NFL Free Agents 2014: Biggest Impact Players at Every Position

Russell S. BaxterContributor IJanuary 13, 2014

NFL Free Agents 2014: Biggest Impact Players at Every Position

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    Will Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy be the valedictorian of the 2014 NFL free-agent class?
    Will Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy be the valedictorian of the 2014 NFL free-agent class?Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    There are four teams still playing football during this 2013 NFL season.

    That means 28 are now planning for the draft and what comes next.

    Free agency doesn’t start until March 11, but it’s always fun to speculate who could be headed elsewhere. Here is a list of the best players (in no particular order) at each position who could become unrestricted free agents roughly two months from now.

    While certain positions are not necessarily deep, there is plenty to choose from at some of the others. And once the remaining teams get settled with their new head coaches, it will be interesting to see who is headed where.

    As usual, free-agency and financial information comes courtesy of Spotrac (subscription required).

Quarterbacks

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    Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

    Josh McCown, Chicago Bears

    The well-traveled quarterback comes off his best season in relief of injured starting quarterback Jay Cutler. In eight games with the Bears, his fifth NFL team, McCown threw a career-high 13 touchdown passes and was picked off just once. Could McCown find a home with the Jacksonville Jaguars or even the Minnesota Vikings (who will employ a new head coach)? And McCown’s local knowledge of the NFC North could be a determining factor.

     

    Matt Flynn, Green Bay Packers

    Considering how many teams rolled out the welcome mat for Matt Flynn this past season, it won’t be a surprise when the intriguing but erratic quarterback gets another shot at a starting job in 2014. Like Josh Freeman (Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Vikings), Flynn started for two different teams this past season (Oakland Raiders and Packers). For the season, he wound up with eight touchdown passes and five interceptions.

     

    Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles

    How much does the veteran signal-caller have left in the tank? Or in the case of Vick, what about his arm and legs? Staying healthy has been the biggest issue for the talented quarterback, who has started only 30 games the last three seasons and had his issues with turnovers as well. In 2013, Vick was 2-4 as a starter and for the season threw for five scores and ran for two touchdowns but was sacked 15 times and coughed up the football five times.

     

    Also Consider

    Matt Cassel, Minnesota Vikings

    Josh Freeman, Minnesota Vikings

    Chad Henne, Jacksonville Jaguars

    Colt McCoy, San Francisco 49ers

    Tarvaris Jackson, Seattle Seahawks

Running Backs

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    Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders

    We all know the knock on the fourth overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft. In six seasons, McFadden has totaled 5,270 yards from scrimmage and scored a total of 28 touchdowns. However, the talented running back has also played no more than 13 games in any of those six campaigns and missed a total of 29 games in his career. Will a change of scenery be a healthy solution for a player who is always seemingly hurt?

     

    Knowshon Moreno, Denver Broncos

    The former first-round pick from 2009 and 12th overall selection that April enjoyed a career year in 2013, rushing for 1,038 yards and 10 touchdowns. Moreno also caught 60 passes for 548 yards and three scores. He was one of five Denver Broncos to find the end zone at least 10 times in 2013. Rookie Montee Ball finished with 559 yards rushing this season, but it remains to be seen if he’s the heir apparent to Moreno, who started all 16 games in 2013.

     

    Ben Tate, Houston Texans

    Three-time Pro Bowl running back Arian Foster is the main man in the Texans backfield but missed eight games last season. Enter Tate, who overcame his own injuries late in the year but still led Houston with 771 yards rushing and caught a career-high 34 passes. The Cleveland Browns and New York Giants are two clubs that could take a flyer on Tate, who missed his rookie season in 2010 but has rushed for 700-plus yards twice in three years.

     

    Also Consider

    Donald Brown, Indianapolis Colts

    LeGarrette Blount, New England Patriots

    Toby Gerhart, Minnesota Vikings

    Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville Jaguars

Wide Receivers

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    James Jones, Green Bay Packers

    It wasn’t long ago that Jones was among the league leaders when it came to reaching the end zone, totaling an NFL-high 14 touchdown receptions in 2012. This past season, the wideout totaled 59 catches for 817 yards and four scores in 14 games. It’s hard to put last year’s numbers in context when you consider that the Packers started four different quarterbacks this past season. Jones could be a starter for many teams in 2014 should he opt to move on.

