Just because the Super Bowl signals the end of a season doesn't mean the NFL stops.
Before you know it, the NFL Scouting Combine, the draft and the free-agency period will be upon us.
There are plenty of quality players hitting the free-agent market this year, the full list of which you can see on NFL.com.
Among those players, these four are the most coveted and will likely command the biggest contracts.
Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints
Let's be clear here. Jimmy Graham isn't hitting the open market. When his rookie contract is up, the New Orleans Saints will either re-sign Graham to a deal they feel is fair, or they'll franchise-tag him, per Katherine Terrell of The Times-Picayune:
The Saints don't see it that way. The 27-year-old Graham was drafted as a tight end in 2010 and should be paid like a tight end, said Saints general manager Mickey Loomis. And the team plans use the franchise tag on Graham as a tight end if it comes to that.
There's some discussion as to Graham's positional distinction. Although thought of as a tight end, he's utilized more like a wide receiver, which would impact how much money Graham could make.
In the event New Orleans tags Graham as a tight end, the players' association could step in, per CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora:
Consider, if the 2014 salary cap is around $127M, then the tight end tag would be $6.7M, while the receiver tag would be $11.6. That's a staggering difference on a one-year deal.
NFLPA sources said such an argument would take into account the role Graham played in the offense -- his positional distinction inside the playbook -- like how often he was blocking and involved in the run game and what percentage of the time he was lined up outside the hash marks. In fact, many of the Saints running plays actually go away from Graham's side of the field and the team, smartly, tries to protect him from dangerous blocks in that regard.
It will be interesting to see how the situation plays out, as it will likely have significant ramifications for seasons to come.
Greg Hardy, Carolina Panthers
Might the Carolina Panthers release the "Kraken"? They may not have a choice.
Carolina is gonna have to make some tough financial decisions in the near future, and one of them may be letting Hardy walk in free agency, per Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer:
The Panthers could use the franchise tag on Hardy, projected to be around $12 million for defensive ends, or let him leave in free agency. Gettleman said that scenario happens every year around the league.
“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,” Gettleman said. “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."
Whether it's with the Panthers or another team, Hardy will be cashing in this offseason. He's coming off of the best season in his four-year career, as the 25-year-old was third in the league in sacks with 15.
Should he become a free agent, Hardy would be the best pass-rusher on the market and have no shortage of suitors.
Branden Albert, Kansas City Chiefs
When the Kansas City Chiefs drafted Eric Fisher No. 1 overall in the 2013 draft, it seemed Branden Albert's days were numbered.
Then Fisher turned in what was an underwhelming rookie campaign, while Albert made the Pro Bowl. Moving Fisher to left tackle after one year doesn't seem the foregone conclusion that it previously was.
Of course, it's too early to write off the rookie tackle already, but watching their best pass-protector leave in free agency would be a big risk for Kansas City.
The Chiefs certainly have a tough decision on their hands.
Brian Orakpo, Washington Redskins
One of the Washington Redskins' most important tasks this offseason will be re-signing Brian Orakpo. The 27-year-old had a career high in tackles in 2013 (43) and his 10 sacks were one off his career best.
He put to bed whatever lingering doubts there were following his season-ending injury in 2012.
The Redskins have one of two options. They can either slap Orakpo with the franchise tag or sign him to a long-term extension. Washington has a lot of cap space this year, but as CSNWashington.com's Rich Tandler points out via RealRedskins.com, it makes more financial sense to sign him to the extension:
One disadvantage of using the tag is that all of the salary is charged to that season’s cap. An $11 million hit would eat up about a third of the Redskins’ available space, leaving them with less to address their myriad of other needs. A long-term deal could be structured to take up less cap space in the early seasons.
There's little doubt Orakpo will remain in Washington, so the only question is how much of a cap hit he'll be in 2014.
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