NFL teams will be hard-pressed to find many viable options at the all-important quarterback position in free agency during the 2014 offseason, but there are plenty of skill players available.
Among the deep pool of stars potentially seeking new destinations, there is a trio that stands out as the worthiest of long-term investments—whether they remain with their current organizations or not.
Two of the following three are likely to flee to new franchises given their sets of circumstances, while the other is a surefire superstar who should remain with his current squad in the form of a massive contract.
Let's take a look at the free agents likely to receive the most buzz—and most deserving of a hefty payday for years to come.
Ben Tate, RB
There just aren't any other running backs with the upside that Tate has, and he proved his toughness and professionalism by playing through four broken ribs down the stretch despite the Houston Texans' putrid season.
MMQB.com's Robert Klemko reported on how Tate fought through the agony, which was motivated by his own benefit in addition to helping his team:
I would be lying if I said the contract year wasn’t on my mind. It was an opportunity I felt like I couldn’t let fall by the wayside. It definitely played a part in me dealing with the pain and playing through it. But also, I love the game of football. When you get to this level, you feel like it doesn’t last long, so you need to soak the moments up, and I felt like this was my moment to show what I could do.
Tate is only 25 years old and is a thick 5'11", 227-pound runner with deceptive speed and the power to finish runs between the tackles.
But the Texans already have Arian Foster as their featured back. Although he dealt with his own injuries this past season, it seems Tate believes he's the odd man out in Houston:
Those searching for a No. 1-caliber ball-carrier should seek out Tate and sign him to a lucrative multi-year deal. As has been demonstrated in this year's playoffs, even in the pass-happy modern NFL, running the ball is important.
If that can be done in a physical fashion—see Seattle, San Francisco and even recently New England—all the better. That's what Tate brings to his new prospective team, in addition to adequate receiving skills, as he caught 34 receptions this year.
Hakeem Nicks, WR
Some bizarre happenings occurred between Nicks and the New York Giants this season—not least of which was when he was declared inactive in Week 12 due to a "lack of sufficient practice time."
Nicks had 56 receptions for 896 yards but zero touchdowns, and the only offensive coordinator he had for his entire career in Kevin Gilbride retired following the 2013 campaign. It might be time for a new start outside of New York anyway.
Plenty of teams would covet a wideout such as Nicks—a past Super Bowl champion, a two-time 1,000-yard receiver and a young man with big hands, solid route-running skills, the ability to stretch defenses vertically and a dangerous runner after the catch.
General manager Jerry Reese recently cited focus as an issue for Nicks' lackluster play, per Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News:
With that type of sentiment coming from the front office, it doesn't seem like a good bet Nicks will stick around. Nicks has even professed a desire to remain with the club, per the New York Post's Bart Hubbuch:
I really don’t know what to expect right now. [The Giants said] there’s some stuff going on as far as the coaching changes right now. So right now, we’re just taking time to step away from it. When it’s time to handle all that, it’ll happen...I understand the business side of things if it doesn’t happen, but we all know this is where I want to be.
The Giants' outlook for 2014 is rather bleak with QB Eli Manning coming off a terrible season and not much of an offensive line to speak of.
For a player of Nicks' caliber, he deserved to be making more than six figures before his fifth season in the league. Whoever is fortunate to land his services should get a player with a chip on his shoulder and plenty to prove after two underwhelming years in a row.
Jimmy Graham, TE
This is a no-brainer. The sensational pass-catching tight end led the NFL with 16 touchdown receptions during the regular season and did so playing through pain for much of it.
NFL on Fox Sports' official Twitter account documented what Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett had to say after the Saints bowed out 23-15 in the divisional round of the playoffs:
The notion that Graham is overrated is ridiculous, even though he did manage just one catch for eight yards in that game. His torn plantar fascia probably had something to do with that.
Graham's indefatigable effort to grind through his pain disproved any notion that he was soft and aided the efforts of QB Drew Brees and the Saints' prolific passing offense, which ranked No. 2 in the NFL.
To slap him with the franchise tag would be an insult. There has to be some way for New Orleans to work out a long-term deal to secure its unique playmaker now.
With mutual interest and civil relations at the moment, this is the time for the Saints to get Graham locked in for the foreseeable future as a key piece in their window for another Super Bowl run in the next few years.