NFL Free Agency

NFL Free Agents 2014: Who's Guaranteed to Break the Bank?

Eric MackFantasy Football Lead WriterJanuary 16, 2014

NFL Free Agents 2014: Who's Guaranteed to Break the Bank?

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    Jimmy Graham has certainly earned the right to be the highest-paid tight end in NFL history.
    Jimmy Graham has certainly earned the right to be the highest-paid tight end in NFL history.Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

    Let's all be the first to admit: We are not cut out to be NFL general managers. Don't fool yourself. You don't have the business acumen, the inside NFL knowledge or the foresight of a football scout.

    Perhaps, you know what you see, but what you have seen is in the past. That makes free agency a dangerous proposition, because you will be paying for what has happened and not what will.

    Some things we can all agree on, though: Like the numbers put up by the likes of the Carolina Panthers' Greg Hardy, New Orleans Saints' Jimmy Graham, Denver Broncos' Eric Decker and Washington Redskins' Brian Orakpo. That quartet will easily break the bank in free agency this winter, because they are talented, in their prime and at positions NFL decision-makers put a premium on.

    If you ever want to see what the NFL prioritizes, just look at the annual drafting trends. Hint: They love quarterbacks, cover corners, pass-rushers and speed. They also like young players who are durable, too.

    They don't put so much emphasis on the fleeting career of an NFL running back. See, that's where NFL general managers most differ from casual observers—particularly those who get sucked into fantasy football.

    Now that we have all that squared away, let's give you a slideshow on the Top 10 pending free agents who are guaranteed to break the bank this winter.

Greg Hardy, Defensive End, Carolina Panthers

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    Greg Hardy can make a case to be the highest-paid defensive end in football after the past two years he's posted.
    Greg Hardy can make a case to be the highest-paid defensive end in football after the past two years he's posted.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Greg Hardy might not have the star cachet of a Jimmy Graham or Eric Decker, but he has the best free-agent situation in football right now. He is 25, productive, healthy and a pass-rushing defensive end who can also play the run.

    Translation: He has an NFL general manager by the "you-know-whats."

    It is why GM Dave Gettleman made some ominous comments to the Charlotte Observer's Joseph Person this week:

    Everybody lets players go. There isn’t a team in this league that hasn't let a big dog walk out the door. And don’t print that I'm saying that he's going to go. I'm just making a statement. There isn't anybody that hasn't done that. It's a whole big puzzle we're putting together, and he's one of the pieces.

    In order to keep Hardy, they might have to make him the highest-paid defensive end in football, perhaps via the franchise tag. With 15 sacks this year (11 last year) and averaging 60 tackles the past two seasons, Hardy's agent can certainly make a case to be the top paid player at one of the NFL's most sought-after positions.

    Hardy's deal would be huge if he was allowed to truly go free. It will be huge for at least one year at $12 million if he stayed via the franchise tag.

    Yeah, it is good to be Greg Hardy.

Jimmy Graham, Tigtht End, New Orleans Saints

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    Jimmy Graham is a huge weapon at the tight-end position, but he likely wants to be paid more like a wide receiver.
    Jimmy Graham is a huge weapon at the tight-end position, but he likely wants to be paid more like a wide receiver.Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    Under normal conditions, Jimmy Graham's value is obvious. He is one of the biggest playmaking targets in football.

    He will become the highest-paid tight end in history, surpassing the deal Rob Gronkowski signed with the New England Patriots in June 2012 at eight years for $55.23 million (Spotrac.com, subscription required).

    That part is easy. The hard part is determining where his final value is.

    First, do the cap-strapped Saints slap the franchise tag on him? Second, what can they afford to pay him with QB Drew Brees, LB Will Smith and guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs sucking up a total of 41.5 percent of the Saints' salary-cap number?

    And finally—perhaps most important—does Graham's agent put his price tag as an elite receiver or a tight end?

    The former seems likely, which could garner the 27-year-old Graham close to $10 million per year for at least six years. The franchise-tag designation carries with it some debate, too, because the number for tight ends is around $6 million, while the number for wide receivers is $4.5 million more.

    As ESPN's Mike Triplett reports, Graham can make a case he is more receiver than tight end. He lined up as an in-line tight end a mere 33 percent of the time.

    This should be an epic battle in the annuls of the franchise tag. If Graham is actually allowed to go free, look out! He will truly be breaking the bank. 

