2014 NFL Free Agents: Stars Who Deserve Lucrative Contracts

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2014 NFL Free Agents: Stars Who Deserve Lucrative Contracts
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

There are plenty of bad deals signed by greedy NFL teams in free agency, but not all big free-agent contracts fall into that category. There are a few veterans who've earned the right to get paid like one of the top players at their position for the 2014 season and beyond.

Hint: None of them are quarterbacks.

Nobody's going to sign an Albert Haynesworth-type monstrosity of a deal this offseason, however. The NFL got savvy to the pitfalls of such a maneuver really quick, but that doesn't mean there aren't some big deals to be made.

Here's a look at a few stars who will sign big deals when free agency kicks off, beginning at 4 p.m. ET on March 11, 2014. 

 

Jimmy Graham, Tight End

It's hard to imagine Jimmy Graham will end up signing with any team other than the New Orleans Saints. There's no doubt he would love to stick around and catch passes from Drew Brees for the next five years or longer.

But Graham's price tag is going to be exorbitant.

He's an elite receiving weapon who has put up stats the past three years that compare favorably to the top receivers in the league. In 2013, he caught 86 passes for 1,215 yards, and he led the league with 16 touchdown receptions. 

Jimmy Graham vs. Top Receivers in 2013
Catches Yards YPC TDs
Jimmy Graham 86 1,215 14.1 16
Calvin Johnson 84 1,492 17.8 12
Dez Bryant 93 1,233 13.3 13
Josh Gordon 87 1,646 18.9 9

ESPN.com

New Orleans would be treading thin ice if it used the franchise tag on Graham because it's highly likely he'd ask to be paid as a receiver rather than as a tight end. Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio elaborates:

But if/when the Saints apply the tight end version of the tag, the stage will be set for a fight over whether Graham should be tagged as a receiver.

The analysis should be simple. Under Article 9, Section 2 of the CBA, “[T]he tender will apply to the position in which the player participated in the most plays.” Thus, if Graham was lined up wide or in the slot more times than he was lined up as a tight end, he’s a receiver.

Florio also notes a huge difference in price tags between receivers and tight ends ($4.5 million, per Michael David Smith of PFT).

The Saints will need to do some creative bookwork to sign Graham to a lucrative long-term deal. John Clayton of ESPN reports the Saints are now approximately $12.5 million over the projected 2014 cap of $126.6 million. 

And Graham isn't the only free agent on New Orleans' roster.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

Thankfully for Saints fans, quarterback Drew Brees has made it known, via The Times-Picayune, that he'll do whatever he needs to do to keep the team going strong. 

Whatever I can do to help this team, if they want to come to me and extend me even further, that’d be great. Listen, there are so many possibilities as to what can happen here. Let’s just let this offseason start. It’s what, today’s the second day of it unfortunately. We all wish it wasn’t, but whatever helps this team win and puts the best team on the field.

But anyone expecting Graham to take a hometown discount will likely be disappointed. He's earned the right to become the NFL's top-paid tight end, and he'll likely get paid like it this spring. 

 

Greg Hardy, Defensive End

Nobody should be surprised if Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy signs with a new team in 2014. Since coming out of Mississippi in 2010 as an unheralded sixth-rounder, the 6'4", 280-pound Hardy has improved his play every single season.

He broke through with an 11-sack campaign in 2012 and then a huge 15-sack season in 2013, finishing the regular season with the third-most of any player in the league.

Joel Corry of CBS Sports recently discussed Hardy and other Panthers topics with CBS Charlotte's Mac and Jim, noting it's likely going to be extremely expensive to keep him in Carolina:

The best way to keep Greg Hardy is to get a long term deal done without using the franchise tag. The only problem is he’s going to be a very expensive guy to retain and the deal that Charles Johnson got, a couple years ago, averaging a little over $12.5 million a year is probably going to be what he targets or maybe his floor.

After last year's relative drought for pass-rushers, it will be surprising if Hardy lands such a massive deal. That said, he's relatively young still, and teams will be interested in landing a player who's still getting better while already playing at an elite level.

Hardy will sign with ___ in 2014.

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It would be even more shocking if he got such a deal from the Panthers, judging by general manager Dave Gettleman's recent comments, via Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer.

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 [Hardy] 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.

But if Carolina doesn't bring Hardy back, then you can be sure other teams will line up for a chance to land one of the NFL's premier pass-rushers.

 

Jairus Byrd, Safety

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Elite safeties are becoming more coveted by the year, it seems. Dashon Goldson (five years and $41.25 million in 2013) and Eric Weddle (five years and $40 million in 2011) both signed big deals in recent history, and you can bet Jairus Byrd will be looking for a similar contract.

Despite missing five games, Byrd was voted into the 2014 Pro Bowl, and he was a second-team AP All-Pro. 

He's been consistently rated as one of the league's best safeties by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) the past three seasons, finishing this year at No. 8 after ranking No. 2 and No. 3 in 2012 and 2011. 

In his five-year career, Byrd has put up some staggering numbers: 22 interceptions, three sacks, 11 forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries and two touchdowns, along with 356 tackles. His ability to impact the game behind the line of scrimmage, as well as on the back end, makes him an extremely attractive player in today's game. 

Therefore it's not surprising that Byrd was angling to be paid by the Bills as the top safety, as reported by Adam Benigni of of WGRZ, before contract negotiations broke off prior to the start of the 2013 season:

Whether Buffalo is willing to give him such a big deal remains to be seen. However, if Byrd doesn't get this kind of offer from the Bills, then he'll cash in with a new team that won't bat an eyelash at making such a deal.

 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReed78 

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