lukewarm rating over at PFF. Injuries have played a part in that inconsistency.
Talib stayed out of trouble, however—the major concern surrounding the talented cornerback—and good press cornerbacks don't fall off trees.
4. Tim Jennings
One of the league's better ball hawks is scheduled to hit free agency alongside his counterpart.
Jennings and Charles Tillman will both be big losses if the Bears can't retain them, though you wouldn't know it by the way Chicago has played defense this year.
It was just a year ago that Jennings led the league with nine interceptions, however. He is younger, and his play hasn't suffered like Tillman's has this year, which makes him a bit more enticing as a free agent.
5. Alterraun Verner
Verner has been one of the top cornerbacks in the league this year, intercepting five passes and deflecting a whopping 23 for the Titans. The fourth-year player picked a great time to break out, heading into free agency.
6. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
A year ago, putting Rodgers-Cromartie anywhere near the top of this would be laughable. His tenure in Philadelphia was an abject disaster, though the same could be said about most of that defense.
The cornerback has turned things around in Denver, however.
To wit, Rodgers-Cromartie has allowed a measly 44.1 percent of passes to be completed on balls thrown his direction this year. The big cornerback has the size and speed to garner plenty of attention if he hits the open market this March.
7. Charles Tillman
In one of the more puzzling negative turns this season, Tillman went from one of the best cornerbacks in the league last year to one of the worst this year. Of course, nagging injuries will do that to many players
Then again, the entire Bears defense took a nosedive in 2013. Perhaps hiring offensive-minded head coach Marc Trestman to replace defensive-minded Lovie Smith had something to do with it.
At any rate, Tillman battled injuries all season before being placed on injured reserve. He will be 33 this February, which could cause teams to shy away from a big deal despite his success in recent years.
1. Jairus Byrd
The Bills slapped Byrd with the franchise tag last offseason, with good reason. Buffalo needed to make sure it would keep one of its highly touted free agents—guard Andy Levitre being the other—after all. Without a long-term deal in the works, Byrd was the word.
Unfortunately, Byrd was injured during preseason. The Bills defense got off to a horrendous start without him, though they have been rather good in recent weeks.
When healthy, Byrd is arguably the best free safety in the league.
2. T.J. Ward
For four years, Ward has been one of the best safeties in the league.
This year, Ward is the second-best safety at PFF. He has the third-most tackles at his position.
The 27-year-old said he'd like to come back to Cleveland, per ESPN's Pat McManamon, and the Browns have plenty of cap space. Whether or not CEO Joe Banner wants to pony up at safety will be interesting to see.
3. Donte Whitner
Perhaps the best move Donte Whitner made this year was to change his mind about changing his name to "Hitner."
In all seriousness, Whitner has had a nice season for the 49ers. His commitment to improve his coverage skills to complement his run-stopping ability has paid off, as he is allowing just 52.2 percent of passes thrown his direction for an NFL quarterback rating of 66.2.
After a lackluster 2012, Whitner rates among the best safeties in the league at PFF.
Depending on what he is looking for in free agency, however, it could be his last in scarlet and gold. After all, San Francisco let Dashon Goldson walk.
4. Bernard Pollard
Pollard left the Ravens to sign a one-year deal with the Titans. He has had a good year for the Titans, though his hard-hitting ways have gotten him into some trouble—deserved or not.
The tough safety has done a fine job in Tennessee, tied for 10th in the league with 93 total tackles and ninth with three interceptions.
5. James Ihedigbo
Pollard's replacement in Baltimore has had a fine year himself.
The sixth-year journeyman has hit a career high in tackles and interceptions. He also happens to lead the league in missed tackles, so he won't be signing a massive contract.
1. Pat McAfee, Punter
How good is Pat McAfee? Good enough to get the franchise tag from the Colts last offseason.
McAfee has fallen off a bit this year, settling into the middle of the pack with a 45.9-yard average. Still, having a good punter is important, and he is the best punter available on the market.
2. Dexter McCluster, Punt Returner
Why include a wide receiver here? Because this is a special teams section, after all.
McCluster has been underwhelming throughout his career, but he has had a fantastic year on special teams, leading the league in punt return yardage and touchdowns.
He has special teams guru Dave Toub to thank.
3. Devin Hester, Kick returner
Speaking of Toub disciples, Hester is also set to become a free agent next year.
He is no longer the feared weapon he once was, but Hester is still valuable as a returner. He is second in the league in kick return yards, and he picked up another touchdown as a punt returner.
Hester's value is strictly tied to returning, however, whereas McCluster is useful elsewhere on offense.
4. and 5. Phil Dawson and Adam Vinatieri, Kickers
With Robbie Gould off the market thanks to a fresh extension, Dawson and Vinatieri are the best kickers left on the future market, assuming they don't sign extensions before then.
They are making 90.6 and 86.5 percent of their field goals, respectively, and Vinatieri is arguably the most clutch kicker in NFL history.