Judging an NFL free-agent class three weeks before the Super Bowl champion is crowned is an inherently difficult and sometimes futile process, mainly because we have no idea who will actually hit the free-agent market.
Jay Cutler and the Chicago Bears already provided the first example. Cutler was widely expected to either receive the franchise tag or be left into unrestricted free agency by Chicago. Instead, Phil Emery pushed all his chips into the Cutler Corner, giving the at-times enigmatic quarterback a seven-year, $126 million contract. (Even though it's only a three-year deal. But whatever. Do not get me started.)
Cutler won't be the only one. More extensions with more flabbergasting signing bonuses and guarantees will be signed and by players who will make you scratch your heads.
Players without baggage don't typically hit the open market. Knowing the fickle line between contention and implosion, teams look to lock up truly wanted players long-term, and those players push to sign those deals because, well, you know.
That's to say nothing of the franchise tag, which forcibly locks a player to his current team. While the number of teams that use that distinction fluctuates wildly—only eight last season, down from 21 a year prior—it casts a shadow over proceedings until the drop-dead date passes.
So...bucket of salt.
That said, taking a look around the league, we can at least assess the likeliest players to hit the open market. Either their current teams have publicly indicated no franchise tag is coming, they were franchised last season and took a deal with a promise clause, or merely using logic, we can identify players who are at least probably going to be available.
From there, the overpayment meter starts going off. NFL teams love to overpay for both name value and positions of scarcity, both of which will be on display this offseason. Here are a few players who stand out as likely to get an open-market nudge.
Maurice Jones-Drew (RB, Jacksonville Jaguars)
Truth be told, this could go one of two ways. Jones-Drew will either get a massive contract worthy of instant derision or be met with a tepid response on the open market, a treatment befitting of a 30-year-old back, as he's about one a year away from that scary milestone.
I'm betting on the former at this juncture for one simple reason: Jaguars bias. Sure, Jones-Drew's yards per carry dropped all the way down to 3.4 this past season—more than a full yard below his career average. And fine, he didn't score a receiving touchdown for just the second time in his career. This comes after a foot injury cost him all but six games in 2012.
Oh, and Football Outsiders ranked Jones-Drew 42nd among the 47 running backs who received at least 100 carries this season in both DVOA and DYAR.
No matter. Hashtag Jaguars.
Around the league, Jones-Drew still carries the cache of a player who has merely been stuck in a bad situation too long.
His offensive line is terrible. He has to pretend he likes playing football with Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne. Jacksonville, Florida, has been Jones-Drew's home for eight years. During that time, he's made the postseason exactly once but has been a consummate professional and wildly effective player despite the shortcomings of his surrounding talent.
NFL head coaches love guys like this.
There is also the untrue perception that Jones-Drew has less wear on his tires than your typical soon-to-be 29-year-old back. Because he spent much of his early career in a platoon with Fred Taylor, it would stand to reason that his body hasn't taken a pounding. Only the reality is that Jones-Drew is one of just 20 backs in NFL history to have at least 1,800 carries by their age-28 season.
He's the lowest on that list with 1,804, granted, but none of his modern contemporaries aged gracefully. And we'll have to see how Adrian Peterson does on that curve.
It's possible that Jones-Drew has one or even two solid years left in him. The perception may be overwrought, but Jacksonville sure has been a terrible place to play football for nearly a decade.
But if the price is as high as I expect—probably somewhere in the top-10 back range—it'll be too much. Dishing out exorbitant sums for non-Peterson backs is stupid to begin with. Doing so for someone with Jones-Drew's statistical profile is begging for trouble.
Jeremy Maclin (WR, Philadelphia Eagles)
Maclin does not have the same problems as Jones-Drew. He doesn't turn 26 until May, plays a position that doesn't age quite as rapidly as running back and his skill set befits confidence that he won't suddenly become terrible. Maclin isn't an elite downfield threat, but he runs great routes on the outside or in the slot and is slightly above league-average in avoiding the dropsies.
You have a Super Bowl-caliber receiving corps if Maclin is your team's second receiver. With the proliferation of pass-heavy attacks only going to get greater over the next half-decade, receivers like Maclin are going to start getting paid No. 1 prices as No. 1 guys get franchise cornerstone deals.
A healthy Maclin might even be worth the franchise tag for the Eagles, who could then negotiate a long-term deal without worry.
This is not a healthy Maclin. This is a Maclin who suffered a torn ACL in July and missed the entire 2013 season, right as the Eagles found some competency at quarterback in Nick Foles. Where DeSean Jackson had a career year that will inevitably lead to him asking for and receiving a raise, Maclin is worried about teams only offering him a one-year deal.
"I understand it could be a possibility that [the ACL tear] may scare some teams off, or a team may want to do a one-year deal as opposed to a long-term contract," Maclin told CSN's Derrick Gunn. "That's the game, that's the business."
That said, it will probably be up to Maclin to decide what type of contract he wants. While teams may initially be skittish, he should be far enough along in his rehab by the free-agency period to show teams his explosiveness is back.
Maclin was never asked to rely on his straight-line speed all that much in Philly—making it easy to forget he had 4.3-4.4 speed coming out of college—but teams will want to see if it's still there.
If Maclin's rehab is going well, though, he could wind up landing one of the surprise contracts on the market. Remember, this was one of the more reliable receivers in the league despite having the mostly inaccurate Michael Vick and deathly afraid Kevin Kolb under center for most of his career.
It's a 50-50 proposition, but again, I have faith Maclin will be far enough out to make a team take a risk.
Donte Whitner (S, San Francisco 49ers)
Here is a 49ers safety having the best season of his career in a contract year. Where have we seen this before?
Much like Dashon Goldson a year prior, Whitner will hit the open market at a perfect time. San Francisco is again making a deep run into the postseason, giving Mr. Hitner a chance to lay the lumber in a series of nationally televised games.
He has only four tackles in road wins over Green Bay and Carolina, but Whitner's fourth-quarter interception of Cam Newton last week essentially sealed a third straight NFC Championship Game for the 49ers.
At age 28, Whitner still has plenty of good football left in him and plays a position that is of higher importance with each passing season. He's been widely regarded as one of the best run-stuffing safeties in the league dating back to his Buffalo days, and swatting a career-high 12 passes away along with his increased coverage responsibilities will engender him to some.
Only there are quite a few underlying numbers that suggest Whitner's season hasn't been as good as advertised. Pro Football Focus' premium database (subscription required) has Whitner as the 44th-best run-stopping safety in the league. Yes, 44th.
While he's still a good and efficient tackler when an opposing back gets to his level, too often he's just not involved with the play. And that problem is exacerbated further against the pass, where Whitner often takes poor angles and doesn't have the foot speed to atone for his mistakes. Though improved, he's still only kinda good in coverage.
Essentially, that's what Whitner is as a whole: a kinda good safety. He's neither as good as the talking heads have made him out to be nor as bad as some of the underlying statistics. If a team paid him as the 16th-best safety in the NFL next season, we're probably all moving on with our day.
But considering Whitner's high profile, his improvement (real and perceived) and the jacked-up open-market prices, we're looking at Goldson 2.0 here.
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