2014 NFL Free Agents: Best Playmakers Set to Hit the Market

Josh CohenCorrespondent IIDecember 31, 2013

Will the Broncos want to pay for Eric Decker?
Will the Broncos want to pay for Eric Decker?Jamie Squire/Getty Images

If your team needs a boost or just wants to stay dominant, there's a plethora of talented playmakers available when the NFL's 2014 free-agency period begins.

Because young talent acquired through the draft comes so cheap, an organization might choose to let a dynamic player test the market or even walk without an offer rather than lock him up long term. When a mid-round afterthought runs routes just as crisply as your 1,000-yard receiver, why pay?

Then again, the draft is a crapshoot, both in terms of landing the prospects you want and whether they pan out or not. The guys who could be available this spring are at least better-known commodities, with track records of ability and success enticing to prospective buyers.


Ben Tate, RB, Houston Texans

HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 01:  Ben Tate #44 of the Houston Texans celebrates afte scoring on a 7 yard run in the first quarter against the New England Patriots at Reliant Stadium on December 1, 2013 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Houston Texans started their season 2-0, fired their head coach after 11 straight losses and then promptly lost their final three as well. Arian Foster is ensconced as Houston's lead back, so it's unlikely the hole-ridden Texans will prioritize resigning his backup.

That's too bad because Ben Tate is going to make some other team very happy.

Both as a spell back or in the place of an injured Foster, Tate has proven himself. He has averaged 4.7 yards per carry in his three-year career, and he turned 181 rushes into 771 yards and four touchdowns as the Texans crumbled this season.

Tate isn't the between-the-tackles runner Foster is, but he has enough strength to shake off would-be tacklers and has the speed and agility to turn the corner and make guys miss. On a team that cares to feature his strengths, he will thrive.


Eric Decker, WR, Denver Broncos

DENVER, CO - SEPTEMBER 5: Wide receiver Eric Decker #87 of the Denver Broncos runs for yards after the catch against the Baltimore Ravensduring the game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on September 5, 2013 in Denver Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Bradf
Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

It's difficult to imagine the Denver Broncos letting Eric Decker go. After all, he caught 87 passes for 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2013. Those are elite numbers for a wideout, not the sort of production you pinch pennies over.

Decker is 6'3" and can get deep with his route-running more than with his speed or athleticism; he's definitely a very good wideout, but Denver might not want to pay him like a great one.

These are Peyton Manning's Broncos, and he has thrown the criteria for gauging receivers out of whack with his all-time great season. With Manning under center, four different Broncos caught double-digit touchdowns, and three had over 100 targets.

In fact, Decker didn't lead his team in any statistical category, save for a tie with Demaryius Thomas with 19 catches of 20-plus yards; Thomas has him beat in receptions, yards, yards per catch and yards after catch, while both Demaryius and Julius Thomas scored more touchdowns.

With the Thomases and Welker around, Denver might not want to pay Decker like a number-one wideout, because he's not on this team. Given his skill set, he's best suited as a second option, but someone who wants to give him a bigger role could snag him.


Brian Orakpo, OLB, Washington Redskins

LANDOVER, MD - DECEMBER 01:  Brian Orakpo #98 of the Washington Redskins sacks Eli Manning #10 of the New York Giants in the first quarter during their game at FedExField on December 1, 2013 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Given the tire fire that is the Washington Redskins, you might forget how good Brian Orakpo is.

After tearing his pectoral and missing 14 games in 2012, Orakpo returned to a Washington organization mired in discord; only three teams gave up as many yards per pass attempt as the Redskins, so Orakpo's 10.0 sacks did not seem that significant.

That gives Orakpo 39.5 sacks in 64 career games. That's one shy of his career high set as a rookie, and he's still displaying the freakish athleticism that made him a first-round pick back in 2009.

Just think: This is what Orakpo could do without a capable secondary behind him. Imagine if he goes out this summer and joins a team that lets him be more than just a silver lining on a flawed unit.


Jarius Byrd, FS, Buffalo Bills

Nov 17, 2013; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Buffalo Bills free safety Jairus Byrd (31) celebrates his first half interception against the New York Jets at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

If you're only looking at interceptions to judge a defensive back, it appears Jarius Byrd has dropped off since his rookie campaign. He came out of nowhere to record nine picks in his first season, and he picked off 13 in the four years since.

But what that ignores is his transformation from a ball hawk exclusively to a well-rounded, intelligent safety.

It's flashier when safeties just go for the ball, regardless of their assignment or responsibility, but Byrd can step up and contain the run as well as read the QB's eyes and position himself to prevent a pass before it's even thrown.

He was able to force so many turnovers as a rookie because, well, he was a rookie and opposing offenses would take advantage of him. Byrd is far too savvy to be exploited now, and he still found a way to pick off four passes despite playing only 11 games in 2013.

Like with Tate, it sounds like Byrd is on his way out. He'll be a sought-after player on the open market, in line to bolster another defense and to receive a big payday for his services.