     

    Eric Decker, Denver Broncos

    It would be a bit of a surprise if the Broncos didn’t retain Decker, who has made the most of the last two seasons playing with quarterback Peyton Manning. In his first two seasons in the NFL, the former third-round pick totaled 50 catches for 718 yards and nine scores. Decker has caught 85 and 87 passes, respectively, the last two seasons with Manning. Those 172 grabs have added up to a combined 2,352 yards and 24 touchdowns.

     

    Anquan Boldin, San Francisco 49ers

    The 11-year veteran wide receiver is one win away from going to the Super Bowl for the third time in six seasons and with a third different team. With Michael Crabtree out for the majority of the year, the one-time Baltimore Ravens standout led the Niners with 85 grabs for 1,179 yards and seven touchdowns. A year ago, he led the eventual Super Bowl champions in catches in the regular season and playoffs.

     

    Also Consider

    Julian Edelman, New England Patriots

    Golden Tate, Seattle Seahawks

    Emmanuel Sanders, Pittsburgh Steelers

    Hakeem Nicks, New York Giants

    Jeremy Maclin, Philadelphia Eagles

Tight Ends

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    Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

    Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints

    What more can you say about Graham, who led the National Football League with 16 touchdown receptions in 2013? It would be a big surprise if the Saints don’t have him re-signed before the start of the free-agency period. And if the two-time Pro Bowler can’t come to terms, it would be an even bigger surprise if Graham didn’t get the franchise tag. In four NFL seasons, he’s caught 41 touchdown passes in 62 regular-season contests.

     

    Brandon Pettigrew, Detroit Lions

    The former first-round pick has enjoyed a very respectable five seasons in the Motor City. But it will be interesting to see if the Lions ante up to retain the 6’5”, 257-pound target. The former Oklahoma State product has totaled 284 receptions in five years but averaged just 10.0 yards per catch and scored only 16 touchdowns. It is just a thought, but could you see Pettigrew in a Green Bay Packers uniform in 2014?

     

    Dennis Pitta, Baltimore Ravens

    During the Ravens’ memorable Super Bowl XLVII season of 2012, Pitta was tied for second on the team with 61 receptions and ranked second on the club with seven touchdown receptions. But a hip injury shelved him for a big chunk of 2013. Hence, the sure-handed tight end finished tied for seventh on the team with only 20 catches for 169 yards and one score. Pitta is a vital part of Baltimore’s passing attack and one of Joe Flacco’s favorite targets.

     

    Also Consider

    Jermichael Finley, Green Bay Packers

    Dustin Keller, Miami Dolphins

    Fred Davis, Washington Redskins

    Jeff Cumberland, New York Jets

    Brandon Myers, New York Giants

Offensive Linemen

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    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    T Branden Albert, Kansas City Chiefs

    This could be one of the more fascinating situations this offseason. There was so much speculation regarding Albert’s return in 2013, but the team slapped the franchise tag on the former first-rounder and retained his services. Now the first-time Pro Bowler could be getting ready to hit the open market in March. Would the Chiefs designate him the club’s franchise player for the second straight year?

     

    T Jordan Gross, Carolina Panthers

    One of the steadiest players at his position, Gross has started all 16 games eight times in 11 seasons and has been named to a pair of Pro Bowls in his time with the Panthers. The team’s first-round pick in 2003, the reliable blocker has played in and started 167 contests. Carolina won the NFC South this past season, making its first playoff appearance since 2008, and Gross was a pivotal part of that success.

     

    G Jon Asamoah, Kansas City Chiefs

    You don’t really think Pro Bowl running back Jamaal Charles gets all of his yards by himself? Despite the fact that Asamoah missed two games and started only nine games in 2013, he was still a key component on Kansas City’s offensive front and an attack that finished 10th in the league in rushing yards. Asamoah could be a bargain for some team looking for a young and experienced guard should he choose to leave.

     

    G Zane Beadles, Denver Broncos

    A Pro Bowl performer in 2012, Beadles has been a fixture on the Broncos offensive front in his four seasons with the team. The four-year veteran has started 62 of 64 games, including all 16 contests each of the last three years. Beadles is a former second-round pick from Southern Utah who was a solid part of Denver’s top-ranked offense this past season. Denver allowed a league-low 20 sacks in 2013.

