NFL Free Agents 2014: Surveying the Biggest Playmakers on the Market

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor IJanuary 9, 2014

NFL Free Agents 2014: Surveying the Biggest Playmakers on the Market

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    Defensive end Greg Hardy had 15 of the Carolina Panthers' NFL-high 60 sacks in 2013.
    Defensive end Greg Hardy had 15 of the Carolina Panthers' NFL-high 60 sacks in 2013.Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    There are still eight teams in the NFL hoping they have to make plans to play a game at MetLife Stadium in February for Super Bowl XLVIII.

    Meanwhile, there are 24 other clubs making preparations for another football season come September.

    The offseason is here for three quarters of the league, with those teams hoping to bolster their rosters via the draft or free agency.

    Yes, free agency. It doesn’t actually begin until March 11, however, the performers we will discuss—all of whom could reap big dividends in free agency—could all very well wind up back with their own teams before the market even opens.

    Then again, never say never in the big business of the NFL. The following 10 players, all capable playmakers, are listed first by offense and then by defense. There’s also one special teams standout who is certainly worth mentioning.

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RB Ben Tate, Houston Texans

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Houston Texans running back Ben Tate knows a little something about missing time.

    The former second-round pick sat out his whole rookie season with a broken ankle. He returned the following year and ran for 942 yards and four touchdowns.

    In 2013, with former Pro Bowler Arian Foster missing half of the season, Tate led the Texans in rushing with 771 yards and four touchdowns on 181 carries.

    Of course, it wasn’t really a good year to be with the Texans, much less be a Texans running back. After a 2-0 start, the team dropped its final 14 games. Like Foster, Tate wound up finishing the season on injured reserve.

    It remains to be seen if Tate winds up remaining in Houston. According to Ian Rapoport of (h/t Chris Wesseling of, the talented running back stated in December that he “probably” won't be back next season with the Texans.

WR Hakeem Nicks, New York Giants

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    Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sport

    While former undrafted free agent Victor Cruz has certainly talked the talk and danced the dance for the New York Giants the last three years, former first-round pick Hakeem Nicks has been a bit of a mystery in recent seasons.

    Injuries certainly played a factor in 2012 when Nicks was limited to 13 games and caught just 53 passes for 692 yards and three scores.

    This past season, the talented Giants wideout averaged an impressive 16 yards on 56 receptions. The only problem was that Nicks failed to score a touchdown in the 15 games he played.

    Remember, this was a player who totaled 202 catches for 3,034 yards and 24 touchdowns in his first three years in the league.

    Although there are certainly some issues for a wideout who has yet to play all 16 games in a season, Nicks remains a playmaker who certainly bears watching.

WR Jacoby Jones, Baltimore Ravens

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    Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

    By the time you finish this slide show, you will notice that Baltimore Ravens wideout and kick returner Jacoby Jones has something pretty super in common with another player in this piece.

    However, the focus here is on the speedy performer, who—like the Ravens this past season—had a very uneven season.

    Jones played in a career-low 12 games in his seventh NFL season. He did total 37 receptions for his highest total since grabbing 51 passes with the Houston Texans in 2010, but scored only two touchdowns through the air.

    The speedster did return a kickoff for a touchdown in 2013, giving him eight career kick returns for scores (four punts, four kickoffs) in the regular season.

    Of course, Jones also owns the record for the longest play in Super Bowl history, returning a kickoff 108 yards  in the Ravens' Super Bowl XLVII win over the San Francisco 49ers.

    Plus, he only has seven seasons under his belt.

TE Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints

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    Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

    What are the chances that New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham actually hits the free-agent market?

    If the team isn’t able to re-sign the productive performer in the next month or so, it’s likely that the team will slap him with the franchise tag…and with good reason.

    In four seasons, Graham has totaled 301 catches for 3,863 yards and 41 touchdowns. In 2013, he led the NFL with 16 touchdown receptions and accounted for more than one-third of quarterback Drew Brees’ scoring passes (39) for this season.

    Graham’s 16 touchdowns were second in the league overall to Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles (19).

    What really stands out about the former Miami Hurricane is his downfield ability. He averaged 14.1 yards per catch in 2013 with a four-year career average of 12.8 yards per catch.

    Graham may indeed be the biggest of the biggest playmakers on this list.

DE Greg Hardy, Carolina Panthers

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Talk about getting hot at the right time.

    Defensive end Greg Hardy has been a steady work in progress since entering the NFL as a sixth-round draft choice by the Carolina Panthers in 2010.