Brian Orakpo, Linebacker, Washington Redskins

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    Brian Orakpo doesn't post the gaudiest of numbers, but he is a do-it-all linebacker for the Washington Redskins.
    Brian Orakpo doesn't post the gaudiest of numbers, but he is a do-it-all linebacker for the Washington Redskins.Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Brian Orakpo rebounded with a healthy season at age 27 that should make him a very rich man. If not for having responsibilities against the run and in pass coverage as an outside linebacker in the Washington Redskins 3-4 defense, he might be able to make a case to be one of the highest-paid players in football.

    He can certainly become the highest-paid linebacker in the game, particularly because the Redskins have the cap space to make it so. Unlike the players preceding him on our list here, the Redskins will be well under the cap...to the tune of $33.5 million under, according to Spotrac.com (subscription required).

    Clearly, Orakpo is their biggest-ticket free agent on the board, too. Jim Haslett told Zac Boyer of the Washington Times back in December:

    I think he's a heck of a player. I think he’s showed what he's worth to this organization over four years. He's been very successful. Obviously, he's a heck of a rush guy, and the other things he does besides that, he's outstanding covering tight ends and backs to the flat and in the run game.

    If not for some injury questions—not to mention he merely remains with his current team—Orakpo would be higher on our list.

Eric Decker, Wide Receiver, Denver Broncos

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    Unlike many of these top pending free agents, Eric Decker still has a podium to make his case for a huge contract.
    Unlike many of these top pending free agents, Eric Decker still has a podium to make his case for a huge contract.Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports

    Eric Decker has the best thing still working for him right now: A chance to etch his name into NFL postseason history. That could make him even more expensive than he already figures to be.

    Decker turns the prime age of 27 this March and, like Graham, is coming off a career year. Throw some AFC Championship and/or Super Bowl highlights on his resume, and you're talking numbers that would blow Wes Welker's modest two-year, $12 million contract out of the water.

    Clearly, Decker is worth more than Danny Amendola's five-year, $28.5 million contract he signed with the New England Patriots last March. Decker has proven more durable than either Welker or Amendola, and he's younger.

    Peyton Manning and Co. might want to heavily target Demaryius Thomas, Welker and Julius Thomas in the coming weeks, if they have a choice. Decker is positioned to price himself right out of Denver.

Vontae Davis, Cornerback, Indianapolis Colts

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    Vontae Davis has emerged as one of the NFL's better press corners, something GMs are willing to pay for.
    Vontae Davis has emerged as one of the NFL's better press corners, something GMs are willing to pay for.Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Vontae Davis was ridiculed when being told he was traded on Hard Knocks and said, infamously, "I wanna call my grandmother."

    Davis had the last laugh this year, emerging as one of the best cover corners in football at the age of 25. Heck, the Miami Dolphins' miscalculation on Davis might have indirectly cost some front-office jobs. Davis, meanwhile, is liked plenty by the Indianapolis Colts.

    The Indianapolis Star's Mike Chappell expects re-signing Davis to be one of the Colts' top offensive priorities. Unlike the other top cornerbacks on the free-agent market, namely the Miami Dolphins' Brent Grimes, 30; Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, 27; Aqib Talib, 27; and Charles Tillman, 32, Davis can make the case his best years are ahead of him.

    And even more than the Tennessee Titans' Alterraun Verner, 25, Davis' team has salary-cap room to make a large long-term commitment to him. The Colts are an estimated $36.5 million under the cap, according to Spotrac.com (subscription required).

    Read: The next big call Davis makes to his grandmother is going to be a far more exciting one for the family.

Branden Albert, Left Tackle, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Phat Albert: Chiefs left tackle Branden Albert should have a line of suitors and a huge deal awaiting him.
    Phat Albert: Chiefs left tackle Branden Albert should have a line of suitors and a huge deal awaiting him.Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    You don't need to be an NFL insider to know the importance of a left tackle. The Blind Side is so famously important that it is a New York Times bestseller and a critically acclaimed major motion picture.

    The Kansas City Chiefs also put their proverbial thumb on the pulse of a tackle's importance in the last draft, selecting Eric Fisher No. 1 overall, despite having Branden Albert retained under the franchise tag. The Chiefs now have a decision to make all over again about their commitment to Albert.

    There were only two $10-plus million offensive linemen in football last season, but if the Chiefs don't re-tag Albert, 29, as a franchise player, he might command that amount per year over a long-term deal with a line-needy team with more salary-cap room.

    Terez A. Paylor of the Kansas City Star is already speculating a switch of Fisher to the left side, if only because you don't pick a tackle No. 1 overall to play on the right side for his entire career. That will afford Albert the chance to finally calculate his worth on the open market.

