2014 NFL Free Agents: The 10 Hottest Names on the Market

Andrew Garda@andrew_gardaFeatured ColumnistJanuary 24, 2014

2014 NFL Free Agents: The 10 Hottest Names on the Market

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    Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

    There are a ton of great players who will be available in free agency, but a handful of them should be considered a cut above the rest.

    Today we look at the best of the best, the players who will be in highest demand this offseason.

    Some position groups are deeper than others, and some groups are top heavy.

    For example, there aren't a ton of great running backs or wide receivers, but there are a lot of defensive linemen on this list.

    As always with these early looks at free agency, we're laboring under the assumption that these players will indeed be free. They could end up tagged or signed to long-term deals by their teams, but it's impossible to say right now.

    Besides, so many of them are coming into the prime of their careers (not all of course), that they will do everything they can to land the biggest contract possible and avoid the tag.

    Let's take a look at the best of the best.

    *All statistics obtained from NFL.com or ESPN.com unless otherwise noted.

11. BONUS: Jimy Graham

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    The original version of this article had only ten players and none of them were tight end Jimmy Graham.

    The reason was pretty simple: I find there to be nearly zero chance he leaves the New Orleans Saints.

    However, this section of the introduction has been pointed out to me:

    As always with these early looks at free agency, we're laboring under the assumption that these players will indeed be free. They could end up tagged or signed to long-term deals by their teams, but it's impossible to say right now.

    So, since I did say the above, Graham should be on this list.

    If he did enter free agency, if for some reason the New Orleans Saints cut him loose, Graham would likely be the number one guy on this list. The feeding frenzy around arguably the best tight end in the game would be insane. He's that good.

    For now he's at 11 though, because while he is technically set for free agency and could actually hit the market, the dominoes which would have to fall for it to happen are bordering on ridiculous and would bring into question the competency of the Saints front office.

    It would be the sort of thing which costs people their jobs.

10. Michael Vick

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    There just aren’t a ton of starter-worthy quarterbacks among the 2014 free-agent class. While Michael Vick is certainly closer to the end of his career than the beginning, he can run an offense better than some of the other available quarterbacks.

    After all, do you really buy into 34-year-old Josh McCown? Josh Freeman, post-spectacular career implosion?

    Vick is injury prone, sure, but with a lot of new coaches and new schemes, more and more teams could move to an offensive scheme requiring a mobile quarterback. In the right offense, he should have a few more years of starting productivity left.

    Vick could certainly hold the fort while a team develops a member of the very raw class of incoming rookie quarterbacks, and he shouldn’t command heaps of money as a free agent, in large part because of his injury issues.

9. Eric Decker

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    Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

    While the Denver Broncos might prefer to keep wide receiver Eric Decker in Colorado, they have so many issues on the defensive side of the ball that it might not be possible.

    Decker would probably be more successful for a team as a No. 2 receiver, rather than a No. 1, but either way, given his back-to-back productive seasons, he should see a lot of offers on the open market.

    His price might even go up depending on how effective he is next weekend in the Super Bowl. A big enough game and Decker might be able to name his price on almost any team in the NFL.

8. Ben Tate

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    Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

    The Houston Texans have a lot invested in Arian Foster (who is under contract through 2016), so they are unlikely to give running back Ben Tate the money he’ll likely be looking for.

    However, we’ve seen enough to know that Tate will be an attractive option for one of the many teams across the NFL who are in need of a running back.

    And while there are other backs who will be available, none of them have the complete package Tate has. He’s more proven, with a better top end than Rashad Jennings. He’s more durable and has less wear and tear on his body than Maurice Jones-Drew.

    By next year, he should be in a position to prove he can be a lead back on a team.

7. Alex Mack

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    The Cleveland Browns appear to be in a mess. Even though they now have a coach in place, Mike Pettine, per the club's official Twitter feed, you have to wonder how the players feel about the turmoil.