    In his first two seasons in the league, the former University of Mississippi product totaled seven sacks. Teaming with Charles Johnson in 2012, Hardy had 11 sacks that season while Johnson had 12.5 sacks.

    Thanks to a late-season surge that saw him collect seven sacks in the team’s final two games of 2013, Hardy finished with 15 sacks this past season, the third-highest total in the league. The Panthers led the NFL with 60 sacks as they wound up NFC South champions.

    Like New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, Hardy has “franchise tag” written all over him if Carolina can’t get him re-signed this offseason—that would be whenever that offseason begins for Hardy and the hot Panthers.

DT Henry Melton, Chicago Bears

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Let this sink in for a few moments.

    In 2013, the Chicago Bears defense ranked 30th in the NFL in total yards allowed and was dead last against the run.

    That reads more like a typo than a statistic, but those are the facts.

    One big reason the Bears failed so miserably was that defensive tackle Henry Melton, a Pro Bowler in 2012, was lost for the season in Week 3. Is it any coincidence that the Bears were a 5-8 football team minus their emerging defensive tackle?

    That may be a bit of a stretch, but it is worth mentioning that with Melton in the lineup, the Bears defense limited two of its first three opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing. Without him, Chicago held only two of its final 13 foes to under 100 yards on the ground.

    Enough said.

OLB Brian Orakpo, Washington Redskins

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    In his first three seasons in the league, Washington Redskins outside linebacker Brian Orakpo totaled 28.5 sacks and was named to a pair of Pro Bowls.

    However, just when all the pieces were coming together for the team in 2012, the former first-round pick was lost for the season after just two games. The Redskins went on to win the NFC East last year despite giving up 388 points.

    Orakpo returned in 2013 and led the team with 10 sacks. Unfortunately, the Redskins didn’t respond with another big year. Washington finished 3-13 for the worst record in the NFC and second-worst in the league. Only the Minnesota Vikings (480) gave up more points than the Redskins (478) this season.

    With 39.5 sacks in five seasons, Orakpo remains a big-time player. Now we’ll see if he will be spending more time in Washington.

CB Sam Shields, Green Bay Packers

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    David Banks/Getty Images

    There’s something about the name Sam Shields that seems perfect for a cornerback.

    Over the last four seasons, the Green Bay Packers defender has not been perfect, but he’s been awfully solid.

    In 2013, Shields was sixth on the Packers with 61 tackles and led the team with four interceptions and 17 passes defensed. He has totaled double-digit totals in passes defensed in each of the last three years.

    In his four seasons in Green Bay, Shields has 13 interceptions, with his four thefts this season a career high.

    The bad news when it comes to Shields is that he failed to return any of those thefts for touchdowns.

    But it could be a lot worse. His name could be Sam Face-guarding.

FS Jairus Byrd, Buffalo Bills

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    Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

    The career resume is pretty impressive.

    In five seasons with the Buffalo Bills, free safety Jairus Byrd has 22 interceptions in 73 games. The former second-round pick has also forced 11 fumbles, totaled three sacks and recovered five fumbles.

    Byrd was also named to his third Pro Bowl in five seasons in 2013 despite playing in only 11 games. He totaled 48 tackles and tied for the team lead with four interceptions.

    A year ago, the rangy defender was given the franchise tag by the organization. Byrd took his time before signing his tender and then missed the first five games of the season with plantar fasciitis.

    Will Byrd fly the coop and latch on with another team in 2014? That remains to be seen, but it’s safe to say that the Buffalo defense, a work in progress for more than a few seasons, will be a lesser unit without him.

KR Devin Hester, Chicago Bears

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    Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

    Did you ever figure out what two players in this free-agent piece had something pretty super in common?

    Like Jacoby Jones of the Baltimore Ravens, Chicago Bears weapon Devin Hester also returned a kickoff for a touchdown in a Super Bowl.

    In fact, when it comes to returning kicks, no one in NFL history has done it better than Hester. He has taken back a combined 18 kick returns for scores—13 on kickoffs and five on punts. He also returned a missed field goal for a touchdown in his rookie season in 2006, when Chicago capped its season with an appearance in Super Bowl XLI.

    After seeing action as a wide receiver for years, Hester has focused solely on returns in 2013 under new head coach Marc Trestman. Hester responded by leading the NFL with 1,442 yards on kickoff returns.

    Will Hester return to the Windy City next season? Bears fans certainly hope so and that he will be in a Chicago uniform when he does.