Alex Mack, Center, Cleveland Browns

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    The Cleveland Browns might not know who their quarterback is, but they should retain Alex Mack as the center.
    The Cleveland Browns might not know who their quarterback is, but they should retain Alex Mack as the center.Karl Walter/Getty Images

    As we already outlined in a 2014 free-agency primer a couple of weeks ago, Alex Mack—no relation to this writer—is sitting pretty. Unlike many of the above premium free agents, he will have the best of all worlds.

    He has a great resume. He is well-guarded by his team and others. He has a team with huge amounts of salary-cap space. And he figures to be afforded a chance to weigh his value on the open market.

    After all that, he still vows to give the Browns the chance to match any offer he receives, according to Mark Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Centers don't necessarily break the bank in the NFL's salary structure, but Mack might become the highest-paid center because of the circumstances/position he is in.

Knowshon Moreno, Running Back, Denver Broncos

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    Knowshon Moreno has the opportunity to earn himself a huge contract with a big performance Sunday.
    Knowshon Moreno has the opportunity to earn himself a huge contract with a big performance Sunday.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    It is very possible we buried the lede here. Knowshon Moreno is headed for a big weekend against the New England Patriots with the Super Bowl on the line.

    The Pats were one of the worst run defenses in football this season—ranked 30th—so it is entirely possible even a Peyton Manning-led team pins its AFC Championship hopes on the legs of Moreno on Sunday afternoon. A big performance is going to make Moreno a huge topic of conversation at Media Day in the media capitol of the world, New York City.

    Obviously, it will all be a lot of hot air. Running backs might steal headlines, but they no longer steal the hearts of NFL decision-makers. Heck, there wasn't even a running back picked in Round 1 of the draft last April, a first in 50 years, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.

    The Broncos drafted Montee Ball to be a feature back last April and might be willing to allow Moreno to leave via free agency. They might have no choice with Eric Decker and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who are also pending free agents.

    Heck, John Fox used to keep Moreno pent up in the doghouse in Denver. Moreno might be interested in exacting some revenge in contract demands.

    Conclusion: Yes, the 26-year-old Moreno is coming off a career year and well-positioned to be compensated for it. It might have to come from another team, though, and we might learn just how little general managers value a feature back in this modern-day NFL.

Jairus Byrd, Safety, Buffalo Bills

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    Byrd Watching: The Buffalo Bills might have to make Jairus Byrd the highest-paid safety in football.
    Byrd Watching: The Buffalo Bills might have to make Jairus Byrd the highest-paid safety in football.Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

    Like the Kansas City Chiefs' Branden Albert, the Buffalo Bills' Jairus Byrd has the NFL structure's protection of a second-year franchise-tag designation working in his favor. He will be getting a raise to return or raising his price out on the open market.

    Tagging Byrd again would guarantee him a 20 percent raise on his $6.916 million 2013 contract, as the Buffalo News' Jay Skurski reportsThat comes to around $8.3 million for 2014.

    Bills general manager Doug Whaley vows to make the 27-year-old Byrd a contract offer, but it might have to be one that makes him the highest-paid safety in football.

Jared Veldheer, Left Tackle, Oakland Raiders

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    Oakland Raiders free-agent left tackle Jared Veldheer is going to have millions of reasons to celebrate this winter.
    Oakland Raiders free-agent left tackle Jared Veldheer is going to have millions of reasons to celebrate this winter.Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

    Jared Veldheer won't be the first name you think of among the NFL's top pending free agents. Heck, unless you are an Oakland Raiders fan—or you spend your free time watching left tackles on awful football teams—you might have never even heard of him.

    But Veldheer has a few of the most important factors working in his favor this winter:

    1. He is pretty good.
    2. He plays a premium position: left tackle.
    3. He is just 26 years old.
    4. He has a team that wants to talk a long-term contract with him.
    5. The Oakland Raiders have the most salary-cap space in football, which is more than a whopping $66.5 million, according to Spotrac.com (subscription required).

    While Fox Sports' Alex Marvez tweets contract talks are slow right now, Veldheer is going to get a payday that exceeds his NFL profile to layman.

    If you are looking at others we might have left out of our Top 10 players on the verge of breaking the bank this winter, you can reference Spotrac.com's list of pending free agents here (subscription required). We will remind you, though, that list is sorted by 2013 contracts and doesn't weigh the ages of the veteran free agents.

    As much as NFL decision-makers value pass-rushers like the Minnesota Vikings' Jared Allen or a left tackle like the Carolina Panthers' Jordan Gross, they also like to be paying for healthy and productive years going forward. Our Top 10 in this slideshow is honed in on players around the prime age of 27.

     

    Eric Mack, one of the giants among fantasy writers, is the Fantasy Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report this season. Follow him on Twitter, where you can ask him endless questions about your team, rip him for his content and even challenge him to a head-to-head fantasy game.

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