     

    C Alex Mack, Cleveland Browns

    In December, Mack was named to his second Pro Bowl and teams with veteran left tackle Joe Thomas to give the Browns a pair of stars on one of the league’s underappreciated offensive lines. Team success has eluded Cleveland for more than a decade in terms of a playoff appearance. Will Mack be around when the Browns begin again in 2014, starting with their latest head coach?

     

    Also Consider

    T Michael Oher, Baltimore Ravens

    T Zach Strief, New Orleans Saints

    C Jonathan Goodwin, San Francisco 49ers

    C Roberto Garza, Chicago Bears

    G Richie Incognito, Miami Dolphins

Defensive Linemen

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    Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

    DE Greg Hardy, Carolina Panthers

    The Panthers' season came to an abrupt end on Sunday with a 23-10 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional playoffs. Hardy didn’t sack Colin Kaepernick, but that was the exception rather than the rules this season as he finished third in the NFL with 15 sacks, seven of those coming in the team’s final two regular-season games. A first-time Pro Bowler in 2013, he could be the highest-paid free agent in 2014 if he hits the open market.

     

    DT Henry Melton, Chicago Bears

    The 2012 Pro Bowler was lost after three games in 2013, and his absence was one reason the Chicago defense fell upon hard times. Marc Trestman’s team went 5-8 in the 13 games without Melton, who was given the franchise tag this past offseason, while the Bears finished the season 30th in the league in total yards allowed and dead last in the NFL in rushing defense.

     

    DE Michael Johnson, Cincinnati Bengals

    After totaling 11.5 sacks in 2012 and being designated the team’s franchise player, Johnson got to the opposing quarterback just 3.5 times. But he also totaled 56 tackles, forced a pair of fumbles and knocked down nine passes. He enjoyed a very solid year, much of it played without former Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins. With Johnson’s help, the Cincinnati defense ranked fifth in the NFL in both rushing yards and passing yards allowed.

     

    DT Randy Starks, Miami Dolphins

    Yet another player on this list that was his team’s designated franchise player last offseason, Starks is a two-time Pro Bowler who totaled 49 tackles and four sacks in 2013. Since joining the Dolphins as an unrestricted free agent in 2008, he’s played in all 96 games and totaled 26.5 sacks in those six seasons. Miami came up short of the playoffs for a fifth straight year, but the return of Starks would be a positive step for a team that’s getting closer.

     

    Also Consider

    DE Jared Allen, Minnesota Vikings

    DE Justin Tuck, New York Giants

    DT Kevin Williams, Minnesota Vikings

    DT Paul Soliai, Miami Dolphins

    DE Anthony Spencer, Dallas Cowboys

Linebackers

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    ILB Donald Butler, San Diego Chargers  

    San Diego’s late-season run can be attributed to a balanced attack and a defense that made its share of big plays down the stretch. One of those was a Butler interception just before halftime in San Diego’s eventual 24-17 loss to the Denver Broncos on Sunday in the divisional playoffs. For the season, the emerging defender finished second on the team with 84 tackles. He’s come a long way after missing his rookie campaign in 2010 with an Achilles injury.

     

    OLB Brian Orakpo, Washington Redskins             

    Only the Minnesota Vikings gave up more points this past season than the Redskins. However, defensive coordinator Jim Haslet had to be happy with the return of Orakpo, who missed the final 14 games of 2012 with a torn pectoral muscle. The former first-round draft choice rebounded with 60 tackles and a team-high 10.0 sacks this past season in 14 games. Orakpo will be an expensive fit but should immediately bolster a team’s pass rush.

     

    OLB Jon Beason, New York Giants          

    The former Pro Bowler was dealt by the Carolina Panthers to the Giants during the season. While Big Blue finished just 7-9, he brought some life to a defensive unit that would finish eighth in the NFL in total yards allowed in 2013. In 12 contests, Beason finished second on the club with 93 tackles. If you include his three games with Carolina, he amassed 104 stops. Injuries had limited him to only five games the previous two years.