    They’ll do everything imaginable to retain Mack, the fourth-best center as ranked by Pro Football Focus (subscription required), but there are many teams who could use a Pro Bowl center. Mack could look around him and wonder if he will last the rebuild, or if the team will peak too late for him to enjoy it.

    If Mack doesn’t sign an extension or isn’t tagged, there are a ton of teams who will clamor for his services. And they should.

6. Michael Bennett

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    Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

    It is amazing that the Seattle Seahawks got defensive end Michael Bennett as cheaply as they did (Spotrac puts the contract at $4.8 million for one year), but you can be sure it won’t happen again.

    In which case, there’s little chance right now that the Seahawks could afford him at all. Spotrac currently has them just $454,308 under the 2014 cap, and while we are pretty sure that will change as the team cuts dead weight, it’s going to be hard to pull enough together to retain Bennett.

    It's amazing that Bennett was able to accumulate the stats he did (including a team-leading 8.5 sacks) as a rotational player who was sometimes plugged in at tackle, and some team is going to enjoy having him play a full-time role.

5. Branden Albert

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    While left tackle Branden Albert is getting old, the fact is he has at least a few more years of high-level play left to him. The number of teams who could use a veteran left tackle includes pretty much all of them, because the truth is that you can never have enough protection for your quarterback.

    The Kansas City Chiefs seemed ready to move on from Albert when they drafted Eric Fisher, and while there were no takers, the writing was on the wall.

    There isn’t much chance they pay Albert top dollar to return, but somebody else definitely will.

4. Michael Johnson

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    Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    It’s going to be very hard for the Cincinnati Bengals to franchise tag defensive end Michael Johnson, so they could find themselves in a battle for his services this offseason.

    Johnson does come out in a slightly crowded group of defensive line free agents, including big-time guys like Greg Hardy and Michael Bennett (more on the former in a bit). It may be that this ends up making it harder to land the big payday he’s looking for, but then again, you can never have enough great defensive linemen.

    Johnson is an exceptional athlete who should find a big payday when free agency begins.

3. Greg Hardy

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    Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

    There are a ton of defensive linemen on this list and with good reason. Three of Pro Football Focus’ (subscription required) top five defensive ends are free agents this year, and all three could end up leaving their current teams.

    When it comes to Michael Bennett, Michael Johnson and Greg Hardy, you can’t go wrong, but Hardy is coming off the best season of the three (PFF ranked him as its third-best defensive end—see the previous link) and edges the other two on this list.

    Hardy made just over $1.3 million this past season and will command a ton of cash in the open market. The Carolina Panthers would love to have him back. In fact, you could make a case that he is the most vital free agent they have. The problem is that they have a ton of other needs, especially on the offensive side of the ball.

    There’s a good chance they at least tag the player who led their defense in sacks (16) last season. However, they may try to play hardball. If they do, some team should send him a contract as soon as possible.

2. T.J. Ward

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    Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

    Safety T.J. Ward just wrapped up a tremendous season, leading the Cleveland Browns in tackles with 71, while excelling in both pass defense and run support.

    Ending the season ranked as Pro Football Focus’ (subscription required) No. 2 ranked safety, Ward should be in high demand in a league that has plenty of teams desperate for help at the safety position.

    Ward isn’t the only safety hitting free agency (the Buffalo Bills’ Jairus Byrd should command some attention as well), but he is definitely the best.

1. Brian Orakpo

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    Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

    You’d think Washington would do everything it could to keep linebacker Brian Orakpo in D.C., but it won’t be the only one bidding.

    Pro Football Focus’ (subscription required) No. 4 ranked linebacker is coming off one of his best statistical seasons ever, with career highs in tackles, fumble recoveries and interceptions, while posting his second-best total for sacks.

    All this while he missed the Week 17 game with a groin injury.

    Orakpo is an incredible athlete who will see a lot of interest from teams across the league.

    Andrew Garda is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association and fresh off another trip to the Senior Bowl. He is also a member of the fantasy football staff at FootballGuys.com and the NFL writer at CheeseheadTV.com. You can follow him at @andrew_garda on Twitter.