     

    ILB Karlos Dansby, Arizona Cardinals     

    In his second stint with the Cardinals, Dansby came up big in many aspects for a team that finished 10-6, sixth in the league in total defense and first in the NFL in rushing defense. He led the team in tackles (122), interceptions (four, including two for touchdowns) and passes defensed (19) and also added 6.5 sacks. The Cardinals finished No. 1 in the NFL in rushing defense, and the club doubled its wins from a season ago.

     

    Also Consider

    OLB Shaun Phillips, Denver Broncos

    ILB Daryl Smith, Baltimore Ravens          

    OLB Jason Worilds, Pittsburgh Steelers

    ILB Brandon Spikes, New England Patriots

    OLB James Anderson, Chicago Bears

Cornerbacks

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    Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports

    Alterraun Verner, Tennessee Titans

    It was an uneven year for the Titans but a big year for Verner, who is headed to his first Pro Bowl. Verner totaled 57 tackles and led the team with five interceptions (one touchdown) and an impressive 23 passes defensed. All told, the heady defender amassed seven of the team’s 25 takeaways in 2013. We shall see where the Titans are headed sooner than later as Verner, if he stays, will be playing for a new head coach.

     

    Aqib Talib, New England Patriots            

    At least for one more week, Talib will be busy in 2013 as the Patriots head to the AFC title game to face the Denver Broncos. The standout defender totaled four tackles in Saturday’s 43-22 playoff win over the Indianapolis Colts. In 2013, Talib amassed 41 tackles (35 solo) and four interceptions and led New England with 13 passes defensed. Could Sunday’s AFC title clash be the final game in a Pats’ uniform for the six-year veteran and former Buccaneer?

     

    Brent Grimes, Miami Dolphins 

    A serious contender for NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors, the Atlanta Falcons' loss was Miami’s gain. Miami allowed only 17 touchdown passes in 16 contests this past season. Meanwhile, Grimes totaled 60 tackles and led the team with four interceptions (one for a score) and 16 passes defensed. Not bad for a former Pro Bowl player who missed 15 games in 2012. Grimes should command a lot of attention should the Dolphins not re-sign him.

     

    Also Consider

    Sam Shields, Green Bay Packers              

    Corey Graham, Baltimore Ravens           

    Charles Tillman, Chicago Bears 

    Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Denver Broncos             

    Brandon Browner, Seattle Seahawks     

Safeties

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    SS Antoine Bethea, Indianapolis Colts

    The Colts have won 11 games in back-to-back seasons. This year, they captured their first division title since 2010. But the Indianapolis defense remains a liability, despite the fact that Chuck Pagano’s team upped its takeaway total from 15 last season to 27 in 2013. Bethea did finish second on the club with 110 tackles and also totaled a pair of interceptions. He seems like a player the Colts could franchise if they can’t get a deal done.

     

    FS Jairus Byrd, Buffalo Bills        

    Is this Byrd ready to fly the coop (appropriate for a region known for its chicken wings), or will the three-time Pro Bowler remains in Orchard Park? He was given the franchise tag last offseason but then proceeded to miss the first five games of the season. Still, Byrd finished with 48 tackles and tied for the team lead with four interceptions. There’s perhaps not a team in the league that couldn’t use his help, but what will it cost to secure his services?

     

    SS T.J. Ward, Cleveland Browns               

    The franchise will be employing its eighth head coach since 1999 sometime soon. But will Ward be part of the team’s latest plans in 2014? He finished second on the team with 112 tackles (75 solo), added 1.5 sacks and a pair of interceptions and returned a pair of takeaways (interception and fumble) for touchdowns this past season. The Browns finished ninth in the NFL in fewest yards allowed, and losing Ward would be a big step backward.

     

    FS Malcolm Jenkins, New Orleans Saints             

    After giving up the most total yards in a season in NFL history, the Saints rebounded in fine fashion under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Jenkins, a first-round pick in 2009, finished fourth on the team with 68 tackles. He also totaled 2.5 sacks and a pair of interceptions and forced two fumbles. A 14-game starter in 2013, it will be very interesting to see if Jenkins returns after New Orleans invested a first-round pick this year in safety Kenny Vaccaro.

     

    Also Consider

    SS Donte Whitner, San Francisco 49ers 

    FS Stevie Brown, New York Giants

    SS Bernard Pollard, Tennessee Titans

    SS Major Wright, Chicago Bears

    FS Chris Clemons, Miami Dolphins